Friday, February 01, 2008

Not always as easy as it looks...

When looking at beautiful outdoor photography of pristine wilderness, it's easy to overlook all the effort, preparation, and risks that go into capturing these images. Washington-state-based outdoor photographer Ben Chase sends us the following story which he says is almost verbatim from his backpacking journal.

"Backpacking in Denali's backcountry can certainly be an uplifting experience. You typically see few people since the vast majority of tourists to the park never leave the bus when they ride the Denali Park road. However, being prepared for contingencies is a skill that you must possess when backpacking in the wilderness. While I typically don't like to travel long distances alone, there was no other option for this particular trip.

"August 19, 2005, was the first day in a two-day bus trip up the Toklat river valley. Earlier in the week, after arriving at Denali via train from Fairbanks, I took care of the required paperwork and took possession of a bear-resistant food container to store my less-than-appealing dehydrated food. The weather was beautiful this day, but I had been warned by the rangers that smoke was likely on its way. I stopped to make a shot next to my campground (above). A Singh-Ray two-stop ND Grad (probably should have been a 3-stop, but I was tired) helped keep the bright sky from being an unidentifiable blob.

"On August 20, I departed the Denali Park bus at a point along the park road where I could hike on up the Toklat river to shoot the Wyoming hills in the distance. Unfortunately, my trip was not timed very well, as the park was suffering from a large number of wildfires in different locations and on this day the smoke had filled the river valley. Not being too disheartened, I left the park bus near the Toklat stop and found my way down onto the riverbed. Hiking on this terrain posed quite a few challenges. First, the large rocks and debris made it difficult to maintain my footing, especially while carrying a 70-lb backpack (Mamiya RZ67 gear is heavy). To punish myself even more, I carry a Gitzo G1410 aluminum tripod, which weighs in at just over 8 lbs. As much as I complained to myself about having to carry the tripod, it makes river crossings significantly easier.

"Ideally, it's best to cross the river branches at points where the water 'appears' to be shallower, so you and your pack are not swept away by the current. Unbuckling your backpack and wrapping your gear in plastic bags for the crossing serves two purposes -- One, your gear doesn't get wet inside the bags, and two, you don't get dragged to a cold, watery death if you slip up. Now when I say "cold", I don't mean, 'Hey, that's a little chilly!.' The water in the Toklat is cold enough to take your breath away instantly -- it's like getting punched in the gut by a heavyweight boxer. This is where the tripod made the crossing much easier. By extending the legs and planting them in front of me as I crossed diagonally, it offered some additional stability.

"By late afternoon, I found my way onto a nice flat dry spot in the middle of the river. In the picture below, you can see the smoke in the background. That evening, the wolves were howling so loud that I could hear them above the roar of the river. I decided to hike out the next morning since the smoke had make landscape photography dismal at best. I'm not sure when I fell asleep, but I woke up suddenly at 2:14 am to the sound of raindrops.

"I was already in a foul mood at that point, so I decided to just pack it up and head out before I had to break down a sopping-wet tent in the morning. I noticed the smell of smoke was now much more overpowering than I had remembered it the past few days. I fumbled for my headlamp, threw on my socks and boots, and headed outside to start packing my campsite. When I turned on my headlamp, I almost could not believe my eyes. It looked like it was snowing! I looked at the surface of my rainfly and noticed that there was a very light coating of powder on it. This was not snow - this was ASH. Suddenly a cold chill came over my body as I thought the worst things possible -- that a wildfire had broken out nearby, and I had no way of knowing how close the fire was. I had to assume the worst.

"To this day, I don't think I could break down a tent and clear a campsite faster than I did that night. Everything was packed and ready to go in minutes. Now I had to look forward to crossing the river branches at night with only my headlamp for guidance. Clearly, this would be a stupid decision given any other circumstances. Visibility was incredibly poor - maybe 50-60 feet or so. Fortunately I was not too far from the bank of the river and I could use that to help keep me on track as I headed back to the park road and hopefully to safety. The ash was like gray snow that clogged my nose and eyes. Moving quickly, I made my "Hey Bear!" calls, with the hope of not startling a grizzly or other large mammal. Within a few miles, the smoke had thinned out such that I could see an uncountable number of eyes along the riverbank reflected in my headlamp -- one of the creepiest things I've ever witnessed in the backcountry. Seeing those eyes made my imagination run wild, thinking that a huge number of animals were heading for the riverbank to escape the fire that was undoubtably nearby. I moved even more quickly, ignoring the discomforts of the freezing water and uneven terrain.

"I made it to the park road and waited a few hours until a park bus came by. I related my experience to the driver who explained that the wind had apparently blown in a lot of smoke and ash from a fire that was miles away, posing no real threat. I laugh at the experience now when I think of it, but I don't expect to be traveling in that area again anytime there are wildfires about.

"I'll just have to plan my next Denali trip for the early summer!"

By visiting Ben's website you'll see many images resulting from his successful trips across the American Northwest.

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