Photographer Q&A: Rachid Dahnoun on Assignment for Backpacker Magazine

Adventure photographer Rachid Dahnoun has never met a mountain he didn’t like. So when Backpacker contacted him to shoot a feature story about Dominica’s 115-mile Waitukubuli National Trail, he immediately jumped on board.

Dahnoun and writer Kelly Bastone spent 10 rainy days hiking and documenting the new long trail on the not-so-well-known Caribbean island, which was completed in 2011 as an effort to promote tourism. To date, the WNT has been the largest non-road infrastructure project ever attempted on Dominica. During the trip, Dahnoun and Bastone met the locals, explored the terrain and went on some incredible hikes. The feature recently ran in the March edition of Backpacker. Read the article here.

We sat down with Dahnoun to hear more about this assignment. Here’s what he had to say about his career, hiking the WNT, and his advice for aspiring adventure photographers.

A backpacker (Kelly Bastone) hikes next to the Atlantic Ocean on Segment 6 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
A backpacker (Kelly Bastone) hikes next to the Atlantic Ocean on Segment 6 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

What originally inspired you to become an adventure photographer?

Before starting college I took a NOLS (National Outdoors Leadership School) semester, and that was one of those mind-blowing trips. The entire semester was 3.5 months in the backcountry. We completed 3 weeks of winter touring and telemark skiing in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, a month backpacking in Canyonlands National Park, 2 weeks whitewater kayaking on the Green River in Utah, another week on the Dolores River in Colorado, rock climbing in the City of Rocks National Preserve in Idaho for 2 weeks, then Split Rock in Wyoming for another 2 weeks. I made some of the best friends of my life and I got to see some of the most beautiful and iconic places in the American West.

Afterwards, I moved to Baltimore for art college, took one photo elective class the beginning of my sophomore year and that changed everything. I immediately shifted my major to photography, and I couldn’t get enough. I focused on photo for the next 4 years, but as soon as I was done with my degree I couldn’t wait to move out of the city. Diploma in hand, I packed up everything in my truck and drove west. A friend from that NOLS semester found out I was moving and told me he was living in Lake Tahoe and had a spare room for rent. I figured I would spend one winter in Tahoe and then I’d try to be “responsible” with my life again. But that never really happened.  Winter turned to summer, summer turned to winter and here we are 15 years later and I still love every minute of my life in the Sierra Nevada.

The first few years in Lake Tahoe I didn’t even pick up a camera. All I did was snowboard, climb and backpack, spending all of my time in the mountains. I loved photography, but I had no idea how to make a living doing it.  After a while my camera started showing up in my backpack. I was going on all of these adventures with my friends who were semi-pro and pro athletes, and I decided to start documenting them. That started happening more and more and I found myself building a portfolio of images that I was really proud of.

Years later, a friend introduced me to Corey Rich, who offered me a contract with Aurora, which really set things off for me. All of a sudden, I started seeing my work in national and international publications and used commercially.  That market presence compounded and I had other magazines and brands approach me individually for different projects and assignments. Within the year, I started to feel my career catapult and that’s when I believed I could really do this full time. There’s been a fire ever since to go after bigger projects and assignments and keep going on trips that no one else wants to go on. It’s been a wild ride, and Aurora and Corey were a big part of that, right at a key point of my work.

A backpacker (Kelly Bastone) looks up at a very large chatanier tree (buttress root tree, Acomat Boucan Sloanea) in the rainforest on Segment 11 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
A backpacker (Kelly Bastone) looks up at a very large chatanier tree (buttress root tree, Acomat Boucan Sloanea) in the rainforest on Segment 11 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

For the Backpacker assignment, you spent 10 rainy days hiking on some gnarly terrain. How do you prepare yourself physically and mentally for a long project like this?

The physical aspect is pretty straightforward. I live in the mountains and I try to get outside as much as I can. I’m always out snowboarding, hiking, biking and climbing depending on the season and I’m doing it at elevation (Lake Tahoe is 6,200 feet above sea level). That keeps me where I need to be so when the phone rings I’m ready to go to any part of the world and jump in with whichever athletes I need to follow.

Mentally, I’m adamant about doing as much research as possible about the location I’m traveling to. In this instance for Dominica, I read as many articles as I could. I researched a lot online and talked with the writer, Kelly Bastone, quite a bit because she had already done a lot of research herself. I also pulled images, made inspiration boards and picked out locations I hoped to see. That helped me get my head in the game for what kinds of pictures I could make and how that would facilitate the creation of a great photo story.

Looking out over the beautiful and rugged coastline of the Caribbean island of Dominica from an overlook on Segment 14 of the Waitukubuli National Trail.
Looking out over the beautiful and rugged coastline of the Caribbean island of Dominica from an overlook on Segment 14 of the Waitukubuli National Trail.

You did and saw a lot – from drinking traditional “bush rum” to visiting the “fumarole-ridden wasteland called the Valley of Desolation.” What was your favorite or most memorable moment(s) of the hike? What would you say is a must see / must do / must pack for a trip to Dominica?

The Valley of Desolation and Boiling Lake, which are world heritage sites, are absolutely stunning and are not to be missed. Honestly though, I think what I remember the most about the whole experience were the people. They were so kind and generous and they opened their doors to us every day we were on the island. Whether it was camping along the trail in a small village or staying in more developed areas, it didn’t seem to matter who we ran into, they were all so open and proud of their culture and wanted us to have the best experience possible. I thought that was just amazing. It’s rare to run into so many kind people in such a short period of time.

A Dominican woman serves a shot of local "bush rum" (Dominican moonshine) infused with fresh local Anise. We discovered that this stuff is not to be trifled with.
A Dominican woman serves a shot of local “bush rum” (Dominican moonshine) infused with fresh local Anise. We discovered that this stuff is not to be trifled with.

In the article, the author refers to you as a “mountain-climbing machine.” How was this hike/climb different from the others? How did the trail compare to what you’re used to in the Sierras?

The Sierras are a great training ground but the WNT was different because it is really steep, unforgivingly steep, and almost vertical in some places. Trails in the Sierras and anywhere else in the US are a lot more graded and they’re just built that way. But in Dominica, it’s a lot of straight up and down hiking in the rainforest and every step is wet and slippery. All around I would say the hiking is pretty difficult.

A woman (Kelly Bastone) stands on the edge of Boiling Lake on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Boiling Lake is situated in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park and is the second largest hot lake in the world. It is one of the most popular day hikes on the island.
A woman (Kelly Bastone) stands on the edge of Boiling Lake on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Boiling Lake is situated in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park and is the second largest hot lake in the world. It is one of the most popular day hikes on the island.

Were there any scary moments?

There was definitely one real scary moment on the trip. There was a lot of unseasonable rain when we were there and we had gone to check out Middleham Falls along the WNT on day 4.  It had been raining heavily for days. When we arrived we couldn’t even see the falls because the spray was so thick and powerful. We realized we could be in a pretty dangerous situation with that much water moving and not knowing what was above us. We opted to get out of there quickly, but as soon as we turned around we saw another waterfall had broken off of the cliffs and cut us off. Now we were stuck between two massive waterfalls and possibly another wall of water above us. We knew we had to get out of there quickly, and made a human chain to get ourselves across the newer waterfall that hadn’t even been there 10 minutes before. Eventually, we were able to wade ourselves through the rapids and get to safe ground. It was one of those situations you get through, take a breath and say, “Okay, well that could have been a lot worse.”

Another scary moment, more of a personal one, are the snakes on Dominica.  There are a lot of snakes, no poisonous snakes, but there are a ton of snakes on the island, and I hate snakes. It was day 10 and I still hadn’t seen one, but all I kept hearing about was how there were so many boa constrictors on the island. So there I was, hiking up this really steep hill and I went to take a step. I looked down and this huge boa constrictor was coiled up and hissing at me. I cried like a baby, fell backward, and tumbled back down the mountainside. I collected myself and our guide just started laughing at me, staring at the thing and saying, “that’s just a baby boa!” I said, “Okay, good, but it’s 6 feet long so that’s not encouraging.” I got back up, put the long lens on and begrudgingly made some frames of the boa for the photo story.

A boa constrictor is coiled up in the leaves on Segment 11 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

What were some of the most surprising things you learned about the WNT and/or Dominica?

There are no white sand beaches, which is very much in contrast to the rest of the Caribbean. But it’s also a testament to why Dominica is the way it is and why it’s more of an unknown, less visited, destination by tourists. In fact, it doesn’t have many beaches at all. What beaches it does have are beautiful, but they’re black sand beaches and most of the rim of the island is all just huge cliffs. It’s really rugged and that comes across in their tourism and branding; they call themselves “The Nature Island.” They’ve done a really good job figuring out which resources they have and which they don’t. If you’re looking for the Carnival Cruise stop, this isn’t going to be it.

A traditional carving of a face at the Touna Kalinago Heritage Village in the Kalinago Territory of the Caribbean island of Dominica.
A traditional carving of a face at the Touna Kalinago Heritage Village in the Kalinago Territory of the Caribbean island of Dominica.
A man (Michael Eugene) holds a nutmeg in the palm of his hand on Segment 1 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
A man (Michael Eugene) holds a nutmeg in the palm of his hand on Segment 1 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

What are the similarities and differences between Dominica’s view of conservation, wilderness, nature and enjoying the outdoors and ours?

They have a deep respect for their home and the conservation of it. Opinions weren’t as mixed as they are in the United States where people do and don’t believe in climate change. I’m fairly certain everyone on Dominica believes in climate change. They’ve had some huge hurricanes that have decimated the island over the years, so it is really at the forefront of everyone’s mind.  The idea of conservation was ingrained with everyone I met.

A woman (Kelly Bastone) admires a large chatanier tree (buttress root tree, Acomat Boucan Sloanea) on Segment 1 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbena island of Dominica.
A woman (Kelly Bastone) admires a large chatanier tree (buttress root tree, Acomat Boucan Sloanea) on Segment 1 of the Waitukubuli National Trail on the Caribbena island of Dominica.

You’ve been shooting for 13 years now. What’s your advice for someone looking to get into outdoor and adventure photography?

My number one piece of advice is to shoot what you love. If you’re not shooting what you love you certainly won’t be creating the best possible pictures that you can make. You’re never going to be able to tell a compelling story unless you have some sort of connection to the imagery you’re creating.

Also, a lot of people think that I’m outside every day on some new adventure but I also spend massive amounts of time on my computer, on the phone, in the office, marketing, networking, working on my portfolio, stock submissions, doing everything I need to do to keep a business going. In the end, you’re running a small business and you have to take that into account. A lot of times you’re going to be a one-man band for the beginning of your career. You’re easily going to spend the same amount of time in the office as you will out shooting, and I think that’s something that’s really important for people to understand.

Finally, have thick skin. There’s so much competition out there. There are so many different editors and marketing directors with different opinions on what kind of work they like, what kind of stories they like, even whether they like to communicate via email or not. You’re bound to run into the word “no” quite a bit especially in the beginning of your career. If someone tells you no, don’t let it bother you too much. Figure out how to push through. Communicate with them or show them a better body of work at a later date, or simply realize the relationship may not work and move on and find one that will.

A woman (Kelly Bastone) takes in the sunset over the Caribbean Sea on a pier at the Portsmouth Beach Hotel in the town of Portsmouth on the island of Dominica.
A woman (Kelly Bastone) takes in the sunset over the Caribbean Sea on a pier at the Portsmouth Beach Hotel in the town of Portsmouth on the island of Dominica.

About Rachid Dahnoun
Rachid Dahnoun combines his love of outdoor adventure with his artistic vision to create a touching photographic journal of the natural world. From breathtaking landscapes to gritty action photos, Dahnoun delivers compelling imagery to commercial clients, magazines and art galleries across the globe. His work has been featured with clients such as: National Geographic, ESPN, The Travel Channel, American Express, Microsoft, ARAMARK, AAA, Travel and Leisure, Expedia, Lowepro, SKI Magazine, the New York Times and many more.

Check out more of Dahnoun’s work here.

Photographer Q&A: Peter Essick Documents the Pine Beetle Epidemic for National Geographic

Award-winning photojournalist Peter Essick has been traveling the globe documenting environmental issues for the past two decades. He’s also a frequent contributor to National Geographic, having shot more than 40 stories for the publication in the past 25 years. Last April, Peter was commissioned by the magazine to photograph a feature story about a pine beetle outbreak that has destroyed more than 60 million acres of forest from New Mexico to British Columbia. Pine beetles don’t typically exhibit this type of remarkable population growth. So what’s causing the crisis?

The author Hillary Rosner writes, “Rising temperatures and drought have stressed trees, leaving them unable to fight an invasion. Warmer weather also has boosted the beetles’ population and greatly expanded their range. They’re flourishing farther north and at higher elevations, invading pine trees, such as jack pine and whitebark, that had rarely seen them until a few years ago. Because these trees aren’t as good at defending themselves, a smaller band of beetles can overwhelm them. Three-quarters of the mature whitebark pines in Yellowstone National Park are now dead—a blow to grizzly bears, which eat the seeds in autumn, and to Clark’s nutcrackers, which cache the seeds for winter.”

The outbreak originated in the central region of British Columbia and moved through the mountain American Western states of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. Recently, the most active outbreak in the USA occurred in South Dakota. The beetles have also spread across the Rocky Mountains to Alberta during two large storms.

Essick visited all of these regions to photograph the story.  In the Q&A below, we talk to him about the experience.

Helicopter surveying of red trees by the Alberta Government near Grande Prairie a part of a mountain pine beetle control program. The red trees are all marked on GPS and in the crews go back in November and mark a 50 meter circle around infested trees and find all other trees infestested. Then in the winter crews go back and cut down all those trees and burn them.

How exactly does the mountain pine beetle kill the forest?

It attacks the inner bark or phloem that feeds the tree. First, a female beetle bores through the bark, and if she likes the tree she sends out a scent signal for other beetles to come to the tree. Often hundreds of beetles will then bore into the tree within a 24 hour period. The tree puts out sap to try to stop the beetles boring, but usually the beetles can overcome the tree’s defenses. The beetles then begin to chew tunnels through the inner bark where the females each lay about 50 eggs. The eggs then turn to larvae within a week and stay inside the tree throughout winter. If it gets really cold the larvae will die, but because it has been warmer in the winter due to climate change, more larvae are surviving. In early summer, the larvae hatch and then fly to another tree repeating the cycle. In recent warmer years, as many as 10 beetles have been coming out of the tree for each one that entered. That is why there are now outbreaks of beetles that can fill entire forests.

Colorado State University professor and beetle researcher Dan West collects mountain pine beetles from a ponderosa pine that was being attacked in a forest in the Front Range west of Ft. Collins.

How have the locals reacted?

The beetle is a native species and has always been a part of the forest, but now it is causing severe damage to whole forests so the locals don’t like it at all. Some have made a living out of salvage logging and carving the beetle kill wood, but overall it is bad for local economies based on logging or recreation.

In the town of Custer, South Dakota, some locals tried to think of something positive they could do for the community regarding the beetle. They thought of the burning man and came up with the idea to do the burning beetle to draw the community together and hopefully over the long run create a tourist draw.

Burning of Pine Beetle Effigy, Custer, South Dakota. the Ponderosa Pine trees of the Black Hills have been hit hard by the pine beetle. A local woodworker with the help of other in the community constructed a 26-foot long wooden pine beetle out of beetle kill wood and plywood reinforcement. It was loaded with fuel and candle fuses and set on fire

Experimental Fire in Beetlekill Forest, near Vandrhoof, Canada. A group from the Canadian Ministry of Forests is doing a test to see how fire reacts in beetlekill forest. They have several blocks and have firefighters surrounding the blocks before they are set on fire. The trees are mostly in the gray stage so there is a lot od down woody debris and fallen trees low, but no needles on the dead trees.

What attempts have been made to manage the beetle population?

Nothing to date has been successful in controlling the outbreaks. Pheromone patches have been nailed to trees to fool the beetles, but have had limited success. There is an insecticide that can be sprayed on an individual tree, but the cost is about $50/tree for one year of protection. It also kills all other insects in the tree as well. In Alberta, they have been identifying newly attacked trees by helicopter and then going back in the winter and cutting down the trees and burning then hoping to stop or slow down the outbreak. This is very expensive and may or may not work in the long run.

Pine beetle flying on a leash in the lab of Maya Evenden at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Research is being done here to see how far mountain pine beetles can fly. They have found the average to be about 6km and one flew 24 km.

What was it like traveling around the forest while tracking the beetles? What did you find most challenging about documenting this story?

I did a lot of driving through the western states looking for areas to photograph. The scientists are always interesting to talk to about their research.

The one challenge that was different about this story was doing macro photography of the beetles. The beetle is about the size of a grain of rice, so the photographer needs to use a special lens that can go to 3X to 4X life size to get a full frame photo of the beetle in its environment.

Red Bellied Checkered beetle (Enoclerus sphegeus) preying on a mountain pine beetle.

See a complete lightbox with all of the images from this story here.

View all of Peter’s work available for purchase through Aurora here

New Images for May

Person playing ice hockey at night under the stars and Mount Rundle

With Spring finally arriving in Maine, winter imagery is on it’s way out and summer fun is about to start. However, our photographers couldn’t resist one last bit of ice hockey and ice climbing in Banff, and skiing in North Korea and Silverton, Colorado, on a blue bird day. For those sick of the cold, there’s plenty of National Parks and warm, exotic locations, like Rio and Abu Dhabi, to explore. Whether you get there by foot, bike, boat, motorcycle or RV, your travels will be well worth it.  For those looking for more wild interactions, we’ve got close encounters with birds and deer, a bunny’s first birthday, an urban farm goat coop and a bear dance contest !

See all that and more in the realms of active lifestyle, adventure and exotic travel in this month’s curated gallery of outdoor living: http://www.auroraphotos.com/result?webseries_id=14734

Remote Rivers and Treacherous Terrain: Taylor Reilly’s ‘Escaping Desolation’

Our photographers have a reputation for being adventurous. In order to produce such dynamic imagery, they need to be in the heart of nature, continuously seeking out new and thrilling experiences. And although we get to see the fruits of their labor from the powerful photographs they create, sometimes there’s more to the photograph than meets the eye – an untold story waiting for anyone who asks.

Taylor Reilly recently embarked on one such adventure, which he writes about in a new essay titled, Escaping Desolation.

Escaping Desolation is the story of 3 friends on 1 raft taking a 90-mile 7-day trip down the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons in Utah. The trip runs smoothly until the second to last day when disaster strikes and their boat is sunk in an unexpected way. The decisions made after would determine their chances of survival and their escaping desolation.

Rafters tackling a rapid in Desolation Canyon along the Green River in Utah.
Rafters tackling a rapid in Desolation Canyon along the Green River in Utah.

Taylor writes,

There we were, laughing at the top of our lungs about everything, and enjoying every second of rafting 91 miles on one of the most remote stretches of river in the country, the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons in Utah. Then it struck us and the laughing came to a halt. We were out of beer! It was day six of our seven-day voyage and our three man crew only had one six pack of pumpkin beer left in the cooler. Obviously times were desperate, we were floating through an expansive desert canyon in the middle of nowhere, and all we had was a flavor of beer that made unfiltered river water seem appealing. The mission was clear; we needed to find more beer. Somehow.

Just three weeks ago my good friend Tres called me excited that he had just picked up a last minute permit for a rafting trip through Utah. He had just spent most of the summer rafting rivers all over the west and was trying to find friends to join him on one last trip before ski season began. It didn’t take long before Tres had convinced myself, and our long time friend Bobby to join him for a mid-October Green River trip.

Rafter accompanying a standup paddleboarder through Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. ©Taylor Reilly
Rafter accompanying a standup paddleboarder through Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah.

Our 3-man crew has all been friends for many years. Bobby and Tres had grown up together and I had met them both in college. Since then, we have taken many trips together and we had all gained a substantial amount of outdoor skills and experience. On top of skiing, climbing and backcountry hiking, Tres, our captain, has been piloting his raft on multiple big rivers across the country, for several years. Bobby grew up hunting and backpacking but now he spends most of his weekend’s mountain biking and climbing. He has worked in the outdoor and action sports industries for years and he is extremely organized and motivated when it comes to any outdoor adventure. I myself have ample experience recreationally and professionally in the outdoors. I have been a climber for just about 20 years, I guided for 6, and I have been around water, rivers, and boats my entire life having grown up in Texas. While we all had various and ample outdoor experience, this would be the first big multi-day rafting trip for Bobby and I.

Setting up camp in Desolation Canyon, Utah. ©Taylor Reilly
Setting up camp in Desolation Canyon, Utah.

Our vessel was a 14ft raft with a 4 bay oar frame, and a pile of gear in the back so big that we could have been mistaken for a floating version of the Beverly Hillbillies. For a bit of relevant rafting knowledge: Rafts used for overnight trips use an aluminum frame that holds dry boxes, an ice chest and oar mounts/oars on either side. The captain rows the raft using two 10 foot oars while two passengers can either relax and drink or pitch in as “paddle assist” to help keep momentum through pushy rapids. This is how our 3-man 1-raft team was set up. We had just paddled out of Desolation Canyon the night before and into Gray Canyon earlier that morning, and the “take-out” for our trip was only 12 or more miles, or 1 day, downstream. The plan for this last night of our adventure was to camp just after “Rattle Snake” rapid (2+). First, though, we had to get some beer.

It was around noon and we hadn’t seen anyone on the river since the previous night, and being that it was off-season, we didn’t expect to see anyone from here on out. So imagine our surprise when we came around a large bend and found a group of people spread out over 5 rafts and some paddleboards. They seemed to be having as much fun as we were, and the rules of the river dictate that we had to strike up a conversation in search of a trade. When we found out they needed ice, we gave them two of our solid 5-10lb blocks for an 18 pack of Tecate. Success! They invited us to do a short day hike on the west side of the river just before Rattlesnake Rapid, but we decided to keep paddling and get to our camp, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

Standup paddleboarder during sunset in Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. ©Taylor Reilly
Standup paddleboarder during sunset in Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah

Heading downstream with a full case of Tecate to get us to the end of our trip, we started into Rattlesnake rapid. Leading into the rapid Tres suggested that Bobby should row this one. This was Bobby’s first big rafting trip and Tres thought it was his right of passage to captain the boat down a “named” rapid. After all, Bobby had put in his time working hard rowing miles of flat-water into headwinds in the days before, now it was his turn to try something a little more rewarding. I looked over and told Bobby to zip up his life jacket, all the way up to the top. He smiled, laughed, and thanked me. It would be his first Class 2+ rapid to paddle. This stretch of the Green River is in general very mild when it comes to rapid strength, especially during the fall. If anything, the river was shallow and slow most of the way. At this point we were all confident that the end of our trip was just around the bend.

©Taylor Reilly

As we entered the rapid, Bobby was on the oars, while Tres and I were relaxing in the front. The rapid formed a wave train down the middle of the river, however the raft spun to the right of the ideal line, and started heading straight towards the 40’ cliff that walled in the right hand side of the river. The raft was now being pushed hard by lateral waves and the three of us realized simultaneously that things were about to get ugly.

As we neared the sandstone cliff jetting out at the apex of the river bend, Tres started yelling, ”Back row right! Back row Right!” Tres started to move towards Bobby to help him slide the right oar into the raft and away from the cliff to keep it from catching and swinging. But it was too late for that.

Continue reading the full story on Taylor’s blog.

See more of Taylor’s work here.

The latest from Aurora Photos