While quickly un-holstering his .45 revolver, Dan quietly yells, “Oh shit! The bear is on a kill! Turn around! Turn around!!!” So, we do, and start moving as fast as possible with our 80 pound backpacks, ripping our boots off and starting to wade completely helplessly, like sitting ducks, through knee deep mud. We’re making our way aways from a large brown bear who was on some sort of kill… possibly another bear,maybe a moose… we couldn’t tell, as the carcass was mostly gone. Over the next day or so, Dan tells us a horrific story, proving bear’s heightened aggression while they are eating.
Let's Tarentino this a bit and go back. Back to how and why I ended up in this bizarre, terrifying situation. A couple of years ago, I get a random email from this writer in Seattle who says his name is Chris Solomon, and he’s planning some hiking trip to Alaska, possibly to feature in Outside Magazine. Hmmmm… hiking. I’m not normally a huge fan unless there’s a much larger climbing or skiing objective involved (I know, I’m a snob). But wait, I think he said something about packrafting, this oddball “sport” I’ve been hearing more and more about. This piques my interest, due to the exploration possibilities it opens up to remote, wild and varied terrain. Alaska… always incredible. Outside Magazine… cool. Okaayyy, I’m listening.
I call. We talk. And Chris goes on to explain we would hike through Aniakchak National Monument, the least-visited of all the U.S.’s park lands. After a couple of bush plane flights from Anchorage, we’d find ourselves half way out the Aleutian Peninsula, hoist our massive packs over our shoulders and walk/packraft from the Bering Sea to the Gulf of Alaska… and, oh yeah, we’d go up and over a wild volcano somewhere in the middle. This area also boasts the most dense brown bear populations in the world, a fact that both heightens my interest in seeing these magnificent beasts and keeps me up at night.
Chris also explains we’ll be in the field with one of Alaska’s best adventure guides, Dan Oberlatz, who has owned and operated Alaska Alpine Adventures the past 15 years. The three of us will make this overland, 200 mile journey through some of the most rugged, wild and out-of-this world terrain our planet has to offer. After learning more, I respond with a smattering of four letter words, solidifying not only my excitement for the adventure, but my commitment.
Working as an adventure sport / outdoor lifestyle, commercial photographer the previous 12 or so years, I’ve found it extremely important to balance the well-paying, sometimes posh advertising work with projects that take me right down to my roots: sweating through wild, raw adventure. After all, having experiences such as the once Chris has sold me on, are the entire reason (along with the creativity involved with photography) I studied this profession and worked my ass off to make it my livelihood.
Again, in Tarentino fashion, lets fast-forward to the location along this journey where I stated, “I will remember this place on my deathbed.” As we stood along the bottom of the vast, 6 mile-wide Aniakchak crater and took in the surrounding landscape; snowy peaks that shoot up to the volcano rim, 500’ high cinder cones along the crater floor, a huge, milky, turquoise lake, fed by a mineral-rich, yellow-orange-red stream, lined with bright green bushes, abundant brown bear tracks and best of all, not another human for a hundred miles. And those humans, are few and far between. We had spent 3 long days hiking up and into the crater and were about to spend 3 days pack rafting down to the Gulf of Alaska, where we would then walk 5 very long days along the coast to the nearest fishing village. We were out there. Way out there, and in a landscape only a human body can describe to itself.
Adventures in Aniakchak, AK
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“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." That sentence, from the Roman philosopher Seneca, has become my personal motto.
I started shooting ocean photography in 1998, after moving from France to Sydney, Australia. I was born in New Caledonia, a French territory in the Southwest Pacific, and my parents gave me my first bath in the warm Pacific Ocean, when I was just a few weeks old. Since then, I've always been attracted by the ocean.
With my ocean photography, I'm trying to convey what a special and spectacular sport yachting really is. For me, sailing photography came naturally, and I found that I could be extremely creative with my images, once I was able to prove I could also produce clean photography. I'm always trying to achieve the trinity of what I believe makes a great photograph: technically sound, great composition, and a great story. Although it's easier to concentrate on getting close to the yachting action, my aim is to capture both the action and the seascape, without compromising either. In the process, I've been fortunate to travel to some great sailing areas and it has been a privilege to work with so many dedicated and enthusiastic sailors.
To succeed on the water, you have to love and respect the ocean, keep things simple, and work with an open mind and wide eyes. You want to try to make every boat look as if it is one of the great beauties of the sea! You have to know your gear perfectly, be able to fix things yourself, be careful of the people around you and fully concentrate at all times. Be prepared, because a tricky situation can escalate into a disaster suddenly. For this reason, I always try to have a storyboard for the shoot in my head. At the end of the day, this kind of photography requires a lot of intuition, fitness and of course, luck.
I had the opportunity to photograph Thomas Coville, on his trimaran Sodebo, for the performance outdoor clothing company Helly Hansen. We shot during his training sessions in the Atlantic Ocean, before he set the world circumnavigation record. Thomas is 50 years old, but with a body of a 30 year-old. He's one of the best offshore sailors in the world, owning several solo, non-stop records for sailing around the world. He has sailed on a 100-foot-carbon-multihull on his own, and it's hard to truly appreciate until you're onboard just how impressive, fast (average speed 35 to 40 miles an hour ) and frightening this kind of yacht sailing can be.
One of the biggest challenges is finding the best way to capture these images. Sometimes I'm in a helicopter, sometimes in a chase boat. For this shoot with Thomas, I was with him onboard the trimaran. At the kinds of speeds he goes, you simply can't follow him in a tender, you have to be right there. For a day like this, you always have to be ready for any situation, but sailing with professionals, I trust them 110%, without question. I keep myself fit, prepared, and calm, no matter what happens.
“Let’s do something that’s ACTUALLY fun.” Libby Sauter, Yosemite bigwall climber extraordinaire, turns to me with a pleading look while we’re huffing and puffing and shivering in the Argentinian cold at 18,000ft. “I mean it. Let’s get this mountain over with, and then let’s go somewhere remote and adventurous - but the type of adventure that’s WARM and FUN.” We’re just barely halfway through a brutally difficult six-week speed record mission on 22,838ft Aconcagua, capturing content for adidas Outdoor, and we’re already brainstorming our next project.
Three months and one high-altitude speed record later I am still huffing and puffing, but this time in a very different setting. Libby, myself and our friend Allison are standup paddle boarding on Lake Powell as part of a multi-sport adventure - the very adventure that was conceived during those long cold days on Aconcagua. This time we’re focused on advocacy rather than on the quest for standout athletic performance: we want to playfully explore Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, to capture images and stories that can help advocate for the preservation of these tremendous landscapes.
Libby, Alli and I start out with long slow days of desert trail running and canyoneering before packing up to embark on a two night / three day SUP backpack. We each carry forty pounds of gear - paddleboards, overnight and emergency gear, and my full camera kit - cross-country along miles of remote and difficult slick rock terrain as we gradually descend into the hot maze of canyons that defines Lake Powell. Five hours after setting out from our vehicles we finally reach the lakeshore, tucked away deep in the sunless bend of a canyon.
This is where we’ll inflate our paddle boards and take to the water. But this is also where Libby discovers that she only packed in the blade of her three-piece collapsible paddle and not the shaft, which throws a bit of a wrench into our plans to SUP dozens of miles in the next 48 hours. Hiking back to the cars to retrieve the missing shaft would be a ten hour round trip and is out of the question, but as the old adage goes in these types of adventures: “If you don’t have it you don’t need it.” We devise a way to jerry rig a workable paddle from our combined kit plus a tree branch or two.
The next two days are my personal crux: I am doubling as SUP guide - since neither Libby nor Alli have experience on a standup paddle board or on the lake, while I can draw from my lesson’s of an eight-day solo SUP expedition that I embarked on in these same parts the prior year - and as photographer while also balancing my camera gear on the front of my paddle board, camera and lenses precariously close to a potential watery death.
It’s not an easy setup but this is my favorite way of shooting: as part of a self-motivated, intimate project that results in organic imagery. This particular mission in Grand Staircase is just that - a passion project that combines adventure and creative work in the best possible way. And at the end of our time on Lake Powell and in Grand Staircase, the three of us walk away with a treasure trove of images, memories, and an infinite amount of excitement to plan the next project.
12:30 pm, October 22nd 2018, Sandpoint, Idaho. Bikes, Boards, Baggage, Booze, and Bodies. The van is loaded and pulling out of port. The direction is unknown. Agenda, equally obscure. And we like it. An intentionally agendaless journey is new but not unfamiliar. Being late October, the internal compass says we aim south to capture any shred of warmth still remaining in the low, angling sun. Suzanne, co-pilot and partner of nearly a decade, settles in with our new pup Suki and van life begins again.With life as layered and busy as it is, sliding in behind the wheel of Blanca (a 1999 VW Eurovan, current odometer reading 415,567, about half of that mine) has become my antidote to busyness. Somehow just getting out of town without too many crab claws (loose ends that grab you and keep you from leaving) is a success.We drive a mere 4 hours from home and find camp.Darkness falls. Tequila falls… into empty, receptive cups.A crisp IPA is cracked.Cooking a meal is a relatively low priority on night one as we bask in the excitement of being on the road, buoyed by a full moon dancing behind an eerie cloud cover and an opportunity to light paint.Our course meanders over days through the interior of Idaho, discovering remote vacant hot springs and uncrowded backroad locales that allow for maximum freedom. We are both surprised by the impact of wildfires as we snake our way toward Stanley Idaho, skirting the south edge of the Frank Church Wilderness (still the largest wilderness in the lower 48).I stop to capture the scene but the record-keeping-moment soon transforms to a painterly one. The landscape has become a quilt of life and death, blackened Standing Lodgepole Pine mixed with green regenerating ground cover and hints of fall color, divided by a bending deep blue ribbon of water. It’s raw and captivating.As we continue to surrender to the moment and try not get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s already day 5 of our 9 day trip. What is our plan? Where are we going? Our minds drift. We look at weather reports. Sun and warmth are desirable. We head West. More specifically, we drive towards the wide open space of southeastern Oregon where the population density is 2 humans per 500 cows per 100 square miles or something like that. Who cares about stats, it’s expansive and definitely pulls us into that feeling. That feeling of remoteness. Planetary if you will.One thing I have realized in my travels with Blanca in the West is that it’s not for everyone. I like it that way. I can tell it’s not for everyone because I hardly see anyone else out in the places I choose to go. I have learned it through my own experience and taking to heart the advice of Edward Abbey when it comes to dirt roads and exploration and getting “out there.”So one may ponder and wonder, this all sounds way too leisurely to qualify as work. How are you able to hit the road and just be free for days on end? The answer is choice. As a kid born into a line of inveterate travelers, it has become a choice and not anything based on luck or social status or anything else. It’s my work. It’s my life. I continue to make the choice. There is compromise for sure. There are also perspectives and responses I have endured over the years from “oh you are so lucky” to “must be nice” to “only wealthy people travel.” And yet my hope and goal in all of it is not to boast or display nor is it to amass an Insta following or assemble any cult. It is to share and inspire. It is for my children to see how their father lives and engage them in life on the road. It is for my friends to be stoked and curious and ask where is that, how do I get there. My intent is simply not to lead by example but to live by it.
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As attention spans continue to shrink and the cult of the instant gratification grows exponentially, material possessions hold less meaning, and no longer tether us to lands visited or memories. Cheap charlatan goods are everywhere for our pleasure, and we consume them with reckless commercial abandon. It's in this culture that Joe Klementovich found an inspirational antonym, and pursued a project around these artisans that create handmade crafts.
In a time of trade wars with China, border walls being built and sanctions being placed, it’s nice to find refuge in the studio of an artisan: a good old fashioned workshop, piled with sawdust, paint cans and scraps from long done projects. Time seems to slip away once you get inside one of these sanctuaries. In New England, there is a long and proud history of making things by hand, from scratch. For me, this project is a way of getting back to that history and appreciating the skill and effort it takes to create something from hand.
I think the first artisan I photographed was Fred Dolan. Fred carves birds from blocks of wood and makes them look real by the time he’s done. Since then I’ve been able to join jewelers, sculptors, boat builders, blacksmiths and others in their workshops. The latest was a fiddle maker in Northern New Hampshire who can tell you where each tree came from for all of his fiddles. Truly handmade.