Anaktuvuk Pass - the approach where David Alan Harvey almost lost his life; Ben Hopson III - "B III" - traps in the Brooks Range
When I retired my Wasilla by 300 and Then Some blog, I launched this one, Logbook, with a series on what I had experienced at the New York City Loft workshop of master Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey. On the first night, David took his dozen or so students to dinner at a nearby Brooklyn Bar and Restaurant where a pig had been roasted.
As we sat at the table exchanging small talk and getting to know each other, someone asked what I did and in the very brief moment David gave me to answer, I mentioned Alaska's Arctic. This launched David into a story-telling session about his own time in the Arctic on behalf of National Geographic Magazine.
The most memorable story he told was of flying into Anaktuvuk Pass, where the pilot had to descend through overcast into the approach to the village airstrip.
I took this picture the day before yesterday, as the pilot of the Wright Air flight I was on began a slow descent toward the same airstrip, tucked into the Brooks Range mountains just ahead.
Perhaps David was on this very approach. I'm not sure. I believe, depending on weather conditions, there are three different approaches commercial pilots generally use when taking passengers into AKP.
As he descended, David's pilot made a slight miscalcuation. While the fuselage and wings of the plane he flew barely cleared the mountains, his landing gear did not. His wheels struck a ridge and the gear got ripped right off the airplane. This necessitated a belly landing, which fortunately ended successfully.
I have often thought about David's story and wondered by how many inches his life was spared. Six? One? The margin between life and death would certainly have been within such a narrow range. Had the plane been just an inch or few lower, then all the wonderful images David has taken with his camera since would not have been been shot. The books he has done since that time, including (based on a true story), which he shot in Rio and which won two best book of 2012 awards, most recently by Pictures of the Year International, would never have been created.
Even more important, who could have stepped into his place to inspire to inspire, ignite and publish the many young and emerging photographers he has motivated and mentored through his creation, burn?
Nobody. No one else would have done it. No one else could have done it.
As for me, before I crashed my airplane, The Running Dog, I LOVED to fly in and out of Anaktuvuk Pass. It was great fun.
I must get another airplane so I can do it again. Please!
Yesterday morning, Ben Hopson III, better known as B III, invited me to go out into the country with him. Despite this gigantic and painful hernia given to me by my surgeon, I eagerly accepted. B III is a trapper and a hunter. This winter has been good for him.
He loaned me his best and newest snowmachine and I followed him out of the village. After 15 or 20 minutes, he stopped to glass for animals - primarily wolves - which are abundant in this region, thanks to caribou that come through by the tens of thousands. He also takes wolverines, foxes and other fur bearing animals. These mountains are also home to Dahl Bighorn sheep - an important part of the diet of the approximately 250 Iñupiat residents of Anaktuvuk Pass, known as the Nunamiut, or inland people.
And sheep is so good... delicious... succulent. Oh, my! Just to think about it!
I should note that Anaktuvuk translates to caribou droppings.
Ben did not spot any animals through his binoculars, but he had set traps in a few different valleys. Off he went to check them. I followed.
When we reached the first trap set, B III cautioned me to limit the number of footprints I left in the snow - to try to step mostly on the snowmachine tracks close to the snowmachines, don't spit, blow your nose, piss, spill your coffee in the snow or do much of anything likely to leave scent behind.
He carries scent remover with him and treats the area before he leaves.
No matter what direction I looked, the beauty was exquisite. So much so it almost hurt to look at it. I want so much to grasp it, to bathe in it, absorb it and be part of it, but all I can do is pass briefly through. I want to know all of it. I can comprehend but the tiniest sliver of it.
The caribou bait had been checked out but no animal caught. B III went about the task of resetting his trap.
He took time for a coffee break, but as he drank, he kept his eyes always on the mountain sides, looking for animals. His concentration did not break.
Off he goes to check another set. It, too, will prove empty.
B III sells his furs almost exclusively to his Iñupiat relatives and friends across the Arctic Slope, who sew them into parkas, ruffs, mukluks, clothing and other items used in daily life. Most wolf skins will bring about $300, but he figured the skin of biggest, finest, wolf he has caught so far this year was worth about $650. After he brought it home, he put a photo on his Facebook page.
Almost immediately, his Aunt Rhoda Ahmaogak of Wainwright, now living in Barrow, facebooked a message back to him. She wanted the fur. She let him know she was about to transfer $400 to him as a down payment. Soon, she wrote back - she had forwarded $500 to him.
As this was his auntie, he let the fur go for $500. He does things like this a lot. Plus, every year, he gives three or four skins away to elders, friends, and relatives. This, he reckons will help assure his future success. Before we left on this trip, he told me his goal for the season had been 21 animals, but he had so far brought in 24.
B III approaches a narrow gap in the mountain. He wants to check out the other side. If it looks good, he will set some new traps there.
He found the other side to be a dead end and turned around. Afterward, he marveled about how the creek had so patiently and unrelentingly cut out this little nick in the rocks.
On the way to the next set, he roars up a mountain side and down again - just for fun.
A few days before, he had been snowmachining atop a stream when suddenly the ice broke beneath him and he fell into a dry air bubble four feet deep. He did not get hurt, but he had to walk five miles to his cabin, 30 miles from the village, where he set off his PLB - Personal Locator Beacon. It took awhile, but as Rainey, his artist wife waited nervously for word, help came. He recovered the snowmachine - the very one he loaned to me - intact.
Then on towards the set...
He has caught a red fox. "Aarigaa! Quyanaq!" he says as he carries it to the sled. "Thank you for giving yourself!" On another set, he would catch a snow white weasel - his second of the season.
We move on and soon come to the remnants of a caribou, killed and eaten by wolves.
Old wolf tracks near another empty set.
He clears the snow off the trap before resetting it. The yellow snow is wolf pee. "The wolves come by, piss on it, and keep on going," B III says.
He is not discouraged. He will try again.
We are in a good place for sheep, so he scans the mountainsides for white Dahl Big Horns. A strong wind blows into his face, making it difficult to see through the binoculars. When we are in narrow valleys that run east and west, there is almost no wind. When the valleys run north and south, the wind is strong.
Sheep tracks go up a mountain. The sheep have already left to go somewhere else.
And now B III heads home as I follow. The village of Anaktuvuk Pass is a short distance ahead.
Rainey will be there, cooking dinner.