A Look Back - "Winter's Embrace"

I realized something, a while back. I have a bunch of photographs on this website – but most of them (my ‘older’ ones, at least) have never had their story told.

So, from time to time, I’m going to revisit some of my favorite images, and share a little about them.

Click here if you would like to read more posts in this series.

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I made this photograph at 3:04 pm, on December 27th, 2010. My birthday.

What a gift.

Winter's Embrace

This morning, Jena showed me a photograph of Boulder Junction, Wisconsin.

They got their first snow fall of the season yesterday, about 2-3" worth of the white stuff.

It seems very odd to me that Wisconsin (northern, as it may be) received their first snow fall before Alaska. We've had snow for some time now, on the mountains above and around our home. But it has been unseasonably warm thus far, this fall. Temperatures have been in the 50's during the day, and it was just 42 (at 5:30 am) as I drove Jena to work this morning. I know what you are thinking - "Jena forces you to drive her to work in the morning?!"

I know. I'm a super hero. I try not to flaunt it.

Anyway...

I make a point to schedule a day off for my birthday, each year. It just seems like the right thing to do.

In 2010, Scott Slone (of Alaska HDTV) and I, headed down to the area around Girdwood. We had just received nearly a foot of fresh snow, and were ready to put in a solid day on the snowshoes. A few weeks earlier, we photographed the "Moose Fields" just outside of Alyeska Resort. (Link opens a full page Google Map. And be sure to check out my ever-growing/developing 'Photography Guide to the Seward Highway' for more awesome locations!). So we were interested in trying a new location for sunrise. The Girdwood area has so much to offer photographers, throughout the year. Winter it seems, in my mind, is special. Winter storms coming off the Prince William Sound & Gulf of Alaska hit the area with light, fluffy snow. The valley is typically protected from the harsh winds that frequently happen along the Turnagain Arm, so the snow sticks well to the healthy population of spruce trees. After a snow storm rolls through, it's not uncommon to find branches heavily laden with 1-2 feet of snow piled atop them. Of course, the Chugach Mountains that make up Alyeska Resort (one of the only chair lift accessible sky areas in Alaska) can be an incredible backdrop as well.

We drove down Crow Creek Road, and parked the car at the western end of the Winner Creek Trailhead. The parking lot is not maintained in the winter time, but locals usually plow out a small spot (large enough for 2-3 cars) on the side of the narrow road. From there, we strapped on the snowshoes and headed into the forest. There is an incredibly beautiful silence to be found in winter landscapes. The snow acts as a giant sound dampener, and suddenly the world, and all its ambient noise, melts away. It is an wonderful experience to walk through a spruce forest during a snow storm. The only sounds you hear are the gentle fall of snowshoes on a carpet made of clouds, and the light rustling of your clothes. Stop for a minute, and you might think you are the only person left on the planet. I suppose the deafening silence would alarm someone from Manhattan, Chicago, or L.A.. - but I relish these moments.

After a short hike (approximately 1 mile), the trail exits the tall trees and bends towards the hand tram. Now, apparently I'm getting old. I don't like heights as much anymore, especially when swinging 75 feet above a frozen river and rocks on a metal cable in a small cage powered only by my biceps and forearms. Or maybe I'm just more cautious, now that I'm married. I don't want to put Jena through the horror of going on without me. Yeah... that's it, I'm not actually afraid of heights... keeeeeeeep telling myself that...

Across the hand tram, the trail heads towards Winner Creek Gorge, and shallow cut in the forest made by the raging waters of Winner Creek. It's not a large, or wide river - but the volume of water it carries is still impressive. And the blue water here is incredible, especially when paired with the blanket of snow around it. We backtracked a bit, to an off trail section I had noticed on the way in. A narrow gap in the trees led to a small clearing. Even here, just above the rushing waters of Winner Creek, the snow laden trees muffled all sounds. We were drenched in silence. The snow was entirely undisturbed, over a foot lay on every exposed spruce branch. It was like being in a winter wonderland. Beyond, Alyeska Mountain (the resort's namesake) rose above into the stark blue sky.

It was early afternoon (around 2), but already the light was changing. Sunset was coming, and soon. A few, thin clouds were cresting the peak. We had found our sunset location.

We walked around the scene, searching for compositions, and being careful not to disturb the virgin snow beyond the edge of the clearing. I used my snowshoes to create a trampled area for our gear, then left everything except my 5D mk 2 and a wide angle lens. I like to move around a scene with just a camera, pre-composing shots before setting up my tripod. It keeps me from being lazy. It is far to easy to just keep your camera attached at all times to your tripod, and 'settle' for a composition that lends itself to your tripod setup. Psychologically, if I compose a photograph with my camera hand held, I know I'm more prone to taking the extra time to set the tripod up correctly when it is time to actually make the intended photograph.

I really loved the subtle shapes and textures found in the foreground snow mounds. The sun was low enough that they were being indirectly lit by the soft light, but there was still the cooler 'shadow side' that gave it the depth it needed. The snow-draped trees in the foreground needed to guide my eye through the mid-ground and up to Alyeska Peak beyond, at the same time - not breaking the outline distractingly. I found a short spruce tree that was bending left, under the weight of the new snow. When paired with the larger spruce tree on the left, I knew the two would be the perfect border for my vertical composition. I flexed my knees several times, moving from a low position to a high overlook, trying to find the perfect height for my shot. Although the background tree tops were approaching (but not crossing over) the outline of Alyeska Peak, I really wanted to emphasize the foreground texture in the snow - so I settled for a lower position. Then I grabbed my tripod, stomped out a small circular platform in the snow with my snowshoes, and set my tripod to match my composition (not the other way around).

This image is a blend of two exposures: 1 for the snow covered foreground, and one exposed for the mountain and sky.

Looking back at it now - this print hangs in our kitchen entry (as a beautiful 24" x 36") - I can still feel soft, airy snow brushing past my calves and thighs, as I waded through its depths along the edge of the glade. I can feel the sharp clarity of the air as it entered my lungs, a subtle spruce scent lingering after brushing past a few exposed boughs. Kneeling there, behind my tripod, I was consumed by the silence of winter. It washed over me, cleansing me thoroughly of all the routine noise pollution. Somewhere, people were going about their lives. Rustling papers, honking horns, screaming babies, platters knocked over by a rushing waiter.

But not for me. Silence, and winter, embraced me in its comforting arms.