2019 Arctic Heart Expedition: Part Four

Life & Death

A caribou taken during a spring hunt in the Brooks Range.

A caribou taken during a spring hunt in the Brooks Range.

Robert Thompson hauls two caribou behind a snowmachine.

Robert Thompson hauls two caribou behind a snowmachine.

Jaw bones from a Bowhead Whale on the coast of the Beaufort Sea.

Jaw bones from a Bowhead Whale on the coast of the Beaufort Sea.

On our first morning in the Arctic, Charly wakes me up early. He leans in the door of my room in his long johns and non-chalantly asks “Wanna see a polar bear?” F@$% yes, I do.

From the kitchen window he points to a cream colored dot moving across the sea ice at the edge of town. I throw on winter clothes, grab a camera with a long lens, and head outside. I have gone from fast asleep to absolutely wide awake in seconds. Seeing a polar bear has been a dream since I was small. From a snow bank on the edge of town I spot the bear laying near the tall wooden snow fence that slows the wind from the east. I snap several frames, wonder about moving closer for a better shot. But before I can fold the legs on the tripod, a snowmobile approaches the bear. Polar Bear Patrol. They are tasked with keeping bears away from town, trying to prevent the increasing likelihood of negative interactions between people and bears as deteriorating sea ice conditions push more of these arctic giants onto land.

Patrol fires a bean bag that startles the bear. He rises and initially starts towards where I’m standing. My right hand goes automatically to the handle of the pistol on my belt, my fingers brushing the grip just to check that it’s there. The other keeps training the camera on the moving bear. The patrol member pursues the bear on a snowmachine, turning him out and away from town toward the barrier islands that separate Kaktovik’s lagoons from the open ocean. The bear disappears beyond the gravel bar into the jumbled, broken ice of the Beaufort Sea. I’m elated.


Day two in the Arctic and I’ve seen a polar bear. Albeit at a large distance. But I got a quick glimpse and somewhere at the end of those tracks is a bear. That’s a place to start. This simple sighting, a relatively common occurrence for those who live here, is the fulfillment of a childhood dream for me. A polar bear in the wild. Among other tasks that day we find time to walk out on the ice, find tracks before they drift in, fresh scat. I take bearings and triangulate a position on my map.

Polar bear tracks in the snow near Kaktovik, Alaska.

Polar bear tracks in the snow near Kaktovik, Alaska.

The next morning I wake on my own. 4:45 am. I dress and head outside; start walking toward where I can pick up tracks from the day before. Before I even get to the mark on my map, I cut a fresh line of paw prints in the snow. Even with a dusting of new flakes and a breeze they haven’t drifted in. These are fresh, less than an hour old by my guess. I follow them back across the sea ice, back to the corner of town. They lead between two buildings and up to the front steps of a small house. And there in the front yard is a man skinning a polar bear. My heart drops.

I try to hide the disappointment on my face. I say hello and ask if I can join him for a little while.


George is gracious and invites me to touch the bear, to watch what he’s doing. I pull off my mittens and kneel in the snow. The bear is still warm, his ears impossibly soft between my fingers. I roll back his thick rubber lips, slide my fingers over his teeth, smell the last fading whisper of his breath. I am trying not to cry.

George is working with a traditional ulu, turning the thick, dark hide back and away from the flesh. Knuckling out the massive paws to keep the huge arching claws attached to the skin. Carefully parsing the tissue that holds the ears to the skull. His wife, Reeanin (this may be a misspelling of her name, if it is I apologize) joins him, working side by side in the early, warm light of the morning. I ask if I can take photos and they both say okay.


They roll the bear to it’s side, slide the knife along the bone and separate the hip at the joint. It’s a young male—three, maybe four years old, and a little more than 8 feet long. While they work George tells me that this bear has been spending more and more time in Kaktovik, particularly here in his yard where town meets the sea. Reeanin tells about the dog it mauled a few weeks ago that miraculously survived after being flown out to the vet. George talks about stepping out to walk their daughters to school and being surprised by the bear laying in their yard when they rounded the corner of the house. This morning, the bear coming up his front steps—exploring the door of their home—is the last straw. He opened the kitchen window and shot it at close range, knocking it down. I realize his gunshot is likely what woke me up.

I can tell he’s choosing his words and stories carefully, gauging my response. He’s waiting now to see how I’ll react. I tell him I understand; tell him honestly that I would do the exact same thing. I try to imagine what it means to be have a bear at the door with small children in the house. I lift the edge of my parka and show him the Smith & Wesson .44 loaded with high-grain hard-cast rounds that I’m carrying in case something exactly like this happens to me. He seems relieved that I’m not upset with him.

George has a right to take a bear if he wants to, and not just in self defense. Provisions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the law that governs the hunting of polar bears, allow for harvest by Alaskan Coastal Natives. But George makes a point to say that this wasn’t hunting. This was done out of necessity. A bear that’s too comfortable around people is dangerous. George and Reeanin have little kids. Something had to be done.

I agree with all this, but there is still grief resting like a stone in the pit of my stomach. A graceful, wild light has been put out. I understand that this is the way of things here. The Arctic is a place where life and death are always walking side by side—wherever you find one, the other is close at hand. This is true in many wild places, but even more so in the far north where human interference has not blunted the knife edge on which survival balances. From top to bottom the food chain is intact; a powerful, beautiful magic that is still often bloody and brutal to observe. And people, though dominant here as they are everywhere around the globe, are not as far removed from that chain as they are in lots of the modern world. Subsistence hunting is a very real part of life in this place and big predators are sometimes taken in legitimate acts of self defense. I know this. But I still can’t set aside a feeling of loss.

I snap a few more photos, thank them for their time, and spend the next half hour walking around town alone. I’ve just taken what will be, to me anyway, the most striking images of my trip, but they’re of something I never wanted to see. What do you do with that? I’m both disappointed in the outcome and humbled to have been there to see it. As a photographer I’m sad to know that the bear I was tracking—along with the chance to get more photos of him alive—is gone, but relieved as a person that no one has been hurt. I’m still trying to sort out exactly how I feel about all of it.

But here’s what I know to be true: polar bears aren’t declining on the Beaufort Sea because George had to shoot one at his door. Polar bears are declining on the Beaufort Sea because millions of people in the United States drive SUVs to soccer practice. That’s obviously a vast over simplification, but you get the point.

It would be easy to blame George, instead—to blame other coastal natives who have harvested polar bear, sometimes in self defense, sometimes as part of a hunting tradition that dates back to the earliest human inhabitants of this continent. I’ve been reluctant to share this set of images for exactly that reason—struggled with how to go about telling a story that is only partly mine because I see how easily it could be misused, misinterpreted. My fear is that someone will paint George as the villain. He is not. I hope, instead, that you see the complicated truth: we are all to blame.

Our failure to address climate change in any meaningful way is causing unprecedented changes in the Arctic—changes that are forcing bears onto land, away from their preferred food sources, and drastically increasing the likelihood of negative interactions with people. That’s our fault. Plain and simple. Much like my previous posts, I’m not trying to point fingers here; my actions contribute to the problem too. But I also want to talk about solutions. Putting our heads in the sand is not a viable option anymore.

The problem is admittedly daunting. And while I won’t pretend to have all the answers, I know that they lie in working with the rest of the world, not against it. The United States needs to return to climate discussions, and not just as a silent sulking presence in the corner. We need to take a leadership role, one befitting of our out-sized role in causing the problem. To do that we need to push aside any politician (would-be or incumbent) who is too dim to understand or too arrogant to recognize the enormous body of scientific evidence outlining the perils of a changing climate and our role in causing it.

Now as time and distance soften the memory of that morning, I’m trying to hold on to that bear; an enduring image of what is at stake if we fail. I bury my bare hand in his coat, his body still warm against my palm. I commit to memory the weight of his massive paw, turn it up with both my hands to see the black pad ringed in brilliant white fur. Brush the ice back from his muzzle where his last breath froze. This is why. This. Remember this. And do everything you can.


2019 Arctic Heart Expedition: Part Three

A Big Land


From Kaktovik we traveled west over land-fast sea ice to the mouth of the Hula-Hula River, then up river across the coastal plain, past the Saddlerochit Mountains and into the foothills of the Brooks Range. Rivers are the highway system of the Arctic. We traveled on the river ice as much as possible, but in a few places water moving over the ice forced us onto land, into the hills, bouncing over frozen tussocks and gravel bars to get back to the next section of good ice. It's rough country.


Two slow, grinding days put us at the place where Old Woman Creek and Old Man Creek meet the Hula Hula River, like perfectly opposite branches on a child's drawing of a tree they reach east and west through the foothills of the mountains. A beautiful spot but still twenty-some miles short of our intended destination at the Schrader Lakes. We set camp in a willow thicket that would be home for the next 6 days.

"This is a land big enough to hide 150,000 caribou," says Robert Thompson, as we pause on the striking, epic flat of the coastal plain. The jagged broken teeth of the Brooks Range punctuated the horizon. The scale of the north slope is incredible. It is immense. And Robert is right. This land is home to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, now estimated at 190,000 animals strong, and there are times when no one knows exactly where they all are.

To be clear, somebody always knows where some of them are. There are radio collared caribou; someone is keeping track. But the herd doesn't necessarily stay together as one contiguous group, in fact they rarely do. Like the rivers here that so easily slip the bonds of their banks and braid their way across the land, the caribou flow from mountain pass to coastal plain and back again, splitting and rejoining their course seemingly at random, constantly moving. Even their mass migration to the calving grounds on the coastal plain is notoriously hard to predict. Over the years, many scientists, photographers, and sight-seers have tried (sometimes at great effort and expense) to plant themselves in front of the oncoming herd and failed.

Despite what the oil companies would have you believe, the coastal plain is absolutely teeming with life. It is not the barren wasteland portrayed to congress by lobbyists and liars, many of whom have never even set foot on the coastal plain. The Gwich’in call it the sacred place from which life comes. In his book "Being Caribou" Karsten Heuer describes the magic of such abundant life as a "thrumming," an almost audible life force constantly surrounding you. Even in April when food is relatively scarce, the snow is webbed with tracks, the coming and going of so many living things drawn one on top of the other in the snow. Ptarmigan. Fox and wolf and wolverine. Caribou and sheep and moose. Grizzly bears. But even impressively big animals are not so easy to find in a massive land.

I'll admit that I am fairly disappointed with the wildlife photos I was able to get during my time in the Arctic. A tiny white dot in a white landscape, the mighty polar bear. A tiny red dot in a white landscape, the sly red fox. A small brown sphere in a white landscape, the elusive shrew. Ptarmigan are everywhere. But there are only so many ptarmigan photos you can take; white dots in a white landscape.


"It's not like the BBC," says Nancy Pfieffer, long-time Alaska resident, author, and wilderness guide. "Clients think they're going to see a pack of wolves taking down a caribou. They don't realize you could spend your whole life up here and never see something like that." I nod along as she says this. Of course. I know what she’s saying is true—knew it well before I even started planning for this trip. But if I'm being completely honest, deep down that's still exactly what I was hoping to see. Or at least something like it: a polar bear with two infant cubs, caribou walking along a ridge top outlined in midnight alpenglow, an arctic fox pouncing into sparkling snow after ground squirrels. I think that's what every photographer is hoping to catch. And I know not everyone gets one of those photos, but somebody gets it, right? Why couldn't it be me?

They say the universe gives you what you need, even if it's not always what you want. It would seem the Arctic vehemently believes that I need more humility, because that's the lesson it handed over and over. On this trip we went from plan A, to plan B, to C and D, and eventually arrived at living in the moment instead. We watched as mechanical issues, and weather, and changing ice shifted our path and plans. In the last days of the trip more water moving over the river ice (fast moving and more than a 18 inches deep in places) would turn us back from reaching another camp and send us back across the coastal plain a day early to avoid more difficult river crossings as more water came down stream. The best laid plans of mice and men, I suppose. It was hard—for me anyway—to let go of thinking we had control. But, in the end, I think that’s exactly why we need wild places.


By definition, wilderness is a place outside of our control. A truly wild place does what it does; keeps doing what it has always done, regardless of our presence. Cycles of life and death continue on uninterrupted by our meddling. We can not cue the caribou and polar bears, tell them when to enter stage left and give us a show. That’s part of the magic: the clear reminder that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. When we put our mark on the land—bend it to our will—we change that balance and the essence of wilderness is gone. It becomes something else. And while that new thing may still be beautiful and interesting it is fundamentally changed. Something is irreplaceable lost.

So, this is what I keep coming back to: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is still truly wild and we can keep it that way. It belongs to us collectively as a nation, a treasure held in common. The Refuge—and this is true for many of our other public lands—was not set aside for future generations to destroy. It was set aside to preserve in perpetuity. It is a place to keep safe, not just for our generation or maybe the next, but for all generations—for all people. It’s a place to see the wild beating heart of this continent, press your hand firmly against it, and feel a pulse. Places like that are increasingly rare. It’s our job—our moral obligation, even—to be good stewards, to pass down something unharmed for our children and the generations to follow. For a long time that concept of stewardship has been part of our national character, part of what it means to be an American. I was raised to believe in a United States that was strong enough to protect and preserve its lands. Have we really become so weak—so desperate and afraid—that we would allow the destruction of every last corner of this great land for the profit of a few? What happened to the home of the brave? I, for one, still believe in a United States that doesn’t bend to cowardice and greed. I believe in an American people who can stand tall and proudly defend our lands from those who would ruin them.

Join me in reminding our politicians that our public lands are not for sale, that we, the owners of those lands, are not considering offers—now or ever. One way to do that right now is to let your representative and senators know that you expect them to support the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act. HR1146 already has 179 co-sponsors in the House and is waiting for introduction to the Senate. This is something easy we can do to protect the future of the refuge and the future of the Arctic as it is today.



Well, I did it. I joined Instagram. Astute readers and close friends will realize this also means I finally got a smart phone. Yes. True story. No worries though, my number is still precisely the same. I fought this smart phone thing for a while, but you know what? It's actually kind of cool. And so is instagram (except that I really don't understand why so many people are posting photos of their nail polish...it's nail polish...I don't get it... are we supposed to be seeing something special about the nail polish...am I missing something?...I'm confused). I'm also really enjoying this hashtagging thing. Apparently it's pretty big with the kids these days. I guess all you do is put the # symbol in front of stuff and people think your witty. Seems easy enough.  Anyway, you can follow me on instagram now as "hiredlens". And make sure to check in every Tuesday to see my new weekly addition to #tuesdaytaxidermy. Can you believe no one had used that already? Weird, huh? Enjoy.

Bones of the Land-Online Gallery

Can't make it all the way up to Ashland to see Bones of the Land in person? No worries. You can see it online right here. Or click on the images below to see a larger version of each print.

Bones of the Land-Reception Today!

Do you like art? Do you like science? Do you like when the two meet and at first it's kind of like an awkward middle school promenade where the boys and girls stand against opposite walls of the gym, but then the music builds and Art and Science come together in a magically beautiful breath-taking dance? Yeah, me too. I like it when that happens, too.

So, great. We'll see you this afternoon at 4 p.m. in the Dexter Library for the opening reception of Bones of the Land.

** PLEASE NOTE: There will not actually be any dancing. That was a metaphor. I'm sorry if it was misleading. There will probably be some cookies though. And you can stand by one of the walls and not talk to anyone if you want to. Totally your call. See you there.

How I name files for optimal work flow.

And why no one should care...at all...ever.

I got an e-mail recently asking how I name files and organize folders to archive my photos. It's not the first time someone's asked about that, and as an avid reader of other photo blogs I've seen a lot of posts about similar things: Name your files to optimize work flow, what's the best program for photo sorting?, how to archive your photos.  Some are helpful, most are not.

Over the years I've found good ways of doing things, and bad ways. I've improved my own process and habits to make my work flow more efficient. I've tried this and that. I'm a big believer in sharing information so when someone asks a questions, I'm happy to share what I do. If you really want to know how I number files in a project folder I can tell you. And you, in turn, can fall asleep and drool on your keyboard. That's fine, but to be honest, no one should care at all about how I or Joe McNally or Annie Liebovitz (do you like I how I lumped myself in with that group, pretty sweet huh? You get to do that when you have your own blog) name files. Ever. And here's why: it doesn't make the photos any better.

At the core of these questions (and a lot of other questions I get about photography) is the the underlying notion that there is a right and wrong way to do it. There is a way all the professionals do it and that's what makes them professionals. Let me reveal the big secret: there is no wrong way.

There is only what works for you. And what doesn't. Figure out the difference and stick with the first one. This applies to all kinds of things. Don't like carrying around all kinds of lighting equipment, get good at shooting ambient. Don't like processing images in photoshop, set your profiles to your style and shoot straight to JPG. Don't like telephoto lenses, shoot everything wide. Astounding images have been made in every way you can imagine, and probably some that you can't. Your file names are not your limiting factor.

Want to get better at photography? My best advice is to spend more time shooting the things that you love to shoot. Become obsessed. Then when you're famous, let your assistant figure out how to organize the files.