Something New!

How a trek to the wide-open landscapes and extreme wilderness of Alaska led to a creative recharge for Marc Muench

Marc Muench was able to find plenty of “dramascapes” on a recent trip to Alaska. The gargantuan state is home to an exciting variety of wildlife, terrain and weather, which, of course, makes it a plentiful paradise for nature photographers. Over the course of several days, Muench and his companions boated, hiked and even crawled when necessary, capturing bald eagles, brown bears and numerous expansive, and occasionally treacherous, scenics. “To cross the glaciers in the high country of Baranof Island,” explains Muench, “you need reasonable visibility or you may become disoriented and wander off-course or even into a crevasse.”

I know some chase an adrenaline rush by running marathons, sky diving or extreme skiing, but one subtle way to attain that euphoric high is by first sightings of what I call “dramascapes.” There may not be the life-threatening aspect to it, nor quite as much actual adrenaline, but the experience is every bit as gratifying—especially when you’re a photographer, capturing the moment.

Devil’s club and blueberries were everywhere, granite cliffs towering up into the misty clouds, looking like scenes out of the movie The Lord of the Rings. Alder bushes surrounded ancient Sitka spruce and moss draped large boulders the size of houses, with brown bear tracks worn into the forest floor. Baranof Island is part of the Alaska Panhandle, one of hundreds of islands creating a maze of waterways and glaciated mountain ranges that extend over 31,138 square miles from Yakutat to Ketchikan in southeastern Alaska. The small town of Sitka is situated on the western shore sandwiched between glaciated mountains and a volcano named Mount Edgecumbe. At the suggestion of a good friend, Dan Evans, I booked tickets on Alaska Air for myself and my two sons, with whom I was looking forward to spending time in the bush. In addition to visiting Dan and his wife Janet, I was anticipating a great photographic experience, as Dan is also a professional photographer who has published several books on his hometown and is always eager to get out and shoot in his backyard.

My sons Trevor and Connor wanted to partake in the adventure of hiking across Baranof Island, and the man for guiding treks across the island is Dan, otherwise known as “Sitka Dan” by the Coast Guard. Dan trains young cadets by taking them across the island. At the age of 18, he visited Sitka and never left. He married Janet, and his son Logan is a pilot for Horizon Air. I met Dan while teaching a photo workshop years ago, and when he began explaining his backyard, I immediately knew I had to visit. We became friends, and I’ve been to Sitka several times since, but I had never crossed the island on foot! This type of excursion is exactly what I live for, and in addition to Janet, the reason Dan had moved to Sitka in the first place.

I’ve been in and around landscape photography my entire life. What I’ve learned from my experience is that to keep my creative juices flowing, something new is always good. There are many reasons for revisiting my favorite places and reworking something familiar, if not for solving a compositional puzzle, than just for better light. Having said that, the anticipation of experiencing something not only new to my eyes, but that never has been photographed before, becomes intoxicating.

A short boat ride to the beginning of the hike located near a fish hatchery went by quickly as we were enthralled by the sight of bald eagles, breaching salmon and feeding humpback whales along the way. It was bad light for photography, and we were focused on our task, which was a rather grueling hike up 2,000 vertical feet and six miles with little to no trail and heavy rain. Our plan was to leave Dan’s boat at the hatchery, cross the island on foot in three days and charter a float plane back to Sitka.

Much of the way consisted of crawling through shrubs and under fallen logs, and we made our intended first camp soaked to the bone and instantly started a fire to dry as much clothing as we could. Starting a fire with wet wood is always fun. With a bit of warmth and some hot freeze-dried food in our bellies, we dived into our tents.

Just before dawn, I noticed the clouds had partially cleared, so I grabbed my camera and headed off to photograph the nearby lake. Neva followed, as if she felt the inalienable responsibility to be my guardian. Neva is Dan’s six-year-old female yellow Labrador, who has been across the island several times, scaled Mount Edgecumbe and swam with humpback whales. Even though Dan was reluctant to bring her, it was easy to see that she was at home in this country, always alert to brown bears, one of the main reasons why Dan brought her. About a half-hour later, while fully engaged in composing a photo, I heard the unmistakable sound of a snorting grizzly. Neva and I hadn’t been making enough noise so the bear had noticed us first, probably catching a scent of Neva. I stayed still for a bit, and once I could see that the bear was headed off to my left, I realized he was mostly interested in crossing the island in the opposite direction as we were going. He made his way around the other side of the lake and vanished.

We had taken our time in the morning with the hopes of drying out the wet tents and clothes and waiting to see what the clouds were going to do. After eating some oatmeal, Dan made the final decision not to cross the island. Low clouds had been playing around the peaks for two days, and we were actually following three days of heavy rain. To cross the glaciers in the high country of Baranof Island, you need reasonable visibility or you may become disoriented and wander off-course or even into a crevasse. Plan B was forming as we finished packing up. With the incentive of linking up some terrain Dan hadn’t explored (which is saying something since Dan has been on just about every mountaintop on the island), we left the small lake where we had spent a cold and damp night under a dark layer of clouds.

A hiker against the Alaskan backdrop is a particularly good representation of scale for America’s largest state.

My boys really didn’t mind missing out on the original plan as they were pleased just to be exploring terrain that was wild, wet and something none of us was familiar with. Dan was fairly certain the ridge wouldn’t cliff out, but having not hiked it before, we only had the topo to read. For the first 1,000 vertical feet, the terrain was the perfect mix of rolling steep tundra and granite cliffs that were spaced in such a way that made for “high-country strolling,” my favorite pastime!

We were all wearing boots with MICROspikes, which are similar to a crampon and make it much simpler to grip the steep, boggy soil. The clouds broke and then dropped as quickly, as Neva ran circles around all of us.

I was primarily interested in photographing something new that challenged me creatively and forced me to see things with fresh eyes. This was definitely the place. We weren’t doing anything crazy, hard or extreme, but we were starting out on a path that was used maybe once a year, then when the weather doomed our original plans, we veered off-course onto a ridge that may have seen a handful of visitors ever. With little hope for improving weather, we stubbornly set out with visions of staying wet for days and only breaking out the cameras when we could find moments of little or no rain. What occurred that day couldn’t have been better. Very little rain fell; the clouds danced on the mountaintops and occasionally surrounded us in a fog. But when breaks appeared, the vistas were otherworldly. There were so many compositions, I called it Foreground Ridge!

We walked and climbed, climbed, then strolled, stopped to take some pictures, then walked some more. Everyone was enjoying themselves as if we were all in an IMAX theater watching a cinematic epic for 24 hours. I had carried a Nikon D800 with my favorite lenses, an 18mm Zeiss and a Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/4, plus a Really Right Stuff Series 1 tripod. The camera equipment made my pack 40 pounds instead of the 30-pound limit Dan normally suggests. Trevor was using my Panasonic Lumix GH2, and Connor was equipped with his iPhone and an extra battery.

Whenever I’m in a situation where too much is happening around me to possibly capture everything, I have to go into a graphic mind-set. This is when I do everything I can to only view what’s occurring in a perceptive two-dimensional space. Oftentimes, the drama of the light, subject and mood is such that this becomes almost impossible, especially when there are others you want to share the moment with. Just when I thought nothing would pull my attention from what I was composing, my son told me to look up at the skyline ridge. On the summit of a nearby peak was a mountain goat. It wasn’t that unusual, as we had been watching the goats wander the steep slopes for miles around us most of the afternoon. But this guy was standing perfectly still facing the sunset, as if he was celebrating it. Both Trevor and I were thinking the exact same thought; the goat was enjoying the sunset!

When the fog cleared and the sun set, we were elated, but when the full moon popped up over the highest point on Baranof Island, we lost control. I had been so immersed in photographing the fog and pink light on the mountains that I had forgotten about the full moon. I could hear Dan from about a mile away photographing on his own mountaintop. The whoop was unmistakable!

Glaciated peaks as far as the eye can see, pristine lakes reflecting crystal-clear water, fog dancing and a full moon all blended together to create some of the largest goose bumps of my life. I’m not sure what I would have thought had the clouds stayed thick and we never had the sunset/moonrise, but if all I had from that hike was the memories of strolling along in the high country with my two sons and a good friend, that would have been enough. Having the additional drama was lucky—because of our enthusiasm for seeing something new, we were able to enjoy it thoroughly.

Go to to see more of Marc Muench‘s work and learn more about his workshops.