Brooks Range Expedition: Alaska 1984

The story of our 1984 journey to Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range of far north Alaska in words and in photographs. Below the story there are many more photographs that you can click on to enlarge and also see photo captions.

“You guys might want to get out of the tent … there’s a Grizzly out here.” Denis Davis startled us out of our perpetual twilight dreams with that simple statement, and we’ve rarely gotten dressed so fast. The Griz was several hundred yards away on the Arctic tundra and was steadily traveling up the treeless valley. If it smelled us–which it probably did given that we had been backpacking for a week–it didn’t stop to check us out or even look our way. For that we were grateful, given that we had no protection in the era before real bear spray.

This two-week backpacking trip in Alaska’s Brooks Range originated in Denis’ Christmas card for 1983, in which he suggested several possible adventure trips for the coming year to a number of his friends. We were the only ones who responded, and we liked the idea of backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was at that time a newly minted national park. 

Karen Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

We began planning for the trip in conjunction with Denis and his wife at the time, Elaine. We needed to carefully consider every aspect of our equipment for weight and usefulness. I needed camera gear, including a 500mm lens for wildlife, a macro lens for wildflowers, and a wide-angle lens for landscapes, plus 25 rolls of Kodachrome film. Tents at the time were limited, and we needed a tent strong enough to withstand possible snow, so we brought the legendary North Face VE-25, a favorite of Mount Everest expeditions, but which weighed 12 pounds! Karen brought a hiking staff that was actually a beaver-chewed stick from the Adirondacks; she had to check it on the cross-country flight because the gate attendant said it looked like a weapon. Our clothing was in the pre-fleece era and included items Karen sewed from Frostline kits. We had jeans, army surplus wool pants, wool shirts and sweaters, long underwear, rain-resistant pants, and Frostline parkas. We also each had an insulated Frostline vest; these would also serve as pillows. Plus stocking caps and Frostline mittens and heavy wool socks for hiking. Water-resistant hiking boots were essential to combat the wet tundra and snow. 

Lee Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

Considering food, we had to keep it light. Karen used our dehydrator to dry all sorts of precooked meals, not all successfully. Dried shredded cheddar cheese was crunchy and tasty, but melted away needed fats. For lunches we ate Pemmican Bars, which were an early protein bar from the 1980s. For breakfast and dinner we cooked on a Svea stove that ran on white gas. Our simple meals included a commercial beef stroganoff, rice and beans and dried cheese and chocolate. Breakfast always included hot drinks: our standing joke on this mosquitoey trip was that when a mosquito would land in the hot chocolate, we would fish it out, but any leftover mosquito legs would just go down the hatch. We lost weight on this trip because our calorie intake couldn’t possibly keep up with our exertions.

At the start of the trip, Lee’s backpack weighed 78 lbs, with Karen’s about 59. Karen had a full bright orange daypack lashed on top of her backpack; she sewed it from a Frostline kit.

After all our preparations, the time for travel came in late July, 1984. We flew from Syracuse, New York to Anchorage, Alaska. There we boarded a flight to Fairbanks, and then a smaller plane to Bettles, a tiny Alaskan bush town on the Koyukuk River. This is where we did our final planning and packing for the trip, with our gear splayed across the runway’s edge. We talked to some guys who were heading into another part of the Brooks Range who had long rifles with them for protection and hunting; we felt quite naked by comparison. But at the time, it was illegal for hikers to carry a gun in a national park, so that wasn’t even a possibility for us.

With our packs finally stuffed, we walked to the office of the bush plane to give them our final itinerary. We were to be dropped off by float plane at a small lake in the western part of Gates of the Arctic National Park, then we would hike for about two weeks and 50 miles through Arctic tundra, following rivers. Our biggest challenge would be a climb over unnamed mountains, hoping we could get to the crest, then down the steep cliffs on the north side. This was all uncertain, because it was possible no human being had ever traveled this route over the mountains and the available topographic map was not detailed enough to confirm cliff locations. This was real, raw wilderness in the extreme. If all went well, we would follow a drainage from the mountains, hiking north until we reached Kurupa Lake, where we would be picked up by float plane.

Dramatic arctic landscape between the Arctic plain and the high summits of the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA

We finally shouldered our heavy packs and walked to the Koyukuk River, where our float plane magic carpet awaited. This was a Canadian-made bush plane, a De Havilland Beaver, that was and is the workhorse of the far north. We took off from the river–our first experience on a float plane–and followed the river west for a ways, with us watching for Moose among the Black Spruce trees along the river. Eventually the pilot left the river and turned the plane north, taking us over turquoise tarns and rugged, sharp peaks where the trees eventually dwindled to none, leaving us over a treeless tundra. We came to a broad opening in the mountains where several lakes shimmered, and one of those was our destination. The pilot descended and made a smooth landing on the lake, then taxied over to the shore. We didn’t even get our feet wet while unloading our gear. After confirming our final meeting point for a rendezvous two weeks later, the pilot taxied into the center of the lake, then took off with a roar, leaving us feeling lonely on the vast tundra. The pilot had been instructed to pick us up at Kurupa Lake, but if we weren’t there, then he would look for us at our drop-off lake in case we couldn’t make it over the mountains.

Two things happened within minutes: we found a distinct fresh Gray Wolf track in the wet soil between tussocks, and mosquitoes descended upon us in Biblical multitudes. We were in the Alaska Wilderness!

After a few minutes of gazing out over the lake, we pulled out our mosquito head nets, shouldered our lead-filled packs, and set out on a two-week journey through one of the wildest places in North America. We consulted our topographic maps, then headed over a ridge that looked down over a long valley stretching toward a line of mountains in the distance. Our route would take us down the valley along an unnamed river past unnamed mountains. 

Our trip took place at the warmest time of year in the Brooks Range, with temperatures hovering above 70°F. At our feet, arctic wildflowers bloomed in profusion–most of them hugging the ground to avoid the drying winds–while along the river Arctic Fireweed was vivid. In this warm weather, the clouds of mosquitoes were legendary. To cope we wore head nets, plus applications of DEET-containing Jungle Juice. Karen had sewn the placket gaps above our sleeve cuffs shut to keep the bugs out. But we discovered that they could still bite through our jeans, so we ended up with a lot of itchy welts. During the first two days of hiking along this long valley, we saw no large charismatic wildlife, so we focused upon cool birds we had never before seen, such as a Wandering Tattler on its nest site, an American Golden-Plover, and a Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch.

We set up our first campsite on the lower flanks of a mountain high above the valley. This was northern Alaska during the height of summer, so the sun barely set, making the inside of our yellow tent look like perpetual dim daylight all through the long night. We thought it might be hard to sleep in these conditions, but we were so worn out from hiking with heavy packs that sleep was not a problem. As we gazed up the valley the next morning we could see where we would camp the next night; an expansive view.

Grizzly Bears were always on our minds, but not enough to keep us from sleeping. Without bear spray and without guns, our defense lay in our numbers–with four of us, that should work as a deterrent against daytime attacks. At night, we needed to protect our food supply from bears, but there was no place on the open tundra to hang our food. Each night we took our packs and placed them together about 100 yards downwind from our tents. Atop the packs we placed our cooking pots with stones in them, so a raid on the packs would alert us with noise. We also had little mesh bags made by Karen containing mothballs that we hoped would cover up the scent of food, or at least serve as a repellent. While hiking, the mothballs were triple bagged to contain the strong fumes.

The next day we hiked further along the river, coming upon a spot where there was enough shade from the mountains that river ice several feet thick had not yet melted; it resembled glacial ice, with its aqua-blue color. Later, we were setting up camp when we heard the blowing and galloping of a mammal coming our way. It was our first Caribou, and it appeared to be running in terror. But nothing was chasing it, and it was possible that there was a parasitic larva called a nosebot driving it crazy. Or maybe it was the ever-present mosquitoes.

The third day out, we left our broad, open valley and began ascending a steeper route into the mountains. This was the drainage we hoped to take over a high pass at the northern crest of the range. As the day wore on, the cloud cover increased and there was a noticeable chill in the air. We set up our tents high in a cirque, with sharp peaks rising around us, then finished our camp chores and wriggled into our sleeping bags. A drizzle began, followed by rain, then silence.

When we awoke the next morning, there was about four inches of fresh snow on the tents. It was cold, and we decided it would be too treacherous to make our climb over the pass in these conditions. So we took a snow day, mostly napping and reading inside our tents, waiting for the weather to pass.

We hiked to a snowy, high, unnamed pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park, in the northern part of the Brooks Range, Alaska, USA [No model release; available for editorial licensing only]

The following morning the weather had again changed, with sunny blue skies appearing between clouds still hanging in. We decided this was our day to face the biggest challenge of the trip, so we loaded up and headed straight up the snowy steep and rocky slope toward the pass. When we reached the pass, the view straight north to the Arctic Plain greeted us. The wind was blowing hard over the pass, so we took shelter against a rock buttress and ate lunch. Then Denis and Lee split up to try to find a safe route down from the pass. Denis went to the east and Lee ascended to the west, each looking carefully at our chances. When we got back together, Denis said his side of the pass was not feasible, but Lee decided we had a good chance of making it if we carefully went in his direction. It involved climbing higher, then going sidehill in snow while hugging a cliff above a steep, snow-covered dropoff. If we went far enough, we would reach a scree slope leading all the way down to the valley at a steep angle.

Lee turned to Karen, who gets nervous with exposed heights, and said “You’re going to have to be brave.” She was, and we carefully inched along the cliff face without mishap, then began our steep descent. The scree slope was snow covered, but we forcefully stuck our legs through the snow to the soft rocky debris (almost like a fine gravel dune) and felt almost entirely safe. When we made it to the bottom, it was with a sense of triumph and relief that the most difficult part of the journey was behind us. We celebrated by making a no bake boxed cheesecake chilled in the snow, and all was right with the world.

The bad weather closed in again the next morning, and we hiked down the length of a lake with wet snowflakes steadily falling. Very briefly the mosquitoes were too chilled to move. The mountains were gleaming with their coat of fresh snow. We climbed out of the valley into some foothills. Then, while eating lunch we saw movement in the distance. Binoculars revealed one of the most amazing sights of our lives: thousands of Caribou traveling across the rocky terrain! We changed our route to intercept the herd and over the following days we watched and photographed them extensively, burning the sight into our memories as well as on film.

We camped that night on a ridge in the path of the Caribou, and all night we could hear the clicking of tendons in their ankles as they walked past our tents. It is a fascinating phenomenon, and apparently it serves to keep herds together as they travel–even in the clouds and fog of the mountains they can hear each other enough to stay together. The Caribou traveled well-worn paths along mountain slopes and through wildflower meadows. There were bull Caribou with huge antlers, as well as females with smaller antlers and young of the year racing around. These were part of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which migrates twice yearly between the calving grounds on the Arctic Plain and the wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. When we saw them, they were gathered together in a huge group, but not yet beginning their fall migration south. Our days among the Caribou were wonderful, as we saw them crossing streams and silhouetted against snowy mountains.

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, migrating through the mountains of Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

On another morning about this time in the trip we saw our first Grizzly Bear; fortunately it didn’t pay us any attention. It was astounding to see how large it was and how prominent was the hump on its back. One advantage of hiking in the tundra is you can see bears from a long way away. We still remember Denis and Elaine talking about being first on the scene of a near-tragedy in Glacier National Park. A family of four had been hiking together when they surprised a Grizzly in the forest. It attacked, and had one child’s head in its gaping mouth when the father jumped on its back. The bear broke the man’s arms but then called off the attack. But enough about scary bear stories. 

Our packs were now a bit lighter from the food we had consumed, and our still-young bodies gained strength as the days wore on. One day Denis proposed we go off on our own and he and Elaine do the same. That sounded good, and we ventured into the Kurupa Hills. Our highlight was seeing a young Dall Sheep lying on the tundra, and later seeing some adults crossing a talus slope. At our campsite we enjoyed watching an Alaska Marmot, though not-so-much an Arctic Ground Squirrel who chewed through one of our plastic water containers. During the second half of the trip we saw Peregrine Falcons, which were truly rare in the lower 48 during the 1980s because of the effects of DDT, as well as a Long-tailed Duck on a tundra pond, and Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers, which flew at us aggressively when we got too close to their nesting grounds.

Hiking further, we approached our destination, Kurupa Lake. Denis didn’t tell us at the time, but later said an early oil prospector’s report described the “herds of Grizzly Bears” at Kurupa Lake. Fortunately, we encountered no herds, but we did see a second Grizzly Bear on the other side of the lake, where it paused to furiously dig up an Arctic Ground Squirrel’s burrow. It is astounding how fast those massive muscles and claws allow a Grizzly to dig. We assumed it got the squirrel. 

We stayed two nights at our last campsite, giving the bush plane plenty of time to retrieve us. While we waited, Karen and Denis both fished, each catching a Lake Trout and observing Arctic Char. Denis released his fish, but Karen was determined to eat ours. So we cleaned the fish and boiled it, tossing the carcass into the lake to reduce the scent. It was good, but the scent from the cooking would have clung to our wool clothing, undoubtedly acting as a lure for a bear. Fortunately we didn’t attract any bears to camp.

There was always a chance the plane would not appear on our pickup date; if fog or other bad weather delayed previous days’ retrievals, people would be picked up in order and they would get to us as soon as possible. We were getting low on white gas and food and speculated that if we were delayed by days we would be eating raw fish.

We were entranced by the whole experience, and Lee could have turned around and stayed in the wilderness for another two weeks if we had the time. Alas, work called and we needed to return. On our last day we needed to pack early and have our gear ready to go. In the afternoon we heard the whine of a plane approaching, and it turned and descended to our lake. The pilot had instructed us to leave a tent up so he could spot us along this large lake. As soon as we knew the pilot had spotted us, the tent was quickly collapsed and we hoisted our packs to trudge down to the shore, then loaded our gear onto the float plane. When we took off, it signaled the end to one of the signature experiences of our lives.

The photographs below show a map of our route, final packing on the runway in Bettles, our flight north through the mountains, and our first moments on the arctic tundra. Click on any of the pictures for a larger view and more information.

As we hiked across the tundra with our heavy packs, the Arctic revealed itself in beautiful wildflowers, distant views, Caribou antlers, fast streams, and campsites with glorious views.

We identified and photographed wildflowers and lichens and ferns that we had never before seen. The tundra plants are short, hugging the ground to stay out of the wind and take advantage of the warmth near the ground; most of the wildflowers are pollinated by flies, since bees are scarce in the Arctic.

When we reached the end of a long valley and several days of warm temperatures, our route next led us into the mountains. After setting up camp, rain turned to snow. After a rest day, we climbed steeply up into the mountains, not knowing if we could cross the range here. It turned out that we could, although there were challenges of negotiating ice and snow and a steep scree slope.

After the steep mountain crossing we hiked down a long valley in rain and snow, passing alpine lakes and crossing a stream. Here our wildlife sightings began in earnest, with Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and birds we had never seen before. Seeing thousands of Caribou was a highlight of our lives.

After all our time in the wildest wilderness we had ever experienced, it was time for a float plane to pick us up at Kurupa Lake on the north side of Gates of the Arctic National Park. We arrived two days early and spent the extra time fishing and hiking. Alas, we heard the plane overhead and quickly packed up, ending one of the premier adventures of our lives.

Wilderness and adventure in far off places would lure us to distant locations and backpacking trips during the ensuing decades, but nothing would be quite the challenge as this trip to the Brooks Range. Looking back now, nearly four decades later, we both think of it as a highlight of our lives.

To see more of the work of Lee Rentz, go to http://leerentz.com.

Exploring the stunning formations of WHITE POCKET

Twisting and swirling, the red rock follows the random paths of a wild dream, then skirts a dome of white Navajo Sandstone cracked into nearly perfect polygonal plates, enchanting under a perfect sapphire sky. All of it originated 190 million years ago with a Jurassic sand dune that became saturated with groundwater, then experienced a sudden disruption–perhaps by an earthquake–that suddenly contorted the whole wet jumble while it had been hardening into sandstone. Incredible beauty resulted from this chaos.

Our time is short for exploring before the short period of golden light near sunset, so we walk around quickly to get a feeling for the whole area, which is about a square mile in size. An outfitter got us here and we have about 20 hours from mid-afternoon today to mid-morning the next day to explore and photograph before we have to leave. We are on our own, except that the outfitter provides dinner, a tent, and breakfast the next morning. The reason we came with a touring company is that we don’t have a rugged 4-WD vehicle to get us through the March mud quagmires and deep sand traps along the access roads. A tow out would cost $2,000 and is not covered by AAA. So here we are.

I once worked for the Bureau of Land Management on the Arizona Strip, a part of Arizona between the Grand Canyon and the Utah state line. This is an arid landscape that includes pockets of incredible beauty, such as Paria Canyon, The Wave, and White Pocket. When I was there with BLM in 1977, I was working as a writer and pen-and-ink illustrator for a book of wildflowers (still in print 43 years later!), but White Pocket was virtually unknown at the time, except for some ranchers and probably a handful of government employees. I certainly didn’t know about it and even if I did, my big Chrysler at the time couldn’t have dreamed of getting there. The name White Pocket originated from the desert term “pocket” which referred to a rock depression that can hold water–an important feature for cattle ranching and desert travelers. At that time the world hadn’t yet discovered much of the stunning beauty of red rock country. While at BLM, I heard the geologist for our district remark to my boss that he thought it was better in the desert when it was all considered a wasteland, and environmental regulations didn’t need to be followed. Fortunately, times have changed.

We spend the hours before dark exploring and photographing in great light, then walk back to camp for a meal of barbecued salmon or chicken or steak (another value in contracting with an outfitter!), then we venture back out into the contorted lands for hours of night photography. We return to camp sometime after midnight, then get up at 4 a.m. for dawn photography, so not much sleep. We stay until afternoon, delayed for a couple of hours by a vehicle problem, and we don’t mind the delay in the least, because it gives us more time to explore this place torn from time.

The photographs here give the visual story of White Pocket, which is the most stunning desert location we have visited.

Navajo Sandstone formations of White Pocket
A dome of Navajo Sandstone shaped like cauliflower, cracked into polygons
Layered sandstone formations in White Pocket
Sculptured and striated Navajo Sandstone formations of White Pocket
A polygon of Navajo Sandstone with etchings in the shapes of lichens, the etchings created by acids from the fungal hyphae of the lichens that dissolve rock to obtain nutrients
A closeup view of the lichen etchings, created when living Tile Lichens, Lecidiea tessellata, dissolve rock using acids
Sculptured and striated Navajo Sandstone at White Pocket
Karen Rentz exploring a once-inhabited cave at White Pocket
Ancient corncobs, potsherds, and animal bones left in the cave by early inhabitants at White Pocket, probably over 800 years ago. Remember that it is against the law to remove anything from federal lands!
Bighorn Sheep and Elk or Mule Deer Petroglyphs made by ancient peoples at the cave in White Pocket
Hiker’s shadow crossing sculptured and striated Navajo Sandstone
The golden hour light just before sunset is particularly stunning on these formations
Karen Rentz illuminating a cauliflower rock formation in White Pocket with her headlamp
Starry sky above the Navajo Sandstone formations of White Pocket
We illuminate the rock formations with a headlamp
As the night wore on, the Milky Way above White Pocket is the brightest I’ve ever seen
The next morning, photographers are out before dawn to explore the formations
First light is magical
Sunlight descending upon the Navajo Sandstone formations
Early light on a Pinyon Pine heroically growing in a crack in a sandstone dome
Reflections of Navajo Sandstone on a pond at White Pocket
Swirling and sculpted sandstone formations; this photograph gives a good sense of the whole area
The natural designs of these formations, originating in the Jurassic world, is astounding
There is little evidence of human use here, except for an old cattleman’s barbed wire fence and the damming of the pond to make it larger
The oranges and reds of the sandstone are colored by iron oxide
A stunning chaos of sandstone
All good things must pass, and we must say goodbye as a cirrus cloud appears over a sandstone dome

Rather than give you directions and maps and more cautions, I will refer you to three good websites that cover all that information. Be advised that there have been discussions at the Bureau of Land Management about requiring a permit so the area does not become overused, so make sure you check with them about current rules and regulations (and road conditions) before you attempt traveling to White Pocket.

The American Southwest–White Pocket

BLM: White Pocket Trailhead

Dreamland Safari Tours

My work appears on my photography website: leerentz.com and on my Facebook page: Lee Rentz Photography

ADVENTURING TO A NEWFOUNDLAND OUTPORT

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm

The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.

View of Bay In Burgeo, Newfoundland
View of colorful houses across rocky bay from Sandbanks Provincial Park in Burgeo, Newfoundland

We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.

Karen Rentz on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz on ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo, Newfoundland, Canada

Captain on Bridge of the Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoun
Captain steering Ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo

Passenger Cabin on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Passenger cabin interior on ferry Marine Voyager

There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there. 

Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.

Houses in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Waterfront with floating pancake ice at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager

The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.

Structures in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Unloading and transporting cargo at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager

ATV Transporting Cargo from Ferry to Store in the Outport of Gre
Transporting cargo from dock to store by ATV at the outport of Grey River

Waterfront and Sea Ice in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundlan
Waterfront with glaze of sea ice at the outport of Grey River

We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.

Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached the outport village of Francois

Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in the outport village of Francois, transportation of cargo by snowmobile and ATV

Karen Rentz in Snowstorm in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz in snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached Francois

Snowstorm and Ferry in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in Francois

We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois

Wooden Sidewalk in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Wooden community sidewalk in Francois, a place with no roads

Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois

Colorful Houses and Stages in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Colorful houses and stages along the fjord containing Francois

Public Outhouse in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Public outhouse in Francois, with the slogan “I take crap from everyone!”

Shed with Moose Antlers in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Shed with Moose and Caribou antlers in Francois

FIshing Stage in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing stage window with fishing ropes coiled inside along waterfront in Francois

Cleat and Rope for Docking in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Cleat and rope for docking in Francois

We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.

As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.

Fisherman in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundland
Cody, a fisherman who has lived his whole life in Francois, and now owns his own boat harvesting scallops, lobster, crabs, and sea cucumbers

Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois

Fishing Gear in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Fishing gear on a boat in Francois

Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois

Fishing Boat in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Red building with firewood, crab traps, and a high birdhouse

Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois

Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm

Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operator transporting stuff on a trailer on the wooden sidewalk in Francois

Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois

Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Old fishing stage in Francois, where gear is kept, bait prepared, and fish cleaned

 Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year! 

A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.

Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operators meeting on the wooden sidewalk in Francois

Sharons Place and Snowmobiles in Francois Outport during a Snows
Sharon’s Place, a general store, liquor store, and gathering place, with snowmobiles in Francois

Sign on Public School in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Sign on St. Simon-St. Jude Academy, the public school, saying “A Clean Town is a Happy Town”

As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.

We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.

Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm

Fishing Stage and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a Sn
Fishing stage and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois

Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing stage, where gear is kept and equipment maintained and bait prepared

Fishing Boats in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing boat in Francois during a snowstorm

Crab Post and Stage  in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Crab pots and boat on a dock in Francois

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.

I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight along a fjord with mountain towering above

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois, at blue hour twilight with lights reflecting off the fjord

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Colorful homes in Francois

There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.

Francois Bay in Early Morning from the Ferry Marine Voyager in N
Francois Bay in early morning from the ferry Marine Voyager, after leaving the quaint outport of Francois in Newfoundland

Newfoundland, Canada
Francois Bay in morning light

West Point Light Tower at Mouth of Francois Bay in Newfoundland
West Point Light Tower at mouth of Francois Bay viewed in winter morning light from the ferry Marine Voyager

Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland

Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland

Waves from Ferry in Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newfo
Waves from ferry Marine Voyager distorting mountain reflections in the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River

Colorful Houses and Sea Ice at the Grey River Outport in Newfoun
Ferry Marine Voyager passing the colorful houses and sea ice at the outport of Grey River

Ferry at Entrance to Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newf
Ferry Marine Voyager passing mouth of the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River

Bridge of Ferry Marine Voyager Plying South Coast of Newfoundlan
Bridge and wheel on Ferry Marine Voyager near Burgeo

The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.

Ferry Passing Colorful Houses at Burgeo, Newfoundland
Arriving in Burgeo from Francois and Grey River outports in Newfoundland, Canada

To view more of the photographic work by Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com, where you can see thousands of photographs and purchase a special one for your walls.

SPOOKY REST AREAS LATE AT NIGHT

Crossing_America_December-94

After miles of drizzle and fog on an early December night, I needed to stop for a break. A blue rest area sign caught my headlights, and I decided to pull over two miles ahead. Rolling to a stop in front of the restroom building with only one other car visible, I scanned the grounds for potential trouble, then got out of the car, carefully locked it, and went inside. All was quiet, and nothing untoward happened.

Tree Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter Landscape in MichiganI took the photographs in this weblog post in three different rest areas during the winter of 2014/2015.

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Plains Indian Tipi Motif in a South Dakota Rest Area

For me, visits to highway rest areas are often like that: a little spooky and unsettlling, especially late at night. When I leave the comfort zone of my vehicle I make myself more vulnerable, but usually the short stop is uneventful and barely registers in my memories. It is worth remembering, however, that danger can sometimes lurk in quiet and remote places.

Shortly after I drove through Minnesota on my way to Michigan, I read a news story about a young man from Washington State who had been murdered execution-style around midnight by another man from the same state–in Minnesota’s Elm Creek Safety Rest Area. Someone reported the murder, and a red SUV speeding away from the rest area. That led to a 115 mph chase in which the suspect was shot and killed by police after crashing his vehicle in the median and emerging with a gun. Since both men were dead, the circumstances and motives were unknown. Apparently my apprehension about stopping at night is justified …

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Tree Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter Landscape in Michigan

While lying in bed this morning and thinking about writing this weblog post, I remembered a story from long ago. It seems that two guys I knew in grade school and junior high had moved to the Boston area and were working in a camera store. According to the news accounts, they forced a coworker to accompany them to a rest area, where they robbed him and stabbed him to death. I had repressed this memory for decades until I started writing this story, then it popped into my mind like a nightmare. The thing was, I could understand how one of the boys could end up as a killer, because he had always been a mean little snot, but the other kid was just a sweet, normal boy who apparently followed the other into a life of horror.

Plains Indian Tipi Motif in a South Dakota Rest Area

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Tree Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter Landscape in Michigan

Those stories and others like them feed the fear factor in my brain, but they also gave me some of the inspiration for this series of photographs. These pictures can be seen as beautiful in their own right, but they also have an edge of spookiness that is appropriate for the subject.

Crossing_America_December-125

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Crossing_America_December-43

Signs and Parking Lot in Rest Area along Interstate 90 in South

Tree and Photographer Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter LandscapeAnd if you see a photographer late at night in a rest area, please let him quietly go about his work. He really doesn’t want to talk to strangers at midnight.

Crossing_America_December-120

Crossing_America_December-114

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

PHOTOGRAPHING A BELTED KINGFISHER: A New Technology in Bird Photography

FINAL BELTED KINGFISHER

With a flurry of dry rattling calls, two Belted Kingfishers appeared to be battling over the shore of our little lake on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, flying back and forth, back and forth, chasing one another. This goes on late every autumn; I assumed it was a territorial battle, but perhaps it is a mating ritual. Ever since I observed this behavior, I’ve wanted to photograph these fascinating birds. Actually, I’ve enjoyed seeing them since first watching kingfishers from my family’s cabin along the Muskegon River in Michigan.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Belted Kingfishers mostly eat fish, as the name implies. An individual can sit on a high perch, glaring at the water surface below, looking for a fish. If it sees a small fish below, if will instantly leave the perch, fold its wings, and dive head-first into the water with just a small splash. This is often a successful fishing technique. Alternatively, the kingfisher can hover above the water, then dive from the hovering spot. I think they can do their rattling call while diving, so I can only assume the fish can’t hear it or that it petrifies the prey like rebel yells or bagpipes were purported to scare enemy soldiers.

Kingfishers nest in burrows dug into high banks along rivers, lakes, or the ocean. I have seen a couple of nest holes that I believe were made by kingfishers here in the Puget Sound region, but I’ve never photographed a kingfisher near its nesting hole. After exiting the nest, the parents stay with the kids and teach them to fish. A parent can teach a youngster to fish by dropping dead fish onto the water surface; apparently kingfishers know a birdy variant of the old proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Every autumn and winter the kingfishers come to Fawn Lake; they are here occasionally year-round, but I’ve learned to expect them especially during the November through January period. Their appearance has been reliable enough that several years ago I set up a curving branch attached to our dock so that the kingfishers would have a place to perch. More to the point: I would have a place to potentially photograph them.

Time went by, and a couple of times each year I would notice that a kingfisher was indeed using my branch, but it happened so rarely that I could not commit the time to working in a blind down on the lakeshore. It might have been weeks and weeks of waiting; I’m a patient man, but not THAT patient.

Other birds also used the perch. I’ve had Wood Ducks, Violet-green Swallows, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bald Eagle perched there, but again not long enough or frequently enough that I could justify the time of sitting in a blind.

In the last few months, things changed. Starting in December, a male kingfisher came and sat on the perch almost every morning. It became a ritual for me each morning, as soon as it got light enough to see down to the lake, to check if the kingfisher was sitting there, and it often was.

The first couple of weeks of perching were rainy, then we had a long, dry stretch that gave me a chance to check out some new technology in the form of a CamRanger. This little electronic device attaches to the camera’s USB port and sets up a wifi network. When I set my Canon camera on “Live View,” I can view what the camera sees right on the screen of my Mac laptop.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe Belted Kingfisher has a thin head from the front view, shaped almost like a hatchet to enable it to cleanly cleave the water surface. From the front, the head looks disproportionately small for the body.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleFrom the side view, the head appears unusually large in proportion to the body

The CamRanger is not just a dumb box transmitting an image; the CamRanger software also allows me to control several important aspects of the camera. I can focus remotely, as well as change the exposure and ISO, so it is almost as good as being in a blind–though not quite, since I don’t have a motorized tripod head that would enable me to remotely change the composition. The best quality motorized tripod head would cost about $9,000, so I think I’ll hold off on that purchase.

Early one morning, after I had tested the technology, I set up a tripod and carefully composed the view through a long telephoto lens. I tested the CamRanger and found that it was working, then waited. Within a few minutes, the kingfisher showed up and I was able to photograph it remotely using my computer mouse as a shutter release. The first images were stunning!

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleOne of the first photographs I took using the CamRanger

Each day, for the next couple of weeks, I dutifully set up the camera and CamRanger, but with less success than I had the first day. I found that the camera battery only lasted about two hours when working in the Live View mode. Worse, the CamRanger would shut off frequently, especially when the weather was foggy (if it was crystal clear, the unit was more likely to stay on). When this happened, I could reboot the software remotely, so it wasn’t a big problem. I also found that the location of the laptop was important. I tried to use the laptop from the comfort of a leather sofa in the living room, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. I found that I had to go downstairs to my daylight basement, and there it worked far better if I had the laptop elevated, sitting right in the doorway, with the glass door open. It required frequent attention, and keeping the door open. I was prepared that as soon as I saw a kingfisher from inside the house, I would run downstairs to try and take a photograph.

One day, after I had set up, I went downstairs to check on the computer after the door had been open for a while. While I was looking out and down to the lake, a black-and-white mammal ran between my legs and out the open door. It had come in while I was upstairs. We have no pets, and I hope beyond hope that it was a cat rather than a skunk!

Persistence eventually paid off, and one morning almost immediately after I set up, the kingfisher appeared. I ran down the stairs and saw the image on my computer screen. I proceeded to take over 60 photographs as it modelled for the camera, turning its head this way and that, sometimes looking up, other times looking down into the lake. It was magical.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe end of a yawn with its bill closing

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleTiny water drops spraying out in an arc when the kingfisher instantly turns its head

Those were the last pictures I got this year, as the kingfisher has apparently moved on. Twice, during the period when I was watching, but not photographing, it came to the branch with a small fish. Each time, it perched for perhaps five minutes with the fish in its bill, perhaps waiting for the fish to die before downing it. I didn’t capture that behavior; perhaps next winter I’ll have another chance.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

If your are interested in remote photography using the technology described here, go to CamRanger.

The Old West Lingers on in the Oregon Outback

 

 

Cow skull decorates front of Frenchglen Mercantile, OregonAn old cow skull and handmade chair on the porch of the Frenchglen Mercantile

 

“Next gasoline 99 miles,” read the sign just east of Bend, Oregon.  We were on a late April trip to eastern Oregon, land of high desert and vast, sagebrush-covered distances.  There used to be several mom-and-pop gas stations along this straight stretch from yuppie Bend to cowboy Burns, 

remote oregon outbackbut these places now sport broken windows and tumbleweeds.  Just the kinds of places that Americans think of when we imagine Route 66.

 

Driving past the road to the Pine Mountain Observatory; it’s the wrong time of day to stop for sky-watching.  Passing Glass Mountain, a mountain of shiny obsidian (black volcanic glass); someday we’ll stop, but our time is limited.  A quick stop to check out the restored buildings in the historic Civilian Conservation Corps at Gap Camp Ranch, where young men labored under the hot sun and into hope.  

 

Into Burns, a small town of ranchers and loggers hit hard by the timber wars of the 1990s, that left mills without enough logs from public land to stay open.  Burns is the place to fill up with gas and groceries for the push into even more remote country.  I stop here for some quick photos of signs and an abandoned motel.  Then we push on for another 60 miles without a town along the route.

 

We pulled into Frenchglen (population 11) as twilight approached.  This town was named for Peter French, a cattle baron of the late 19th century who controlled most

 

The streetscape of Frenchglen, Oregon 

of the land in the vast valley of the Donner und Blitzen River.  He left his mark on the land with scattered ranch outposts and a spectacular round barn in the middle of nowhere.  Alas, in old West tradition, he was murdered by an outlaw.

 

Frenchglen is tiny.  There is a K-8 school that draws kids from the surrounding ranches.  Eleven of them, as counted in a photo from the Frenchglen school website, but a more recent article pegs the number at 14.  Just imagine, in our world of vast suburban sprawl, that this directOuthouse at Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site descendent of the one-room schoolhouse still exists!  And how different the education of these children must be.

 

Across the road, the Frenchglen Mercantile stands tidy … and empty.  As does the house next door where I believe the owner used to live.  A sign on the window of the store says you can still get gas here if you place a phone call to a nearby resident:  $40 minimum plus a $2.50 service fee; cash only, please.  I imagine this recession and high gas prices and the increasingly urban interests of our society made life difficult for the owner of this little store.

 

Just down the road is the Frenchglen Hotel, which is actually a state historic site that still offers lodging to folks passing through.  As of 2008, the price for a room was $67.  There is a colorful true story about the hotel’s manager from 1948 to 1974.  One night, after a few drinks, Kenny Pruitt decided that he needed to remove his own appendix and did some self-surgery.  It didn’t have a good outcome, as you might guess.  Read more about Pruitt and the colorful history of theFrenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen, Oregon hotel in an article by Richard Cockle at The Oregonian.

 

We drove on a couple more miles to our destination, the pleasant Page Springs Campground operated by the Bureau of Land Management.  This camp sits at the base of Steens Mountain, accessible by road in the summer but certainly not in April, when snow still blankets the nearly 10,000 foot peak.  We set up camp and crawled into our sleeping bags after I tinkered with a few night photos in camp.  

 

We awoke just after dawn, to a temperature of 22 degrees F.  You might think late April in the desert would be relatively warm, but this is high desert.  The campground is at a 4,200 foot elevation, so nights here can be cold until summer

 

Hereford cow and calf 

arrives.  From here, we spent three intense days visiting a Greater Sage Grouse lek, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the Diamond Craters volcanic area.  I’ll describe these in detail in another post, but one more note about the settlements of the area.  The next day we visited the hamlet of Diamond, which sports two signs:  one says “Population 5,” and the other says “Congestion,” seemingly with a straight face.

 

Highway 205 centerline in the Oregon high desertHighway cut through a rock outcrop near Frenchglen

 

 

Cattle trails on range near Burns, OregonCattle trails on rangeland near Burns

 

Central Hotel BurnsThe classic Central Hotel sign in Burns has Art Deco touches

 

 

Western Juniper and stars near Malheur Refuge, OregonWestern Juniper in our campsite with a dazzling starry sky above

 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.