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Alaska

I don’t know what is it about Polar bears, but feel they represent the true essence of nature: they are beautiful, they are strong, they are brutal and yet they are delicate.

There is no other animal, anywhere, that has had such an impact on me when face to face with it. So today, before you go crazy on the weekend and spend a fortune on gin tonics, I’d like you to visit: Polars Bears International and check it out. You can donate, buy gifts or adopt.

We are destroying the ice sheet and soon there will be nothing but water where there was ice. Soon there will be no life where there were polar bears.

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Being from an island myself, when told we were heading to Barter Island, I did not know what to expect. In my mind an island belongs in the tropics. This was the final stop on our Alaskan journey and I was tired and anxious. But the idea of approaching a polar bear kept me excited and full of expectations. So far, the trip had already exceeded my expectations: got my grizzlies, snowy owl, arctic fox, bald eagle, humpback whale, sea otter, black-capped chickadees, black-billed magpies, spruce grouse, puffins, wolves… what else could a guy ask for? But my uncle had designed the perfect trip and Kaktovik would turn out to be the highlight of the 10 day adventure.  We landed on a dirt airstrip. Similar to Barrow but a lot more desolated, Kaktovic is a village with barely over 300 habitants and a lot more charming than it’s big sister. We were driven in a school bus to Waldo Arms, the comfiest, weirdest place we met on the whole trip. Located in another place, it would be a dump, but in Kaktovik, it’s charming, energetic and just plain cool. The cooks (I forgot their names) are pretty awesome and could put together anything you want as long as they have it. Keep in mind that Waldo Arms is in the end of the world and any supplies has to fly a long way to get there, hence everything is a bit pricy. We got extremely luck and got assigned Steven Kazlowski as a tour guide. Besides being an amazing photographer, Steven is a very welcoming, approachable guy and made our trip amazing. We got even luckier when we found out that there were two bow whale carcasses in a beach 8 minutes away and polar bears were all over the place… over 30 of them.

After a quick lunch we drove to the site and got some amazing shots from the bus. As you all know, polar bears are the largest carnivore on land, so we were not allowed out of the vehicle when they were close. After a nice session we then jumped into zodiacs and approached them on the other side of the island. This experience was incredible! To be so close to them, to see this amazing animal and photograph it was just a lot more than I had dreamt. The younger ones were very playful and at one point one of them attempted to climb on one of the boats. The light was not good… it’s was cloudy and foggy so the magic of the sun over their fur was lost, but still some good images were achieved. We went back to he carcass site at night for another session and even spotted a grizzly munching away  around 5am. Next morning, with everything already packed, bags already in the truck, we decided to go again to the site for a quick last chance to see the bear. We got a special treat. Mamma bear and cubs walked slowly and gave us a great show.

My last night in Alaska turned out to be my best night in Alaska. There was a sense of being on a refuge more than in a hotel, a sense of constant readiness if you will. I slept with the camera by my side. I met very cool and knowledgeable people. I shot some nice photos…This is a place I will go back eventually. There is no doubt in my mind. This was the adventure I was looking for.

For more photos of my Alaska Odyssey click here.

No place, and I mean no place, has ever been able to impact me in such a way like the Alaskan arctic.  It just blew up inside my head… my soul. The way the horizon extends forever without a natural vertical element in it. Barrow is not a pretty place, at least not in September. There is no snow to cover things up and mud is king. Everything is dirty, rusted, dusted and plain ugly. Streets are dirt roads. Houses are piles of junk over wood poles. Old toys lay everywhere along with damp construction materials and trash. No need to say, my first impression was not good.

We arrived around 5:00pm and checked in at the Top of the World hotel. A modest clean-enough building that reminded me more of North Korea than United States.; we had time-traveled to 1971. A dissected polar bear stood fearless in a glass box, a couple extremely over priced vending machines next to a small gift shop and long hallways all conveyed in the lobby as a welcome committee.

My goal from this visit was capturing shots of snowy owls. Besides my obsession with owls, the Uppik, the arctic owl, has always been a favorite. And for the first time I was setting foot in their habitat. We took a tour around town and I briefly spotted I few but without the time to really set on a photographic journey. The tour went on and the powerful impact of this place started to grow on me. I saw past the buildings and the trash and found people that are true to human nature. Intelligence had another meaning to this people. You had to know how to hunt to be smart. You had to hunt to survive. You had to be good at hunting to be attractive to a possible mate. But Barrow is not a small village in Inuit standards. With just over 4,000 habitants, Barrow has a few big corporations in town, but the essence of the Inuit, lays on their connection to animals. Having no trees and no agriculture, animals are their only source of food. Bow whale skulls lay everywhere: outside the school, in the gift shop, the beach… bow whales are the center of this human-beast connection. Their culture and folk tales are built around them.

Finally the tour was over and at lunchtime I slipped away from the group and hired a cab to go hunting for my owl. We had not driven 10 minutes away from Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant, when resting over a white fence in the graveyard I saw them. It was a group of 5 or 6, including males, females and juveniles. All resting, waiting for some lemming to show up for dinner. Their yellow eyes were fearless. I stayed a couple of hours slowly and patiently chasing after them and was able to snap a few shots in the terrible foggy light. I was forced to set my ISO at 640 and compensate exposure a bit… it was dark, gray.  These are not the best pictures on their own, but they prove my encounter with this beautiful bird and an arctic fox that was a bonus for my patience.

I want to go back. I don’t know what happened inside me, but I miss something that only the arctic can provide.

There is a gentle, subtle aspect about the Alaskan sun. In the fall, even at noon, the sun shines with care. Instead of burning your scalp with an aggressive display of power, like it does in the Caribbean, the sun barely climbs the sky. It’s light is warm and orange, like a filter over the land. The shadows are longer, languid. Just pointing the camera at any point in the horizon will most probably render a beautiful image. The sunsets are saturated with color; purples, reds, pinks, oranges… is overwhelming. Sunrise is incredibly slow, you can barely pinpoint the exact moment it happens… like adolescence. And when the light is different everything is. The mood becomes gentler, the beer tastes better, the smiles grow wider and the photographs come out perfect… well, almost perfect.

For more picture from my Alaskan adventures click here

I guessed I just pictured it differently. I always thought of it like a big block of icy, white, slippery chunk of land. After all, what can a guy from a small half island in the Caribbean know about Alaska?  So when my uncle emailed me with the proposal of traveling through that mysterious state, I did not hesitate for a minute and jumped straight to my Macbook and googled the hell out of it.

At the time, I had no clue that trip was going to mean so much to me. I could not imagine, only two months ago, how the arctic, specially the arctic, would change everything. I guess for only a couple of days I felt like a chubbier version of Chris Mccandless, hence the name of this blog.

We flew to Anchorage from Chicago, spent the night, briefly enjoying a couple of beers at the Glacier Brewhouse and flew early the next morning to King Salmon. Overall we would take fourteen planes, three bus rides and one ship ride in 10 days. Once in King Salmon we flew in a small seaplane to Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park. Right of the bat the impact was powerful. Before the 1962 flying machine touched the water with a gentle splash, I could already see a young female grizzly roaming around the beach. This shit was real!! You have to forgive my naive enthusiasm, but where I come from we only have goats, horses and cows. Where I come from the wildlife is just not as exciting, at least not in land. The ocean is a whole different story, but lets stick to subject here. The big brown bear was probably 50 yards away as we unloaded the bags. We moved to the visitor center, got our “bear speech” (they should include a “wolf speech” as I later would find out on Dumpling Hike), then loaded my gear, my 7D and 300mm lens, 1.4 converter and headed to the platform. I’ve never been so threatened by wildlife before. The possibility of becoming prey had never crossed my mind until Alaska. I had to walk carefully and be alert at all times. Not even in my surfing days, when a shark was always a possibilty, did I feel such a strong fear of a close encounter with a deadly animal.  At the end of our stay at Katmai, the toll was two face-to-face stand offs with wildlife: a lone wolf  8 yards away and a grizzly maybe 15 or 20. It was a magical start for my adventures. We were lucky enough to have gorgeous sunny days, perfect light, the bears performed beautifully, the bald eagles flew over the waterfall, the water was crisp and clean and so it began…

For more pictures from my Alaskan adventures click here

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