Monday, 18 July 2011

Preparation, Patience and Luck

I had been living in Alaska for four years when I decided it was time to try to capture a calving glacier on film.  In researching the best locations for photographing this phenomenon there was only one that seemed to guarantee success and that was (and still is) Hubbard Glacier near Yakutat. Hubbard is the longest tidewater glacier (meaning that it calves directly into the ocean) in North America, with an ocean front that is six miles long and reaches a height of 300 feet.   At that time, in July of 1985, there was a small island that sat just one thousand feet from the glacier's high face.  That island was my target as a vantage point from which to obtain photographs.  So I recruited two friends, Dennis Gaither and John Gans (who is now the Executive Director of the National Outdoor Leadership School--NOLS), and we flew to Yakutat with foldable kayaks and all our camping gear, cameras, tripods, and enough food for ten days. We spent our first night sleeping in a Yakutat airport hangar and the next morning were flown by float plane to the head of the thirty mile Fjord.

After some reconnaissance of adjacent Nunatak Fjord, we got down to business and made a beeline for our objective.  We paddled for two days in calm water to reach the island in front of Hubbard Glacier. Due to a tidal rip we had to wait for slack tide in order to negotiate the channel from the mainland across to the island. With this accomplished we set up camp and were very prepared to wait for the perfect calving moment.

Hubbard loomed huge before us. It was more than huge. We felt like mice in the presence of a dinosaur. 
And adding to the glacier's enormity was the tremendous crashing, it seemed about every half hour, as house-size chunks of ice broke off the glacier's face  and plunged into the sea. This, in turn, created giant waves which pounded against the diminutive island just beyond where we set up our tents, sending up spray high into the air. We were in a safe location, but only by a small number of meters.

Our position on the island provided us with a unique vantage point from which to photograph. With almost all tidewater glacier photography one is limited to standing directly in front of a glacier and shooting as ice drops straight down. Such images are just not that dramatic. All you can make out is ice against ice, with perhaps a splash if you are lucky. But with Hubbard we had a sideways view down the line of the face looking north, which was to our left as we faced the glacier. The St. Elias Range, towering in the background, added yet more drama.

It was clear that a giant calving would take place at some time way off to our left at the glacier's edge, at  at the farthest point that we could see from our camping spot.  Dennis and I set up our tripods each day and mounted our Nikon cameras. I used a 300mm f4.5 fixed focal length lens. I was still using Kodachrome 64 film at the time. My camera was an FE2 with an MD-12 motor drive attached.  I aimed my lens down the line at the end most hunk of glacier and waited, as did Dennis.  John Gans was not so much into photography as simply the experience of the trip, so he watched and humored us.

No luck for three full days. Just calving straight in front of us, which we photographed from time to time as a consolation prize. We kept an eye on that end piece.  We were kept awake at night in our tents by the thunderous calving every thirty to sixty minutes.  In the morning we would awaken and check the end piece of glacier, and fortunately it was always still there.

I prefer to use a viewfinder without a crosshatched grid. But this was the one time that I have been in the field when the grid proved very helpful.  Dennis Gaither had one on his camera. On our fourth afternoon on the island, with our cameras on tripods aimed in the same direction--at that end piece of glacier--every now and then Dennis would let me take a peek through his viewfinder to convince me that something was actually happening, that the separate piece of glacier we were concentrating on was very very slowly falling away from the main mass of the Hubbard. I did not realize this from looking through my clear viewfinder; it required a grid pattern to discern it. We waited more hours. We might have given up if it wasn't for the proof of incremental movement that the grid provided.

Finally the immense piece of ice fell away from the main glacial mass. I had loaded a new roll of film for the anticipated event so I was able to hold down the shutter release and allow the motor drive to run through most of the 36 exposures before the calving was over. The above photo is the best of the sequence.

But the story does not end there. This is where luck entered the equation. The above photo could have been taken by anyone with enough preparation and patience.  It might have gotten published and might not.  This was July of 1985.  Exactly nine months later Hubbard Glacier decided to surge forward and in May of 1986 its ice rode over our island and completely pinched off the outlet of Russell Fjord into Yakutat Bay. This surge created the largest glacier-dammed lake in the world. Water in the new lake rose eighty feet, killing trees and trapping marine life, such as harbor seals. This phenomenon created a worldwide hoopla throughout the summer as lake water levels continued to rise and sea life was threatened. Jaques Cousteau's team showed up. News media from  everywhere descended on sleepy little Yakutat. Talk of dynamiting the ice dam to save the seals became a topic of everyday discussion. And Newsweek Magazine put out a call for anyone with good images of Hubbard Glacier calving.  They snatched up my image, which was sold through a stock agency, and published it right away that summer.

On October 8th the ice dam broke of natural causes, the "lake" waters of Russell Fjord rapidly emptied back into the sea with the flow volume of 35 Niagara's, and the world of Yakutat and it's famous glacier calmed down to normal again.

Mark Newman

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