/// Wild Tracks - Landscape Photography by Eduardo Gallo


Passion for Landscape Photography

Wrangell - Saint Elias National Park, AK, USA

August 2014

Wrangell - Saint Elias National Park, AK, USA

Canon 5D MkII & EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, 1/6s f/8 ISO400 @35mm

Google Earth for this photo

I first saw both of them the night before the plane drop off, on the campground at the end of the road, right in front of the footbridge that provides the only non resident access to the old mining town of McCarthy, located right in the middle of one of the biggest wilderness areas left on the planet. Hell of a road to get there, by the way. Sixty miles of dirt dumped on top of an old railbed, along which "I should drive right through the center to lower the chances of getting a rail spike through one of my wheels", as a local told me. Uneventful ride this time, for a change. But let's get back to these two.

Rusted pickup truck full of gear. Camouflage pants, long coats, wide hats, a long beard the tall one, a long moustache the other, both in their late thirties or early forties. And enough weapons to launch an assault on a small Caribbean country. Revolvers on one hip, long skinning knifes on the other, shotguns over their shoulders, rifles on sight. With a "don't mess with me" attitude and a look of not taking too many showers, more or less how I would look three weeks later. Parked their truck fifty feet from my vehicle, and set their tent fifty feet from mine. And the next morning they started filling up their backpacks as I was filling up mine. Similar stuff for the three of us. Sleeping bag on the bottom, followed by enough food for a week, rain gear, and a few more things. Plus a tripod, a heavy camera, and a couple lenses in my case; a rifle, a shotgun, and who knows what else out of view in theirs (for each). Plus the handguns and knifes they were wearing. Checking each other out, the way guys usually do. You know the drill, me thinking that my tent was a couple ounces lighter than theirs, and they thinking their rifles were bigger than my tripod. And believing I would never see them again, or so I thought.

Finished packing, locked my car, murmured a "take care" when passing by, and headed toward the footbridge, the two mile ride to the landing strip (with a one hour detour to McCarthy to wait out the bad weather), and on towards an adventure of a lifetime. Thinking about the rewards (solitude, glorious views, glaciers, teddy bears, in that order) and trying not to think too much about the risks (creek fording, solitude, crevasses, huge furry creatures, also in that order). The forty-five minute flight was worth several times every dollar I paid just by itself, always flying just below the cloud ceiling, less than a thousand feet above the ground. Forests without end, rivers braided in a hundred different channels, enormous moraines, and then the ice. First a glacier on one side, then a second on the other. And then one a hundred times bigger on the valley. And then another one a hundred times bigger than the previous one. By that time I was not so sure if I was attempting to bite off more than I could chew. And then I saw it. The Bagley icefield, biggest extension of ice outside the poles and Greenland. Nineteen hundred square miles of it, no need to be precise. Grey dark clouds without end above, pure white ice without end below. And then we turned, started loosing altitude, left the ice, and two minutes later were on the ground. "Bye bye mister bush pilot, nice meeting you, even nicer flying with you, and please make damn sure you come back to pick me up next week. Damn sure. Please." No excuses accepted here, none at all.

The bush plane turned, gained speed, took off, flew out of sight, and there I was. Completely alone in this valley, except for the local population of Ursus arctos horribilis. Several valleys and multiple rivers away from the closest human settlement, waste of time even to think about getting out of there on foot. Pilot better keep his word and come back to pick me up. Completely alone, except for two familiar guys setting up their tent three hundred yards away. They walked over and we had a little chat. Nice meeting you guys, what are your plans, where are you heading to, that sort of talk. Friendly guys, very polite. Told them my plans, that can be summarized as going far, going fast, going high, and crossing any glaciers or creeks in my path. And come back the night before my scheduled plane pick up. They looked stunned. They were staying put (actually for a day longer than myself), planning for a couple day hikes if possible. Unexperienced, scared of glaciers, scared of creeks, and very very very scared of bears. Turns out weapons were for protection (hunting is prohibited here). Time to go. Take care and see you in a week.

And what a week I had, I need to publish another photo to tell the story. Went up valley, crossed the glacier, scrambled up a couple peaks on the other side, camped on amazing places, and came back to camp the last night close to the pickup site. No way that pilot was going to come next morning and not finding me there. Wonderful weather the previous days, but clouds rolling over now. Sun is going down, light is changing. And there come my two friends. No shotguns or rifles in sight, good for them. Extremely happy to see me. They start talking, sometimes both at the same time. They ask questions faster than a machine gun shoots bullets. What have I done, where have I been, how many bears have I met. Lots of paw prints in the sandy valley, but they have not seen any bears. Difficult to believe, given the amount I had seen. But hey, there is not much to eat in the sand, all the berries are higher up the slopes. Light is improving fast, best I have seen all week, sunset is coming, I want to take photos, and these guys do not shut up. Friendly, polite, making suggestions for the rest of my vacation. So I continue chatting for a few more minutes, make up an excuse, and start looking for compositions. This is the result. And an hour later I came back to continue chatting.

Started raining during the night. Little did I imagine at that time that it would barely stop for the next three weeks. Morning came. Had a big breakfast and went to the pickup site an hour ahead of time. And fortunately mister bush pilot came to pick me up. Three hours later.