Latest book shares beauty of one of state’s most wild places
Carl Battreall has worked as a photographer his entire adult life, and his subject matter – capturing the beauty of Alaska’s most wild places – never ceases to amaze him. From the curve of a glacier when it reflects the midday sun to the crisp colors of a mountainside during the height of autumn, he has an eye for detail that takes an everyday sight and magnifies it to an intensity that fosters renewed appreciation for this place we call home.
In his latest book, “Alaska Range: Exploring the Last Great Wild,” Battreall takes us on a visual tour of some of the most remote corners of Alaska. His images are paired with the essays and writings of some of Alaska’s best-known nature enthusiasts, including Art Davidson, Roman Dial and Verna Pratt.
“I choose the writers after the photographs were complete,” said Battreall of the contributors to the project. “The single most important criteria was that they be Alaskans who had spent a significant amount of time in the Alaska Range and were excited to contribute to the book.
“They were also selected because of their influence on me, and their contribution to Alaska Range science, literature and exploration.”
Mountaineers Books, which published “Alaska Range,” paired the photos with the writings, he added.
Roman Dial, a professor at Alaska Pacific University, was one such contributor. His exploits have taken him all over the world and his first-attempts such as pack-rafting remote Alaska rivers or cycling over vast tundra, have put him on the map as one of Alaska’s most revered adventurers. He writes a chapter in the book describing his trek of the Alaska Range with a group of friends 20 years ago.
On the Fourth of July, 1996, Carl Tobin, Paul Adkins, and I set out on mountain bikes to be the first to traverse the six-hundred-mile length of the Alaska Range. We were headed for Lake Clark, a freshwater fjord separating the muscular Alaska Range from the tempestuous Aleutian Range. A Bush plane had flown us to a gravel bar five miles from Canada in the craggy Nutzotin Mountains. We bivouacked in meadows wearing head-nets to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Dial, unflappable against the most extreme of conditions, shows in his writing the same appreciation for the Alaska Range’s vastness that is demonstrated in Battreall’s photography.
For fifty miles in the Nutzotins, tucked in a deep rain shadow behind high coastal ranges, we pedaled historical trails converging on Chisana, a Bush community that hosted Alaska’s last gold rush in the late 1890s. After packrafting across the Nabesna River, we climbed into the Mentasta Mountains, hiking our bikes between rounded five-thousand-foot summits above a broad plain of spruce forest. We coasted to the brush below on trails worn by Dall sheep. There we pushed along muddy moose trails through willows to a rocky stream bar. At Mentasta Pass, one of three road crossings, we followed mining roads into the Chistochina Mining District. With peaks above 9,500 feet (2,896 meters) the Delta Mountains, unlike those farther east, feed glaciers fifteen miles long. In the shadows cast by the midnight sun, we crisscrossed glacial rivers below limestone walls (a rock type rare in a range known mostly for granite and schist), headed toward Mount Kimball (10,300 feet, 3,939 meters).
The idea for “Alaska Range” came to Battreall after he and his wife were married, on Ruth Glacier in the Alaska Range and spent 10 days exploring and climbing. It was springtime, and the weather was not cooperating – “So there was a lot of tent time, looking at maps,” Battreall said. “It was then I realized that I knew very little about the entire Alaska Range. I, like most Alaskans, was familiar with Denali and the surrounding peaks, but the maps revealed so many unknowns in the Alaska Range, so many places I had never seen a photograph of.”
What followed was a 12-year project – one that Battreall mistakenly estimated would take five years – that took him to some of the most unique corners of the Alaska Range. His travelings took him to nearly every corner of the range, and connected him to the land like nothing he’d ever done before. Here is an excerpt from one of his treks, to the Nutzotin Mountains on the far east side of the Alaska Range, near Canada. He and his traveling partner, Sy, took no GPS, no satellite communication, just a map and compass and their combined curiosity.
We had grown tired of the relentless deluge of information that was constantly being fed to us through every form of media. There isn’t any originality in modern living anymore, no discovery. The answer to almost any question is only one click away. With our smartphones now almost an extension of our bodies, it is impossible to get lost—rescue is nearly always at our fingertips. We wanted a free experience in the mountains, no preconceived routes decided by others.
For a week Sy and I climbed unnamed mountains, explored valleys, and followed clear creeks to their source. We went wherever our curiosity led us, our sense of wonder our guide. After a few days we quit looking at the map. We used our skills to choose routes, drank water with our hands, laid our heads anywhere we pleased. We got wet, cold, scared, and tired. We laughed hard and smiled big. Countless encounters with wildlife, both big and small, including watching a red grizzly dig up roots with its powerful claws, an apprehensive porcupine delicately crossing a stream, and a fox hunting for ground squirrels, tracking their squeaks across the tundra. Clouds and shadows danced along the summits of distant peaks in the evenings, while Dall sheep crossed precariously on the loose slopes below, with grace and confidence we could only wish to possess in the mountains. What we were doing was pure living. Wandering, guided by curiosity, was essential to our health. We weren’t outsiders, we weren’t spectators watching from the road, trail, or on the couch. We were actually existing in nature. We learned things that no website could ever teach us. Lessons about ourselves and about coexisting on Earth.
Once the book was complete, Battreall knew he had something special. Even though Alaska has more wilderness than all of that in the Lower 48 combined, he still feels the need to send a conservation message to those who view his images.
“First and foremost, this is an overdue tribute to one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges,” he said. “There is an underlying conservation message, that we humans need truly wild places. … The Alaska Range has plenty of wild lands that would make amazing National and State Parks, parks that would rival the ones we already have.”
With this project done, Battreall now eyes what’s over the horizon. Over time, he has evolved from a high school photography enthusiast encouraged by his parents and teacher, to a serious student of the art, looking for challenging projects.
“My career has changed drastically throughout the past 25 years,” he said. “I fell in love with mountains and glaciers while learning to climb in the Cascades and Nepal’s Himalayas. Since moving to Alaska in 2001, I have focused on long-term photography projects in Alaska, primarily wilderness and natural history projects, for books, exhibits and editorial publications.”
He is considering international projects – for a change of pace and scenery – but Alaska, he said, holds an allure that is unparalleled.
“Outdoor-landscape photography is not as glamorous as one would think and is often a quiet a struggle,” he admits. But it’s a labor of love.
“Would I give it up? Of course not.”