Alaska, Land Of The Ggagga

This is the incredible backdrop while on location photographing Alaskan Brown Bears in Lake Clark National Park. The top of Iliamna Volcano, shrouded in clouds here in this photo, towers 10,016 feet above the park and is covered by snow year round.

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve protects more than 4 million acres of diverse habitats ranging in elevation from sea level to over 10,000 feet. The first record of the native people building permanent settlements on the shores of Lake Clark are estimated to have arrived around 1000AD. Known as Dena’ina Athabascans, these people came to this land for the fishing opportunities. Lake Clark (known to the Dena’ina as Qizhjeh Vena – or ‘The lake where people gathered ‘) was named after John W. Clark of Nushagak, Alaska in 1891. Long before the Dena’ina came to this place or John W. Clark discovered it, this region belonged to the bears. The Dena’ina word for Bear is Ggagga… Welcome to the Land of the Ggagga!

ALASKA’S BEST KEPT SECRET

A few years ago I began to explore the possibility of leading a workshop in the wilds of Alaska to photograph the majestic Brown Bears. After a lot of research I determined the ideal location was at a remote Lodge along the shores of Cook Inlet in Lake Clark National Park. The Lodge is situated on 40 acres of private land in Lake Clark National Park. The owners have deep roots in Alaska combined with a sincere love for the land and its wildlife. This is an exceptionally unique location offers an unrivaled opportunity to photograph these incredible animals. Over the past 30 plus years the Lodge and its caretakers have carefully established their presence so as to limit the impact on the bears way of life. The Lodge requires compliance of their staff and guests to certain guidelines that ensure the bears and people continue to live together here in harmony. Since starting to lead groups to the area nearly half a century ago, the they have achieved an impeccable safety record with zero bear related injuries or attacks. The Lodge has been named “One of the 10 great places for a North American Safari” and boasts a 50% guest return rate.  Their experienced, professional staff attended to all the needs of their guests with the greatest enthusiasm and care. Due to the immense popularity of this destination there was a multiple year wait to even be able to book space for my workshop participants. Finally after a lot of planning the day of our departure finally arrived.

The view from the skies approaching Seattle.

THEN AND NOW…

Before you even reach Alaska the anticipation begins to build. My flight routed through Seattle and then continued on to Anchorage. As our plane dropped below the clouds the view of the lush rainforest below was overwhelming. Stands of deep green forests covered the mountain range as far as the eye could see, dotted by vast, blue lakes. After a brief transfer we took off for Alaska! Upon arrival we checked into the historic Hotel Captain Cook to rest and relax before our charter flight the next day. The hotel offers views of neighboring Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains from any one of their 546 rooms and suites. The Hotel Captain Cook is Alaska’s only member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, making it far beyond the ordinary. It was the perfect resting place for the group on our first night together. The hotel was recently inducted into Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This organization founded Historic Hotels of America in 1989 with 32 charter members for historic preservation. Since that time, only 275 hotels and resorts across America have been awarded this prestigious honor for preserving and maintaining their historic integrity, architecture and ambiance. The Hotel Captain Cook being one of those recognized. The hotel offers four distinctive restaurants within the building as well as gifts and unique souvenirs for sale in their 12 shops. After a pleasant evening meal together we all turned in for the night.

The stunning view from one of the hotel’s impressive ‘Crow’s Nest’ suites.

A BIRDS EYE VIEW

The following morning we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast before heading to the airport for our charter flight that transferred us to Lake Clark National Park. We were fortunate to have clear skies, but high winds delayed our departure for a couple hours. While we waited for the winds to subside we spent time chatting about the upcoming adventure, sharing our mutual excitement. Finally the call came through from the Lodge and we were cleared for takeoff. The plane was loaded quickly and we climbed in, eager to reach our intended destination. We took to the skies and headed towards Lake Clark National Park. I have flown over many beautiful landscapes, including Iceland and Africa, but this flight was exceptional! Despite the light mist that we flew through, the views were incredible. A myriad of patterns played out on the forest floor below us. Rivers and streams made fascinating shapes as they chased out to the wide open ocean. Intricate, abstract patterns in the sand could be seen along the shoreline, left behind by the changing tides. As we drew closer to our destination massive waterfalls could be seen flowing off the cliff faces and plugging to the ground beneath… It was magical! Our pilot welcomed us to talk to one another through the headsets during the flight to the Lodge, but it seemed we were all lost in our own thoughts as we passed over this breathtaking landscape. As a result, most of the trip was completed in silence with us staring out in awe at the Alaskan wilderness.

Our chariot awaiting to take us to the remote Alaskan wilderness!

The view from the skies just outside of Anchorage.

Amazing patterns in the sand where large rivers flow into the open ocean.

Fascinating shapes in the tidal rivers below us.

One of the guides from the Lodge greets the incoming plane and the new guests as they arrive on the beach against the backdrop of a dramatic sunrise.

WALKING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS

We were greeted by the friendly faces of the Lodge staff as we touched down on the beach. Landing on a sand beach is one of the most incredible experiences and only added to the amazing journey we were on. Stepping out of the charter plane signs of the bears were evident if you looked closely. Scanning the sand you could see their gigantic footprints along the shore. The smell of the salt air mixed with the strong aroma of the conifer forest surrounding us was a welcome greeting. We were quickly shuttled up to our accommodations and given an opportunity to settle in before meeting at the Lodge for a warm mid-day meal.

The Lodge here in Lake Clark National Park affords photographers a completely unique experience with bears, allowing us to photograph them free of viewing platforms and crowds of noisy tourists. All the guests visiting this Lodge are there to view the bears and they do so in a respectful, considerate manner. As the bears walked we would stay back, always giving them their space. The guides from the Lodge do an amazing job ensuring that the guests never restrict the bear’s movements or encroach on them. Our first session shooting the bears was very memorable and set high expectations for the group! We started off photographing a couple of bear cubs with their mother on the beach. Eventually we followed them back into one of the expansive meadows for more photo opportunities of them grazing. The bears, though certainly aware of our presence, behaved as though we didn’t exist and passed by our group as we hunkered down behind our lenses. Listening to their grunts as they communicated with one another was unforgettable. At times we were close enough to hear them munching on the grass. One of the local raptors perched in a nearby tree repeatedly put on a show for us, flying out over the field and hovering in place as it hunted for its next meal. A light rain was falling on and off, giving the bears great texture in their fur. Every so often one of the bear cubs would shake, sending a shower of spray everywhere. The expression on their faces are priceless as their bodies wiggle in three different directions!

A first year cub shaking the water from its fur after a rain shower.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BEAR CUB

Over the next five days my workshop group would experience and photograph incredible scenes and unforgettable moments beyond their greatest expectations. The Lodge is situated along a river that flows into the ocean and provides the perfect feeding opportunity for the bears and their cubs. They fish for salmon in the river mouth, dig for clams at low tide on the mud flats and graze in the meadows on the grasses. During the workshop there were about half a dozen mother bears with cubs. Watching the young cubs interacting with their mother and each other is very entertaining! The cubs would often try to hunt for fish in the river without success. However, when one of them was lucky enough to catch a salmon that was spawned out or a morsel of one left behind by their mother they would become rabidly aggressive in protecting the fish from towards their sibling and mother. This was when you’d really see the personality differences between the cubs, it was fascinating to watch. When a cub did manage to catch a fish or secure a stray piece you almost wanted to stand up and cheer for them!

An experienced mother bear showing her two small cubs how to hunt for salmon at the river mouth.

A yearling cub races off frantically from its mother and sibling with a chunk of salmon in order to eat it without sharing. These moments were hilarious!

The smaller of the two siblings sits dejected in the surf after missing out on the last fish caught. Its larger counterpart affectionately approaches and comforts junior bear.

Apparently forgiven, the junior bear cub returns the affection of its larger sibling with kisses on the end of the nose.

One of the favorite places for the mother bears to feed their young cubs was on the tender clover blossoms that grew thick on the mowed lawns of the Lodge. Getting down low offered an excellent perspective to capture these images.

About half way through the workshop we got to witness and photograph a mother bear nursing her two cubs. This was one of the many highlights on the trip and a memory that we all will treasure. There were a few times when we were photographing the mother with her cubs that we anticipated this happening, but it never did. When we finally got to witness this behavior it made it extra special for my group. The mother bear purrs to her cubs as they nurse, sounding like an overgrown cat!

After fishing all their bellies were full and they would settle down into a giant heap of bears and dose off in the warm sunlight.

Photographing the sleeping bears from the shoreline of Cook Inlet.

The weather wasn’t sunny all of the time, but the mists and rain provided whole different look and feel to the surrounding landscape. I loved these days.

FISHING LESSONS

Perhaps the most exciting part of the workshop is witnessing the bears hunting for salmon in the river. This is an adrenalin filled experience as these apex predators charge through the surf at top speed, tracking a fish as it swims. You realize the incredible strength and power of these animals and it leaves you in awe. The bear’s sense of smell is exceptionally keen, aiding them in locating and capturing the fish. The average dog is said to have a sense of smell 100 times better than humans. The bloodhound is in exclusive company with a sensitivity 300 times better than that of humans. Estimates of the sensitivity of a bear’s nose vary widely, but many say bears beat all the competition boasting the ability to smell 7 times better than a bloodhound. I’ll do the math for you, if true, that means a bear can smell 2,100 times better than you and I can! When you watch them fishing you easily accept that as fact, despite how crazy it sounds.

Sometimes while the bears were fishing they would chase a salmon in the general direction of where our group was set up. Watching this drama unfold through the viewfinder on your camera makes these moments all the more intense, as it can appear that the bear has nearly reached you when looking through a 600mm lens! However their sole focus is on catching as many fish as possible and they rarely even afford us a passing glance while we are out photographing them. The Lodge has been established here so long the bears simply treat the people as part of the landscape.

Full Tilt | Alaskan Brown Bear

Chasing Fish Tails | Alaskan Brown Bear

Missed Opportunities | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Pursuit | Alaskan Brown Bears

The River Of Life | Alaskan Brown Bear

Catch Of The Day | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Plunge | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Trophy | Alaskan Brown Bear

An Alaskan Brown Bear casually strolls past a group of bear watchers as it heads into the river to hunt for salmon.

LAKE CLARK, A HAVEN FOR WILDLIFE

Though the bears in Alaska are one of the biggest attractions, my workshop participants were treated to a wide variety of other subjects. For the past couple seasons a few Wolves have been frequenting the region and they were hanging around while we were there. Regrettably we didn’t get any pictures of the wolves, but we did find some of their giant tracks in the sand on the beach. The presence of these wolves just further lends to the attractiveness of this Lodge for nature photographers. We also spent time photographing Trumpeter Swans, Red Foxes, Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles and other Birds of Prey. All of the other subjects were a nice bonus and provided diversity to the images the workshop participants captured for their portfolios. It was an incredibly rewarding trip and my guests all produced exceptional images. We watched the forecast for the aurora borealis each night, but unfortunately it didn’t peak while we were there.

Massive Wolf Tracks In The Sand

The Long Road Home | Sandhill Cranes

Newton’s Law | Gull and Sea Shell

Potential For Mischief | Red Fox

The snow capped top of Iliamna Volcano is an impressive sight on a clear day when you can see the steam rising up from the volcano’s mouth.

Heading South | Trumpeter Swans

A Jellyfish stranded on the sand, waiting for the incoming tide to wash it back out to sea.

Lord Of The Skies | Bald Eagle

Nathaniel offering instruction to the workshop participants in the field.

Paradise Found | Alaskan Brown Bear

FIRST CLASS STAFF AND GOURMET MEALS

My workshop participants enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of life in the wilderness, detached from their own daily schedules and demands. You may not travel to a remote region of Alaska expecting to experience culinary delights, but we looked forward to our meals in the Lodge as much as we did photographing the wildlife each day! The Lodge is world renowned for the delicious food that they serve. The daily, personalized touches by the staff were greatly appreciated. Fern was our own dedicated server at meals, by the completion of the first day at the Lodge she had memorized all of our dietary preferences and ensured everything we desired at our place setting before we walked into the dining room!

The Lodge chef, in his element.

My workshop group posing with Fern, our incredibly competent server. This photo shows the incredible view from the second floor deck outside the dining area.

My workshop group posing with our knowledgeable and friendly guide under the Lodge’s giant bear sculpture.

The best Alaskan Brown Bear photography location in Alaska… Lake Clark National Park.

Our group had a fantastic time sharing this amazing trip together and collectively built memories that we will treasure forever. The fun didn’t stop with the photography either, we spent our spare time relaxing around the outdoor fire pit or editing our images together in the lounge. The time we spent eating meals together were just as special, and the view from the second floor dining room is epic! We often watched bears stroll by while we were up eating our meals and a Red Fox also paid us a visit. There simply is no substitute for this unique location. If you want to truly experience photographing Alaskan Brown Bears the only place to do it is in the Land of the Ggagga!

I’ll be returning to Alaska again this year in September to lead my Wonders Of Alaska Photo Workshop. There are currently only two spots left, you can find more information about the workshop here at this link.

If you’d like to see a collection of images from our recent trip please visit my Alaska Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. ~ Nathaniel

Until we meet again…

 

The Phantom of the Himalayas

Chronicles of Nature

“A shadow veiled by the mountain steep, or winter’s descending fleece of white.

Like its tracks the ghost cat vanishes, as a phantom fading into the night.”

~ from:  THE  PHANTOM     

Few animals have captured our imagination like the snow leopard. This iconic cat’s habitat is known to be one of the harshest environments in the world. It ranges throughout the alpine areas of Central Asia and is rarely ever seen in the wild, much less photographed. This is due in part to its elusive nature and also because there are so few left in the world. In fact, most exceptional images of these animals are taken with camera traps in the wild, or more likely in captivity.  As of 2014 the population of this endangered species was estimated between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals (*visit The Snow Leopard Trust for conservation info). In the snow leopard we find the untamable spirit of the raw wilderness and the grace of a large feline combined in a way that is duplicated nowhere elsewhere in the animal kingdom. I refer to them with great admiration as, The Phantom of the Himalayas.

When I was first contacted and asked if I’d lead the 2015 Snow Leopard Expedition I eagerly accepted the job. Few things define adventure like pursuing an evasive, endangered cat through India’s Himalayan Mountain region for two weeks. I was very excited about the trip and went about making my preparations.

Part I: Arrival in India

The streets of Old Delhi at dusk.

The streets of Old Delhi at dusk.

 I departed from Arizona in the evening on February 18th and after traveling for over thirty-six hours I finally arrived in India on February 20th. As the plane began its descent into the New Delhi airport the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, casting beautiful patterns on the clouds. I was met there by my contact, Sanjay, and taken directly to the hotel. If you’ve never visited India, it is best described as a smorgasbord for the senses. The vibrant colors, intoxicating smells and varied sounds are overwhelming. India ranks second out of all countries in the world for population with nearly 1,268,000,000 people.   There are over sixty different dialects, which effectively means that one could hear a new dialect spoken here every fifty kilometers. One of the most fascinating things for me coming from the United States, was the seemingly baffling traffic system. While I was pondering aloud what looked like organized chaos on the streets of Delhi, Sanjay said that to drive a car in India you need three things; a good horn, good breaks and good luck. I chuckled at this, but there was a lot of truth to his statement.

Clouds breaking up over the city of Leh, India

Clouds breaking up over the city of Leh, India

The day after my arrival I was joined by the rest of our group back at the airport for our morning departure to Leh, the capital of the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. Located in the northern region of India at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet (3,524 meters), Leh has a noticeable Tibetan influence and boasts a population of nearly 30,000. Due to its proximity to Kashmir, and the tensions between India and Pakistan over that region, the Indian military ban the use of any satellite radios as a matter of national security and will in fact confiscate them should you attempt to bring one with you. We were in Leh two days allowing our bodies to acclimate to the increased elevation and to watch for signs of altitude sickness. Precautions must be taken at this point with the group, even a mild case of altitude sickness can lead to symptoms like headache, dizziness and nausea, or in severe cases include double vision, convulsions or even deranged behavior. Thankfully everyone seemed to adapt to this new climate well. We spent these days taking in some of the local markets and visiting a number of the regions Buddhist monasteries that date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, including Hemis, Thiksay and Shey monasteries.

Girls In Market

Girls selling items in the market of Leh, India.

 

A hilltop monastery high above the city of Leh.

A hilltop monastery high above the city of Leh.

An orphan, Buddhist monk and his elderly caretaker.

An orphan, Buddhist monk and his elderly caretaker.

A colorful door at the 15th Century Thicksay Monastery.

A colorful door at the 15th Century Thicksay Monastery.

 

CallToPrayer_India_DSC3846

Call to prayer at a local Buddhist monastery.

While visiting the 15th century Thiksay Monastery our group was invited to share lunch with the Buddhist Monks. I took no pictures with them, choosing instead to live in that moment, sitting cross legged in the shadow of the Himalayas, eating rice and vegetables together. It was an experience I’ll never forget. A photograph is often the end of the story, but there are times it’s best to forget the camera and capture in your mind and soul what might otherwise be missed, and could never be documented in an image.

A Buddhist monk and a pilgram pause at the prayer wheels while making their ascent to the monastery.

A Buddhist monk and a pilgram pause at the prayer wheels while making their ascent to the monastery.

The hand of a Ladakh resident spins the long row of prayer wheels as he passes by.

The hand of a Ladakh resident spins the long row of prayer wheels as he passes by.

Buddhist women praying at a monastery located in Leh, India.

Buddhist women praying at a monastery located in Leh, India.

During our trip Gyalson (one of our guides) accompanied us to his home village of Matho to witness the annual Oracle Matho Nagrang Festival. This event is held on the 14th and 15th days of the first month of the Tibetan calendar at Matho Monastery. Matho Monastery is the only Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh. It sees fewer visitors than Hemis, Thiksay or Shey monasteries due to its location, however, it is renowned throughout the region for its Festival of the Oracles, which attracts thousands of visitors.

The 'Festival of the Oracles' at Matho Monastery.

Crowds line the balconies of Matho Monastery for the ‘Festival of the Oracles’.

Detail from a giant statue of Buddha.

Detail from a giant statue of Buddha.

During this festival the oracles are said to inhabit the bodies of two monks for a few hours. The purpose of these oracles is to attempt to predict the fortunes of the local village communities for the coming year. Tables of food, tea, and hand crafts can be found as you make the climb up the hill to the monastery courtyard where the celebration occurs. A strong police presence can be seen which helps to maintain order of the large crowds that have gathered. Matho Monastery is also home to a large collection of ancient, Buddhist artifacts dating back as far as the 14th century. These items are displayed behind large, glass cases in guarded, upper rooms. Here above the monastery courtyard Gyalson secured fantastic seats for our group in front of the open windows so that we would have a birds eye view of the festival, and more importantly, so that we were not at risk of being squished by the throng of people below us. Photographs of the oracles were strictly forbidden during the ceremony, however pictures of the other portions of the event were allowed. We stayed for a few hours enjoying the spectacle, but elected to depart before the conclusion of the festival. Soon the one lane road that led back from Matho to Leh would be a chaotic mess from the traffic leaving this this small village. Thankfully we beat the rush and returned to our hotel for the evening.

A solitary monk lost in thought on the side of the mountain above Matho Monastery.

A solitary monk, lost in thought on the side of the mountain above Matho Monastery.

Thousands of people pack into Matho Monastery for the Festival of the oracles.

Thousands of people pack into Matho Monastery for the Festival of the oracles.

The police were drastically outnumbered, yet made a valiant effort to keep the crowd under control.

The police were drastically outnumbered, yet made a valiant effort to keep the crowd under control.

Some of the staff at the monastery attempted to enforce the law as well, but weren't taken very seriously.

Some of the staff at the monastery attempted to enforce the law as well, but weren’t taken very seriously by the masses.

A young boy with a donation in hand is carried on his mother's back up to the monastery.

A young boy with a donation in hand is carried on his mother’s back up to the monastery.

A young girl holds on to her father's hand tightly as they navigate the crowds.

A young girl holds on to her father’s hand tightly as they navigate the crowds.

The welcome challenge of finding unique compositions in a sea of people.

I enjoyed the challenge of finding unique compositions in a vast, sea of people.

The monastery’s superior monk awaiting for the festivities to commence.

Masked dancers performing.

Masked dancers performing.

Young and old alike attended the event.

Young and old alike attended the event.

Entertaing the children.

Entertaing the children.

Dance of the Dragon

Dance of the Dragon

Part II: Into the Wild

Crossing above the Indus River on our way into Hemis National Park.

On the morning of February 23rd we departed Leh by car for the tiny village of Zingchen located on the perimeter of our destination, Hemis National Park. Only two families call Zingchen home. Thus began our odyssey in search of the snow leopards. Arriving in Zingchen we set out trekking on foot with our expert local guides, Gyalson Shangku and Tsering Gurmet, making our way up into the Himalayas. Each member of the group was assigned an assistant that would help carry their camera gear anytime needed. My helper’s name was Stanzin, he and the other assistants worked tirelessly for the duration of our expedition. Our travels would now take us anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 feet in elevation (3,658 to 4,572 meters). For me this is where I experienced one of the most refreshing aspects of the trip as we officially left the ‘grid’. There was no longer a cell signal or an internet connection anywhere. It changed the tone of our trip from one of international travel, to a wilderness adventure. Large, loose stones covered the surface of the trail most of the way. Admittedly I’m no road construction expert, but the road (as it was called), that led from the tiny village of Zingchen to Rumbak, was a highway engineer’s worst nightmare. Large boulders as big as a mid-sized car were perched precariously at various points along the route, looking like they might tumble down at any moment. Over time patches of loose shale collapsed into the road below making obstacles in our path. Nearly a mile past where the pavement ended and the rough terrain began, a long abandoned motorized scooter sat decaying off to one side of the trail.Eventually we reached the base camp site where different expedition groups pitched their tents, and from there moved on to Rumbak Village.

Clouds from an approaching storm begin to engulf the mountain peaks.

Clouds from an approaching storm begin to engulf the mountain peaks.

As you trek through the overwhelming presence of this raw wilderness one quickly becomes aware of the frailty of our human existence. Without all our ‘expedition gear’ we are in fact incredibly weak when compared to the intelligence of the snow leopard on the ridge line, the agility of the blue sheep on the mountain cliffs or the strength of the golden eagle soaring in the sky. In this extreme climate we would assuredly falter without the assistance of our modern ‘advancements’. This realization brings with it an even more profound respect for the relatively few species of wildlife that call this land their home.

The base camp area in Husing Valley as seen from the observation platform.

The base camp area in Husing Valley as seen from the observation platform.

Tents in the snow under a string of Buddhist prayer flags.

Tents in the snow under a string of Buddhist prayer flags.

One of the most impressive rock formations i saw during the expedition.

One of the most impressive rock formations i saw during the expedition.

Himalayan Daydreams.

Himalayan Daydreams.

In Rumbak we were given accommodations at a home stay by a kind, elderly man named Younton. The local people in Rumbak Village take turns providing accommodations and food to the tourists, receiving payment for their hospitality to help supplement their limited income in this remote region. There’s no running water in Rumbak. After sundown the entire village is powered from a single generator which one of the local villagers starts each day at dusk. Following a traditional Ladakhi meal sleep came easily to our group, exhausted from the day’s long hike. 

Blue Sheep resting on a symmetrical mountain side.

Blue Sheep resting on a symmetrical mountain side.

Stone Carving

Stone Carving

Snow and rock slides on the mountain slopes creating beautiful patterns.

Snow and rock slides on the mountain slopes creating beautiful patterns.

Part III: Call of the Ghost Cat

Perhaps due to the change in climate or the drastic jet lag (I’m honestly not sure), at this point I’d begun to lose track of what day of the month it was. According to the calendar it was February 24th, but the days had all started to blend into one. We awakened while it was still dark and got in position long before sunrise, scanning the mountain slope for any sign of the big cats.

A lone Chukar Partridge makes its way across the shale covered ground.

A lone Chukar Partridge makes its way across the shale covered ground.

 In the mornings we searched for the leopards on the ridge line, returning to their place of rest for the day after a long night of hunting. The frigid air on your face drives away any lingering hint of drowsiness and the adrenaline of our search made me feel alive in a way that I’ve not often experienced. A large flock of chukar partridge fly by us, but remain invisible in the pre-dawn light. The rush of air whistling through their wings is reminiscent to the sound of an F-16 Fighter Jet passing overhead at a very low altitude. Oddly the towering, majestic mountain peaks here are not named, but rather the valleys in each region. This area is appropriately named Rumbak Valley, due to its proximity the village by the same name. We search the surrounding mountain slopes all morning without any evidence of a snow leopard, but are pleased to find a flock of almost two dozen blue sheep. As the leopard’s primary source of food in this area, locating blue sheep in the valley is a good omen.

A Blue Sheep Ram teaching a yearling the virtues of camouflage.

A Blue Sheep Ram teaching a yearling the virtues of camouflage.

About mid-day we gathered our belongings and make the trek from Rumbak back to our base camp on the banks of a frozen stream in Husing Valley. As our group arrives back to base camp the afternoon shadows stretched out, lengthening as the sun began its decent and dipped behind the western peaks. After settling into the campsite we make the 200 meter climb up one of the mountain sides, to a level place above camp known as the observation platform. There we set up our scopes and long lenses, watching for any sign of movement on the mountain tops. Snow leopards tend to live alone and regularly patrol their territory, which often covers hundreds of square miles. To communicate across such vast areas, these cats leave markings on the landscape by scraping the ground with their paws and spraying urine on the rocks. They’ll also rub up against these rocks leaving behind bits of hair. The snow leopard’s breeding season occurs during the coldest months of the year from December to March, making the timing of our trip perfect. This is the one time that a snow leopard will allow another to enter its range. We searched without success from the observation platform for some time. My eyes were drawn to a large group of boulders almost 400 meters above us at the summit above the observation platform.

On the observation platform searching for snow leopards.

On the observation platform searching for snow leopards.

 For some unknown reason I felt a strong impulse to climb there. With the permission of the guides I set out making my way up the slope. My body was still acclimating to the elevation, so I found myself stopping often in the thin air to catch my breath. The loose stones beneath my feet made progress incredibly difficult, and portions of the climb felt almost vertical. Few things can prepare one for the majestic sight that’s found at the top of a mountain in the Himalayas.

This photo was taken from the observation platform looking up toward the peak I climbed to. You can see the location in the top/center of the image.

This photo was taken from the observation platform looking up toward the peak I climbed to. You can see the location in the top/center of the image.

 Arriving at the peak I stared in awe at the untamed, rugged beauty surrounding me in every direction. Though the light was poor, I took a couple images to remember it by and rested there until darkness began to fall. I stood up to make my way back down the mountain and froze, rooted in my tracks from the sound that fell upon my ears. From across the Husing Valley was the clear, unmistakable cry of a snow leopard! In that moment I discovered the answer to why I’d made the arduous climb to this place. In delirious excitement I radioed down to the group to tell them what I’d heard. Initially I believe my report may have been met with some skepticism. However, once I made my way back down to the observation platform and imitated the sound I’d heard, the guides agreed it was indeed the call of a snow leopard. They’d been listening attentively all winter for the male and female snow leopards to begin calling to one another, but silence had reigned over this alpine region up until that moment. The snow leopard is the only big cat that cannot roar. During the mating season a pair will call back and forth to each other. Their cries are best described as a very loud snarl more than anything else. We climbed back down to camp excitedly discussing the close proximity of the snow leopard and the potential of soon capturing a glimpse of one.

One of the dominant rams that we encountered during our trip.

One of the dominant Blue Sheep rams that we encountered during our trip.

Part VI: Through the Shadows

Snow Leopard paw prints.

Snow Leopard paw prints.

It was windy overnight, our group awoke on the 25th of February to find snow falling lightly at dawn. We set out early and as we hiked up to the observation platform were delighted to find snow leopard paw prints just outside of camp along the trail. We had just reached our destination when a call came over the radio saying that a snow leopard had been spotted from the road below the camp in Tarbung Valley. With those words everyone set off at a rapid pace carrying long range lenses and tripods, hoping to catch sight of the elusive cat. The wind pushed snowflakes against my face like tiny darts. Their sting was muted by the stunning scenery surrounding me, and the anticipation of seeing a snow leopard in the wild for the first time. We climbed a few miles up into the mountains above Tarbung Valley without finding a trace of the leopard. The sun, hidden behind snow clouds for most of the morning, suddenly broke through and illuminated the rocky mountain side. Rather than feel dejected after the long hike, our group took advantage of the scenery and captured some beautiful light shining on the cliffs above. Lobzung (our cook) followed us up the mountain and served breakfast there, soon afterwards we returned to camp.

The clouds parted for a brief time during a snow storm revealing gold on the mountain.

The clouds parted for a brief time during a snow storm revealing a golden mountain.

A view of our camp site by night in the shadow of the Himalayas.

A view of our camp site by night in the shadow of the Himalayas.

Towards the end of the day we heard the snow leopard call five consecutive times from our campsite, further confirming the cry that I heard the previous day above the observation platform. That evening as darkness settled over the camp, a soft snow began to fall from the heavens. With no wind to push the storm away from us the snow rapidly began to accumulate on the ground. Our group was resting before the evening meal and I was outside capturing a photograph of our campsite. Not long after nightfall, Gyalson and Gurmet were walking just beyond our campsite discussing the day’s events. At one point Gurmet turned and glanced over his shoulder at the cliff above the road. In utter disbelief he stared into the darkness at what was unmistakably an adult snow leopard walking on the cliff directly above our camp site, a mere 80 meters away! He came running over to me whispering excitedly “Nathaniel, hurry with your camera! Come quick, we’ve seen a snow leopard very close!” My initial reaction was to run to join the group already there attempting to capture a photograph in the semi-darkness, but something in the back of my mind told me that I wasn’t going to capture an image of the leopard  this time. I finished taking my photograph of our campsite and proceeded to switch the ball head on my tripod to a gimbal head to accommodate my super-telephoto lens. I don’t know if it was the cold, the age of my tripod or perhaps a combination of factors, but when I went to switch heads the threaded center post spun freely down into the tripod base. I tried unsuccessfully in the dark three times, but I wasn’t able to attach my gimbal head. I stared in disbelief at my plight, the snow leopard now a mere 60 meters away.

The dark side of the moon.

The dark side of the moon.

 As a general rule the wildlife officials don’t allow the photographers to get closer than 300 meters to the snow leopards. Seeing one at a distance this close was almost unheard of. All around me camera shutters were firing off in rapid succession seeming to only further mock my situation. At first the snow leopard just sat silently watching us and then like a true ghost cat it slowly walked away, fading into the darkness. I congratulated all the photographers who had managed to capture images of the leopard and admired their photos. An exceptional opportunity had eluded me due to the failure of my equipment. However, something told me that it wouldn’t be our last encounter with this leopard. That night I met with Gyalson and Gurmet and told them that I wanted our entire group to get up while it was still dark to search for paw prints before the rest of the groups awoke and trampled on whatever tracks might have been left by the leopard overnight.

A yearling Blue Sheep jumps fearlessly from the edge of the cliff to the rocks below.

A yearling Blue Sheep jumps fearlessly from the edge of the cliff to the rocks below.

Part V: The Phantom Revealed

I didn’t need an alarm the morning of February 26th. I was out of my tent with all my gear long before dawn. The snow ceased and skies had cleared overnight. The moon aided us, its light reflecting off of the snow. We set out from camp towards Husing Valley in search of tracks, looking where we’d seen them the previous day, but there was no evidence of the big cat there. Scanning the side of the mountain we saw what looked to be a pair of eyes reflecting back at us. I tried to tell myself that it was only a blue sheep, however the eyes looked too close together and faced forward… much like a snow leopards. Once it moved there was no mistake, we’d located our phantom! Leaving a cleft in the rocks where it had most likely waited out the evening storm, the leopard walked gracefully along the face of the mountain. Soon it disappeared from view between a gap in the rocks and we lost track of it. Part of our group went with our Gyalson up the face of the mountain we were on, while I elected to climb with Gurmet and Stanzin up to the observation platform to search that area. Arriving we set up a scope and my 600mm lens and began scanning the mountains. We found nothing for the first few moments, then suddenly Gurmet exclaimed, “Nathaniel! There’s the snow leopard!” Where?! I asked excitedly. Looking in the direction Gurmet was pointing I saw the snow leopard near the summit. The big cat was climbing directly towards the rocks above the observation platform where I’d made my solitary hike a little more than a day before! The distance was nearly 400 meters and it was still mostly dark, so I pushed my ISO to 6400 and quickly took a couple shots. I stared in dumbfounded silence as the snow leopard walked and sat down directly below the large rock that I’d rested on at the top of the mountain.

Snow Leopard near the summit of mountain in Hemis National Park, India.

Snow Leopard near the summit of mountain in Hemis National Park, India.

I managed to capture another couple images before it disappeared from view over the crest of the summit. I was the only photographer on the platform, and though my images were far from exceptional, I was the happiest man alive. There were plenty of hi-fives and fist bumps there on the mountain that morning. I marveled at the fact that I’d stood on the exact same ground as this snow leopard a mere day before.

The heart of the mountains.

The heart of the mountains.

In many ways the beginning of the expedition played out as though it were scripted, we were just here acting out our roles in this unbelievable story. Many travelers come from every corner of the world to the Himalayas in search of snow leopards, spending days or even weeks here, but leave without even catching so much as a glimpse of one. I was humbled and incredibly thankful for the success we’d experienced in such a short time. 

We saw the snow leopard again on February 27th, the third consecutive day in a row. This sighting was atop a ridge line at a distance well over 500 meters. While the rest of our group was resting I had elected to walk up the surface of the frozen stream with Stanzin in search of some unique images. We slowly made our way, eventually nearing an area called Pika Point, (named by the locals after the community of pikas living under the rocks there). While setting up my camera for a landscape composition I heard excited conversation nearby from someone’s two-way radio. Due to the conversation being in Ladakhi I turned to Stanzin and asked him what they were saying. After listening for a moment his face lit up and he said that someone had found a snow leopard just up the trail from where I was shooting. I could have easily walked to the location and been set up to photograph the leopard within minutes, but as the photographer leading the expedition I felt it my responsibility to ensure that our group knew about the sighting. As you can imagine it was incredibly difficult to maneuver back downstream on the ice at a rapid pace without falling. We finally reached the campsite and I roused our group.

A young Blue Sheep in need of some assistance.

A young Blue Sheep in need of some assistance.

Everyone quickly took off up the trail and arriving at the location set about photographing the cat on the ridge line. I was pretty winded after racing back to alert the others. As a result I ended up being one of the last to make it up the road to where the snow leopard was visible.

One of the many pika in 'Pika Point' up the trail from base camp.

One of the many pika in ‘Pika Point’ up the trail from base camp.

Just as I drew close to the group the leopard stood up and started leaping downhill from one boulder to another and disappeared. I was disappointed to have missed another opportunity, but comforted recalling the incredible experience I’d had with this leopard the day before. We would hear the snow leopard call one more time during the remainder of our stay in Hemis National Park, but never saw it again after that day. It occurred to me that the snow leopard is only seen when it wants to be. Our clumsy movements are no match for their exceptionally keen senses.  During each encounter these incredible animals seemed well aware of our presence long before we ever located them, and they disappeared without a trace whenever they chose to.

Layers of beautiful patterns and textures on the mountain.

Layers of beautiful patterns and textures on the mountain.

Part VI: Saying Goodbye

The remainder of our expedition was spent photographing blue sheep, pikas, bearded vultures golden eagles and even some urial sheep. The sky was dominated by shades of solid gray during much of our stay, making landscape photos a challenge. Of the time I was in India I believe we saw blue sky on only three different days. Due to the sky being shrouded in clouds we didn’t experience much in the way of nice light for sunrise or sunset. We focused a lot on the more subtle patterns and textures of the mountains, as opposed to the grand landscape.

It's official, the' Candy Crush' craze is international!

It’s official, the’ Candy Crush’ craze is international!

On our final, full day in Hemis National Park I spent a lot of time with the expedition team. Sitting with them in the kitchen tent I thought to myself how remarkable it was that after just two short weeks with these wonderful people I’d already begun to understand elements of their conversations in the Ladakhi dialect, though I knew few of the words. Often I could sense inflection in their voices or read the expressions on their faces to learn what the conversation was about. Perhaps the best was when I detected humor in their speech and knew when to laugh with them. We shared many a good laugh together, but perhaps none as hearty as when we discovered that one of Lobzung’s favorite ways to pass time during the day was playing Candy Crush on his phone. After our final meal Lobzung prepared a surprise cake and presented it to our group, inscribed with icing were the words ‘Snow Leopard Trek – We Did It!’.

The Snow Leopard Expedition Team | Hemis National Park, India

The 2015 Snow Leopard Expedition Team – Hemis National Park, India

Snow-Leopard-Trek-Cake_India_IMG_20150304 That afternoon Gurmet and I climbed a good distance up the mountain face beyond where the snow leopard had been seen walking on the cliff above our camp at night. Having explored the area we took in the view one last time before making our descent. Walking back along the edge of the stream I found an old blue sheep horn hidden among the rocks and bushes. With the permission of our guides I placed it carefully in my tent. This horn now sits prominently on the desk in my office, a gift from these majestic mountains and a reminder of this incredible journey. The following morning we departed from Hemis National Park. As I hiked out I recalled many of the experiences from our eventful snow leopard expedition. My heart was full of gratitude for the various memories that I would carry for a lifetime of this vast, alpine kingdom and the cat I call, The Phantom of the Himalayas.

Parting Shot | India

Feel free to email me directly for information on next year’s trip and please check out:

Snow Leopard Expedition

Enjoy a hi-res gallery of the images from this article in my India Portfolio

Review: Naneu Adventure K5-v2 Hiking/Photo Pack

Chronicles of Nature

Field Test of Naneu’s Adventure K5-II at White Sands, New Mexico

I recently took my Naneu Adventure K5-v2 hiking pack out on the road for a field test. My destination? New Mexico’s White Sand Dunes under a full moon. In this particular Park you have two options to access the Park outside of normal hours of operation;

1). Pay the Park Rangers to access the Park after or before its normal hours of operation at the rate of $50 per hour.

2). Pack your gear in to one of their remote campsites and spend the night in the Dunes to experience sunset, the night sky and sunrise.

I chose option two as I wanted to take full advantage of my time in the Park and get away from the casual tourists on the main road. In packing my gear I need to be prepared for a 50 degree temperature swing with highs in the 80’s during the day, and lows dropping all the way down to the 30’s at the coolest point of the night. I also had to consider the possibility of rain in the forecast. Unfortunately the weather was uncooperative on this trip, but I was still able to enjoy the versatility of my new pack. Heavy rain showers blew in one of the days I was there, but the Adventure K5-v2’s rain cover kept all my gear dry. Besides my camera equipment I was also carrying a 2-man backpacking tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, rain jacket, change of clothes, water and food for two or three days. Fully loaded my pack weighed over 50lbs, and distributed the weight exceptionally well. While it certainly isn’t weightless, I easily could have carried more gear if needed.

The 80 liter capacity the Adventure K5-v2 offers more space than any other technical, hiking camera pack available. I was pleased to find that its internal frame and ventilated, padded back support was designed with photographers in mind. The spacious main compartment can be accessed from both sides, as well as the top and the bottom. The numerous external pouches and pockets afforded me plenty of additional space to stow a wide variety of items and keep them readily accessible. I like to always have a designated location to store my wallet, keys and smart phone on these trips, the waist straps pockets were perfect for this. An interior pouch on the left side of the pack is designed to hold a large volume water bladder and one elastic pouch on either side perfectly accommodated two Nalgene bottles allowing me to transport plenty of water even in a desert climate. There is a built in system that secured my tripod and didn’t allow it to shift around or hit me in the head.

Wanderlust | New Mexico

There were a few features that really sold me on this pack, but perhaps the most notable was the removable camera pod. The Adventure K5-v2 has a dedicated center compartment that fits a separate camera pod for storage of all your fragile camera equipment on long treks. This center compartment is accessible from either side of the pack and is fully collapsible once the camera pod is removed. The pod’s padded interior easily provides storage for my pro DSLR with my 70-200mm lens attached, spare batteries/memory cards, filters, cable release, flash and three additional lenses. The pod’s shoulder straps allowed me to use it as a day pack for shorter hikes and leave the main body of the Adventure K5-v2 behind at my base camp. The pod also clips to the front of the Adventure K5-v2 allowing it to be transported attached on your chest and quickly accessed without having to remove the hiking pack from your back for shooting on the go.

My initial response to this pack is nearly all positive. I will say that if you are not going on an extended, multiple day trek this bag may be more than you need, however that is not to say the Adventure K5-v2 couldn’t be used on single day trips as well. I advised Naneu that I’d like to see the hydration bladder pouch be designed in future production to be a zippered compartment as opposed to a sleeve style pocket. They have taken that feedback and are researching what can be done to address that request. I noticed some shift of the chest strap at times, but have experienced that with other packs as well, so that might just be the nature of life on the trail with 50lbs of gear on your back.

Naneu Adventure K5-II Camera Pod

One of the common complaints made by photographers looking for a good hiking pack is that there are few technical, hiking packs designed to properly carry camera equipment, and camera backpacks are certainly not designed to offer balanced weight distribution for your body over long distances, much less transport camping gear. Naneu left no stone unturned in the design of this pack and the result is an intelligently crafted pack in a class by itself. The Adventure K5-v2 is the perfect fusion of a top of the line camera bag and a technical hiking pack in one. If you’re in the market for a new, large volume, hiking pack and looking to transport your camera gear in a safe, secure way this pack is the answer. If you choose to order one be sure to mention my name at checkout to receive 15% off your order and free shipping.

Visit Naneu’s website  for more info.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

Nathaniel