A Photographic Journey in Yukon Flats and Togiak National Wildlife Refuges

This summer brought me to seeing, with eyes wide open, the wilds of both Yukon Flats and Togiak National Wildlife Refuges.  Supported and guided by US Fish and Wildlife Service for the third year, my intention was to learn, expand, grow, and understand more about the wilderness of Alaska and the Native people who live by the will of the land.  The first expedition was by boat down the Yukon River from Circle to Fort Yukon, then Beaver, then out at the bridge.  The week long journey brought us into the lives of the Gwich’in, Yup’ik, and Inupiaq people and in flow with one of the most powerful, wild and fertile rivers in the North.  It was from these waters that I tasted the best salmon of my life – Yukon King, or better yet Yukon Gold – it melted on my tongue and delivered nutrients, omegas, and fat for fuel.  It was at the connection of the Porcupine River and the Yukon where I met the most amazing woman – Julie Mahler – who had spent 40 years of her life raising her family on a homestead far away from even the most remote village, tucked into the tundra and fed by the river.

From the Yukon to Fairbanks where I met two beautiful strong Gwich’in female leaders who will become portrait subjects in my series Faces of Legacy.  From Fairbanks to Anchorage where I spent a lovely five days with the family of Polly Andrews and Ossie Kairaiuak, wrestling kids, walking dogs, and enjoying traditional Yup’ik life, food, ceremony, dance, song and celebration all the while in the largest city of Alaska.  I hosted and moderated a Native Artists Panel at Alaska Native Heritage Center where we talked about the importance of culture and art in the health of communities and the land.

A quick hop down to the coast brought me into Dillingham, where I got my first taste of what it’s like to be a village swarmed with commercial fishing.  I flew out to Togiak from there, and experienced the constant hum of boat engines as the Yup’ik people of the village picked their set nets for salmon.  It was a record year for sockeye salmon in the Bristol Bay area, and everyone was excited and eager.  And yet the task comes with risk and danger.  All was present in the swirl of Togiak.  A helicopter ride thanks to USFWS into the Refuge sent me waist deep in river water flowing thick with spawned out chum salmon and surrounded by feasting bears, gulls, eagles and ravens.  I ended my stay in Togiak by painting a mural on the Traditional Council’s storage container, all the while monitoring packs of children with loaded paintbrushes.

The artwork produced from these trips belongs to Fish and Wildlife to utilize for education, outreach, and relations.  I hope what I share with you seeds a deep love for wilderness, a respect for traditional ways of life, and a desire to take care of the environments we live in with every step we take.

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’till next time.

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