TALKEETNA, ALASKA was one of three places I was sent to on assignment to promote Alaska as a vacation destination. Talkeetna, with a laid back funky vibe seemingly lost in time, has an eclectic mix of free spirits, rugged individualists, hard-core climbers and river junkies, and in summer, bus loads of cruise ship tourists. It operates at warp speed for three months and then in near hibernation the rest of the year. Lying at the end of a 14 mile spur road off the Parks Highway along the banks of the Susitna River, Talkeetna is the hub for the last flag stop train in the U.S. The sweeping panoramic views of the perpetually snow covered Alaska Range, particularly Mt. McKinley (Denali), dominates the skyline.
THE PERCEPTION. Here’s the thing. The general public always see Lauri and I working with people in beautiful locations. This gives the impression that our job as a photographer/assistant-producer team is a “vacation.” Of course I tell them that is what I WISHED we did all the time.
THE REALITY. The actual location shooting is about 23.3% of the effort involved to make the shoot a success. So this is sort of “a day in the life of a photographer” blog. Not complaining at all. These shoots are exhausting but very rewarding. Here’s why.
IT’S THE PEOPLE. We knew casting, like on any shoot, was paramount. It took 3 weeks of emails, phone calls, phone tag, and coffee shop interviews to get 8 people with busy summer Alaskan lives and jobs to go to Talkeetna, 3 hours away from Anchorage (with some road construction) to shoot at insane hours when “the Mountain” (what Alaskans call Mt. McKinley or Denali) was out. Then there was scouting and securing permissions and property releases for several locations. Last but not least, I arranged a flight see and glacier landing but it was on a space available and ONLY if the mountain was out.
THE MOUNTAIN HAS TO BE OUT! No mountain, no shoot. End of story! Client wants the million-dollar view. Best light is in the morning. Lucky me, I needed two mornings with The Mountain out! Denali is generally only visible 4-5 days on average in July. Got lucky this summer with a great stretch of warm, clear weather. It helps being a meteorologist, but, after committing to multiple people and several grand in production expenses, you bet I was shitting bricks up until the start of the shoot on both days!
SLEEP IS OVERRATED. At 62 north in July, the days are long and the nights, when you are supposed to sleep, almost non-existent. The night before the first shoot day, Lauri and I are standing at river’s edge catching up with an old friend and Talkeetna transplant, watching the sunset over the Alaska Range at 11:50. Tomorrow starts in 10 minutes. I think I’m ready.
HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN. Don’t worry. Not gonna do a play by play of two days of shooting. Day 1: Mountain is clear at 6AM. All 4 talent shows up including one of my favorites, Heidi. The day was long as usual but went off mostly without a hitch. We had the usual problems like dealing with hard clear day light and harsh shadows, crowds and surprisingly, the heat! At 4PM it was near 86 and we just had to siesta. This is a rare occurrence in Alaska. Sunny days don’t always mean the best light. But the Mountain was out. I was happy. The client will be happy too.
But I gotta tell you about our super talent Melody on day 2. What a pro! Day started a little rough. First, there was the message at 4AM saying that 2 of her family members couldn’t make it at the last minute and that she would be late. Shit! The sun waits for nobody! We have a one hour drive to the trailhead, a two hour one-way hike and 1500 foot climb to get to where I wanted to shoot hikers with Denali in the background. Working with Melody and her son Adam for the first time we pushed hard on the hike to get the shots before the light completely tanked and cumulus clouds blocked the Mountain. Needed to be at the flight service for the last glacier landing of the day. Had to race back down the trail and boogie back to town. There was only room for two which meant only Melody and I could go. Lauri had to sit this out. The pilot basically said I had 15 minutes on the glacier. That’s it! No problem, all I need is 10. OK Melody, I know you’ve already had a 12 hour day with little sleep and got sick twice but you have to be “on” and pull off being enthralled with Alaska’s grandeur in 15 minutes. It is times like this where a real pro comes through and she did. I just had to make sure I didn’t screw it up technically. Got back to Talkeetna around 7:30 and did a couple more hours of shooting around town.
BONUS DAY. Late in the evening when saying goodbye to Melody, we met Warren Redfearn, the conductor on the Hurricane Gulch train. (www.facebook.com/hurricaneturn) He invited us on board the next day which turned out to be another clear day with sweeping views of Denali and the Susitna River. Since we were on assignment, Warren stopped the train for us to get out and get a few choice shots for our client. Riding Warren’s flag stop train to Hurricane Gulch really gave me the sense of Alaska really being the last frontier. Everyone should ride this train at some point!
IT AIN’T OVER YET. With three exhausting days I now had 3500 images to edit. For every 1000 image day in the field creates at least 1 day of post production work to get presentation-ready images to the client. Talkeetna alone meant I had at least 3 days of post production work. Not much of a vacation. No worries. It’s all part of the process. As I edit, I keep my new bumper sticker nearby which reads: “Talkeetna, Alaska Where the Road Ends and Life Begins.”