As much as I dread the short, dark days of winter, especially in Alaska, there is also much that I love and
look forward to about it. This gallery is a journey through my favorite memories of the cold, frozen months.
Come along with me and experience it for yourself.
There is a quickening in the cold, fresh air. Breathe deeply of its purity. Watch the steam of your exhale
rise heavenward, like incense blessing the sacred stillness. There is a hushed silence within the winter
cathedral of nature. Yet, a subtle reverberation emits from even the slightest sounds. Dead grasses,
empty seed pods, and the frozen vegetation that abound are gently rustled together like peaceful wind
chimes. A chorus of tiny birds singing so sweetly emerges from the hidden, snow covered dwellings of
well insulated nests. Indiscernible, sharp-
autumn mast and long-
well known to the many eyes and ears that elude your powers of perception. Indeed, there is life all
around. The land is not completely dead. This is not the drab Winterreise of composer Franz Schubert. Rather, this is a pilgrimage of renewal; pregnant with the possibilities to come. As the old-
“The winter covers a multitude of sins.”
Slow down, relax your pace. Notice your tracks. They are the only ones painted onto the vast canvas of
white that lay before you. Winter has erased all the memories of the past. A bold adventure awaits.
There is a new world to be explored. In the midst of the stabbing cold, there is a warmth in the heart, like
that of spending time with an old friend. While the skin on your face tightens from the numbing chill, your
eyes widen with delight as you survey the beauty all around. It is a moment that seems euphorically frozen
in time. There is no chaos or competition, only an entrancing stillness for you to enjoy.
Joseph Classen heading out for a photo-
This has become my most popular winter image over the past years. It was also one of my most
memorable to capture. We had not had any substantial snowfall the year that I took this photo, and
I was chomping at the bit to get out and capture some snow covered landscape photographs. I
finally got my wish, as one particular afternoon a savage blizzard engulfed Kodiak Island. Somewhat
foolishly, I suited up fast, grabbed my photography gear, as well as some winter survival gear, and
headed out into the heart of the storm!
Just getting to the destination where I shot this scene was a nerve-
mess and visibility was at a minimum. An hour or so later, I finally got to the remote, wilderness
stream I had in mind, put on the rest of my heavy-
along the slippery banks while the wind howled and the snow pummeled the land. While I was taking a
serious beating from Mother Nature, yet again, it was at the same time entrancing and euphoric being
literally immersed in such a place at such a time.
Shortly after I finished the photo-
freezing water, in blizzard-
is the fastest and biggest killer of all in Alaska, and the outdoors in general, and I knew good and well
I had to get out of there fast! And, so I did! I hightailed it back to my vehicle, changed into some dry,
warm clothes, cranked up the heat, and headed for home.
I took this photo on the same day, and in the same conditions as the previous one. Upon viewing the
raw image when I got back home, it was so whited-
almost simply deleted it. However, upon further reflection and review, I decided to first transform it into
a black and white image, as those were essentially the only perceivable colors in the composition
anyway due to the weather. Next, I decided to go one step further and highlight the only vivid color that
was in the photo by means of the photographic processing technique of color isolation. The result was
an interesting image which has become a favorite of many, including myself.
This image is of an area around Echo Bend, located in Eagle River, Alaska. It’s another of my all-
favorites. I was out doing some serious winter hiking the day I took this photo and was following a trail
which was only being used by long-
at times, waist deep! Even with snowshoes, it was a leg-
sweating and swearing than photographing. When I finally made it to the area where I captured this
image, the snow was much shallower and navigable. As you can see, it was a spectacularly beautiful
location! I made a little fire along the bank of the river, warmed up, had a bite to eat, and spent some
quality time in the tranquil winter wonderland that was all around me. It’s an indescribable joy to
experience such peaceful solitude.
These three images were also taken in Eagle River, on the mainland of Alaska. I was out hiking part of
what is now known as the Old Iditarod Trail. Along my route, I came across many beautiful, frozen
moose swamps that were fantastically photogenic and just plain fun to explore. These images are my
favorites from that unforgettable adventure.
Kodiak Island is often referred to as Alaska’s Emerald Isle. It’s a fitting name, as a deep, lush green
possesses the landscape during the late spring and summer months. It’s simply breathtaking to behold!
Kodiak is also known as Alaska’s Tropical Island, due to its rather warm winter climate…as compared to
the rest of the state. While I like the fact that Kodiak gets a fair amount of daylight and no subzero
temperatures in the winter, the weather has gotten a little troubling these past few years. When I moved
to Kodiak in 2011, we got around seven feet of snow that winter. I have to admit, I enjoyed it immensely!
That is how I imaged an Alaskan winter to be. In the years that followed though, the winters were so mild
that we literally had days that it was warmer in Kodiak than in Florida! The lack of snow not only took the
excitement and fun out of winter (at least for me) but it also had damaging effects on the environment.
Thankfully, in more recent years, we are finally getting more Alaska-
temperatures and a fair amount of snow. The following photographs are images I shot in the winter of
2017, when after a long hiatus, the snow came back with a vengeance…at least for a few weeks. It was
an incredible joy to once again venture out into the skin-
invigorating winter air, and capture some memorable images of the Kodiak landscape… heavily laden with
inches of virgin snow.
During a rather pleasant winter day on Kodiak Island a few years back, I set out for an evening in hopes of capturing a beautiful winter sunset. It was a gamble I lost, as the colors and cloud contrasts were a dud that evening. But, in the processing of waiting for the sun go down, I was able to capture this wonderful image, which has become another of my most popular winter shots.
In the dead of winter in 2013, I embarked upon an Alaskan arctic exploration adventure. I met up with a
good friend who at the time lived in Fairbanks, and we headed north…waaaaay north! We journeyed up
the 415 mile Dalton Highway, or, Haul Road, if you prefer, which is the only navigable path through that vast,
frozen wilderness. The road leads far beyond the arctic circle, and ends (for the general public) at
Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay, a few miles shy of the Arctic Ocean. It was one of those adventures that I had
always wanted to do, but I can’t say I’m in a rush to do it again. Camping out in a tent in -
interesting! The subzero temperatures made everything hurt and breakdown: camera and camping gear,
and most especially, one’s body!
Exploring the arctic regions of Alaska was genuinely like visiting another planet. Once we were past the
awesome Brooks Range, the vast, wide-
of something out of a science fiction movie. I gained a whole new respect for the wildlife, and of course,
the humans, that endure such brutal, punishing conditions. With the exception of the one and only road that
leads into that rather forsaken land, the only other sign of humankind is the great Alaskan Pipeline, that goes
on for miles and miles and miles!
The photos below are my favorites from that adventure, at least my favorite daytime images. The nighttime
was an entirely different story, with the most spectacular displays of the aurora borealis that I have ever seen.
Some of those images are included in the Nightscapes gallery.
Years ago, I had a college art professor who began the first day of class by placing a piece of popcorn on
our desks. He then asked us to spend the next two hours sketching that rather dull subject. The exercise was
meant to enlighten us about what the mind does while engaged in the creative process, but it was also a
means of exercising and developing our powers of awareness. Intensely studying that piece of popcorn
actually became quite interesting, as it was full of delicate structures, fascinating curves, and displayed an
array of wonderful micro-
training one’s eyes to look for beauty in small things and in overlooked or ignored places, is an important
discipline to practice.
As I now constantly preach to budding photographers and nature enthusiasts in general, a key factor in
developing both one’s creative eye, as well as a heightened sense of awareness, is to slooooooow
dooooown. When one begins to slow down, waaaaaay down, a whole other hidden world is revealed, which
is a rich source of gaining both new, artistic inspiration, as well as a greater appreciation for many things in
life that we otherwise take for granted.
I captured these two images on a day that I was out and about looking for big, huge, grandiose winter
landscape scenes to photograph. There was not much snow that year, so everything looked rather brown,
gray, and dead. As I was searching relentlessly for more colorful subject matter, I began to call to mind
those lessons about slowing down and looking for small subjects that possess great beauty. In a more
relaxed manner, I thus started studying things like the tiny ice formations under tree stumps, and along the
edges of frozen riverbanks. In the process of doing so, I came across a few sections of the river that had
these wonderful frozen air bubbles trapped in slabs of blueish ice. It was a great find. The resulting
photographs are reminders of those artistic (and life) lessons, and have become two very popular images.
When I can’t find, or run out of, the traditional “snow covered stuff” that becomes the primary focus of my
winter photography efforts, I often find myself heading to the ocean to capture what I refer to as seascapes.
It is precisely because of the specific contrasts and color schemes that are generated by winter that water
comes vibrantly alive, becoming bluer, bolder, more prolific, and offers tremendous potential for creating
incredible images! Not to mention, there is just something incredibly relaxing about being alone on a
tranquil Alaskan beach, listening to the entrancing sound of the waves, and watching the sands of time ebb
and flow in the swirling waters. These two images are of such occasions.
Along with those traditional “snow covered stuff” images, and winter seascapes, another genre that I
heavily embrace, especially during the cold, rather colorless months of the year, is that of black and
white photography. When the primary pallet of the environment is only varying shades of black, white,
and gray, then I make it a point to shoot and create images with that color scheme.
Black and white photography can produce bold, high-
thoughts and feelings in a manner that color images often fail to do. Lack of color tends to greatly simplify
a composition as well as giving it a pure, strong, timeless look. As with many things in life, there is great
beauty in simplicity. This is especially the case with black and white photography. The images featured
here were captured on Kodiak Island on different occasions, during different years, but the one thing they
have in common is that these particular locations were not all that “off the beaten path.” They are popular
areas that get many visitors during the summer months. In the winter however, they are, for the most part,
abandoned locations…giving them all the more appeal as black and white subjects.
Contrary to popular belief, not all bears in Alaska hibernate for the winter. On Kodiak island, while the
majority of them do sleep throughout most of the peak winter months, there are other restless bruins that
stay awake for all, or some of that time. Case in point: during my first few years on the island, I had a huge,
9 ½ foot Kodiak brown bear that essentially lived in my yard. He went as far as building a day bed, which
looks like a giant bird’s nest, in the little patch of woods that were right outside my back door. I would at
times actually hear him snoring during the daylight hours when he was napping. But, when the sun went
down, he would go on the prowl! Not for human victims, or even the deer that also visited my yard (though
he did eat a few cats!) but rather, he would roam the nearby streets, looking for his delectable meal of
choice…used baby diapers and beer!
Yes, he was a helpless street bear, addicted to food waste, poo-
the local derelict’s secret alcohol stash. That bear went as far as making a dirty diaper and beer cache!
Just as when bears kill and eat part of a prey animal, then bury the rest of the meat for later, he did the
same thing with the garbage and booze he rounded up from the neighborhood. One day I found a freshly
dug, partially buried pile of both diapers, and dozens of empty beer cans, with gigantic canine teeth tears
in the aluminum.
At night the massive Kodiak would roam around my house…and would even take little bear-
my front porch. I encountered my big, furry friend quite a few times at night, and I have thousands of
nighttime trail/motion monitoring photos of him, as I kept tabs on his whereabouts for the local Fish and
Game Department, but I only saw him once during daylight hours. He had apparently raided the dumpster
of a nearby restaurant, headed right out into lunch-
sanctuary in my backyard. Multiple witnesses called in the event to the local authorities. Within just a few
minutes, my house and yard were completely surrounded by Alaska Fish and Game personnel, State
Troopers, etc. As they were closing in, I was sure my bear buddy was about to meet his demise, but to
everyone’s surprise, he simply vanished into thin air! That 900 lb beast was nowhere to be found! He
eluded his pursuers in broad daylight! Ahh yes! He was a crafty one! He had a network of secret travel
routes that he would follow when pressured too much that would lead him out of town, to the more remote
outskirts, where he belonged, naturally.
All in all, he was a good ol’ bear. He never caused any trouble or bothered people...other than stealing
their beer and eating trash. I miss him. He was an old bear, in his last chapter of life. As many a “trash
bears” do, he most likely took to the streets and ventured into civilization for an easier existence than what
he experienced in the wild. I’ll never know. This photo is my most memorable reminder of my now
departed furry friend. The image is of his tracks, embedded in thick ice, which I found in my driveway
one morning. I think of it as his artistic signature upon a most memorable series of performances. I will
always cherish the memory of my backyard bear. Rest in peace my friend!
A couple of nighttime photos of my old buddy the backyard Kodiak bear.
One of the amazing things about living in a remote part of Alaska is to be able to intimately witness the entire cycle of life that plays out each year: from the mind-
As fast as the snow melts from the mountain peaks, and the lush green grass and wildflowers pop up and blanket the hills and valleys, the land, with all its inhabitants, returns quickly to a more relaxed pace…with the exception of the rutting blacktail deer, and a few other critters that enjoy life more when there are less predators around. It’s always a rather depressing feeling to see the last of the vibrant autumn leaves turn into piles of brown sludge in the washouts along riverbanks, as well as seeing the streams more and more vacant, except for a few straggler, zombie salmon and the dolly varden that are gobbling up the hard-
These two images remind me of that feeling when one fully realizes that the party is over, so to speak. The first photograph is of a salmon skull, covered in a thick layer of morning frost. While I can’t say that this image has been all that popular with my audience, I personally love it, as that ugly skull embodies so many memories for me. The second photograph, however, has become one of my most popular black and white images. It is of a fresh set of bear tracks heading through the virgin snow, and up into the mountains, no doubt en route to his or her hibernation grounds. Another obvious reminder that the sleep, and rather harsh recycling process of nature, is about to begin.
The natural world winds down quite rapidly during the winter and early spring months in Alaska, and, so does much of the activity of the human world…as the two are so closely intertwined. February through April seem to drag on forever in most parts of Alaska, especially in the smaller, more isolated communities, such as Kodiak. While there are still fun things to do and enjoy, one does have to become a little more creative and proactive in finding those things.
These four photos capture the essence of those quiet, inactive, restful months of the year in a small, isolated Alaska town. Yet, at the same time, these images are also pregnant with the excitement and anticipation of the many possibilities to come when the long-
Believe it or not, these two images were captured during the same week. Alaska is, certainly, a land of extremes! One photo was captured up in the snow-
There is something about the sights and sounds of flowing water in winter that I have always been drawn to. The harmony of a gushing stream hidden beneath a layer of ice is a musical masterpiece! Transforming that magical sound into sight with one’s camera is both challenging and amazingly fulfilling. Water is the essential, main ingredient of life, and being around it in nature genuinely has a revealing quality which can help one regain perspective in many ways, both as a photographer, and more so as a human being.
© 2017 Joseph F. Classen -
Alaska Wall Art
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