Don Douglas Photography

ALASKA THROUGH THE LENS OF AN ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER

Being an adventure photographer like Annie-Claude Roberge has its challenges, but also great moments. Like the impromptu discovery of Alaska. Portrait story put into words by Anne-Marie Brassard.

I often want to sneak out. To go far away, to walk in the margins. I have this irrepressible need to probe the unknown with my cameras, as if photographing nature in its raw state gives me the right to access its secrets, to be part of it too.

For more than 15 years, I have had the privilege of travelling the world to tell her stories and enrich mine. I slept outside in the cold, ran out of water in the desert, pushed my limits and experienced a thousand heartbreaking goodbyes to make a living from my job. I saw the sun rise over Russia, admired the blue seas of Papua, skied the remote mountains of Argentina.

That was in April 2017. Embarked with all my equipment in a plane used to refuel the most remote villages, I flew over the snow-covered peaks of this state towards Nome, a small town on the far west tip of the country. I needed nature. To be absorbed by its wide open spaces, to find myself in its simplicity.

Nome was my meeting point with Ben and Russell, two brothers born in this city that had once attracted thousands of gold diggers in search of freedom, promise and originality. Inhabited by the same desires, we had the plan to explore the region’s mountain ranges, to ski down its most plunging slopes and its ocean of snow still intact and pure.

Eight people made up our small team of adventurers: two women and six men, all driven by the greatness of this wild and unexplored territory. We were the pioneers of white gold and its last frontiers, where no one had ever skied before.

The helicopter disappeared in the distance in a deafening noise, leaving behind it a last whirlwind of crazy snow, then silence. A deep silence as far as the eye can see. Dozens of vertical lines stood in front of us, each more inviting than the others. Snow-covered peaks and deserted valleys followed one another endlessly to blend into the horizon. No human traces for miles around. Just the wind, the snow and that unique feeling of being where no one has ever been before. We were alone, on the border of the Arctic Circle, accomplices to this moment of rare beauty.

Photographing such intense experiences is a privilege with its share of responsibilities. With fragile and precious equipment on my back, which weighs more than enough, I have to move skillfully and often throw myself first in order to find the right angle for the shots. In these tense times, I can’t afford to make mistakes.

It is on this thin line, where I am both in perfect control and at the total mercy of the elements, that magic works. All my senses are on alert. I am one with the cold, the fear and the dangers. I am in harmony with the environment, for the duration of a dance where I just have to let myself be carried away.

MYTHICAL ENCOUNTER

The changing weather conditions at the Arctic Circle limits had given us a particularly mild week. My guide Chris and I were snowmobiling for terrain reconnaissance, hours away from the rustic cottage that served as our base. We were still armed, just as a precaution. Although I was uncomfortable with this, I knew that the slightest inattention in such a remote area could cost us our lives.

Chris was an extraordinary guide, and I had very little contact with him. He is one of the few people who still know how to decipher nature, to read its slightest signs. It is thanks to him that I was able to admire majestic moose, imposing grizzlies and the incredible presence of a herd of muskoxen, perfectly adapted to the harsh Arctic climate. Massive and unshakeable, these prehistoric survivors seemed frozen in time, commanding the greatest respect.

It was also with Chris that I had one of the most intense encounters of my life, an unexpected face-to-face encounter with a living legend of the Arctic, the famous wolverine. He was there, a few meters from our snowmobile, obviously irritated at being surprised.

Lonely and ferocious, this powerful mammal has long been feeding the human imagination as a kind of fascinating danger. Its territory can extend up to 1000 km2; it is therefore extremely rare to encounter this mysterious animal, capable of killing much larger predators than it.

I had always dreamed of observing one in the wild, of being one of the lucky ones who met his eyes. I took a few shots before turning around and realizing that we didn’t have a weapon with us that morning. I still have chills.

HUMBLY

I don’t know where my job as an adventure photographer-filmmaker will lead me, how many more encounters I will have the chance to make, how many more stories I have to tell. What I do know is that I still discover places and people that touch me deeply and teach me to be whole and humble in contact with nature.

For me, going on an adventure is not like going as a conqueror. It’s not a question of distance, speed, ego.

Going on an adventure means enjoying every moment by adapting to your environment. It means learning to know your limits, to define and tame your fears, to observe and understand what is greater than yourself. Like Alaska.

I have drawn strength and courage from its imperturbable peaks. I have tasted the freedom of its infinite spaces and the unparalleled hospitality of its inhabitants. I recognized myself in his wild and vulnerable character.

But I also found in his silence all the time it takes to listen to yourself… and to rediscover your inner mountain, the one you have never finished exploring.