Visitors to Alaska arrived by plane in record numbers in the early years of the cold war, some of them understandably apprehensive about flying over the seemingly endless procession of Alaskan mountain ridges. Lower Forty-Eighters felt minuscule at an altitude of 10,000 feet, peering through their little windows at clouds larger than lakes. Madcap turbulence often caused the planes to rattle and rumble like storm-tossed ships on a vertiginous sea. Then there was the memory of Will Rogers, who had been killed in a plane crash in Alaska. Although the photographer Ansel Adams didn’t care for aviation—having lost a few close friends to crashes—he wasn’t afflicted by acrophobia. Adams knew that flying was the only way to hopscotch around Alaska’s immense area and to be enlightened and awed by its extremes. Because Alaska’s road system in the late 1940s was confined to populated places, air travel was the only feasible mode of transportation. Adams wrote that while flying was an “unnatural environment for man,” it was, in truth, the only “practical way” to “visit many of the areas I wanted to photograph.”1
In 1942, Adams had traveled in the Pacific Northwest, photographing the rocky alpine slopes and glacier-capped summits of the Olympic Mountains towering upward from greater Seattle against the Pacific sky. This majestic panorama, fresh with the smell of rain, inspired some of Adams’s best photography. He shot ocean waves smashing into cliffsides and Piper’s bellflowers growing in the crevices of rock outcroppings. However, while Adams recognized the Hoh and Quinault rain forests of the Olympics as botanical wonders, he craved glaciers and taller peaks. His intuition told him that Glacier Bay and Mount McKinley were the places to be. He also craved the light of the far northern skies. The Olympics were too low—foothills, compared with the Alaska Range. None of the major peaks in the Olympics were higher than 8,000 feet. “Imaginatively inclined,” Adams recalled in An Autobiography, “I felt Alaska might be close to the wilderness perfection I continuously sought.”2
Sometimes dreams come true. Alaska exceeded all of Adams’s expectations. His excursions in 1947 and 1949 left him with cherished memories and enduring photographs (even though the weather had fluctuated between bad and awful). Building on the artistic photos Edward Curtis had taken of Alaskan landscapes during the Harriman Expedition of 1899, Adams used airplanes, helicopters, snowmobiles, jeeps, boats, canoes, and hiking boots as a means to a keeper shot; he was able to capture places like Mount McKinley and Glacier Bay in dramatic light.
Born in 1902 to upper-class parents in San Francisco, Adams became committed to photographing wild America after hiking in Yosemite National Park as a fourteen-year-old. Adams was flabbergasted to learn that tectonic plates had once pushed up piles of rocks that were now called the Sierra Nevada. “The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious,” Adams recalled of his trip of June 1916. “One wonder after another descended upon us. . . . There was light everywhere. . . . A new era began for me.” Adams’s father soon thereafter bought his son a Brownie camera. Young Ansel was off and running, constantly searching for the right natural scene. “I believe photography has both a challenge and an obligation,” he wrote of his own philosophy, “to help us see more clearly and more deeply, and to reveal to others the grandeur and potentials of the one and only world which we inhabit.”3
Much like John Muir, his hero, Adams started wandering in the Sierra Nevada looking for picture-perfect vistas. Anxious to help save the Yosemite wilderness, he joined the Sierra Club. Occasionally he wrote articles for the Sierra Club Bulletin. His art introduced Yosemite to the general public, increasing consciousness about the old-growth redwoods of Mariposa Grove and the priceless vistas from Glacier Point. Yosemite, it seems, had aroused all his subtle creative strains. In 1934 Adams, determined to protect Yosemite for perpetuity, joined the Sierra Club’s board of directors; he remained active there until 1971. Following the lead of Alfred Stieglitz, who believed photography should be as high an art as painting, Adams adopted a variety of new lenses, determined to reveal Yosemite profoundly. Mountain landscapes, captured by the wide-angle lens, enraptured him.4 Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken in 1927, was his first visualization—that is, he visualized the photo before it was shot, determining its essence in a quasi-scientific yet romantic way.5 “My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world’s critical examination,” Adams declared in 1927. “I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind.”6
Starting in the early 1930s, Adams rejected the notion that his photographs were “pictorial”—a dreaded word used in Henry Luce’s magazines Time and Life. Instead, Adams, with other West Coast photographers including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke, formed Group f/64, championing so-called “straight” realist photographs. The group’s name was derived from the smallest lens aperture on large-format cameras, which gives the greatest depth of field with maximum definition from foreground to background. They preferred pioneer western photographers like William Henry Jackson to New York’s avant-garde.7
The way Adams photographed the West—his spiritual command of the landscape—allowed Americans to better appreciate their wilderness heritage. Adams’s photograph of McDonald Lake in Glacier National Park, for example, helped increase the number of family visits to northwestern Montana. Starting with his first book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, Adams regularly published his black-and-white landscapes of Yosemite in various popular formats including wall calendars. With a black beard and a broad-rimmed floppy hat, and dressed like the young Muir, Adams worked at his trade wherever high-country light met rock. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes read Adams’s Sierra Nevada and marveled at the exquisite photography, amazed that the young Californian had so elegantly captured the mountainous Kings River Canyon region, where giant sequoias were found along with ponderosa pine, incense, cedar, and white fir. Awestruck by the book’s nobility, feeling as if he were on a raft going down the Kings, Kaweah, and Kern rivers, Ickes brought Sierra Nevada to the White House to show to his boss. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wouldn’t give it back. The New Dealers now considered Adams a favorite artist.8
Ickes wanted to make his mark at the Department of the Interior by creating a new kind of national park in the era of dust bowls, soil erosion, and wildlife depletion. Building on Bob Marshall’s ideas about wilderness and relishing Adams’s photos, he envisioned a vast John Muir–Kings Canyon Wilderness Park. When he went to Capitol Hill to take up the matter, he soon discovered that nothing had changed much since Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed in the 1920s. Developers in California still wanted concrete water reservoirs, open grazing, timber clear-cuts, and ski resorts. Ickes showed Adams’s book Sierra Nevada to congressmen and insisted that a roadless park was the “new way,” but he faced strenuous opposition from the Republican Party. The lengthy process of compromise that followed included a great to-do over the park’s name. Ickes was eventually forced to drop the name John Muir (California’s businessmen still considered Muir a rabble-rouser), and Republicans didn’t want the word wilderness on any piece of legislation.
Instead of emphasizing the fact that the Kings Canyon region was home to Sierra black bears, Ickes stressed the 200 Native American archaeological sites. On March 4, 1940, President Roosevelt signed legislation creating Kings Canyon National Park.9“Because it was a roadless park, and because of his disability, Roosevelt would never be able to see Kings Canyon in person,” the historians Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns write in The National Parks. “Instead, he contented himself with following John Muir’s trail through the photographs of Ansel Adams.”10
Ickes now hired Adams to work for the Department of the Interior. Ickes paid him $22.22 a day to go all over the United States, visiting dozens of national parks and monuments, shooting images to bring back to Washington, D.C., for public display. Ickes hoped Adams’s photographs would be analogous to the WPA guidebooks. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and the United States’ entry into World War II lent urgency to Adams’s project: his photos showed America’s treasured landscapes—landscapes surely worth fighting for. The forty-four-year-old Adams called his nature photography “emotional presentations” for the troops. Adams also taught soldiers at Fort Ord, California, photography and escorted troops around Yosemite Valley.
By 1945 Ansel Adams was almost a household name in America, the nation’s most respected photographer. Nobody could match his achievements. Adams helped found the journal Aperture, showcasing up-and-coming photographers and promoting the newest camera techniques and equipment to the general public. Yosemite would remain Adams’s special place, but a visit to Glacier National Park in 1941 (paid for by Ickes) set off a craving for Alaskan landscapes. Adams started looking for a way to experience the far north, and an opportunity arose in 1942 when the John Guggenheim Memorial Foundation offered him a fellowship grant to explore national parks with his celebrated lens. Seldom has a grant been so wisely allocated. Adams was convinced that in Alaska his ideal of the wilderness would evolve to new heights.
Adams didn’t travel light. Wherever he went, he took his eight-by-ten camera, lenses, filter sets, Graflex cameras, and three specially designed pods—so many accessories, in fact, that to list them all would fill a page.11 Adams, a consummate professional, was determined to capture the essence of every U.S. national park and of many national monuments. He looped through the Southwest to take photographs at Joshua Tree, Organ Pipe, and Saguaro. He had a new 1946 Pontiac station wagon, and he put a lot of tires and miles on it as he drove down to Big Bend National Park, where the Rio Grande flows like a lazy serpent.12 A few of those first-round photos of national parks—taken in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas—appeared in Fortune, accompanied by an article by Bernard De Voto. De Voto, through his essays in Harper’s Weekly, published during the Truman-Eisenhower years, did a good job of filling the void left by Marshall’s death and Ickes’s retirement. He became perhaps the best publicist for protecting America’s public lands against powerful stockmen. Secretary of the Interior Julius A. Krug—Ickes’s successor—in a rare burst of inspiration, appointed De Voto to the National Park Advisory Board. What struck De Voto about Adams’s pictures, he later revealed inThe Western Paradox, was the absence of living creatures. “For myself, I had a particular admiration for photographs of Ansel Adams but it struck you with force that the Adams landscape was sterile, a human figure in it would have been discordant to the point of sacrilege,” De Voto wrote. “Say as much as you please about the landscape of time beginning, or of the world before time, the more accurate remark was that it was the landscape before life, without life, the landscape of death.”13
Adams hoped his photographs would encourage Americans to visit their national parks. Conservation, he believed, would succeed only if everyday folks had memorable experiences in nature. Indeed, Adams’s work did encourage an entire generation to look at wild America with fresh, neo-romantic eyes. Statuesque saguaro cacti, half-frozen lakes, roaring waterfalls, storm-filled skies, towering redwoods, slate outcroppings, wintertime orchards, lone peaks, nameless rocks, and black suns were all part of Adams’s own interpretation of America the beautiful. “What I call the Natural Scene—just nature—is a symbol of many things to me, a never-ending potential,” Adams wrote to his friend Ted Spencer in February 1947. “I have associated the quality of health (not merely in the physiological or psychological sense) with the quality and moods of sun and earth and vital, normal people. . . . The face of most art reminds me of a human face, bewildered, wide eyed, with a skin of pallor and pimples. The relatively few authentic creators of our time possess a resonance with eternity. I think this resonance is something to fight for—and it takes tremendous energy and sacrifice.”14
It was this belief that the “national scene” had infinite possibilities for a photographer that Adams brought with him to Alaska just a few months after writing to Spencer. Like Rockwell Kent’s son Rocky, Adams’s fourteen-year-old son, Michael, accompanied him to Alaska’s national parks and monuments during the summer of 1947. They would spend six weeks together in Alaska. They drove up U.S. Highway 101 from San Francisco to Seattle, parked in a garage, and boarded the steamer SS Washington to Juneau. They traveled along the Inland Passage, stuffing themselves on the buffet food, just as Muir had done decades before. An immense bombardment of thunder and bolt lightning left them enthralled, as if it were a fireworks display. “I was deeply affected by my first glimpse of the northern coasts and mountains,” Adams recalled in An Autobiography. “The rain did not depress me; it was clean and invigorating, and the occasional glimpses of far-off summits gave promise of marvels to come.”15
To facilitate Adams’s travels, Ickes had asked Governor Ernest Gruening of Alaska to open the territory for the famous photographer. Everything in Alaska, Gruening told Adams, would be put at his disposal. Gruening had been editor of the Nation during the Harding years, lashing out regularly against the administration, and was pleased, twenty-five years later, to be Alaska’s territorial governor, able to defend stupendous southeastern Alaskan landscapes from reckless development. But Adams was irate because Gruening had also vigorously advocated for construction of the Rampart Dam across the Yukon River, which if completed would have been an environmental tragedy. Having been an official with the Department of the Interior in the 1930s, Gruening knew all the special sites of Alaska, and laid them all out for the Adamses to enjoy. For Adams it was a golden opportunity to see Alaska’s far-flung wonders with professional forest rangers and biologists as guides. The Department of the Interior, eager to promote Glacier Bay and Mount McKinley, thought that Adams would be an ideal publicist. So upon Adams’s arrival in Juneau, Governor Gruening (who was also promoting statehood) fêted him. One gorgeous black-and-white photo of Mount Saint Elias or Admiralty Island, it was understood, could do more to increase tourism than a warehouse full of brochures.
Gruening put an amphibious two-engine Grumman Goose at Adams’s disposal. The pilot, a wildlife officer, having suffered wind, rain, and dizzyingly high altitudes for decades, called the plane the Flying Coffin. After a shaky takeoff, Ansel and Michael’s nerves stabilized. They soon enjoyed flying low over Alaska’s coastal waters, landing in bays where their pilot inspected commercial fishing boats, ensuring that the crews hadn’t exceeded their catch limits. A lover of gadgetry, Adams enjoyed studying the plane’s instrument panels; the cockpits of planes used in the coastal areas of Alaska were quite different from those operating in the interior and the Arctic. From this bird’s-eye view, Adams took a series of distant color shots of “Mount Saint Elias floating in the clouds.” These “personal” photos remained, as late as 2010, in the personal collection of Michael Adams, unseen by the general public.
In his correspondence Adams was boyishly enthusiastic about flying over the Brady Icefield, Mount Fairweather, and Icy Strait. All high peaks were mysterious to Adams. Often, Adams wore a Brooks Brothers sports jacket, a white shirt, and a plain tie; he didn’t like people who turned native. He was balding, and his broad forehead was perhaps his most recognizable feature. Adams’s well-trimmed beard suggested a tweedy college professor. Alaskans soon learned that the always alert Adams was a master at interpreting the moods of their landscape; he would interrupt conversations to point out when a cloud drooped or the sun turned fierce. The Earth had been created long ago—in the flash of a starburst, he thought—and his calling was to turn the creator’s magic flashes into framable high art. The whole labyrinth of human consciousness could be found, Adams believed, in a single blade of grass or a fallen rock. “The quality of place, the reaction to immediate contact with earth and glowing things that have a frugal relationship with mountains and sky,” he wrote, “is essential to the integrity of our existence on this planet.”16
In Juneau and Fairbanks, there would be many stories of Adams flying around Alaska in the Grumman Goose and landing on water. The six- to eight-passenger plane regulary landed on lakes and bays so that Adams could compose quick pictures. He ordered his pilots to swoop low toward the ground to gain a better angle on sunsets and wildfires. One afternoon, Adams’s plane nearly crashed when the right-hand landing gear malfunctioned. But as Adams had predicted, the death-defying maneuver helped him find the perfect pink-and-purple rose light, a light that infused the blue-green-gray-white landscape with grace, making for memorable photos. “We crisscrossed the Coast Range many times, exploring deep valleys, lakes, passes, and peaks,” Adams wrote in An Autobiography. “The shadows lengthened and the golden light on the snowy mountains intensified.”17
A great photographer like Adams will spend weeks, even months, in search of the perfect picture. For that reason, Mount McKinley was a formidable challenge. It seemed arrogant in its immensity, stubbornly denying photographers access to its inner secrets. Perpetually snowcapped, the 20,000-foot, wind-bitten peak simply defied the power of Adams’s thirty-five millimeter Contax lens. Even if a photographer had perfect conditions of light, shadow, and wind, it was difficult to capture such bulk, even with a wide-angle lens. Patience was necessary if the goal was to create thedefinitive photo of America’s tallest peak. Many photographers, unaccustomed to the thin air at high altitudes, suffered dizzy spells near this peak. Adams, however, took to Mount McKinley, climbing it and plotting his strategy. Since McKinley was three times higher than Yosemite’s Half Dome, he realized that the task would be three times as difficult.18
Tourists coming to Mount McKinley National Park during the summer of 1947 were often unsure how to approach the steep summit. Somehow simply driving along the park’s road was unfulfilling. Thus a booming business began; companies offered hourlong air trips around the peak. The tourists were thrilled to experience McKinley from above; and motion picture crews, it was widely thought, could capture the mountain in this way far better than still photographers. But Adams did not want his defining photograph of McKinley to be an aerial shot. He wanted to capture the spiritual essence of the entire Denali wilderness from the ground. If he could reveal the sublime beauty of Yosemite’s waterfalls and the Point Lomas seascapes on his plates, he should be up to the challenge of McKinley.
Like Charles Sheldon, Adams believed the park’s proper name was Denali. But whatever the place was called, everything about it proved difficult. On the train ride to McKinley Station, for example, a steady rain made the rails slippery, and the conductor almost collided with a full-grown moose. “The rain finally stopped,” Adams wrote later, “the rails dried, and the brakes worked. We passed several busy repair crews; the melting permafrost frequently causes the rails to sag, creating a continuous maintenance problem.”19
Eventually, Adams and his son reached the diner at McKinley Station for a meal that tasted of cardboard. At night, mosquitoes filled the air. The Adamses were tired even before their adventure had begun. After a good night’s sleep, the two headed ninety miles into Mount McKinley National Park in a flatbed Ford truck with camera equipment piled in back. They had been given the key to the ranger station at Wonder Lake—where they discovered that bears had recently broken into the storage bin and wreaked havoc. The bruins had eaten huge boxes of U.S. Army K-ration chocolate. “It was a kick to me as a kid to see the muzzle imprint of a bear on the window glass,” Michael Adams recalled. “They had made quite a mess.” To get a feel for Wonder Lake the Adamses hiked a steep switchback trail where the wind bore down on them with a vengeance. Oddly, the remote landscape reminded them both of Death Valley. It looked like the lifeless landscape Bernard De Voto had noted in The Western Paradox, although here they had insects to contend with. As a connoisseur of light, Adams was keenly aware of changes in the weather and of wind velocity in particular. Now, swatting bugs at one o’clock in the morning and dealing with the strange reality of the midnight sun, he felt the pressure of accomplishment. Adams was above all else a professional.
They found an ideal panoramic view of McKinley from just above Wonder Lake. Adams set up his tripod, but it was hard to determine the best angle for the shot. The right light would last at that angle for only two or three minutes. For a photographer seeking the perfect frame, sometimes in rain and fog, it was an ordeal. “The scale of this great mountain,” Adams admitted, “is hard to believe.”20
In his letters, Adams complains of the insistent rain. Visibility was awful. Fat mosquitoes swarmed around them in huge clouds. The bugs even insinuated themselves between the film and lens. When Adams developed his photos of McKinley, many had been ruined by mosquitoes, which showed up, looking like cartoon airplanes, within the frame. Adams was “disgusted” with himself for not being able to get the perfect picture shot. But in truth, he was being too hard on himself. One of his black-and-whites—Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake—would be considered a modern masterpiece, easily the equal of his own Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, and Clearing Winter Storm. Taken with a telephoto lens (twenty-three-inch focal length on an eight-by-ten format camera),Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake shows the mountain and a few swiftly moving clouds, giving a shifting, otherworldly effect.21 The grayness of the scene, the slight blurring, the melting snow seem to have been heaven-sent. Adams had hit his mark.
Michael Adams never forgot the moment when his father shot Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake. They had set up a tripod on a hillside, had doused themselves with citronella to ward off the bugs, and were waiting for the right moment, sheltered by a few stunted spruce trees. A near-silence peculiar to Alaska permeated the air—a vibrating, void-like hum. Mount McKinley conveys rock-hard permanence, silent and untouched—it is in fact a place where no one has ever dwelled in the winter months. Clouds shift rapidly around the summit; looking up at McKinley for too long can actually induce motion sickness. Michael also remembered the glare of the moon, and the colors swirling at dawn and dusk. From their ridge, they patiently waited for it—the flashing moment when, as the novelist Jack Kerouac declared, everything becomes valiantly understood. All around them was rolling tundra; and on Wonder Lake the ripples reflected and distorted light. It was hard to tell whether the light was falling or rising. “We both knew the moment,” Michael Adams recalled. “It was really something special. We had been to a lot of national parks, seen a lot of sights, but this was beyond amazing.”22
Judging art can be a matter of personal taste. Nobody has a monopoly on opinion. But it is safe to say that in Alaska Adams produced one of the greatest modern landscape photographs. In Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, shot at 1:30 A.M. in July 1947, with an ethereal light on the lake, Adams managed to make the summit, the tallest mountain in North America, seem an auxiliary to the Denali wilderness that surrounds it. The contrast in the photo between peak and lake is sharp. The tonal effect is that mountain and sky are both subservient to the lake.
In the 1930s, Adams had perfected his “zone system,” a pragmatic method of achieving high vision by “controlling exposure, development, and printing, incisively translating detail scale, texture, and tone into the final image.”23 This process became his preoccupation. Put in layman’s terms, Adams had professionalized the art of capturing the changing nature of light and how it sweeps over a landscape. “The zone system is designed to eliminate guesswork,” Robert Hirsch explained in Seizing the Light: A History of Photography, “and give photographers repeatable control over their materials so that the outcome can be predicted (that is, previsualized).”24
Years after taking Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Adams explained his process in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. For aspiring nature photographers, for whom natural light is everything, the book remains a paragon of the art form. In it, Adams revealed how he debated whether to use a red 25-A filter but ended up going with a deep yellow 15, which served to suppress foreground shadows. In total, Adams shot three fine eight-by-ten images of Denali. Half an hour later, at 2:00 A.M., clouds had enveloped the peak and the light no longer radiated so expressively off Wonder Lake.25 Night at last fell over the summit. There would be other impressive compositions by Adams in the coming years—Moon and Half Dome (1960) and Rock and Surf (1951) are often cited—but none ever matched the haunting presence of his 1947 Alaskan masterpiece.26
Clearly, Adams represented an ideal blend of empathy with the outdoors, artistic visualization, mathematical calculation, intense patience, wizardry with a camera, and proficiency in the darkroom. He was a master of nonanimal nature. In Alaska, having hauled his equipment up a steep incline with only his son to help him, he was determined to succeed. Undeterred by the intermittent downpours, he captured the frozen splendor of McKinley at an instant in summer. He had waited for the miraculous moment, with all the elements aligned just right, and clicked. It was a matter of mathematics and heart. Somehow he had captured both the “spectacular” and “quiet still life” of Mount McKinley.27
From Mount McKinley National Park, Adams and his son headed to Fairbanks and had a plentiful meal. Then they boarded an airplane headed to Juneau and went on to capture the natural essence of Glacier Bay National Monument. Unlike McKinley, where any photographer knew what to aim at, Glacier Bay didn’t have a centerpiece. As a warm-up exercise Adams took minimalist still-life shots: a blade of grass, a veiny leaf, smooth rock faces—the elements of nature at Glacier Bay. Working in black and white, Adams was more interested in geometric shapes than in the wildflowers amid the ice such as yellow paintbrush, blue nootka lupine, or red dwarf firewood. Adams’s image Trailside, for example, a botanical composition of ferns taken outside Juneau in a rain forest, was a work of modern art in its utter simplicity and lack of ornamentation. In its own way, it prefigured the abstract expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko. From Adams’s perspective, kelp beds, besides being a crucial habitat for sea otters, became a work of minimalism to equal examples by Donald Judd or Carl Andre.
When the weather held up, Adams aimed for the Gustavus Forelands, the monument’s largest glacial outwash plain, located near the entrance of Glacier Bay. He had little success and felt frustrated. When the light wasn’t right, he read books and chatted with the fishermen who worked in Cross Sound. Agents of the National Park Service gladly ferried Adams about the park, enabling him to get close to the brittle surfaces of Margerie Glacier and Johns Hopkins Glacier. But Adams felt that his creative output from Glacier Bay was thin. There was no green fern light to create magic. Somewhat embarrassingly, all Adams had to show from the outings into the whipping fog was a handful of gray negatives. “The weather was so bad that Ansel got very few pictures,” Michael recalled. “It was sort of an abortive trip.”28
A professional nature photographer in the 1940s was, by definition, also a professional traveler. Every day Adams was being hustled off in planes or motorboats in pursuit of it. A nonstop roamer, he enjoyed this aspect of his vocation. While Carmel was his home, and tides were his timepiece, his spirit was footloose. Creatively, he was never at ease. Constantly worried about the light, in need of a strong assistant to help with the heavy lifting, and with a meteorologist’s understanding of shifting winds and tides, Adams, cameras in hand and dangling around his neck, was a distinctive figure in postwar America. His visual intelligence was probably comparable to that of an eagle or a hawk. But all his comings and goings led to occasional accidents. He had been lucky not to collide with a moose at Mount McKinley, and he had a serious mishap at Glacier Bay. One afternoon while unloading gear from a seaplane, Adams dropped the suitcase holding his shot film into a few feet of cold water. Upon opening the case he found that water had indeed seeped in and damaged his work. He felt ill. All he could do was wait to get to Seattle and send the damaged film to Pirkle Jones in San Francisco, a wizard whose forte was repairing damaged film. “I was naturally quite worried about them,” Adams recalled, “but thanks to Pirkle’s care only a few were irreparably damaged; my prized Mount McKinley negatives were perfect.”29
Adams wasn’t through with Glacier Bay National Monument. Determined to get a better series of photographs of the mountains, forests, glaciers, and seascapes in the famous Inside Passage, and with the Guggenheim Foundation continuing to pay his expenses, Adams returned to Juneau in the early spring of 1949. He wrapped himself up in a U.S. Army surplus parka to stay dry, but weariness and boredom consumed him. He found himself cursing the bad weather. Determined to shake the rainy-day blues, he visited Muir Inlet on the eastern arm of upper Glacier Bay, where Muir had indeed camped in 1879. Adams took note that the calving glacier had receded seventeen miles since then. Adams himself now practically glowed at seeing the glacier glisten in the effervescent mist, a kaleidoscope of light reflecting off the bluish-green ice. Chunks of ice collapsed into the frigid waters. To Adams, life seemed to thrive in the waters around Glacier Bay. A feeling of creative exuberance swept over him. Catchmen’s basins were filled with mussels and crabs and starfish. “This harsh land,” Adams wrote, “is blessed by the beautiful northern light and the constant, cleansing rain.”
This time Adams was working with the experts of the U.S. Geological Survey who were studying the territory’s more than 100,000 glaciers. For days Adams traveled with them in planes and helicopters, learning everything possible about glacial systems, from why ice flowed down the valley to the process of firnification. It was impossible for an intelligent man like Adams to inspect a glacier’s terminus and not be overwhelmed by its titanic force. A number of the seventeen tidewater glaciers Adams visited were calving, dropping huge hunks of ice into the waterways with thunderous splashes. Adams found it mind-boggling that the Stikine Icefield blanketed more than 2,900 square miles along the Coastal Mountains that defined the U.S.-Canadian border. “In Alaska,” Adams wrote, “I felt the full force of vast space and wilderness.”30
The question facing Adams at Glacier Bay was exactly what constituted the essence of the national park. How could he get one perfect shot, a representative glimpse into such a spread-out, diverse ecosystem with thousands of varied natural features? Instead of aiming his camera at Muir Glacier, Adams took his best photographs by shooting a chunk of ice jutting out of a bay like a colossal piece of crystal. He titled the composition Grounded Iceberg; it’s included in the oversize hardback edition of An Autobiography. This is not one of Adams’s great landscape photographs, but it aptly captures the sensation of a water world, of the isolation, frozenness, and summer thaws that are characteristic of Glacier Bay National Monument.
That summer, Adams once again fell in love with Alaska’s steep mountains and intricate waterways. A connoisseur of rain, because it often scrubbed the sky, he now complained it “RAINS AND RAINS AND RAINS AHHHHHH PLOP!”31 Overall, however, his letters to friends in the Lower Forty-Eight reveal a boisterous enthusiasm for Glacier Bay that almost equals his passion for Yosemite. For example, here is his letter of June 25, 1949, to his friends Beaumont and Nancy Newhall:
Dear B & N,
WHAT A FLIGHT TODAY! Was in Grumman Amphibian which was dropping loads of supplies to advance base of Juneau Ice Field Expedition. . . .
We crossed and re-crossed 600 square miles of glaciers and ice fields, and encircled the most incredible crags and spires I ever imagined. Bearclaw Peak rises sheer 5000 feet above the ice. We flew around it about 1000 feet distant!
Pictures will help to describe it! The rear door was open to permit dumping loads by parachute. I am full of fresh air, spray on the take-off, noise, but simply unbelievable scenery.
I am afraid Alaska is the Place for me! I am NUTS about it.
Best to you and all our friends, Ansel32
When Adams’s retrospective opened at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in June 1949, his Alaskan photographs generated considerable excitement. (He himself was in Alaska and missed the opening.) Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake was a standout. Everybody, it seemed, agreed that the shots of McKinley had a rare originality: minimalism meeting romanticism in the forlorn Alaskan Range. Like Muir before him, Adams used his photographs to encourage tourists to visit Alaska with their own cameras in hand. He wanted everyone to experience the national parks. In Alaska many ridges remained unclimbed. A new consultant for the Polaroid Corporation, Adams urged amateurs, the core of the conservation movement, to try to capture Mount McKinley and Glacier Bay in their own photographs. The rewards of Alaska, he would tell students at the Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshop (an intense, short photography program held annually in California’s premier national park beginning in 1955), were life-changing. As the new oracle for the Sierra Club and a true disciple of Muir, Adams knew that only seeing Alaska would lead to saving the last frontier. Echoing Horace Greeley’s “Go west, young man,” Adams said to the postwar generation, “Go to Alaska, folks, and bring a camera.”33
Two female pilots—Virginia “Ginny” Hill and Celia Hunter—followed Adams’s advice. Because they became lifelong friends during World War II, when they served in the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) corps, Hill and Hunter are almost always written about together in histories of Alaskan conservationism. Both were born and raised in Washington state; they had conservationist values instilled in them when they were girls; they opened Camp Denali together to promote what is now called ecotourism; and in the late 1950s they fought dramatically to save Arctic Alaska as a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge. “Do we really want,” Ginny would ask, “to make Alaska over in the image of Los Angeles?”34
The WASPs represented those can-do outfits that later led the journalist Tom Brokaw to call the World War II generation the “greatest.” After Pearl Harbor there had been a serious shortage of pilots for small planes. General Hap Arnold, chief of the army air forces, decided to recruit women pilots. The idea was to train women to do all the domestic aviation—transporting cargo from warehouses to bases, for example—while the men engaged in combat missions in the European and Pacific theaters. Both Hunter and Hill entered the program. “We became known as flyer girls,” Hill recalled. “We towed targets for live air-to-air gunnery, testing aircraft . . . whatever we were asked to do.”35
Luckily for historians, Hill kept a marvelous scrapbook of her experiences in WASP. It was filled with newspaper clippings, postcards from Texas and California, and photos of the women pilots. One document confirms that she got her pilot’s license on March 31, 1943; earned $1,800 annually; and was affiliated with the 319 AAFFTD. There is a Life cover story about women in the sky, and there are lots of letters home. “Something new in army discipline—a girl in our platoon was reprimanded by the C.O. for knitting while she marched,” Hill wrote on February 19, 1943. “She had a ball of yarn stuffed in the leg pocket of her ‘zoot suit’ and was blithely knitting on, purling too, while she marched to and from mess. We are treated and trained just like the Air Corps Cadets but once in a while signs of the feminine gender pop up.”36
Hill was a cutup, always spoofing the WASPs, doodling for fun, and writing racy (for those days) doggerel. Ginny couldn’t stand to be bored. She liked to joke that she and Celia were “Daring Young Girls” on the “Flying Trapeze.” But the scrapbooks also revealed Hill to be an excellent organizer. Every scrap of paper she saved was pasted in her fat maroon book and perfectly aligned. And she was considered one hell of a pilot. She was a master of the fundamentals of aviation, and cockpit procedure was second nature to her: fasten seat belts . . . unlock controls . . . check gas . . . Hill would usually fly out of Seattle to Portland, Yakima, and Spokane. The Northwest was her official beat. Walt Disney had published a WASP songbook for which he drew the cover cartoon himself: it was a wide-eyed little girl with aviator goggles. Hill knew all of Disney’s tunes by heart, singing her way up and down the Pacific Coast. “Usually there was nothing down below,” she said, “but mountains, forests, or water.”37
Both Hill and Hunter were annoyed by a weird law that wouldn’t allow women pilots out of Seattle to ferry military planes any farther north than Great Falls, Montana. “We ferried them from factories clear across the U.S.,” Hunter recalled, “but ‘sorry, gals, turn them over to the men here’ and they got to fly them on the Northwest Staging Route through Edmonton, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse to Fairbanks.”
The male pilots, rubbing in the sexist rule, used to tease Hill and Hunter by saying that Alaska was for real pilots, that the fog and sleet were not for the fainthearted female. These taunts stuck in the women’s craw. After the war, Hunter and Hill concocted a scheme to borrow two planes and fly to Fairbanks. They were like mountain climbers wanting to reach the top of Mount McKinley. Alaska . . . all that space below . . . the “great land” from the bird’s-eye view of the cockpit. Even though Hill’s plane was not really airworthy, they named the aircraft Lil’ Igloo and took off for the wild blue yonder. It took them twenty-seven days to fly from Puget Sound to Fairbanks. They landed on January 1, 1947, in a blizzard. The Fairbanks Daily Mirror recorded minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit; what a way to start the new year!
Hunter and Hill celebrated their successful flight and were greeted in Fairbanks with good cheer. The only problem was that they were snowed in for weeks. “We were two babes in a man’s world,” Hill recalled. “We were bored. We saw a posted sign that read ‘Skiing: Women Wanted.’ Well . . . I grew up in the snow and figured why not.”38
On a ski mountain, Hill met her future husband, Morton “Woody” Wood. A U.S. Army veteran of the famous Tenth Mountain Division, Wood had seen combat in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war Wood, an expert mountaineer, took classes at the University of Alaska. A forestry major at the University of California and later the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, he would eventually become a park manager at Mount McKinley National Park. “He asked me on a date to a downtown diner and dance,” she recalled. “All the guys around Fairbanks were rough. He was a gentleman. I was hooked. We got married and made Alaska our lives.”39 From the beginning of Ginny’s marriage, her life still included her best friend, Celia Hunter.
Ginny Hill and Celia Hunter fell head over heels in love with Alaska. Just as Ansel Adams wanted to share his photos of Mount McKinley with the world, Ginny recalled wanting to have all her good friends fly with her over the 20,000-foot peak. For a while Celia worked as a flight attendant on the first trips by Alaska Airlines to Kotzebue and Nome. Meanwhile, the newlywed Woods bought a used Cessna 170, believing that nature tourism would soon become a big business in Alaska. Woody worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior for a while, but the pay wasn’t good. He also earned his pilot’s license, with Ginny acting as instructor. Together they started taking people to Fairbanks on aerial tours of Alaska. “Ansel Adams had opened things up with his photography of Alaska,” Ginny recalled. “Everybody we took just couldn’t believe Denali from the air. There wasn’t anything like it in North America.”40
Influenced by Adams, American families started planning to spend summers in national parks like Mount McKinley and Glacier Bay. The Woods joined forces with Celia Hunter and opened Camp Denali in 1952, building their own rustic cabins not far from Wonder Lake and shipping in equipment from Fairbanks. Camp Denali was like a rustic Adirondacks village in the heart of frontier Alaska. “The connection with the land was important,” Morton Wood recalled. “It was important to us and important to our guests.”41
Camp Denali became a hit with tourists. Once Denali Highway opened in 1957, linking Richardson Highway to McKinley Park, a new wave of tourists came by automobile to see America’s tallest peak. The McKinley Park Station Hotel, which had opened in 1939, was more service-oriented, with picture-perfect window views by a communal fireplace. What the Woods and Hunter achieved at Camp Denali was an old-style log camp (right down to the cabin doors, with wood and leather pulls). It was a rustic retreat where Ansel Adams’s Mount McKinley at Wonder Lake could be seen for real. The combination of Adams and the WASPs opened up interior Alaska to tourists as never before; the money was in nature photographs, not the extraction industries.
Nobody before or since Adams has ever taken such luminous photographs of America’s treasured landscapes. His 1947 composition Moon and Mount McKinley has adorned numerous calendars and greeting cards. There is no such thing as a “dated” photograph of Alaska by Adams—his images are all flawless and eternal. It’s as if Adams had made himself part of the vast Denali wilderness. If you stayed in a cabin at Camp Denali long enough, you became part of the experience of the place. A new postwar generation was seeking to get away from the suburban doldrums and to discover America’s national parks. “You must be able to touch the living rock, drink the pure water, scan the great vistas, sleep under the stars, and awaken to the cool dawn wind,” Adams wrote. “Such experiences are the heritage of all people.”42