The afternoon sun peaks obligingly through dark blue passing clouds. No rain today in sunny Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Just a kilometre from the 60th parallel. Hopefully none tonight. I’m double checking the car for water bottles and adding another case just in case. There are 4 of us going out on the land today for a walk to Lake Grosbeak, and although it is not a tough hike and we’re all fairly active it’s always best to over prepare than under prepare.

We set out in half an hour.

Clouds break and the sun shines through, beating it’s rays down on my back. I get a phone call from Thomas, one of the photographers I’ll be shooting with today. “Are you ready? We’ll come pick you up in the truck, Birdie & Nyki are coming too.”

K,” I say distractedly, warily glancing over my shoulder at the car full of lighting, camera gear, food & water, cases of Canada Dry ginger-ale, blankets, sleeping bag, extra spare tire, emergency kits & bear bangers, ….

We’ll be there in 10. I want to leave fast, we’re losing the light.”

Just as I hang up the light dims. Clouds have passed again over head and the sun disappears, a light wind picks up breathing a chilling puff of cool air over my neck despite the thermometer reading +15C. It’s autumn but the trees are quickly colouring, with red leaves fall from the trees, skittering across the gravel driveway. It’ll get cold soon. Once that sun goes down the temperature will drop a good 10 degrees. The wind gusts again making me wish I had warmer gloves than the loose, worn leather motorcycle gloves I’m wearing. I want flexibility more than I want to be warm, which makes for less hassle when working with the camera.

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Of all of the things I do in a day packing up for a shoot is one of the most overlooked. I generally throw everything I own in the back of the car and give a glance over the wheels to make sure nothing’s flat. My mind clouds over when it comes to keeping things organized. That’s not to say I don’t plan; I often over plan. Bring everything I could possibly need right down to a PLB spot locator device. Ironically since I started carrying one of these in my bag I have had little reason to use it. It’s like a good luck charm. I accidentally ran it over with the car after leaving it on the bonnet once while photographing the skaters of Hate This, a skate brand & shop based in the NT. Surprisingly either through luck or the fact that I was parked in a muddy driveway the thing was completely fine. Not even a crack.

The camera bag is coming, that’s a must, I decide. Carefully I pull it out and plunk it on the driveway with my tripod attached. The vagabond and lights I’m going to leave behind, as I doubt we’ll find any models out there. The main objective is to get some panoramic landscapes in the twilight/night hour. If we wanted to get there and scout the area for sunset we would’ve left before 12. It only takes an hour to get there by road and a 3 kilometre one-way walk down a fairly well maintained trail but the dry-lake bed is a good kilometre wide and wandering up and down it for a good composition could take at least a good hour on top. I walk slow. I think it’s because I have big feet but short legs, at only 5’7″. I’m also still having a hard time after partially tearing my rotary cuff tendon several months ago.

The Canada Dry is coming. I pick out three bottles and put them on the hood. Water is coming, I reach in and drop the case behind me on the ground. Tire iron is coming. This also may qualify as a good luck charm but it saved our ass once when a massive full grown black bear wandered by the only entrance to an up-hill trail. Thomas picked this stuff up and scraped it on a flat stone, creating an eerie screeching noise. Kind of like fingernails on a blackboard. The bear split with a run. I think the sound freaked it out. It would freak me out if I encountered a stranger grinding a tire iron on a stone while staring at me cautiously. I’d hurry my ass back up the hill in a hurry and wonder what the heck was up with that guy. I remember hearing foreign sounds can freak bears out.

Maybe we just got lucky again.

It hits the driveway with a reverberating clang. Wolves and cougars are another story, which I’ve had bad experiences with. The last time I encountered a cougar its roar was so loud that it filled the world. We figure it got caught in a trap. Luckily we were on bikes and had all shot-gunned an energy drink halfway through the evening so a quick 180 in the other direction was the best defence. By the time I stopped peddling I remember my heart feeling like it was in my throat and trying to decide whether or not to jump out.

Ancient One by Karl Johnston

Ancient One by Karl Johnston

At this time there are no bears, wolves, cougars or flamethrower-wielding banshees crawling out of the trunk so I choose to focus my mind away from those thoughts and instead on what to take. Tom’s truck crawls up behind me. I toss the case of water in the back of the pick up and throw the camera bag packed with the equipment, tripod & tire iron in the back with it. The 3 bottles of Canada Dry is coming with me. Off we go.

Area radio blares through the speakers and a deep bass filled oontzing rhythm fills my mind. Where I would be without the world’s DJs… I don’t want to know. To me it’s modern day classical, allowing my consciousness to slip away and my dreams to take root. Every time I go out shooting I’ve got headphones in, or the satellite radio playing. It really helps out up north where the radio only has a couple of stations and nothing like this. I try to meditate at least an hour a day to this station, or something from my own collection.

The Canada Dry is passed around. I lay back on the headrest and let the music take control. The cabin is live with chatter, someone mentions something about helping carrying stuff. I’ll need it, my shoulder’s been bugging me a lot worse lately. I’m thinking about how few people come down this road, yet how well it’s maintained. Access is a big thing in the North of 60. There’s not much of it. Even to get to the capital city of Yellowknife you have to time it just right in order to catch the ferry or turn back from the ice roads freezing/thawing-out. Yellowknife is fair distance from us here in Fort Smith – 600 + kilometres by road or about an hour by air.

Many people mistakenly think I’m based in Yellowknife, and some have even gone up there expecting to find me. I feel bad for that but I try to re-affirm that I’m based in Fort Smith. Some wonder why and the answer is simple…I know the whole town here and I’ve got the studio rental arrangement with some good people.

The North of 60 is vast, spread out, and raw and despite it being a bit of a headache at times, ultimately it’s part of the appeal in being here. You’re literally several hundred miles away from anything in all directions. I’m planning to take it all on. Every region. I want to showcase not only the north’s beauty but the spirit of the land. To deeply interpret it, help people recognize what last little bit of untouched raw nature the continent has so they don’t destroy it needlessly . There’s so much in the news about oil, about energy. Money. Survival. I feel if the land supports us to live on it, why should we not return the favour?

We pour out of the truck, pick up the gear and I finish down the last of the Canada Dry, throwing the bottle in the back of the truck before hoisting out the gear. It’s a quick 3 kilometre walk down a lightly hilly trail. The trail is pretty well maintained as many people travel to this lake. It’s eerie existence is exemplified by the appearance of unique salt-corroded boulders of varying shape and size. These rocks originally came from the glacial ice of the Precambrian Shield. They’re strewn all the way across the area and most particularly on the dry lake bed. The ground is cracked, parched from the salt deposits. Impermeable bedrock forces the saline water to the surface where it dries up and leaves these deposits of salt behind.

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

These salt deposits are clustered and strewn throughout the area like sugar sprinkled by a baker. When I first heard about this area it was referred to me as the moon – it’s easy to see why. Aside from the passing seagulls, ravens and terns it’s dead quiet out here. Moving out of the trail the first thing I notice is the smattering of dried bison tracks in the mud. There are small streams strewn all throughout the area. A few more steps in and my foot steps next to a slightly fresh black bear print.

Well, it’s almost dead quiet out here. The abundance of diversity in the north of both people and nature is astounding. With 19 official languages and the variance between the flat forest of the South Slave region, the rocky lakes of the North Slave & the mountains of the Sahtu & Dehcho regions it’s easy to feel like you’re entering another country with each region you venture through.

The wind picks up again and a sharp wintery smell catches my nose. The trees protected us on our trek down the trail from this wind, which drops the temperature to feel like we’re skirting 0. My ears sting in the bitter cold. In an almost masochistic way I love it when they get that cold. When I enter a house or a vehicle again and warm up the sound of the blood rushing back through them reminds me of the roaring rapids of the Slave River.

I unsheathe the tripod from it’s harness and start setting up. The sun is covered by clouds and sliding down the horizon quickly. I expect the moon will rise shortly. It should be nearly full, if not completely. I plan on getting some video of it rising past the trees in the distance, against the indigo-magenta twilit sky. The girls go off on their own, walking straight and deep across the lake bed towards the remaining cool lake. A smell of sulphur or rotting eggs is ripe in that area, so I avoid getting too close. I’m not too sure what it is but I recommend being careful where you step otherwise you can loose a shoe in the black mud beneath the copper orange sand. The plus side is you can sit on top of the crater-like stones and capture images of American Avocets fishing there and gliding over the water.

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Hey…There’s a bear over there,” Birdie & Nyki pipe up from ahead, pointing to the left side of the lake.

Oh boy. My eyes skim the area before resting on the black furry blob bobbing out of the trees. It’s walking alongside the stoney lake bed’s rim. There is indeed. An adolescent from the size of him. Thomas is at one end of the lake, I’m in the middle and the girls are a good 200 yards in front of me. It’s heading towards thomas. I call to him and yell “BEAR!” I reach into my backpack and pull out the bear bangers, just to be safe. The bear is looking towards us, moving faster away from the edge and towards Thomas’ position by the trail entrance. My hand is sifting around in the bag and I feel my palms getting sweaty despite the cold. I can’t find the damn launcher. I have a feeling it’s in one of the other bags, as we split up the gear to carry additional weight. So much for packing everything including the kitchen sink.

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

Photo by Thomas Koidhis

The wind shifts and Thomas walks confidently away from it with his tripod up at full height, bag slung over one shoulder. The girls have lost interest and continue to walk back towards the lake. I’m incredulous they’re not more concerned but I guess they’ve been here all of their lives and the appearance of a bear is of little interest to them. The thing is heading towards us guys anyway. We’ve no food on us, so it’s likely not interested in what we’re doing. Thomas has the tire iron and as he walks he’s skimming it lightly across the stones as he passes, making an unearthly sound as the metal sings against stone.

My attention is sharpened but I make a point of moving slowly, ignoring the bear and hoisting my gear over my head, walking away from it to meet with Thomas who is confidently and slowly walking with his tripod up at full height. He walks calmly to join me in the centre, moving away from the trajectory the bear is taking. It seems to be directing itself towards the treeline again. I look ridiculous and my shoulder pangs with the weight over my head but it’s better to make yourself as big as possible and back away slowly.

The bear encounters have become so common with us, and although it is important to be cautious the worst thing you can possibly do is show signs of fear, and even worse; panic. Clear your mind, think about what you can do and forget about what you can’t. Be objective. So I match Tom’s confident yet steady walk. A glance at the treeline now and the bear is heading up the trail we just came down. We’ll avoid going back for about an hour, just to be safe.

The sun has gone down, twilight has come. I really don’t like shooting towards the sun. Unless I shoot HDR (which I don’t like) I find it very difficult to control the light against the treeline, even with a few reverse neutral density filters. Too much control of the bright light and you loose the detail and colour of the treeline. As a result I rarely shoot towards the sun, but instead towards where it lights, where I find the light much more tranquil and dream-like.

"Relic" by Karl Johnston

There’s a particular spot of a circle of stones to shoot a panorama of. It’s a strange thing. I fantasize that it’s part of a mysterious magical rite. There are no signs that they were moved, no tracks from being dragged or foot prints around. The real mysterious thing is I don’t see any indents in the lake bed from where they could have been taken. It is possible the rain swept away the evidence of them being moved in this manner but I’m going to go with the magical rite until someone proves otherwise.
About half an hour later the moon begins to rise from where I hoped it may. The group is mostly heading back up the trail now. I’m still on the lake bed shooting frames. I’m thinking it would be cool to use video instead of time lapsing it to capture it’s rise. The clarity you can see it at is astounding. I zoom in with the live-view and see it rippling at 10x with 400 mm of zoom on my Canon 5D mark II. The moon has risen to meet it’s earthly counterpart at Lake Grosbeak, Alberta, Canada.

Photo by Karl Johnston


15 Responses

  1. debby lesley rivera

    absolutely stunning photos and text here! really enjoyed my little break, reading your story and viewing such lovely pictures! thanks for taking the time to share this experience with those of us living in the fast lane, in congested, busy parts of the world; yet so nearby…as i get transformed to the beautiful northland of amazing alberta, while i read your story! keep up the good work, you are very fortunate! continued success karl!

    • Karl

      Thanks Debby Lesley Rivera, That’s my goal – to share the beauty of the north with the south & the world. Especially in the cities! I’ll be going back there tonight to do some winter-scapes of the area. Thank you for your support! Many more adventures coming

  2. Nick Zantop

    Karl & Thomas – these photos are gorgeous, you guys have a lot of talent!

      • Karl

        That night, unfortunately not, but we’ve been wanting to go back lately and capture some. I have seen them out there before but it was too bright out to capture anything interesting in camera.

        I think it would be interesting to see what it looks like out there in the winter. I’d really like to go back and cover the trail too, it’s quite a beautiful walk.

      • Karl

        I’m already working on at least a couple more from this week – stay tuned, your wish will be granted soon!

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