A photographic journey of the heart
I knelt behind my camera tripod, gazing from the edge of a sandy knoll, northward up the Nuna valley. A few yards away, a fortyish Japanese man did the same. Before us, a weathered caribou skull lay in a blood-red swath of bearberry; beyond, an immense sweep of autumn tundra glowed beneath a furling expanse of clouds, squalls, and sun. Occasionally moving his lips without speaking, my companion seemed adrift in a trance as he studied land and sky, making adjustments and squeezing the shutter release. I divided my time between scanning the country for caribou and studying him—emulating lens choice and angle, trying and failing to mimic both his technical command and his absolute-in-the-moment absorption. At last, he turned toward me with a smile that seemed to mirror the land’s radiance. Oh look, Neek, look! It is all so beautiful.
The man was photographer Michio Hoshino. I’d met him briefly in Ambler before; he’d been making trips to the upper Kobuk wilds from his home in Fairbanks the past few years. But our first real conversation was at Onion Portage, both of us drawn by the annual caribou migration to that great looping bend in the river. He was camped alone on a cut bank on the south shore. Headed downriver in my jet skiff, I stopped to visit in the slanted light of a September evening. By coincidence, one of his photos had been selected for the cover of my first book, The Last Light Breaking—reason enough to meet. Besides, Michio was already known as one of Alaska’s finest nature photographers, regarded for his exquisite compositions. I, an aspiring newbie, wanted to pay my respects.
Almost immediately, I discovered that what I’d heard was true: Michio was one hell of a nice guy—generous, modest, and quick to laugh. Standing there on that cut bank, I offered to take him farther out, up shallow tributaries where the mountains leaned in and people seldom ventured. And the following autumns, we did exactly that. Our first adventure was just the two of us. The following year I took him and his then-new bride, Naoko, on their honeymoon trip, camping where caribou flowed past, and the winter after, visited him in Fairbanks, where I met his new son, Shoma. Michio asked then if I would write the text for his upcoming photo book titled Three Bears (polar, brown/grizzly, and black) and of course I agreed. He was in his early 40s and I a couple of years younger, our shared journey and lives still ahead. On that day, who could have guessed that we would never meet again?
The night Michio died, pulled screaming from his tent by a rogue brown bear in far eastern Russia, I was camped with my wife-to-be up the Hunt River, where Michio and I had traveled. He had asked me to go along on that Russia trip, where he hoped to gather shared experiences for the narration as well as images for our book; but I was busy being in love. I’d go along on the next one, I told him. But there would be no next.
Sherrie woke me, whispering there was a bear outside our tent, a bear. I scrambled for rifle and flashlight and peered into the August night. No bear, I told her, and after a time, I drifted into an uneasy, dream-swept sleep. Photographer Tom Walker and I were fending off man-eating Dall sheep with our tripods, more surprised than afraid. Then I was invisible, wandering alone through Russia of all places, trying to find my way home. Not until two days later, when we returned to Ambler, came a call from Tom about Michio’s death that same night.
The details came as a gut punch to all who knew him. He’d been warned by the local Russian biologists of a dangerous, food-conditioned bear that had been hanging around; and there was space inside a cabin, where an accompanying film crew and the biologists slept. Yet he chose to tent camp, protected only by his belief that all creatures would sense his own good intentions and respond in kind. How many bears over the years had passed within scant yards of our friend, known for his serene, unthreatening nature?
All these years later, I don’t know what to make of those dreams I had; just another talisman of Michio’s spirit, which remains: in his timeless images; in stories and memories held by those who knew him; and—as a true measure of his greatness—in those he never met. And though with passing years his work is less known in Alaska, his stature in Japan continues to grow.
This past September, I knelt on the rim of the hill where Michio and I had sat three decades before. A few feet away, a fortyish Japanese photographer gazed into his camera viewfinder with familiar, meditative intensity. Before him lay a caribou skull cradled in bright red bearberry, autumn tundra sweeping into the mountain-framed distance. The scene, brimming with déjà vu, was scarcely coincidence. This man, Hidehiro Otake, had never met Michio but had come thousands of miles to follow his trail.
Hide (pronounced Hee’-day) had spent most of the past summer traveling with a film crew for NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster. They were working on a documentary series tracing Michio’s photographic journeys across the broad face of Alaska, commemorating what would have been his 70th birthday. For Hide, who’d been inspired to become a nature photographer by Michio’s work and life story, the opportunity was no less than a realized dream. “Michio,” he said simply, “is my hero.”
After weeks of filming with the crew in Southeast and along the Arctic coast, Hide had come alone to Ambler to travel with me as Michio had—both an honor and a worry. This guy was, after all, a total stranger, and two weeks in tough company could go on forever. But any misgivings evaporated as he stepped off the mail plane, smiled, and we shook hands. It was all going to be better than fine.
And so it was. Though the weather turned wet and wildlife all but invisible, we were graced with perfectly timed fall colors and serendipitous windows of light. Armed with a 120-pound arsenal of state-of-the-art gear, Hide worked tirelessly, his quiet focus matching Michio’s. If I’d felt over the years that Michio, lips pursed, sometimes peered over my shoulder, Hide took that spiritual mentorship to another level. As he worked, I gave him time alone for that inner communion. Too, he was by training a still photographer, and here he was, orchestrating complex time-lapse video sequences with unfamiliar gear, sometimes managing two separate cameras rolling simultaneously, plus sound recording. When he wasn’t shooting, he was tinkering with his pile of high-tech gadgets, recharging batteries with a solar array, watching and archiving footage, and communicating with his director via satellite-relayed texts. Michio, who’d been shooting in the pre-digital era of slow-speed color slide film, would have been mesmerized.
My self-appointed job, meanwhile, was taking care of details—navigation, cooking, and camp—and putting Hide in the best possible positions at the best possible times. The latter proved a patchwork of guesswork and luck, but it all worked out as if scripted. And through the huge pressure of the shoot, Hide remained centered and good-humored, a fine companion around the campfire—much like someone I once knew. As we visited places where Michio had stood, days long gone unfolded became almost new again. When our two weeks were done, we both knew. Neither Hide nor I had traveled Michio’s trail alone. We had company the whole way.