This shot of the Aghileen Pinnacles with Mount Dutton beyond was one of the many Izembek National Wildlife Refuge photos Gerrit Vyn took during a trip there in 2018. The spectacular volcanic peaks around Izembek Lagoon add to the refuge’s outstanding wilderness qualities. More than two-thirds of Izembek’s 310,000 acres are designated as federally protected wilderness.
As a photographer and a lover of wildlife and wild locales, I think there’s no place on Earth like Alaska.
For 25 years, I’ve visited the state regularly and have explored the familiar, like Denali and Katmai national parks, and places far more remote like the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the North Slope and outer Aleutian Islands. I’ve gone in search of bears and birds, mountains and glaciers, and walrus and wilderness. But there was one place far off the beaten track, a mysterious place with an unforgettable name, that I had never been and always wondered about—Izembek.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and associated State Game Refuge lie at the end of the Alaska Peninsula where land gives way to the Bering Sea and North Pacific, terminating at the Aleutian Islands. The refuge was established in 1960 by President Eisenhower, in recognition of its critical importance to migratory birds and large concentrations of brown bears. Its marine wetlands, especially vast Izembek Lagoon, are so unique that it was the first place in the United States to be designated under the Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance, and it is recognized as an Important Bird Area of global significance by national and international conservation groups.
So, I jumped at the chance in the late summer and fall of 2018 to lead a six-week expedition sponsored by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology to document its wildlife and wild lands in photographs and film. What I found at Izembek wasn’t just birds and bears but one of the most spectacular volcanic landscapes I’ve ever witnessed, along with an abundance of both marine and terrestrial life rivaled by few places in Alaska. It turns out that Izembek has it all.
Capturing these images was not just a unique opportunity for photography. It was important for another reason: to show Alaskans and Americans a wilderness in the cross-hairs. There has been a decades-long effort to build an unprecedented road through the federally protected wilderness at Izembek, and people need to see what’s at stake before it is lost. What I found at Izembek was a place that is grand even on an Alaskan scale—an intact wilderness encompassing vast wetlands, abundant wildlife, and a volcanic landscape as spectacular as anywhere on Earth. It is a little-known Alaskan treasure more than worthy of the protections it has long been afforded.