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Outdoors/Adventure

How to document your Alaska adventure

Erin McKittrick writes in her journal from the porch of a duck shack on the Susitna Flats in Southcentral Alaska in May of 2013. The shack was locked, but the trekkers made use of its porch for an unorthodox campsite. (Photo by Ground Truth Trekking)

Like a lot of Alaskans, you get out into the wild. You do fun trips, adventurous trips, maybe even epic trips. Back home, you want to look back on it all and bask in your glory. Maybe you’d like to remember your bird observations, have the material for a killer blog post, wow your friends and family with your latest slideshow or have your YouTube short go viral. But how? How do you document an adventure?

This is a quick primer in four parts, by four people who’ve spent a lot of time wandering around in blizzards and mudflats with notebooks and camera gear. Maybe it’ll inspire you on your next adventure.

Writing an adventure journal 

A writer’s tools are boring: a cheap notebook, a mechanical pencil, and a dry bag to keep them in. Nearly anything will work, as long as you actually use it. I write every night for an hour or so, just before bed, which adds up to around four pages per day of loose messy handwriting.

Over nearly two decades of this, I’ve accumulated a dozen pounds of expedition journals, which overflow their cardboard box, and have formed the raw materials for three books and dozens of articles. More important, I actually like looking back on them. Journaling gets a bad rap; as boring lists or wordy navel-gazing. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Opening to a random page from a winter trip on the Seward Peninsula:

4/3/2015, day 21, Friday

“Don’t say “OH NO!” — say “Our snow wall is working!” Lituya obliged, squeaking “Our snow wall is working! Our snow wall is working!” as the tent rattled and whooshed around us, with the light hiss of blowing snow. It was an improvement over “OH NO! The gusts are dangerous!” And an improvement in the tent as well, which settled down behind its 4 foot wall of snow. Above us, ravens wheeled and dove, circled and played, gliding up the cliff face on the drafts, and cawing down at the silly humans. We were, of course. Silly for setting up in a strong wind in the lee of a giant cliff, where the air swirls and gusts unpredictably around the steep walls of sinuously folded, crumbling rock. Bird nest detritus has blown down, all around the cliffs, pocked by fox prints…

Tent under snow in Katmai Park. (Photo by Ground Truth Trekking)

The more intense the trip is, the less energy I have at the end of the day, so I never worry about what I leave out. Instead, I try to focus on whatever I found striking, and what I’m most likely to forget.

Interesting conversations and quotes top my list, because they’re difficult to accurately remember over time. Next, I focus on details. I’ll probably remember a blizzard that pinned me down, but the way the tent shuddered behind the snow wall, the sound of cheeping snow buntings on rattling grass, the eyes of the fox that stared at me as I was blown past with a load of firewood, the frustration of bickering kids in a tiny tent, the plans and worries about how it will all turn out… Those details make the story of the blizzard more interesting, whether I’m re-reading it on my own, or trying to retell it later. I also write down questions I want to look up, mysteries that intrigue me, plants or animals I want to remember seeing.

I don’t write every day at home, but I always do on a journey. Because memory is fickle. And a story is never the same once you know how it ends.

— Erin McKittrick

Photographing adventure

If you forced me to bring only one lens, it’d be wide. Whether you’re using a point-and-shoot with only a single lens, or a high-end DSLR, I think a zoomed-out view is the best way to capture your experience.

By zooming out and going wide, you bring two pieces of your experience together. The first is the broader scene. The second is a near subject — perhaps a hiking partner, your tent, or an iconic natural object. Together, these make for a simple, honest way to freeze a moment of your adventure — the human within the wilderness.

While paddling across Upper Beluga Lake near Mt. Spurr Erin McKittrick and their son Katmai took a nap. Bretwood Higman took the opportunity to snap the family portrait. (Photo by Bretwood Higman)

Photography makes you pause and look around, and sometimes it literally helps to see things that would have been too small or distant to see without the camera, particularly if you have telephoto or macro capabilities. Even a simple cellphone camera can capture details you might not have noticed otherwise.

As a scientist, I also use photo-documentation for reference. Photos can even be used to make measurements. For artistic photos, spending time to think through fewer better photos is an improvement over willy-nilly clicking. For reference photos, the rules are different. Photograph not just the subject, but the scenery around it, since that can help re-occupy the location in the future. Turn on your GPS if you have one, and photograph both the latitude and longitude, and also the time the GPS clock says. Take photos of whatever you’re documenting from many angles — walking around it, photographing it from different distances. Take notes — on paper, or just scratching in the sand before photographing the notes.

Regardless of your goals, photography is unsurpassed in its ability to contribute with minimal interruption to your experience. If you’re finding the photography a burden, you’re probably doing too much of it, or worrying too much about the results. One of my rules is to never worry about the things I didn’t photograph.

— Bretwood Higman

Nature journaling

Many of us embark on outdoor adventures to establish a personal connection to nature, to heighten our awareness and learn from experience. By keeping a nature journal, I can record my discoveries in a visually captivating way, and improve my critical observation skills. Regardless of how good it looks, I always walk away with a deepened understanding of my surroundings.

Nature journaling combines a clear goal with just the right amount creative freedom. You may use any combination of drawing, labeling, writing, coloring or painting in the layout of the page. The objective is to record what you observe, so there will never be a shortage of ideas to get started. Choosing what to draw is an art form in itself.

I suggest bringing a journal that is durable and medium sized. Large journals are hard to pack, and may get cut from the list of things to bring. Small journals are handy to carry, but they don’t offer room for creative layouts and are harder to hold. I prefer a mechanical pencil, Micron pens and a gum eraser. Colored pencils or a simple watercolor kit is the easiest way to add color while in the field. You can also bring tools that aid in observation, such as a ruler, hand lens, knife, binoculars and field guides. I put it all in a small dry bag for protection.

Whatever materials you choose, the most important step is taking them out and getting started. It’s easy to find excuses for not journaling while on an adventure. You are tired, there are mosquitoes, it’s cold, you could make more miles, etc. My strategy is to do one entry early in the trip, and make the ritual part of the daily routine.

My favorite type of page is one that includes a large object or habitat that gets further broken down into closer examinations. I may draw whole rose bush, then draw a detailed picture of the leaves and hips. Then, I cut the rose hip in half and draw what’s inside. Label the parts; include the common and Latin name, and meta-data (date, location, weather, etc). Most importantly, I try to focus on what I am learning in the process, not what I already know or can learn from books. After all, this rose bush is unlike any other. Why?

Never let a lack of drawing ability hold you back. Nature journaling is inherently rewarding. Let the depth of your inquiry be the metric for success. Improve your observation, and the drawings will follow.

— Kim McNett

Adventure videography

Nothing shares a story as vividly as video. However, human-powered adventure videography and filmmaking present some distinct challenges. Before any wilderness trip I ask myself what I am hoping to achieve by way of documentation. For me this falls into three categories: shooting for a fully developed film, shooting whatever I happen to find interesting as I go, and not shooting video at all. Here, I’ll talk about the first two.

The fully developed film begins well before the trip begins; with an outline of the story I hope to tell. This is where I begin seeking collaboration from others to help develop the project into a well-realized concept. It also helps determine ahead of time what shots or interviews I need to be on the lookout for while underway.

Shooting whatever happens as I go has merit too. Narrative arc, topics, themes, and film end-goals are often too much to consider when a strenuous trip becomes all-consuming. Footage from these trips has found its way into all sorts of projects and often become the building blocks for purely creative filmmaking — something I enjoy greatly. Also, a library of well-shot B-roll footage is a useful thing.

Becoming a one-man (or woman) videographer, sound engineer, interviewer and time-lapse/still photographer while traveling by human power takes time and rehearsal. Learn to navigate the features on your equipment until it feels completely automatic. Before I reach for my camera, I try to imagine what settings I will need for the shot I am envisioning. The aim is to waste as little time as possible but not at the expense of the shot.

When I head out without a clear idea in mind, all I carry is a full-frame DSLR camera.

When shooting for a realized film project I carry more, but still remarkably little: the same camera, plus lenses, an audio recorder; and an external shotgun mic with dead-cat wind muff. I often bring a collapsible mono-pod which can double as a center pole for my shelter. Regardless of the season, I carry my camera and electronics in dry-bags and the camera is always in a bag on my body.

I don’t care for shaky point of view shots and rarely use Go-Pro-type cameras. Instead, I aim for stable and often contrived shots of action. Stable is key. I can’t count the number of shots I anticipated to use in a film only to discover them too unstable to fix in post. Steadying a camera in a blizzard may be tricky — but worth it.

Whether your goal is to document a trip to share with family and friends, to make a film festival short, or a feature-length documentary, one-man adventure filmmaking has never been easier. Durable, high quality, digital video equipment is less heavy and less expensive than ever. Once home, video tutorials abound to help demystify filmmaking and editing software.

“The world is a hellish place,” musician Tom Waits says, “and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.” Make a film about your next adventure, share your struggles, highs and lows, and do your best to tell a compelling story.

— Bjorn Olson

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