National Geographic Veteran Chris Johns on the Importance of National Parks and Documenting Climate Change in Alaska

Wild places heal both individuals and nations, he says

Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Chris Johns first visited Alaska in 1981 for the Seattle Times. Four years later he joined National Geographic. Initially on contract as a photographer, he rose to become the magazine’s ninth editor and now serves as the executive director of the National Geographic Society Centers of Excellence. Johns looks back at his most thrilling moments in the far north, from surviving an avalanche near Anchorage to kayaking through an icy, critter-filled fjord to weathering storms with 60-foot seas in the company of crab fishers. Speaking from his home near the Shenandoah Valley, the Oregon-born journalist talks about the importance of national parks and urges photojournalists to document climate change and the plight of indigenous people.

Johns was interviewed by Smithsonian Journeys associate editor Sasha Ingber. An excerpt was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Smithsonian Journeys magazine.

What made you want to go to Alaska?

What took me to Alaska was a desire, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, to go a wild place. A place that was grand. There is an old expression, “Some people like their landscape big.” Alaska is full of big landscapes, and I love big landscapes. Ever since I was a child and I read Jack London, I’ve always enjoyed wild, remote places. And another thing that really crystalized my desire all the more to go to Alaska was reading John McPhee’s book Coming into the Country. When I finished that book, I just knew I had to get there as soon as I could.

When did you make your first trip?

My first trip to Alaska was in 1981, working for the Seattle Times. I was working with a very good writer. We started covering fishing issues. We took a boat from Seattle up the Inside Passage into Sitka, into southeast Alaska, to Ketchikan, to Cordova. There is something about going up in a fishing boat and really absorbing it over time. It made for a very special first introduction to Alaska and the many nuances of Alaska.

Since you’re from Medford, Oregon, near Mount McLoughlin and the beautiful caldera Crater Lake, did you see traces of your home landscape?

Yeah, it was just bigger and wilder. And it sort of adds perspective to your home landscape, [showing] what it must have been like when it was less settled, less developed and grand. As a child, I spent a lot of time on the southern Oregon coast and the northern California coast, in the dense forest. Alaska is like Oregon and Washington on steroids. It’s just breathtaking.

How did the requirements of Alaska—dealing with the harsh weather and rugged landscape—differ from your other assignments?

The thing about Alaska: Everything is exaggerated in a way. The climate is exaggerated, the landscape is exaggerated, and it’s wonderful. It’s a place that humbles you. It’s a place that makes you realize how small you are and how short your time on Earth is, when you look at that these grand geological formations, from the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes to Denali. It also is sobering, because you can get yourself in trouble quickly in Alaska if you’re not paying attention. And I had a very close call there actually, in the Chugach Mountains with an avalanche that buried me largely up to my neck and buried one of our party members—we were skiing—to the degree that we had to dig him out. He wouldn’t have made it without us. It was because of a freak storm that came in and dumped a lot of snow on us. Over days. And we weren’t even that far from Anchorage when that happened.

So it’s a place that if you’re going to spend time in the backcountry there, it really hones your observational skills and your backcountry skills. And I love that. I love those challenges. But it’s not for the fainthearted. You have got to know what you’re doing. And then there is a spirit to the people of Alaska that I find extremely appealing. An optimism and a forward-looking, “we can get it done” kind of attitude that is really a celebration of the human spirit.

It is a very different type of person who chooses to live in Alaska.

Yes, usually very independent. It is really the last frontier. That’s a cliché that is used in many ways throughout Alaska, but it truly is the last frontier. And it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But I find it to just be an incredibly invigorating, inspirational place.

Tell me about a special moment from your travels that you like to look back on.

There are really two things that stand out. And both of them have to do with water. One was, I was doing a story on ice, of all things, and we went up to the Hubbard Glacier, and it surged and blocked off Russell Fjord with an ice dam. And that meant that there were beluga whales and dolphins and king salmon and all kinds of critters sort of trapped in there for the time being. It’s a big fjord, probably at least 40, maybe 60 miles long. And so we put interval cameras way up on a ridge, photographing the movement over months of the buildup and eventually the water breaching the ice dam. But in the meantime I was in there photographing this event, and we were in kayaks. And what was magnificent was we’d be kayaking in the fjord, with beluga whales coming right up next to us, almost bumping into our kayaks, and dolphins playing in the bows, and then the glacier would calve. A big ice piece would fall off it and create these waves, and we’d ride them. But it really came to life for me when it was lightly raining and you could see this delicate rainfall on this flat, mirrorlike water. And those little drops hitting and starting to dissolve in that salt water. There is nothing, nothing around. That place could change just in a matter of minutes, from this smooth-as-glass water to winds that would come in and you really had to have your act together to get out of there. Also, ice could be underneath you and come shooting up like a submarine’s nuclear missile. So there was this beautiful peacefulness, but you were also constantly reminded that this was a wild place. And there’s nobody there to rescue you. You’re largely on your own. I loved that feeling.

Another great experience was to go on a Seattle crab boat in the Bering Sea, and you’re locked on the boat, no matter how seasick you are or anything else, for at least two weeks as you leave Dutch Harbor. And of course, those boats can disappear off the face of the Earth. This was before Deadliest Catch or any of those shows were ever done. But being one who is a native of the Pacific Northwest all my life, I had heard about crab fishing in the Bering Sea. And so I’d always wanted to go out in one of the boats. I did a lot of checking, and I found [the person] reputed—and it was certainly true as far as I was concerned—to be one of the best skippers. I went out for two weeks on the Bering Sea. This was in March. A storm would come in, and you would be in 60-foot seas. And you knew that there was a distinct possibility that you might not survive. We would have to go out in these 60-foot seas and knock ice off the wheelhouse of the boat, because it would start to get top heavy from the ice buildup. Then you’d come back into port. And it got pretty wild in port in Unalaska, Dutch Harbor. There were all kinds of shenanigans going on with these fishermen who would really defy death. And it was very lucrative. It was a kind of typical boom-bust Alaska mentality that they are famous for.

Do the best photographers seek out these dangerous situations, or is it just something you personally have been drawn to?

Well look, I was a news photographer for about ten years in newspapers, and it didn’t take me long to say, ‘I’m covering this presidential election’ or ‘I’m covering this football game’ or whatever the event is. And there are like 10 or 15 other photographers covering it too. Or maybe even more. I started wondering, ‘Well, I’m not that special. Do I see something they don’t see? I doubt it. I don’t think so. What about the other places that don’t have a voice? What about the places that are really important in this world, but there is not a photographer there?’ These out-of- the-way places that are really important for the environment, important, strong voices that aren’t being heard.

I wanted to go give a voice to these fishermen that I had heard about all of my life. Because I had grown up and been nourished on those fish and crabs from birth, practically. And I was curious about the people who harvested those fish and how it was done. And what their state of mind was.

What was one thing that surprised you there or caught you off guard?

I think what caught me off guard some was I had seen, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, what can happen from unregulated logging, unregulated fisheries, and rampant development. Good things can happen, and bad things can happen. You go to a place like Alaska, and it’s like, ‘Well, can’t you take anything we learned in the lower 48 about development and sustainability, and can’t we apply that to Anchorage?’

The tired argument that environmentalists don’t care about people is a very tired, old argument. There may have been at some point some credence to it, but not much. We’re all in this together. Every one of us on this planet is in it together.

How did the argument that environmentalists don’t care about people gain traction?

It takes two to tango. When you start talking about protected areas, you can say, ‘Well you don’t care about the people who live on the edge of a protected area like Denali, because wolves are killing game, the moose population, or whatever.’ But more often than not, wolves or predators are scapegoats for less than stellar management that is predicated on, in some cases, very weak science—or no science at all but on public opinion. What you have to do is step back and say, What are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the greater good for civilization, for society? That’s where the voices become so apparent. The voices of scientists. But certainly you’ve got to respect the voices of the local people too.

You still see so much tension between developers and environmentalists today.

You can think, ‘Alaska’s so big, it won’t make any difference.’ Well, when my grandfather came to the Oregon Coast Range and started cutting trees, they were cutting trees like you’d never run out of trees. But it didn’t take them long. It was just like passenger pigeons. It was like the bison. That sense of manifest destiny can really get human beings in trouble. And it can be very unfair to future generations.

What have you seen that has disappeared in Alaska?

I don’t want to be too presumptuous about that, but I saw things that I am sure would be difficult to see now. One thing that is changing [Alaska] dramatically is global climate change. Especially in coastal areas like Point Barrow. That change is accelerating. How people cope with it is a fascinating story in itself. Of course the people who are coping with it are not the people who are generally responsible for human-caused climate change. I mean, we still have people who deny that there is global climate change and that it is human caused.

What stories should photojournalists be covering today in the region?

We need to talk about environmental issues much more seriously in the media than we do. Alaska has really serious environmental issues, and going hand-in-hand with that, it has really serious issues with the plight of indigenous people, their ability to coexist for generations. There is dramatic change going on in Native American communities, not just because of climate change.

How, if at all, did your trips to Alaska change your perspective?

It made me realize how big the world is. Big landscapes humble me. I love volcanoes. I’ve been to many volcanoes. A volcano makes you realize how small you are. And it humbles you. Knocking down your hubris is something that more often than not benefits all of us a little bit. It changed the way I lived, where I wanted to live, how I wanted to live. It made me more open.

It also made me realize the complexity of issues more, and the power of individualism, and the importance of keeping in mind the common good. That’s what national parks are about. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln turned Yosemite over to the state of California for protection, which really started to cede what happened in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. Yellowstone was in part created as Yosemite was, as a place to heal as a nation. Because after the Civil War, we had a lot of healing to do. So national parks are a cornerstone of democracy. Because they are for the common good.

It’s for everybody. You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be poor. You can be any nationality, any race, creed, religion, color, whatever suits you, and you can go to that place and you can be nourished.

I’m looking out my window right now, looking at Shenandoah National Park, and I’m suffering from stage 4 lung cancer. Not pretty. Shenandoah National Park is a place I go to heal myself. Visiting wild places in Alaska taught me the healing power of nature.

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