Photographer gets his dream shot of McKinley after two-year wait

Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Norio Matsumoto had a vision.

He wanted to see the highest peak in North America aglow in the light of a half-moon and shrouded in colorful dancing northern lights. And he wanted to catch it on film.

He got the shot last month.

But it took two years, three different winter camping trips on the Kahiltna Glacier, which added up to 64 days of waiting for the stars, the light, the moon and the mountain to align.

''To capture northern lights and the mountain in same frame, there had to be some moonlight,'' Matsumoto said. ''I think that a half moon provides the best light because it is weak enough not to kill northern lights and strong enough to light up the mountains.''

Matsumoto's work is mostly unknown. However, Paul Roderick, owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi, was impressed by his diligence and drive.

''He's just starting off, but he's got a great eye and a pretty focused agenda,'' Roderick said. ''He needed a first-quarter moon on Denali with northern lights.''

Seven years ago, Matsumoto had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He was enrolled in a Japanese college and began reading travel and photography books.

One of the books he read was ''A Story Like a Wind.'' The book by Michio Hoshino was published only in Japan. The book included photos of Alaska whales in Southeast and caribou in the arctic. Hoshino was an accomplished Japanese photographer famous for his Alaska wildlife photography. He was killed in 1996 when he was attacked by a bear in Russia.

''What inspired me the most was his writing,'' Matsumoto said. ''He writes about what he Loves from the bottom of his heart. Land, animals and people, through his humble, earnest and sincere personality.''

Because of Hoshino's books, Matsumoto decided to be a photographer in Alaska. ''I thought, I want to be a photographer like him,'' Matsumoto said in an e-mail interview from his home in Japan.

Hoshino won one of the world's most distinguished awards for wildlife photography with his first Alaska book, ''Grizzly.'' He was well known around the state and particularly known in Japan.

At the time, Matsumoto was 23 and owned only a cheap, point-and-shoot camera. He packed up his goods, bought a Nikon FM2 and two lenses, a 300mm and a 24mm. He enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, because that is where Hoshino went to school. He remembers using the long lens to shoot photographs of squirrels near the UAF campus and the wide lens to shoot northern lights. After a year, he transferred to the campus in Juneau.

''I wanted to take photos with a smile, rather than with my face grimaced by a frigid climate,'' he said. Southeast appealed to him because of its old-growth forests and ''big ocean full of life.''

Over the next few years, he alternated school with semesters off to work construction in Japan so he could afford to buy more camera gear.

He started out majoring in biology but switched to general studies so he could study many different aspects of Alaska, including the history, social problems and Native people.

Matsumoto had camped only once in his life before coming to Alaska but realized he needed to learn more if he was going to get the wilderness shots he wanted. He read books and talked to friends. He bought a Zodiac to get to Southeast's remote islands and spent about five years shooting whales.

''One day I thought that I want to photograph the most beautiful thing in Southeast that I can think of,'' he said. ''Everyone should have his or her own idea about what the most beautiful thing is. Northern lights over the tallest mountain in Southeast, Mount St. Elias, is what I wanted.''

So he planned a trip for a Christmas break. ''I was still in school, so I only had one month for the trip,'' he said. ''I was in Juneau and called my pilot in Yakutat every day to see if we could fly onto the Malaspina (Glacier). The pilot kept saying no because of bad weather.''

Three weeks passed before the weather cleared. And Matsumoto chartered into the Malaspina Glacier and set up camp.

''It took only two nights to get the St. Elias shot. On the second day of camping, big northern lights showed up and I got the shot,'' he said. That photo is now on the cover of ''Alaska's Natural Wonders,'' a book by Bob Armstrong.

''After that trip, it occurred to me naturally that next time I wanted to see northern lights over the tallest peak in North America,'' he said. ''I thought it would be so beautiful. This idea was also a tribute to Michio's trip, where he camped somewhere near the Tokositna Glacier one winter and got the northern lights shot.''

Because of his experience on the Malaspina, he thought that getting a shot of Mount McKinley would be easier because the weather in Alaska's Interior tends to be better.

That proved not to be the case.

''When I first went to the Kahiltna, the temperature dropped to 50 below one night,'' he said. ''I wished I had had another 40-below rated sleeping bag and a lots of fat around my body.''

When the weather was clear, he shot morning and night.

''Good weather was pretty rare, so I didn't want to miss it,'' he said. ''The same mountain looks different a minute later, with varying sunlight or moonlight. When the weather is not suitable for taking photos, I slept, read books, shoveled snow and daydreamed.''

He didn't get the dream shot that first year, so he returned this year.

This year, he broke his trip onto the glacier into two phases. He camped for three weeks during the half-moon cycle, then went back to Talkeetna for 10 days when there was no moonlight, and then returned for three more weeks.

''I thought about staying for seven consecutive weeks, but it was too much,'' he said. ''When I got my dream shot, it was two days before a half moon, so almost ideal for capturing the shot.''

This year, he also had a surprise visitor, a Japanese climber, Masatoshi Kuriaki. ''What a great surprise! Two crazy Japanese guys met on a glacier in the Alaska Range in the winter,'' he said.

The two spent a day together, eating ramen noodles by lantern light before Kuriaki moved on to begin his ascent of Mount Foraker.

Matsumoto said he had no specific plans for the photo of Denali when he set out to capture it, but he now hopes to sell photos from the trip to magazines.

His long-term goal is to become a professional, full-time photographer in Alaska. ''I want to capture images that would make me smile, images that would also make someone else smile and make him or her feel good.''

Matsumoto said he plans to return to Alaska next winter and spend a couple of months camping in different spots in the Alaska Range photographing the mountains and the northern lights. He wants to see more of the Alaska Range and capture interesting images of the mountains in bright moonlight.

He also plans to return the exact spot where he got his northern light shot. ''The dream shot could be much better,'' he said. ''To be honest with you, I'm am not satisfied with the photo.''

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