We recently got a call from our friend and regular contributor, Mike Pham, that he was bound for Alaska. Mike has taken countless trips to the land up north, including a previous trek when he experienced technical difficulties and came home without the images to tell the story. As he shared some coordinates and images of a distant red hut with us, we knew we wanted to be a part of this journey. Here is Mike’s story to the extreme edges of the Earth:
1. How did you first end up visiting Alaska?
Some places just speak to you. For me, that’s Alaska. I got invited for the first time in 2016 by my friend Andrew, a native Alaskan who builds and flies planes, and I’ve been lucky enough to get invited back since. I think it’s partly the community and partly the rugged landscape with its small-town vibes that keeps pulling me back. I’ve always loved the solitude of nature and the expanse of open places so it’s not surprising the energy of Alaska, and its people, resonates with me.
I know we only have so much time in this life to get out and do what we want to do; and making the most of that time has always been at the forefront for me. I think that’s why most of my trips to Alaska are planned around getting outside, camping, trekking, and pushing the boundaries of where we can go and what we can do. I’m always grateful for a trip to Alaska, whatever the season.
2. What draws you to keep going back?
There are places in the world that just speak to you. For me, Alaska has that rare balance of people and place. Fortunately, it also has all the activities I love to do — from backpacking to fishing, exploring, and new experiences, it really is the last frontier and unlike anywhere else in the world. That said, it really is the people that make Alaska a place I return to. After all, life is tough when you’re somewhere far away and you don’t know anyone. I love that my friends are proud to show me where they’re from and what they do. For photos, it’s extra special because once people invite you in, they just give you the photos.
3. Please describe the place and the feeling of being in this wilderness.
Raw, immediate, and away from the fast-paced nature of the world; disconnected, in-tune, and demanding of respect.
Days are filled with the simple task of surviving, foraging for firewood, making food, connecting to people, and taking care of the tasks that keep you alive. It’s not about the things we’re used to.
For this particular hike, it was tough terrain. Even though it’s only nine miles, nine miles in Alaska is different. Rugged with sections of bouldering and steep incline, nearly the entire trek was through ankle-deep mud. After hours of being wet and cold, we were ready to make it to the hut, set camp, and get into dry clothes.
4. What is the story of the expedition to the hut – how did you discover it, what was the journey like, and what was your reward once you arrived?
This was my second time going to the main hut, the first time I lost my memory card so I wasn’t able to capture any images. I knew I needed to re-do the trip so I flew up with a friend I knew could backpack and rough it. I also invited my friend Lance, a 65 year old Alaskan who hasn’t been on this trail in over 30 years.
Nine miles up, nine miles back, mud all the way. We followed a river up through the valley, trekking through stunning, tough terrain. Up at the top of this pass, there’s a lonely hut in the middle of these alpine mountains in the middle of the Alaskan Range. This sort of hut was originally built as a shelter for anyone hiking through and, for us, we were grateful for it. We did it as a strike mission — nine up, eat, rest, nine back — and it was just what we wanted. Moody skies, rainy the whole time, and intense. I loved the backdrop of the clouds rolling through and was grateful we’d prepared for the rain. It was quick, but still a great memory for the book. (note - Mike is a contributor to a coffee table book on remote cabins.)
5. Any advice for future visitors?
I think we have to protect all of Alaska. Anyone in touch with the outdoors knows that we have to protect all of it. As visitors, we have to be aware of what we’re consuming; we have to be sustainable, buy local, and support local. It’s simple, but always leave it better than you found it.
6. How does it feel to visit and capture these places – what is the value to you of the stories you bring home and what do you do with them?
Visiting extreme places gives me a deeply profound respect for the nature, land, and the people who came before me. I know I’m a visitor to these places, with these people, and I’m always grateful for the invitation — and trust — to share their stories.
As a photographer, I get so inspired by the landscapes and the people there.
I don’t go on these trips to take photos, I go on them to do the things I enjoy and, usually, that creates amazing images. I know I’m in the minority of people who will get to see places like Alaska in person and I’m so proud and responsible for showing these lands and sharing these stories.
Most of the images I take, I keep for myself, though I do share glimpses of my experiences through my website and social media. I’m always conscious of sharing it in a way that educates people about the land and the communities, how to keep them clean and how to be respectful.
It’s my goal to preserve what I share because, when people connect, they care.
In in honor of this story we made a donation to the National Parks Foundation in efforts to protect Denali National Park. For more information on the park and how you can get involved, click here.