Vizzy, deep in thought on a backcountry ski trip

The allure of being a professional nature photographer is strong.  Being out in the wilderness capturing images of nature’s beauty away from the “rat-race” is indeed very rewarding.  There are some sacrifices though.  One of them is being away from friends and family for long periods of time.  Often I am away for days, or even weeks, without any communication; although the modern technology of satellite phones and satellite text has changed that.  What if something bad happened back at home while I was out of reach for days on end?  This has always been a fear of mine.

In late June of this year I returned to Katmai National Park in Alaska to spend a month exploring and photographing.  In previous years I had kayaked into the backcountry of Katmai.  This year I decided to leave the kayak at home and base camp from the Brooks Camp area of the park. My plan was to camp at Brooks Camp for two weeks and then backpack into the surrounding mountains and explore for two more weeks.

Returning to Katmai each year is a powerful experience for me.  A great experience!  Reuniting with friends who work there, in paradise, and photographing the beautiful wildlife and scenery is priceless.  Everyone is happy to be in these mountains.  Being there gives me the sense that the world is actually ok.

It gets lonely being out alone in the wilderness.  The first few days are the hardest.  Then you start to have conversations with yourself — in your head, or sometimes out loud.

Not having another person to talk with is only part of the mental challenge of being alone in the wilderness.  Another is not knowing how friends and family are doing; always wondering about all the “what if…” scenarios being out of reach.

Dinner for one, solo ski traverse of the Sierra Nevada

In the earlier days before satellite phones we just had to hope for the best and go enjoy the solitude.  On one backcountry trip my wilderness companion and close friend came out of the mountains to sadly learn that a close relative had passed away.  No chance to say goodbye and missing the funeral.

Normally I do not like to attribute enjoyment of a wilderness experience with technology.  Time in the wilderness is most appreciated with the least amount of “stuff”.  Less is best.  Every now and then though something comes along that is a “game changer”.  Examples are the GPS and satellite communication devices.

The one-way satellite communication device, SPOT, I started to use about five years ago.  I could not afford a satellite phone contract, so the SPOT was the second best way to stay in touch.  I used one on a month long solo ski traverse of the Sierra Nevada.  It allowed me to send out one of three messages to a pre-selected set of people through e-mail and SMS text:

  1. ” I’m OK”,
  2. ” I need help, but not a helicopter”,
  3.  “I need a helicopter rescue”

Even though I could not receive any return communication from others, it did feel better than having nothing.  On long solo adventures I somehow felt less lonely by simply sending out an “I’m OK” text.  Friends back home would see my coordinates, follow my progress, and be somewhat “connected” to me — even though there was no way for them to contact me or respond.

Eventually new technology arrived that allowed two-way satellite texting.  The difference between one-way and two-way communication is huge.  Last year my friend Brian and I brought DeLorme InReach satellite text devices with us on a wilderness kayak journey in Katmai.  Back-to-back storms kept us stranded on tiny remote islands on that trip.  The InReach satellite text allowed us to get weather reports from friends, reschedule airline flights, and update the National Park Service regarding our whereabouts.

As this summer’s Katmai trip unfolded the bear photography was excellent.  My passion for fly-fishing was rekindled in between photography outings.  I was back in heaven.  Hiking with friends and exploring new areas of the park kept me from getting “bored” with a two-week basecamp at Brooks Camp.  I will write more about these adventures in future blog posts.  This is my first post about this year’s trip to Alaska.  I have not posted any photos from this year’s Katmai trip to Facebook.  Something happened while I was in Alaska this year…

Vizzy enjoying life

About two weeks into my trip I received a satellite text from our pet-sitter, a talented and warm veterinarian, who took great care of Vizzy, Berton, and Squirt (all Hungarian Vizsla rescues) and Ping and Pong ( two siamese cat siblings).  The satellite message was that Vizzy was sick.  Normally I would not be too concerned since Vizzy was in great shape and very healthy.  The fact that this message came from a veterinarian, who knew what she was observing in Vizzy, made my heart sink.  I hoped that this was just nothing too serious.  My instinct told me otherwise.  I wanted to be wrong, but I could almost hear, deep inside, Vizzy reaching out to me.

I was very far from home and not scheduled to be home for another two weeks.  As if a leash was pulling me back home I quickly packed up my gear.  Amazing friends at Katmailand Air and Brooks Lodge were able to get me on a float plane to King Salmon, AK.  From there they booked me on flights home to New Mexico.  Flying back to the lower 48 from Alaska is sobering under good conditions.  It is always hard to leave Alaska to come back to “reality”.

This time was different.  I was in shock the entire way.  I could not believe that my best friend Vizzy was sick and perhaps dying.  How could this be happening?  I tried to hide the tears by wearing sunglasses.  I tried to send out vibes to Vizzy that it will be ok and I will be there soon.  I dreaded a delayed or cancelled flight on the way back.

For 28 hours I was a zombie.  Not sleeping, looking at all the “stuff” I concerned myself with when the real things that matter I often took for granted.  Moments like these reshuffle one’s priorities.

The satellite texts eventually turned into cell phone conversations.  Vizzy was taken from Santa Fe to a specialist in Albuquerque, was on blood transfusions, and his liver was failing.  Vizzy was just running and hiking the high mountains just weeks earlier.  He was so beautiful that tourist buses in Santa Fe would stop and the visitors would get out and pat him when they saw him.  “What kind of dog is he?… he is so beautiful and friendly.. wow.”  As I traveled from airport to airport, in a stupor, I wondered to myself “What the hell happened?”, “Why is this happening?, and most importantly “Will I get to see Vizzy alive again?”.

Vizzy in the Fall Woods

When I landed in Albuquerque Melinda met me at the baggage claim.  I knew things were not good since she said we have to rush.  We drove through Albuquerque to the pet hospital.   Ushered into the urgent care I saw my best friend with all kinds of tubes and monitors on him.  His beautiful gold coat was now a dull yellow.  His beautiful green eyes were bloodshot and droopy.  Vizzy was comatose.  As he heard my voice, Vizzy perked up and tried to get up to come see me.  The vets were shocked.

We were able to take Vizzy outside and sit under a tree.  Vizzy smiled as I petted him.  He pointed at, and “hunted”, some insects buzzing us in the hot Albuquerque air.  We stayed outside together for a couple of hours, way past our allowed visiting time of 30 minutes.  I could tell Vizzy was stressed to be away from his brothers Berton and Squirt, and away from home.  Instead of leaving Vizzy in the strange and harsh environment I opted to take him home for the night, see how he did, and reevaluate things in the morning.

Arriving at home in the much cooler Santa Fe air with Vizzy was comforting.  The doctors in Albuquerque clearly let us know Vizzy’s liver had failed and they were not sure what could be done.  I was still in denial.  All he needed was time at home with the family and we could figure this out — I hoped.

That night was tough for him.  At one point Vizzy staggered outside into the cool air and crawled up under some aspen trees.  I slept in the dirt next to him, patting him hoping he was not in too much pain.  We feel asleep out there together to the sound of a pair of Great Horned Owls calling each other.  It was long night though and Vizzy was in pain.  He kept looking at me as if he had done something wrong.  Vizzy had internal bleeding and all I could do was hold him and hope for a miracle.

At daybreak we took Vizzy to our local vet.  He was absolutely loved there.  I knew that they might be able to offer some help.  The staff and some of the vets were hiding their tears, as we all huddled around Vizzy discussing treatment options.  We all knew though that Vizzy’s prognosis was not good.  But Vizzy was a survivor.

As we caressed his big floppy soft ears Vizzy started to bleed out.  We knew that it was his time.  We all said goodbye and thanked him for all his love, playfulness, and being the life of the party.  Vizzy was a legend in our area.  The veterinarians reminded us about how many people knew about “this dog”, a very special one that would stop traffic just to get his ears rubbed.  Vizzy.

Vizzy passed away on July 9, 2016.  We buried Vizzy under the aspen trees where we slept together that one last night.  That night where I wished I could roll back time and change things.   Today, October 9th, three months later, I still cannot believe he is gone.  This “thing” came out of nowhere.

Berton and Vizzy snuggled up by the woodstove

We all miss Vizzy immensely.  His bosom buddy, Berton, is very sad about losing his pal.  Berton and Vizzy were two peas in a pod.  Somedays I would come home and sneak into the back to see what they were doing. I would find them sleeping next to each other, one would have their snout rested on the other’s back.  Vizzy’s other mate, Squirt, much older than Vizzy and Berton, also misses Vizzy.  Vizzy would always try to get Squirt to romp around with the young guys each morning.  Tonight, as I write this post, Squirt is having problems and I know our days together are very short.

Although I wished it was a different message, I am glad that I was able to receive the satellite text notifying me about Vizzy.  I am lucky I was not out on a long kayak trip where if I received the message it would have taken me days to get out.  Most of all I am thankful that I was able to get home to Vizzy, hold him, thank him, and be with him in his last hours.

Vizzy reminded me of what is most important in life.  To savor each day at a time with those you love.  You never know when a loved one will suddenly vanish.  The more love you can share with them now,  while they are physically present, the better.  The better for them, the better for you, and the better memories you will have knowing what you shared together.

My typical blog post would involve me boasting about some beautiful place I had visited and all the amazing wildlife I photographed.  This post is much different.  I apologize for the dark cloud.  This year’s Katmai trip was indeed a great one which I will eventually write more about.

Three months after losing Vizzy the Katmai trip is still a blur to me.  They say “time heals”…this one will take awhile.

Vizzy’s memorial mandala, painted by Melinda, and buried with Vizzy

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  1. […] year my trip was suddenly cut short when I received a satellite text that Vizzy, our prized 9 year old Vizsla and leader of our pack, […]

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