From the Black Hills to the Brooks Range: A Visually Inspiring Journey from South Dakota to the Arctic

US Arctic
Our Arctic Nation
Published in
6 min readDec 23, 2016


By Carl Johnson, owner of Arctic Light Gallery and Excursions, the photographer behind the new book Where Water Is Gold, and native of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Sledding in the Arctic (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

Inspiration can come from many places, in unexpected forms. It was inspiration through a young life spent exploring the outdoors that lead me from the dry, Ponderosa forests of the Black Hills with its granite spires and wild turkeys, to the densely-covered Chugach Mountains in Alaska, where Arctic ground squirrels scurry about on the tundra.

Lightning strikes during a storm in the Conata Basin in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

Born at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, I spent most of my younger years in Rapid City, the gateway city to the Black Hills. I spent countless adventures hiking and biking around town, in the natural areas of South Dakota’s famous mountain range nearby, hopping streams, exploring construction sites for fossils, exploring abandoned mine sites. As I grew older, I expanded my territory of discovery to include the southern hills, where Wind and Jewel Caves bore beneath the surface to provide calcite wonders and the granite towers of the Needles. My wanderings led me to the Badlands, home of the Brule Formation and late Eocene and Oligocene mammal fossils, of seemingly endless bluffs, buttes and ravines, constantly being carved through erosion.

Evening light at Sheep Mountain Table, South Unit, Badlands National Park, South Dakota. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

And all the while, I carried my trusty Kodak Instamatic X-15 camera, snapping shots of everything from garter snakes to ancient geological formations. But I did not acquire my first “real” camera until I served in the Navy, and purchased a single lens reflex camera, a Minolta X-700. Over a three-year period, I served as ship’s photographer for two commands, capturing shipboard life, visiting admirals, ports of call, and Soviet ships and aircraft. I became grounded in a photojournalistic style.

While in college, I continued photographing people, events, architecture. After spending eight years living within the steel of a ship or the concrete steel of the Twin Cities, I had long lost touch with the nature that had inspired me in my youth.

First light on mountains in Canmore, Alberta. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

Two years working as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota changed all of that, and ultimately connected me to my photography origins in South Dakota. Portage after portage, strokes of the paddle with the keel running smoothly against the surface of countless lakes, the sight of splashing moose or Lady Slippers deep in the boreal forest slowly aroused memories of exploration in my youth. And after eight years of developing my skills as a photographer, my growing love for nature photography ultimately took me north. Far north.

Wolf tracks on ice, North Fork of the Koyukuk River, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

On pretty much a whim, I moved to Alaska. I had never visited the state, but a burgeoning passion for nature photography and exploring the wilderness compelled me there. I moved to Anchorage because while I was ready to leave the huge metropolis, I was not yet ready to move to the remote Bush villages. Living in Anchorage allowed me to be in a city but also a ten-minute drive from a hike into the mountains. Starting with day hikes, I moved into multi-day backpacking trips and kayaking among Alaska’s wild coast.

The aurora borealis soars over the Alaska Range, Denali National Park & Preserve. (Left) Spring aurora borealis display over Portage Lake, Chugach National Forest, Alaska. (Right) (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

All the while, I grew in my craft as an artist. I came to understand the unique nature of the light of the far north, where mountains glow pink at sunrise or sunset, the light stays a golden warm quality all day long in the winter, or stays up all night in the summer. I marveled at the sight of the Aurora Borealis. I started to enter and then win photography competitions, was published, accepted for juried group shows, and had my own shows. But my first journey into the true Arctic was when I was selected as the Artist-in-Residence for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, a massive wilderness expanse in the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle.

Walker Lake and the Brooks Range and headwaters of the Kobuk River, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

Even though I had lived in Alaska for eight years at that point, I had never been as far north as even Fairbanks until my residency in Gates of the Arctic. I drove to the outpost town of Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway (a two-day drive from Anchorage), made contact with the National Park Service, and was shortly on a flight to Bettles to gear up, load the float plane, and head out to the headwaters of the Alatna River. Over the next ten days, I would explore the high, treeless tundra, watching group after group of migrating caribou pour through the valley as they headed to their wintering grounds. From hiking the open tundra to later floating the river amidst granite cliffs and boreal forest, I had an opportunity to experience the vast diversity of flora and fauna that the Arctic provides. The experience deeply implanted a love for the dramatic, wild landscapes of the Arctic and the amazing quality of light that paints the Arctic world.

Evening light on the Brooks Range at the headwaters of the Alatna River, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

Following that residency, and building upon my growth as an artist, I wanted to return to where it all began, to my home state of South Dakota. I applied for and was selected for another artist residency, this time in Badlands National Park. With a month-long residency, it provided me an unparalleled opportunity to delve into my craft, and re-discover a land I had left behind some twenty years before. Being in the Badlands brought back some memory, but was mostly an exploration of the new, an opportunity to truly see my old stomping grounds in a way that being a photographer could allow me to.

Resting at camp in the Sage Creek Wilderness, Badlands National Park, South Dakota. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)

After recently completing a long-term project to explore the Bristol Bay region that culminated in a book, Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, I have started work on an even more long-term project to explore the unique quality of light in the Arctic, throughout all the circumpolar Arctic countries.

It is all an unlikely journey that started with a love for exploration growing up in western South Dakota.

View from 9,000 feet of unnamed river delta in Kukak Bay, Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo credit: Carl Johnson)
(Photo courtesy of Carl Johnson)

About the Author: Carl Johnson lives in Anchorage with his wife, Michelle. He was born and raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota. His greatest photographic passion lies in particular location, photographing all of its wonders, from small plants to vast landscapes, and increasingly the people who live with the land and call it home.

Carl has served as the artist-in-residence for Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Badlands National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. He was the “Environmental Issues” winner for the Windland Smith Rice International Awards in 2010. He has worked as a guest lecturer and instructor for Tony Robbins, Princess Cruise Lines, and several remote lodges in Alaska.

He currently works as a Supervisory Program Analyst with the Office of Subsistence Management in Anchorage. There, he is involved in a regulatory program that implements conservation of fish and wildlife resources and continuation of customary and traditional subsistence practices on the federal public lands in Alaska in furtherance of Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Carl’s first book, Where Water is Gold, was published by Braided River in June 2016. You can view his photography on www.arcticlight-ak.com.




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