Flying the helicopter at Blockade Lake

Flying in Alaska, I’ve discovered dozens of glacial lakes in Alaska filled with icebergs. Even more extraordinary are jokulhaps—glacier-dammed lakes that burst, leaving behind icebergs strewn across the landscape. Though I’ve never seen an outburst flood in progress, I have seen their dramatic aftermath. One of them, Strandline Lake, I describe in detail on

Another is Blockade Lake, even more remote, and accessible only by helicopter. Few people have ever landed here. Last August, I visited just after the flood. From the air, you see mind-boggling towers and fins of sheer glacial ice stretching for miles. It’s as dramatic of a scene as you can find in nature.

Yet I still have not figured out how to photograph a scene like this well from the air. There is too much going on. It’s hard to isolate individual features in a way that conveys the awe and scale of being there in person. And it would be suicidal in these amphitheaters of collapsing ice towers to put a human in the picture for scale.

I'd love to have a person in this scene for scale--but no one in their right mind would go near it!

Landing and photographing from the ground presents its own set of challenges. The moment you step out of the helicopter in a place like Blockade Lake, it sounds like you’ve stepped into a shooting range. Loud cracks report where tons of ice buckle under the forces of gravity. Meltwater pours off icy faces, sometimes splashing on the ground from ten stories high.

Meltwater streams off an iceberg

Swift rivers of glacial meltoff roll half-ton ice boulders by as I photograph

Photographing near glaciers and icebergs is a bit of a game of fatal attraction. The colors and composition possibilities are endless. But the closer you get, the more you gamble. And I find it a bit hard to concentrate on art in an environment with lots of objective danger—I learned that lesson the hard way at Lake George Glacier.

I remain perplexed about how best to capture these scenes.

This is what we call shoot and dash. No time to set up a tripod when you're under a leaning tower of ice! On the left, you can see my grabbing a quick handheld shot, and on the right, was the result.

The only safe place for the helicopter for miles around

Austin sets up the lunch counter on an iceberg, Blockade Lake

It's hard to convey through the image what's so dramatic about this massive tower of ice

Behind The Lens

Sign up for the occasional story behind the photo and other musings:

Bob Kaufman