Moon Shot

Moon Shot

Moon above Klehini


This shot of the moon is a tribute to Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the 6th man to walk on the moon. Mitchell died Feb 4th. I had the honor to spend the day with him when he came to Haines as the keynote speaker at the 2012 Alaska Bald Eagle Festival. My friend, Steve Kroschel, sometimes called the Dr. Doolittle of Alaska, asked me to drive Dr. Mitchell from town to Steve’s Wildlife Center for filming for a documentary film Steve was working on entitled “The Grounded.

After the shoot was done, Dr. Mitchell and I drove back to town alone together in my vehicle. We went right through the heart of the Eagle Preserve and I thought he might want to get out and stretch his legs and enjoy the expanse of eagles lining the river. But he declined and seemed a bit tired. So we kept driving quietly into town. After a few minutes of silence, I asked him if he minded telling me what it was like to be in outer space.

My question woke him up and he turned to me, his eyes sparkling, “I don’t mind at all,” he said, “That Apollo 14 mission changed my life forever. I had been completely focused with all the details of the moonwalk, and of course all the stress and challenges that goes along with something of that nature. I returned to the spaceship and prepared to take off, everything was set, and for a brief moment I was temporarily finished with my duties. I took a deep breath, relaxed, and looked up into space. “

“I could not believe how bright the stars were. You see, there is no atmosphere on the moon and so the stars were incredibly bright and there were so many of them. At that moment, I felt a deep sense of connection and realized we are all united; we are all made of the same thing-stardust. “

He went on to explain that after the mission, he dedicated the rest of his life to the continued exploration of another type of space, the space inside each of us and our connection to the greater consciousness.

I accompanied him to the dinner at the Bald Eagle Festival where he was the featured speaker, and sat next to him at the table. It was interesting for me to sit next to a celebrity. Some folks were very respectful. Others walked right up to him and took his photo with no introductions. Many came up with something for him to sign- an old tablecloth commemorating a space mission, a copy of his book, a piece of paper napkin. He was very gracious and did not turn down anyone.

I took him back to his hotel and drove him to the airport the next day. I could have asked for a photograph with him or an autograph, and I thought about it, but I never did. I felt fortunate to have spent some time alone with him, and to get the reminder that life is precious and mysterious, and that we all have a lot to be thankful for. And that is more valuable than any souvenir he could have given me.

Hearing that Edgar Mitchell passed away February 4th made me pause and think a bit about my life and what I will leave behind. At the same time, I was preparing a talk for the Haines Photography group entitled “From Conception to Marketing, How I produced my book Where Eagles Gather.” I looked back and tried to figure out how I got to this point in life where I am today. What lessons have I learned? What lessons can I pass on? Who were the people who helped me along and what did they teach me?

In my next several installments I am going to go back and explore my life in Haines and share with you how I got to the point where I was able to produce Where Eagles Gather.

I first arrived in Haines in 1986 as a naturalist guide on a small cruise ship, the Great Rivers Explorer. We cruised Southeast Alaska and docked in Haines once a week. We would always go to Haines’ Sheldon Museum and watch Joel Bennet’s classic 1981 film, Last Stronghold of the Eagles. This was a movie about the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve with spectacular cinematography and a conservation message. It was produced when the area surrounding the Eagle Council Grounds was in jeopardy from large-scale logging. The movie excited me about the winter congregation, and also taught me about the controversy that led to the creation of the Preserve in 1982.

I went on a rafting trip in the Eagle Preserve and loved it. If the weather was good, I told the guests on the ship that there was nothing better they could do in Haines than go rafting. Not long after, I met Bart Henderson, owner of the rafting company Chilkat Guides and I told him that I wanted to move to Haines. Bart had taken a liking to me partly because I was able to fill his rafting tours to capacity. I took a liking to Bart because I saw in him something that I wanted to become; he was a wilderness guide.

I moved to Haines in 1987, began guiding and training guides and began to learn more about the Preserve and tell the story to the guides as I trained them. I gave many of those early talks on the bus as we headed to the river to go rafting. These “schpiels”, as they became known, became an important part of Chilkat Guides’ strong reputation. I made sure the guests heard the story of the Preserve and the story of controversy and compromise. And I made sure they learned about the unique ecology of the area and all about bald eagles.

The company grew, and I taught the new generation of “schpielers” the story and encouraged them to pass it on. Some guides did better than others. It became clear after a time that most of the guides were not passing on the complex story of the creation of the preserve and the conservation message entailed in the story. It was too complicated of a story to give to tourists on vacation. The schpiel became more about fun…..we called it “info-tainment.” Give some good information, keep it fun, have a good time. But in the back of my mind, I wondered….how could I get the story out to the public?

I began to organize my 35mm slides (remember them?) and realized I had some amazing images from all over the world and particularly from the Chilkat Valley. The idea sprouted in my mind to write a book about Haines and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in order to preserve the story of the Preserve.

One of the great things about working seasonally is that I could travel the world in the off-season. On a trip to Nepal, I had a Chilkat Guides business card with me with the company logo on it- a profile of a bald eagle’s head. In Kathmandu, there are dozens of little shops with one or two men hunched over their Singer sewing machines. These craftsmen can embroider T-shirts with any design one can think of. So I had them make me a shirt with the logo on it just for fun.

I came back from Nepal and was guiding a trip down the Chilkat River wearing my new T-shirt. On the bus ride back, someone said they wanted to buy a shirt like mine and asked where they could get one.

“They are not for sale,” I said.

“Can I buy the shirt off your back?”

“ No, I’m sorry the shirt is not for sale.”

“Well, you should sell shirts on the bus. I bet you could make lots of money!”

I thought about it and went to Bart and told him I was interested in selling shirts on the bus.

Bart said, “Go for it, Joe. But I don’t want to take any risk. You buy the shirts, you keep track of the inventory and money, and you take the risk. You’ll learn about business, and you’ll make some extra cash. And the folks will have nice souvenir from their visit to Haines. Just give me a fair cut for each shirt.”

It seemed like a win/win for both of us, and it was. Shirts started selling and the company kept growing. I set up a system where each “schpieler” could sell shirts on the bus and make a commission. I didn’t know what to do with the cash….should I spend it, deposit it, how do I pay taxes for something like this? I didn’t have a clue.

Someone told me to go see Barbara Campbell, a local bookkeeper who had helped many a local entrepreneur get registered as a business. I went into her office and sat down. She had long grey hair, she chain-smoked and there were cats everywhere, even on her desk. But she knew her stuff and was easy to talk with. I looked at her through the cloud of smoke and told her why I was there.

She looked at me and said, “So, you’re making money at T-shirts. Well, with business, there’s income and expenses. If you make money, that’s called income. The more income, the more tax you have to pay. Now we need some expenses to offset the income. What do you like to do that doesn’t make you any money?”

“Well I’m a photographer and I love to take pictures,” I said a bit sheepishly. She hit me with questions in rapid-fire succession.

“Do you own a camera? How much is it worth? We’ll write it off! Any lenses? How many? What are they worth? We’ll write them off! Do you travel and take pictures?”

“Yes, I do, I just got back from Nepal!”, I told her.

“OK, we’ll write it off!”

So even though my business income was coming in from T-shirt sales, we decided to form Rainbow Glacier Adventures as a photography business. In a roundabout way, I was on my way to becoming a professional photographer. That was 1992. (To be continued)

Sun Dog Days of Winter

Sun Dog Days of Winter


Sometimes you get lucky! But part of being lucky is going out and keeping your eyes open. The last few weeks, I’ve been heading up to the Chilkat Pass looking for whatever might happen to show up. I’ve had great experiences on the pass over the years, and have seen moose, bear, wolverine, lynx and many other creatures along the road.

I went out with Ron Horn last week. Ron is primarily a wildlife photographer, so he loves to head up on the Chilkat Pass to see what there is to see. We were hoping to photograph ptarmigan, the chicken-like bird that loves the high alpine environment. They are not easy to find, since they are white birds who live in a snowy environment. To make it more difficult, we ran into some fog. We saw a few ptarmigan, but they flew off into the fog. But the fog was lifting, and as it lifted the angle of the sun, combined with ice crystals in the air formed an amazing optical phenomenon, a perihelion. Some people refer to these as “sun dogs.” I took dozens of images, and decided to share this one with you.

Optical phenomena are not common, but do occur, especially in cold environments. Guiding for years on the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, I saw some weird things. One time, when pulling the rafts into camp along the shores of an iceberg-filled lake, I saw giant men with orange and green jackets towering over our camp. As we got closer, the “men” shrunk down and I realized that “they” were our tents. The ice crystals in the air and the angle of light had made them appear huge.


I guided the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers from 1988-1999, and spent most of my summer out on river trips. It was a great period of life- out on a trip, return to town, pack up, meet the next group, clean up, pack up, head back out. One summer I spent forty days in a row doing back-to-back trips in the wilderness without a day off. From 2000-2010, I left the Tat and Alsek Rivers and began guiding up in the Arctic. And for the last few years my guiding has been mostly around Haines, even though I did guide two Tatshenshini trips over the last few years. The Alsek is more intense, more extreme, so there is a part of me that really misses the Alsek River.

The tour season 2015 was a great one for Rainbow Glacier Adventures. As a treat and to celebrate, a few of the employees and I headed out September 22-28th on a rafting trip down the upper Alsek River. I contacted Parks Canada and talked to the lady in charge of river trips.

“We are concerned about the late date of your departure”, she said in an official tone. “We are not sure about the water levels and water temperature.” I told her that I had dozens of trips down the river, that I’d written the guidebook to the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, and I’d even skied the upper Alsek in March years ago. We were prepared for hardship.

I asked her how many times she had been down the river. She seemed a little sheepish, and then admitted that she had never been down the river. I gave her a complimentary copy of my book, The Complete Guide to the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, signed the paperwork and paid the park fees for our trip. “Be sure to contact us when you get back to civilization,” she said.

My big worry was strong winds, as the first part of the trip has minimal current and is known for piercing upstream winds. I remember several trips where it took us hours of gut-wrenching paddling to make a few miles progress. On one trip guide Liam Cassidy pulled so hard trying to make downstream progress that he strained muscles in his forearm and couldn’t row for the rest of the trip. Luckily, there was another training guide on the trip who took over for him.

So we were very happy when we started the trip with a downstream wind for the first two days! It was quite an adventure and we had everything from fairly warm, sunny days to some extremely brutal upstream winds that stopped us in our tracks. To escape the wind, we pulled a raft up out of the water and turned it on its side as a windbreak so that we could cook our meals.

At our last camp, Lowell Lake, we had to look for a good place for the plane to land to pick us up. Lowell Lake is where the Lowell Glacier calves icebergs into the lake. It is a surreal location. There was no vegetation where we camped; nothing but glacial dust, small rocks and a few pieces of driftwood. Icebergs roll and tumble at a distance, and when the weather clears the huge peaks of the Icefield Ranges dominate the horizon.

The area we chose is where Parks Canada requires groups to camp so that they do not encounter the many brown bear that frequent the vegetated areas. We were not sure if this was the exact spot the pilot had told us he was going to pick us up, but it looked like a safe landing area. We were happy when he came in, flew over camp, and landed nearby. We ran up to the plane, he looked at us, and the first words out of his mouth were, in a strong German accent…..”You’re in the wrong spot! Park Service doesn’t want me to land here, and these rocks can damage my plane.”

I was taken aback. I wanted to say….”Hi, my name is Joe, how are you?…..” But I have dealt with enough bush pilots to know that small talk is not their strong suit. I stuck to business, and asked…..” Where do you want us?” He said….” A half mile upstream and a quarter mile inland.”

We were a group of seven and had lots of gear. Our rafts were still inflated and the gear was in a huge pile. I said, “I have lots of experience moving gear upstream. We’ll get it there.”

He loaded up 3 members of our group, and the four of us remaining got down to business. Moving rafts upstream is tricky. If you just try to pull the raft from shore with a rope, the raft will run into the shore and hit rocks in the river. The technique is for one person to pull on the rope, and the other person uses a paddle to keep the raft from hitting the rocks and shore. If there are rocks in the river, then one guide has to stay in the raft and push the raft off the rocks, while the other guide pulls the boat upstream from shore.

We loaded all the gear in the two rafts, and started pulling. Soon enough we realized there were too many rocks for us to both stay on shore. One of us stayed in the raft, pushing off the slippery rocks, while the other tugged. It was a good forty-five minutes of hard work, and there was some danger involved. The water was ice-cold, the rocks were slippery, and the guy in the raft had to sometimes get out of the raft onto the rocks and muscle the boat around or over the rocks.

But there was no time to rest. We offloaded all the gear, and started hauling it to the spot where the pilot planned to land the plane. Load after load, up a steep sandy hill, over uneven terrain, to the spot, and then back to the river. It was two straight hours of additional hard work. The pilot came back and was impressed with our progress. He loaded more gear, took off and came back an hour later. By the time he was back, we had just finished carrying the rafts to the landed spot, deflated them and rolled them up. He flew off with the rafts; we finished hauling the gear, and finally had a minute to rest before he flew us back to Haines Junction where our bus was waiting. Funny thing, I had expected the hardship at the beginning of the trip….this time it happened at the end of the trip. I called Parks Canada and reported that we were safe and sound. Then we drove back to Haines, cleaned up the next day, and started planning another trip on the Alsek.

Encounter with an Owl

Encounter with an Owl

haw owl





Encounters with owls are always special. For one thing, owls are more often heard than seen, at least here around Haines. The small owls make a sort of a peeping sound. The sound is fairly rhythmic and if you don’t know that it is an owl, then you might not guess what it is unless someone tells you. The other sound is the one most of us are familiar with, the “hoot.” This sound brings up feelings of fear in many people, perhaps because owls are mostly active at night. Some associate the call of the owl with death.


But there are some owls that are active during the day. The most common ones around Haines that I have had experience with are the short-eared owl and the northern hawk owl. This year, I have had two encounters with the northern hawk owl. One time I was up on the pass with my new friend, Matt Schetzer. Matt is an outstanding photographer who is spending more and more time in Haines. We went out together looking for wildlife and saw a hawk owl along the side of the road on a post. I knew right away it was a hawk owl by its medium size and its fairly long tail. We stopped further down the road and got out of the vehicle, prepared to hike back to the owl. To our surprise, the hawk owl flew towards us and landed on a post closer to us, providing for some great views. Of course, I wanted the owl to land on a tree or some type of natural object to give the photo a more “owl in the wilderness” feel. Well, he did fly to another tree, but it was further away, the light was in the wrong direction, so I couldn’t get a very good photo. But it didn’t really matter. As I said, encounters with owls are always special, and I went home happy that day.


Later on, I went out with my friend Oliver Klink. Oliver is my “photo guru”…his knowledge of photograph is amazing, he leads workshops all over the world and he has taught me tons about photography. We went to a place rarely visited by photographers in Haines, where there is a small bridge that crosses a stream, and a few houses and cabins nearby. Oliver looked the scene over, turned his camera towards the river and the mountains, and set up his tripod. I put my tripod next to him and took the same shot. Oliver had told me that it slightly irritates him on photo workshops when students wait until he sets up his tripod, and then set their tripod right next to him in the exact same location. I took the shot and then looked around a bit more. I saw a canoe, the bridge and the houses. The canoe was a sort of a bright green, the color of the houses was muted yellows and greys, and the rest of the scene was white with snow and some dark reflections in the calm river. I realized that the way to photograph the scene would be as a black and white. This would join all the colors, and give more emphasis on the tones and the composition, including the reflection of the trees in the water. I set my tripod up, and Oliver asked me what I was doing. I explained what I saw and what I thought the final image would look like.


He said, “ That is a great idea. That will make a very nice image.” Oliver set his tripod up next to mine, looked over at me with a slight smile and said “You have snatched the pebble from my hand!”


I’m not sure if all my readers know what he was referring to so I will explain here. In the 1970’s, there was a TV show called Kung Fu. The star, Kwai-Chang Caine, was a half-Chinese and half-Caucasian orphan. His master raised him in the Shaolin monastery. Every week at the start of the show, the master would test

Caine, ….”snatch the pebble from my hand.” And young Caine would try but he could not do it. The master would look at Caine with his wise eyes and say….”when you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.” After years of rigorous training and countless adventures, Caine snatches the pebble and leaves the monastery.


In the 1970’s, I was a young karate student in Staunton, Va and I watched Kung-Fu religiously. Between Kung Fu TV, Bruce Lee movies and daily karate practice, I was immersed in the world of karate. For a birthday present a few years ago, my wife and daughters bought me the entire Kung-Fu TV series on DVD, and I watched it night after night during the long winter nights here in Alaska. So when Oliver said that I had “snatched the pebble from his hand,” it had special meaning to me. It was like graduation day!


Oliver and I left the bridge and went to the Eagle Council Grounds stopping at 21 mile Haines Highway. A light rain was falling, all the other photo groups had left and we had the place to ourselves. There were a few eagles flying nearby, but for some reason we were uninspired. I really believe in inspiration when it comes to photography. When I am inspired, I pull out my camera and begin to shoot. I know it sounds like a cliché, but time stands still. I feel myself disappear into the subject, and in a way, I become one with what I am photographing. Maybe this is some of the Zen training from my youth as a karate student. Some call it getting “lost in the zone.”


A group of small birds called crossbills flew into the tree next to us. Crossbills are amazing with a specialized bill that they use to pry open pinecones to get to the seeds inside. We watched them and I felt a sense of peace and happiness. They were so close to us, almost tame, as they were intent on eating the alder buds and didn’t seem to notice us. I enjoyed the moment, and instead of getting out my camera to capture it, I just felt the good feeling that one gets from being close to a wild being.


Lacking inspiration, we decided to drive towards town to another spot where the light was better and maybe we could get some good shots of the mountains. I am not strictly a wildlife photographer; if you’ve looked at my book you know that I have many landscape shots. As a matter of fact, I think the landscapes around Haines are world-class and relatively unexplored photographically. While Haines is known as a place to come to photograph eagles, the word is not yet out that Haines is one of the great places in the world for landscape photography. With my career as an international guide, I’ve seen many of the most dramatic locations on the planet and Haines ranks up there on the top. I talk a bit about this in my radio interview with local radio station KHNS.


As we drove towards town, Oliver looked out the window and said…..”stop, there’s an owl.” It was tough to find a place to park safely, with all the snow, but we finally found a spot and walked back towards where the owl was sitting on a post. It was a northern hawk-owl and it was great to see the same species of owl I had seen up on the Chilkat Pass a few weeks before with Matt.


Was it the same owl? I couldn’t tell, but, like the other one, it was sitting on a post. It was déjà vu all over again. Would the owl move to a more natural-looking location, or stay on the post? I took a few shots to make sure that all my settings were correct, so if the owl flew to a nearby bush I would be ready. The owl flew back onto some private property and landed up in a tree. Well, I knew the owner so I felt OK with following the owl a bit to see where it went next.


The owner drove up, and it turns out that the person I had thought was the owner was only renting the place. I explained what we were doing, who I was, and he welcomed us with a big smile. “Oh, you’re Joe Ordonez. I‘ve heard of you and your company, Rainbow Glacier Adventures. I thought maybe you or some other tour company might want to use this property for tours. We have a big house and we’re remodeling it for guests. Do you want to come check it out?”


Actually, I wanted to stay and wait for the owl to fly to a better location and take some shots. I was inspired. But what could I do? I said, “Of course, I’d love to see your place.”


Oliver and I went in and he gave us a full tour. He said that brown bear feed on salmon on the nearby stream, and maybe we could host photo groups in his lodge in August and September. Maybe in November we could host groups there during the bald eagle congregation. It all sounded good, but I kept thinking about that owl……


After a full half hour in the house, he said he was getting back to work and we were ready to head down the road. We stepped out into the fresh air, looked at the tree and the owl was gone.


As we walked back to the car, I said, “Boy, that guy sure was nice. But I wish that owl hadn’t flown away.” We looked across the road and there was the owl, sitting on a small tree broken tree trunk. It let us approach closely, and sat quietly while we set up our tripods. I got lost in the zone………

“Fox” News

“Fox” News


I hope you are doing well. Here ‘s some updates from the Chilkat Valley and Rainbow Glacier Adventures. I was up on the Chilkat Pass the other day with my friend and photography mentor, Oliver Klink. We were looking for wildlife and I told him the area we were approaching was a good place to look for wildlife because two valleys intersected. A few minutes later, this fox came out and allowed us to enjoy a close encounter.

Winter is here and the weather has been variable, everything from below zero weather to just yesterday we had six inches of snow followed by rain! I thought you might enjoy listening to my recent interview on local radio station KHNS. This link has two options….you can listen to the short version that was aired on the radio or listen to the entire unedited version (its about 25 minutes). Let me know what you think!

The link is:

By the way, if you like the book, please leave a review for Where Eagles Gather at You don’t have to have bought the book at Amazon to comment on it and it will really help us out.

If you happen to be in the area in the next month or so, we’re running a special at our Swan View cabin until February 20th…..if you stay one night the second night is half price! I’m looking out the window right now as I write this at Mosquito Lake and the ever-changing views are almost bringing me to tears…. The fog has been moving in and out, views of the mountains, trees and the lake are changing with each moment. Its like the “Dance of the Seven Veils!”  Who needs TV?



Swan View Cabin and Northern Lights

Swan View Cabin and Northern Lights

DSC_3646The Northern Lights were out a few nights ago. Here is our rental cabin, Swan View cabin, with the Northern Lights above. We are keeping the cabin open and warm this winter, and running a “winter special” here until February 20th. If you book one night, the second night is half price! The skiing has been great, the sun has been shining during the day and there’s Northern Lights and incredible stars at night ! Joe