Merrill Pass

, None

by · Posted in: musings · wilderness

If I ever meet Murphy, I'm gonna kick him in the ’nads. These photos are an attempt to snatch something, anything really, out of the clenches of Murphy's Law.

It began with a simple question, Hey we have an extra seat on the plane, do you want check out Merrill Pass? My response is pavlovian. I hear yes emerging from my face before the question has fully penetrated my head.

Merrill Pass is named for one of Alaska's early aviation legends, Russel Merrill, who found it while looking for a shortcut through the Alaska Range. It has proved formidable for pilots since. The ground in and around Merrill Pass is littered with plane wreckage. Some are large—the remains of a DC-3 sit in the pass—but most are small bush planes pressed against the sides of the vertical walls or scattered on the valley floor. One rock in the pass has two wrecked planes on it. Merrill disappeared in 1929 while flying between Anchorage and Bethel, but not before making the first flight into many Alaskan towns and filling the territory's early folklore with tales of high arctic adventure. For instance:

When Merrill set out on foot May 24 from the downed plane, his food supply consisted of some cooked rice that he said, in his logbook, would be enough for at least four days. But the rice actually consisted of only a few spoonfuls, which he had cooked in a tin cup… Merrill began his trek to Barrow just before 10 p.m., but the weight and bulk of the sleeping bag he was packing soon proved too much of a hindrance. He returned it to the plane, even though it cost him a critical couple of hours of hiking time. Because the bag was valuable and belonged to someone else, he felt he had no right to discard it.…

[eight days later he's found in rough shape by John Hegness]

Hegness heated some soup and spooned it into Merrill. He bundled him into blankets inside the sled so he could rush him to food, warmth, and medical attention at Barrow, still forty miles away. When Hegness found Merill, he still carried his blackened tin cup of rice. Merrill said he was saving it for an emergency.

Anchorage's first airport was named after him, and Merrill field is still a busy hub for those heading out to the bush. Why Hollywood has not made a biopic about Merrill is beyond me.

I had no real time to prepare for this trip to Merrill Pass. It wasn't a real 'shoot'—I just grabbed a camera, lens, some film, and enjoyed the ride, snapping photos when things looked interesting. Snapshots. But snapshots of one of the most spectacular places on the continent.

The lens I was using malfunctioned that day. Some oil found its way onto the aperture blades and prevented it from closing down. All of the photos where seriously overexposed. Since I was shooting slide film with a notoriously narrow margin for exposure error, the shots were doomed. Being in the bush, I didn't find out how badly until weeks later. Luckily, I noticed the lens problem before shooting anything important—a cautionary tale about inspecting your gear.

A few of the shots, while overexposed beyond repair for a color photo, did have enough detail to potentially make an interesting black and white photo. The highlights in the snow are forever gone, but with a little help from photoshop, I was able to restore some of the contrast and put the blacks back in the ballpark. If anyone ever asks, I am going to tell them I either meant to get that Frank Hurley look or that the wet collodian process is my preferred method of aerial photography.

Mountains Near Merrill Pass
Near Merrill Pass, Alaska

Mountains Near Merrill Pass
Near Merrill Pass, Alaska