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Volatile Beauty

Mankato native Gary Freeburg displays photography in Conkling Gallery.

Tanner Kent, Mankato Free Press, 9-26-2013

The first time Gary Freeburg visited the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Alaska’s rugged Katmai National Park, he wasn’t thrilled.

The 40-square-mile expanse of desolate, barren wilderness flanked by the five active volcanoes of the Katmai Cluster bears the evidence of a giant eruption in 1912. The event represented the largest eruption by volume in the 20th century, its blast filling the surrounding valley with hundreds of feet of ash and creating deep, steam-venting fissures that provided the inspiration for its name.

Though the ash has cooled and the valley is no longer filled with smoke, its landscape remains harsh and inhospitable. Driving winds, freezing temperatures and lack of shelter made Freeburg’s first four days in the valley back in 2000 an experience he cared not to re-create.

That is, until he saw the images on his camera.

“It’s not a comfortable place to be,” said Freeburg, who spent his formative years in Mankato before attending then-Mankato State College. Following two tours of duty in Vietnam, Freeburg struck out for a job as an art instructor at the University of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula College. After a 22-year career there, he now directs the Sawhill Gallery at James Madison University and is returning to Mankato on Monday and Tuesday for a gallery talk and studio residency in conjunction with an exhibit of his photography in the Conkling Gallery.

“It’s difficult to get there. It’s difficult to stay there. But the rewards are so much greater.”

What Freeburg found on his camera were images that captured a sense of the valley’s unrestrained beauty while also hinting at the unfathomable reserve of destructive power stored in the bosoms of Katmai’s volcanoes.

He’s returned to the valley several times since, helicoptering into the park for as much as 10 days at a time. In such pristine surroundings, alone save the occasional Kodiak bear, Freeburg said the resulting combination of seclusion and natural splendor is a heady artistic elixir.

“It’s really something to be dropped into the middle of this place and left to your own devices,” he said. “There’s a wonderful sense of freedom wandering around with a camera and sketchbook.”

Visitors to the Conkling Gallery will be greeted by the image of a large, erratic boulder captured alone in an otherwise empty expanse, a testament to the silent but relentless natural forces that carried the stone into place. An image of the canyon walls that line a portion of Knife Creek place the viewer atop a severe plunge into the turbid river waters below. The impossibly serene photograph of Mount Katmai’s crater lake, a hidden gem of reflective majesty some 800 feet deep and two miles across, belies the inevitable, violent future that awaits when the lake overspills its boundaries.

To get the photo of Katmai’s crater lake, Freeburg first endured a 14-hour hike. When he arrived at the top, he was greeted by flawless dusk lighting and an unforgettable panorama.

“I was lucky to get up there on a cloudless evening, around 8 p.m., just beautiful,” he said. “It was really magical. I feel that way toward just about all the photos I take there.”

A year ago, Freeburg compiled his photographs into a book, “The Valley of 10,000 Smokes: Revisiting the Alaskan Sublime.” The book includes essays by volcanologist John Eichelberger and archeologist Jeanne M. Schaaf in addition to more than 70 of the author’s photos.

Upon its publication, Freeburg sent a copy to former President Jimmy Carter, who signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law in 1980, paving the way for the preservation of Katmai National Park. Freeburg recently received his reply.

Even with the president’s congratulations, however, Freeburg isn’t done with Alaska yet. Though he resides nearly 5,000 miles away in Virginia, Freeburg still checks the Alaska Volcano Observatory’s website every morning ad he’s already booked his next photography excursion.

“Next June, I’m going to Aniakchak (National Monument and Preserve),” Freeburg said. “They’ve got a monster crater with this little bubbling lake. I visited last year and went crazy.”

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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