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.