Glaciers are a passion for camera-wielding pilot

Glaciers are a passion for camera-wielding pilot »Play Video
Washington pilot and photographer John Scurlock flies over the Cascade Mountains.
Washington pilot and photographer John Scurlock describes Washington's mountains as picturesque, awe-inspiring and extremely alluring - especially in winter.

They are mighty and majestic, but the North Cascade Range is so remote and rugged that the only way to see some of Washington's backcountry beauties is from the air.

Scurlock does just that.

"Straight out," yells Scurlock over the blast from the propeller of his bright yellow home-built airplane. He's taxiing down a tiny runway strip at Concrete Airport known as Mears Field.

It's practically a weekly ritual and religion for Scurlock.

Each time he soars over one of his favorite snow-capped mountains, he's on an adventure - especially when he sees something new. With camera in hand, he zooms in and often discovers a subtle difference - it's a new reveal now captured and ready to be studied.

"You can't help but look around from time to time and realize how fortunate you are," marvels Scurlock, a paramedic by day and pilot-photographer in his off-hours.

He admits it took a lot of practice to fly a plane and snap great photographs. He credits practice from making mistakes, and his sharp-shooting Canon 5D Mark 2. "I've made every mistake there is," said Scurlock. "I love to fly. I'd fly every single day if I could."

What began with this simple question, "Hey what's that down there?", has evolved into a new passion, glacier hunting. Climbers tag summits, Scurlock tags glaciers by photographing them from the air.

"I've tried to photograph every glacier in the lower 48 states," he says.

On a bluebird day, Scurlock heads for his favorite mountaintop, Mount Baker. He circles the Deming and Coleman Glaciers. As his yellow flying bird practically floats above Whatcom County, he banks sharply to one side.

"I'll just take a couple of shots with the Cascades in the background," he says.

He gets so close, footprints in the snow can be seen. His flights are for pleasure and for science.

For the first time in recent history, John's aerial photos give local geologists and glaciologists custom-ordered close-ups of our glaciers, volcanoes, craters, avalanche spills, steam vents and bare spots.

Deciding what glaciers to tag is a team effort that often begins in an office at Western Washington University.

WWU associate geology professor Doug Clark and Dave Tucker, director of the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center, are paying close attention to Baker - specifically its retreating glaciers. It's something they insist affects every one of us.

"The glaciers are one of the more visible indication of climate change," said Clark.

Clark and Tucker insist Scurlock gave them their first true peek at the rim of Mount Baker's summit crater.

"Satellite image would never give us that kind of resolution," said Tucker, adding that the mapping produced from Scurlock's photos helps determine the volcano's eruptive history.

"If you don't understand the past it's hard to predict the future," said Tucker.

Glaciers are natural reservoirs that supply summer drinking water, generate power, irrigate crops and keep salmon fisheries running. Tucker says he's worried about Mount Baker's shrinking Deming Glacier.

"As that glacier gets smaller and smaller we'll have less and less drinking water," said Tucker.

Clark say Scurlock's photos help him with his main task of trying to figure out how glaciers respond to temperature and precipitation changes. "They shrink when things get too warm and grow when it gets cold. And they haven't been growing."

Scurlock says cataloging the glaciers is his job. Figuring out what it all means, he leaves that to the scientists. "I don't want to get involved in the controversy, but it's clear to me that glaciers are getting smaller."

The beauty and inaccessibility of Washington's glaciers dared Scurlock to get closer.

"Every pilot wants his own plane," said Scurlock, who admits when he decided to build his own flying machine he knew it would be a long labor of love.

"I’m not a real completer of projects," he admits.

It took him nine years to build his two-seat, aluminum construction airplane from a kit. His Van's Aircraft RV 6 is stunning, complete with a beautiful hand-crafted wooden propeller.

Most of his mountain images are shot at flying speeds just above 100 mph and at an altitude between 7,000 to 10,000 feet.

Most people are surprised to learn Scurlock shoots every stellar photo hand held, right thru a tinted bubble canopy. You'd never know it looking at his images.

"It is a very challenging environment, but it's extremely rewarding when everything works out," he says.

His home-built plane is steady and stable enough to be flown hands-off for short periods of time.

His collection of photographs of the North Cascade Range are so good that they are now published and available for all to see. A picture book divides the North Cascade into three sections, starting in his hometown of Concrete and heading north to southern British Columbia.

Scurlock believes his aerial perspective of the North Cascades in the deep of winter may be the only chance most of us will ever get to see the farthest snowy white corners of a mountain range that many around the world call "North America's Alps."

Scurlock hopes his book, "Snow & Spire: Flights to Winter in the North Cascade Range," will make readers feel as though they are sitting in the cockpit right next to him.