Evan Pak ’19 recently ventured north to Alaska to photograph wildlife alongside his longtime friend and fellow photographer Sergius Hannan ’20. He shares what he learned about their work and its role in helping people connect with and preserve the natural world.
I was in the middle of a serene morning of wildlife photography with my friend Sergius Hannan. We had risen with the sun, then hopped on the first bus into the restricted section of Denali National Park. As we rumbled down the gravel road, we discussed our plans to photograph the Dall sheep that we had spotted the previous evening. Before long, we disembarked and began following game trails up the side of a mountain. After an exhausting trek, we reached the herd of sheep. Creeping to a good vantage point, we settled to the ground, cameras clicking away. An hour later, just as the sheep seemed to have grown accustomed to our presence, they jumped to their feet, staring at the ridgeline above us. Then, from over my shoulder, I heard Sergius whisper “It’s a LYNX!”
SERGIUS AND I MET FOR THE FIRST TIME in the fall of 2017, when we sat next to each other in an environmental studies class at St. Olaf College. Our friendship came naturally, given that we shared a budding interest in wildlife photography. Both of us found our interests in photography as children. Sergius was inspired by the fauna found right in his backyard in Homer, Alaska — especially kingfishers. Those easily spooked birds had provided him with the perfect introduction to the patience and persistence required for wildlife photography.
Beyond our time together in class, we also explored the campus and the surrounding area on photo shoots together. The St. Olaf Natural Lands were a valuable asset in our photographic journeys. When a five-minute walk takes you from your dorm to a mature maple forest or sprawling prairie, it’s easy to forge a connection with the natural world. Many of our environmental studies classes emphasized the importance of developing a connection with local ecosystems. St. Olaf made it easy to develop that connection outside of the classroom.
The following semester took Sergius away from the Hill — and nearly around the globe — to New Zealand and Australia as part of a study-abroad program. His experience there focused on environmental studies and biology, both in and out of the classroom. By developing his knowledge of the natural world, from individual animals to entire ecosystems, Sergius found himself better able to predict when and where the best photos would be. He took full advantage of his time outdoors, photographing animals from koalas to seals and landscapes from the raging Huka Falls to the serene Moeraki Boulders.
While he saw wildlife photography as a hobby prior to his travels, his time abroad truly kick-started his love for the craft. Spending a week in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, he decided to embark on a multi-day hiking trip.
“Eventually I broke the treeline, which was the highlight of the trip. I was completely by myself at the top of the mountains, where there were incredibly beautiful keas hanging out with me,” he says. Taking advantage of their curiosity and intelligence, he approached and photographed the keas, a species of parrot found in the forests and alpine regions of Southern New Zealand, even occasionally switching to wide angle lenses. This interest in wide angle wildlife photography has grown in the years since, forming one of his trademark styles.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic during the spring of his senior year abruptly sent Sergius home. The opportunities waiting there served as a silver lining to the pandemic. Homer, nicknamed “the end of the road,” is a town with just 5,500 residents located 200 miles south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Surrounded by wilderness and ocean, it’s also known as the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World. While his family had lived in Homer for years, Sergius had spent significant time away in both high school and college, leaving him with a feeling of missing out. He now had an opportunity to reconnect.
I wanted to fully experience an Alaskan year and be in tune with the seasons.Sergius Hannan ’20
“I wanted to fully experience an Alaskan year and be in tune with the seasons,” he says. At the time, it was simply a desire to immerse himself in the land he loved. “I went out because I had time and a longing. It was my peace during the quarantine and pandemic.”
He began capturing stunning images and videos of some of Alaska’s most iconic wildlife — bald eagles, Kodiak bears, caribou, moose, and many more species — and sharing them on Instagram. That passion for both experiencing and sharing the outdoors quickly developed into a full-time career that has attracted widespread attention.
The Instagram account that Sergius created now has more than 130,000 followers, and a video he created showing how he captured a photo of a Great Gray Owl has more than 850,000 reactions on the social media platform. He sells a steady stream of prints and calendars featuring his photographs. He won Alaska magazine’s 2021 photo contest Grand Prize and took first place in the Alaska Life category. And he offers photography workshops in a way that only an Alaskan photographer can, by taking students to places like Chugach State Park and the Kenai Peninsula to get hands-on lessons in capturing images of bull moose, bald eagles, and other wildlife. At the heart of his work is a simple goal: to inspire people to connect with their environment, and ultimately understand why it’s so important to preserve and protect our natural world.
Throughout this time, I watched Sergius’s progress with serious admiration. Seeing his work and talking about photography inspired me to take more photos of my own. Daydreaming of a trip to Alaska turned into active planning when I was invited to join Sergius for a road trip to Denali National Park in the fall of 2022. I booked my airline ticket, then settled in for one of the most difficult waits of my life.
MY TRIP TO ALASKA was planned so far in advance that Sergius and I managed to fit in a Minnesota photography excursion in the meantime. In April 2022, we headed north to explore the Sax-Zim Bog — a location that is home to 240 species of birds, and is nationally known as a great place to see the Great Gray Owl, Boreal Owl, and Northern Hawk Owl in the fall and winter months. Fellow bird nerds and environmental enthusiasts may be familiar with the Sax-Zim Bog, but most people questioned our decision with a “You’re going where?” You could hardly blame them. After all, a remote bog in rural northeast Minnesota hardly screams “ideal trip destination.” But once we shared our photos of mist-shrouded landscapes, soaring raptors, and hunting owls, I found that interest grew substantially.
Sergius and I both find that one of the most important aspects of nature photography is the ability to raise interest in, and instill an appreciation for, conservation and environmental issues. Although Minnesota and Alaska differ in many ways, each state holds substantial mineral wealth, contributing to conflicts between wildlife and natural land conservation, fragile ecosystems, and economic goals. Alaska’s proposed Pebble Mine has drawn opposition similar to Minnesota’s proposed Twin Metals mine. In both cases, the ore deposits sit near areas of considerable ecological importance: Bristol Bay in Alaska, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. The Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska, which sits on top of a massive gold and copper deposit, supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world and is a sanctuary for grizzly bears. The remote Boundary Waters in northeast Minnesota is one of America’s most beautiful and pristine wilderness areas, accessible only by canoe.
“There’s always pressure to find new economic opportunities, but the people of Alaska need to make the clear decision to value wildlife and pristine environment,” Sergius says.
There’s always pressure to find new economic opportunities, but the people of Alaska need to make the clear decision to value wildlife and pristine environment.Sergius Hannan ’20
With my departure for Alaska finally upon me, I lugged two cameras, five lenses, and piles of assorted accessories onto a plane from Minneapolis to Anchorage. Once there, I boarded a much smaller plane to make the hop to Homer. Short flights like that are a way of life in Alaska, thanks to the limited road network and rough terrain. We flew through clouds for most of the 45-minute trip, but as we made our final approach, I started to recognize landscapes from Sergius’s photos. Seeing them in person helped me realize just how effectively he showcases Alaska.
The next day, we dove straight into photography. Greeted by the first of what would become many rainy days, we headed down to Homer’s harbor. Immediately, we saw a variety of wildlife. Sea otters and harbor seals rode the waves, while various birds circled overhead. We spent that first day searching beaches up and down the Kenai Peninsula. Sergius said that we had fewer wildlife sightings than usual, but I was still blown away by the variety of animals we encountered. Knowing that we could do even better, he reached out to a boat tour operator that he had previously worked with and arranged for us to ride along on an outing the following day.
As promised, the sightings from that boat put the previous day to shame. Although we were only on the water for a few hours, we filled our memory cards with thousands of photos of everything from puffins and cormorants to seals and porpoises. When not busy with my camera, I marveled at the incredible landscapes surrounding Kachemak Bay.
Following our boat tour, we set off on our road trip to Denali National Park. Our first stop on the trip lay along the Russian River, midway up the Kenai Peninsula. Sockeye salmon filled the river, moving toward their spawning grounds. At times, it felt like the river was more fish than water. Firsthand experiences are hard to top, but after seeing Sergius’s photos from those days at the river, I feel that they convey an understanding of the role these salmon play in the greater ecosystem.
The next leg of our trip took us along winding highways leading toward Anchorage. At one point, we looked out over the ocean to our left, spotting the ghostly white figures of beluga whales occasionally appearing in the waves. As a Minnesotan, I’m used to spotting plenty of wildlife while driving, but whale watching from the highway was certainly a new experience.
Watching the mist-shrouded mountains roll by, we saw fall colors start to spill across the landscape, and the plants shifted from deep greens to rolling swaths of jewel-like red, orange, and yellow. As we rolled into the park, we were itching to photograph animals among those colors. However, we only found a few extremely distant moose before the fading light and our rumbling stomachs sent us back to camp for the night.
The next day allowed us to truly dive into the park. Taking a bus as far as we could, we spotted a bear walking the braided Teklanika River before hitting the jackpot with a herd of caribou picking their way through a plain filled with red foliage. Running through a shallow gully to get into position paid off as the herd passed by, practically posing for our cameras. Once back on the bus and still riding the high of that experience, Sergius and I chuckled about how hard it would be for the following days to top that experience. Little did we know just how Denali would prove us wrong.
THE FOLLOWING DAY brought us that incredible experience with the lynx. After Sergius’s whisper, I hefted my camera, training it upon the tan figure picking its way down the mountainside. Once I had it in my viewfinder, my finger barely left the shutter button.
The herd of Dall sheep regrouped on a hillside opposite our position, providing the perfect framing as the lynx paused to analyze its chances at successfully taking one down. After a while, it decided to not take the risk. Steadily slinking down the mountain, it eventually disappeared from our sight. Only then did we lower our cameras. We couldn’t believe what had just happened. Although the following hours brought some phenomenal photos of the Dall sheep, we both only had the big cat on our minds. After picking our way down the mountain, we couldn’t contain our enthusiasm, eagerly showing our camera screens to anyone who wanted to look.
The encounter overshadowed more than just that afternoon. Even watching a massive bull moose dwarf the cars that passed by couldn’t compete.
As my trip was wrapping up and Sergius and I said goodbye, I could only think about seeing those lynx photos on a big screen for the first time. I was far from alone in this sentiment — Sergius says that experience has been the highlight of his entire wildlife photography career to date. Hearing that, I felt incredibly lucky — not only to have also seen the lynx for myself, but to have shared the experience with such a close and talented friend.