Spend enough time in the Alaskan wilderness and you’re bound to find a bear. Or a bear will find you.
Kat Carney encountered one on her first day in the state. She was camping outside of the small town Talkeetna and was busy washing her face in a glacial stream when the bear stalked up behind her. She stood up, turned around, and there it was.
“It was a grizzly up on its hind legs about 50 feet away,” said Carney. “I froze. I’d never seen a bear before, and it was so close. My heart beat in my chest so hard I could hear it. After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I hid behind a tree. Apparently the sudden motion scared the bear and he ran off.”
Such is the life of an itinerant adventure photographer. Originally from Wichita, Kansas, Carney moved to San Diego four years ago with her then boyfriend, now fiancé Craig Kinsley, a professional javelin thrower.
In San Diego, most of her friends are climbers and she spends a lot of time scaling the giant boulders at Mt. Woodson and the crag in Mission Gorge. Going further afield, she climbs often at Joshua Tree National Park and Suicide Rocks in Idyllwild. She also surfs, preferring Baja’s empty waves to San Diego’s crowded lineups.
Recently, she set out on a year-long mission to travel the country, building her professional photography portfolio while slipping in as much recreating in the great outdoors as possible.
She carries a camera wherever she goes, and her Instagram feed is enough to make any office-bound adventure junkie groan with envy. The feed has more than 20,000 followers living vicariously through Carney’s photo log. In one image, two people huddle in a glowing tent next to a Joshua Tree under a starry sky.
Early this year, she posted a shot of herself ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado, at a manmade venue called Ouray Ice Park. Last week, she’s snowshoeing in Colorado with a puppy named Peach. Along the way, she’s landed gigs with outdoor brands like REI and Thermarest and with tourism bureaus of wilderness destinations.
She focuses on shooting people living life in the outdoors and interacting with the natural world and the landscape. She draws inspiration for her work from adventure photographers Renan Ozturk, Camilla Rutherford, Jen Edney and Krystle Wright.
She has also specialized in photographing women in the outdoors, working for organizations like She Explores and Outdoor Women’s Alliance, that promote female participation in outdoors sports and outdoor industry careers.
“A lot of the women I shoot have 9 to 5 jobs, and get out and do what they are passionate about when they have time, on the weekends and nights,” she said.
“I try to convey that regardless of your athleticism, age, gender, or whatever qualifiers you might have, you can still get outside and enjoy nature in some capacity. I like photographing regular people. I think that’s more relatable to people than elite professional athletes.”
Carney’s aesthetic may lean towards egalitarian, but her lifestyle is anything but normal. To keep costs down, she travels between jobs in a Chevy Suburban modified for overlanding, complete with cabinets and a full size bed.
The truck is outfitted with solar panels that power a refrigerator, her mobile photography studio and other electronics. She recently bought a propane heater, as truck camping in the winter was starting to wear on her.
“I was getting really cold, and then got sick,” she said. “When you’re essentially living out-of-doors every day for weeks on end, it can get really tough.”
There are certainly compensations — again evidenced by photos of her adventures. She’s gotten to visit some of the most beautiful places in America. Among her favorites are destinations she’s returned to again and again to climb, including Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, a world renowned climbing destination, as well as Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Alaska’s Denali National Park also ranks high on the list.
Over the next few months she’ll keep up a frenetic travel work schedule. She has shoots planned in Colorado, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Arizona. In March, she’ll photograph the 2017 Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California.
Then she’ll spend the summer working in the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska (she’s now more scared of moose than bears.) In the spring, she’ll come back to San Diego as staging for Baja surf trip with friends.
“The freelance lifestyle is interesting and difficult at times,” she said, “but I can’t complain about the way I live my life.”
And if she did complain, she’d be hard pressed to find much sympathy.