Photographer Ace Kvale has experienced a lot of incredible, memorable moments during his 30-odd years as an adventure photographer.
Described as "one of the coolest things I've done in my life", Ace took a brief respite from documenting Dr. Geoff Tabin's Cataract Project in Rwanda — a great humanitarian effort to provide cataract surgery to people in countries where that kind of specialized treatment isn't available — to visit Volcanoes National Park and a family of mountain gorillas. As a regular tourist, he waded through the bureaucracy and red tape involved in getting permits, and gained access to a carefully managed and controlled industry of guided excursions into the protected forests of the Park.
Rwanda is a small country with a population of 11 million. The land is cultivated right up to the rock wall that separates the Park and rain forest from the pastoral landscape. Passing through the wall and into the jungle, he felt he'd been transported into a Tarzan movie. He was in the same place Dian Fossey had studied gorilla families over 40 years ago, and the same place the movie, Gorillas in the Mist, was filmed. It seemed a spiritual, almost mystical setting.
Ace and his group were accompanied by armed military guards carrying AK-47's — protection from both water buffalo and poachers from the neighboring countries of Congo and Uganda. In addition to the guards were the trackers who were in contact via 2-way radios with those scouting the locations of the four habituated families of gorillas within the park.
After 2 hours of hiking through the mucky forest, the trackers hushed the group. There was a family of gorillas nearby. Leaving everything except their cameras behind — even the shiny wrappers of chewing gum is forbidden — they quietly approached the group. Their encounter had been timed to come after the morning's forage and during the quiet 'siesta' period. They were just 100 meters from the group.
Speaking in whispers, their guides instructed them about what to do if any of the gorillas became curious and came closer than the mandated 15 foot (~4.5 meter) range: put your head down, don't make eye contact, make soft grunting sounds and scratch your head. This would be a sign of submission designed to avoid any confrontations with the gorillas.
The trackers actually "speak" gorilla — a series of coughing sounds. If the gorillas don't respond in kind, you don't go any closer. This day was a good day and the group was allowed to approach the gorillas — descendants of the family that was Dian Fossey's original study group.
Ace and his companions were allotted one hour with the family, approaching to within approved distance. There were approximately 15 in this group and the patriarch, a 500-pound silverback, pretended to sleep while watching them carefully though his fingers. Every once in a while, one of the young gorillas would try and approach until a long, hairy arm would reach out and pull them back to the group where they would tumble and roll and, as children everywhere do, laugh.
While the adults rested, the young gorillas romped constantly: playing, turning somersaults and yes, laughing. They would beat their chests, mimicking adult behavior, producing a sound like hitting hollow cardboard. Occasionally, there would be some gentle eye contact. It was almost like watching two families on a fun, lazy outing at the beach — human and gorilla — interacting slightly but not really knowing each other. "I was mesmerized — they were so regal, so noble."
At the end of the hour, which seemed to have rushed by in mere minutes, it's time to leave. Back down the mountain, to town, cars, work and noise. It has been a powerful and moving experience.
"I don't make bucket lists. I'm more into the remote and random experiences. But this was unbelievable. If you haven't experienced it, it's hard to relate."
Ace used a Pro Trekker 400 AW during his assignment for National Geographic Adventure in Rwanda. Anticipating the opportunity to photograph the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, he took along his old favorite long lens, a 300mm 2.8. He was able to carry all his gear - including a laptop - in just this one pack.
"My friends at Lowepro sent me this pack to test. It has two key features that have made it my instant new favorite traveling companion: it doesn't look like a camera bag, more like an old fashioned rucksack, and it has a removable waist belt which allows it to fit into overhead compartments of planes, even with 40 pounds of equipment."
Ace Kvale's photography is a celebration of the human element — a study of rich cultures and extreme climates, a record of first ascents and descents. His images are powerful yet humble, and his passion for storytelling has translated into a remarkable talent for weaving a complete narrative through pictures.
Ace began his relationship with photography working in front of the lens as a ski model in the early eighties. This relationship shifted when he hitchhiked through Africa for five months, carrying a small manual Rollei camera. When he returned and showed his images to the professional photographers he knew, they urged him to make it a career. Ace had witnessed the world in a different way — through a viewfinder — and he's never looked back.
Thirty years later, now one of the world's top adventure photographers, Ace has traveled to more than sixty countries. He's participated in twenty-five expeditions to Asia and the Himalaya, and he's worked with many of the world's best athletes. He's hung from helicopters in the Alps and skied first descents in Alaska. His images have appeared in dozens of magazines, from National Geographic to The National.
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund