Photographer Richard Howard is an avid cold-weather outdoorsman, but even he found Alaska in winter a daunting challenge. To shoot this week's lead story on Alaskans, Howard, 39, had to brave 35-below weather at Point Barrow, fly around the icy flanks of Mount McKinley with a bush pilot and climb up a 20-foot sheet of ice near Valdez for the privilege of hanging by a harness 250 feet above a frozen river. "I had to take pictures of an ice climber," Howard says of that stunt, the result of which can be seen on page 42. "Intellectually I knew it was safe, but I felt raw fear in my stomach."

Assistant Picture Editor Holly Holden chose Howard to do the story because, she says, "he knows how to capture a feeling for a place and he has an eye for detail and humor, like catching Eskimos eating ice cream in below-zero temperatures. He is a very nice, gentle man, and he never lets us down." Adds San Francisco Bureau Chief Maria Wilhelm, who reported the piece: "Richard is a consummate pro, passionate about the outdoors and willing to take risks to get the right shots."

Born in Minneapolis and reared in Bethesda, Md., Howard and his two sisters were brought up as city kids by their mother, Margaret, who ran a day-care center, and their now deceased father, Paul, a job-training program administrator. Originally, Howard dreamed of being a writer; he turned to photography as an English major at Columbia University. "I had become intimidated because I couldn't write like Melville," he says, "so I started to do photography to get on the school paper." He really got hooked on picture taking after shooting Columbia's 1968 student protests and selling a picture to LIFE. (Surprisingly he never met protestor James Kunen, now a PEOPLE Associate Editor, who memorialized those events in his book The Strawberry Statement.) Howard took his master's in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975, and in 1976 won LIFE'S Bicentennial photo contest with a picture of a clown on stilts. That year he got his first PEOPLE assignment, on West Point's first woman phys-ed instructor.

The affable free-lancer's daring and his reassuring manner with all kinds of subjects have made him a prime choice for any outdoors story, and his assignments have, in turn, deepened his love of nature. Now living in Somerville, Mass., with his second wife, Brett Cook, 33, a corporate day-care consultant, he is an especially ardent fisherman. "On our honeymoon in Maine, I caught a 35-lb. striped bass," he says. "I thought it was a good omen for the marriage." Between photo shoots and teaching photography at Boston University, he and Brett enjoy backpacking and cross-country skiing. They are expecting their first child in September, and Howard says wistfully, "My only regret is that the baby is due right at the height of bluefishing season."

Of all his rugged outings, Howard says that his 8,000-mile Alaskan odyssey, from the frozen vastness above the Arctic Circle to the wind-beaten island of St. Lawrence, 40 miles from Siberia, was particularly memorable. "It was an assignment I couldn't have enjoyed more. It was such a great opportunity and a privilege to do a story on some amazing people who live and work in a place so breathtaking." As long as he's happy to travel, he isn't likely to run out of such opportunities.