The Story Behind the REI Holiday Photo Shoot


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Before March 27, 2017, Whitney Anderson, Valerie Cleland and Vicky Ho were complete strangers. Though they shared a common bond as REI Co-op staff, the three met for the first time in Seward, Alaska, for our holiday photo shoot. They quickly discovered that sometimes a little adventure can be the best catalyst for creating lasting relationships.

Located on the Kenai Peninsula in south-central Alaska, Seward is home to only around 2,700 people. The quaint port city—known for its stunning, rugged scenery—provided the perfect photo shoot backdrop and inspiration for creating non-traditional, unexpected holiday traditions.

Dora returning to port

After a day of scouting kayaking coves, the Dora’s passengers return to port in Resurrection Bay, Sewark, AK. (Photo Credit: Carina Skrobecki)

“We wanted to show people a place in the U.S. that they might not normally think about, show them the wildest, most remote parts of our own backyard. We wanted to highlight the spirit of a small town,” said Quinn Ianniciello, senior art director. “Seward had something special about it.”

The community opened its doors, welcomed Anderson, Cleland, Ho and the crew, and even offered them ideas for where to go and things to see.

“[The people of Seward] helped us in any way that they could,” said Whitney Parsons, producer.

Whitney Anderson holding a "In Seward Back in 1 Hour" sign

Whitney Anderson signs off at Kenai Lake. When your cellphones don’t stand a snowball’s chance, communication gets back to basics. (Photo Credit: Carina Skrobecki)

At REI, we think it’s important to highlight the faces of the co-op, and you’ll see Anderson, Cleland and Ho throughout the holiday catalog. “Our employees are the heart of the co-op,” Ianniciello said.  “Whenever we want to find people who are experts at paddling and running and cycling and climbing and hiking, who better to look to than our own employees who live and breathe this?”

For a week this spring, the talented REI photography team documented the trio’s excursions.

“What did we not do? It was packed full of awesome experiences,” said Anderson, who works as a manager at the Portland, Oregon store.

Photographer Carina Skrobecki documents a paddling adventure. (Photo Credit: Quinn Ianniciello)

Some of the highlights? Snowshoeing on frozen lakes, paddling around Thumb Cove on Resurrection Bay, staying up late to catch the northern lights, boat rides and hanging out at a one-room cabin on the water. Oh, and making friends with local adventure dog Gus.

Valerie Cleland, Vicky Ho, Gus and Whitney Anderson in Seward, Alaska.

Valerie Cleland, Vicky Ho, Gus and Whitney Anderson in Seward, Alaska. (Photo Courtesy: Whitney Anderson)

For three women who just met, they formed a fast connection. Anderson says a special aspect of working at the co-op is that whenever you meet other employees, they always feel like home.

“To be out there with two other super-strong, really adventurous women was awesome,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of times [when I’m outdoors] and I’m with the boys. It’s very rare that I’m with just a group of women. … I was able to be completely and utterly myself and let loose with those girls.”

During their time in Seward, they swapped tales of previous adventures and learned from one another. Cleland, a Seattle-based REI Outdoor School instructor, University of Washington grad student and, according to Anderson and Ho, a “super paddler,” shared real-time kayaking tips while they were out on the water. Ho’s live-in-the-moment attitude and excitement proved to be contagious. Anderson, who kept everyone laughing throughout the trip, shared stories from a recent cycling trip in Southeast Asia.

“What I love about REI is that it brings people together who have a passion for the outdoors,” said Ho, a Houston native who now calls Anchorage home. (Fun fact: When she’s not working part-time at REI, Ho is an editor at the Alaska Dispatch News and writes a column about lessons learned the hard way in the outdoors.)

By the Numbers

11 shoot locations

10 production crew members

3 REI staff members

1 adventure dog

In addition to the bond they created with each other, the three women also got to know the production crew.

“The crew was surprising. Not only how easy it was for all of us to bond and mesh with the crew, but to see their connection with each other was really cool. It was very obvious that these people were not only very passionate about what they do but they spend a lot of time together. They are a little family. It was awesome to be a part of that,” Anderson said.

Whitney Parsons, Quinn Ianniciello and Carina Skrobecki.

Whitney Parsons, Quinn Ianniciello and Carina Skrobecki. (Photo Credit: Quinn Ianniciello)

One member of the team left a particularly lasting impression on Anderson, Cleland and Ho: Jim Gosnell, a senior tech advisor who has been with REI for 39 years. Gosnell makes certain the shoot happens accurately, safely and authentically—whether he’s double-checking that the gear fits properly or ensuring everyone adheres to Leave No Trace Principles during production.

“He was one of the most special people I think I’ve ever met … just a genuine, kind soul. He made sure we were really well taken care of,” Anderson said.

“If we were titling people, he’d be the magician of the shoot,” Parsons said.

A telling example of Gosnell’s thoughtfulness: One of the shoots took place at a cabin on a lake. Because of its remote location and the amount of snow, the crew couldn’t drive their cars all the way up to the cabin. Instead, everyone trekked in about a quarter mile in deep powder with snowshoes. At the end of the day as the team wrapped up, Gosnell ducked out and placed lanterns along the path so they had light on their way out.

“Like the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention’s worth a pound of cure. Every location presents its own challenges. I do what I can to keep the crew safe, secure and on track,” Gosnell said.


Whitney Anderson, Valerie Cleland, Jim Gosnell and Vicky Ho.

Whitney Anderson, Valerie Cleland, Jim Gosnell and Vicky Ho. (Photo Courtesy: Whitney Anderson)

“Nobody asks him to do any of this stuff. He just does it because he knows that it’s the right thing to do,” Anderson said.

At the end of the trip, Anderson, Cleland and Ho wrote Gosnell a letter and a poem, expressing their gratitude.

Vicky Ho, Valerie Cleland and Whitney Anderson

Hilarity rules as Vicky Ho, Valerie Cleland and Whitney Anderson rehash the morning’s adventures over lunch at The Cabins at Kenai Lake. (Photo Credit: Carina Skrobecki)

Today, the three women stay in touch and follow each other’s adventures from afar. Though a simple photo shoot first brought them together, the trio’s shared experience and love of the outdoors connected them in ways that will last far beyond their week in Alaska.

The crew would like to thank the following people for their help with the photo shoot:

  • Bixler McClure, Seward Ocean Excursions
  • Michael Brittian, Caption of the Dora
  • Jeff Carpenetti, Kenai Fjords National Park
  • Micheley Kowalski, Resurrect Art Coffee House
  • Liz DeMoss, Seward Alehouse and Mom of Gus
  • Gary Gasglow, Kenai Lake Cabin
  • City of Seward

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