Posted by: kerryl29 | May 16, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 12: Prologue

After deciding to forego a day on the Denali National Park bus for a variety of reasons on Day 11, a decision that may have been our best on a trip that was filled with (arguably) good decisions, Ellen and I prepared for our first foray into the park on Day 12. It would turn out to be a day I doubt either of us will ever forget, unfortunately. But I’ll get to that later.

Since we had no bus passes, or a particular desire to secure them, for Day 12, we were limited to the first 17 miles of the Denali Park Road. That’s 17 miles of a road that runs approximately 93 miles in length. Here’s a little secret: while the interior of the park is astonishingly beautiful, the first 17 miles–the only part of the road accessible by private vehicle (extremely limited and broadly unobtainable exceptions notwithstanding)–is absolutely stuffed with marvelous photographic opportunities. We had seen this three years prior when Ellen, Debbie and I visited the park for several days–even if we hadn’t necessarily been there when Denali was at its most photogenic. That wasn’t a problem for us this time around.

It was mostly cloudy at sunrise, but we did start to see some breaks in the cover shortly thereafter. For the first couple of hours of daylight we moved back and forth between various shooting locations along the park road where it bisects a series of colorful meadows. As had been the case on the Denali Highway, we caught pretty much the peak of fall color during our time in the park.

Morning Light, Denali National Park, Alaska
Morning Light, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

There’s a high spot along the road where, when clear enough, The Mountain is visible in the distance. There was just enough visibility in the proper direction to make that possible on this morning.

Mountain View, Denali National Park, Alaska
Mountain View Panorama, Denali National Park, Alaska

As late morning approached on what was shaping up to be a partly cloudy day, we decided to hike the Savage Alpine Trail. This trail starts at the Mountain Vista parking lot and runs a bit more than four miles, climbing steeply (over 1400 feet of elevation gain). The route is a bit unusual as it’s neither a loop nor an out-and-back. The end of the trail–at the Savage River–is about two miles by road from the start. (The park shuttle can be used to return to the parking area.) The trail climbs above the treeline quite rapidly but on the first quarter of a mile of the trail we stopped several times for photography.

The first stop was in a forested area, just across the road from the trailhead, when a colorful scene caught my eye.

Autumn Mosaic, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The second stop was a bit farther along, just before the beginning of the steep climb, at an open meadow.

Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first 2-3/4 miles or so are steadily up, then you hit the high point and the final 1-1/3 mile (approximately) is relentlessly down. On the way up, we stopped a couple of times to capture the impressive views.

The Valley Below, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
The Valley Below, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
The Valley Below, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

There were a couple of wildlife photo ops as well. The first was when some people hiking in front of us spotted a pika. I quietly (and as quickly as possible) pulled out my camera with the long lens attached (once again, the two cameras strategy worked; if I’d had to switch lenses this photo series never would have happened).

Pika, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

Pikas, you see, are very small, skiddish and quick.

Pika, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The marmot we had an opportunity to photograph was more cooperative, sort of. He was happily sunning himself and showed no interest in moving. But he was far above our heads and getting a decent shot was a bit of a challenge. But we persevered.

Marmot, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Marmot, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

It wasn’t long after the marmot photo op that we reached the highest point on the trail and were treated to a truly spectacular view. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that a great view doesn’t necessarily make for a great photograph, but, conscious of this maxim, I endeavored to turn it on its head. You can be the judge of whether or not I succeeded.

A Room with a View, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

We started to hear the odd rumble of thunder not long after the above image was made, and there was some real concern that we might be caught in a downpour (with possible lightning?) at a high point, utterly devoid of any shelter. So we moved as quickly as possible on the way down, with little thought of image-making. But the threat passed and, when we were most of the way down, I found myself standing face to face with an intimate scene that I felt compelled to capture.

Rocky Intimate, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

After we reached the bottom, we had a bit of a delay before the arrival of the next shuttle bus and I found a few things of interest, using a long lens, to photograph from the Savage River area.

Endless Meadow, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
The Rock, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The shuttle took us back to the Mountain Vista parking area. It was late afternoon at this point and we decided to take the short walk down to the Savage River to see what we could find. The first thing we spotted on the way down was a rainbow.

Rainbow Meadow, Mountain Vista, Denali National Park, Alaska

Then we photographed a bit along the river.

Savage River Black & White, Mountain Vista, Denali National Park, Alaska
Savage River, Mountain Vista, Denali National Park, Alaska

We finished at the Savage River, got back in our vehicle, and meandered along the park road, in the direction of the entrance. I caught a glimpse of a colorful scene out of the corner of my eye and we found an unofficial pull-out so we could investigate. Getting close meant climbing down an embankment, which we did.

Fall Intimate, Denali National Park, Alaska

On the way back up, I noticed what appeared to be an interesting composition so I paused along the roadside to capture it.

Ghost Clouds, Denali National Park, Alaska

After producing the photograph above, I took another look at the elements. I grabbed the telephoto rig (two cameras again!), moved a bit to my left and flipped the camera to a portrait orientation. I liked what I saw–it had a very graphic feel, when considering a black and white treatment in post-processing–and fine-tuned the comp on the tripod.

Ghost Clouds Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

The view above was east-facing. To the west, clouds were dominant. It was now early evening and it was clear that there would be no sunset. We decided to head back to our lodgings. So, we made our way to the park exit, turned right (i.e. southbound) on the George Parks Highway, preparing to make the 20-odd-minute drive back to Carlo Creek.

Less than two miles up the road, we spotted a moose, only 20 or 30 feet off the shoulder to our right. We drove past–it took some time to slow down without screeching to a halt–turned around on the empty road, and drove back and approached slowly. There was the moose, happily munching on foliage, utterly undisturbed and uninterested in our presence. Given how close the moose was to where we were now parked (two tires on the paved shoulder, two tires on the gravel off the shoulder, about 15 feet out of the northbound traffic lane), this looked like a very nice cap to our already very pleasant, productive day of photography.

But that was before all hell broke loose.

To be continued….

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 11, 2022

Technicalities

I recently read a piece written by Thom Hogan explaining why he seldom provides camera settings associated with posted images. The article resonated with me; as long-time readers of this blog know, I almost never list the photographic technicals of images I post (though I will provide them if someone asks). But there’s a point to be made: I think the technicals (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length) can get in the way of the most important part of photography, and that’s the exercise of seeing.

Water Abstract, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

During my recent trip to the Smokies, I spent a fair amount of time photographing reflections in (sometimes) moving water. This is something I’ve done many times before, at many different locations. Partly due to the conditions I experienced during the trip, there were numerous occasions when this sort of subject matter was the best thing to focus on (pardon the pun).

Oconaluftee River Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

I’m still discovering new spots in the Smokies that are amenable to this type of photography, but over the course of half a dozen visits to the area over 20 years, I’ve found several reliable locations that I know work well at certain times of day, at specific times of the year, under particular conditions.

Merced River Reflections, Sierra National Forest, California

I could provide the technical information associated with the moving water abstracts and semi-abstracts that I’ve posted but…what would really be the point? I mean, take the Merced River image immediately above. If I told you that the image was photographed at 250 mm, ISO 100, f/11 at 1 second…what of consequence would that really tell you? Even if you wanted to copy the image–and I’ll get to that subject and why it’s an awful idea in a moment–this information wouldn’t really help you do so.

Water Reeds, Beaver Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Is one second the magic shutter speed with which to capture this scene, or one like it? The answer should be obvious: there is no “magic shutter speed” for capturing moving water. There are endless factors that go into deciding how best to render a scene of this sort–starting, and arguably ending, with personal preference. But perceived speed of the water itself, the extent of the flow, whether there are other objects in the scene other than just water…these are simply some of the factors that should be considered when deciding how to render such subject matter.

Stahl Lake Reflections, Brown County State Park, Indiana

What good would knowing the focal length do? It might provide some sense of distance from the subject (assuming there’s something in the frame that would make scale obvious), but, essentially, so what? These are abstract or semi-abstract images. The relevance of scale ranges from mostly irrelevant to utterly irrelevant.

Sable Creek Reflections, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The aperture and ISO settings, in this case, mean nothing outside of the context of setting a desired exposure (when the shutter speed is included). Without knowing other particulars, some of them creative and intangible, knowing this information provides nothing of meaning.

Autumn Creek, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Most importantly, the very premise for knowing the specific information–duplicating the image–does anyone really want to do that? (And if you do, should you?) The point of photography of this type is to produce something that reflects one’s individual sensibility. Truly, all photography should exemplify this principle, in my view, but abstracts and semi-abstracts are particularly good examples.

Basin Pond Reflections, Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Perhaps you’re inspired by examples of these images; you’d like to produce something that falls within the genre, but is uniquely yours. That’s just fine (in my opinion). Obviously you don’t need to know the camera settings. You can tell if, for instance, a relatively fast or slow shutter speed was used, in the event that you think you need a rough starting point for what should be an exercise in experimentation.

Enderts Beach Abstract, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

And what is the nature of that experimentation? It starts with finding something interesting. That’s the “seeing” that I mentioned at the heart of this post, and it’s at least 90% of the effort. The rest is easy–determining the settings that apply to render the scene the way you want it rendered. And for that, the technicals for my images don’t mean a thing.

Tenaya Creek Reflections, Yosemite National Park, California
Posted by: kerryl29 | May 2, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Forest Floor

Back in late March of 2007, I drove my wife and two collies from Indianapolis to the Collie National Dog Show (yes there is such a thing, and it’s held annually), which took place that year not far from Charlotte, North Carolina. The deal was that if I made the drive I’d be able to do a bit of photography in the area. Never having been before, I readily agreed. I had parts of four days on the ground in the region and I tried to make the most of it…though I probably didn’t.

Regardless, one of those days was spent at Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, part of a large nature preserve across the state line in South Carolina, not far from the town of Kershaw. The preserve hosts a remarkably diverse series of ecosystems, including (but not limited to) pine and hardwood forests and the eponymous granite flat rock, which is close to 14 acres in size than 40.

After arriving early in the morning I was walking on the wooded trail from the preserve’s upper parking lot to the rock itself when I noticed that I was wandering through an area that included blooming Carolina jasmine and wisteria. It was much warmer than usual for that time of year and, to my advantage, the spring bloom was bursting out early.

Something caused me to look down while I was striding through the area and I noticed a fallen jasmine blossom nestled in the ridges of a pine cone. I stopped and took a good look at the ground where I stood. If it’s possible for a forest floor intimate to be a magnificent sight, this was it. Right at my feet was a gorgeous combination of colors and textures and I hastened to capture it. The resulting photograph became my favorite image of the trip.

Spring Forest Floor, Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, South Carolina
Posted by: kerryl29 | April 27, 2022

Candle Lighting

I’m nearing the end of another photo trip–this one to Great Smoky Mountains National Park–which will be chronicled on this blog at some point in the future. But the experience reminded me of something that I think is worth sharing now, because its impact is, if not universal, broadly applicable.

As I’m sure everyone reading these words already knows in some form or fashion, things don’t always work out exactly the way we hope. (Duh.) Unlike last year’s Alaska trip, which I’m in the midst of describing in a series of posts that began during the Truman Administration, conditions have been considerably less than ideal in the Smokies. While fall color was outstanding throughout the Alaska trip, the spring bloom in the Smokies this year has been…not the best. The dogwood bloom was disappointing, the wildflower bloom was a bit earlier than anticipated and my time in the area has taken place during a relentless series of sunny days. The wind has been a fairly regular annoyance as well. (Note: breezy, sunny days are particularly undesirable for photographing in an area like the Smokies, due to the prevalence of things that blow in the wind (foliage, flowers) and don’t show well in mixed light (woodlands, waterways).)

But despite all of those misfortunes, I think I’ve managed to produce a good set of images on this trip. Part of the key has been to get out at the margins of the day, when the wind tends to be muted and the light is even.

Every bit as important: attitude: while the circumstances have been disappointing, I’ve tried very hard to focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t.

So, instead of spending my time considering how annoying it has been not to have marvelously flowering dogwoods everywhere, I’ve investigated carefully and isolated those trees that are in good shape. Rather than think about all of the hours when excellent stream locations, like Tremont and Greenbrier, are unphotographable, I’ve spent the down hours scouting both locations, noting the spots that have the most promise, and hitting them during the limited hours when the light is good. Rather than becoming frustrated with the difficulty of photographing even diffused subjects during the windy midday hours, I’ve made a special effort to locate flowers in sheltered nooks and crannies. And instead of lamenting the subjects I hoped to find but, due to the subpar conditions, can’t, I’ve focused my efforts on the exercise of revealing those places and subjects that are available to me in creative ways.

In short, image volume may well be comparatively low for this trip, due to the limited opportunities. But I’m fairly confident that overall quality won’t be compromised. I’ll take that tradeoff every day of the week.

Despite everything that’s been wrong, I must be doing something right.

White Trillium, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Note: the above image was produced during a previous trip to the Smokies, in April of 2013

Posted by: kerryl29 | April 18, 2022

The Luxury (?) of Time

I recently read a synopsis of a particular photo tour that trumpeted all of the different places that would be visited on the brisk itinerary. (If it’s Monday, this must be Yellowstone.) Count me out.

Tangle Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta

I understand the superficial appeal of visiting and photographing numerous locations in a limited amount of time, but the truth is that, more often than not this turns into one of those mile wide/inch deep scenarios. You cover a lot of ground, yes, but in the process you immerse yourself exactly nowhere. This reminds me of the Icefields Parkway bus tour that I’ve mentioned in one or two past posts: the tour covers the entire Icefields Parkway, between Lake Louise and Jasper (or Jasper and Lake Louise), Alberta, in a day. Guaranteed 15 minute stops at Athabasca Falls, Peyto Lake and Mistaya Canyon. Five-minute leg stretchers at a few highway pull-outs. Endless nice views at 90 KPH (I’m assuming the speed limit will be obeyed). Want to stop somewhere else or stay a bit longer at any of the designated break points? Tough. Can’t mess with the schedule. And what if it rains the day of the ride? Also tough. You can get out and get wet, or you can stay in the bus and remain dry. Or, you can forego the exercise entirely by skipping the bus tour. I heartily recommend this final course of action.

Secret Beach Morning, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

Lots of places sounds great, but a short span of time–even a full day–for an area is very unlikely to be satisfying most of the time, unless it’s a place you can return to with regularity. But when you can’t, it amounts to–at best–a teaser of an experience. At worst–if conditions are utterly uncooperative, for instance–you can come up completely empty–not merely photographically, but from an experiential point of view as well.

Stormy Lake Superior Morning Black & White, Hurricane River Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

I remember my first trip to the Smokies, on a photo tour, which included one opportunity to photograph from an overlook on the Foothills Parkway. Upon arrival, the overlook was completely fogged in. Nothing was visible. We left without ever seeing anything. (I had better luck subsequently.) A worst case example, sure, but it’s emblematic of what can happen when it’s one and done.

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Tennessee

One of the key elements of last year’s Alaska trip planning was the decision that Ellen and I collectively made to instill additional time into each phase of the itinerary. If we thought we could photograph a location in, say, two days, we gave ourselves the option of a third. The entire trip included 17 days in the field. We only planned on visiting four broad locations (the Brooks Range; the Denali Highway; Denali National Park; and Hatcher Pass). While all of these locations are pretty (or very) large and there’s really no way to completely explore any of them in a lifetime let alone a few days, the difference between a day in one of these spots and, say, four days, is immense. Beyond the tangible distinction (4 > 1), it’s the intangible discrepancy that’s so significant. It’s virtually impossible to describe how creatively freeing it is not to feel rushed.

Kealia Beach at Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii

Time may well be a luxury. But when it comes to creative image making, it’s a luxury that borders on necessity.

A Room with a View, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Posted by: kerryl29 | April 11, 2022

The Story Behind the Image(s): Laughing Whitefish Falls

I have photographed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the fall at least seven different times over the past 20 years and every time I’ve made the trip I’ve visited Laughing Whitefish Falls, Located about 30 miles west of Munising and 20 miles southeast of Marquette, the waterfall–a “slide” style that drops a total of about 100 feet–can be reached via an easy hike of roughly 1.25 miles (round trip) through an old growth forest of hemlock and white pine.

I’ve always spent the bulk of my time at Laughing Whitefish Falls photographing at the top of the waterfall. The gorge that the waterfall–on the aptly named Laughing Whitefish River–flows through is quite nice and, with a bit of care, can be photographed from the initial spill point, by navigating alongside a wooden observation platform and carefully setting up right next to it. (A composition can be obtained from the platform, but I like the perspective closer to the spill much better.)

Atop Laughing Whitefish Falls, Laughing Whitefish Falls Scenic Site, Michigan

While at the site, I’ve also typically spent time photographing the river rapids immediately above the waterfall. Tannins in the water produce a brownish/reddish tinge to most of the rivers and creeks in the northern part of the UP and the Laughing Whitefish River is no exception.

Laughing Whitefish River Rapids, Laughing Whitefish State Scenic Site, Michigan

A lengthy wooden staircase descends from the top of the waterfall all the way to the base and, without fail, I make the trip down on every visit, checking the shooting options from multiple spots along the staircase. Despite my diligence, I never produced any photographs from any of the staircase locations prior to my last visit.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but on my most recent foray to Laughing Whitefish Falls in early October, 2020, I made the trip down again the staircase yet again. I suppose I keep thinking that, at some point, I’ll spot something I’ve missed previously.

Autumn is usually a relatively dry period in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan but this particular fall there had been a lot of rain and the waterfalls–including, but not limited to, Laughing Whitefish–were experiencing especially strong water flow. And that, it turned out, was the difference maker as I ended up finding several locations on the staircase I found compelling, beginning with a spot on a landing roughly 20 feet below the top of the falls. From this particular roost, the waterfall’s slide down the gorge reminded me of a train on a bride’s wedding dress.

Laughing Whitefish Falls, Laughing Whitefish Falls State Scenic Site, Michigan

I was particularly surprised that I found something appealing at the bottom of the platform. The copious precipitation led to the development of a swirling pool at the bottom of the spillway. The slowly rotating whitewater was producing all sorts of interesting patterns, which I felt were best revealed in monochrome. The lower part of the gorge, unlike the rim, isn’t particularly colorful, with only the fallen leaves providing something to offset the nearly black rock and the white water. In this case, I felt that the color was more of a distraction than a complement; hence the black and white treatment.

Laughing Whitefish Falls Black & White, Laughing Whitefish State Scenic Site, Michigan

The moral of the story? Even when you think you know everything about a subject or location, based on direct, personal experience, it may be worth testing that assumption by taking yet another look. An unanticipated circumstance may produce a significant change.

It may not be the easiest thing in the world to see a familiar scene with fresh eyes, but with a bit of awareness you may be able see your subject in a new light, literal or figurative.

Posted by: kerryl29 | April 4, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 11: the Denali Highway, Part III

In the last installment of last year’s Alaska trip chronology, I concluded with a description of our decision to forego the Denali National Park bus reservations that we had and instead spend the 11th day of the trip back on the Denali Highway. It would be our third full day on the highway and the decision turned out to be a very good one. I think our third day on the highway was our best and, in fact, it was one of the most satisfying days of photography I’ve ever experienced, in Alaska or anywhere else.

We began the day at a small unnamed pond near the west end of the Denali Highway. We’d discovered this location at the tail end of previous day, and it was a fortuitous find.

Morning Mist, Denali Highway, Alaska

While there was no “classic” sunrise, the setting was very nice. The pond surface was glass-like and the reeds in the water were absolutely still. Low-hanging clouds cut through the view of the mountains in the distance. The mid-ground meadow reflected the rich fall colors we’d seen since first coming into contact with the Denali Highway, three days earlier.

Morning Mist, Denali Highway, Alaska
Morning Mist, Denali Highway, Alaska

Our next stop was Joe Lake, a much larger body of water just a few miles to the east, that lies right along the highway. The sun was up by now, but still very low in the sky.

Joe Lake, Denali Highway, Alaska
Joe Lake, Denali Highway, Alaska

The wind was still non-existent, making for exceptional reflections.

Joe Lake Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

One of my favorite locations from the 2018 foray on the Denali Highway was a wetland area that contained a kind of tree tunnel, and I was looking forward to visiting the spot again. We found it, with little difficulty, and took note of how much growth there had been in a three-year period of time. Then we got to work photographing this spot, on both sides of the road.

Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

We continued on and reached a spot along the highway that looks down over the Nenana River Valley. The topography, along with the prevalence of trees and other growth, made composing from this location a difficult exercise, but we did our best.

Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

A bit later, and inspired by the desire to stretch our legs a bit, we undertook a short hike, partly down what appeared to be a combined hiking/OTV trail, and then on a social trail of sorts, that led to a fascinating rocky outcrop covered with vegetation and lichen. On the first part of the hike, we were captivated by what we found on the forest floor.

Autumn Intimate, Denali Highway, Alaska
Autumn Intimate, Denali Highway, Alaska

On the second part of the hike, it was the outcropping that drew our attention. It was very difficult to set up in this area, which was incredibly densely vegetated, making for a very tight space. But we stuck with it and produced some images.

Rocky Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

As we were right on top of the foreground here, focus stacking was a must. (The images immediately above and below were both three-frame stacks.)

Rocky Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

As we continued our journey east, I was captivated by a meadow, well below the road bed, so we pulled over so I could capture it.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

We moved on to Seattle Creek, a spot we’d bypassed the previous day. Now, with added time, we rectified the oversight. We started off by working our way down to the creek bed on the north side of the road.

Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

After capturing more conventional views of the creek, I focused my attention on a more abstract composition, one that was accessible in a shallow pool of water on the near side of the creek that prominently featured part of a large, partially submerged rock and the reflection of some tall grasses on the edge of the pool. The resulting image, one of the few featuring little color, was a natural candidate for a monochrome conversion.

Seattle Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

We moved off to the south side of the road.

Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

Accessing the creek on the south side of the Denali Highway required traversing a path that runs well above a spruce-strewn meadow that runs just to the west of the creek. After photographing from atop a boulder on the edge of the creek (image above), I paused several times on the return trip to the vehicle shoot the meadow.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

We continued the trip east, stopping at another couple of spots looking towards the Alaska Range to the north.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

A vertical composition of this scene showed off the landscape’s colorful layers.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we reached the Brushkana River, we pulled into the campground. We had bypassed the Brushkana River Trail the previous day, but we had done so with great reluctance. Now, since we had the time, we decided to see if the trail had anything to yield. Did it ever.

The trail runs, appropriately, along the western bank of the river for several miles. It also winds in and out of the nearby spruce forest. We started out by photographing at a couple of spots where the brush along the river gave way to a shooting position.

Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

Before we had gone very much farther, we reached an area that was rich with intimate opportunities, having nothing to do with the river itself. We hastened to take advantage of this spot. The color in this area was exceptional, even within the context of the brilliance we’d seen all along the Denali Highway.

Fall Color, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

This pattern repeated itself a number of times, as we went back and forth between river views and intimate scenes facing away from the water.

At times the trail ran right alongside the river bank…

Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

…and at other places it climbed steeply up hillsides, providing aerial views of the waterway.

Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

On several occasions we considered turning around and returning to the trailhead, only to decide to go “just a little bit farther” and be rewarded by marvelous scenes, both intimate…

Autumn Intimate, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Autumn Intimate, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

…and wider.

Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we finally did return to the parking area, we’d had a goof hike and a terrific photo experience

It was late afternoon by the time we finished the hike and we spent the last few hours of daylight stopping here and there along the highway, guided by whim. Some of the locations we stopped at panned out and some didn’t, but, somehow, it didn’t seem to matter all that much when we came up empty.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

Perhaps that’s the residue of a satisfying day of photography, when the notion of productivity (or lack thereof) doesn’t even come to mind…

As frequently seems to be the case in Alaska, clouds had been blowing in and out and in again all day long. This led to varying photographic opportunities throughout our time in the field and we tried to be flexible, tailoring our actions to the conditions. Reviewing the images from Day 11, I think we were even more successful doing so than I realized at the time. When serendipitous occurrences popped up, we tried to be ready to capture them.

A Crack in the Sky, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

At some point mid-evening, less than an hour before the time when the sun would set (an event that dissolved behind a thick bank of clouds), we took a short walk to the edge of a small, unnamed pond. With all of the inconsistencies of the day, one thing had remained constant–there had been almost no wind all day long. As a result, focus stacking was always possible and ponds and lakes were essentially always good sources of reflections.

Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska

In the fleeting light, we had just enough time to make two more stops. The first was on a ridge that provided an overlook of sorts of the vast, tundra-strewn plain that runs for miles right up to the southern edge of the Alaska Range.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

The second was at yet another small lake, endowed with a glass-like surface this evening, which beamed the limited remnants of the muffled sunset back at us.

Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska

That brought an end to what was, by my reckoning, a remarkable day of photography. Was it the “best” day of photography I’ve ever had? I don’t know. I’m not even entirely sure what that means, at this point. But it was as satisfying a day in the field as I can remember, partly because of the sheer bounty that the greatly underappreciated Denali Highway landscape had provided us, and also probably partly because this third and final full day on the highway hadn’t been planned. Instead, this day had been expected to be dominated by hours on the Denali National Park bus.

There’s an old saying that anticipation is better than participation and that’s undoubtedly true much, if not most, of the time. But this was one of those rare occasions when participation was far better than anticipation, and that alone is probably enough for it to be the source of a coveted memory for a very long time.

Posted by: kerryl29 | March 28, 2022

A Step Up from Fun

Recently I saw an ad for a new(ish) camera–the make and model are irrelevant–that described the product in question as making photography “fun.” The description made me think–unfortunately for the purveyors of the advertisement–about photography and my feelings about it. (The ad folks surely wanted me to think about photography and the camera used in the ad. Oh well.) And what I concluded was that I wouldn’t describe my relationship with photography as one having to do with fun.

Driftwood Epic, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

Perhaps I’m descending into semantics, but to me, fun means a kind of self-indulged enjoyment, at least tinged, if not fully represented, by amusement. I find baseball, and other sports, fun. When I was a kid, I thought video games were fun. At one time, many years ago, I found the game of darts fun. And there have been other fun pastimes I’ve engaged in over the years.

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

I wouldn’t use the word “fun” as a primary descriptor of how I feel about photography. That feeling is something qualitatively different. Photography, for me, is intellectually and artistically challenging, it’s satisfying, it’s fulfilling. And much of–again, for me–the broader photographic experience involves things that are emphatically not fun, be that unpleasant travel, fatigue, extreme physical exertion, sleep deprivation, lack of sustenance, (hopefully) mild dehydration, direct exposure to miserable weather and, the coup de grace, outlandish outlays of funds. Some may say that photography needn’t imply any of the above negatives, and while that is true, my photography experiences inevitably seem to entail all of them.

Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona

The things that I find fun–sports, say–I would miss if they were removed from my world, but in the end, much as I enjoy these things, I daresay I would find something else that would replace them. That has, in fact, happened already. Video games were fun at one time; I haven’t played so much as a single video game in decades. I can’t say that I miss them.

Dogwood and Redbud, Oconaluftee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Photography is an entirely different kettle of fish. It serves as a primary creative outlet for me–writing is the only other thing that comes close in that regard–and I can’t imagine giving it up. I became progressively more interested in, and fascinated with, photography once I truly got serious about it roughly 25 years ago. Even during the 20 or so years that I fiddled around with photography prior to becoming serious about it, I don’t ever remember thinking of it primarily as “fun.” (This raises the question of whether it’s even possible to be “serious” about something that you find “fun,” but we’ll leave that topic for another day.)

LaSalle Canyon Black & White, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

It’s hard to describe, but I think we all feel a kind of compulsion to express ourselves in some form or fashion. I suppose I view photography as something that provides me the means to express myself. As a result, in a sense, I suppose photography is a critical tool for me to, at some level, say who I am and therefore fills a critical human need.

I’d be very interested to hear how others view photography and how they relate to it. Do you find it “fun”? Does anyone out there view it the way I do? Is there something else that, for you, mimics the way I feel about photography? If you have any thoughts on any of the above, please feel free to expound in the comments.

Posted by: kerryl29 | March 21, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 10: The Denali Highway, Part II

I mentioned in my last post that we had hoped to return to the Maclaren Ridge Trail at sunrise, before beginning our trip west on the Denali Highway, but that plan was interrupted by an unfortunate situation: we awoke to a steady rain. There would be no sunrise and time spent in the rain on a trail with literally no shelter (i.e. the Maclaren Ridge Trail) was not a pleasant notion. So instead, we began the 90-odd-mile trip toward the western terminus of the highway, hoping that the day wasn’t going to be a total washout.

After retracing the Waterfowl Lakes area of the highway that we’d visited the previous evening, we reached Clearwater Creek, around mile 55 (roughly 13 miles from our starting point that day). It was still raining steadily at that point, but we stopped and–covered by rain gear–made the short walk to the creek’s eastern bank. It was a pretty scene, with the peak tundra color on the far bank saturated by the rain and the green-blue tinge to the otherwise crystal clear water. So, despite the rain, we decided to photograph the creek and took turns holding an umbrella so the other person could compose and deal with the photographic technicals without constantly having to wipe off the camera and lens.

Clearwater Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

We moved on, ultimately reaching the “Eskers Area” of the highway, just a few miles further along. What is an esker? It’s a topographical feature, a kind of narrow hill or ridge made up of gravel and sand created by streams that flow through or below glacial ice. Eventually, the deposits that we saw laid down by Canwell Glacier on Day 8 will probably turn into eskers. The eskers that we drove through and around on this 4-5 mile section of the Denali Highway are mature and covered with tundra vegetation…vegetation that was at the peak of fall color.

The rain was light and intermittent at this point and the clouds were hanging low. It was also very chilly; the temperature was in the upper 30s (F) at this point of the relatively early morning. But the colors–a mixture of yellows, oranges, reds and greens, again, utterly saturated by the moisture–were simply too brilliant to ignore. So we spent an hour or more driving back and forth through this area, pulling off to the side of the road where we could and sizing up the various scenes for their photographic appeal.

Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska

You can really identify the esker formation in this series of images (below).

Eskers Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska

(The small size of the images above don’t really do the scenes justice. For a better look at larger renditions of these photographs, go here. For an even better look at any of the images represented by the thumbnails in the linked gallery, click on a thumbnail and, when the image appears, click again on the resulting image.)

After we were done at the eskers area, we continued along and, though we stopped several times to look at various scenes, we didn’t haul out the camera gear again until we’d traversed another dozen miles or so on the highway, and arrived at Alpine Creek. The rain had stopped along the way and as we got out–and dipped in and around the muddy area along the creek’s bank–it started to rain again, and fairly hard. We beat it back to the vehicle and decided to wait out the rain, which turned out to be a good call as it stopped after another five minutes or so.

Alpine Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

The Alpine Creek experience was more about the creek itself than the foliage, which wasn’t in great abundance in this area.

Alpine Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alpine Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

Shortly before we reached the Sustina River Bridge, around Mile 79, we stopped again, at an absolutely magnificent meadow. There wasn’t a lot of room to pull off to the side of the highway, but traffic in this area was light and we made haste. We simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Sustina River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The color we were seeing along the highway, everywhere, was simply eye-popping. No question about it, our timing couldn’t possibly have been any better.

By now, it was around noon, or perhaps slightly later. We had cleared almost half of the mileage of the highway we were facing that day and still had about nine hours of daylight left. But the weather was getting better and that meant that we were likely to make more stops, not fewer, as the afternoon moved along. There was, not incidentally, virtually no wind on this day, which was another huge boon to our photographic endeavors.

We hadn’t gone all that far on the other side of the bridge when we rounded a bend in the highway and came to what will forever more be known as Holy Sh*t Hill. It is so named because, when it came into sight, we said “Holy Sh*t!” (I will abbreviate this feature as HSH going forward.)

The photographs of HSH aren’t going to do justice to the sight of the real thing. We tried very hard to render this location in a way that would appropriately represent HSH, but I’m quite sure that we failed in doing so. Still, I think it’s worth a look.

HS Hill Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
HS Hill, Denali Highway, Alaska
HS Hill, Denali Highway, Alaska

Do understand that we had been viewing jaw dropping fall color all day, but what we saw at HSH seemed to be one level more extreme than anything we’d seen to that point. HSH is, in fact, almost certainly an esker, but Holy Sh*t Esker just doesn’t have the panache of Holy Sh*t Hill….so HSH, rather than HSE, it is.

The color around HSH was more or less as fantastic as the color on the feature itself.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

Most of the rest of the time we spent along the highway this day was around waterways–mostly creeks, a few ponds/small lakes and, eventually, an open meadow. One of the middle examples: an unnamed pond that had a number of tundra swans in it.

Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska

The above pair of swans was extremely cooperative, allowing me to obtain a series of images that I’m quite pleased with.

Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska

The numerous creeks provided a seemingly limitless number of opportunities and we spent copious time at many of them. Most were named, as is reflected in my captions. One exception is represented by the images that are labeled “Fireweed Creek.” That’s a name that we assigned to this waterway, which is, as far as we know, unnamed. There was a great deal of fireweed along the stream’s banks; hence the moniker.

Canyon Creek was photographed from high above, alongside the bridge which spans the creek far over the water itself. I was convinced that I could get down to the creek bank, but that would have required a great deal of time and some significant effort and given the now-limited amount of time we had available to us and the number of image opportunities that didn’t require quite so much effort, I contented myself with the aerial perspective.

Canyon Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Canyon Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we reached the Brushkana River, we could see that it oozed with potential. A trail follows the west bank of the river to the north, from a trailhead within the BLM maintained campground that buttresses the bank, and we were keen to explore it but, again, time argued against this and we reluctantly limited ourselves to the area within a short hike of the highway, on both sides of the road.

Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska

Stixkwan Creek made for a compelling quiet counterpoint to the rushing streams and rivers we’d encountered earlier.

Stixkwan Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

It was also the point where we could, finally, see evidence of the partially clearing skies that had teased us as we’d reached late afternoon.

Stixkwan Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

The aforementioned Fireweed Creek was replete with countless interesting compositional options.

Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fireweed Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we reached Fish Creek, I well remembered our experience at this location three years earlier and attempted to leverage what I recalled to aid my image making this time around.

Fish Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fish Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fish Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

We were well into the evening when we reached an open meadow, no more than a mile from the western end of the shootable part of the highway, where it reaches the residential area that makes up the tiny town of Cantwell, within two or three miles of the junction with the George Parks Highway. It was evident that we weren’t going to get a dramatic sunset, but we wandered into the meadow nonetheless to see what we could make of the last usable light of the day.

Mountain Meadow, Denali Highway, Alaska
Mountain Meadow, Denali Highway, Alaska
Mountain Meadow, Denali Highway, Alaska

We reached the junction with the Parks Highway, turned north and made the 15-odd mile drive to our lodgings at Carlo Creek. It was dark when we arrived, but since we’d been there in 2018 we didn’t have much trouble finding the compound. We checked in, drove to the cabin that would be our home for the next few days (about a mile up the road from the lodge office) and hauled our things inside.

When we had the opportunity to do a proper check of email for the first time in a couple of days, we discovered something interesting. Our itinerary had called for us to spend the next day at Denali National Park, about 20 minutes up the road from where we were. We had reservations on the Denali bus for the next morning; we had planned to take the bus to Polychrome Pass where we would spend as much time as we could exploring before taking the bus back to the park depot at the end of the day. Truth be told, we were ambivalent about the entire enterprise, due primarily to our 2018 experience on the Denali bus. But now, as Ellen checked her email, she discovered a message to us from the park service: a landslide in the park near the Polychrome area days earlier had closed much of the park road. Buses were now only traveling as far as mile marker 44 (or thereabouts)–far short of where we wanted to go–before turning around. We could still get on the bus the following morning but out plans were in tatters. We weren’t sure what we’d be able to do, other than experience a four-hour round trip bus ride. Also, the weather forecast for the park the next day wasn’t great: cloudy, with a decent chance of rain.

We checked a Denali hiking book that Ellen had to see what might be in the offing for us as an alternative to our now defeated Polychrome plans, but it was next to impossible to get a sense of what we’d be best off doing. I suggested an entirely out-of-the-box alternative: what if we blew off the bus entirely and, instead, spent the next day back on the Denali Highway? The color had been absolutely exquisite. We’d forgone a fair number of photo opportunities because of the weather and/or limited time. We could take another entire day on the highway; we were as close to the western terminus (15-20 minutes) as we were to the entrance to Denali National Park. We could easily get to a couple of nice areas on the Denali Highway for sunrise (assuming there would be one). And, perhaps best of all, we wouldn’t spend a third of the daylight hours on the damn bus.

Ellen didn’t need to be convinced; she had, she conceded, considered suggesting the very same alternative. So were in agreement. There would be another full day–a third–on the Denali Highway. And as good as the second day had been–and despite its wet origins, it had been very good indeed–the third day would be even better…

Posted by: kerryl29 | March 14, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 9: The Denali Highway, Part I

The single most important shortcoming that I think Ellen and I both wanted to rectify based on our 2018 experience in Alaska was a lack of time on the Denali Highway. Contrary to popular belief, the Denali Highway is not located in Denali National Park. The highway–it’s a bit of misnomer since the vast majority of it is unpaved–is located south and east of Denali National Park. It’s approximately 135 miles in length (110 miles are unpaved) between Paxson, on the eastern end, and Cantwell on the west. Cantwell lies at the junction of the Denali Highway and the George Parks Highway (I-A4, AK-3), approximately 30 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park.

In 2018, for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, rainy weather, we ended up with a grand total of one-half day on the Denali Highway. It was more than enough to know that we needed more time and when we planned the itinerary for the trip that took place last year, we very deliberately built more days into the schedule. The plan was to spend two full days on the Denali Highway, plus the residue of another day. If you’ve been reading along, you’re already privy to the residue, which netted a nice sunset shoot and a glorious aurora borealis viewing and photo session. In the end, we ended up spending three full days on the Denali Highway…but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Day 9 started late, due to bleariness resulting from the aurora experience, which didn’t end until approximately 3 AM…so it was after 8 when we finally got going the following morning, which meant we missed sunrise…and conditions when we got up suggested there might, in fact, have been a nice sunrise, but the aurora made the tradeoff well worthwhile. In any event, the plan was to spend the day covering the part of the Denali Highway that we hadn’t seen the previous evening, given that it was pitch dark on much of the drive in, so we headed east and, before we’d gone very far, we came upon the Kettle Lakes area. The most accessible of the lakes was down an embankment to the left, well below road level, but we pulled off to the side and found a well-worn social path down to the water. It became marshy near water’s edge and we got as close to the lake as we could without soaking ourselves. There was some wind, but if we waited, the lake surface would settle and the Alaska Range was reflected back at us.

Kettle Lakes Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska

We continued our drive to the east, and stopped when we neared the end of the long climb up to Maclaren Ridge, which provided interesting views of the valley to the west, with its series of small lakes and ponds, surrounded by colorful tundra and dotted with pockets of spruce.

Maclaren Ridge View, Denali Highway, Alaska
Maclaren Ridge View, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Tundra, Maclaren Ridge, Denali Highway, Alaska
Maclaren Ridge View, Denali Highway, Alaska

At the very top of the ridge we reached a large parking lot of sorts, which provides access to numerous area trails. The light was becoming quite harsh and the wind had picked up significantly, which made photography…challenging. We decided to hike the Maclaren Ridge Trail for a bit, without our gear, and had a very pleasant stroll on the path, through rocky tundra, above the tree line. We wandered for a few miles on the trail, which we discovered was filled with photographic potential, and planned to come back with our gear the following morning. (Spoiler alert: unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as I will detail in the next installment.)

When we returned to our vehicle after 90 minutes or so on the trail, we continued east. A thin layer of clouds had blown into the southern sky, diffusing the sunlight; it remained, for the time being, delightfully partly cloudy to the north. The wind continued to be an issue, but we persevered, ultimately driving all the way to Tangle Lakes–an area we had actually driven past before sunset the previous evening–while stopping occasionally along the way, if something caught our attention.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we got to Tangle Lakes, we spotted a trio of tundra swans in one of the lakes and stopped to see if we could capture them with our long lenses.

Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska

It was, by now, mid-afternoon and we began the journey west, back toward our Maclaren River starting point. Again, we stopped whenever we felt the impulse, which was not infrequently.

Alaska Range Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range Autumn, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Clouds Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

It was early evening when we reached the Maclaren River and, after making a pit stop back at the lodge, we continued to the west, to see what we could find. What we discovered was a string of lakes–the Waterfowl Lakes–over a span of about 10 miles. Most of the lakes were located to the north of the highway, and all of them were significantly below road level. What we were scouting, in effect, was a series of overlooks.

On the way out, we stopped regularly, scouting various locations and, after we reached the last of the lakes, we turned around and headed back to the east, stopping at each of the spots we’d marked. While a strong sunset never materialized, due to the increasing cloudiness, the wind diminished, which made for some pleasant photography to conclude the day.

Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska

While the weather conditions had been hit or miss this day, the fall color was another matter; we had discovered that our timing for color along the Denali Highway was spot on and we were excited to get an early start the following day, a day we would spend working our way across the remainder of the highway to the west, to our new lodgings on Carlo Creek, about 15 miles north of Cantwell. We’d have the entire day to photograph along the highway, starting, we hoped, with a return to the Maclaren Ridge Trail first thing in the morning. As I foreshadowed, those plans would be foiled…but we’d still have the opportunity to photograph along the highway, with its exquisite fall color…

Older Posts »

Categories