Posted by: kerryl29 | December 10, 2018

Alaska: The Brooks Range Tour Experience

As I mentioned in my post previewing the Brooks Range experience, it’s a remote place.  Really remote.  What does that mean in practice?

  1. There is only one road–with no intersecting side roads–for the entire length of the Dalton Highway (approximately 414 miles).
  2. There are only two towns (with a combined full-year population of approximately two dozen) on the entire length of the route, and both are near the middle, less than 20 miles apart.
  3. There are only two sources of fuel between the northern and southern termini of the Dalton Highway.
  4. There are only two places where limited supplies can be purchased.
  5. There are only two places where lodging is available.
  6. There are no medical services along the highway.
  7. There is no cell service along the highway.
  8. There are no services of any kind on the northern 60% of the route, until you get to Deadhorse at the northern terminus.
  9. Most of the Dalton Highway is unpaved.

Autumn Tundra, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Even if you’re accustomed to “roughing it,” if you have no experience roughing it in this particular area, you probably ought to think twice about heading here without someone who has.  That’s what we decided once we looked into spending time in the Brooks Range.

Sukukpak Mountain Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

As I mentioned in an earlier post covering planning, the trip itself began with the notion of an aurora photo excursion.  There are a number of people who lead aurora photo workshops/tours and, in the process of researching these, Ellen found David Shaw.  Dave is a professional photographer with a background in wildlife biology.  He’s also a 20-year resident of Alaska’s interior.  He leads a couple of pre-scheduled aurora photo trips each year–which is how we found him–but he also guides numerous other photo and wilderness trips throughout Alaska and other parts of the world, and has been doing so for a long time.

Marion Creek Intimate, Brooks Range, Alaska

He also offers private guide/custom trip services and, after we decided to travel to Alaska in the late summer/fall–and decided that we wanted to explore the idea of visiting the Brooks Range as part of the trip, Ellen contacted Dave, explained what we were loosely considering, and asked if he would design an itinerary and price the trip for us.  And that, in a nutshell, is how we ended up visiting the most remote place I’ve ever been with no serious concerns that we were biting off more than we could chew.

Snowy Reflections, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Before I proceed any further with this informal review, I want to note several things that I always specify on the rare occasions when I review a photographic product or service.  (I’ve been writing this blog for more than nine years and in that time I think I’ve posted a handful of reviews.)  I have not been asked to write this review and will not be compensated for doing so.  The service I am reviewing was paid for in full; Ellen, Debbie and I didn’t receive any financial consideration, so I have no incentive to provide anything but an honest rendition of the experience, from my perspective.

Meadow Black & White, Dalton Highway, Yukon River Crossing, Alaska

I think it’s worth noting what we were after in a guide for this trip.  As experienced photographers, we weren’t looking for rudimentary instruction or nightly critique sessions or any of those kinds of things that are frequently touted in workshops pitched to beginning photographers.  We were traveling to a comparatively exotic locale; we wanted to maximize our time in the field, be put in position to photograph at compelling locations at times when the weather/lighting conditions would flatter the given subject matter.

Autumn Splendor, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

That’s explicitly what we were looking for.  Implicitly that meant that we needed someone with experience in the area who also had a photographer’s sensibility.  The second part of that equation is frequently overlooked when people talk about photo-related guidance, but I think it’s critically important.  Subject matter and timing are key components to good photographic opportunities and, frankly, people without a photographer’s way of looking at the world may be iffy on the former and are almost always oblivious of the latter.

Dillon Mountain Evening, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Other implicit things we were looking for:  someone who was pleasant to be around (after all, we’d be spending a lot of time with someone for parts of five consecutive days); someone whose experience with the area covered logistics and safety as well as photographic considerations; someone with the stamina (and patience) to put up with our essentially endless motors.  Remember, we had days with approximately 16 hours between sunrise and sunset and we were hoping to take advantage of any aurora events that might crop up in the dead of night while we were on the ground.  This was really going to fatigue someone not accustomed to this kind of schedule (which is just about everyone).

As it turned out, I think we got all we were looking for, plus a bit more.

Autumn Splendor, Dalton Highway, Alaska

I think the photography opportunities, as represented by the images from that part of the trip that I’ve included in this post and others, speak for themselves.  (I trust that my future Brooks Range posts will do so as well, but those are not yet in evidence.)  I’m sure we would have found some of them on our own, as the majority of them were within sight of the Dalton Highway.  But–and this is important–not all of them were.  For instance, I’m guessing that, without a guide, we never would have made it all the way up to (and beyond) Atigun Pass, as we did with Dave.  It’s a long, long way up there from where we were based in Wiseman and, left to our own devices, we probably would have stopped too many times at other places that caught our eye on the way.  It’s also quite likely that we never would have found our way up the informal Marion Creek Falls Trail (a location so rich with opportunities that we visited the area twice).  But if the point of contracting a guide was to procure a lot of good photographic opportunities, we certainly accomplished that.

Atigun Pass Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

And time in the field?  I doubt Dave knew what he was getting into with us (if interested, you can read his synopsis of the experience here); by his own admission, we were more “enthusiastic” than any group he’d ever taken into the field.  (I acknowledged that, when on these photo trips, I really don’t have an “off switch.”)  But if we wore him down to a frazzle he did a very good job of hiding it and never cried “uncle.”  This despite the fact that Dave did all of the driving (and supplied the vehicle for the trip).

On the more implicit matters, his “photographer’s sensibility” undoubtedly made the aforementioned photo opps better than they otherwise would have been, and Dave was always pleasant to be around, regardless of the circumstances.

Birch Mountainside, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

And the bonus stuff?  Well, we were able to tap into Dave’s naturalist knowledge, which was much appreciated on numerous occasions during the trip as we encountered flora, fauna and (more broadly) entire ecosystems with which none of us was familiar.  Dave was a boundless fount of information.  One of the best–but unexpected–parts of the experience for me was learning the natural history of the region we were visiting.  And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how facile and accomplished a cook Dave was.  He prepared all of our meals (and the food that made they consisted of) for the entire trip and we undoubtedly ate better during our time in the Brooks Range than the previous week…or, if I’m being honest, than on any photo trip I’ve ever taken (though that is admittedly setting a very low bar).

Bottom line?  If I was planning another trip to Alaska in a remote area, the very first person I would contact is David Shaw.  And if I was up for any of his pre-scheduled workshop locations, I wouldn’t hesitate to contact him about that, either.  If you’re asking whether that constitutes a personal recommendation, the answer is unequivocally “yes.”

Koyukuk River, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

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Posted by: kerryl29 | December 3, 2018

A Park for All Seasons

Long-time readers of this blog have been exposed, irregularly, to extensive revelations about Starved Rock State Park.  Located in north-central Illinois, roughly 100 miles west of Chicago, the park is a real anomaly, given its geographic situation.  Amid the flat lands of northern Illinois, the sandstone canyon-filled park abuts the southern shore of the Illinois River.  I’ve visited Starved Rock numerous times in the spring, fall and even the summer, as the images immediately below attest:

St. Louis Canyon Waterfall, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

18 distinct canyons are located within the park’s boundaries, many of which host ephemeral waterfalls.  During the snow melt of early spring and at any time of year after a heavy rain, the waterfalls are at their most photogenic.

French Canyon Waterfall black & white, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Kaskaskia Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

The waterfalls are frequently non-existent from mid-summer into the fall, but occasionally a period of heavy rain will rectify the situation.

Ottawa Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Autumn’s Remains, Illinois Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Tonti Canyon Waterfall, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

While the waterfalls are the main attraction, it’s not the only thing of photographic interest at Starved Rock–not by a long shot.

Illinois Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Prairie Trillium, Illinois Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Sand & Leaf Water Abstract, Illinois Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

White Pelicans, Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Illinois Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

The one thing I hadn’t done is make a trip to Starved Rock in winter…or, at the very least, in winter conditions.  Until this past week, that is.

Ellen K., one of my companions on this year’s photo excursion to Alaska, was in the Chicago area last week and had a free afternoon.  I offered to show her around Starved Rock, so we made the trip out there on Thursday.  Three days prior, a large snowstorm hit the Midwest and dumped a foot of wet, heavy snow on the Chicago area.  That storm had started with rain and, as the temperature dropped, changed to snow.  Starved Rock received less accumulation, but still got at least six inches.  The two days after the storm were very cold–with highs well below freezing–so the snow hadn’t melted.  But on the day we were there, the temperature had cleared the freezing mark and some melting was under way.

Part of the park was temporarily off-limits, so we confined our exploration to LaSalle Canyon and St. Louis Canyon.  (Given the limited amount of daylight this time of the year, we really only had time for the two canyons anyway.)

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

St. Louis Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

The waterfalls were running, given all the rain that had preceded the snowfall and the early stages of melting.  There would have been considerable flow, but much of the water was still frozen; the remnants of the not-yet completed autumn were on the canyon floors in the form of fallen leaves.  It made for an interesting clash of seasons.  The recent deep freeze produced copious icicles hanging from many of the canyon walls and lips.

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

St. Louis Canyon Black & White, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Footing was, on balance, fairly good.  The exception?  Spots where significant amounts of ice had accumulated and not yet thawed.

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

St. Louis Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

It was remarkable how different this very familiar location looked and felt; views I hadn’t known existed were revealed given the absence of the usual copious foliage.  And, of course, the ice and snow produced a singular atmosphere.

St. Louis Canyon Black & White, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

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

St. Louis Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

This first “winter” trip to Starved Rock is unlikely to be my last.

Posted by: kerryl29 | November 26, 2018

Alaska: A Preview of the Brooks Range

As I noted in my overview of the entire trip, and fleshed out a bit more in the entry covering the planning details, the last few days of our time in Alaska were spent in the Brooks Mountain Range, in the north-central part of the state.  (I’ve already posted one entry, displaying a series of images from a part of one day in the Brooks Range.)  The Brooks Range runs for roughly 700 miles east-west and approximately 150 miles north-south, covering portions of Alaska and the Yukon Territory in Canada.

Finger Mountain Rock Garden, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Fall Color, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

There is only one form of road access to the Brooks Range–the Dalton Highway, which bisects the range.  Running  for 414 miles from the tiny hamlet of Livengood in the south to Deadhorse, on the Arctic Ocean in the north, the highway was built to service the construction and maintenance of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipline in the early 1970s.  It’s still used for that purpose today, and is also used as a means of supply for the Prudhoe Bay pumping station near Deadhorse.  The entire length of the highway wasn’t opened to the general public until 1994.

Atigun River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Sukukpak Mountain Evening, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

There’s a marvelous visitors center (the Arctic Interagency Visitors Center) at the tiny town of Coldfoot (175 miles north of the Dalton Highway’s southern terminus), run as a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.  An informational placard at the center notes that fewer than 1% of the visitors to Alaska venture north of Fairbanks (roughly 260 miles south of Coldfoot).  While we were part of that less than 1%, our time in the Brooks Range demonstrated why such a small number of people travel to this part of Alaska:  there are virtually no services of any kind.

Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Koyukuk River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Koyukuk River Evening, Brooks Range, Alaska

A trip on the Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks, begins with roughly an hour’s drive northwest on the Elliott Highway (AK-2).  At the town (such as it is) of Livengood, the Elliott Highway junctions with the Dalton Highway; there are no through roads off the Dalton Highway, which crosses the Arctic Circle at mile marker 115, for its entire length of 415 miles.  Prior to its northern terminus in Deadhorse, there are only two towns–Coldfoot at mile marker 175 and Wiseman (turn off at mile marker 187), with a combined population of fewer than 25 residents.  There are only two gas stations (one at the Yukon River Bridge, at mile marker 60; the other at Coldfoot; for the final 240 miles of the road, there are no gas stations, no sources of food and, north of Wiseman, no lodging other than a couple of campgrounds.  Cell service is non-existent.

Grassy Lake Reflections, Sukukpak Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Koyukuk River Sunrise, Brooks Range, Alaska

The Highway itself is paved in places, graded gravel in others.  It can, in spots, be a pretty rough ride; it can also be extremely muddy in certain locations.  Despite the obviously remote nature of the road, there’s a fair amount of truck traffic, due to the supply needs of Prudhoe Bay.  150-250 trucks a day travel the road (the number varies by season, with more activity in the winter).

Dietrich River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Autumn Meadow, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Over the 16 years that I’ve been taking photography trips, I’ve been to some locations that I considered remote.  None of them have been anything like the Brooks Range.  We spent parts of five days in the region and, aside from the occasional truck along the highway, scarcely saw another soul.

Dall Sheep, Atigun Pass, Brooks Range, Alaska

Brooks Range Wetland, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Marion Creek Cascade, Brooks Range, Alaska

When Ellen and I discussed trip planning, once we decided to look into spending time in the Brooks Range (on Ellen’s suggestion), we never considered doing that part of the trip on our own.  This was just a bit too remote for us to feel confident that we weren’t going beyond our comfort zone, so Ellen started looking for a suitable guide and that’s when she contacted David Shaw.  I’ll discuss the specific experience with Dave’s guide service in some detail in a future post, but for now I’ll simply say that the decision to contract a guide for this part of the trip was the right move.  Having now done this trip–having had the opportunity to experience the reality of the Brooks Range and what it’s all about–I’d feel comfortable going in the future without a guide, but it’s only because of having the guided trip and everything that entailed that I can make that statement.  Winging it–going up there by ourselves without any practical experience–would have been a mistake.

Brooks Range Autumn, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska

The Brooks Range is magnificent country.  While not quite as majestic as, say, the Alaska Range (the Brooks Range peaks are relatively low; the tallest peak in the entire range is just under 9000 feet above sea level), there’s no end of beautiful scenery in which to immerse oneself in the Brooks Range without ever leaving sight of the Dalton Highway.  And, while there are no formal trails anywhere in the Brooks Range, a short excursion off the road can pay major dividends.

Koyukuk River Reflections, Brooks Range, Alaska

Marion Creek, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Our trip coincided with peak fall color along much of the Dalton Highway.  The seasonal change appears to have been a bit late in central Alaska this year and while that didn’t necessarily work to our advantage during our time in the Denali area, it was spectacularly successful in the Brooks Range.  I seldom hear Alaska referred to as a prime location for fall color photography but my experience on this trip made me wonder why not.  The color change of the tundra, coupled with that of the birches, aspens and poplars, is as spectacular as anything I’ve ever seen anywhere, from the North Woods of New England to the Great Lakes region to the Rocky Mountains.  Coupled with the mountain backdrops, rivers and creeks, lakes, meadows and wetlands, the northern Alaskan autumn provides seemingly infinite photographic opportunities, as I hope to demonstrate in a series of ensuing posts.

Brooks Range Rainbow, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Aven Field Autumn, Brooks Range, Alaska

Posted by: kerryl29 | November 19, 2018

Alaska: A Day in Denali National Park

In an earlier post, I shared my thoughts on the Denali National Park bus.  What I didn’t do, at least at any length, was describe the photographic experience that day.  And, my complaining about the bus notwithstanding, it was pretty spectacular.

After a series of wildlife sightings (but not photo opportunities), the first chance to use my camera was when the bus made a brief rest stop at Polychrome Pass, at mile marker 46 on the park road.  As mentioned in the earlier post, I didn’t have access to my tripod, so the images you see are (gack) handheld.

Alaska Range Black & White, Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska

Toklat River Black & White, Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska

The process repeated itself when an equally brief rest stop was made at the Toklat River Rest Stop, at Mile Marker 53.

Alaska Range Black & White, Toklat Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Roughly four hours after we departed the Denali bus depot we arrived at the Eielson Visitors Center, at mile marker 66.  This was our end point; we had made the ride all the way out to this spot with the hope that we’d have a clear view of The Mountain from this magnificent perch.  But when we arrived, the skies were almost entirely cloudy and the Mountain was hidden from view.  We had to decide what to do.  The original itinerary had us returning to the Polychrome Pass area to do some hiking (and photographing) there.  Then, we’d pick up another bus at that point and return to the starting spot before nightfall.

The bus we’d taken from Eileson would turn around after a 45-minute break at the visitors center and begin the trip back toward the depot.  We had to decide whether to reboard the bus and get off at Polychrome or to stay longer at Eielson and take a later bus.  Once we got off the bus, I walked back up the park road about 1/8 of a mile to a hillside waterfall that I’d noticed on the bus ride.

Mountainside Waterfall, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

The waterfall was part of a creek that ran down the mountainside above the road.  I spent a bit of time teasing out some compositions of that creek.

Rushing Stream, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Rushing Stream Black & White, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Rushing Stream, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

After I finished at the creek, I walked back to the visitors center parking lot and caught up with Ellen and Debbie.  They were photographing a particularly cooperative Arctic ground squirrel.  Said squirrel was sufficiently cooperative to allow me to switch cameras.

Arctic Ground Squirrel, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

By now, it appeared to us as though the clouds in the direction of Denali, more or less to the northwest of our position, were beginning to lift.  The bus we’d taken to Eielson was set to leave in about 15 minutes and we decided to let it go.  This would be our one opportunity to photograph The Mountain from a relatively near proximity and we had reason to believe that we’d have the chance if we were patient enough.  We’d catch a later bus.

The Eileson area of Denali, like Toklat and Polychrome, is treeless, so there are broad plains containing forms of stunted vegetation.  There were still plenty of clouds in the sky and some interesting spotted lighting hitting the landscape and for the better part of the next hour, I spent my time capturing it.

Eielson View Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

Eielson View, Denali National Park, Alaska

Meandering Creek, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

McKinley River Valley, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Eielson View, Denali National Park, Alaska

McKinley River Valley Black & White, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Eielson View, Denali National Park, Alaska

After an hour, a glance in the direction of the Mountain showed the clouds plainly thinning.  A “window” in the clouds showed part of the Mountain for the first time since our arrival at Eielson.

Denali Obscured Black & White, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali Obscured, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

It was obvious, at this point, that we had made the right call.  More and more of the Mountain gradually was revealed.

Denali Revealed, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali Revealed, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Mountain Black & White, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Mountain Panoracama, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Mountain and the McKinley River Valley Black & White, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Mountain and the McKinley River Valley, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

As a parting shot, I maneuvered myself into a position where I was able to produce an image of a remarkable display of red, autumn-tinged fireweed amid the tundra.

Autumn Fireweed, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

We arranged with the bus coordinator at the visitors center for a spot on a bus that was due to leave at around 3 PM.  While we were waiting, I made a few parting images of the Alaska Range.

Alaska Range Black & White, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

McKinley River Valley, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

From the bus itself, on the return trip, we were afforded the opportunity (by the bus driver) to capture a classic view of The Mountain.  The below image was literally made from an open window on the bus…yes, handheld.

The Mountain and the Park Road Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

Given the length of the trip back to the depot, we decided not to get off at Polychrome.  We’d have no more than a couple of hours on the ground and there would be no guarantee that we’d be able to find seats when flagging down a late bus.

We did have a number of additional wildlife sightings on the return trip, the vast majority of which were too far away to photograph.  The one semi-exception is this record image of a caribou.

Caribou, Denali National Park, Alaska

It was nearly 7 PM when we got back to the depot (the outgoing bus had departed at roughly 6:30 AM), which left us with about 2 1/2 hours of daylight.  We decided to check out the Horseshoe Lake Trail first.  It was only about a five-minute drive from the depot to the trailhead and within 15 minutes or so, we were astride the lake.  I immediately found a lakeshore shot that interested me so Ellen and Debbie moved along the loop trail and I didn’t catch up to them again until I had circumnavigated the entire thing (a couple of miles, more or less).

Horseshoe Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

This is a very nice photo trail; it’s a location I’ll return to in a heartbeat if I have the opportunity.  The area around the lake is enchanting, with endless compositional possibilities–and not just of the lake.  There are beavers (I spent some time observing a trio of them), a scree slope on the far hillside, beaver-dammed areas below the league, access to the Nenana River, a fascinating, moss-draped forest and more.

Horseshoe Lake Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska

Horseshoe Lake Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska

Horseshoe Lake Reflections Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

Horseshoe Lake Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska

Horseshoe Lake Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska

Nenana River Abstract, Horseshoe Lake Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

I enjoyed the experience around the lake so much that I nearly lost track of time.  I’d wanted to photograph along the Savage River in good light–something that was determined during an impromptu scouting session on our first day in the area.  So we hustled down the park road, back to the Mountain View area, where the trail provides river access.  Ellen and I made the trek down to the river while Debbie took the car to check out another nearby location.  I took my rubber boots with me, fully intending to descend into the water.  Most of the river images below were in fact made while standing in the water.

Savage River Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

It was a simple matter to climb down into the river bed.  I ended up producing a number of photographs looking both up and down river.

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

The channel between the shore and the gravel bar wasn’t particularly deep and it was fairly easy to negotiate a series of routes through the water that were no more than up to mid-calf level.

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

After climbing out of the river, I made one final image from up on the bank.

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

There was an interesting meadow along the trail, not far from the river, and Ellen and I hiked to it, in the hopes that we’d get an interesting sunset.  We made some images, but the sky that evening, while interesting, was not of the epic variety.

Meadow Sunset, Mountain View, Denali National Park, Alaska

Meadow Sunset, Mountain View, Denali National Park, Alaska

And that brought the day’s photography to a close.  It hadn’t been quite as long a day as the one that ended with the aurora, but we’d been up for a solid 18 hours by the time we called it quits.  This was our last day in the Denali area.  The following day, we’d return to Fairbanks and prepare for our foray north, into the Brooks Range.

Posted by: kerryl29 | November 12, 2018

The Parking Lot Portfolio

[I’ll resume posting pieces dedicated to the Alaska trip next time.]

Many people I know take their cameras with them everywhere on the theory that you never know when a compelling photo opportunity will arise.  I don’t do this myself, but I’m starting to think that I should.  I was pondering this the other day and realized that, just over the past few months, I’ve made a number of images from parking lots.

The recent spate of asphalt inspiration began during the Alaska trip.  On August 30, we were scheduled to return to Fairbanks from the Denali area in preparation for our foray into the Brooks Range the following day.  The hope had been to make the journey via a scenic, circuitous route that included traversing the entire length of the Denali Highway and then taking the Richardson Highway northwest to Fairbanks.  This would have been an all-day affair with plenty of photographic opportunities but the weather forecast was awful; it was supposed to rain all day long throughout central Alaska and, indeed, that’s what happened.  Rather than covering the pothole-strewn Denali Highway during a soaking rain, we went back to Fairbanks via the simpler, shorter (and paved) George Parks Highway.  The rain finally slackened by early evening, but the sky remained cloudy, and we holed up in our Fairbanks hotel.  But only about 10 minutes before sunset, I glanced out the window, noticed partial clearing, and saw the first evidence of sunlight all day long.  It was too late to go anywhere else, but I’d noticed a nice stand of conifers at the back end of the hotel parking lot and suggested that we at least try to gain something out of what might be a nice sunset.

Sunset Sky, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

We hustled down to the parking lot–it took no more than a minute–and watched as what turned out to be probably the nicest sunset sky of the trip unfolded.

Sunset Sky, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

We might have been better suited to be elsewhere under these conditions, but the parking lot was better than nothing…by a long shot, I’d argue.

Sunset Sky, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Sunset Sky, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

And that was just the start of the recent parking lot/image-making experience.

In late October I met my friend Danny Burk for an exploration of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail in northern Indiana.  The conditions were less than ideal but we poked our noses into several of the trail’s access spots as we moved east along the trail’s route.  During one break, as we were driving from one trail entry point to another, we stopped in the town of Middlebury, Indiana.  I’d noticed a beautiful maple tree, along the town’s main thoroughfare, which happened to be at peak color and, from the parking lot adjoining a gas station across the street, set up and made the image you see below.

Red Maple, Elkhart County, Indiana

Later in the day, just outside of Shipshewana, Indiana, we were in a trail parking area where we were afforded a nice view of a farm scene.  From the lot, the below panorama was produced.

Farm Panorama Black & White, LaGrange County, Indiana

The following week, on the day before I returned to northeast Illinois from central Indiana, I spent a couple of hours looking for images since it would be my last opportunity to be in the area before the end of the fall color season.  Less than 15 minutes from home I found each of the following two images from a pair of separate parking lots.

Maple Splendor, Marion County, Indiana

The above image was made from the parking lot of an abandoned sheet metal business.  The photograph below was made from the lot serving an athletic complex.

Fall Color, Marion County, Indiana

When I was considering writing this blog entry, it occurred to me that the profligacy of this parking lot photography matter isn’t an entirely new one.  Just off the top of my head, I thought of a number of other such opportunities in the past, including Florida:

Wood Stork, Paurotis Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida

Mexican Palmettos, Riverbend Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

Trade Winds, Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda Key, Florida

Pine Glades Lake Black & White, Everglades National Park, Florida

All of the above images were made from one parking lot or another.

Colorado:

The Dyke, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

The above image was produced from a trail head parking area.  The photograph below was made from an overlook parking lot.

Ohio Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

The same pattern holds for these images from the Smokies:

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Tennessee

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

And from various locations in New England:

Fall Color, Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia State Park, New Hampshire

Fall Color, Lost River, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Long Pond, Orleans County, Vermont

Mooselookmeguntic Lake at Sunset from Height of Land Overlook, Franklin County, Maine

And the three below images from Yosemite National Park in California:

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Conifer Forest, Yosemite National Park, California

Dogwood, Yosemite National Park, California

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Maybe I should keep take my camera (and my tripod 🙂 ) with me everywhere after all…

Posted by: kerryl29 | November 5, 2018

Alaska: Denali State Park

Did you know that there was a Denali State Park in Alaska?  Most people don’t and, prior to the planning stage of the Alaska trip, that included me.  The northern part of the state park is located about an hour south of the entrance to Denali National Park.  The state park flows along both sides of the George Parks Highway (which runs primarily north-south) and, like most things in Alaska, it’s big:  more than 325,000 acres (roughly half the size of the state of Rhode Island).  The park is filled with hiking trails that are mostly easily accessed.

We’d had to alter our original plans while in the Denali area, due to the weather forecast, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  Having changed our original day of exploration into the National Park to the following day , and having had an all-too-short taste of the Denali Highway the previous day, we had one day left to check out Denali State Park.  The day started out–this was becoming a trend–rainy, but cleared up throughout the morning and we set out on the drive south on the George Parks Highway.  Along the way, a view of the Mountain came upon us so we pulled off the road to take advantage of the scene.

Denali View, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Denali View, George Parks Highway, Alaska

When we reached the state park, we decided to check out the North Viewpoint area–which has a nice view of the Alaska Range–before setting out on our pre-determined hike (more below).

The Alaska Range Black & White, North Viewpoint, Denali State Park, Alaska

The hike we’d decided to do, based on a guidebook description, was the Ermine Hill Trail.  Like many of the interesting sounding trails in the park, this one climbed toward a ridge with (we read) excellent views of the Alaska Range and the valley below.  It was approximately seven miles round trip and back with an elevation change of roughly 1700 feet.  What we discovered, when we started the trail, is that it actually descends several hundred feet before ascending on the climb to Kesugi Ridge.  The trail runs through a heavily forested area, crosses a couple of streams and then passes along a wetland before beginning the climb through another set of woods.

Much of the low-level area of the trail was quite muddy–there had been, as I chronicled earlier in this series, plenty of rain over the past few days–which we worked to avoid.  On what had become a partly cloudy day, we moved relatively quickly over the first 3/4 of a mile or so of the trail before reaching the wetland.  There, we spied a pair of tundra swans.  They were quite a distance away, but I managed to obtain a few shots before they flew off.

Tundra Swans, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

The trail then climbed through a series of switchbacks before entering a fairly steep climb through a forested area.  As the sun danced back and forth between cloud banks I started to find interesting things to photograph.  Ellen and Debbie moved on as I worked several scenes that intrigued me, beginning with a a fern-filled area just off the trail.

Sun-Kissed Ferns, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

The next spot that stopped me in my tracks was a series of birch trunks.  I spent a fair amount of time sizing the trunks up, trying to identify the ideal composition.  I finally found it, and completed a four-frame stack.  (The fern shot, above, is a three-frame stack.)  It was the only way to retain sharpness from front to back in the scene, given that I was using a 50 mm focal length.  Fortunately the wind was light and, with patience I was able to complete the sequence.  This was a bit trickier with the bracken ferns in the above photo, since the fronds will blow with even a breath of wind.

Birch Trunks, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

I caught up to Ellen and Debbie who were photographing a particularly nice patch of the forest floor, including subjects I had been admiring all along the recent part of the hike but hadn’t stopped to shoot because I didn’t want to fall any farther behind.  But now I had an excuse to play with the colorful, intimate scene.  When, after being asked what I’d seen, I mentioned the birch trunks and showed one of the frames to Debbie via the LCD screen on the back of the camera she made me promise to show her the spot on the way down.  (I said I would, with the caveat that it might be a bit difficult, given that we’d be approaching the location from the opposite direction, making it potentially tough to spot.)

Forest Floor Intimate, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

Not long after this point, we left the thick forest behind and emerged on the hillside leading up towards the ridge.  The views behind us–in the direction of the Alaska Range–were exceptional.  I took note of an old log that I thought would make a nice foreground for possible re-investigation on the return trip.

We hiked much of the rest of the way up the hillside.  Ellen stopped part way, Debbie went off trail a bit to a rock outcropping she spotted and I worked a section, also slightly off trail, in search of foreground elements to complement the view.

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

When everyone was ready, we went back down.  When I came upon the log I’d noted earlier, I let Ellen and Debbie move ahead, telling them I’d catch up; another view of the scene had convinced me that I definitely wanted to photograph at this spot.  After sizing up the scene with the 24-70 mm lens I determined I needed something wider and switched to the 14-24.  Even with the ultra-wide lens I had to resort to a three-frame stack to retain front-to-back sharpness.

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

I then found another composition I liked, using two trees as left-side-of-frame sentinels, with some fireweed as a right-side counterbalance.

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

I caught up to Ellen and Debbie and did find the birch trunk location and, after Debbie had photographed them (the light was far less workable than it had been when I’d been there earlier, unfortunately), we completed the hike out, which seemed to take forever.  I might have photographed some more but it was now more or less completely sunny and I didn’t like the effect that had on the forest settings which dominated the remainder of the trail.

When we got back, we went in search of a sunset location.  There was a trail around a lake in another part of the park that we checked out, on my suggestion, but it turned out to be a poor choice–there were virtually no clear spots that reached the lakeside.  So we went back in the car and headed north, in an attempt to find a roadside location that might be compelling.  It wasn’t shaping up to be an epic sunset and, after driving for some time, well beyond the park borders, in frustration, I headed into a pull-out on the west side of the highway.  Given the status of the sky and setting sun, it was pretty much now or never and while there was nothing particularly noteworthy about this spot, at least, I reasoned, we’d be able to photograph some conifers against the sky.

I have to say that, given that this wasn’t shaping up to be a great sunset and the location itself left something to be desired, I didn’t have high hopes for the ensuing imagery.  But I’m (surprisingly) relatively pleased with what I was able to make out of it.

Sunset, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Sunset, George Parks Highway, Alaska

I used both normal and telephoto focal lengths during the 20-30 minutes we were on site and checked out both sides of the highway.  I ended up being more intrigued with the other side–the east side–of the road, which hadn’t even been a consideration when we pulled off.

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Alaska

I never like to spend time, as the light is changing, scrambling around looking for a location from which to photograph and I wouldn’t intentionally repeat the process of this evening, but every once in a while. accidentally, things sorta/kinda work out.

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 29, 2018

Alaska: The Day Everything Happened (Part II)

When I left off the story in Part I of this entry, we had completed the helicopter adventure and returned to Denali National Park.  We had hoped to reach the Mountain Vista area, where the Savage River can be accessed directly; I had scouted the location that afternoon and thought it would be a terrific spot to shoot in good light.  But we reached the park entrance no more than 10 minutes before sunset and when we were still on the park road, several miles away from the Mountain Vista parking area, I pulled off to the side of the road.  The light was already fantastic and the worst thing to do when the light is great is to be heading to a location rather than being on site already set up to photograph.  Besides, even if we did get to the parking area before we lost the light completely it would still take about 10 minutes to hike down to the river.  No, if we were going to get any photography in before we lost the light, it would have to be right where we were.

Last Light, Denali National Park, Alaska

Fortunately, we had views in every direction from this spot along the road.  There was very little traffic so we were essentially free to set up wherever we wanted and to cross the road at will.  There weren’t many clouds in the sky at all–it was almost completely clear–but there were some hovering near the horizon over Denali itself and there was a pretty nice earthshadow effect playing out over part of the Alaska Range to the northeast of our location.

Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

Mt. Hess and Mt. Deborah Earthshadow, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Mountain at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

In time, the color faded from the sky and it began to get dark.  Just minutes after the sun disappeared the nearly full moon rose on the other side of the sky.

Moonrise, Denali National Park, Alaska

It took what seemed like forever for it to get completely dark; the full moon was part of the reason for that but, as we discovered later in this trip, the rest of the reason was simply how long it took for the residue of light from the setting sun to disappear completely–on this evening, it was something like 90 minutes.

When the color faded from the sky–and after I’d played around with photographing the moonrise–we retreated to the car to decide what to do.  Given the almost completely clear sky, should we hang out and wait to see if the Northern Lights would make an appearance?  We’d been told that the most likely time to see the lights, if they appeared at all, would be from roughly 1 to 4 AM.  It was, at this point, only a bit after 10 PM.  It’s also worth noting that we’d been up since before 5 that morning…and then there was the excitement of the helicopter trip.

The “smart” move might have been to call it a day and retreat for a decent night’s sleep.  But no one wanted to make that call and so we decided to wait and see what happened.  We killed the lights in the vehicle, to better aid our night vision, and waited.  After an uncertain amount of time–maybe 30 minutes or so–Debbie saw something.  “Don’t you see it?” she asked us.  We didn’t.  Not yet.  But in a very short period of time–a minute, maybe two–I did.  And Ellen was just a few seconds behind me.  We were out of the vehicle very quickly and got set up.  I placed my Sigma 24-35/2 lens, the fastest lens I own, on my camera.  At this point, green streaks were beginning to light up the sky.

None of us had ever photographed aurora before, though we all had a sense of what we ought to do, technically.  I’d read a couple of primers on aurora photography before we left for Alaska and we’d discussed the subject with the folks at Alaska Camera in Fairbanks when we’d stopped there to pick up some items the previous day:  an exposure of a few seconds (3-6, approximately), wide open aperture and the lowest ISO possible to achieve the desired shutter speed.  (This was why the f/2 lens was an advantage compared to either of my f/2.8 lenses).  The tough part was establishing a decent composition (in the dark) and ensuring sharpness at infinity focus (in the dark).  In retrospect I really should have gotten the camera set up–with the appropriate lens, approximate best exposure settings and focus preset to infinity–in advance, but given the specific circumstances and my lack of experience with the subject matter, I didn’t.  This meant there was a bit of learning curve, but I had sense enough to carefully check the results of my first few exposures and was able, with difficulty, to make corrections.  I then rinsed and repeated each time I moved my physical position during the shoot.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

The display was, in short, absolutely amazing, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in my life.  The green elements showed up all over the sky, in every direction, including directly over our heads.  I spent at least as much time just watching as I did photographing and I can’t say I regret it.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

Given another opportunity, I certainly would have played with some different shutter speeds, to see how that might have impacted the end result, but I should note that it was a bit tricky to undertake any changes standing there in the dark.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

A problem had occurred near the end of the sunset portion of our session.  Ellen mentioned that she was experiencing difficulty with her tripod ballhead.  I took a look at it and, sure enough, there was something wrong.  I suspected that a spring had become compromised–if not broken.  Regardless of the specifics, it had become impossible to lock her camera onto the head.  It is absolutely essential to have a functional tripod support–even more so than usual–when photographing aurora because it’s truly impossible to hold the camera steady for several seconds, even with some form of image stabilization.   Since there was no way to come up with a fix on such short notice, during the early part of our aurora shoot, Ellen tried to use the vehicle itself as a shooting platform, but found it–not surprisingly–essentially impossible.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

Debbie, generously, told Ellen to use her tripod to obtain some images.  That seemed like a good idea at the time.

And then, it happened.

I was sizing up a shot, with my back to Ellen, when I heard the sickening sound of something heavy hitting the asphalt on which we were standing.  Unfamiliar with Debbie’s tripod/head combination and working in the dark, Ellen thought she had her camera locked down when it wasn’t.  The camera/lens combination hit the ground.  I heard something–part of the lens, we later discovered–skitter past me in the dark.  The lens had snapped into two pieces and was obviously DOA.  The status of the camera was uncertain.

The incident, it should come as no surprise, took all of the air out of the proverbial balloon.  As excited as we’d all been just moments earlier, observing the remarkable phenomenon of the Northern Lights, that’s how subdued we became.  Ellen was understandably distraught–but not as upset as I suspect I’d have been had something comparable happened to me.  The photo session came to an end right there, essentially without discussion.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

Epilogue

Ellen bounced back, psyhcologically, pretty quickly.  It was approaching 1 AM when we returned to our lodging and the light show had mostly faded by this time.  (Remarkably, it seemed to have peaked by the time of the unfortunate incident.)  We talked about what to do and more or less determined that we’d drive back to the camera store in Fairbanks the next day–a round trip of 4-5 hours–to see what could be done about replacing the broken equipment.  The lens (a 16-35/2.8) was kaput, as I noted above, though the break seemed to be clean.  It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that it could be repaired, though it would require sending the pieces to Canon’s repair service to find out, and that would have to wait until the trip was over.  (Spoiler alert:  the lens turned out to be repairable and is now back in Ellen’s possession.) The camera, based on some testing, appeared to be fully functional.  But the tripod head wasn’t and a replacement was imperative.  Some kind of a fast wide angle was also needed, in case we had another chance to photograph the aurora later in the trip (it’s important to remember that all of this happened on our second full day in Alaska)–we all hoped we would, of course.

Ellen tried to convince us that she could make the drive herself; she’d drop us off in Denali and we could hike the Savage River Trail or something and she’d pick us up again at a predetermined time.  But Debbie and I both insisted that we’d ride along on the trip to Fairbanks.  (The fact that rain was forecast, pretty much all day, made it easier than it otherwise might have been to make this decision, but in truth we were both committed to going along regardless.)  We spent a fair amount of time talking about this and didn’t turn in until after 2 AM.

It did, indeed, rain essentially throughout the following day and we were able to transact our business at Alaska Camera.  Ellen rented a fast wide angle prime and the people at the camera store found a used ballhead for her to use that was compatible with her equipment.  Everyone was feeling much better about things as we headed back toward Denali–in the rain–that afternoon than had been the case the previous night.

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 22, 2018

Alaska: The Day Everything Happened (Part I)

Our second full day in Alaska was a memorable one because so much happened.  Some of it was good, some of it…wasn’t.  But I think we’ll all remember that day because of how much was crammed into the final handful (or so) of hours of it.

It started out pretty innocently.  We got up early–very early, before 5 AM–in the hopes of catching a sunrise in Fairbanks.  We drove to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus, just a few miles from where we were staying, with the hope of getting a good view (it’s up on a hill).  It turned out to be a waste as there was no sunrise to observe; we were treated to a combination of low clouds and fog.  So, we returned to our hotel and, in relatively short order, loaded up our rented vehicle in preparation for the approximately 2 1/2 hour drive to the Denali area.

The early part of the drive was mostly more clouds–and the occasional sprinkle of rain–and we didn’t stop all that often as a result.  During a lull, we did make one quick stop at a roadside rest area, and I pulled out my camera to make the following single image.

Summer’s End, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

A bit further along, Debbie–who’s a good wildlife spotter (I’d simply say that she’s clearly better than me, but that would be damning with faint praise)–caught sight of a female moose and calf, several hundred feet off the road at the rear end of a meadow that was lined with spruce trees.  We stopped, of course, and photographed from the roadside.  The moose were momentarily interested in our presence–they looked at us briefly–and then, unperturbed, went back to what they had been doing:  munching on the foliage of the shrubs in the meadow.

Mama Moose, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Mama & Baby Moose, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Mama & Baby Moose, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

We stayed there for awhile, but before long, other vehicles began pulling off both sides of the highway in what was shaping up to be a classic “wildlife jam.”  As more people stopped–and slammed their vehicle doors, etc.–both moose wandered off into the thickly wooded area behind the meadow and that was that.

As we continued the drive south toward Denali, the skies gradually cleared and when we arrived at the access road to the park–late morning, as I recall–it was partly sunny and getting sunnier.  We stopped at the Denali Wilderness Access Center, just a couple of miles up the road.  We had secured reservations on the Denali park bus for our lengthy excursion into the park for Monday, August 27 (we arrived on Saturday, August 25).  I had been attentively monitoring the weather forecast for the remainder of our time in the area (we were due to return to Fairbanks on Thursday, the 30th).  It wasn’t favorable.  The forecast for the next two days was likely rain.  Tuesday was iffy.  Wednesday’s forecast was pretty good.  Since we hoped to catch a glimpse of The Mountain, we wanted to make the trip into the interior of the park on the day with the best chance of clear skies.  I strongly advocated that we change our reservations to Wednesday and everyone readily agreed.  So, that’s what we did at the Wilderness Access Center; it turned out to be a relatively easy process, once we were introduced to the right attendant (who waived the usual transfer fee, saying he was confident that he’d be able to sell our Monday tickets to other visitors).

With that bit of housekeeping attended to, and knowing that we wouldn’t be able to check into our new lodgings for several hours, we decided to spend the interim exploring the 15 miles of park road that are accessible to private vehicles.  Along the way, we noted potential points of interest for further investigation.  By this time, it was mostly sunny, breezy and the mid-day light was pretty harsh, so few photos were made.  We did, however, take our cameras down for an amble on the Mountain View Trail where we caught our first glimpse of The Mountain.  We counted ourselves fortunate to have seen Denali–even from this distance (roughly 75 miles)–given how often it’s shrouded in clouds.  (More on the theme of Denali’s visibility later in this post.)

The Mountain, Mountain View, Denali National Park, Alaska

We explored as far as the Savage River pull-off at mile marker 15, which is the termination point for private vehicles.  By this time it was mid-afternoon, late enough for us to check in at our lodgings, so we headed out of the park, 15-20 miles south on the George Parks Highway.  And that’s when things started to get interesting.

The first point of interest is, naturally, the helicopter.

The what?

The helicopter.  It’ll all make sense eventually, I promise.  When we were checking in to our Denali area lodging (major kudos to Ellen for finding this place; it was perfectly situated for our needs and remarkably well-appointed), the lobby had one of those displays that feature pamphlets and brochures for area attractions; you see this sort of thing routinely in hotel and motel lobbies.  I hadn’t taken much notice of it at the time, but apparently Debbie had.

There are two pieces of background information that will, I think, help you make sense of what followed.  The first has to do with this matter of how difficult it typically is to see Denali.  Apparently, 80% of visitors to the park never see The Mountain.  We would be in the area for longer than most visitors, but I had a friend who was in the area for more than a week and never saw it.  We, of course, had seen the peak that afternoon, but from a long way away and under less than ideal conditions.  We really hoped we’d see it (and be able to photograph it) again before we left the area, but given the statistics–and the weather forecast–that was far from a foregone conclusion.  This turned out to be a non-issue; we ended up seeing The Mountain several more times before we left, as was documented in an earlier post.  But we had no way of knowing that this would be the case on that first day.

The second piece of information?  Debbie gets excited.  I want to emphasize that this excitement is entirely legitimate–not feigned in any way.  But there it is.

So, given:

1) the desire to have a chance to photograph Denali better than we had that afternoon, and

2) that the sky conditions–as the afternoon wore on it became almost entirely clear–were conducive to the notion that the remainder of that day might be the best opportunity we’d have to do so; and

3) Debbie really wanted to photograph The Mountain…

She’d apparently found a brochure for an outfit that provided helicopter tours in the Denali area, based less than 10 minutes from the park entrance (no more than 30 minutes north of where we were now located).  While the main trip that this company offered involved flying people to and from a glacier in the Alaska Range, they offered custom trips as well.  Debbie thought it would be worth calling them to see if they could set something up to take us to a location where we could get a better view of Denali than we could get from the first 15 miles of the park road.  We had no cell service where we were staying so the only phone accessible to us was a land line in the lobby; she raced off to see what she could find out.

Ellen and I were, shall we say, skeptical that this was a great idea.  We knew it would be expensive–though how expensive remained to be seen–and, of course, if we were riding in a helicopter, we wouldn’t be back in the park photographing.  We figured that nothing would come of this.  We should have known better.

After 10-15 minutes, Debbie returned, scarcely able to contain herself she was so excited.  After some discussion about options with whomever she’d talked to at the helicopter place, they’d cooked up something.  They understood what we wanted to do, i.e. photograph The Mountain, and yes, they could accommodate that.  With the understanding that we’d fly for 15 minutes, land somewhere and photograph for 30 and then fly back to base in another 15 minutes, they could do it for–steady–roughly $800.  Now in fairness, that was the total cost, not per person, but we’d each be on the hook for something like $270.  And, if we wanted to do this, we’d have to sign on pretty quickly.  It was late afternoon by now and, given the drive to the location and the need to be briefed, etc., we’d have to call them back in less than an hour.

Debbie thought that this all sounded great; were the rest of us on board?  Ellen and I looked at one another again.  I think it would be fair to say that we weren’t any less skeptical than we had been before we heard the pitch.  My concerns were entirely about cost–both the literal financial expense and the opportunity cost (i.e. if we’re doing this, we weren’t doing something else).  I was less certain of Ellen’s objections, beyond her more or less echoing my own.  But when we articulated our feelings, we did so in the form of doubt, not anything approaching “absolutely not.”  I think that’s partly because neither of us wanted to “pull rank” and partly because, in fairness, Debbie made some pretty compelling arguments why we should seriously consider doing this.  Much of this I’ve already laid out above–chance to photograph The Mountain, when we might not get another, as well as the opportunity to do so from a unique perspective.  Another argument was a kind of “what the hell” point of view:  when, if ever, would we have the opportunity to do something like this again, in such a remarkable location?  There was a pause.  I had to concede the rationale of these arguments.  “Okay,” I said.  “I’m in.”  Ellen followed suit almost immediately.  Debbie raced off to phone the helicopter folks to say that we’d be there at the appointed time (which was something like 6:30 PM).  Before we knew it, we were in the car on the way.   I have to say, once you’ve more or less freed yourself from the money aspect of something like this–mostly by sighing and writing it off in your own mind–it becomes pretty simple to plow ahead.

This has already become a long narrative, so I’ll skip the tale of most of the specifics that greeted us once we arrived.  Suffice to say that we–and our gear–were all weighed so that the distribution of items (and the amount of fuel needed) on the helicopter could be determined and a plan was drawn up.  All three of the service’s machines were out when we arrived; they would all be returning within 10 minutes or so of one another.  Our little party would be in the smallest of the three (designed for four people–the three of us and the pilot), which would be “hot fueled” (i.e. refueled without turning the engine off) and then we’d be off.  We were the last flight of the day.

Now, Debbie had been up in a helicopter many times prior to this occasion.  Neither Ellen or I had done so before.  This wasn’t an issue for me and I wasn’t aware, at the time, that it would be for Ellen, since she’d uttered no concerns in that regard.  Oops.

We were told, in advance, how we should board.  Ellen was to sit in the front, next to the pilot; I was right behind Ellen, in the rear on the right and Debbie was to my left.  We were all given headsets to wear so that we could communicate with one another, and the pilot, over the tremendous ambient noise created by the rotor and the engine, during the flight.

In no time, we were several hundred feet in the air, and climbing.  The pilot had some locations in mind, given our interest, and, after flying for 5-10 minutes (which included some remarkable views of the Alaska Range, the Nanena River Valley and herds of Dall sheep on the slopes below, we arrived at an unnamed ridge.  It wasn’t very large, but it was plenty big enough to set down the helicopter and provide room for us to move around a bit.  Denali was visible in the distance–the helicopter company cannot, by ordinance, set down in the park–and there were literally 360-degree views available.  The pilot asked us if this was okay; he said he had some other possible locations if it wasn’t.  We kind of metaphorically looked at one another.  I asked if it was likely that any of the other spots he had in mind would have a better view of The Mountain.  He said, not really–that they’d be similar to what we had here.  I suggested, then, that we preserve time by setting down at this spot and getting to work.  That was readily agreed upon and we did so.  The engine was killed and we all got out.

I spent a few moments orienting myself and looking around.  I presumed everyone else was doing the same thing.  After a minute or so I pulled my gear–and that of everyone else–out of the hold.  I’d found some things I wanted to shoot.  It was at this point that I noticed that Ellen was…let’s just say she wasn’t entirely herself.  I asked her if she was okay and she told me that she was pretty freaked out.  (She later said, repeatedly, that this helicopter ride was the scariest thing she’d ever been through in her life.)  For at least the first five minutes we were up on the ledge she was so discombobulated that she really couldn’t focus on what she was doing or even carry out the basic in-field camera workflow that she’d performed innumerable times previously.  I felt terrible about this…I could only imagine what this kind of experience would be like if I had to go through it.  Fortunately, with a bit of time, she was able to regain her bearings, take in the location and undertake some photography.  (And she ended up with some fine images for her considerable trouble.)

The first thing I did was photograph Denali, using a telephoto lens (see below).  It was chilly up on the ledge, particularly when the wind blew.  Fortunately, there were lulls.  We had, I’d guess, about 500 square feet from which to work, part of which was taken up by the helicopter’s footprint.  But our pilot had carefully placed the craft on the available space and we were able to set up all around it, facing in all directions.

The Mountain Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

When I was done with Denali using the telephoto, I went to a wider angle and started moving around the periphery of our available space.  There were some interesting foregrounds with which to work:  rocks covered with green lichen and other plant-life and some long grasses.  Everywhere around us were the peaks and ridge lines of the Alaska Range.  And the light, which was already good, was improving by the minute.

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

With a bit of patience, I found that I could create usable focus stack sets, and routinely did so with two or three exposures.

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

Nenana River and the Alaksa Range, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

Since our flight up (and, by extension, our flight back) took less time than anticipated, our pilot graciously let us stay up on the ridge longer than we’d expected.  I’d guess we were up there for at least 45 minutes.  When I was done with the wide angle shots I took up my telephoto rig again and captured some of my favorite images from this location.

Nenana River Black & White, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

The Mountain, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Borough, Alaska

Eventually, it was time to go.  Ellen was dreading the return trip probably as much as she’d dreaded the trip up.  The pilot allowed her to switch seats with Debbie, which made things a little bit easier (given the comparative lack of a view in the back of the craft), but it didn’t escape my notice that Ellen kept her eyes closed most of the trip back and grabbed the handle on the wall on her side of the interior with a vice-like grip.

We made it back without incident and were discharged about 45 minutes before sunset.  I suggested that we hasten back to the park to see if we could make some decent images in the fleeting light of day and that was met with universal agreement.  I think Ellen was just glad to be back on the ground.  But we raced back to the park entrance and hit the park road.

And that’s a good segue into the rest of the day’s events.

Next:  Alaska:  The Day Everything Happened, Part II

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 16, 2018

Alaska: Denali Highway

When I think back on the Alaska trip my biggest regret is that we weren’t able to spend more time on the Denali Highway.  It wasn’t due to negligence.  We had hoped to have the opportunity to spend at least two full days on this route but the weather–we had the equivalent of at least 2 1/2 days of rain when we were based in the Denali area–prevented this.  In the end, we had less than one-half day on the Denali Highway which was enough time to cover, barely, 1/3 of the length of the road.

Forest Mist, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Wetland, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

The Denali Highway is a mostly unpaved, pothole-filled road that runs from Cantwell, at the western end, to Paxson, roughly 135 miles to the east.  For the unpaved portion of the highway–which represents at least 110 miles of the route–it’s strongly recommended not to drive faster than 30 miles per hour, assuming you want to avoid a flat tire.   The road is lightly traveled and runs through some spectacular scenery, south of the Alaska Range.  There are forests, creeks and streams, river valleys, lakes, tundra and associated wetlands, and mountain overlooks.  Wildlife sightings aren’t uncommon (we saw moose and tundra swans during our brief visit).

Alaska Range Sunset, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Edmonds Creek, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

On the day we took our ride on the Denali Highway, we were greeted with rain throughout the morning.  We chose to photograph some creeks in Denali National Park and, almost out of frustration with the seemingly endless moisture, we made our way toward the Denali Highway, about 20 miles south of where we were staying (and 35-odd miles south of the entrance to the park) early that afternoon.

Lily Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Edmonds Creek, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

It was still socked in cloudy and sprinkling occasionally when we reached the highway’s eastern terminus, and our early photo opportunities reflected these conditions.  We were treated to views of some beautiful creeks and wetland areas.

Nanena River, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Spruce Tunnel, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Edmonds Creek, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

We made frequent stops and, because the highway is broad and not heavily trafficked, we could pull over pretty much wherever we wanted.  And with the light unchanging during this portion of the day, we could take our time and work sites we found appealing…which we did.

Fish Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Evening, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

As we slowly made our way east, we started to see breaks in the clouds and, by early evening, we were experiencing partly cloudy conditions.  We had noted a number of locations to photograph along the way and with the light suddenly very nice (and getting nicer), we scrambled to try to take advantage of it, knowing that we’d only have the opportunity to hit one or two spots.  Besides, given the physical condition of the road, the idea of quickly reaching any spot that wasn’t very nearby was out of the question.  So, we made the most of what we had at our immediate disposal.

Alaska Range Sunset, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Nanena River Black & White, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Alaska Range Sunset, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

At our first overlook–facing essentially north, toward the Alaska Range–we had the advantage of a tundra landscape that was entering peak color conditions.  When the sky color in that direction faded, we literally walked across the road, where the sky to the southwest reached its peak.  The foreground was less dramatic, so I used the trees on the side of the road as secondary interest and let the sky steal the show by allowing the colorful cloud formations to dominate the frame.

Sunset, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Sunset, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Sunset, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

It took about an hour to drive back to Cantwell on the pothole-filled road–in the gathering darkness–but we made it without incident.

We reflected upon the fact that we hadn’t even caught a glimpse of the scenery abutting 2/3 of the road–including the much-recommended eastern portion with its ride through the Alaska Range foothills.  In our trip post mortem we agreed that, if we have the opportunity to return to Alaska at some point in the future, covering the entirety of the Denali Highway would be a top priority.

Posted by: kerryl29 | October 9, 2018

Alaska: Atigun Pass Snowfall

Since photographing there more than 11 years ago I’ve consistently stated that White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico is the most graphic-rich location that I’ve ever visited.  I still stand by that assessment but on this year’s trip to Alaska I had the opportunity to experience something that gave White Sands a run for its money:  Atigun Pass, the day after a significant snowfall.

Atigun Pass is where the Dalton Highway crosses the Brooks Range–and is also the location that encompasses the Continental Divide in this part of Alaska, approximately 170 miles south of Deadhorse, on the Arctic Ocean.  The pass is roughly 4700 feet above sea level, which doesn’t seem particularly high (Red Mountain Pass, in the Colorado Rockies, is more than 11,000 feet by comparison), but at this latitude–more than 68 degrees north–it’s well above the tree line.  By the time one reaches Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway from the south, trees are a thing of the past.  As a result, there’s very little covering the slopes of this northern portion of the Brooks Mountain Range:  grasses and other plants with shallow root structures, rocks and not much else.

The day before our trip to Atigun Pass, it had been raining off and on in the southern portion of the Brooks Range, but that precipitation had fallen in the form of snow further north.  In fact, there had been a winter storm warning at Atigun, with at least eight inches of snow.  The next day was almost entirely clear and relatively warm–the temperatures crept into the low 40s (F)–but the snow was still there, creating a remarkably graphic landscape.  Virtually every time we stopped, I pulled out my telephoto lens and spent time picking out abstract and quasi-abstract intimates that intrigued me.  Given the lack of identifiable features and color–outside of the blue sky–I had monochrome renditions explicitly in mind every time I peered through the viewfinder.

I realize that black and white isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and, further, that monochromatic abstracts have even more of a niche appeal, so I apologize to those of you who follow this blog who aren’t into this sort of thing.  Color renderings will certainly be part of the next installment and, in all likelihood, every remaining entrant in this series covering my time in Alaska.

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black and white imagery is ostensibly about shapes, textures, lines and tones and that’s exactly what the Atigun Pass landscape was yielding on this day.  With the sun shining brightly throughout our time in the area, I tried to focus my attention on intimate scenes that included elements where sunlight and shadows were juxtaposed to reveal details in the snow covered ridges and crevices.

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Interesting–at least to my eyes–scenes were just about everywhere; it was simply a matter of finding an appealing set of elements and winnowing them down into something compelling.  Exactly what makes one of these scenes compelling–beyond the notion that it’s entirely subjective and therefore impossible to classify–is difficult to tease out.  Basically, I look for scenes that include the aforementioned graphic elements–lines, shapes, textures, tones–that come together in a holistic form that I find pleasing.  I don’t think I can be more specific than that.

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

To my eyes these kinds of images simultaneously bear unmistakable similarities and undeniable differences.  They’re of a comparable style, surely, but a side-by-side comparison would make it difficult to mistake one image for any of the others.  A focus on the metaphorical forest might lead one to heap the images together as part of an exercise in classification but by paying attention to the trees each photograph’s uniqueness is evident.

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

At least part of my attraction to these images probably stems from the fact that I rarely have an opportunity to make photographs like this, given the subject matter and its comparative absence from the natural environment in which I find myself most of the time.

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

In any case, I do find myself drawn to these scenes on the rare occasions when I’m exposed to them and I hope I have the opportunity to photograph them again at some point in the future.

Black & White Abstract, Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Alaska

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