Posted by: kerryl29 | September 17, 2018

Alaska: Trip Planning Details

Those of you who have been reading this blog for some time know by now that when I take a photo trip it’s usually a carefully researched solo endeavor.  There were some significant divergences from the norm as part of the Alaska experience and I thought it would be worthwhile for me to provide some background on the subject.

I’ve always wanted to photograph in Alaska and, unlike just about everyone I know who has traveled there, my primary interest wasn’t cruising the Inner Passage.  While that has always sounded, at some level, like a good trip, my goal has been to visit the interior of Alaska, beginning–but by no means ending–with Denali National Park.  So that was the focus.

Boreal Forest Trail Black & White, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Before I go any further, I was contacted some months ago by the folks at Mighty Goods–a website dedicated to independent reviews of bags–luggage, backpacks, gear bags, etc.  I, along with 15 other outdoor photographers, was asked to summarize my experiences traveling with my gear.  Since I’m discussing a photo trip–which makes all of the issues involving transporting necessary equipment and apparel by plane and then carrying gear in the field in extremely remote locales relevant–the topic is timely.  Along with the experiences of others, this makes for an interesting article, and I encourage you to check it out.

A Change of Pace

First of all, this wasn’t a solo trip.  While I’ve photographed with others before, it’s a clear exception to the rule.  For instance, I was on my own for the entirety of all three photo trips I took last year:  Florida, California and Colorado.  On this trip to Alaska–during which I was on the ground for 12 days–I was with others for the duration.  It’s the first time I’ve been with others for anywhere near this amount of time.

Last Light, Denali National Park, Alaska

My photographic companions in Alaska were Ellen Kinsel and Debbie Hicks.  I first met Ellen on a photo tour during my first trip to the Canadian Rockies in 2014.  We hit it off and discovered that, in addition to photography, we had a number of things in common (e.g. we’re both graduates of the University of Michigan, we’re both baseball fans, etc.).  When I decided to return to the Canadian Rockies in the fall of 2015, I wanted to hike the Larch Valley Trail in Banff National Park.  By decree of Parks Canada, autumn Larch Valley Trail hikes require parties of at least four people (due to bear activity in the area), so Ellen–who lives in southeast British Columbia–volunteered to join and, in an effort to help us reach our goal of at least four, invited a friend along.  That was Debbie.  We ended up photographing together for the first four days that I was in the Canadian Rockies in September of 2015.

Foggy Wetland, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

That experience had been a good one.  One of the reasons I usually don’t photograph with others, particularly when on an extended, dedicated photo trip, is that very few people like to photograph at a pace commensurate with mine.  As a refresher, I tend to use every available minute of daylight (and then some, on occasion).  I don’t ordinarily eat normal meals on these trips and, in any event, I schedule sustenance around photography, not the other way around.  I also do a lot of hiking when on site.  And when I reach a shooting destination that intrigues me, I tend to work slowly–often very slowly.  This combination of things doesn’t suit most other people, and understandably so, and, thus I tend to travel and photograph solo.  The tour that included Ellen and myself as participants had mimicked my modus operandi pretty closely and the fact that Ellen had appeared to thrive on it made me think that we’d be compatible in the field.  Given that she knew how I work and still invited Debbie along in 2015 implied–or, at least, I inferred–that there would be few problems during our time together.  This, in fact, proved to be the case.  Both Ellen and Debbie appeared just as dedicated to the same set of priorities I had during our few days together in the Canadian Rockies in 2015.

So, when Ellen contacted me in the late winter of 2016-2017 to ask if I would be interested in joining her and Debbie on a trip to Alaska in 2018, I wasn’t worried about photographic compatibility.  There were some other concerns, but that wasn’t one of them.  And, in fact, our time in Alaska would prove that the lack of concern on this front was entirely justified.

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

Aurora Fuhgetaboutitis, a.k.a. The Northern Frights

The initial contact about an Alaska trip centered around an aurora borealis itinerary.  Yes, you read that correctly.  There are aurora-based photo tours in Alaska and that was the original notion behind the trip.  The peak time for aurora viewing in Alaska is during a period from roughly mid-February until early April.  And the most popular location for such tours is north of Fairbanks, in the midst of the Brooks Mountain Range.  The timing is a function of two key factors relevant to aurora viewing:  a period of strong solar activity (late winter/early spring in the Northern Hemisphere) and a time of the year when the skies are typically clear.

Sounds great, right?  There’s only one problem:  cold weather.  Bone-chilling cold weather, in fact.  When we were first considering whether to do this, I was sent a sample itinerary with some suggestions about what to expect.  It included a suggestion to plan for temperatures that could reach -30 F.  It probably wouldn’t get that cold, I was told.  But it might.  And -20 F was to be expected.  Remember, photographing the aurora means being out at night; you can’t see the Northern Lights if it’s not dark.  And clear.  And what happens on clear winter nights?  The mercury drops.  We’re talking about a location north of the Arctic Circle, mind you.

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

I gave this some serious consideration.  Was I really prepared to be out in that kind of cold, night after night?  (Have I mentioned that I don’t like cold weather?  I mean, I’ve put up with it all my life, but I definitely don’t like it.)  I’ve never been out in -30 F weather; and I’ve never willingly been out in weather anywhere near that cold.  And never for hours at a time, regardless of will.  Would my equipment even function in that kind of weather?  What’s more, did I really want to go to the considerable trouble and expense of going to Alaska at that time of year?  It was a good time to be up there for aurora viewing, but it wasn’t a particularly good time, I felt, to be up there for much of anything else I’d want to photograph.

Fall Color, Yukon River Crossing, Dalton Highway, Alaska

In light of all of this, I suggested that perhaps we should consider a different itinerary (and an entirely different time of year).  Ellen jumped on this and suggested that perhaps we should think about going up during fall in central/northern Alaska–basically, the end of August or beginning of September.  That sounded much more appealing to me.  It would mean much less favorable opportunities for seeing the Northern Lights–which would be unfortunate–but every other aspect of this alternative would be better.  We’d be able to access Denali National Park and the Denali Highway, for instance–both of which are closed during winter.  And the Brooks Range would be more accessible too.  We’d–hopefully–get to see the tundra in all of its autumn glory.  And we wouldn’t be freezing our behinds off.

This turned out to be a pretty easy sell and, before long, we were in agreement that we’d shoot for the Alaskan Fall of 2018–roughly a year-and-a-half away.

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

Stepping Back from Planning

We more or less settled on a late summer (i.e. late August/early September) 2018 time frame for the trip in the spring of 2017.   It was during a time when I was wrapping up post-processing work on my Florida images and getting ready for a two-week trip to California in May.  And then I had a long-scheduled trip to Colorado for which I needed to wrap up scheduling and planning.  In the meantime, we decided that some kind of an itinerary for the Alaska trip was a necessity.  Despite the fact that it was so far in the future, we needed to make some commitments to ensure availability in certain instances.  I didn’t have the time necessary to give this the attention I would have liked, so I pretty much punted responsibility to Ellen, who is one of this planet’s great planners.

Ellen kept me very much in the loop and I did weigh in, but she did virtually–if not literally–all of the research.  The results were impeccable.  I wouldn’t willingly turn these responsibilities over to just anyone, but I never regretted, for a minute, letting Ellen make the call as I knew she’d give every subject more than its due diligence.

Conifers and Reflections, Horseshoe Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

Debbie had her own set of time limitations and essentially let Ellen–with some input from me–make all of the decisions.  This became kind of a running joke during the trip.  “Where are we going?” Debbie asked, on more than one occasion when we were already on site.  “Alaska,” I dead-panned.  As Ellen tells the story, she’d (Ellen) send me an e-mail with a series of trip topics and options that she was working on and she and I would have these lengthy exchanges discussing, weighing and prioritizing possibilities.  Debbie’s response–on those occasions when there was a response at all:  “Whatever.”  In fairness, after turning the decision making over, Debbie never–not once–complained about anything on the itinerary.  She’d ask where we were going on a given day, we’d tell her…then we’d tell her again, after she asked a second time (there were all these distractions, you see) and that’s what we’d do.  No complaints, no problems.

Dietrich River, Dalton Highway, Alaska

The Elephant in the Room

I’ll deal with this head on.  So, I’m sure at least some of you are thinking, what’s with an adult male traveling for the better part of two weeks with two women?  Two women he’s not related to in any way, I might add.  This may be “unusual,” but there’s really nothing to it.  I mean that both literally and figuratively.  We’re simply three people with a common interest and a platonic compatibility both in and out of the field.  It really is that simple.  And since, justifiably, none of our spouses are concerned about this (yes, we’re all married and I–at 17 years of marriage and counting–have been married for the shortest length of time of the three of us), I guess no one else should be either.

(R to L) Debbie, Ellen and I take in the majesty of The Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska


So, that’s the logistical background to this trip, from its origins to its denouement.  Next time I’ll touch on an always popular (heh) topic:  the reminders I got on this trip of the importance of tripods to landscape photography.  I apologize in advance for my didacticism.



  1. Fantastic and fun account of the planning process, Kerry. I’m envious. I had a similar trip trip planned nearly a decade ago and it fell through. I’ve been up in the Anchorage/Chugach areas, and still plan to visit Fairbanks and Denali NP. I’m loving your photos, btw!

    • Thanks, Mike. Denali was great–though for a variety of reasons (including the weather) we didn’t seen/experience nearly enough of it (a shortcoming that can hopefully be rectified at some point in the future). I’ll discuss that in greater detail in future entries, beginning with the next one. The Brooks Range–hundreds of miles north of Fairbanks–is like no other place I’ve ever been…essentially trail-less wilderness for hundreds of miles. Get off the Haul Road and you simply won’t see another soul.

      • Just wondering -up in Brooks Range (maybe elsewhere as well), were you armed or accompanied by an armed guide? I always carry a large caliber handgun in Grizzly country. And I’ve seen many backpackers/hikers in AK carrying shotguns out in the backcountry.

        • Short answer–no. We had bear spray throughout the trip–something I had on my person in the Canadian Rockies as well–but no firearms.

  2. Wonderful place and photos. It seems Fall is the time to visit. What was the worst place for mosquitoes?

    • Thanks!

      The only place where I saw a meaningful number of bugs was on the Ermine Hill Trail at Denali State Park–and even there, it was only near the end of the trail, where insects were much of an issue. It’s worth noting that this was the southernmost location visited on this trip.

      • Good! I had heard about this plague. It must be a Summer problem. Thanks.

        • Yes, by pretty much all accounts the bug situation there in the summer is miserable.

  3. The third image with the turbulent clouds and water are striking. Compatibility out in the field , especially matching stamina and approaches to the land is so important and you are very lucky to have found such good travelling companions especially with other interests that you can share. Gender doesn’t matter-it is all about the photography and enjoying the journey. Understanding spouses who know and tolerate/encourage the photographic obsessions are worth their weight in gold. Well seen and captured.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      There have been more than 7500 comments posted to this blog (I just checked) since its inception nine-odd years ago. Yours may be my all-time favorite due to its insight and poignancy.

  4. I could write a book in response to this post, but for the benefit of the other readers, I’ll limit my comments to the following:
    – Spending time with Kerry is inspirational and educational. This blog is another source of both inspiration and learning, so if you can’t join him in the field, be a regular reader.
    – The places we visited on this trip are truly amazing. I had been to Denali and Fairbanks in both summer and winter about 10 years ago. The Alaska interior is worth repeated visits. If you haven’t been, start planning a trip.
    – It never ceases to amaze me how 3 people can be in the same place at the same time and come away with different images. I love your Dietrich River photo with the Squirrel Grass in the foreground. Your attention to composition is thorough and is key to the success of you images.
    – I enjoyed the planning aspect (thanks for the kind words)…spending over a year doing the research, weighing options, discussing places, making decisions…it’s something I love to do and am happy to do again.
    You are all in for a treat as you join us vicariously on this journey. — Ellen

    • Thanks very much, Ellen. This trip definitely never would have happened without all of your hard work and diligence.

  5. Gorgeous pics! I spent the summer of ’85 in Valdez – loved it but haven’t been back.

    • Thanks!

      This is really one way of demonstrating just how vast Alaska is. Valdez–on the Gulf of Alaska–is 356 miles driving miles from the southernmost spot I reached when I was in Alaska; it’s roughly 900 driving miles from the northernmost point I reached.

  6. Alaska is something I’ve always dreamed of, but at this point I doubt very much I’ll ever cross it off my wishlist. I don’t do well with flying and far too many miles. I’ll just enjoy your amazing images right here, and your insights.

    Loved the photo of Dietrich River. You always seem to find the true gems wherever you are.

    I have to acknowledge some regret that I didn’t get to offer much (if any) help during your trip to our coast. It was such bad timing in so many ways… with that nasty summer wind that always kicks up my allergies in the form of awful earaches (even with wooly hats with earflaps) and the somewhat new and budding relationship that happened at the same time… I know I could have learned much from you. Even if spending only a bit of time.

    BTW, the Olympic Peninsula and the rain forest were magic, as was Mt Rainier. Just starting to sort through pics now!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Gunta.

      I know two different groups of people who are planning to drive to Alaska next year, one from the Midwest the other from New England. Those are going to be long, long drives.

      The flights up and back–particularly the latter, coming as they did at the end of 12 long days in the field (and only three hours of sleep the night before takeoff at 5:30 AM–ugh)–were grueling, but the experience made the trouble of getting there and back undoubtedly worth it.

      You were of considerable help to me on that trip to the Oregon Coast; there was plenty of actionable background information that I couldn’t have received from anyone else. Sorry I wasn’t able to reciprocate in the field, but, as you say, there were significant overriding factors that simply couldn’t be overcome.

      I look forward to seeing what you captured in Washington. The Olympic Peninsula, in particular, is a location I really need to get back to one of these days. I’ve only been to Mt. Rainier once, and that was 27 years ago this past summer…yet another place on my very long list.

  7. […] will interrupt the narrative, briefly, to launch into the tripod-related rant that I promised in my most recent post.  More than 6 1/2 years ago I wrote a piece making my case for the importance of always using a […]

  8. […] we were originally planning the itinerary for this trip, Ellen wisely suggested that we remain in Fairbanks for a full day upon arrival.  We […]

  9. I’m planning on going to Alaska in January. Would you say that’s bad timing to see the aurora?

    • I’m not an expert, so with that caveat in mind…

      All other things being equal, January should be pretty good for aurora viewing, at least in theory. There’ll be plenty of darkness in Alaska at that time of the year and while not usually peak for solar activity, there should certainly be some periods of activity. Of course, you also need clear skies, which are more prevalent in some parts of Alaska than others, at all times of the year. Where in Alaska are you planning to go?

      • Thanks for the feedback!! Fingers cross that there will be clear skies when I go haha And I’m planning on staying in Fairbanks

        • Best of luck. Fairbanks is a good base for this kind of thing. And, regardless, be prepared for it to be cold. Very cold. Aurora viewing is best done in the early hours of the morning (some of the coldest times of day) and the average low temperature in Fairbanks in January is…-15 F. Stay warm!

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. […] 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 […]

  12. […] 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 […]

  13. […] photography.  I’m revisiting the topic now because it became a recurring theme during the Alaska trip a few months […]

  14. […] our trip to Alaska late last summer (early fall in Alaska), Ellen, Debbie and I dealt with more than our share of poor weather.  We encountered rain in some form or fashion on at […]

  15. […] my first trip to Alaska, on a day in the late summer of 2018, the better part of a day was spent on the Denali National […]

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