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

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Responses

  1. I’m afraid I’d be just like Ellen was on that helicopter ride. Awesome photos!!

    • Thanks!

      Not everyone is keen to ride in a helicopter. 🙂 And entirely understandably so.

  2. I survived…and, believe it or not, I would do it again, knowing a bit more of what to expect. Your black and white, layered image of Denali is absolutely stunning. It has the unique perspective we were after.

    • Thanks, Ellen. It’s extremely encouraging to know that you’d be willing to make the helicopter ride again.

  3. I remember that terror of flying and have read “The Relaxation Response” and actually enjoy flying now. The latter helped me loosen that death grip with both hands and seat belt, breathe slowly and deeply , etc. then my fascination of the scenery kicked in, because if I make my body do the relaxation techniques, it cannot be stressed at the same time and thus calms the mind. I did fly into the Rockies on a small helicopter and remember the glass bubble was all around me and under my feet. Anyway, these photos are absolutely stunning with the hope-for great light and worth the money if you have it. There is more to the story about this day which I am curious about.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      I’m impressed that you were able to so completely overcome your issues with flying; good for you!

      In Ellen’s case, it’s not strictly a fear of flying; she’s on commercial flights with regularity, and no issues. I think it’s more of a version of acrophobia. My mom has this–absolutely no problems flying on planes (even small ones)–but issues with heights in en exposed setting. So does my wife. Neither will, for instance, climb a ladder.

      I’ll complete the story of the rest of the day’s events in my next post. I was originally planning to do the entire day in a single piece but by the time I’d covered the helicopter experience I was closing in on 3000 words, so I decided to break it into parts.

  4. Wow and more wow! Not only your incredibly beautiful images, but the trip and the experience itself. Yay, Debbie for talking you into it and extra kudos to Ellen for soldiering on through the terror! This appears to be a once in a lifetime sort of event! Can’t wait for the rest… 😉

    • Thanks, Gunta. It was definitely a unique experience, both the flight up to the ridge and simply being in a spot that we otherwise never would have been able to reach. The next installment will complete the rest of the day’s events.

  5. Great post and images. I especially like your B&W … the layers are very appealing!

    • Thanks very much!

  6. Excellent Black & White!

  7. Nice job, Kerry. Beautiful photos!

    • Thanks, Mike!

  8. Wow, beautiful

  9. […] I left off the story in Part I of this entry, we had completed the helicopter adventure and returned to Denali National Park.  We […]

  10. I’m with Gunta – following the trail in unexpected ways can be so rewarding. Good for all three of you, and for the pilot who allowed a few more minutes.

    • Thanks. And, for the record, the pilot was well-thanked for his generosity. 🙂

  11. […] 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 […]

  12. […] 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 […]


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