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 supplied the food that 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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Responses

  1. Thanks for the kind words Kerry! I’m super-pleased that you three had a great trip, and I really hope I can get all of you up to Alaska (or anywhere else) for another trip. It was a pleasure.

    • Thanks, Dave!

  2. Amazing photos, what an awesome trip!

    • Thanks very much!

  3. The Brooks Range is definitely high on my list of favorite places. I think we did the right thing having David provide an experienced introduction to the amazing Dalton Highway.

    • Agreed. Obviously. 🙂

  4. The snowy reflections is absolutely stunning. An image to get lost in (pleasantly)!

    • Thanks, Gunta!

  5. Gorgeous colours and a simply wonderful B/W at the end. I too gazed longingly at the snowy reflection in the middle third. Wise to have a knowledgeable leader with photography skills as a guide. That is VERY remote – you can focus on photography rather than survival

    • Thanks, Jane. And, agreed–not having to worry about all the things one would normally have to worry about at a location like the Brooks Range.

  6. […] first day of our trip up to the Brooks Range started in Fairbanks, where we met our guide, David Shaw, and began the drive to the tiny town of Wiseman, where we’d be based for our time in the […]

  7. Your comments about how you chose your guide and what you were looking for are very well done, and very helpful. What a glowing recommendation for your guide, who wore so many hats, so well. These photos show such a variety of scenes – it’s wonderful. The final image is my favorite. I’ll look into David Shaw – just in case I ever get up there with enough time and money to afford that kind of experience. Thanks!

    • Thanks.

      In addition to recommending Dave, I also endorse the idea of a trip up to the Brooks Range. While all the places we visited in Alaska were worthy of the time invested (indeed, I hope to pay a return visit some day), the Brooks Range experience was truly unique, in so many ways…I can’t say enough about it.


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