Posted by: kerryl29 | November 15, 2021

Alaska: A Reintroduction

For a period of approximately 2 /12 weeks–spanning the last week of August and the first nine days of September–I made my second photo trip to Alaska. This was almost exactly three years after the first trip, which was chronicled on this blog.

Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Arctic Ground Squirrel, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Tundra and Spruce, Denali Highway, Alaska
Autumn Mist, Denali National Park, Alaska

Difficult Logistics

The itinerary this time around bore some similarities to the 2018 excursion, but plenty of differences as well. I had only one photo companion on this occasion–Ellen, whom I met at the Anchorage airport. Debbie, who was part of the team in 2018, was unable to make it this time around. The logistical considerations for this excursion were innumerable, but I’ll note a few of them. This trip, which we began planning shortly after returning from the first Alaska experience in September, 2018, was originally supposed to happen in the late summer of 2020. The pandemic squelched that. Much of the cost of the trip–close to half, I’d estimate–had already been paid for when we officially called off any hope of making the journey in 2020. (That decision was reached in May of last year, but by the time the pandemic really took hold in North America–early March–we strongly suspected that there would be no way to make the trip.)

Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose Cow, Denali National Park, Alaska
Summit Lake, Summit Lake State Recreation Area, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Facing the option of rescheduling or canceling–and with uncertain prospects of full refunds from at least some of the places we’d already paid–we tried to be optimistic and rescheduled the trip for the exact same set of dates in 2021. We could only hope, when we made that decision, that it would be safe enough to travel by then and that international travel restrictions would be lifted. Ellen lives in British Columbia and we had very serious concerns about border restrictions and whether they’d be lifted in time for the trip.

Squirrel-Tail Grass, Chandelar Shelf, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marmot, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Color Riot, Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Mountain Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

I will spare everyone the vast majority of the details, but within a few months of departure time for the trip, we were still uncertain as to whether we could make it and, for that matter, whether we should make it. I hadn’t been on a plane or in an airport since mid-February of 2020–a few weeks before the pandemic really took hold in North America–until, after having been fully vaccinated for approximately six weeks, I resumed flying between Chicago and Houston in June. I thought that would make for a good test of whether I was prepared to make the long flight from Chicago to Anchorage in late August. My experience flying–and I made a pair of round trips between Chicago and Houston before the scheduled flight to Alaska–indicated to me that it could be done safely. (I wear an N95 mask whenever I’m in an airport or on a plane and I don’t remove it until I’m outside.)

Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Birch Trunk Intimate, Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Alaska Range Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska

My thinking, generally, about being able to be out and about in Alaska largely revolved around the fact that we’d literally be outside the vast majority of the time and would–inside or out–rarely be in close proximity with other people. Furthermore we’d never be in extended close proximity with anyone, indoors and out, who wasn’t fully vaccinated. (Ellen was fully vaccinated shortly after me, back in the early part of the summer.) Had the plan for the trip been to be indoors and/or in crowded places, it would have been canceled.

Spruce Prime, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Birch Forest Fall, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Alaska Range at Sunset, Richardson Highway, Alaska

Around our drop dead date for deciding whether we were prepared to commit to going ahead this year or not, we found out that the border would be open, with restrictions. There were no restrictions on me, as I was going from one part of the United States to another. Ellen had to jump through some hoops–both entering the U.S. and then returning to Canada–but the limitations were to be cut back dramatically by the time of the start/end of the trip, so it wasn’t quite as onerous an issue as it would have been a month earlier. Still, Ellen had to take COVID tests (which were negative) in both cases and wait out a return to Canada with family in Seattle for a couple of days on the return trip.

Galbraith Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
PIka, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Rocky Swirl Black & White, Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The Rough Itinerary

So what of the itinerary? We flew to Anchorage this time, rather than Fairbanks, stayed overnight near the airport and picked up our special rental vehicle (we needed something that we’d be allowed to take on unpaved roads, as much of our travels would involve extensive driving on such thoroughfares–standard vehicle rental in Alaska expressly forbids this, and we paid a pretty penny for a vehicle that we could drive on the likes of the Dalton and Denali Highways) the following morning. After stopping at Stewart’s Camera (a very well-stocked outlet) in downtown Alaska so Ellen could pick up the second camera body she had rented for the trip, we were on our way north and drove all the way to Fairbanks (roughly 360 miles via the George Parks Highway–AK-3).

Marion Creek Falls, Brooks Range, Alaska
Clouds and Conifers Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska
Willow Creek, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
A Room with a View, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

We stayed in Fairbanks overnight and picked up our provisions for the trip north to Wiseman, in the heart of the Brooks Range, where we had spent several days with a photo guide (David W. Shaw; highly recommended) in 2018. This time, Ellen and I felt sufficiently confident–given that we now knew the lay of the land, the importance of keeping a full gas tank, how much food we’d need to bring and where some of the best photo opportunities were located–to make the trip back up to the Brooks Range on our own. (We did rent a satellite phone in Fairbanks.) We spent a day driving up to Wiseman, three full days in the Brooks Range, and another day driving back, again staying in Fairbanks. From there, we drove the Richardson Highway to Delta Junction, where we spent one night at the Garden B&B.

Misty Morning, Brooks Range, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Evening Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

The following day was spent with another photo guide–Steven Miley–who took us to several locations between Delta Junction and Paxson, most notably a glacial ice cave (more on that in a future entry). And from there we made our way west on the Denali Highway. We ended up spending the equivalent of three full days (and a bit of a fourth) on the Denali Highway (which, if anything, wasn’t enough), and then took up lodgings in the Carlo Creek area, about 20 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park. We had, as things adapted, two full days in the park (including the only day on the entire trip that was close to a full washout) and the morning of a third.

Sunset, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Ice Gave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Autumn Tapestry, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake, Richardson Highway, Alaska

We then drove to our final location–Hatcher Pass, a couple of hundred miles south of Carlo Creek, and a bit less than an hour north of Anchorage. We spent the remainder of that day and all of the next too photographing in the Hatcher Pass and Chugach areas, then wrapped up with a brief shoot in Chugach State Park the following day before Ellen dropped me off at the airport for a red eye flight back to Chicago via Denver. That was late on the evening of September 9. Ellen flew to Seattle the following day and was back home in B.C. a couple of days later after waiting out the negative COVID test.

The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Evening’s Onset, Fishhook Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Forest Floor, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska

A Brief General Assessment

I’ll dive into the specifics in future posts as I chronicle the experience day-by-day (and possibly thematically, here and there), but to the point, the trip was simply outstanding–very likely the best photo trip I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken a fair number at this point). What made it so good? Briefly (and in no particular order):

  • We caught fall color, full on, in just about every place we went. (Many of the images I’ve included testify to that.) This was a very different case from the last time when, due to a particularly late fall season in the interior of Alaska in 2018, we only caught truly good fall color during the back half of our time in the Brooks Range. Not this time. We couldn’t have timed things better and…I must say, the fall color experience in Alaska is simply phenomenal, if you’re at the right places at the right times. Aside from the relevant issues of remoteness and expense, I can’t think of any good reason why Alaska isn’t routinely considered one of the prime fall color destinations in North America.
  • We intentionally planned the itinerary to give ourselves plenty of time wherever we went, with the flexibility to be able to pivot when we felt we wanted to do so and this was a major, major factor in my assessment. We really never felt rushed, and not feeling rushed is an important key to mining good landscape photography opportunities. We covered more ground on this trip than the last one, but this one was longer. We were in the field for parts of 17 days and I really don’t ever remember feeling pressed for time, which is quite a luxury.
  • We had the best of both worlds in terms of being able to leverage previous knowledge of many locations we visited with the excitement that always seems to flow from discovering opportunities in fresh spots.
  • Ellen implicitly reaffirmed what I already knew–that she’s a terrific travel companion. She put up with all of my usual nonsense without a single complaint and was great company during the frequent downtime that we had. (There were a lot of long drives; if I recall correctly, we put approximately 3000 miles on the rental vehicle.)

The next installment in this series will cover the brief time we had, late on the day we arrived in Fairbanks, when we paid a return visit to Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge.

Bearberry Intimate, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Eagle River, Alaska
Clearwater Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Early Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska

Responses

  1. Gorgeous sampling from your hundreds of processed images! You’re really whetting my appetite for another trip to Alaska — it’s been many years since my first trip, which was a disaster. So glad the foliage was timed perfectly for you. Can’t wait to see your future posts!

    • Thanks, Steve. I hope you have the opportunity to get back up there sooner than later.

  2. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks very much!

  3. Excellent photos, Alaska seems like a very interesting place!!

    • Thanks! Alaska is huge, and simply oozing with photo opportunities just about everywhere you look.

  4. Wow, Kerry, these are spectacular! When I saw “Tundra and Spruce, Denali Highway, Alaska” I could have sworn I was looking at a Van Gogh painting, likewise “The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska”. Every photo is more beautiful than the next but with such a range of color and detail. And kudos to you and Ellen for persevering amid the COVID restrictions, being flexible, and making such gorgeous photos. I have not been that brave! Amazing work, Kerry – throughout the color gamut . . . bravo

    • Thanks very much, Lynn–I really appreciate your taking the time to review the images so meticulously. The locations we visited and the conditions we were presented on this trip amounted to an embarrassment of riches and I hope I’ve done them a semblance of justice in my presentation.

  5. […] noted in the last post, after flying into Anchorage on August 23 and staying there overnight, Ellen and I picked up our […]

  6. […] the early stages of post-processing the set of images I brought back from Alaska, I noticed something that, had I been conscious of it previously, it was only in a vaguely: the […]


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