Posted by: kerryl29 | January 10, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 5: Mostly Marion Creek

One thing that Ellen and I had decided we definitely wanted to do while in the Brooks Range was revisit the Marion Creek Falls Trail. We’d navigated the trail on the final full day in the Brooks Range in 2018 and, as Day 5 was to be our last full day this time around, we would have to replicate 2018’s itinerary or miss out.

The weather would dictate how we handled the trip to the trail. Overcast and dry, ideally with little or no wind, would be optimal, but what we got in the morning was essentially a rerun of Day 4: some low-hanging mist with sun bleeding through. As a result, we made our way up the Dalton Highway to the north (the Marion Creek Falls trailhead–which emanates from a campground–was located about 10 miles to the south of Wiseman).

When, from the road, I saw what was going on with the backlit low-hanging mist to the east, I pulled into the entrance of an old, repurposed gravel pit. This was not the same pit we had visited the previous day; that site was still active. We had photographed from this spot, under very different conditions, three years earlier, and had scouted this location on our first full day in the Brooks Range this time around. Now it was time to leverage that scouting experience, so that’s what we did.

I didn’t hesitate for a moment to pull out the telephoto lens.

Brooks Range Morning, Dalton Highway, Alaska
Brooks Range, Black & White, Dalton Highway, Alaska

From this location, we meandered north, to a spot where the highway runs right alongside an extended, open stretch of the Dietrich River. We had looked this spot over on Day 3, on the drive up to Atigun Pass. This time we were more deliberate, as the conditions were more conducive to image-making this morning.

Dietrich River, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

At one point I walked about a half a mile up the road to a spot where I thought I could rock hop my way out onto a sandbar in the middle of the river. I managed to do it, but it was much more difficult than I thought because some of the “sandy” areas were actually mud of the non-weight supporting variety.

Dietrich River, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

The above image shows the north-facing view from the sandbar.

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

All the while we kept an eye on the sky to the west, to see if it would cloud up and finally, by late morning, it did and so we made a beeline to the Marion Creek Campground. It was around noon when we arrived. We knew from direct experience that the round trip hike to the falls, while only about four miles in total, is significantly more involved than such a short trudge would ordinarily imply, and not because the trail is especially steep–because it isn’t. There’s plenty of up and down, but it’s not particularly rigorous. No, the reason the trail is such a pain is that it’s not maintained. It’s basically a social trail, and a wet and muddy one at that.

But we had the rest of the day–more than nine hours of daylight–which was plenty of time to make the hike. It was now completely cloudy, but it was a fairly bright overcast, with no indication that any meaningful precipitation was likely any time soon.

We hiked through the beautiful spruce forest that leads to the part of the trail that heads up the mountainside to the falls. This area contains the thickest carpets of reindeer lichen I’ve ever seen anywhere and I find it quite enchanting.

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

I remember being visually overwhelmed in this forest three years prior and this time was no different.

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

We made some images in the forest on the way up and pledged to explore the area even more thoroughly on the return trip.

The area where the reindeer lichen in the forest lessens corresponds almost perfectly with the location where the trail changes from clearly defined to social. What we discovered, fairly quickly, was that the social trail part of the hike–between the reindeer lichen forest and where the trail reaches an easily traversable old mining road, which makes up at least 60% of the hike–was much wetter and muddier than we had experienced three years previous. Clearly there had been a wetter summer in northern Alaska in 2021 than in 2018. Much wetter. (In fact, one of the locals told us that it had been an unusually wet summer.) There are numerous spots along the way where runoff from the mountainside, which presents itself in the form of small streams, becomes an impediment. These instances were no more than minor annoyances in 2018. This time, we encountered decent-sized puddles and, in two spots, full-blown creeks that needed to be crossed. That–at one spot in particular–was much more easily said than done. But we were determined to make it up to the falls and, with a bit of caution, were able to clear the stream by stepping on some logs, fully well knowing that we’d have to do it again on the way back.

After temporarily finishing up at the reindeer lichen-strewn forest, I only stopped to photograph once on the way up to the falls, at a spot with colorful vegetation leading to a view of the mountainside in the background.

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

We reached the old mining road and from there it was only a modest distance to a short spur trail with a view of the upper creek and falls, but we couldn’t remember where the spur was. We walked up and down a 500-odd foot section of the road and I explored a couple of spots that looked promising by diving in to thickets of vegetation, but these turned out to be red herrings. At last, we cleared an old gate on the mining road–we had no memory of there being a gate, but it had clearly been there for many years–and once we did that it was less than 100 feet before we saw a ribbon–a trail marker–tied on a bush. We knew we were in the right place. From there, it was only a few hundred feet on the spur to the clearing along the creekside where we’d photographed three years earlier.

As soon as the creek came into view, we knew something was significantly different. The area where we had photographed the rapids three years earlier was effectively unreachable. Much of the bank above that rocky shelf had crumbled away, the apparent victim of erosion. There was substantially more water coursing through the creek; the water table was noticeably higher and the rocky shelf, even if it had been reachable, was practically underwater in places. As a result, we were going to have to photograph the location from a different place, leading to a very different set of perspectives.

I started by composing a shot using the upper 2/3 or so of a tiny spruce sapling as a foreground, and stacking the frames from there.

Marion Creek Falls Black & White, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

I then moved to another spot on the high embankment and went to work. In the first shot below, you can see the rocky shelf I mentioned earlier. It’s on the right-hand side of the creek, in roughly the middle of the frame.

Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls Black & White, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we were done at the falls we began the trek back. While still descending the extension of mining road before reaching the social trail, we made a quick stop at the little rock garden area we had photographed in 2018.

Rock Garden Runoff, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

And, back on the social trail, we stopped at one spot, a location that I’d looked long and hard at on the way up. I couldn’t let it go on the way down.

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

When we made it all the way back down to the reindeer lichen forest, we pulled out the cameras yet again.

Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Forest Floor, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen & Mushroom Intimate, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Before we returned to the parking area, I made one last image from the trail, near the creek overlook.

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

It was early evening by the time we got back to our vehicle, and the clouds were now ubiquitous, there was some light rain and it was quite chilly. There would be no sunset this evening, so with the light starting to wane we returned to Wiseman and prepared for the long drive back to Fairbanks the following day. Despite the length of the impending drive we were actually looking forward to it because we had visions of very nice fall color in many areas that we’d driven through a few days earlier. There had been several cold nights since then and I boldly predicted that we’d be very happy with what we’d encounter. It remained to be seen if my confidence was misplaced.


Responses

  1. Kerry,
    I especially enjoyed the images along the Marion Creek Falls Trail. Reminded me a bit of the Wonderland Trail in Acadia NP — different plants but similar effect. Really enjoyed the layering in the tele shots with clouds, too. Keep ’em coming!
    Steve

    • Thanks, Steve!

      It’s been a long time (15 years) since I’ve been on the Wonderland Trail at Acadia. (it was a very foggy day when I was there.) It’s an interesting comparison and one I’ll have to ponder a bit.

  2. Beautiful photos!!

  3. Excellent photos of Alaska, I really like the Marrion Creek Falls photos.

    • Thanks very much!

  4. Once again, your amazing photos reveal so much texture and color in Alaska that I never expected to see! I guess I think of Alaska as beautiful mountain ranges and grassy tundra and have never seen this aspect, these details, before. Thank you for sharing this visual adventure, Kerry – your ability to capture the soul of a place is a treasure.

  5. Hi Kerry,
    This blog brought back a lot of good memories from 2018. There was quite a bit more water at Marion Creek. I remember photographing from the ledge. I also remember eating huckleberries and lingonberries from that spot and along the whole trail. Your photographs are beautiful as always. I still dream of that reindeer lichen. It was pretty magical.

    • Hi Debbie. Good to see you here and thanks for the kind words.

      Yeah, it was remarkable how much higher the water level was in the creek. We had an inkling of this on the hike itself, when the amount of runoff we had to clear to get up there was so much more substantial than it had been three years earlier, but I don’t think either of us had any sense that the area where we photographed from would be impossible to access. Understand, we couldn’t even get near that ledge. Much of the ledge itself was under water, but a good chunk of the bank that abutted the rocky ledge simply doesn’t exist anymore; it evidently eroded and the soil just slid into the creek itself.

      The reindeer lichen forest area remains quite remarkable. In the fall of 2020 I was showing someone around a few of my favorite haunts in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and we were poking around the Kingston Plains area, just south of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore which includes a number of spots rich with reindeer lichen. When he saw this my companion said something like “have you ever seen this much reindeer lichen in one spot before?” The answer was an emphatic “WAY more than this.” And I told him about the Marion Creek are. And at some point thereafter I showed him a shot or two from the 2018 shoot at Marion Creek. He couldn’t believe it.

  6. […] Day 5 was our last full day in the Brooks Range. Our itinerary called for our return to Fairbanks on Day 6, but when we established that itinerary many months earlier, we had deliberately built in enough time to be able to make our return as leisurely as we liked. On our previous Alaska trip, three years earlier, our drive back to Fairbanks at the end of our time in the Brooks Range was constricted, by errands we had to run before the end of that day and a ridiculously early flight home the following morning. As a result, we hadn’t been able to stop anywhere near as often as we liked as we drove south on the Dalton Highway. This time would be different, and it would pay dividends. […]


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