Posted by: kerryl29 | February 21, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 8: The Ice Cave and Preceding Events

We engaged in a great deal of photography on Day 8–so much, in fact, that I’m splitting the accounting of it into two installments.

Back when the initial itinerary planning for this trip had taken place–the better part of two years prior to departure, given that COVID had forced a one-year postponement–Ellen had discovered Alaska-based photographer-guide Steven Miley, and we had engaged his services for what would turn out to be Day 8 of the trip. Steven has lived in and extensively explored the area north of the Alaska Range and we thought this would be a good opportunity to experience some spots that we almost certainly never would learn of, let alone visit, on our own. This turned out to be a very good call

The day’s itinerary was deliberately left vague until the weather conditions were more or less a certainty, so after packing up from the Garden B&B on a mostly cloudy (i.e. no sunrise) morning, we met Stephen in the parking lot of Delta Junction’s small grocery store. The day before, by email, he had suggested that the bulk of the day be spent visiting a glacial ice cave, if we were up to the hike–a couple of miles each way, on scree-covered terrain. Never having been to an ice cave of any sort previously, Ellen and I were extremely interested and felt that we were probably up to the hike, so we readily agreed. But we did make a couple of productive photo stops with Steven before reaching the jumping off spot for the hike to the Canwell Glacier ice cave.

Our first destination was Donnelly Lake, which is a relatively short and very easy hike off the Richardson Highway. This is a good spot to capture reflections of the Alaska Range, but since there was some breeze Steven was concerned that the lake would be rippled. Still, he told us, there was a particular spot that was usually fairly well sheltered and it might be worth a try. We were game, so we made the walk down to lake level from a pullout along the highway, meandered around the front end of the lake (which was indeed significantly impacted by the wind) and around to an arm at the far end of the water. The surface was rippled a bit initially, but after a relatively brief wait, the lake began to settle.

Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake, Richardson Highway, Alaska

Considerable clearing had taken place since daybreak and we now found ourselves under partly cloudy skies–just about ideal for our subject matter.

Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake, Richardson Highway, Alaska

Before long I pulled out my telephoto lens to produce some tighter portraits of the magnificent Alaska Range.

Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake Black & White, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake Panorama, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake Black & White, Richardson Highway, Alaska

I made one final image, using an ultra-wide angle lens, on the hike back to the car.

Donnelly Lake Trail, Richardson Highway, Alaska

On the drive to the ice cave jumping off point, we stopped briefly at the same Richardson Highway overlook that Ellen and I had photographed from at sunset the previous day. As we had discussed at the time, this was a much better morning than evening location; this experience proved the point.

Alaska Range and Delta River Black & White, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range and Delta River, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range and Delta River, Richardson Highway, Alaska

From here, it was on to the Canwell Glacier ice cave. As we needed to be in position to check in to our next lodging–more than 40 miles along the Denali Highway and 2-3 hours from where we now were–by 10 PM that evening, we had to be at least somewhat mindful of the time.

Reaching the point where the hike would begin required driving several miles off the highway on an unpaved road. We had two vehicles–Steven’s and ours–and we left our own rented SUV in a pullout partway up the unpaved road, then traveled with Steven the rest of the way.

The road came to a practical end alongside a swift-flowing creek. Steven told us that this creek was extremely variable in terms of flow and that he had often been able to cross it in his vehicle, but it was too deep and fast moving to attempt to do so on this day. We’d have to clear it on foot and the inability to take the vehicle any farther would add about half a mile to the hike each way, but the extra half-mile would be easy. So, we clambered out and grabbed our gear. Ellen and I both put our waterproof overshoes on and then we waded through the water. It reminded me, to some degree, of walking in the Virgin River Narrows at Zion National Park; you could feel the force of the current while traversing a rocky bottom. But this creek wasn’t particularly wide and in a few moments we were all on the far bank. We removed our overshoes and hung them on the branch of a bush to dry while we hiked. There was no concern about the overshoes disappearing as there was no one else around.

And so the hike began. We walked along the part of the unpaved road that ran on this side of the creek and, after a half mile or so, at a high point, Steven pointed out where we had to hike. We were at the edge of a broad glacial moraine–piles of rolling, loose rocks of various sizes. We would have to traverse this massive scree field until we reached the ice cave.

The hiking was…unpleasant, as we had been told it would be. The rocks were, as I noted above, loose, and while the shortest distance involved mostly walking on the sides of these tall piles, that made for a very difficult process, so we mostly tried to go up and down the various hills. Ellen had her hiking poles and Stephen carried all of her photo gear, which made it a lot easier for her to keep her balance while navigating the moraine. My biggest concern was making sure that whatever rock I stepped on to make my way was secure enough that it wouldn’t give way. Falling here would have been no fun at all, but fortunately no one took a tumble at any point during the hike.

The terrain was such that it took almost two hours to hike the two miles to the mouth of the ice cave. (We clearly learned something on the way in because the return trip ended up taking a bit less than 90 minutes.) But once we got to the cave, we had little doubt that the effort was worth it.

Given the time of year–late August–there was plenty of dripping going on at the cave’s mouth and inside. We donned the protective helmets that Steven brought for us, and there was some occasional falling rock, given the melting that was taking place. I pulled my camera with the ultrawide angle lens out of my bag, made sure I had my cable release and a polarizing filter and grabbed my tripod. The rest of my gear stayed outside, though I did think to grab a microfiber cloth in case any of the ubiquitous water drops impacted my camera or lens. When I wasn’t actively using it, my camera remained inside my zipped jacket.

When I crossed the cave’s threshold, I entered a blue world–the unmistakable aquamarine color of glacial ice.

Me, Photographing in the Canwell Glacier Ice Cave, Alaska (Photo courtesy of Ellen Kinsel)

Depending on where I stood, the cave’s “ceiling” stood as much as approximately 20 feet above my head, but there were places where it was no more than a few feet away. There were several window-like features–portals to the cave’s exterior–that emitted light, and the place glowed. Dynamic range was an issue at times and, when necessary, I fired off bracketed exposure sequences.

(To view larger renditions of all of the following images as well as others from Canwell Glacier, go here. Be sure to click on the thumbnails to open even larger versions.)

Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

Despite the awe-inspiring colors, I frequently thought about black and white conversion while photographing, the better to pull out some of the details of the ice. But if I said that monochrome rendering dominated my primary thought process, I’d be lying. The color in the cave was simply mesmerizing. (I’ll show a color/B&W pairing for many of the images in this set, just to show the competing presentation alternatives.)

Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

Including the cave floor and/or some of the entryways made for notably less abstract images, allowing the viewer an intelligible point of reference.

Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

Omitting such elements produces a more purely abstract image.

Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

After wandering around in the readily accessible part of the cave for a bit and photographing whenever I found something that I found compelling, I kind of latched on to a particular feature–one of the cave alcoves–as a kind of compositional anchor and worked that area pretty thoroughly.

Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

Reflections off the ice, particularly in areas relatively near to openings that permitted daylight to penetrate directly, could be enchanting. Careful use of a polarizing filter could be helpful in certain situations.

Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska
Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

Near the end of our time in the cave, Steven posed for Ellen, crouching in the alcove that I had photographed so copiously. Rather than asking him to do it again, I managed to capture him–in a full five-exposure bracketed set–at the same time Ellen was photographing him.

Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

We were in the cave for about 40 minutes. By the time I was emerged, I was, if not quite soaked, pretty wet, due to all of the dripping. But I’d kept my gear in good shape by keeping the camera/lens assembly inside of my zipped jacket when not using it and wiping it down regularly when it did get wet.

On the hike back, during one of our brief pauses–a bit past the halfway point, I’d estimate–I pulled out my camera to produce a memory of the hiking terrain. I intentionally placed the bright red rock in the lower right, to serve as a visual anchor. We were standing on the tall moraine that you see in the foreground. Miller Creek–the glacial runoff–appears in the upper right-hand quadrant. You can obtain a sense of the extent of the scree by glimpsing the mid-ground, beyond the foreground rock pile.

Miller Creek, Canwell Glacier Moraine, Alaska

We made it back to the creek in one piece and donned our waterproof footwear again, recrossed the stream to the vehicle and made our way back in the direction of the highway. Steven dropped us off at our vehicle and we said our goodbyes after an extremely satisfying day of photography. We were still 2-3 hours away from our destination for the evening, but we had plenty of time to get there. And, as it turned out, the day’s photography wasn’t anywhere near over, as I will document in the next entry on this blog.


Responses

  1. Worth the wait so beautiful ❄️☺️🤓enjoy hedy💫

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Gorgeous sky above the Alaska Range! The Range is especially dramatic in monochrome. I was interested to see the color vs. monochrome comparisons for ice cave images. I found that, at least in the small on-line format, I generally preferred color since the blues are so beautiful and such an important feature of the cave. However, I suspect that monochrome would be equally beautiful in a larger format where the tonal range and richness could be better appreciated. Thanks for showing both versions — it’s nice (and educational) to see them side by side.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I’m inclined to agree with your color/b&w assessment. If you want to see a somewhat larger rendition, go here:

      https://www.lightscapesphotography.com/p689971679

      Then click on the thumbnail for any of the images in the gallery or just click on the SLIDESHOW button near the upper right-hand corner of the screen. I think all of the images are more impressive–color or b/w–when viewed larger because the details are much easier to discern.

      More broadly–and I think this is especially notable if you look at the larger images on my website–there’s no doubt in my mind that the color images mask the details compared with the black & white renditions. But the color IS an important facet of the images. In the end, they feel like entirely distinct presentations to me and I’ve given up trying to parse which I like better.

      • Thanks for the link to larger images — bigger definitely is better in this case! I agree that color and mono are really two different experiences here, and both are beautiful. Color is distracting from the textures and tonal values, yet color is so central to the subject. The mono images are more abstract, while the color images are more immediately recognizable. I’d love to see these images printed in large format on opposite walls in a gallery! It would make a very interesting and discussion-worthy exhibit.

        • I agree with your assessment, Steve. While the details, tones and textures are significantly subdued in the color versions, the aquamarine of the color renditions is a significant part of transferring the experience of being inside the ice cave. The two renderings are so different that I’ve found it a very difficult exercise to choose a preference; I’ve basically stopped trying. 🙂

  3. The ice cave was an incredible experience. Standing inside a glacier surrounded by ice and suspended rocks that were deposited millennia ago is a powerful experience. Your collection of images is a great example of how a relatively short time in a fairly small space with a single lens can produce a great variety of beautiful and interesting photographs.

    • Thanks, Ellen.

      You’ve got some outstanding images from this location. (I know because I’ve seen some of them. 🙂 )

      The ice cave was, indeed, an exceptional experience–challenging in a number of ways, both technical and aesthetic, but truly rewarding.

  4. Gorgeous as always! My one time in an ice cave preceded much comprehension of white balance, or purchase of a better camera, so my photos always feel like a tease of what I wish I’d gotten, but yours fulfill the promise of such places. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks very much!

      And best of luck with the Romania tour.

  5. Beautiful series of images! Enjoyed seeing them!

  6. […] I left off my tale of Day 8 of last year’s Alaska trip, we had hiked back from the glacial ice cave and said good-bye to […]

  7. […] through or below glacial ice. Eventually, the deposits that we saw laid down by Canwell Glacier on Day 8 will probably turn into eskers. The eskers that we drove through and around on this 4-5 mile […]

  8. […] While there was no “classic” sunrise, the setting was very nice. The pond surface was glass-like and the reeds in the water were absolutely still. Low-hanging clouds cut through the view of the mountains in the distance. The mid-ground meadow reflected the rich fall colors we’d seen since first coming into contact with the Denali Highway, three days earlier. […]


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