Posted by: kerryl29 | March 21, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 10: The Denali Highway, Part II

I mentioned in my last post that we had hoped to return to the Maclaren Ridge Trail at sunrise, before beginning our trip west on the Denali Highway, but that plan was interrupted by an unfortunate situation: we awoke to a steady rain. There would be no sunrise and time spent in the rain on a trail with literally no shelter (i.e. the Maclaren Ridge Trail) was not a pleasant notion. So instead, we began the 90-odd-mile trip toward the western terminus of the highway, hoping that the day wasn’t going to be a total washout.

After retracing the Waterfowl Lakes area of the highway that we’d visited the previous evening, we reached Clearwater Creek, around mile 55 (roughly 13 miles from our starting point that day). It was still raining steadily at that point, but we stopped and–covered by rain gear–made the short walk to the creek’s eastern bank. It was a pretty scene, with the peak tundra color on the far bank saturated by the rain and the green-blue tinge to the otherwise crystal clear water. So, despite the rain, we decided to photograph the creek and took turns holding an umbrella so the other person could compose and deal with the photographic technicals without constantly having to wipe off the camera and lens.

Clearwater Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

We moved on, ultimately reaching the “Eskers Area” of the highway, just a few miles further along. What is an esker? It’s a topographical feature, a kind of narrow hill or ridge made up of gravel and sand created by streams that flow 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 section of the Denali Highway are mature and covered with tundra vegetation…vegetation that was at the peak of fall color.

The rain was light and intermittent at this point and the clouds were hanging low. It was also very chilly; the temperature was in the upper 30s (F) at this point of the relatively early morning. But the colors–a mixture of yellows, oranges, reds and greens, again, utterly saturated by the moisture–were simply too brilliant to ignore. So we spent an hour or more driving back and forth through this area, pulling off to the side of the road where we could and sizing up the various scenes for their photographic appeal.

Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska

You can really identify the esker formation in this series of images (below).

Eskers Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska
Eskers, Denali Highway, Alaska

(The small size of the images above don’t really do the scenes justice. For a better look at larger renditions of these photographs, go here. For an even better look at any of the images represented by the thumbnails in the linked gallery, click on a thumbnail and, when the image appears, click again on the resulting image.)

After we were done at the eskers area, we continued along and, though we stopped several times to look at various scenes, we didn’t haul out the camera gear again until we’d traversed another dozen miles or so on the highway, and arrived at Alpine Creek. The rain had stopped along the way and as we got out–and dipped in and around the muddy area along the creek’s bank–it started to rain again, and fairly hard. We beat it back to the vehicle and decided to wait out the rain, which turned out to be a good call as it stopped after another five minutes or so.

Alpine Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

The Alpine Creek experience was more about the creek itself than the foliage, which wasn’t in great abundance in this area.

Alpine Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alpine Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

Shortly before we reached the Sustina River Bridge, around Mile 79, we stopped again, at an absolutely magnificent meadow. There wasn’t a lot of room to pull off to the side of the highway, but traffic in this area was light and we made haste. We simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Sustina River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The color we were seeing along the highway, everywhere, was simply eye-popping. No question about it, our timing couldn’t possibly have been any better.

By now, it was around noon, or perhaps slightly later. We had cleared almost half of the mileage of the highway we were facing that day and still had about nine hours of daylight left. But the weather was getting better and that meant that we were likely to make more stops, not fewer, as the afternoon moved along. There was, not incidentally, virtually no wind on this day, which was another huge boon to our photographic endeavors.

We hadn’t gone all that far on the other side of the bridge when we rounded a bend in the highway and came to what will forever more be known as Holy Sh*t Hill. It is so named because, when it came into sight, we said “Holy Sh*t!” (I will abbreviate this feature as HSH going forward.)

The photographs of HSH aren’t going to do justice to the sight of the real thing. We tried very hard to render this location in a way that would appropriately represent HSH, but I’m quite sure that we failed in doing so. Still, I think it’s worth a look.

HS Hill Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
HS Hill, Denali Highway, Alaska
HS Hill, Denali Highway, Alaska

Do understand that we had been viewing jaw dropping fall color all day, but what we saw at HSH seemed to be one level more extreme than anything we’d seen to that point. HSH is, in fact, almost certainly an esker, but Holy Sh*t Esker just doesn’t have the panache of Holy Sh*t Hill….so HSH, rather than HSE, it is.

The color around HSH was more or less as fantastic as the color on the feature itself.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

Most of the rest of the time we spent along the highway this day was around waterways–mostly creeks, a few ponds/small lakes and, eventually, an open meadow. One of the middle examples: an unnamed pond that had a number of tundra swans in it.

Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska

The above pair of swans was extremely cooperative, allowing me to obtain a series of images that I’m quite pleased with.

Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swans, Denali Highway, Alaska

The numerous creeks provided a seemingly limitless number of opportunities and we spent copious time at many of them. Most were named, as is reflected in my captions. One exception is represented by the images that are labeled “Fireweed Creek.” That’s a name that we assigned to this waterway, which is, as far as we know, unnamed. There was a great deal of fireweed along the stream’s banks; hence the moniker.

Canyon Creek was photographed from high above, alongside the bridge which spans the creek far over the water itself. I was convinced that I could get down to the creek bank, but that would have required a great deal of time and some significant effort and given the now-limited amount of time we had available to us and the number of image opportunities that didn’t require quite so much effort, I contented myself with the aerial perspective.

Canyon Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Canyon Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we reached the Brushkana River, we could see that it oozed with potential. A trail follows the west bank of the river to the north, from a trailhead within the BLM maintained campground that buttresses the bank, and we were keen to explore it but, again, time argued against this and we reluctantly limited ourselves to the area within a short hike of the highway, on both sides of the road.

Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska

Stixkwan Creek made for a compelling quiet counterpoint to the rushing streams and rivers we’d encountered earlier.

Stixkwan Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

It was also the point where we could, finally, see evidence of the partially clearing skies that had teased us as we’d reached late afternoon.

Stixkwan Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

The aforementioned Fireweed Creek was replete with countless interesting compositional options.

Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fireweed Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fireweed Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we reached Fish Creek, I well remembered our experience at this location three years earlier and attempted to leverage what I recalled to aid my image making this time around.

Fish Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fish Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fish Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

We were well into the evening when we reached an open meadow, no more than a mile from the western end of the shootable part of the highway, where it reaches the residential area that makes up the tiny town of Cantwell, within two or three miles of the junction with the George Parks Highway. It was evident that we weren’t going to get a dramatic sunset, but we wandered into the meadow nonetheless to see what we could make of the last usable light of the day.

Mountain Meadow, Denali Highway, Alaska
Mountain Meadow, Denali Highway, Alaska
Mountain Meadow, Denali Highway, Alaska

We reached the junction with the Parks Highway, turned north and made the 15-odd mile drive to our lodgings at Carlo Creek. It was dark when we arrived, but since we’d been there in 2018 we didn’t have much trouble finding the compound. We checked in, drove to the cabin that would be our home for the next few days (about a mile up the road from the lodge office) and hauled our things inside.

When we had the opportunity to do a proper check of email for the first time in a couple of days, we discovered something interesting. Our itinerary had called for us to spend the next day at Denali National Park, about 20 minutes up the road from where we were. We had reservations on the Denali bus for the next morning; we had planned to take the bus to Polychrome Pass where we would spend as much time as we could exploring before taking the bus back to the park depot at the end of the day. Truth be told, we were ambivalent about the entire enterprise, due primarily to our 2018 experience on the Denali bus. But now, as Ellen checked her email, she discovered a message to us from the park service: a landslide in the park near the Polychrome area days earlier had closed much of the park road. Buses were now only traveling as far as mile marker 44 (or thereabouts)–far short of where we wanted to go–before turning around. We could still get on the bus the following morning but out plans were in tatters. We weren’t sure what we’d be able to do, other than experience a four-hour round trip bus ride. Also, the weather forecast for the park the next day wasn’t great: cloudy, with a decent chance of rain.

We checked a Denali hiking book that Ellen had to see what might be in the offing for us as an alternative to our now defeated Polychrome plans, but it was next to impossible to get a sense of what we’d be best off doing. I suggested an entirely out-of-the-box alternative: what if we blew off the bus entirely and, instead, spent the next day back on the Denali Highway? The color had been absolutely exquisite. We’d forgone a fair number of photo opportunities because of the weather and/or limited time. We could take another entire day on the highway; we were as close to the western terminus (15-20 minutes) as we were to the entrance to Denali National Park. We could easily get to a couple of nice areas on the Denali Highway for sunrise (assuming there would be one). And, perhaps best of all, we wouldn’t spend a third of the daylight hours on the damn bus.

Ellen didn’t need to be convinced; she had, she conceded, considered suggesting the very same alternative. So were in agreement. There would be another full day–a third–on the Denali Highway. And as good as the second day had been–and despite its wet origins, it had been very good indeed–the third day would be even better…


Responses

  1. NicešŸ„°

    On Mon, 21 Mar, 2022, 6:33 pm Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog, wrote:

    > kerryl29 posted: ” I mentioned in my last post that we had hoped to return > to the Maclaren Ridge Trail at sunrise, before beginning our trip west on > the Denali Highway, but that plan was interrupted by an unfortunate > situation: we awoke to a steady rain. There would be n” >

  2. Awesome images — what spectacular color, especially around HSH!! The synchronized swans were also a lucky treat. Did you experiment with the swan images in b&w?

    • Thanks, Steve. I honestly hadn’t considered converting any of the swan images to monochrome, but now that you mention it I’ll have to go back and take a closer look. They really should work in b&w. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. It is so much fun to see the images and read the story. It’s like we are there again.

    • Yup, that’s how it feels on this end as well.

  4. […] the last installment of last year’s Alaska trip chronology, I concluded with a description of our decision to […]

  5. A picture with beautiful colors


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