Posted by: kerryl29 | April 4, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 11: the Denali Highway, Part III

In the last installment of last year’s Alaska trip chronology, I concluded with a description of our decision to forego the Denali National Park bus reservations that we had and instead spend the 11th day of the trip back on the Denali Highway. It would be our third full day on the highway and the decision turned out to be a very good one. I think our third day on the highway was our best and, in fact, it was one of the most satisfying days of photography I’ve ever experienced, in Alaska or anywhere else.

We began the day at a small unnamed pond near the west end of the Denali Highway. We’d discovered this location at the tail end of previous day, and it was a fortuitous find.

Morning Mist, Denali Highway, Alaska

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.

Morning Mist, Denali Highway, Alaska
Morning Mist, Denali Highway, Alaska

Our next stop was Joe Lake, a much larger body of water just a few miles to the east, that lies right along the highway. The sun was up by now, but still very low in the sky.

Joe Lake, Denali Highway, Alaska
Joe Lake, Denali Highway, Alaska

The wind was still non-existent, making for exceptional reflections.

Joe Lake Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

One of my favorite locations from the 2018 foray on the Denali Highway was a wetland area that contained a kind of tree tunnel, and I was looking forward to visiting the spot again. We found it, with little difficulty, and took note of how much growth there had been in a three-year period of time. Then we got to work photographing this spot, on both sides of the road.

Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tree Tunnel Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

We continued on and reached a spot along the highway that looks down over the Nenana River Valley. The topography, along with the prevalence of trees and other growth, made composing from this location a difficult exercise, but we did our best.

Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Nenana River Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

A bit later, and inspired by the desire to stretch our legs a bit, we undertook a short hike, partly down what appeared to be a combined hiking/OTV trail, and then on a social trail of sorts, that led to a fascinating rocky outcrop covered with vegetation and lichen. On the first part of the hike, we were captivated by what we found on the forest floor.

Autumn Intimate, Denali Highway, Alaska
Autumn Intimate, Denali Highway, Alaska

On the second part of the hike, it was the outcropping that drew our attention. It was very difficult to set up in this area, which was incredibly densely vegetated, making for a very tight space. But we stuck with it and produced some images.

Rocky Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

As we were right on top of the foreground here, focus stacking was a must. (The images immediately above and below were both three-frame stacks.)

Rocky Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

As we continued our journey east, I was captivated by a meadow, well below the road bed, so we pulled over so I could capture it.

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

We moved on to Seattle Creek, a spot we’d bypassed the previous day. Now, with added time, we rectified the oversight. We started off by working our way down to the creek bed on the north side of the road.

Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

After capturing more conventional views of the creek, I focused my attention on a more abstract composition, one that was accessible in a shallow pool of water on the near side of the creek that prominently featured part of a large, partially submerged rock and the reflection of some tall grasses on the edge of the pool. The resulting image, one of the few featuring little color, was a natural candidate for a monochrome conversion.

Seattle Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska

We moved off to the south side of the road.

Seattle Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska

Accessing the creek on the south side of the Denali Highway required traversing a path that runs well above a spruce-strewn meadow that runs just to the west of the creek. After photographing from atop a boulder on the edge of the creek (image above), I paused several times on the return trip to the vehicle shoot the meadow.

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

We continued the trip east, stopping at another couple of spots looking towards the Alaska Range to the north.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

A vertical composition of this scene showed off the landscape’s colorful layers.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we reached the Brushkana River, we pulled into the campground. We had bypassed the Brushkana River Trail the previous day, but we had done so with great reluctance. Now, since we had the time, we decided to see if the trail had anything to yield. Did it ever.

The trail runs, appropriately, along the western bank of the river for several miles. It also winds in and out of the nearby spruce forest. We started out by photographing at a couple of spots where the brush along the river gave way to a shooting position.

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

Before we had gone very much farther, we reached an area that was rich with intimate opportunities, having nothing to do with the river itself. We hastened to take advantage of this spot. The color in this area was exceptional, even within the context of the brilliance we’d seen all along the Denali Highway.

Fall Color, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

This pattern repeated itself a number of times, as we went back and forth between river views and intimate scenes facing away from the water.

At times the trail ran right alongside the river bank…

Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

…and at other places it climbed steeply up hillsides, providing aerial views of the waterway.

Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

On several occasions we considered turning around and returning to the trailhead, only to decide to go “just a little bit farther” and be rewarded by marvelous scenes, both intimate…

Autumn Intimate, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska
Autumn Intimate, Brushkana River Trail, Denali Highway, Alaska

…and wider.

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

When we finally did return to the parking area, we’d had a goof hike and a terrific photo experience

It was late afternoon by the time we finished the hike and we spent the last few hours of daylight stopping here and there along the highway, guided by whim. Some of the locations we stopped at panned out and some didn’t, but, somehow, it didn’t seem to matter all that much when we came up empty.

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

Perhaps that’s the residue of a satisfying day of photography, when the notion of productivity (or lack thereof) doesn’t even come to mind…

As frequently seems to be the case in Alaska, clouds had been blowing in and out and in again all day long. This led to varying photographic opportunities throughout our time in the field and we tried to be flexible, tailoring our actions to the conditions. Reviewing the images from Day 11, I think we were even more successful doing so than I realized at the time. When serendipitous occurrences popped up, we tried to be ready to capture them.

A Crack in the Sky, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

At some point mid-evening, less than an hour before the time when the sun would set (an event that dissolved behind a thick bank of clouds), we took a short walk to the edge of a small, unnamed pond. With all of the inconsistencies of the day, one thing had remained constant–there had been almost no wind all day long. As a result, focus stacking was always possible and ponds and lakes were essentially always good sources of reflections.

Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska

In the fleeting light, we had just enough time to make two more stops. The first was on a ridge that provided an overlook of sorts of the vast, tundra-strewn plain that runs for miles right up to the southern edge of the Alaska Range.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

The second was at yet another small lake, endowed with a glass-like surface this evening, which beamed the limited remnants of the muffled sunset back at us.

Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska
Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska

That brought an end to what was, by my reckoning, a remarkable day of photography. Was it the “best” day of photography I’ve ever had? I don’t know. I’m not even entirely sure what that means, at this point. But it was as satisfying a day in the field as I can remember, partly because of the sheer bounty that the greatly underappreciated Denali Highway landscape had provided us, and also probably partly because this third and final full day on the highway hadn’t been planned. Instead, this day had been expected to be dominated by hours on the Denali National Park bus.

There’s an old saying that anticipation is better than participation and that’s undoubtedly true much, if not most, of the time. But this was one of those rare occasions when participation was far better than anticipation, and that alone is probably enough for it to be the source of a coveted memory for a very long time.


Responses

  1. Hopefully, I can make it to this place one day. It has been in my bucket list for quite a while. Nice photographs!

    • Thanks…and I hope you’re able to make it to Alaska, sooner than later.

  2. Gorgeous!

  3. Masterfully shot, images, Kerry! Your mirrored reflections are classic and there are so many beautiful studies in this series. What a thrill to see, thanks.

    • Thanks very much, Jane!

  4. Alastair is on the list…. but still reluctant to travel as freely as we used to. But we hope. So extra nice to enjoy your trip ☺

    • I assume you meant “Alaska” when you wrote Alastair. 🙂 Regardless, I do hope you’re able to get to Alaska at some point, it’s quite spectacular.

  5. Gorgeous indeed, especially your Crack In the Sky.

  6. Exquisite foliage, delightful comps! Feels like I’m right there (which is one of my goals for my images). Again, I see lots of drone potential😉.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      Out of curiosity, what are you looking for when assessing a location for drone photography?

  7. I agree…this was one of the best photo days ever. Not feeling rushed was a big part of our success. And infinitely superior to spending time on the Denali NP bus. For those readers thinking of going to Alaska, you absolutely have to get into the Park to appreciate it, but we had done that in 2018 (and I had been in 2007). The unanticipated road closure circumstance made the decision easy, and coming away with this spectacular set of images confirms it was the right choice.

    • Good point about not feeling rushed. Would we have done either of the hikes that day if we’d felt short on time? Very likely not, and what a loss that would have been. I don’t think we ever explicitly discussed it, but I’m guessing that we could have spent at least two more full days on the Denali Highway and not come close to getting bored.

  8. Your photos are stunning!

    • Thanks very much!

  9. […] of the itinerary. If we thought we could photograph a location in, say, two days, we gave ourselves the option of a third. The entire trip included 17 days in the field. We only planned on visiting four broad locations […]

  10. […] deciding to forego a day on the Denali National Park bus for a variety of reasons on Day 11, a decision that may have been our best on a trip that was filled with (arguably) good decisions, […]


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