Posted by: kerryl29 | July 5, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 16: The Chugach and Beyond (Part I)

The 16th–and final full–day of last year’s trip to Alaska was a fascinating one, in part because so many unexpected things happened. With a cloudy forecast in mind, we had decided the previous evening that we would head to Thunder Bird Falls, in Chugach State Park, about 45 minutes south of where we were staying, first thing in the morning. We left shortly after first light and, though Thunder Bird Falls is a very popular hike, found a completely deserted parking lot when we arrived at the trailhead.

The hike to the Thunder Bird Falls viewing platform is a fairly easy one–roughly a mile out and a mile back on a trail with relatively little elevation change. Actually, the toughest part of the hike is immediately apparent, as the trail runs up a fairly steep incline. There’s not much of difficulty from that point on.

I think it’s fair to say that Ellen and I both found the Thunder Bird Falls Trail to be among our most productive photo locations of the entire trip. I think it’s also fair to say that we didn’t expect that to be the case. Very shortly after we reached the top of the hill near the start of the trailhead, we discovered an interesting spot to shoot in the forest…and we never really stopped finding compelling locations after that. In fact, we spent so much time photographing at the spots we discovered that other people were returning to the parking lot to leave before we’d made it halfway to the falls. Remember, we were the first people on the trail!

While fall color in this part of Alaska was a ways from being at peak, there were pockets where the color was excellent. We were aided by dead calm conditions. This was critical, as there was much focus stacking to be done and, since it was cloudy and there was a fairly thick canopy along the trail, it was fairly dark. All of this meant that shutter speeds were long. Regardless, it was absolutely remarkable how many tantalizing scenes we found, ranging from closeup to intimate.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Many of these spots were literally right alongside the trail. A few of them required meandering into the woods a bit.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

We rarely went more than 100 feet down the trail before spotting something else that piqued our interest.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Of all the spots we visited on this trip, it was this trail where I most missed having my macro lens (which I was unable to bring due to space/weight limitations when packing).

Devil’s Club, Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Teasing out compositions in settings such as this is always a fascinating, and usually satisfying, adventure. And I’ve always felt that my experience photographing the landscape of the American Midwest has stood me in good stead when, located in other regions, I find myself face-to-face with the familiar tight confines of woodland settings.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

When I was reviewing images for this post, I was reminded just how many different spots we photographed along a trail just a mile long.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail Black & White, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

At some point we more or less decided that we had to move along or we’d never get to the falls…so we made a final few images in the forest before heading to the trail’s end.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

There’s a certain irony to the fact that the experience of photographing Thunder Bird Falls itself was a tremendous anticlimax. The waterfall itself is pretty impressive, but the shooting location leaves very few options for photographing it. Basically, you have a head on shot from some distance…and that’s about it. I very nearly didn’t even bother photographing the waterfall, but I grudgingly made one image, which appears below.

Thunder Bird Falls, Chugach State Park, Alaska

On our way back, we took a side trail which took us down into the gorge where the South Fork of the Eagle River–runoff from Thunder Bird Falls–made for a nice setting for some stream photography.

South Fork Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska

While we were down at this spot, a couple of odd things took place. The first was when a girl–probably 12 years old or thereabouts–decided to shimmy out on the log in the above frame, which spanned the water, following a bit of an “I’ll show you” episode with her younger brother. As I was already set up astride the log preparing to photograph the image that you see, I wasn’t particularly happy about this. Kids will be kids, but I really thought that the parents–who were right there and saw what I was doing–would intervene. But they didn’t. Rather than causing a scene, I kept my mouth shut and waited them out. The girl got about halfway across the log, and then decided she didn’t want to go the rest of the way. She was seated on the log and facing the (now) wrong direction. The parents of this kid seemed, to me, pretty unconcerned, even when the she had a mild panic attack while still out on the log. In fairness, she ultimately did manage to make it back without incident and I was finally able to produce this photograph.

The other oddity was when a couple, wearing tennis shoes no less, came straight down the side of what was a 30-degree slope from the trail above to the river bank. Ellen and I were first alerted to this when we started seeing small rocks tumble down from above for no apparent reason. We couldn’t understand why they were doing this when a trail, with a wooden staircase, brought hikers down safely. Apparently these folks missed the signs…and the trail itself, which wasn’t hidden in the least.

We wrapped up at the river and made our way back to the car. It was mid-day by now, and still cloudy and calm. We had learned of another waterfall on the same fork of the Eagle River, but in a very different area, and found directions to get there (with the aid of Google Maps). This waterfall–known as South Fork Falls or Barbara Falls, take your pick–was accessible via a public trail that abutted private property. We made our way to the trailhead after a drive of 30-odd minutes, and then walked the 2/3 of a mile or thereabouts to an overlook. It was an impressive waterfall and, though again we were limited to the viewing area, we were much closer to the falls, which were more amenable to a variety of compositions.

South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Abstract Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Abstract Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

While we were photographing from the overlook, we noticed a trail that emerged from the far side of the river. It appeared that it would allow a lower vantage point from which to view the falls and we decided that we’d check it out when we were done at the overlook and returned to the trailhead.

And then, it happened. I was trying to set up a shot, using my camera with the 24-70 mm lens, of the falls. I had the camera, with the lens mounted, slung around my neck and determined that I needed to move my tripod several feet to the left of where I was standing, and when I picked up the tripod, one of the extended legs brushed against the hood of the lens. The hood for this lens is…let’s just say it’s poorly designed. There’s no mechanism to allow the hood to lock into place. So, when the the tripod leg brushed against it, the hood became detached from the lens and popped up into the air. I hadn’t been expecting this, but I did try to catch the hood as it flew through the air. But I couldn’t reach it, and it disappeared into the chasm below us.

I was…not happy. I peered into the chasm but couldn’t spot the hood. I knew, based on the way things were laid out, that there was no way the hood had reached the river–it was too far away, and there was far too much debris in the chasm below us. I didn’t know if I could safely descend into the chasm or not, but I certainly wasn’t going to try if I couldn’t spot the hood. I wasn’t going to go down there to conduct a search. I wasn’t even sure that I’d go down there if I could spot the hood, because I couldn’t easily see a safe way to descend, but without spotting the hood the point was moot. And, though I looked and looked, I couldn’t spot it.

But then Ellen said “I see it!”

“Where?” I asked. And she described the spot where she was looking, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see it. We even mounted my telephoto lens on the tripod and Ellen dialed in the approximate spot where she saw the hood, but I still couldn’t find it.

What followed was likely stupid, in an epic sense, on my part but…I hate losing things…and Ellen could see the lens. I decided that I would drop down into the chasm and have Ellen direct me to the spot. Surely, with her help, I’d be able to spot it, then determine if I could get to the spot to retrieve it. In the back of my mind there were questions about whether I’d be able to extract myself from the chasm if I went in, but I suppressed them.

So, I found a spot to climb down. I was stepping on steep dirt slope or, in some cases, pieces of debris, mainly tree trunks and branches. Communication with Ellen had to be done at least as much with gestures as by voice, since the roar of the relatively nearby falls made it difficult to hear one another. Ellen managed to convey to me where she saw the hood. I was now significantly closer to that spot, but I still couldn’t see the hood. Finally, I decided that I would have to make my way to the location that Ellen was indicating, and so I did, carefully. I wasn’t sure that my footing would hold. Worst case, I figured I’d slide down to the shallows of the river below, but it might involve a bit of tumble to do so. My life, I figured, was not in danger, but there was a chance of injury.

Gradually I made my way over to the directed location…no hood. Ellen kept pointing to a spot and ultimately I determined, what she had thought was the hood was actually a rock. I sighed. I’d come down here for nothing. And now I had to figure out how to climb out of this hole. That was going to be a lot more difficult than coming down had been. Gravity, and all that.

So I turned around in preparation to retrace my steps, in an attempt to climb out where I’d climbed in and…I spotted the hood. Son of a bitch! What were the odds? It was about 30 feet from where I stood, up against the slope. I glanced up at the overlook; given where the hood was, it would have been impossible to see it from the overlook. There was no way we ever could have seen it…without climbing down in the chasm.

I gingerly made my way in the direction of the hood; there was no way I was coming back without it now. What’s the saying? I was going to retrieve that hood or die trying. (Maybe literally.) When I got close enough to reach it, I snagged it with my right hand, then put my hand through the center like a bracelet. This would allow me to retain use of both of my arms, which I knew would be necessary to climb out of the chasm. Then I made my way back to the access point. The tough part came as I approached the lip of the chasm. It was steep, so the footing was poor. And, ultimately, I had to stand on pieces of debris, which weren’t entirely stable. But at some point, I could tell I’d reached a tipping point, and I was able to lift myself out.

I made the short walk back to the overlook, no worse for wear other than being a bit dirty, and told Ellen what had happened–with a focus on the actual location of the hood. It all makes for a good story.

We returned to the trailhead and, previous adventures notwithstanding, I decided to make the riverside hike and see if I could photograph the waterfall from ground level. Ellen elected not to come, but told me to take my time. So, I hiked along the creek. The footing was a bit iffy in a few spots, but never really dangerous. I noted several places near the river that I thought might make interesting shooting spots, but decided to wait until the return trip on this out-and-back trail to really examine them closely.

Finally, I reached a bend in the river, rounded a corner to my right, and found myself staring at South Fork Falls, approximately 250 feet in front of me. The spray was pretty intense, and nearly unrelenting. I left my backpack on the ground, around the corner and out of the mist, and made my forward with just my camera and 24-70 mm lens (including the hood!), tripod and a cleaning cloth (in my pocket). I knew that I’d have to mop the filter on the front of the lens repeatedly and that the lens cap would need to stay in place whenever I wasn’t actively sizing up or photographing the scene through the viewfinder. Ultimately, I made two images of the falls.

South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

On the way back to the trailhead, I stopped a few times for image-making opportunities.

South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River Intimate, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

When I got back to the trailhead, Ellen and I walked to another shooting location, close to the trail, along the river and examined another couple of spots.

South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

At this point, it was late in the afternoon. Still, several hours of daylight remained and we aimed to make the most of them. Given that this post has already run very long, that experience, and the photo opps from our last (partial) day in Alaska will be the subject of my next entry.

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Responses

  1. Kerry,
    Great stories — the parents unworried by kids’ recklessness is a classic. And we’ve all lost things, I’m sure. Glad you were able to retrieve your hood. I’m surprised it popped off, though — the Nikon hoods are a bit finicky to install but mine seem to be secure once clicked into place. Perhaps the hood on the f/4 is different than f/2.8?

    Love all the foliage intimates and stream shots. Great color and comps. I still say you need a drone for waterfalls though 😉.
    Steve

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I don’t have any experience with the 2.8 Z lenses, but compared with the 2.8 F versions, the f/4 lenses have very different style hoods–they don’t click into place, and are inherently more susceptible to trouble. Thom Hogan had a recent rant about this that had me nodding my head vigorously:

      https://bythom.com/newsviews/random-rant-87.html

  2. […] left off the narrative of the first part of Day 16 with a lengthy description of the events at South Fork Falls, including my descent into the abyss […]


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