When we were originally planning the itinerary for this trip, Ellen wisely suggested that we remain in Fairbanks for a full day upon arrival.  We flew into Fairbanks very late on August 23; it was after midnight when we headed to the hotel at which we were staying.  There were a number of things that had to be taken care of the following day so, rather than rush through them and then make a 2 1/2 hour drive to the Denali area the decision was made to defer the drive to Denali for one day.  That left plenty of time to find things to do in the Fairbanks area, weather permitting, on our first full day in Alaska.

The weather on this first full day was off-and-on–mostly on–rain.  After clearing out a series of errands, we made our way to Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, located in Fairbanks proper, only a few miles from where we were staying.  The refuge, at this time of the year, hosts a sandhill crane migration, so we thought it would be worth checking out.  Spotters on the ground at the refuge had counted nearly 1500 cranes the previous day (along with hundreds of geese), so our timing was good.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

The weather…well, that wasn’t so good.  It was raining when we arrived at the refuge and it was a near constant presence as we made our way toward the trails.  Still, rain aside, we spent several hours observing and photographing the cranes, which we spotted in short order.  They were all over the place in flocks ranging from a few birds to dozens.

Sandhill Cranes, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

We couldn’t get too close without spooking them, but it was extremely interesting to watch them move around.  While not nearly as plentiful as the tens of thousands of cranes that migrate through Jasper-Pulaski National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Indiana each November, or the hundreds of thousands that descend on the Platte River in Nebraska each migratory season, there were still plenty of subjects.

I’m far more used to seeing Canada Geese, which have become a year-round presence in the American Midwest, but the geese at Creamer’s Field–which intermingled with the cranes constantly without incident–did make for compelling photographic subjects as well, flying as they do in formation.

Canada Geese in Flight Black & White, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Part of our morning at Creamer’s Field, before we came upon the bulk of the cranes, was spent hiking and scouting the Boreal Forest Trail, one of a number of trails that winds its way around the refuge property.  While boreal forest ecosystems are dominated by coniferous trees (spruce, pines, larches), there are a significant number of deciduous trees as well, most particularly birch.  While the rain prevented any serious photographing of this area, we were all quite impressed with what we saw along the trail and spent a lot of time making mental notes about the scenery, in case we had a chance to return at some point in better conditions.

It was early afternoon when we finished photographing the cranes and geese–and it was still raining steadily.  We decided to spend some time on the Steese Highway, which runs north and east of Fairbanks.  We drove this road for a few hours, most of it in the rain.  As we were returning to Fairbanks, the rain finally stopped, late in the afternoon, though it was still mostly cloudy.  I suggested that, if everyone was agreeable, that we return to Creamer’s Field and spend some time photographing along the Boreal Forest Trail before it got dark.  This was an easy sell, and we returned to the refuge, grabbed our gear, and headed for the trail.

Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

After hiking through open fields, the trail moves into a wetland area that includes a dense birch forest–as thick a growth of birch as I’ve ever seen anywhere.

Birch Reflections Black & White, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

That was my focus for the remainder of the time we were at the refuge–which lasted until it started to get dark (it remained cloudy and there was to be no sunset this evening).  This is the kind of setting, given the associated conditions, that I love to photograph:  the light was even, the wind had dropped to nothing more than a light breeze and there were compelling compositions to be teased out of the location almost everywhere.  What you’ll see in the remainder of this post is a sample of what I photographed that day.  The truth is, I haven’t come close to finishing post-processing the images made along the Boreal Forest Trail, so the selection below will have to do.

Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Birch Trunks Black & White, Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Boreal Forest Trail Black & White, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Ellen unearthed this location during her extensive research preceding the trip and what a gem she discovered.  Other images from Creamer’s Field will undoubtedly be included in future posts in this series from Alaska.

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 24, 2018

Alaska: The Denali National Park Bus and the Tripod Reminder

Denali Access:  A Primer

The first thing you need to know about Denali National Park is that it has one entrance–on the east side of the park, on the George Parks Highway (AK-3, I-A4).  This is the only road access to the park.  The park road itself runs 92 miles, from the entrance to Kantishna; the first 15 miles of this road, beginning at the entrance gate, is paved and open to private vehicles.  At the 15-mile marker–which coincides with the spot where the Savage River and the road meet–the road becomes unpaved and private vehicles–with very few and very limited exceptions–are not permitted.  From this point of the road on, you have three options if you want to travel farther into the park:  hike, bike or bus.  If you want to travel any distance from the Savage River, your only practical option is the Denali Park bus system.

Savage River Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

A Parallel

On my two extended forays in the Canadian Rockies, I saw tour buses traveling up and down the Icefields Parkway.  There were a few “hot spots” along the way–Athabasca Falls, Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake and maybe Mistaya Canyon–where these buses would access a designated parking area, disgorge their passengers like a plague of locusts and then, 10, 15 maybe 20 minutes later, recall their charges like a roach motel and move on.  I remember thinking, every time I saw this phenomenon play out:  what a miserable way to experience the Canadian Rockies.

I may have been a bit precipitous in my conclusions, simply because I invariably view things from the perspective of a would-be landscape photographer and, undeniably, this was a terrible means to the end of photographing in the Canadian Rockies.  But as a general way to simply see the area?  Maybe that wasn’t so bad?  Okay, even for that purpose, this was a pretty awful means.  You stopped only when and where the guy driving the bus was scheduled to stop.  And if you wanted to spend more time there than the glorified restroom stop called for, tough.  Would it be possible to do something more superficial than this?  Doubtfully.

Alpenglow, Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali Reality

Unfortunately, that was my sense of taking the bus at Denali.  Yes, you could see things as the bus went by.  And Denali bus drivers will stop, relatively briefly, when someone spots wildlife.  But still..this is a far cry from being able to stop–and get out–when the feeling suits you.  I mean, you can’t do that!

Or can you?  Turns out, yes you can.  You want to get off the Denali bus?  You tell the bus driver and he stops and out you go.  Of course, after you’re off, the door closes and the bus continues on its way.  Now, after you’ve done what you want to do at any particular location, you can flag down the next bus to come along and continue along the route.  Sounds great, right?  There’s only one problem–if there are no seats available on the “next bus,” you’re out of luck…and you have to wait for the one after that…and hope that bus has room.  Well, how long is the wait?  It varies, depending on the time of the day and the time of the year.  And not all of the buses go all the way to the end of the road.  During late August, when we were there, the first transit bus heading into the park departs at 6:15 AM; the last leaves at 4:05 PM.  Over that period of nearly 10 hours, there are 23 departures (including the two already mentioned).  So, every 15-20 minutes–in theory–another bus will come along.  That doesn’t sound too bad…as long as the weather’s not awful.  But if buses are full–and many of them are–you’ve got a problem.  On our return trip, a group of four people flagged down the bus we were on.  There were only three available seats; two members of the party got on, the other two decided to wait for the next bus.  Hopefully that next bus had open seats.  As, by this time, it was late in the afternoon, the return buses were increasingly likely to be filled.  Caveat emptor.

Horseshoe Lake Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

There’s one other set of things to consider about the Denali buses:  they travel slowly, over unpaved roads, make plenty of unscheduled stops and cover vast distances.  Let’s say you want to go all the way to Wonder Lake-the end of the road–from the bus depot and return on the same day.  Let’s say you’re an enterprising soul, and catch the first bus that goes that far.  That bus leaves (in late August) at 6:15 AM.  It arrives at Wonder Lake–assuming you stick with that bus, and assuming not too many unscheduled stops are made–at approximately 12:05 PM–nearly six hours after its departure.  The very last possible bus you can take from Wonder Lake to arrive back at the depot leaves at 3:50 PM and is scheduled to arrive at the depot at 8:40 PM.  (Outbound buses make more scheduled stops than inbound ones.)  In other words, it’s nearly an 11-hour round trip to Wonder Lake.  You get–as much as–3 1/2 hours on the ground at your destination.  And if you think that an 11-hour ride on a modified school bus sounds tiresome, well, you’d be right.  We spent approximately eight hours on the bus–we only went as far as Eielson–and it was plenty tiresome.

And if this already sounds restrictive, keep one final point in mind:  you can’t simply expect to get up one day and think, “this would be a great day to head deep into the park,” show up at the depot and be on your way.   Bus seats are sold via a reservation system.  There are only so many outgoing seats available each day, and if you don’t have one in advance–particularly if the weather is nice, when the limited point-of-sale demand is highest–there’s a very good chance you won’t be able to get one.

Nenanah River Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Bus Photo Experience

If you’ve reached this point expecting me to tell you what a frustrating experience it is to photograph from the bus, congratulations, because that’s exactly what it is.  First of all, you’re on the bus with 60 of your (ahem) closest friends.  In truth, most of the people on the two different buses we spent time on in Denali were pleasant and well-behaved.  The key word in that previous sentence, of course, is “most.”  Like virtually everything in life, it takes only a tiny group of less than thoughtful people to screw everything up for the rest of us.

For instance…upon introduction, before we got going, the bus driver gave us a talk–not entirely unlike the spiel that flight attendants are required to give on an airplane–that included tips on safety and etiquette.  Included in those remarks was the point where the driver asked people to keep their voices down when wildlife was spotted, to avoid spooking the animals.  (Exactly why some people squealing inside a bus would tend to spook the wildlife any more than, you know, the extremely loud noise made by a moving bus, was not explained…but I digress.)  This was a request, and–let’s face it–one that was never going to be universally followed because people get excited when they unexpectedly see wild animals.  This is particularly true for people who have never seen a bear, moose, caribou or any of the other wildlife endemic to Denali, outside of a zoo setting.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this describes at least half the people on the average Denali bus.  So, when wildlife was spotted, especially when it was close to the bus, many people invariably became animated and inevitably spoke more loudly than they should have.  The bus driver, at this point, patiently got on the PA and politely reminded people to keep their voices down to avoid spooking the wildlife.  This wasn’t enough, however, for the Dutch woman sitting next to Debbie who told everyone, loudly and repeatedly to–and I quote–“shut the f— up!”  Even accounting for possible “English-not-first-language” circumstances, you can imagine what this did for the esprit de corps of the passengers.  And on the return bus we had a couple of people taking up more than one seat–either with their baggage or by stretching their bodies across multiples seats, which created considerable awkwardness when others wanted to board.

The Mountain Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

As for the photo experience itself, to say that it was confounding would be an understatement.  While the bus would stop, relatively briefly, for wildlife, you can imagine what it’s like to try to obtain decent images on a crowded bus.  Even with people trying to accommodate those of us with cameras–which some people, in all fairness, did attempt to do–it was difficult at best.  Windows could, with some difficulty, be lowered, but the openings weren’t very large, there were constantly people to be avoided and, of course, the animals weren’t concerned with posing for us.  Frequently they were too far away for any good images to be made, regardless of the constraints of the bus, but we had some very close encounters with bears, moose and caribou and if I got a handful of shots that were anything more than barely passable I’d be surprised.  For catching a glimpse of wildlife, the Denali bus isn’t too bad, but it just isn’t a good platform for wildlife photography.

Eielson View, Denali National Park, Alaska

As for landscape opportunities…hoo, boy, where do I start?  The bus doesn’t stop for good landscape opportunities.  Ever.  Just minutes after we got on the bus, we were driving near the Mountain Vista area–about 11 miles down the road, a location where private vehicles are allowed.  It was just shortly after sunrise on a chilly morning.  The valley containing the Savage River was filled with fog.  Far in the distance, the Mountain was visible, bathed in beautiful light.  It was an incredible scene…and there we were, on the [expletive deleted] bus, barely so much as getting a look at it.  It was torture.  I very seriously considered yelling out to the bus driver to stop the bus and let me off right there.  (I later discussed this with Ellen and Debbie and found that they had harbored the same thoughts.)  This was the most egregious example of this sort of thing, but it happened repeatedly…we’d drive through these hauntingly beautiful landscapes that I was aching to explore…but I knew that if we got off the bus, we’d never get to Eielson–which was our goal–that morning.  So I sat on the slow-moving bus in tortuous frustration.

When we did stop–which happened three times–with an opportunity to actually get off the bus, it was just for a few minutes…not even time to pull out my tripod let alone explore a setting or wait for the light.  If I wanted any shots at all I had to take them, quickly…handheld.  Do you hear me?  Handheld!  This might have been worse than simply sitting on the bus not shooting at all.

Crevice Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Promised Tripod Rant

I will interrupt the narrative, briefly, to launch into the tripod-related rant that I promised in my most recent post.  More than 6 1/2 years ago I wrote a piece making my case for the importance of always using a tripod when engaging in landscape photography.  If you haven’t read it and are skeptical of the superficial argument in favor of tripod use, I recommend it to you.

If you’re ever forced to spend time with me in the field, in some dystopian alternate universe, you’ll see me copiously investigating whether to photograph a particular scene or subject.  This is something I typically do with camera in hand, not mounted on a tripod.  If I decide to make an image, I determine–roughly–the position I want the camera to occupy when the shutter is tripped.  That’s when I grab the tripod, and careful fine-tuning of the final shot–with the camera firmly attached to the tripod head–follows.  Some finagling with the matter of exactly where to put the tripod–and how high to extend it, etc.–is almost always part of the process.  It’s virtually impossible to properly carry out this fine tuning process handheld.

You can tell I’m merely sizing up a shot, not actually photographing. Note the absence of a tripod. [Photo courtesy, David W. Shaw, all rights reserved]

Those few instances attempting “grab shots” of the landscape on those limited bus breaks reminded me, in stark terms, just how important a tripod is to the art and craft of landscape photography.  I mean, obviously I already knew this–again, check out the blog entry–but my experience at Denali made me recognize just how complacent I’d become on the point.  Just a few instances attempting to photograph without my tripod reawakened my slumbering passion for this subject.  Concentrating on holding the camera steady (even with vibration reduction enabled), the inability to fine tune the shot as detailed above, the difficulty of keeping the camera level while in even modestly awkward positions and being unable to rely on the tripod to slow the process down…I missed all of it, badly.  I don’t ever want to go through that again!

You can tell I’m in the process of fine-tuning the composition before actually tripping the shutter; note that the camera is mounted on the tripod. [Photo courtesy, David W. Shaw, all rights reserved]

And Yet…

And so traveling the bus in Denali was essentially a miserable, massively frustrating experience, for all the reasons I laid out above.  So, obviously, I’m here to tell you that the folks at the National Park Service should…not change a single thing.

Yes, you read correctly.  As miserable a photo experience as the bus episode entailed it shouldn’t be a significant concern for the folks who manage Denali National Park and Preserve to improve the photo experience for me–or anyone else.  The principal consideration of the park service folks should be protecting the park’s ecosystem and the plants and animals that inhabit the area, as I have stated in the past.  If that means that the photo experience isn’t ideal–or anything remotely close to it–than so be it.  Without the bus system in place, with the entire park road open to private vehicles, Denali is likely to turn into a “total gong show,” as Ellen so aptly put it.

Eielson Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

(The key, I’m convinced, to a positive photographic experience at Denali is simple–get off the damn bus.  I suspected that before I visited Denali; having been there, I’m now certain of it.  If I have the opportunity to return, I will act on that knowledge.)

I recently opined that it was, in part, up to photographers to engage directly in the process of limiting impact on public lands.  I stand by that opinion.  But it won’t do any of us any harm to save us from our own worst instincts.  Limited access is being contemplated at a number of public areas in the United States where visitation is so out of hand that the locations are already being degraded.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 17, 2018

Alaska: Trip Planning Details

Those of you who have been reading this blog for some time know by now that when I take a photo trip it’s usually a carefully researched solo endeavor.  There were some significant divergences from the norm as part of the Alaska experience and I thought it would be worthwhile for me to provide some background on the subject.

I’ve always wanted to photograph in Alaska and, unlike just about everyone I know who has traveled there, my primary interest wasn’t cruising the Inner Passage.  While that has always sounded, at some level, like a good trip, my goal has been to visit the interior of Alaska, beginning–but by no means ending–with Denali National Park.  So that was the focus.

Boreal Forest Trail Black & White, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Before I go any further, I was contacted some months ago by the folks at Mighty Goods–a website dedicated to independent reviews of bags–luggage, backpacks, gear bags, etc.  I, along with 15 other outdoor photographers, was asked to summarize my experiences traveling with my gear.  Since I’m discussing a photo trip–which makes all of the issues involving transporting necessary equipment and apparel by plane and then carrying gear in the field in extremely remote locales relevant–the topic is timely.  Along with the experiences of others, this makes for an interesting article, and I encourage you to check it out.

A Change of Pace

First of all, this wasn’t a solo trip.  While I’ve photographed with others before, it’s a clear exception to the rule.  For instance, I was on my own for the entirety of all three photo trips I took last year:  Florida, California and Colorado.  On this trip to Alaska–during which I was on the ground for 12 days–I was with others for the duration.  It’s the first time I’ve been with others for anywhere near this amount of time.

Last Light, Denali National Park, Alaska

My photographic companions in Alaska were Ellen Kinsel and Debbie Hicks.  I first met Ellen on a photo tour during my first trip to the Canadian Rockies in 2014.  We hit it off and discovered that, in addition to photography, we had a number of things in common (e.g. we’re both graduates of the University of Michigan, we’re both baseball fans, etc.).  When I decided to return to the Canadian Rockies in the fall of 2015, I wanted to hike the Larch Valley Trail in Banff National Park.  By decree of Parks Canada, autumn Larch Valley Trail hikes require parties of at least four people (due to bear activity in the area), so Ellen–who lives in southeast British Columbia–volunteered to join and, in an effort to help us reach our goal of at least four, invited a friend along.  That was Debbie.  We ended up photographing together for the first four days that I was in the Canadian Rockies in September of 2015.

Foggy Wetland, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

That experience had been a good one.  One of the reasons I usually don’t photograph with others, particularly when on an extended, dedicated photo trip, is that very few people like to photograph at a pace commensurate with mine.  As a refresher, I tend to use every available minute of daylight (and then some, on occasion).  I don’t ordinarily eat normal meals on these trips and, in any event, I schedule sustenance around photography, not the other way around.  I also do a lot of hiking when on site.  And when I reach a shooting destination that intrigues me, I tend to work slowly–often very slowly.  This combination of things doesn’t suit most other people, and understandably so, and, thus I tend to travel and photograph solo.  The tour that included Ellen and myself as participants had mimicked my modus operandi pretty closely and the fact that Ellen had appeared to thrive on it made me think that we’d be compatible in the field.  Given that she knew how I work and still invited Debbie along in 2015 implied–or, at least, I inferred–that there would be few problems during our time together.  This, in fact, proved to be the case.  Both Ellen and Debbie appeared just as dedicated to the same set of priorities I had during our few days together in the Canadian Rockies in 2015.

So, when Ellen contacted me in the late winter of 2016-2017 to ask if I would be interested in joining her and Debbie on a trip to Alaska in 2018, I wasn’t worried about photographic compatibility.  There were some other concerns, but that wasn’t one of them.  And, in fact, our time in Alaska would prove that the lack of concern on this front was entirely justified.

Fish Creek Black & White, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Aurora Fuhgetaboutitis, a.k.a. The Northern Frights

The initial contact about an Alaska trip centered around an aurora borealis itinerary.  Yes, you read that correctly.  There are aurora-based photo tours in Alaska and that was the original notion behind the trip.  The peak time for aurora viewing in Alaska is during a period from roughly mid-February until early April.  And the most popular location for such tours is north of Fairbanks, in the midst of the Brooks Mountain Range.  The timing is a function of two key factors relevant to aurora viewing:  a period of strong solar activity (late winter/early spring in the Northern Hemisphere) and a time of the year when the skies are typically clear.

Sounds great, right?  There’s only one problem:  cold weather.  Bone-chilling cold weather, in fact.  When we were first considering whether to do this, I was sent a sample itinerary with some suggestions about what to expect.  It included a suggestion to plan for temperatures that could reach -30 F.  It probably wouldn’t get that cold, I was told.  But it might.  And -20 F was to be expected.  Remember, photographing the aurora means being out at night; you can’t see the Northern Lights if it’s not dark.  And clear.  And what happens on clear winter nights?  The mercury drops.  We’re talking about a location north of the Arctic Circle, mind you.

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

I gave this some serious consideration.  Was I really prepared to be out in that kind of cold, night after night?  (Have I mentioned that I don’t like cold weather?  I mean, I’ve put up with it all my life, but I definitely don’t like it.)  I’ve never been out in -30 F weather; and I’ve never willingly been out in weather anywhere near that cold.  And never for hours at a time, regardless of will.  Would my equipment even function in that kind of weather?  What’s more, did I really want to go to the considerable trouble and expense of going to Alaska at that time of year?  It was a good time to be up there for aurora viewing, but it wasn’t a particularly good time, I felt, to be up there for much of anything else I’d want to photograph.

Fall Color, Yukon River Crossing, Dalton Highway, Alaska

In light of all of this, I suggested that perhaps we should consider a different itinerary (and an entirely different time of year).  Ellen jumped on this and suggested that perhaps we should think about going up during fall in central/northern Alaska–basically, the end of August or beginning of September.  That sounded much more appealing to me.  It would mean much less favorable opportunities for seeing the Northern Lights–which would be unfortunate–but every other aspect of this alternative would be better.  We’d be able to access Denali National Park and the Denali Highway, for instance–both of which are closed during winter.  And the Brooks Range would be more accessible too.  We’d–hopefully–get to see the tundra in all of its autumn glory.  And we wouldn’t be freezing our behinds off.

This turned out to be a pretty easy sell and, before long, we were in agreement that we’d shoot for the Alaskan Fall of 2018–roughly a year-and-a-half away.

Forest Floor Intimate, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

Stepping Back from Planning

We more or less settled on a late summer (i.e. late August/early September) 2018 time frame for the trip in the spring of 2017.   It was during a time when I was wrapping up post-processing work on my Florida images and getting ready for a two-week trip to California in May.  And then I had a long-scheduled trip to Colorado for which I needed to wrap up scheduling and planning.  In the meantime, we decided that some kind of an itinerary for the Alaska trip was a necessity.  Despite the fact that it was so far in the future, we needed to make some commitments to ensure availability in certain instances.  I didn’t have the time necessary to give this the attention I would have liked, so I pretty much punted responsibility to Ellen, who is one of this planet’s great planners.

Ellen kept me very much in the loop and I did weigh in, but she did virtually–if not literally–all of the research.  The results were impeccable.  I wouldn’t willingly turn these responsibilities over to just anyone, but I never regretted, for a minute, letting Ellen make the call as I knew she’d give every subject more than its due diligence.

Conifers and Reflections, Horseshoe Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

Debbie had her own set of time limitations and essentially let Ellen–with some input from me–make all of the decisions.  This became kind of a running joke during the trip.  “Where are we going?” Debbie asked, on more than one occasion when we were already on site.  “Alaska,” I dead-panned.  As Ellen tells the story, she’d (Ellen) send me an e-mail with a series of trip topics and options that she was working on and she and I would have these lengthy exchanges discussing, weighing and prioritizing possibilities.  Debbie’s response–on those occasions when there was a response at all:  “Whatever.”  In fairness, after turning the decision making over, Debbie never–not once–complained about anything on the itinerary.  She’d ask where we were going on a given day, we’d tell her…then we’d tell her again, after she asked a second time (there were all these distractions, you see) and that’s what we’d do.  No complaints, no problems.

Dietrich River, Dalton Highway, Alaska

The Elephant in the Room

I’ll deal with this head on.  So, I’m sure at least some of you are thinking, what’s with an adult male traveling for the better part of two weeks with two women?  Two women he’s not related to in any way, I might add.  This may be “unusual,” but there’s really nothing to it.  I mean that both literally and figuratively.  We’re simply three people with a common interest and a platonic compatibility both in and out of the field.  It really is that simple.  And since, justifiably, none of our spouses are concerned about this (yes, we’re all married and I–at 17 years of marriage and counting–have been married for the shortest length of time of the three of us), I guess no one else should be either.

(R to L) Debbie, Ellen and I take in the majesty of The Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska


So, that’s the logistical background to this trip, from its origins to its denouement.  Next time I’ll touch on an always popular (heh) topic:  the reminders I got on this trip of the importance of tripods to landscape photography.  I apologize in advance for my didacticism.

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 10, 2018

Alaska: An Introduction

On Wednesday of last week I returned to the Midwest after nearly two weeks in Alaska.  Virtually everyone I know who has visited Alaska has spent most–if not all–of their time cruising the Inside Passage of the state’s southeast peninsula.  While it sounds like a great trip, it doesn’t sound like a particularly good opportunity for photography–at least as it pertains to the type of photography I like to engage in.  I have always wanted to spend time in Alaska’s vast interior and that’s what I did on this trip.

The trip’s itinerary involved flying in and out of Fairbanks–the second largest community in Alaska (behind the much, much larger Anchorage)–and then spending parts of six days based near the entrance of Denali National Park, roughly 140 miles south of Fairbanks.  Then, parts of five days would be spent far to the north, based in the tiny community of Wiseman, just off the Dalton Highway in the midst of the Brooks Mountain Range, approximately 270 miles north of Fairbanks.

The map below should help provide some geographic orientation.  (It will help if you magnify your screen.)

The pin marker represents Fairbanks.  The words in red represent some key points.  Near the top of the screen is the word “northernmost,” which represents roughly marks the farthest north as made it on this trip–essentially where the Brooks Range gives way to the southernmost edge of the Arctic coastal plain.  “Wiseman” shows the location of my base camp during the second part of the trip.  “Carlo Creek” is the approximate location of base camp during the first part of the trip; “Denali Hwy” shows the location of the (mostly unpaved) road that runs between the tiny communities of Cantwell and Paxson.  (I spent most of a day on this road.)  And “Denali State Park” shows, roughly, how far south I made it on the trip.

For those of you interested, here are some approximate driving distances between these points and a few other points of interest:

  • Fairbanks to Denali NP entrance:  130 miles
  • Denali NP entrance to Carlo Creek:  15 miles
  • Carlo Creek to Cantwell (western terminus of Denali Highway):  20 miles
  • Cantwell to northern boundary of Denali State Park:  42 miles
  • Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle:  198 miles
  • Arctic Circle to Wiseman:  72 miles
  • Wiseman to nothernmost point of trip:  125 miles
  • southernmost point to northernmost point:  650 miles

The images accompanying this post should give you a taste of what I saw–and, obviously, photographed–on the trip.  I’ll add a bit of commentary to provide some context and begin the process of fleshing out what the experience was like.  I will have a great deal more to say–both in general and in terms of specifics–in future entries.  The post-processing of all the images has only begun and will take many weeks to complete, so there will be plenty of material for the forthcoming series.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Dall Sheep, Atigun Pass, Brooks Range, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Tundra Swans, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

The sandhill crane migration was in full swing on the first full day of the trip at a wildlife refuge on the northern edge of Fairbanks.  There was a lot of wandering around through on-and-off rain, but the cranes were relatively cooperative and I managed a few passable images.  This was the first wildlife I saw on the trip but it wouldn’t be the last.  I ultimately spotted roughly two dozen species of mammals and birds, though getting decent photographs of most of them ranged from difficult to impossible.  As I’ve said many times, I’m no wildlife photographer.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first day in the Denali area was an incredibly event-filled one, as I will undoubtedly document later.  One of those events was the first and, as it turned out, only display of the Northern Lights during the trip.  I’d never seen the aurora borealis before, let alone photographed this phenomenon, but let’s just say it was one of the most memorable events I’ve ever experienced.

The Mountain Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

Apparently roughly 80% of visitors to Denali National Park leave without ever seeing the Mountain.  Guess I was lucky; I saw it multiple times, including during my closest proximity to the peak–the Eielson Visitors Center.

Braided River Abstract Black & White, Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska

Mountain Crevice, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Atigun Pass Abstract Black & White, Brooks Range, Dalton Highway, Alaska

There were countless opportunities to photograph abstracts on this trip, from braided rivers viewed from high points at Denali to snow-covered mountainsides above the tree line in the Brooks Range and everything in between.

Savage River at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska

It seemed as though the number of rivers and creeks that served as photogenic subjects was infinite, surpassed only by the compositional options they afforded.

Alaska Range from Unnamed Ridge, Denali Borough, Alaska

On the same evening as the aurora event, I had the opportunity to photograph–in beautiful light–from a location that ordinarily would have been unreachable.  That experience will be detailed in a later entry.

Alaska Range from the Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Autumn Fireweed, Eielson Area, Denali National Park, Alaska

Fall Color, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Fall color was, by all accounts, late in central and northern Alaska this year.  But while that meant that color opportunities in and around Denali National Park were limited, by the last few days of the time I spent in the Brooks Range, the trees and tundra were essentially at peak.

Ferns and Birch Trunks, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

Birch Trunks, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

Some of the subject matter I encountered really surprised me, given the location.  “I never would have guessed that was Alaska,” sums up the remarks of many of the people who have seen these images prior to my posting them on this blog.

Evening Sky, Horseshoe Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

Brooks Range, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Wetland Tunnel, Denali Highway, Denali Borough, Alaska

Brooks Range, Dalton Highway, Alaska

While I always try to let locations “speak for themselves” when I photograph, inevitably a bit of myself seems to leak into the images.  Hopefully that isn’t a bad thing.

Sunset Sky, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

More next time.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 27, 2018


I type this entry from just outside Denali National Park in Alaska.  I arrived in Fairbanks, via Chicago and Seattle, late Thursday night and, after spending a day in the Fairbanks area, decamped to Denali on Saturday.  Details of the trip will be provided in entries posted in the forthcoming weeks, but since I don’t take the time to do any image processing when I’m on the road I won’t be able to post any photos until I return to the Chicago are on September 5.

In the meantime…talk among yourselves.

Having never been to Alaksa until this trip, I contrast the visual experiences here with those from the location most familiar to me for photography–the Morton Arboretum in DuPage County, Illinois.  So, for your (hopefully) visual pleasure, I present a few images from the arboretum.  “See” you in September, with details from the Last Frontier.

Bluebells Intimate, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Oaks and Maples, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

“Shadowland” black & white; Morton Arboretum, Illinois

Redbud Meadow, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

A Celebration of Color, Morton Arboretum, Du Page Country, Illinois


Posted by: kerryl29 | August 20, 2018

Leave No Trace

[Please forgive the absence of imagery accompanying this post; given the nature of the subject matter, inclusion of photographs of the type I ordinarily post on this blog would be unwarranted.]

Followers of this blog know of my concerns regarding overuse of public lands.  I most recently–and directly–addressed this subject approximately one year ago in the context of the overcrowding I experienced at Yosemite National Park.  While that missive focused directly on Yosemite, the stated problem is more widespread.  Much more widespread.

It’s depressing how frequently I see the effects of human presence at natural areas, be they national parks, state parks, preserves or any other designated land open to the public.  Graffiti, erosion, the effect of “trail cutting,” garbage…you name it.  At some level, I suppose, this is to be expected.  The increased visitation–in some instances, dramatic increases–logically means more of something that was never truly absent in the first place.  I suppose the kind of degradation we’re seeing is inevitable…

Or is it?

This sort of thing is only inescapable if the vast majority of us–those who truly care about natural places and the native plants and animals that inhabit them–acquiesce in their degradation.  Outdoor photographers–that includes me and a great many of the people who read this blog–depend on the preservation of natural areas.  And “preservation” means far more than technically bequeathing some kind of protective status on a locale.  Substantively, “preservation” means actually retaining the appearance and character of a place and, by extension, that means taking (or refraining from) action on the ground.  And, let’s face it; if people like us, who routinely claim–implicitly and explicitly–to be concerned about the stewardship of the land don’t set a positive example, why should we expect anyone else to do so?  Emphasis on the word “positive” in the previous sentence is not applied gratuitously; I suspect that all of us have seen photographers in the field set the kind of example that we claim to condemn.

The first direction must be:  do no harm.  It frankly shouldn’t be that difficult to follow a leave no trace principle.  Refrain from leaving designated areas.  Avoid trampling on vegetation.  Leave nothing behind that wasn’t in place when you arrived.  In essence, when you leave a location, a subsequent visitor shouldn’t be able to tell you were ever there in the first place.  If everyone follows this dictum we’re all going to be in much better shape.

In accord with this line of thinking, I offer below a verbatim copy of an Outdoor Photographer’s 10 Commandments, as articulated by well-known photographer Michael Gordon:

The Outdoor Photographers Ten Commandments

1. I don’t own this planet or this particular landscape. I’m a visitor here and my needs and wants are secondary to its primary inhabitants. I’m thankful that I get to share this space with them.

2. I will step around or over EVERY plant I encounter, no matter whether dead or alive.

3. If a plant, boulder, or other natural object is in my composition – no matter what – I will recompose instead of altering or damaging the landscape.

4. I will avoid herd mentality and behavior. I will do my very best to not travel in photographic packs, but when I do, I will be very mindful of my steps and actions as well as those of my fellow photographers.

5. I will not covet the photographs or locations of other photographers. I understand that popularity has led to the ecological decline of many ‘hot spots’ and that great photographs can be found just about anywhere.

6. If I specialize in night photography, I will make sure that I have adequate daylight preparation or proper nighttime illumination so as not trample or destroy ANY vegetation anywhere around me.

7. I will never take anything, leave anything, or alter anything in the pursuit of my photographs.

8. If I can’t make the image I desire without breaching these commandments, I will walk away empty handed.

9. I will educate my fellow photographers and students (if you teach/lead workshops) about the critical importance of field ethics.

10. In the existential scheme of things, me and my photographs just don’t matter. It’s never worth abusing plants or a landscape to make an insignificant photograph.

This all represents an excellent start, entirely consistent as it is with the “do no harm” principle.  If everyone–including but not limited to–photographers followed these edicts, we’d been in good shape.  But, of course, not everyone’s going to do so.

I think it’s now incumbent upon those of us who are concerned with the degradation of natural areas to take another step to ensure their survival.  When we see someone doing something destructive, we should take action.  A great deal of the disintegration that we see is a product of simple ignorance, and in those instances some gentle informing–avoiding a didactic lecture–is probably all people need to hear.  You can’t behave properly, after all, if you don’t know you’re misbehaving in the first place.

Willful destruction and misbehavior is another matter.  People who are purposefully engaged in harming natural areas and their inhabitants need to be identified and reported to the appropriate authorities.  If we really care about these places we need to make clear that people who are deliberately ruining them will pay a price.  With any luck at all, the recognition that there are consequences for destructive behavior will deter those inclined to engage in such activities.

There’s no time to lose.  Our natural areas are being stressed like never before.  If we don’t act–directly and indirectly–to truly preserve these places, indelible damage will be done.  Like so many other things in this world, the worst reactions are complacency and despondency.  We can’t simply rely on overworked, understaffed, underfinanced official agencies to carry out a preservation mission.  And we absolutely must not give in to a sense of inevitable decline.  Those of us who care about these places have it in our power to effect the outcome we want to see; all we need is the knowledge of what needs to be done, the commitment to act and the perseverance to see the job through.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 13, 2018

Favorite Trails for Photography Part III

In case you missed the first two installments, they can be found at these links:

Favorite Trails for Photography Part I

Favorite Trails for Photography Part II

Part I includes a brief description of the motivation for this series as well as a description of the criteria for inclusion.

On to Part III…

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

On the western part of the Olympic Peninsula, not far from the town of Forks, Washington, lies the Hoh Rainforest, one of the largest stands of temperate rainforest in North America.  The trees are a mix of coniferous and deciduous species, including some huge specimens of spruce and hemlock.  It’s called a rainforest for a reason; the area averages nearly 130 inches of precipitation a year, with approximately 2/3 of that amount falling between November and March.  (The months of June, July and August are the driest times, averaging 9-10 inches of rain over the three-month period per annum.)

Many, if not all, of the tree trunks and branches throughout the forest are coated with a type of hanging moss, which is what gives this particular trail its name.  The Hall of Mosses Trail is a loop of a bit less than a mile and is very easily traversed; the trail is broad in most places and there’s very little elevation gain.  But there’s almost endless subject mater for photography.  The challenge in this area is defining order out of chaos, as there are are few places I’ve ever been that are more chaotic looking at first glance than the Hoh Rainforest.

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

But if you spend some time really looking, compositions will start to reveal themselves.  It may be helpful to hike this easy loop trail more than once.  I did it four times in the same day (twice in each direction) and every time I did so I discovered numerous compelling perspectives that I’d missed during previous sessions.

Regardless, the Hoh’s unique, haunting character is not to be missed.  I recall feeling as though an Ent would reveal itself to me at any given moment.

Tree Arch, Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

Lakeshore-North Country Trail (Hurricane River to Au Sable Point), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Au Sable Point at Sunset, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The Lakeshore-North Country Trail runs for miles along the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  My focus is on a 1-1/2-mile segment that lies in the midst of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, east of the town of Munising.  The end of this hike leads to the lighthouse grounds at Au Sable Point, home of the Au Sable Light Station.  It’s a fine destination indeed, as the lighthouse itself is highly photogenic, be it from the beach just west of the tower or from up on the bluff where the lighthouse is surrounded by a series of handsome brick outbuildings.

But there’s more to the subjects along the trail than just the lighthouse.  The beach, from the hike’s beginning at the Hurricane River estuary all the way to Au Sable Point is well worth the time it takes to explore it.  The remains of three shipwrecks are visible–conditions permitting (basically, calm conditions on Superior)–at various spots along the way.  The estuary (and locations a bit upriver from the estuary itself) is worth some time…particularly if the conditions on Superior aren’t calm…and the thick forest that lies immediately to the south of the trail can yield some interesting intimate images.

Au Sable Point Light black & white, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The trail itself–three miles round-trip–is extremely easy.  This is an old Coast Guard service road–now used by the National Park Service to supply the Lighthouse (which is used as a visitors center and open for touring during the warm weather months)–so it’s wide, graded and flat.  Hikes don’t get much easier than this.  There are numerous spots along the way that allow the hiker to descend to the beach–which you’ll need to do if you want to check out the shipwrecks.  In fact, if Superior isn’t churning, you can make the entire jaunt on the beach if you like.  The going will be slower this way but the immediate sights are arguably more compelling.

Even if you stay on the main trail all the way to Au Sable Point, a staircase down to the beach is accessible at that spot, and you should certainly take advantage of the opportunity.  In addition to interesting views of the lighthouse there are numerous colorful beach stones that are worth checking out.  (Word of warning:  if you visit this area in the late spring/summer or in the fall before the first frost, prepare to deal with bat-sized mosquitoes and black flies.)

Hurricane River Estuary, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Some links to posts covering this trail:



Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Autumn Overlook, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

This approximately 7-mile loop is among the most photography-rich trails I’ve ever hiked.  I spent a good ten hours on it in one day in the fall of 2017.  The variety here is remarkable.  If you want broad vistas, you’ve got ’em.  Forest or meadow intimates?  Check.  Close-ups of bark, leaves, ferns, lichen, the forest floor more broadly?  It’s covered.  If you run out of compelling subjects on the Dark Canyon Loop Trail, you’re not looking very hard.

The trailhead is located near the high point of Kebler Pass in the Gunnison National Forest, along Gunnison County Road 12 west of Crested Butte.  The loop trail consists of segments of other trails so it’s well worth purchasing a forest service trail map so that you know where you’re going.  And, note that there’s plenty of elevation change throughout the hike–lots of up and down, though none of it is all that steep (though it may seem that way by the time you’re on the back end).  I hiked the loop in a clockwise direction but you can do it either way.  Do note that the trail can get quite muddy in spots if there’s been any recent precipitation.

Aspen Trunks, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

In some respects, this hike reminds me of the Opabin Circuit Trail (featured in Part I of this series); there’s a lot of effort involved but the essentially endless gob-smacking scenery makes it undeniably worth it.  And the variety of options makes it likely that you’ll want a variety of focal lengths with you.  On both trails, I used every lens in my bag…and might well have used my macro lens, had I brought it with me.  But the relative strain of the hike itself should make one pause about how much to weigh yourself down.  For many, if not most, photographers, a single lens in the 24-105 or 24-120 range will cover a clear majority of your desires.

Marcellina Mountain, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Some links to posts covering this trail:


Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia State Park, New Hampshire

The trail is roughly a 2 1/2 mile out-and-back (five miles total) excursion, but the best opportunities for waterfalls and rapids on Cascade Brook lie in the first 1.2 miles or so, making it about a 2 1/2 mile round trip if you hike as far as Rocky Glen Falls.  The first half mile of the trail–which takes you as far from the trail head as The Basin is easy.  From that point on it gets significantly more difficult, less because of elevation change (it’s about 500 feet over more than a mile), and more because of the frequency with which protruding rocks and tree roots on the trail become an issue.  There’s also a stream crossing that must be made about halfway from the trailhead to Rocky Glen Falls.  How difficult that will be depends a great deal on the water flow of Cascade Brook; it wasn’t a particularly difficult rock hopping exercise when I was there in early October, 2016.

The Basin, Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia State Park, New Hampshire

Including The Basin, there are three named waterfalls along this trail and countless unnamed, but wonderful, cascades.  In short, there are many, many good photo opportunities.  It’s best to visit on a cloudy day to take advantage of the even light.

I wouldn’t describe this trail as a great fall color location, due to the high volume of coniferous growth in the forest bordering Cascade Brook, but the creek/waterfall opportunities are terrific on their own and I would guess that in the mid-spring (i.e. May), when the water flow is at its height, the brook may well be at its best.  Ordinarily I’d recommend wading footwear, given the stream crossing, but given the nature of the trail itself, good hiking footwear is a must.

Rocky Glen Falls, Basin-Cascades Trail, Franconia State Park, New Hampshire

Some links to posts covering this trail:



Banff Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

An informal–but visible–trail meanders for several miles from its head near the Banff airstrip through a series of meadows and terminates near a pumping station that serves the town of Banff.  Along the way the hiker is treated to an enchanting landscape filled with clumps of aspens and occasional conifers.  One of the best aspects of this trail is that, despite it’s proximity to the hustle and bustle of Banff, it’s virtually unknown.  I spent several hours in this area one day without encountering a single person.  I love these meadows filled with aspen groves, so I can’t get enough of places like this.

Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

The trail itself couldn’t be simpler.  There’s no elevation gain to speak of and there are virtually no impediments to the hiker.  There are ample opportunities for grand landscape imagery at this location and plenty of different perspectives are simply waiting to be discovered.  This is an outstanding place to spend a morning or afternoon/evening.

Airstrip Meadow, Banff National Park, Alberta

Some links to posts covering this trail:


Blackbird Knob Trail, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Blackbird Knob Trail, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

I hiked this as a slightly more than three-mile round trip, though the trail goes considerably farther than that–about five miles one-way, I believe.  The section of trail I hiked was in pretty good shape considering that it had been raining (and snowing) fairly steadily for days.  After a mile or so the trail crosses Alder Run which can usually be crossed without getting wet and 1.6 miles brings the hiker to Red Creek.  Crossing the creek often requires wading which was something I wasn’t prepared to do; this is why I made Red Creek my turn around spot.  I saw only two other people during my time on the trail (a weekday in early October in less than pristine weather).

Red Creek, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Dolly Sods is a unique environment and this trail provides access to many of the ecosystems that make it so.  You’ll see rock-filled meadows, forests, bogs and creeks.  (Continue beyond Red Creek all the way to Blackbird Knob and you’ll be treated to some remarkable vistas as well.)  With this kind of variety you can imagine how broad the photographic opportunities are.  The trailhead is only about two miles south of the Bear Rocks overlook on Fire Road 75.  (Warning:  the road, from either direction, up to Dolly Sods is–or was, on the multiple occasions I’ve been there–truly awful.  Vehicles without all-terrain tires are highly susceptible to flats.  Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Regardless, this is a beautiful area, and if you can catch it under the right conditions it’s a spectacular location for photography.  I’ve been up to Dolly Sods four different times and in good weather it was absolutely spectacular.

Blackbird Knob Trail, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pink Canyon is what amounts to an unofficial “trail” at Valley of Fire.  The “trailhead” is an unremarkable looking dry wash, but after rounding a bend or two you’ll find yourself at the mouth of a slot canyon of almost indescribable beauty.  This is one of the most promising areas for abstract and semi-abstract photography that I’ve ever seen anywhere.  The entire hike is no more than a half mile one-way and it’s quite easy.  The key, in my view, is catching the scene in even light.  Cloudy days are rare in southern Nevada, so photographing in Pink Canyon is best done at the very beginning or very end of the day.  Depending on the time of the year you probably have an hour or so after sunrise before the sun encroaches on wide shots.  With a diffuser and a bit of poking around, tight abstracts may be viable for longer stretches of time in targeted open shade.

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

While the broad outlines of this location are static over time, the specific elements change every time the canyon floods.  And, take warning–you don’t want to be anywhere near this location on the rare occasions when the floodwaters are surging.  I’ve been witness to a seemingly innocuous dry wash turn, in minutes, into a life-threatening raging torrent; it’s a truly frightening spectacle.  The vast majority of time, however, flooding isn’t a concern.  Valley of Fire is very hot (most of the time) and very dry (almost all of the time), so prepare accordingly.

This is a location to keep one’s eyes peeled for unusual, evocative elements and compositions.  I relied pretty much exclusively on focal lengths from extremely wide to short telephoto, but your mileage may vary.  Regardless of field of view, wherever one looks in Pink Canyon the pastel colored striations predominate; there are endless opportunities to render them.

Pink Canyon Abstract, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Some links to posts covering this trail:


Posted by: kerryl29 | August 6, 2018

Favorite Trails for Photography, Part II

If you missed the first installment of this series of photo-worthy trails–which includes the criteria for inclusion as well as a set of five of my favorites–you can check it out here.  A general entry about hiking and photography, which led to the current series of posts, is here.

Here’s a second, unordered, list of some of my favorite trails for photography:

Cascade Stream Gorge Trail, Franklin County, Maine

Cascade Stream Trail, Franklin County, Maine

This short (about a mile and a half) out-and-back trail is a hidden gem.  Located just a few miles south of the small town of Rangeley on ME-4 in sparsely populated northwest Maine, the trail leads into a deep (90-foot) gorge cut by Cascade Stream that’s filled with waterfalls and chutes on a tract of land protected by the Rangelely Lakes Heritage Trust–a local conservation organization.

The trail itself steadily climbs along the edge of the gorge, but isn’t exceptionally steep and there are numerous spots where the various cascades can be viewed and photographed, including several spots where–with care–it’s possible to descend all the way down to water level.  There are no rails and fences, so caution is advised.

If you can take your eyes off the stream you’ll find yourself wandering through a beautiful mixed deciduous/coniferous forest that includes several stands of towering pines.

Cascade Stream Trail, Franklin County, Maine

The trail is rarely crowded.  I explored this trail twice–first as a scouting session and on a second occasion to photograph–over the course of several days and had the place all to myself on both occasions (the second of which lasted for several hours).  While there are more spectacular environs on this list, it’s the subtle beauty and quiescence of the Cascade Stream Gorge Trail that gives it a space on this list.

Cascade Stream Trail, Franklin County, Maine

Some links to posts covering this trail:


Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

This isn’t a trail, per se; the Heart of the Dunes–a trackless area where one can wander contentedly for hours–is essentially the absence of a trail.  White Sands National Monument is the single most graphic landscape I’ve ever seen–whatever lies in second place isn’t even particularly close.  With towering, snow white sand dunes–formed from gypsum–in a stark setting surrounded by low mountains, there’s really no place quite like it on earth.  The Heart of the Dunes describes a trail-less area in the center of all this.

“The Cavity,” Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

While the area is overwhelmingly stark there are some pattern interruption elements upon which to focus–the occasional yucca or cottonwood tree, for instance.  And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find an inexplicable feature like the cavity–or depression in the sand–as represented in the image above.  While I reject the notion that there are no worthy images to be made at White Sands outside of 30-minute windows around sunrise and sunset (as I had someone tell me once), there’s no question that those periods, generally speaking, are the best times to photograph.  So park your vehicle on the packed sand roadway and hike out into the dunes to find photographic bliss.

Earthshadow, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Some links to posts covering this trail:


Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Located roughly 4 1/2 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitors Center on the Newfound Gap Road, the Chimneys Picnic Area is the jumping off point for the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, among the best spring wildflower locations in the Smokies.  (And that’s saying something because the Smokies represents one of the great spring wildflower locations in North America.)  The trail–a bit more than a 3/4 mile loop–can be steep in places and muddy after rainy weather, but the opportunities to photograph wildflower close-ups and “flowerscapes” are well worth the effort.

Spring Wildflowers, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

There are some wonderful trillium clusters–white, nodding and yellow–at the peak of the wildflower bloom (usually the second half of April), and the variety of flowers, combined with the compellingly hilly terrain, fallen longs and fresh spring greenery make for a fascinating photographic tapestry.  Be sure to take your macro lens along and aim for a cloudy day as the thickly forested setting is best rendered in even light.

White Trillium, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Damnation Creek Trail/Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Of the redwood groves I’ve visited in five different parks in northern California my favorite is the area along the Pacific Ocean in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park near Crescent City.  If you follow the Redwood Highway south of Crescent City for about 10 miles you’ll reach a parking area on the west side of the road with room for 15 vehicles or so.  This is the trailhead for the Damnation Creek Trail.  This trail descends irregularly for about 2/3 of a mile to the west until it reaches a junction with the Coastal Trail which extends–mostly with little elevation change–for more than a mile in either direction (i.e. north or south).  The Damnation Creek Trail then descends–steeply–for another 1.3 miles or so all the way to a narrow, rocky beach.  (From beginning to end over the entirety of its two miles, the Damnation Creek Trail includes 1100 feet of elevation change; approximately 850 feet of that comes in the 1.3 mile second segment, west of the Coastal Trail.)

The entire Damnation Creek Trail–both the parts east and west of the Coastal Trail–are absolutely beautiful.  The path winds through magnificent groves of redwoods, lush understory and, for a few weeks in the spring (usually late May to early June), magnificent blooming Pacific rhododendron.  On days when fog is wafting through the groves, this area is especially magical.

Rhododendrons and Redwoods in Fog, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

The Coastal Trail, for more than half a mile in either direction of its confluence with the Damnation Creek Trail, is every bit as beautiful.  This track–which follows the roadbed of the old coast highway (you can occasionally see segments of the old asphalt with the road lining still visible) winds through its own set of redwood trunks and its flatness is a welcome reprieve from the steepness of the Damnation Creek Trail.

I doubt these trails are ever that crowded.  I’ve hiked the area on the morning of a holiday weekend and it was never all that bad.  At early times on non-holiday weekdays you can have the place more or less entirely to yourself for hours.  This is one of my very favorite places not only to photograph but simply to be.

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Some links to posts covering this trail:



Falls Trail, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Water Meet, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

The Y-shaped Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen State Park in northeast Pennsylvania is one of the greatest photographic “bang for the buck” locations I’ve ever experienced, particularly if you like waterfalls and cascades.  With more than 20 named waterfalls and countless smaller rapids, if moving water is your thing you’ll be in heaven.  The trail can be done as a loop of more than seven miles; there’s a considerable amount of up and down.  Coupled with photography, it’s essentially a full day’s endeavor.

Seneca Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

The upper left-hand part of the Y shape is known as Ganoga Glen and the creek along this stretch of the trail contains 10 named waterfalls.  The upper right-hand of the Y–known as Glen Leigh–has eight waterfalls.  The confluence of the two creeks is known as Water Meet.  Kitchen Creek–the joined waterway below the confluence–has three more named waterfalls.  Most, if not all, of these falls include numerous compositional options; don’t ignore the numerous unnamed spots along the streams, including Water Meet itself.

The park is open all year.  Best time for water flow is in the spring or following heavy rain at any time of the year and the scenery can be brilliant in autumn in a good fall color year.  The trail is quite steep in places and the footing can be challenging in spots, so take care.

Tuscarora Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Some links to posts covering this trail:



Next time:  more favorite photography trails

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 30, 2018

Favorite Trails for Photography, Part I

A few months ago, I posted an entry entitled Hiking and Photography.  That post, in which I made the case for going to the trouble of hiking to enable one’s photography despite the…well, trouble of doing so, has received a lot of traffic since it went live in March.  As a follow up I decided to produce a series of posts outlining some of my favorite “photographic trails.”

What this Is and What it Isn’t

This isn’t meant to represent a be-all, end-all list, even for me personally.  These are just some of my favorites; there are undoubtedly great trails I haven’t yet experienced.  There are certainly others that I have hiked that I think are good but won’t be included for one reason or another.  And I should add that the focus is on trails that have a lot of photo opportunities along the way, as opposed to trails one takes primarily or exclusively to reach a great photo destination (e.g. hiking to an overlook or a waterfall or a beach, etc.).  Perhaps that could represent a future series.  Hmmm…

That covers the rough, informal criteria for the list–which, not incidentally, is presented in no particular order.  This is not a comparative ranking of photo hikes–merely a presentation of some of my favorites.  In my opinion, all of these trails are conducive to exceptional photography under appropriate conditions.  So, without further adieu…

Trail of Ten Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

South Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

A long loop trail that can be done in a single hike or in segments, the Trail of Ten Falls, located in Silver Falls State Park (about 40 minutes east of Salem, Oregon) is just under nine miles for the entire circuit.  In addition to the waterfalls–surprise, there are ten of them–there are numerous cascades on Silver Creek that are photogenic, in addition to moss-draped broad-tooth maple trees and numerous wildflowers (in spring and summer) that will capture your attention.  And, given the winding nature of the trails, most of the waterfalls have numerous perspectives you can explore without violating park guidelines to stay on the trails.

It’s possible to walk behind three or four of these waterfalls, which adds to the compositional possibilities, and there are at least a few photogenic bridges (not to mention stone walls and wooden fences) that can be effectively utilized in some of your images.

Lower South Falls Black & White, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

The park sees a fair amount of traffic, but if you can time your visit for a weekday not during the summer months, and particularly if you can get out early and/or stay late, you shouldn’t run into serious problems with crowds.  I’d recommend visiting in the spring (pick a cloudy day, regardless of season), when all the waterfalls are typically flowing nicely, the trees have leafed out and the wildflowers are plentiful.

Some links to posts covering this trail:



Lower North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Auxier Ridge Trail, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Auxier Ridge Sunset, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

There are a plethora of interesting trails in and around the Red River Gorge and the nearby Natural Bridge State Park in eastern Kentucky, but the Auxier Ridge Trail, within the confines of the Daniel Boone National Forest, is my favorite.  I hiked this trail at least four separate times during the week I spent in the area a number of years ago and even when I didn’t have my photo gear with me I enjoyed the experience.

While it can be turned into a loop by intersecting with other trails, the Auxier Ridge Trail itself is about a 4 1/2 mile out and back.  There are some really impressive views from numerous spots along the trail–including sightings of several natural arches.  The trail also winds through some interesting mixed forest settings along the way.

Forest Floor, Auxier Ridge Trail, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

There’s a fair amount of up and down on this trail, but none of it is particularly difficult.  Best times are in the spring–I’d say mid- to late April is ideal–and in the fall (late October).  There are a number of spots that work well as sunrise and/or sunset locations as good views can be had in all directions at various spots along the trail, but be sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp if you plan to photograph under those circumstances.

Ridge Lines, Auxier Ridge Trail, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

Rainbow Falls, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

The Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park is a paved route of about 1 1/4 miles (2 1/2 miles out and back), featuring 800 concrete steps that provide some phenomenal views of 19 waterfalls and countless cascades that tumble through the deep, narrow crevice.  Because of the ice that forms in the winter months and the rarity of sunlight penetrating the gorge at that time of the year the trail is only accessible from mid-May until early November.

The trail is very popular; even on weekdays in the non-summer months that the Gorge Trail is accessible the place is teeming with people during the “usual” tourist hours.  But since the scenes effectively demand even light for photography, you don’t want to be there in the middle of the day anyway.  Get there at (or slightly before) first light and you will blissfully have the place to yourself–ideal for getting the perfect perspective.  Getting those ideal spots is next to impossible when it’s crowded so the only point to visiting at or near the middle of the day is for scouting purposes.

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

A tripod is a must; it always is, but it’s especially a must, if that makes any sense, given the subject matter (moving water) and the inherently long shutter speeds given how dark it is in the gorge at the edges of the day.

Be prepared to get a bit damp as you clear Rainbow Falls.  And if you have to go on a blue sky day, with a bit of luck (and planning) you may be able to experience (and photograph) the ethereal glow that reflected sunlight can emit to the stone walls–natural and man made.  Regardless, this is a location not to be missed.

Minnehaha Falls and Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

Some links to posts covering this trail:



Opabin Circuit Trail, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Hungabee Lake Outlet Stream, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Among the most beautiful places I’ve ever set my eyes on, the Opabin Plateau, hundreds of feet above the valley that contains Lake O’Hara, can be explored via the Opabin Circuit Trail, which begins on the shores of the aforementioned lake before steeply climbing to the plateau itself.  I’ve described this hike at great length in a piece posted several years ago and rather than repeat myself I’ll simply direct you there.  Suffice to say that, if you get good weather and can work within the access limitations, the Opabin Circuit should be near the top of any landscape photographer’s wish list.  If you can time your visit during the period during the back half of September when the larches turn gold you’ll have all the elements for an unforgettable experience.

Mary Lake and Cathedral Mountain from the West Opabin Trail, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

The Opabin Circuit itself is (roughly) a five-mile loop, most of which isn’t strenuous but the parts that are can be challenging if you aren’t in good shape.  It’s also worth noting that there’s essentially no shelter of any kind along the trail so if the weather turns bad–and, believe me, it does so frequently–you have to be prepared to absorb whatever Mother Nature throws at you.  It’s also worth noting that there are so many side routes worth exploring once atop the Opabin Plateau that you’re going to end up hiking a lot more than five miles, though you’ll be so entranced you probably won’t notice….much.

Suffice to say, I don’t believe I have ever photographed along any trail, before or since, as much as I did on the Opabin Circuit.

Hungabee Lake and Cathedral Mountain, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Some links to posts covering this trail:





Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

This isn’t a trail in the conventional sense because the “trail” is really the river bed.  The length of this “trail” is variable, depending on conditions and how much you want to do.  I did about a 5-mile out and back, turning around when the sun was playing havoc with my photography opportunities and when the water level (I was there in May, when the river is deep and rushing) threatened to reach shoulder height.

But the experience of hiking the Narrows is like nothing I’ve ever had before or since.  Since I was there when the winter melt off was doing its thing, most of the hike was in water up to (or slightly above) waist level.  At later times of the year–summer into fall–there’s much less water to deal with, which is better for hiking, certainly, but probably isn’t nearly as photogenic.

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Visitation levels at Zion have exploded in the last few years and this is among the most popular hikes in the park, so I’m not sure what to tell anyone about best times other than to get there as early as possible–you absolutely must be on the first bus up canyon–and to avoid weekends (and the summer in general) like the plague.  Hiking the Narrows in the spring, as I did, is both rewarding and challenging but you have to be prepared to deal with the current and the fact that you’re going to experience water levels at least up to your waist.  There are definite advantages to going at this time of the year, but there are problems that must be overcome as well (dry bags, anyone?).

In any case, if the opportunity presents itself to do this hike when the Narrows isn’t inundated with zillions of people, by all means do so.

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Some links to posts covering this trail:



I’ll present another installment of my favorite photo trails next time.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 23, 2018

Sleeping Bear Dunes: Forests & Wetlands

As I noted in my initial Sleeping Bear Dunes post, one of the best facets of photographing at the park is the variety of subject matter.  Forested areas make up a distinct, significant ecosystem and during our few days there in June we spent a significant amount of time amidst the trees.

Red Pine Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I’ve noted my affinity for photographing in deep forest settings before, so it should come as no surprise that I was happy to do so up at Sleeping Bear.  We explored several impressive stands of red pine–some of which were clearly managed forests at one time, given the unnatural symmetry of the trunks.

Red Pine Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

These kinds of settings were classic examples of pattern and pattern interruption, phenomena that I’m always on the lookout for when photographing in the woods.

Red Pine Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

One of the most interesting of these red pine locations had a compelling mix of ferns scattered on the forest floor.  Some of the ferns made nice isolated foreground subjects…

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

…while in other spots, extensive layers of ferns formed intrinsic parts of patterned compositions.

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Fern Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The forest floor itself can often be an interesting subject and the pine forests of Sleeping Bear certainly filled the bill.

Forest Floor Intimate, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Forest Floor Intimate, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Other close-up opportunities were abundant as well.

Mushroom Closeup Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

As I mentioned in the Sleeping Bear Dunes intro post, one of the most interesting spots we visited on the trip was Lasso Road, an unpaved two-track that forms a loop (a “lasso”) to and from the main highway.  This thick, natural forest was fascinating and we caught the ferns in perfect condition.  Our first stop was near a series of wetlands on the first half of the loop and, braving the mosquitoes, I scurried down a hillside to make some images of a small bog on the south side of the road.

Lasso Road Bog, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Lasso Road Bog Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Not far from this spot was a larger wetland, filled with subtly teased compositions just waiting to be explored.

Lasso Road Wetland, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Lasso Road Wetland, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

There were few spots to stop on the far side of the loop, but the forested setting along this part of the road was simply too beautiful to overlook.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The even, overcast light, with colors fully saturated by a light rain that was falling produced an enchanted forest effect.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

These delicate fern fronds will blow with even the slightest breeze and even though it was nearly dead calm, that wasn’t good enough.  All of the fern forest images you see above (and immediately below) required a focus stacking approach, ranging from three to six frames to establish front to back sharpness.  Fortunately, patience was rewarded by lengthy lulls.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Lasso Road, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

BuildingsBeaches and dunes.  Forests.  I know I just scratched the surface at Sleeping Bear.  I look forward to further explorations.

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