Posted by: kerryl29 | March 7, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Jones Mill Run Dam

in 2010, I made an autumn photo trip that included a few days each in northern West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio. The conditions for the trip were, overall, quite poor. Fall color across virtually the entire eastern half of North America was subpar that year, due to a prolonged summer drought. What color there was–and there wasn’t much–came early in 2010 and what I repeatedly encountered was mostly bare trees, dried leaves on the ground and very little water flowing through most creeks, streams and rivers. Some perennial waterfalls were nearly completely dry.

Among the places I visited on the trip was Laurel Hill State Park, not far from Somerset, Pennsylvania. Of all the locations I attended that fall, the conditions at Laurel Hill were probably the worst. At least 90% of the leaves were down by the time I got there. The leaves on the ground were mostly dried up and crunchy. As I meandered around the nearly empty park of almost 4000 acres, I could see the potential if the conditions were good but…they weren’t. It was a mostly cloudy, chilly day when I was there and I really had to push myself to find anything inspiring to photograph.

I had been told that there was an interesting dam in the park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and late in the afternoon, after a mostly unproductive day, I decided to go in search of it. I had a trail map and headed off, with the understanding that it was a bit more than a 1.5 mile one-way hike. The trail itself was buried under copious leaf fall in the dense hardwood forest and after awhile I realized that I must have gone well past a mile and a half. The dam was supposed to be accessed via a short spur from the main trail and I clearly had missed it amongst all the clutter. So, I doubled back, increasingly discouraged, as the light began to wane.

As I trudged back in the direction of the trailhead I was beginning to conclude that I would never even see this dam, let alone photograph it, when I thought I heard the sound of running water. I was making a lot of noise as I trampled through the thick carpet of dried leaves and might easily have missed the flowing water sounds on the way in but now I stopped and listened carefully. There was no question about it, somewhere off to my right, there was moving water. I headed in that direction, taking time to stop and listen and the watery sound grew louder, to the point where I could even hear it over my leaf-cushioned footfalls.

In a matter of a few minutes the dam came into view. A magnificent stony structure, resembling benches in an amphitheater, it was bathed in fallen leaves, with the water tumbling over the steps in faux waterfall fashion. At a wetter time of year–or in a wetter year, period–the falls undoubtedly would have flown over the entire dam, but with levels so low, the flowing water was almost entirely limited to a pair of channels near the middle of the construct, with little dribbles of moisture flowing here and there closer to the edges.

I just stood there for a few moments, admiring this enchanting scene and then, remembering the failing light, I got to work. Despite the fall color of the fallen leaves, the dark stone surface and the white water immediately made me think “black & white” and I converted the image to monochrome during post processing. It became one of my favorite images of the trip, in one of the most unlikely places. (To see a color rendition of this image, go here. A larger version of the black & white image below can be viewed here.)

Jones Mill Run Dam Black & White, Laurel Hill State Park, Pennsylvania
Posted by: kerryl29 | February 28, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 8 (Part II): Aurora Borealis

When I left off my tale of Day 8 of last year’s Alaska trip, we had hiked back from the glacial ice cave and said good-bye to Steven Miley. It was still the better part of three hours until sunset, but we had a fair amount of distance to cover. We had roughly 40 miles to travel on the Richardson Highway to get to Paxson, a speck of a town that is at the junction of the Richardson and Denali Highways. Once we reached the junction, we had 42 more miles to travel on the Denali Highway to reach the Maclaren River, which is where our lodging was located. The Denali Highway is paved for 21 miles on its west end and is gravel for the next 111 miles as Cantwell, the tiny town on the highway’s eastern terminus, is approached.

Since we expected to stop to photograph whenever the moment suited us on the drive to the Maclaren River, we fully anticipated that it would be dark by the time we arrived at our destination. We were correct.

We stopped at a roadside pullout when we reached the Rainbow Ridge area of the Richardson Highway and I produced an image, even though I wasn’t particularly happy with it.

Rainbow Ridge, Richardson Highway, Alaska

We moved on, with the road climbing as we approached Paxson, clearing the tree line in the process. We skirted the shores of the large Summit Lake and ultimately reached points along the road endowed with smaller bodies of water. The light, at this point, was very nice and improving by the minute, the wind had dropped to nothing and the sky was compelling; we took advantage of the scenery and the conditions by stopping on several occasions.

Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections Black & White, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska
Mountain Reflections, Richardson Highway, Alaska

When we reached Paxson, it was no more than 45 minutes until sunset. We made a right turn onto to the Denali Highway and began the drive toward the Maclaren River. After about 15 miles, with the light now exquisite and the sky splashed with color all around us, I suggested to Ellen that we find a place to pull off, pronto. I spotted a gravel drive to our right–north of the highway–and pulled into it. From here–back above the treeline–we had views approaching 360 degrees. Tundra, at the very peak of fall color, sprawled around us for miles. The Alaska Range loomed to our north. It was time to go to work.

Alaska Range Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

I found myself going back and forth to opposite sides of the gravel drive as the sky lit up in all directions.

Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

We were on a hillside. In one direction, we were looking out over a vast tundra-strewn plain. In the opposite direction, we were staring uphill at a fiery sky. I couldn’t make up my mind which side to focus on so I centered on neither…or both, depending upon your point of view.

Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska
Sunset, Denali Highway, Alaska

When the light faded, we packed up and prepared to move on. We still had at least a 30-minute drive to reach the Maclaren River.

As expected, it was dark when we arrived at the Maclaren River. We checked into our lodgings (there aren’t many places to stay on the Denali Highway–only two or three over a distance of 135 miles).

One of the last things that Steven had mentioned to us when we parted company several hours earlier was a reminder: tonight was forecast to have an excellent opportunity for aurora viewing where we would be. It was supposed to be mostly clear and the likelihood of aurora activity was high. We had kept this in mind when we drove to the Maclaren River; had we made it in daylight we were hoping to be able to scout a location with a nearby pond or small lake so that we’d have the opportunity to photograph reflections of any aurora activity but, as I mentioned, it was dark well before we arrived, so that was out.

The best aurora action was expected to be around 2 AM, as is typically the case at that time of year. It needs to be as dark as possible for good aurora viewing and ambient light tends to linger at these far north latitudes for an hour or so after sunset. In the past, on both this trip and the one back in 2018, when conditions were reportedly viable for aurora viewing, we had tended to employ a strategy of going to sleep and then setting an alarm, getting up periodically during the night to check for sky action. This had proven…how shall I put this…wildly unsuccessful. So with this evening shaping up to be very possibly our best opportunity on the entire trip to photograph an aurora event, I suggested to Ellen that we simply attempt to stay up and check the sky regularly. That was readily agreed to.

One thing that we did every evening on the trip was to download images to our computers (we each had a laptop with us) and then rename files based on location. Ellen took copious location notes throughout the day so we got together each night and collaborated on image location identification. We did this, as usual, this night after checking in.

After we completed the exercise, it was about 11:30 PM, still well shy of expected prime aurora viewing time. We had adjoining cabins in the complex we were staying at and had been doing our file naming in Ellen’s cabin. After we finished, I said I was going back to my cabin to take a quick shower and we could reconnoiter after I was done–perhaps actually head out and find a location and wait for the aurora, hopefully, to make an appearance. On my way out the door I looked up at the sky–it was clear. Innumerable stars were visible in the sky, almost completely devoid of light pollution. “Looks good,” I said, and then closed the door behind me.

I had just finished getting dressed after showering when I heard a knock at the door. It was Ellen. “It’s started!” she said. I quickly put my shoes on, stuck my head out and looked to the north. Sure enough, I could see greenish streaks in the sky. We were going to have an aurora event! Now we just had to get ourselves in a position to photograph it.

Hoping to find something with a particularly compelling foreground, we got in the car and drove west–covering a part of the Denali Highway we hadn’t traversed earlier. We hoped we’d come across a pond alongside the road. But after about five minutes, we couldn’t see much of anything–not even a clear view of the northern sky. It was too dark to be certain why, but we assumed that there was thick vegetation on the side of the road blocking our view. After another few minutes I stopped the car and suggested that we head back to the Maclaren River. Worst case, I figured, we’d be able to photograph from the bridge spanning the river; at least we’d have a clear view to the north and, maybe, we’d be able to squeeze some reflections out of the water, even if it was moving.

We drove back to the river and I crossed the bridge, parking the car at a pullout on the far side. We were, at this point, maybe 1000 feet from our rooms at the lodge. We had our headlamps, to help deal with the overwhelming darkness where we were, though we used them as little as possible to avoid compromising our night vision. There was no one around–we quite literally never saw another soul that night even though there were other people staying at the lodge and despite the fact that a campground, with a number of vehicles, was no farther away from our shooting positions than our lodge rooms.

Before we had ever set foot out of the lodge–actually, before I’d even gone in the shower–I’d gone through the process of getting my gear ready, based on my previous experience with aurora photography. I attached my Sigma 24-35/f2 lens on one of my Z7ii bodies, via the FTZ adapter. I pre-focused the lens to infinity. I made sure that the aperture was set at f/2. I raised the ISO to 800, as a starting point. When we got into the field, I firmly attached my camera, via the L-bracket, to the tripod head and made sure the head was level using the leveling base after setting up on the bridge. The bulk of the action was right in front of us, unsurprisingly facing north. Given our position, the 24-35 mm focal range was just about perfect; I certainly didn’t want to go any wider and found that 35 mm was a perfectly fine long length for the scene. I took a test shot, and tweaked the shutter speed; 3 seconds was a perfectly reasonable base at that point (though this would change as the aurora brightened and dimmed).

I then assisted Ellen who was understandably a bit concerned about the possibility of a rerun of the quasi-tragic events of three years prior. We both wanted to be absolutely certain that nothing like that would happen again. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t; there were no equipment malfunctions.) Ellen was shooting with a 2.8 maximum aperture lens so I converted my metered exposure baseline with that in mind and suggested she dial in adjusted settings as a starting point, and then we made sure her focus was properly set to obtain sharp images. At that point we began to photograph in earnest.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The aurora experience on this evening felt very different than the 2018 aurora show we viewed in Denali National Park. I think the 2018 aurora was a better viewing experience than the 2021 event. The 2018 aurora was awe-inspiring; it was all over the sky, in every direction we looked, including directly over our heads, and was dancing constantly. It was an unforgettable visual. By comparison, this aurora was much less exciting; it was concentrated in the northern sky, with some action moving to the northeast and east as the night moved along, and it did much less dancing, more or less staying in place for fairly long stretches of time. But what made the 2021 experience less of a visual experience made it a far better photographic event. It was much, much easier to compose the frame, make aesthetic and technical tweaks, and still get essentially the same image that presented itself when the decision was made to trip the shutter. And because this aurora was so much slower moving, longer exposures were a much more viable option than they had been in 2018, which helped us keep the ISO down. (I never needed to raise my ISO setting above 800 and about half the images I captured were at 400. It helped to be able to photograph at f/2; f/1.4 or 1.2 would have been even better, but I’m not complaining.) Having even the narrow zoom versatility provided by the 24-35 mm focal range was very helpful as well.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we started photographing, the aurora was still getting organized, so to speak. Its patterns were less distinct than they would eventually become. The sky wasn’t completely clear, as you can see from the images; there were some light clouds near the northern horizon, and I actually think that adds a bit of dimension and atmosphere to the images. Clouds, eventually, became an even bigger factor, as you’ll see.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

Before the moon rose (and before the cloud cover became a bit more prominent), the sky was sufficiently dark that many constellations–including, quite prominently, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper)–were quite distinct, both to the naked eye and the camera’s sensors. In one image, I subsequently discovered, I caught a meteor.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

The aurora on this evening was overwhelmingly green, though we did see fringing of purple and red on the margins. It was chilly, but not super-cold during the time we were out–and that was about 2 1/2 hours all told. The temperature was probably in the upper 30s F, but, fortunately, there was no wind to speak of and we were properly attired.

Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

When the moon rose in the east, I couldn’t forego the opportunity to capture the other-worldly scene that resulted. The aurora was much weaker, naturally, but the cloud line and reflecting aurora and moonlight off the formation produced a unique effect.

Aurora Borealis Moonrise, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Aurora Borealis Moonrise, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska

After more than two hours, the aurora faded and, in relatively short order, disappeared almost completely. The show was over; it was nearly 3 AM, and though we were tired, the adrenaline that accompanied the excitement of the event–excitement I could clearly recall as I typed this narrative–kept us going. The first thing I did when I returned to my room was download my images.

The extremely late night meant that we would get a relatively late start the next day, but I think we both felt that the tradeoff was well worth it.

Posted by: kerryl29 | February 21, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Alaska Range from Donnelly Lake, Richardson Highway, Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

Donnelly Lake Trail, Richardson Highway, Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

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

Ice Cave Black & White, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

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

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

Omitting such elements produces a more purely abstract image.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice Cave, Canwell Glacier, Alaska

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

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

Miller Creek, Canwell Glacier Moraine, Alaska

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

Note: By the time this posts, weather permitting, I will be several days into an eight(ish) day photo trip to the desert southwest. Itinerary is a bit sketchy since it’s based in part on any impact weather might have on travel, success or failure in obtaining permits to certain tracts of public land and, to a certain extent, whim. Regardless, Internet access is expected to vary between unreliable and non-existent for the duration of the trip, so if I’m less responsive than usual you’ll know why. I should up and running again by Valentine’s Day.

Note, Part II (Feb.13): This was supposed to be published on February 7, via WordPress’ autopublish feature. I have no idea why that didn’t happen as directed. The “publish” dialogue displays that a publish time/date of 8 AM CDT on Feb. 7. Obviously that didn’t happen so we’ll try again for Feb. 14.

In the fall of 2017, I spent two weeks in New England, moving from northwest Maine to northeast Vermont to east-central New Hampshire. It was a great trip and I produced many memorable images along the way. On the final day of the trip, prior to starting the drive back to the Midwest, I spent some time on a relentlessly cloudy day photographing along the eastern part of the Kancamagus Highway. Following a minor late afternoon mishap (a poor decision to attempt to jump onto a rock in a creek led to a hiking boot full of water) I decided to call it a day. I was tired, there was no more than an hour of daylight left and there was no sign of a sunset. But as I was driving back to my lodgings, I noticed in the rearview mirror a line of clearing on the western horizon.  There just might be a sunset after all, I thought.  And then again, there might not.  But by the time I reached the junction with NH-16–where  a left turn would take me back to North Conway (where I was staying), I could see that there might really be a decent shot at a sunset.

As I drove north on NH-16 I saw, on the other side of the road, a kind of unofficial pullout that looked like an interesting overlook facing west.  There were already a bunch of people there watching the sun as it sank toward the mountains.  There was no way that I could cross the road to see for myself–too much traffic on this relatively high speed road–but I decided at this point, wet foot be damned, that I was going to try to head to an overlook I’d found north of North Conway that I’d identified a few days earlier as a possible sunset location.  It was an “official” overlook; a paved pullout with a small roadside park (I later found out that it’s called the Intervale Scenic Vista…and I subsequently discovered that the view isn’t all that phenomenal…but I didn’t know that at the time).  So I drove into North Conway and hit the downtown area–probably two or three miles from my destination…and hit one of the worst traffic jams I’ve seen in a long time.  I mean, the traffic was at a dead stop and went on for I don’t know how long; I could see at least a half-mile in front of me and there was a line of cars heading into oblivion.  The jam was northbound only, but that was the direction I wanted to go.  Meanwhile, the sky to the west was getting nicer and nicer…and after about five minutes of sitting I realized that I had no shot at getting to that overlook north of town before dark.  So, I made a U-turn in the hopes of getting to the “unofficial” overlook I’d caught a glimpse of on the way into town.  I had no idea if I’d get there in time and I had no idea if it was photo-worthy…but I knew that Plan A was cooked and I’d better implement a Plan B immediately, even if I was unsure of its potential.

So, I got back to the unofficial overlook–which was on my side of the road this time as I was now headed south–as quickly as possible.  It probably took about five minutes though it seemed like 10-15.  And when I arrived there were at least three times as many people there as I’d seen the first time–an indication that I might be on to something.  Cars were clogging up the traffic lane.  Seeing this, I parked in an empty spot along the side of the road at least 500 feet shy of where the “action” was and grabbed my equipment, doing my best to ignore my extremely wet, extremely cold foot.

When the scene came into view, I knew I’d made the right–make that the lucky–call.  It was beautiful and the sky was just about set to explode into one of the ten or so most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.  The place was crawling with people, some of whom had their phones out trying to capture what was unfolding in front of them.  There was one other photographer there with a tripod already set up.  He saw me coming, looking for a place to set up, and in a moment of true magnanimity, waved me toward himself and created enough room for me to squeeze in with my gear.  I thanked him profusely, got out my camera with the 24-70 mm lens attached and quickly went about metering the scene and fine tuning the composition.

I quickly decided that there were two ways to capture the scene.  Colorful trees lay in the immediate foreground on a slope below us.  The Sacco River made a wide bend in the mid-ground.  And the White Mountains–fronted by a layer of mist–and an incredible sky lay in the background.  The only question was whether to point the camera so the river was to the left-hand side of the composition or the right-hand side.  I quickly decided to play with both options.  Multiple exposures would be necessary–the dynamic range was off the charts–so I hastily established a five-frame/one-stop apart bracketing set and waited for the light.  I captured a mess of sequences of both compositions, and I’ve included one of each below.  Both essentially represent the sky at the height of its display.  We were looking just about due west so the shot that had the river bend on the right-hand side–which caused me to face southwest–included a more dynamic sky than the other option which was facing either directly west or even west-by-northwest.  I’m still not at all certain that I don’t like the second shot best, but it remains an open question.  Regardless, it was by far the most impressive sunrise/sunset I’d seen on the entire trip.  In fact, as I noted above, it was one of the better sunsets I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

White Mountains National Forest Sunset, Carroll County, New Hampshire
White Mountains National Forest Sunset, Carroll County, New Hampshire

Eventually–it took a long, long time–the sky show faded and it grew dark.  Most of the crowd had left by that time and my benefactor (turned out he was from Madison, Wisconsin, just a couple of hours from the Chicago area) and I said goodbye (he was off to Maine the next morning) after chatting for a few minutes.  My foot was freezing at this point, but I hardly cared.  Had I ever gotten lucky.  Without the stupid calamity with the rock in the creek I probably wouldn’t have headed back early to North Conway and without the traffic jam I would never have returned to this spot.  In fact, without having headed back early, I never would have even known that such a spot existed.  I’d been on that stretch of road several times earlier but it was always in the pitch dark–either long before sunrise or long after sunset.

But sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Posted by: kerryl29 | January 31, 2022

Alaska Revisited Day 7: Transitions

Day 7 of the Alaska trip was a transitional one, as we moved from the Brooks Range and the Dalton Highway more broadly toward our much anticipated time on the Denali Highway. In between, we had a couple of days to spend on the Richardson Highway, on the south side of the Alaska Range. We had to be at our lodgings on the Mclaren River–more than 40 miles west on the Denali Highway from its eastern terminus in Paxson–by the evening of Day 8. Day 7 involved a leisurely ride from Fairbanks to Delta Junction–only about a two-hour ride on the Richardson Highway–to the B&B we were staying at that evening.

Before we left Fairbanks we had some errands to run, which included getting the car washed (it was covered in mud following our time on the mostly unpaved and seemingly always wet Dalton Highway) and replenishing our food stocks. We also needed to fill up the gas tank. It was a cloudy morning and since we weren’t in a massive hurry we took our time. By late morning we were on our way, covering a route that we hadn’t traversed on the 2018 trip.

Partial clearing kicked in about an hour into the drive and we spent some time poking around at a few of the park-like public lands that dotted the highway as we moved along. We also stopped a couple of times to investigate some viewpoints along the Delta River, which we paralleled for some time once we were well into the drive.

The only spot where we took the time to make images was a roadside that is part of the Birch Lake State Recreation Area. In addition to restroom facilities and a picnic area there was shoreline access to Birch Lake itself. There was basically no wind, which made for glass-like reflections on the broad lake. The partial clearing mentioned above produced some interesting clouds.

Birch Lake Reflections, Birch Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska
Birch Lake Reflections, Birch Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska
Birch Lake, Birch Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska

These were fairly minimalist images–the first two above in particular–with limited color, and I recall thinking at the time that it would be interesting to see how they looked when converted to black and white.

Birch Lake Reflections Black & White, Birch Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska
Birch Lake Reflections Black & White, Birch Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska

While we were at Birch Lake, some mallards stopped by. The images I made of them were produced with the 24-70 mm lens.

Mallard, Birch Lake, Birch Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska
Mallard, Birch Lake, Birch Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska

After poking around at a variety of spots along the highway, we eventually made it to the Garden B&B in Delta Junction late in the afternoon. It had turned into a very pleasant day: partly cloudy, temperature in the low 60s (F) and almost no wind. Driving onto the property was quite an experience as we came face to face with a remarkable garden (hence the name of the place). Central Alaska was just about the last place I expected to see anything like this. When we checked in we asked if we could photograph the garden a bit and were told that we could do whatever we liked, including visiting the large greenhouse. I hadn’t anticipated doing any floral photography on this trip, but the opportunity was too good–and too easily accessible–to pass up.

Petunias, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Daisies, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Assorted Flowers, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Pansies, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Petunias, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Fern Closeup, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Fern Closeup Black & White, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Fern Closeup Black & White, Garden B&B, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska

It was early evening by the time we finished up at the garden and we decided to spend the couple of hours of remaining daylight heading south on the Richardson Highway, in the direction of the Alaska Range, to see what we could find. The mountains, fronted by the Delta River Valley, came into view about 30 minutes down the road and we drove around a bit to find the best viewpoint. We discovered a pullout near a bend at a high point on the road facing the north side of the range. The scene, we concluded pretty quickly, was probably best suited for morning, but we weren’t going to do any better without driving all the way around to the other side of the mountains; there was no way to do that before dark, so we decided to wait it out at this spot to see what would develop.

Alaska Range at Sunset, Richardson Highway, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Alaska Range at Sunset, Richardson Highway, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Alaska Range at Sunset, Richardson Highway, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Alaska Range at Sunset Panorama, Richardson Highway, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Alaska Range at Sunset Panorama, Richardson Highway, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Alaska Range at Sunset, Richardson Highway, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska

As we started to make the drive back to Delta Junction in the dark we had an interesting encounter with a doe and fawn who were basically standing in the middle of the road. This is a high speed road, and we were in a winding, hilly area. I saw the deer well before we got close to them and stopped, probably 150 feet or so short of their position, smack in in the center of the highway. I put my flashers on, hoping that if the deer didn’t move soon, that any oncoming vehicle would see my lights and slow down. That is in fact what happened; a vehicle coming the other direction did stop in time to avoid the deer, who ultimately appeared to get the message and, after a minute or two, made their way off the road, into the brush to safety.

We were to complete the transition to the Denali Highway the next day, but the bulk of the daylight hours were to be spent with local photo guide Stephen Miley. Though we didn’t know for certain until the morning of Day 8, the better part of the day was to be spent exploring a glacial ice cave.

Posted by: kerryl29 | January 24, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 6: South on the Dalton Highway

Day 5 was our last full day in the Brooks Range. Our itinerary called for our return to Fairbanks on Day 6, but when we established that itinerary many months earlier, we had deliberately built in enough time to be able to make our return as leisurely as we liked. On our previous Alaska trip, three years earlier, our drive back to Fairbanks at the end of our time in the Brooks Range was constricted, by errands we had to run before the end of that day and a ridiculously early flight home the following morning. As a result, we hadn’t been able to stop anywhere near as often as we liked as we drove south on the Dalton Highway. This time would be different, and it would pay dividends.

I had noted on the drive north, on Day 2 of the trip, that there was every reason to believe that fall color along the southern half of the highway, which was already decent, would be at or very near peak by the time we were ready to return. Would that be realized? You be the judge.

It was cloudy for the entirety of the return trip, but wind was mercifully very light, temperatures were in the mid-40s (F) for most of the day and rain was limited to an occasional very light sprinkle. Our first stop came before we had been driving for 30 minutes. The color at this location was simply too nice to ignore.

Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

The highway at this spot was on a down slope, but still raised above the adjacent landscape, which allowed for a bit of an overlook perspective, as you can see in the images above. But it was possible to climb down an embankment, without much difficulty, and obtain an entirely different point of view.

Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Fall Color Intimate, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Our next stop was astride the bridge where the highway crossed the South Fork of the Koyukuk River. We had scouted this location a bit during our explorations on Day 4.

South Fork Koyokuk River, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Foggy Mountain Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Further south, as we approached Grayling Lake, I spotted a moose out in the water and we hastened to a pull-out that doubled as a boat launch and hauled out our telephoto lenses to photograph the cooperative moose.

Moose and Ducks, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose Environmental, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We pulled off the road again when we reached the point where the Kanuti River flows under the highway. We’d stopped here on the drive up, four days earlier, and had marked the spot on our GPS unit. On this day, the weather was sufficiently cooperative to encourage a fairly thorough photographic exploration.

Kanuti River, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Kanuti River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

A broad, open meadow, dotted with spruce saplings amidst the colorful foliage of the tundra vegetation, lay just north of the river on the east side of the highway and, after photographing the river facing both east and west, I hastened to the meadow.

Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Only five miles or so farther down the road, we reached Finger Mountain, and hastened to take advantage of the (somewhat) more forgiving weather conditions than that which had thwarted our photography after such a promising start on Day 2.

We spent a pretty fair amount of time at Finger Mountain–this time on the west side of the highway. My focus here was on the intimate, if not close-up, perspective.

Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

The color at this location–at a high point on the highway–had been very nice four days earlier. It seemed no less intense, or compelling, to us now.

Fall Color and Lichen Closeup, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Bearberry and Club Moss Intimate, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Fall Color and Lichen Closeup, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Club Moss Intimate, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Bearberry Intimate, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

The Finger Mountain experience was one that was a direct result of our decision to give ourselves extra time on the drive south. We knew that we had literally all day–approximately 16 hours of daylight (since the one thing we didn’t want to do was drive on the Dalton Highway in the dark)–to make it back to Livengood, the southern terminus of the highway. We couldn’t imagine that we’d take it all (and we didn’t), but we’d given ourselves the freedom to, virtually, forget about the clock, and that has innumerable physical and psychological benefits when it comes to photographing. Our time at Finger Mountain was a textbook illustration of that principle.

We had one more location along the Dalton Highway that merited a lengthy stop. Well, two locations, actually, but they were close enough together (less than one mile apart) that we have tended to think of them as one. We had stumbled across this spot on the return to Fairbanks three years earlier. This time, Ellen and I made sure to keep a look out on the Day 2 drive north so that we could mark the location and check it out on the southward return. When it came into view on the drive north, we immediately recognized the scene, even though it was almost entirely green. On this day, once we left Finger Mountain, we punched the waypoint into the GPS so there would be no chance of missing it. But, about a mile before we got there, we found another scene–on both sides of the road–that was almost as nice. Maybe it was as nice. Either way, we stopped and had a good long look, before pulling out the cameras and trying to do it justice and then, after a lengthy shoot, we moved the mile or so south and photographed the location we’d been looking for originally. These two nearby, but distinct, locations are now known collectively (at least to Ellen and myself) simply as “The Spot.”

The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

“The Spot” has become one of my all-time favorite photo locations.

The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
The Spot, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We spent quite a bit of time at “The Spot,” obviously, and it appeared for some time as though it would be the last photo location of the day. But after we reached the southern end of the Dalton Highway, we still had about a 90-minute drive on the Elliott Highway east to Fairbanks. It was early evening by now and when we reached Olnes Pond, we spotted two more moose. It was a moose cow and her calf and, though they were pretty far away with no apparent inclination to move any closer, we had one last photo opportunity.

Moose Cow and Calf, Olnes Pond, Lower Chatanikia State Recreation Site;, Alaska
Moose Cow and Calf, Olnes Pond, Lower Chatanikia State Recreation Site;, Alaska
Moose Cow, Olnes Pond, Lower Chatanikia State Recreation Site;, Alaska

The Brooks Range portion of our trip had come to an end, but there was still much to come. As we prepared to make an unrushed transition in the direction of the Denali Highway, we had a couple of days in the Delta Junction area, just north of the Alaska Range, to look forward to.

Posted by: kerryl29 | January 17, 2022

Art for Art’s Sake

Last Friday, I viewed Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, better known by the slightly less formal title “Immersive Van Gogh,” at an art space on Chicago’s Near Northside. Did I find it worthwhile? Let me put it this way: it made me think, so, yes, I found it worthwhile. I’m not going to review the exhibition; the irony that would result were I to do so will become clear presently. (All I’ll say about the exhibit here is that it was a work of art in and of itself that featured…works of art.) Instead, I’m going to share some of the thoughts the exhibit provoked; hopefully this will come across with a degree of coherence, but in case it doesn’t, you’ve been forewarned.

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Here’s an image:

Polo Beach at Sunset, Maui, Hawaii

Do you like it? Dislike it? Is it good? Is it bad? And does the answer to the first pair of questions predetermine your answer to the second set?

My opinion–and, tellingly, that’s all it is: my opinion–is that these are two very different sets of questions and that the second set, in fact, is essentially misplaced. I’ve touched on this, if somewhat elliptically, before on this blog: the inherent subjectivity of art. Conflating one’s opinion (i.e. like/dislike) with innate quality (good/bad), this line of thinking goes, is a mistake. It implies the objectivity of opinion, which is taking a trip through the looking glass. And to be clear, I don’t think this is merely a matter of semantics.

Where a clear consensus exists that an objective standard of quality is extant, a declaration of good or bad (or some other spot on the continuum) has transitory meaning, if indeed it has any meaning at all. Outside of that setting, such a declaration is an issuance of opinion–nothing more. It may be an informed opinion; it may be an opinion supported by foundational reasoning. But it is an opinion nonetheless, and in the end, the only thing objective about an opinion is the definition of the word itself.

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There’s a widely held belief that Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime. This is a myth, but that doesn’t mean that he was a commercial success. Hardly. Were it not for the ongoing financial assistance of his brother Theo, it’s unlikely that Vincent Van Gogh would have been able to pursue his art full-time for the 11 years that he did so. By any reasonable financial measure, during his artistic lifetime, Van Gogh was a failure.

And yet, this undeniably financially unsuccessful painter is now widely regarded as one of the most consequential artists in the history of Western civilization. In fact, he has been so regarded beginning a decade or two after his death in 1890 at the age of 38. Much of Van Gogh’s work, today, is ostensibly priceless.

Now, there are many reasons why this grandiose change of fortune may have taken place. Perhaps, had Van Gogh not committed suicide, he would have ultimately achieved financial success during his lifetime and still be regarded as one of the art world’s giants today. There were, after all, contemporaries of Van Gogh who were financially successful during their lives and are still regarded as among the greats today–Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas. Van Gogh might have been another name on this list. Perhaps.

But there were also, undoubtedly, artists who were commercially successful contemporaries of Van Gogh whose names have been lost to history. (I’d cite a few but…their names have been lost to history, so…)

The reasons why someone might end up on the No Longer Consequential List while others–like Van Gogh and Monet and the others–are regarded as titans to this very day are myriad, and someone much more learned in the pastime of artistic critique than I could–and probably would–be able to cite a number of purportedly undeniable reasons why this is so. But it’s my contention that, in the end, what it boils down to is a matter of opinion. That Artist A produced work that some group of influential people better liked or were more moved by or better fascinated or [fill in your preferred term connoting something subjective here] than Artist B…whatever that means, I’m persuaded that what it doesn’t necessarily mean is that Artist A produced objectively better art than Artist B.

If you think that the above constitutes a sneaky means for me to express my opinion of the work of Van Gogh (or Monet or anyone else, for that matter), you would be incorrect. That is not what I am doing, please believe me. I’m simply saying that opinions are opinions; they are, by definition, subjective. And in the end, we conflate opinion with truism at our peril.

P.S. I found the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit extremely interesting, well beyond the manner in which it made me think about the subjects ruminated upon above. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

Posted by: kerryl29 | January 10, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 5: Mostly Marion Creek

One thing that Ellen and I had decided we definitely wanted to do while in the Brooks Range was revisit the Marion Creek Falls Trail. We’d navigated the trail on the final full day in the Brooks Range in 2018 and, as Day 5 was to be our last full day this time around, we would have to replicate 2018’s itinerary or miss out.

The weather would dictate how we handled the trip to the trail. Overcast and dry, ideally with little or no wind, would be optimal, but what we got in the morning was essentially a rerun of Day 4: some low-hanging mist with sun bleeding through. As a result, we made our way up the Dalton Highway to the north (the Marion Creek Falls trailhead–which emanates from a campground–was located about 10 miles to the south of Wiseman).

When, from the road, I saw what was going on with the backlit low-hanging mist to the east, I pulled into the entrance of an old, repurposed gravel pit. This was not the same pit we had visited the previous day; that site was still active. We had photographed from this spot, under very different conditions, three years earlier, and had scouted this location on our first full day in the Brooks Range this time around. Now it was time to leverage that scouting experience, so that’s what we did.

I didn’t hesitate for a moment to pull out the telephoto lens.

Brooks Range Morning, Dalton Highway, Alaska
Brooks Range, Black & White, Dalton Highway, Alaska

From this location, we meandered north, to a spot where the highway runs right alongside an extended, open stretch of the Dietrich River. We had looked this spot over on Day 3, on the drive up to Atigun Pass. This time we were more deliberate, as the conditions were more conducive to image-making this morning.

Dietrich River, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

At one point I walked about a half a mile up the road to a spot where I thought I could rock hop my way out onto a sandbar in the middle of the river. I managed to do it, but it was much more difficult than I thought because some of the “sandy” areas were actually mud of the non-weight supporting variety.

Dietrich River, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

The above image shows the north-facing view from the sandbar.

Dietrich River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

All the while we kept an eye on the sky to the west, to see if it would cloud up and finally, by late morning, it did and so we made a beeline to the Marion Creek Campground. It was around noon when we arrived. We knew from direct experience that the round trip hike to the falls, while only about four miles in total, is significantly more involved than such a short trudge would ordinarily imply, and not because the trail is especially steep–because it isn’t. There’s plenty of up and down, but it’s not particularly rigorous. No, the reason the trail is such a pain is that it’s not maintained. It’s basically a social trail, and a wet and muddy one at that.

But we had the rest of the day–more than nine hours of daylight–which was plenty of time to make the hike. It was now completely cloudy, but it was a fairly bright overcast, with no indication that any meaningful precipitation was likely any time soon.

We hiked through the beautiful spruce forest that leads to the part of the trail that heads up the mountainside to the falls. This area contains the thickest carpets of reindeer lichen I’ve ever seen anywhere and I find it quite enchanting.

Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

I remember being visually overwhelmed in this forest three years prior and this time was no different.

Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

We made some images in the forest on the way up and pledged to explore the area even more thoroughly on the return trip.

The area where the reindeer lichen in the forest lessens corresponds almost perfectly with the location where the trail changes from clearly defined to social. What we discovered, fairly quickly, was that the social trail part of the hike–between the reindeer lichen forest and where the trail reaches an easily traversable old mining road, which makes up at least 60% of the hike–was much wetter and muddier than we had experienced three years previous. Clearly there had been a wetter summer in northern Alaska in 2021 than in 2018. Much wetter. (In fact, one of the locals told us that it had been an unusually wet summer.) There are numerous spots along the way where runoff from the mountainside, which presents itself in the form of small streams, becomes an impediment. These instances were no more than minor annoyances in 2018. This time, we encountered decent-sized puddles and, in two spots, full-blown creeks that needed to be crossed. That–at one spot in particular–was much more easily said than done. But we were determined to make it up to the falls and, with a bit of caution, were able to clear the stream by stepping on some logs, fully well knowing that we’d have to do it again on the way back.

After temporarily finishing up at the reindeer lichen-strewn forest, I only stopped to photograph once on the way up to the falls, at a spot with colorful vegetation leading to a view of the mountainside in the background.

Autumn Tundra, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

We reached the old mining road and from there it was only a modest distance to a short spur trail with a view of the upper creek and falls, but we couldn’t remember where the spur was. We walked up and down a 500-odd foot section of the road and I explored a couple of spots that looked promising by diving in to thickets of vegetation, but these turned out to be red herrings. At last, we cleared an old gate on the mining road–we had no memory of there being a gate, but it had clearly been there for many years–and once we did that it was less than 100 feet before we saw a ribbon–a trail marker–tied on a bush. We knew we were in the right place. From there, it was only a few hundred feet on the spur to the clearing along the creekside where we’d photographed three years earlier.

As soon as the creek came into view, we knew something was significantly different. The area where we had photographed the rapids three years earlier was effectively unreachable. Much of the bank above that rocky shelf had crumbled away, the apparent victim of erosion. There was substantially more water coursing through the creek; the water table was noticeably higher and the rocky shelf, even if it had been reachable, was practically underwater in places. As a result, we were going to have to photograph the location from a different place, leading to a very different set of perspectives.

I started by composing a shot using the upper 2/3 or so of a tiny spruce sapling as a foreground, and stacking the frames from there.

Marion Creek Falls Black & White, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

I then moved to another spot on the high embankment and went to work. In the first shot below, you can see the rocky shelf I mentioned earlier. It’s on the right-hand side of the creek, in roughly the middle of the frame.

Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Marion Creek Falls Black & White, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we were done at the falls we began the trek back. While still descending the extension of mining road before reaching the social trail, we made a quick stop at the little rock garden area we had photographed in 2018.

Rock Garden Runoff, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

And, back on the social trail, we stopped at one spot, a location that I’d looked long and hard at on the way up. I couldn’t let it go on the way down.

Northward View, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we made it all the way back down to the reindeer lichen forest, we pulled out the cameras yet again.

Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Forest Floor, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reindeer Lichen & Mushroom Intimate, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

Before we returned to the parking area, I made one last image from the trail, near the creek overlook.

Conifer Contrast, Marion Creek Falls Trail, Brooks Range, Alaska

It was early evening by the time we got back to our vehicle, and the clouds were now ubiquitous, there was some light rain and it was quite chilly. There would be no sunset this evening, so with the light starting to wane we returned to Wiseman and prepared for the long drive back to Fairbanks the following day. Despite the length of the impending drive we were actually looking forward to it because we had visions of very nice fall color in many areas that we’d driven through a few days earlier. There had been several cold nights since then and I boldly predicted that we’d be very happy with what we’d encounter. It remained to be seen if my confidence was misplaced.

Posted by: kerryl29 | January 3, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 4: The Brooks Range, Continued

Day 4 of the Alaska trip (part II) was spent covering a good chunk of the Dalton Highway both north and south of our base in Wiseman. We got some very nice morning mist and a partly cloudy day (with relatively light wind) thereafter and we tried our hardest to make the most of the conditions.

There was too much low-hanging cloud cover at daybreak for a sunrise, but as the fog started to lift–still early in the morning–we were treated to some interesting elements. My first shot of the day came during a stop along the highway where we were investigating a wetland area that we’d scouted the day before. With the fog still burning off, the rising moon played peek-a-boo with the clouds. See if you can spot it in the image below.

Morning Moonrise, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

That wetland area proved to be quite fruitful and we spent quite a bit of time working the location, which was just off the east side of the highway.

Mountain Reflections, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Note the mountain peak emerging from the thick layer of background fog.

Morning Mist, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Morning Mist, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

I snapped a candid shot of Ellen, as she sized up the location.

Ellen Photographs Mountain Reflections, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

I also did some more offbeat work at this spot:

Reflections Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Reflection Impressions Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Other opportunities along the way beckoned before the mist lifted completely.

Misty Autumn, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Spruce & Tundra, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Misty Autumn, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Our next stop was only a couple of miles up the road, at a colorful location.

Autumn Tundra, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Autumn Tundra, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We continued along until we reached Sukakpak Mountain and stopped to photograph it from a couple of vantage points.

Sukakpak Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Sukakpak Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we drove around to the north side of Sukakpak, astride Dillon Mountain, we reached an officially unnamed lake–one we took to referring to as Moose & Loon Lake (because we’d seen a moose there three years earlier and saw loons there this time):

Loons, Moose & Loon Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We’d discovered that this was a good spot from which to photograph on the previous trip and, though the light wasn’t exactly the best by this time of the (late) morning, we chose to give it another try.

Dillon Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Clouds started to roll in while we were at Moose & Loon Lake–it never ceases to amaze me how quickly the weather can change in these environs–and pretty soon mixed lighting was the order of the day. You can see it to some extent with the shadow line on Dillon Mountain in the above image. But without the mixed lighting I doubt I ever would have made the image that follows. It’s a fairly unorthodox composition that I teased out when we made another stop, further to the north and about 1000 feet away from the edge of Moose & Loon Lake. We had stopped merely to scout this area, not even taking our gear out of the car, but I kept looking at this scene and finally, when the sun ducked behind the edge of a cloud bank, it kind of came together for me and I marked my spot and hustled back to pull out my camera and tripod.

Dillon Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

It was getting cloudier and cloudier when we moved further north on the highway and stopped at a pull-out along the edge of the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River.

Middle Fork Koyukuk River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

The sun was still out, but a dark cloud bank was rolling in from the northwest and, in fact, it started to rain while these two images–which I converted to black and white–were being made. Doing so required perching on a not-entirely-stable pile of boulders, which became quite slick when dampened by the rain. We were able to extract ourselves from the spot without incident, fortunately.

Middle Fork Koyukuk River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

As quickly as the dark clouds had rolled in, they rolled out and we were back to partly cloudy–and now quite windy–conditions. We decided to spend some time exploring a quarry on the west side of the Dalton Highway, and ended up being glad we did.

Down at ground level our view of the mountains to the west was blocked but I climbed–without my gear, because it was a bit of dicey climb–up a fairly large boulder pile. I really liked the view up there and told Ellen it was very nice, but that the climb up–and down–was going to be a bit tricky. But we made the decision to try to make it up with at least some gear (which required me to descend and then climb back up) and, with a few false starts, we were able to complete the task–both going up and down, and figuring out how to set up our tripods and make some images as well.

Autumn Afternoon, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

I think, in the end, we were both quite happy that we’d tackled the boulder pile, which makes an appearance in the foreground below.

Autumn Afternoon, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

And, there were a few other photo ops at this location just waiting for me to descend from the rock pile a final time.

Backlit Fireweed, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We spent most of the rest of the late afternoon and early evening scouting along a broad swath of the Dalton Highway, but as sunset approached the wind died down and we decided to return to a spot we’d scouted the previous day, just a bit north of Moose & Loon Lake near an extended pipeline pullout. The color in this area was spectacular, with Dillon Mountain as the backdrop. We’d taken a good look at this location on the drive back from Atigun Pass a couple of days earlier and thought it might work if the conditions were right. Well, the conditions were right and we hastened to take advantage of the situation.

On the way, we stopped at the same location that had yielded the views of Sukakpak Mountain earlier in the day. The light was much nicer this time around.

Sukakapak Mountain Evening, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We made our way to the designated spot and wandered down the pipeline access road to where we thought the best vantage point lay. The highway was between us and Dillon Mountain but by getting low we could hide the roadbed entirely.

Dillon Mountain at Sunset, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

The light was excellent and getting better by the minute. The wind had dropped to next to nothing. The only issue was that the temperature had dropped as well and it was quite nippy, but the lack of wind helped, and we watched the shadow line of the mountain range to the west creep up the face of Dillon Mountain. Clouds, turning pink in the angular light, drifted by. It was a memorable, extended moment.

Dillon Mountain at Sunset, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

I moved around a bit, changing foreground elements and slightly altering the perspective on the background. Eventually, only a bit of Dillon Mountain caught the remaining rays of the sun.

Dillon Mountain at Sunset, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

I made a couple of quick final images, close-ups, as it turned out, of some of the interesting grasses at our feet. The mostly colorless scene best revealed its details and patterns in a monochrome presentation.

Patterns Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we finally wrapped up were chilled to the bone and it was nice to be able to retreat to the shelter of the car and turn up the heat.

We had one more full day in the Brooks Range on tap tomorrow and we’d try to make the most of it…

Posted by: kerryl29 | December 27, 2021

Favorites of 2021

Favorite images of the year: I haven’t done this sort of thing religiously, but I’ve posted something similar at least once before on this blog. What follows is a set of some of my favorite images made during 2021. Were they my best images of the year? Who knows. What does “best” even mean? But I digress…

In keeping with the casual spirit of the exercise, I didn’t spend a ton of time making the selections. I tried to reverse engineer the process; I tried to focus on what I felt were my most memorable moments and endeavored to find images that were evocative of those instances.

I’ll keep the commentary to a minimum.

My first photo opportunities of the year involved satisfying a longstanding urge to photograph the Texas spring wildflower bloom, which produced many memorable moments, including those captured below.

Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Field at Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet Sunset, Ellis County, Texas
Bluebonnet and Indian Paintbrush Intimate, Ellis County, Texas

In the spring, a trip to the desert southwest provided another set of memories.

Prairie Dogs, Potter County, Texas
Prairie Afternoon Black & White, Union County, New Mexico
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Blue Valley at Dawn, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
The Castle, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona

And then, at the end of the summer in the Lower 48, it was already well into fall in the Alaska interior.

Atigun Pass, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Moose, Grayling Lake, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Brushkana River, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra and Spruce, Denali Highway, Alaska
Autumn Mist, Denali National Park, Alaska
Forest Floor, Denali Highway, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Birch Forest Fall, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Maclaren River, Denali Highway, Alaska
A Room with a View, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

For all the troubles that reared their metaphorical heads over the past 12 months, 2021 was a memorable photographic year

Happy New Year, everyone.

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