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  Photography in Alaska

The ultimate outdoor destination in North America, filled with scenic vistas.

  Read about my first experience in Denali National Park in my short essay, Between Buses.
They say everything is big in Texas, but itís bigger in Alaska. No other state has as much preserved land as Alaska, and few have anywhere near the diversity of dramatic sites. Jaw-dropping scenery seems to grow everywhere in Alaska, and unlike the lower 48, where development seems to sprawl at the foot of every photogenic landmark, you can literally walk for days without seeing evidence of man.
An Alaskan grizzly wanders off for a nap after some intensive berry-eating. Nikon N90s, 70-210mm f/4-5.6D, Kodachrome 200.

Better yet, you can explore Alaska in ways that are as diverse as the scenery:

  • Rent a motorhome and drive as far north as is possible in North America.
  •  Hop a cruise ship or ferry and watch the scenery pass you by.
  •  Travel to Denali National Park by rail, in some of the best rolling stock in the country.
  •  Put on your boots and hike the tundra (or the rainforest)
  •  Kayak Prince William Sound, Glacier Bay, or the Inside Passage.
  •  Charter a bush plane or helicopter for the birdís eye view of a glacier.
  •  Come in late winter and learn to mush a dogsled.

The list of ways to explore the 49th state is virtually endless, and once youíve been there, youíre almost sure to return, and return, and return.

Why Go?
Dramatic landscapes that seem to go on forever and as much as 24 hours of daylight to shoot them in.

Lucky Shot
Any full-frame shot of a grizzly in the wild that you survive to brag about would be lucky (it doesnít count if you get it at one of the established bear-watching platforms on Kenai Peninsula or Admiralty Island).

 

From a photographerís viewpoint, Alaska provides two wonderful tableaus, sometimes simultaneously. On the one hand, you have landmark scenics that just beg for the widest lens you own (Denali, Meddenhall Glacier, Brooks Range, etc.). On the other, thereís the wildlife (bears, eagles, moose, and whales for starters), which will have you reaching for the longest telephoto you've got. Yet, thereís plenty in between, too, with some of the most scenic towns in America (Sitka, for example), colorful shops and locals, and much, much more.

Personally, I think the best way to visit Alaska is to string together several shorter, different types of trips. Take the "blue canoe" (Alaska Ferry) up the Inland Passage to start your trip in a leisurely, comfortable fashion. Jump off at Juneau to kayak Admiralty Island and bear watch. Fly to Anchorage (preferably on a small plane) and take the train to Denali National Park. Hike the park for a few days before returning home or extending your trip with yet another adventure. Next time you go, drive a rented motorhome to Fairbanks, take a hike in the Brooks Range, visit another national park (there are plenty to choose from in Alaska, including several of the least visited parks in America), then spend a day or two in Sitka to take in the Russian Orthodox church and Klinget Museum on the way home.

Get the idea? Mix and match first-class destinations to your heartís content. Donít worry, you wonít run out.

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Must See and Photograph

  • Glaciers (from the water in Prince William Sound, up close at Mendenhall).
  •  Denali. But give yourself enough time in the park to make sure you get to see it; the mountain has been known to hide in the clouds for days.
Denali on an unusually clear day, with Wonder Lake in the foreground. Nikon N90s, 70-210mm f/4-5.6D, Fuji Sensia 100. While this spot is easy to get to (you could throw a rock to the road from where this was taken), current park policy means that you have to take a bus to get here. Since Wonder Lake is over 80 miles into the park and the road is dirt, you're really at the whim of the bus schedules if you try to get pictures like this without either: (1) making a reservation for the Wonder Lake campground (tough to get); or (2) stay at one of the handful of lodges at the far end of the park (I recommend The North Face Lodge or Camp Denali, which are owned by the same person and share a reservation system).
  • The Inside Passage. If you canít afford a cruise, hop the afjordable (sorry) Alaskan Ferry.

  •  Anything from the air. Find yourself a bush pilot and explore the vastness in the only way you can begin to fathom just how big this place is.

Special Advice

  • Mosquito repellant with DEET in it chews up the plastic parts of digital cameras faster than a bear can chew through you. Wear long-sleeved and legged clothing, plus invest in a good headnet. If you must use DEET, be very careful not to have it on your hands or face when handling your camera.
  • You shouldnít approach any of the large mammals, so bring a very long telephoto lens or converter (see African Safari advice).
  • It gets quite cold, even in summer, especially near the glaciers. Lithium batteries work better in the cold. Keep an extra set of batteries warm in an inner jacket pocket, and swap sets when the cold zaps the ones in the camera.
  • If you move from warm lodging to cold outdoors, or vice versa, condensation can be a factor. Put your camera in a zipper-lock bag and remove all the air in the bag before going back and forth. Or, get in the habit of leaving the camera outside.
  • Iíve watched it go from completely sunny to torrential rain in less than two hours. Always take waterproof outer layers with you on hikes, and make sure that the camera brings protection, too.

Travel Advice

  • Bears are everywhere. After spending two weeks on an island with densest concentration of bears on the planet and not seeing a one, I found myself face to face with a mother and her cub only a couple of miles from downtown Juneau. Carry bear spray. Read the brochures available at every information center. Watch the cautionary video at Denali NP. Be prepared, and donít panic when you do encounter a bear. If you act correctly, youíll walk away with your own close encounter story to tell.
  • Alaska is one the most tourist-friendly places in the world. The residents are friendly and talkative, crime is low, information and advice are easy to come by, and there are an overwhelming number of options at every stop. In virtually every town youíll find hiking trails to explore, plane or helicopter tours to take, boating or kayaking opportunities, and a wealth of interesting side visits to make. Ask a local and youíll receive an earful of interesting things to check out.
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Best Book for Photographers

Surprisingly, a really good "how-to" book doesn't exist for aspiring Alaskan photographers (hmmm, maybe I should plan more Alaskan trips). But two excellent inspirational books are Galen Rowell's Alaska: Images of the Country (this Sierra Club reprint includes excerpts from John McPhee's classic "Coming into the Country") and the more recent coffee table wonder by Art Wolfe and Nick Jans, simply titled Alaska.

 

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