Glacier Bay Ruggedness

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Of the many attractions in Alaska, the area surrounding Glacier Bay in southeastern Alaska has to be one of the most beautiful. The area includes the national park of the same name along with numerous glaciers and mountains. When sailing the Inside Passage, there are mountains towering above the bay on every side. As a photographer, I have a habit of shooting with a pretty wide eye in trying to capture the overall scene that I am experiencing. I sometimes forget that I should should capture tighter shots that show the details within the scene. In this instance, I remembered to zoom in to capture the ruggedness of the mountains above Glacier Bay.

Headed Inland

Icy Straits, Alaska

Sailing along the Alaskan coast is an amazing experience. The scenery is wonderful with majestic mountain ranges seemingly guarding any intrusion inland. Wildlife is plentiful from humpback whales that can be seen swimming parallel alongside our ship as well as seals and otters that surface everywhere. Above our heads, bald eagles are searching for fish in all of their magnificence. As we headed toward the Alexander Archipelago via the Icy Straits, our destination was through Glacier Bay to its inland jewel, Glacier Bay National Park . As I stood on deck in the cold morning, I couldn't help but stare in wonder at the beautiful scene in front of me. As I composed each image, I wished that instead of only spending the day in this beautiful part of Alaska's coast, we could set anchor and spend a week.

Yukon Bound

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, Skagway, Alaska

The port of Skagway, Alaska is a popular stop for cruise ships and one of its star attractions is the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. Given my love of both trains and mountains, I Was really excited to travel over the mountains to the Yukon. The train climbs almost 3,000 feet in just a short 20 miles and, as a result, has severe grades. The train travels along many winding turns that run along the edge of the cliffs. Before reaching the Yukon, it will negotiate numerous tunnels, bridges and trestles. This image, taken from the back of the rail car, is indicative of the terrain that the train travels through. The waters surrounding Skagway can be seen in the distance as the train approaches the Canadian border.

Alaska #3011

Talkeetna, Alaska

This image off Alaskan Railroad #3011 was taken in the town of Talkeetna, Alaska. We were staying at the McKinley Lodge and decided to take the 45-minute bus ride to civilization, in this case, Talkeetna. There were two draws to visit the town. First, it is known as a very liberal town that has sort of a "hippie" culture. The second reason is that we wanted to visit the Roadhouse, a restaurant that was featured in the television show, "Man vs. Food". We weren't disappointed in either. Talkeetna is indeed a different type of town. It is a very eclectic and entertaining town. We had a few drinks and enjoyed the bands playing outside the bar. The meal at the Roadhouse was excellent.

Talkeetna was established in 1919 when the railroad surveyed and auctioned 80 lots. It serves as the jumping point for all sorts of outdoor activities including rafting, mountain biking, hiking, camping, fishing and hunting. A cat named Stubbs has been the honorary mayor for the past 15 years (as of July 2011) following a successful write-in campaign by voters who opposed the human candidates. My kind of town.

Breaking Through

Byers Lake, Denali State Park, Alaska

Earlier this week, I posted an image of Mt McKinley Lodge's cupola. After having breakfast, I headed to Byers Lake in Denali State Park with a small group of other guests at the lodge. While the adjacent national park of the same name is world famous, I discovered that Denali State Park was well worth a visit. I might even venture to say that it is the best state park I have ever been to. The lake was about 20 minutes away from our lodge and is accessible from the Parks Highway that connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. The park is undeveloped wilderness with the exception of the two day-use areas, three campgrounds, and two trailheads, one of which leads to Byers Lake.

Looking Up

McKinley Lodge, Alaska

I always am surprised what other photographers see when shooting the same subject. I always seem to say to myself, "I didn't see that." This simple question has trained me to continue to work a subject from as many angles and perspectives as I can think of. I try to shoot high and low; left and right; and close and far. Depending on the subject, I always make sure I look up. On our trip to Alaska last year, we stayed at a wonderful lodge in the wilderness, The McKinley Lodge. I wanted to photograph the lodge and realized that the only way to shoot it was to get up before dawn as it was crowded throughout the day and night. I was able to get some great shots of the lodge and it's enormous windows looking out at the famous mountain. As I was finishing up, I started to look up at the ceiling and discovered this great view of the lodge's cupola and it's light. It is probably my favorite image of the lodge and was not even on my list of shots before I started to shoot.

Ice Calving

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

One of the stops on most Alaskan cruises will be to some of the many glaciers that have their terminus on the coast. Favorite spots are Glacier National Park and Hubbard Glacier. Not only are these glaciers beautiful, there can be actual "action" opportunities to photograph. What types of action can be captured? Ice Calving. Ice calving is the sudden release and breaking away of a mass of ice from a glacier. Calving of glaciers is often preceded by a loud cracking sound before blocks of ice up to 250 feet high break loose and crash into the water. The entry of the ice into the water causes large and potentially dangerous wakes.

Trying to photograph an ice calving can be challenging. The first challenge, especially if you are on a cruise ship, is finding a vantage point. You would be amazed to see almost every passenger on the rail of the cruise ship (for some ships, that number could be 1,500- 2,000). The next decision is at what focal length to shoot at. That depends on how close you are to the glacier and how wide the glacier is. Because you never know where along the glacier the calving will occur, too tight of a shot may cause you to miss it and too wide of a shot makes the calving hard to see. A third challenge is anticipating where along the glacier wall the calving will occur. The only notice that you have is a large cracking sound. Unless it happens directly in front of you, there are a scant few seconds to turn toward the sound, aim the camera and shoot a burst. The last challenge is patience. A cruise ship may spend up to an hour in front of a glacier, and many times, there are no calvings.

This image is of an ice calving on the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. To put this into perspective, the height of the glacier is 350 feet, 250 feet visible above water and a width of about a mile.

Taking Flight

Misty Fiords National Monument, Alaska

As many of you who follow this blog know, I am primarily a landscape and cityscape photographer. I rarely take photos of people although I do snap a few family and friends portraits, usually when on vacation. I do take shots of animals and birds which I did on last year's trip to Alaska. I was determined to get some shots of Bald Eagles in flight during our trip as they can be seen just about anywhere in the state. What I didn't realize, however, is that bird photography is HARD (either that or I am really bad at photography). I have more blurred shots of Bald Eagles that I do of in-focus mountains. Perhaps shooting them from a moving boat didn't help or that I only had a 28-300mm Nikkor lens which is much too short and slow. I think that even on firm ground with the right lens, I still would have been challenged. Anyway, my hat is off to you bird photographers out there. I have a much greater appreciation for your photographic skills. Oh by the way, this is probably my best Bald Eagle shot of the trip.

Ice Cave

Lamplugh Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska is a World Heritage Site with 3.3 million acres of spectacular sights and wildlife, including 11 glaciers of which 8 can be seen from the bay. It is a very remote and rugged park as there are no roads that lead to it. The only way to get to Glacier Bay is by either boat or plane. There is only one lodge within the park (Glacier Bay Lodge) and there are no campsites. Campers can stay in the park in almost any area that they want. This past July, we spent almost a full day cruising the bay, taking in it's glaciers. One of the coolest things we saw was this ice cave in the Lamplugh Glacier. The cave was huge, towering about 30 feet at it's highest point, and we had just missed some kayakers that left the cave moments before. The most interesting thing about the cave was that it was temporary. The National Park Forest Ranger told us that it didn't exist several weeks prior to our arrival and that it would likely collapse in the near future.


Yakutat Bay, Alaska

When cruising the inside passage of Alaska, Hubbard Glacier is normally on the route as a "stop". To reach Hubbard Glacier, ships must sail through the Gulf of Alaska and enter the Yakutat Bay. Yakutat Bay was formed over centuries by the eroding forces of glacier advance and retreat. This image was taken as our ship began to leave the gulf and enter the bay. It wasn't the best time of day to shoot images, but when on a cruise, there is little control over the timing of visiting a destination. This is one of the challenges of shooting on a cruise vacation. Another challenge includes shooting from a moving boat that may be rocking. This can especially true when shooting a HDR bracket (thank God for the sophisticated alignment functions of Photoshop).

Despite the light and movement, I was lucky to have a layer of clouds against the mountains and some dissipating fog at ground level.

Flying the Misty Fjords

Misty Fiords National Monument, Ketchikan, Alaska

Misty Fjords National Monument is located 40 miles east of Ketchikan, Alaska, along the Inside Passage coast in extreme southeastern Alaska. The area is nicknamed "The Yosemite of the North" for its similar geology. Formed by glaciers, the glacial valleys are filled with sea water. The walls of these valleys are near-vertical and range from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level and drop 1,000 feet below it. The scenery ranges from tidewater estuaries to mountains often shrouded in mists, sky-blue lakes, waterfalls and the seemingly endless evergreen forest. Misty Fjords' road-less location is only accessible by floatplane or boat from Ketchikan. We took a tour boat out of Ketchikan for a 6-hour boat tour. The weather was pretty raw with periodic rain. Along the way, we saw it all, rugged mountains, eagles, the very cool New Eddystone Rock and waterfalls. Perhaps the most unexpected sight was the large number of floatplanes that were taking off and landing. Misty Fjords might be considered nature's busiest airport. I can only imagine what the number of planes would have been if the weather was nice. This is one of the floatplanes taking off with the mists and mountains in the background.

The High One

Mt Mckinley, Denali National Park, Alaska

I have to admit it, I love mountains. I can't get enough of them. They are my favorites subjects and I always try to visit them whenever I travel. The one that I have always wanted to visit is Mt McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska. Mt McKinley is the highest peak in North America. The mountain was originally named Denali or "High One" by the Koyukon Athabaskan people who inhabit the area around the mountain. A gold prospector later named it "McKinley" to provide political support for then-president William McKinley. I was fortunate enough to visit it this past summer. When planning the visit, I found out that Mt McKinley was visible only 30% of the year. I read about visitors who stayed a week and never saw it. We would only be there for three days and were hoping to get a view of it. When we checked into the lodge, it wasn't visible and I was worried that this was a bad omen. A few hours later, as we were about to board a bus to Talkeetna, I wandered around to the back of the lodge and saw this scene. The clouds at the top of the mountain had cleared out and it's majesty was revealed. Just to give you a size of McKinley, this image was taken from about 90 miles away.

Bubble Net Feeding

Humpback Whales, Juneau, Alaska

This past summer, I was fortunate to revisit Alaska. For those of you who have never been there, add it to your bucket list and place it pretty high. Of all of the great memories I had there, our whale watch cruise was something I will always remember. The weather that day was quite miserable. The tour that we had signed up for started with a hike to Mendenhall Glacier and finished with the whale watch cruise. I was pretty excited as it was led by a local photographer and the boat we took was designed for photographers. The boat had windows that went outward and up, so that you could lean out of the window and have your camera stay dry. I've been on whale watches before, but not like this one. Shortly after we left, we found 13 humpback whales (at least that is what we counted) that were participating in a bubble net feeding. This feeding is unique to humpback whales but is only practiced by certain humpbacks in limited locations in the world. Bubble net feeding is a foraging behavior used to capture small schooling fish. Humpbacks have an elaborate way they use the bubbles to manipulate prey. The bubble blowing whale seems to know where the fish are because it changes depth of bubble deployment depending upon how deep the prey is positioned in the water. The process begins with the whales at the surface, diving as a group. Once the group is under water, one whale within the group initiates a series of vocalizations known as feeding calls. As the prey come close to the bubble wall, the bubble blowing whale encloses the wall of bubbles around them, creating a cylinder with the fish trapped inside. For more information click this link where you find an expanded description of the feeding.

This image shows four humpbacks starting their dive. The spray from other humpbacks can be seen in the background. I will further expand on the challenges of photographing this type of feeding in a later post. Suffice to say, it was quite an experience.

Glacier Approach

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

After sailing through the Icy Straits, as described in a previous post, we entered into Glacier Bay en-route to the Margerie Glacier. Along the way, we passed wonderful scenery and wildlife, including hump-back whales, seals and eagles. Glacier Bay is a pretty amazing place and even more amazing is that it was a wall of ice in 1791 when explored by George Vancouver. The ice has retreated 65 miles since then leaving 16 major tidewater glaciers (a glacier which generates sufficient snow to flow out from the mountains to the sea). As we approached Margerie Glacier, it was hard to believe the it has a total height of 350 feet, of which 250 feet rises above the water level. It is one of the most active glaciers in the park with respect to calving where chunks of the glacier break off of the forward ice wall into the water with a resounding roar. This is probably the main reason why most cruise ships visit this particular glacier. As can be seen in the photo, the glacier is surrounded by rugged mountains where pieces of the mountains collect on the glacier making it look "dirty". Margerie Glacier has tones of blue color as the ice crystals in the glacier absorb light of longer wavelengths (i.e. red) leaving the blue color.

All Aboard the Alaskan Rail

Denali National Park, Alaska

After our stay in Denali National Park, we boarded an Alaskan Rail train. The train would take us to Whittier where we would board our cruise ship. This 8-hour train ride is something everyone should have on their bucket list. The scenery is spectacular and when the weather is right (as it was on this day), Mount McKinley can be seen in all of it's grandeur. Our train car had a glass dome for viewing the gorgeous Alaskan countryside. I quickly determined that shooting through the dome was not going to work due to the reflections, so I quickly headed for the open-air observation decks to shoot images from the speeding train.

This image was taken from the caboose of the train shortly after leaving Denali. The locomotive was chugging alongside a river bend in front of some of Denali's beautiful mountains. This is a train ride that I will never forget.

Early Morning at the Lodge

McKinley Lodge, Alaska

As I have mentioned in my previous posts about my Alaskan trip, we stayed at the Mt McKinley Lodge for a couple of nights before heading to Denali National Park. The lodge is located off of Alaska's Parks Highway (Milepost 133) that connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. This remote location (the nearest town of Talkeetna is 45 minutes away) guarantees that there is always a crowd in the lodge relaxing and taking in the view of Mt McKinley and the surrounding scenery. The lodge is beautiful and and well appointed with several restaurants, viewing rooms and outside decks. As you can tell from my website, I rarely take photos of the inside of buildings (not sure why) but I really wanted to capture the beauty of the lodge's main viewing room. I figured that in order to shoot the room without anyone in it, I had to get there very early in the morning. I was happy to see that at 5:30 am, I was the only one there other than staff. I wish that the weather was not overcast as having Mt McKinley visible through the window would have been great but I am pretty pleased with the result. I think that I will making an effort in the future to shooting more inside subjects.

Open Range

Denali National Park, Alaska

Continuing our adventures in Alaska, we visited Denali National Park on a pretty dreary day. While it didn't rain much, it was pretty raw out. Since we didn't have a car, we took a tour of the park hoping to see some wildlife. Even with a car, you can only drive as far as we did on the tour. To be able to go further into the park, you must arrange an expanded tour (wish we knew that going in). Unfortunately, while we did spot a few animals, they were mere specks in the distance. Despite the lack of wildlife and the gloominess of the weather, the scenery was outstanding. I was struck by the amount of open range in the park and how the mountain range contrasted with it. The clouds added to the gloomy mood. As I studied the scene, I was reminded of the words "...Purple Mountain Majesty..." in the song, America the Beautiful. It seemed to me that the words were inspired by these mountains.

Sailing the Icy Strait

Icy Straits, Alaska

My recent trip to Alaska was a combined land and sea adventure. As I have probably mentioned before, one of my bucket list items is to visit and photograph as many US National Parks as I can. On this trip, I was going to get to visit two of them: Denali National Park and Glacier Bay National Park. After spending time on mainland Alaska and in Denali, we boarded a cruise ship to see the inside passage including Glacier Bay National Park. Sailing down from Hubbard Glacier the day before, we entered into the Icy Strait early the next morning. The Icy Strait is in the Alexander Archipelago and can be entered from the Alaskan mainland from the north. Continuing into the strait reaches the entrance to Glacier Bay en-route to Juneau to the south. To say that the scenery was breathtaking is an understatement.

This is one of the numerous images I shot from the deck of our ship. The wind was whipping around and I was dressed in layers with gloves on. The interesting thing about it was even though it was cold, I hardly seemed to notice. The light was good, the clouds added great interest to the snow-capped mountains. These mountains are actually part of the national park, namely Glacier Bay Park and Wilderness.

Peaceful, Easy Feeling

Byers Lake, Denali State Park, Alaska

After our exhilarating flight to the summit of Mt McKinley the previous day, I was ready to have a more relaxing morning by walking around Byers Lake in Denali State Park. While the adjacent national park is world famous, I discovered that Denali State Park was no slouch. The lake was about 20 minutes away from our lodge and is accessible from the Parks Highway that connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. The park is undeveloped wilderness with the exception of the two day-use areas, three campgrounds, and two trailheads, one of which leads to Byers Lake. The lake was very tranquil and relaxing. About a quarter of the way around, we came upon this secluded small dock. While there were a few people around, the lake was essentially empty. The clouds were outstanding and perfectly reflected in the calm lake waters. While sitting there looking at the scenery, the Eagles song, "Peaceful, Easy Feeling" came to mind.

Soaring the Alaskan Range

Denali National Park, Alaska

After our overnight stay in Anchorage, we hopped on a bus for 3 hours to Mt McKinley Lodge. I was really looking forward to getting to the lodge because it looked like a nice day where we might have a chance to actually see Mt McKinley (the mountain is only visible 30% of the time). Even more exciting was that we had signed up for a Mt. McKinley Summit Flight that afternoon. We got to the lodge (yes, McKinley was visible), had lunch and hopped on a 45 minute bus ride to Talkeetna Airport (the lodge is pretty remote). On the way, my wife Carol muttered "I don't know why I agreed to do this" (she is not the best of flyers). When we got to the airport, we were assigned a small 10 seat airplane. She was assigned the co-pilot seat and was told not to touch anything (like she would have). I was alone in the second row and our friends were in the back row. To complicate things, it was raining and a fresh storm was approaching. Off we went anyway.

On the way to Mt McKinley, we soared above the Alaskan Range and this image was taken en-route to Mt McKinley. The majesty of this mountain range is something to see. It was pretty challenging to photograph from the plane. I kept getting the damn propeller in my shot and shooting through a small window at such high speed was a challenge. All-in-all, I do it again in a second but I'm pretty sure Carol won't.