Archive for May, 2010

Out to Douglas Island

Thursday, May 27th, 2010
Out to Douglas Island

I joined up with fellow photographer and friend Chris Beck who lives on Douglas Island to explore the evening sun.  We went to the end of the road, then hiked out on a boardwalk trail to the channel to watch for whales.  We saw only one, blowing way off in the distance.  The light was simply fantastic, and there were several boats out fishing for kings, along with the occasional kayak.  Given how calm the water was, I would like to have joined those kayaks in the water.

Afterward, we headed across the bridge over to Juneau to get a bite to eat.  Unfortunatley, the entire food industry in Juneau shuts down by 10:00 at night – pubs, fast food, even grocery stores.  We had to go over to the “Valley” to settle for McDonald’s.  I found it surprising that an entire city would stop serving so early, even with cruise ships in town. 

Flight to Juneau

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010
Flight to Juneau

So, I flew down to Juneau this evening to spend a few days in our state capital photograhing the state soccer championships.  Since I have never flown to Juneau before, I got to see a lot of new scenery.  After taking off from Anchorage, we headed straight up the Knik Arm, over the College Glacier, and over to the Prince William Sound.  It is so easy to forget how close the Sound is; you certainly cannot think of how close it is when driving up the Old Glenn Highway. 

Since I was on the right side of the plane, I saw a lot of ocean and clouds after leaving the Prince William Sound behind.  The next thing I new, we were over some of the largest glaciers I have ever seen.  They were spilling out below me, sheeding ice through calving into what looked like a massive lagoon on the inside of a long barrier shoreline.  A little while later, we were making our way through the maze of islands, channels and bays leading into the Juneau area.  As we approached the airport, I saw no fewer then five cruise ships out and around in various parts of the Inside Passage, with two in port in Juneau.  Evening light cast a golden hue on downtown Juneau, with the two white ships glaring like beacons. 

While not as good as aerial photography in a small plane when you can ask the pilot to go around again for another shot, or to bank or lift a wing, I captured some of my best aerial images ever from a commercial flight.

Portage morning magic

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010
Portage morning magic

No matter the time of the year, my favorite place to photograph the first light near Anchorage is Portage Lake in Chugach National Forest.  About 45 minutes from Anchorage, Portage Lake also offers the most accessible glaciers within a short drive from the city.  While just a couple of decades ago the glacier spilled out onto the lake and within easy sight of the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, it now has fully receded around the corner of the mountain and fully off the lake.  However, nearby Byron Glacier is easily accessible from a short 3/4 mile trail from a nearby trailhead.

I was a little late getting to the lake in time for sunrise.  My alarm went off at 4:00, and I was out the door ten minutes later.  By the time I got to the lake, it was about five, some five minutes after sunrise, well within time to start seeing alpenglow on the peaks.  But, a thin layer of clouds to the east that I saw on my way down was keeping the light away from me.  Twenty minutes later, though, the sun did start shining on the peaks around the lake and it was gorgeous, crisp light, bringing a hit of warmth to a blue and rather cold-looking scene.  It wasn’t too cold, though, as I worked my way down to the shore wearing shorts and a fleece, stepping gingerly on the scree slope that served as a shoreline.

I used a Lee hard graduated neutral density filter, either 2- or 3- stop depending on the composition, to balance out the exposure between the highlights and the shadows.  Working for about thirty minutes, I stopped when the light was getting far down on the opposing ridge lines.  I wanted to stop at a few places along the way out of the Portage Valley to explore a couple of possibilities, including a hanging glacier on the east side of the valley.

Hartney Bay is for the birds

Sunday, May 9th, 2010
Hartney Bay is for the birds

Hartney Bay is about five miles out from downtown Cordova to the south.  If you are going to Cordova in the spring to view shorebirds, you go to Hartney Bay.  At low tide, the mud flats extend out for quite a distance from the small parking area (fortunatley equipped with a porto-potty) and the end of the public part of the road.  When viewing the shorebirds, the best time to get out to the Bay is about an hour before high tide.  The key, especially when photographing the shorebirds, is to find a spot and sit down in the mud and wait.  (Not directly in the mud; we are Alaskans, we have blue tarp for that sort of thing.)  After watching the birds long enough, you tend to notice where the birds congregate, so you can generally find a good location to wait.  If you find the right spot, you can sit and watch (and photograph) the birds as they walk and fly right around you.

There were three types of shorebirds in the bay when we were there, two of which are southcentral Alaska favorites: Western sandpipers and Dunlins.  There was also a group of five Whimbrels stolling the beach, picking worms as they moved along.  They were definitely a group, because they all took flight together and traveled as a group.  Michelle and I are convinced we saw them later in the afternoon on Sunday as we were out on the Alaganik Slough.  Unless, of course, whimbrels generally travel in groups of five.

Of all the birds I have photographed, I enjoy watching and photographing Western sandpipers the most.  They are very focused as they skitter along the mud, looking for worms and other grub, and will spontaneously take flight in large groups, moving and flashing like schools of fish as they search for a new location to settle down and repeat the cycle.  Mostly, they fly in smaller groups, but occasionally several groups will join together to combine as a combined mass.

But while everyone is out there with their scopes and binoculars watching the shorebirds, they can often miss many things.  Like the group of white-fronted geese moving about and grazing along the way, or the colors of the evening sky reflecting in the waters of small streams working their way out to sea.  I can appreciate that everyone is so focused on the shorebirds, but sometimes you need to take a moment to look around as well.  As a photographer, I don’t feel like I am doing service to a location unless I explore all aspects of it.

Out on the Copper River Highway

Sunday, May 9th, 2010
Out on the Copper River Highway

The primary reason why the area near Cordova is such a draw and hot spot for wildlife is the Copper River Delta. Identified as one of the top spring birding locations in the United States, the Delta offers both shorebird and waterfowl opportunities galore. But most of the people who visit Cordova during the Copper River Shorebird Festival stick pretty much closely to Hartney Bay. But, the best time to watch the birds is around high tide so the timing is particular from day to day. But, when the weather is right, every morning is a great time to be out on the Copper River Highway.

It varies from year to year how far you can go in the spring. This year, the Copper River Delta experienced a stronger spring snowfall then we did in the Anchorage area. At Mile 27, there was a nice wall of snow just beyond the near tunnel-like passage of plowed snow reaching at least fifteen feet high on both sides. A couple of hunters who were walking the road told me it would be a few more days before they brought out the next plow to open up the road some more. Had I been able to go farther, I would have continued across the large span of the Copper River Delta and up to where the Copper River comes out of Miles Lake, right where the Child’s Glacier reaches its icy span across the bank of the river and calves, sometimes rather spectacularly, into the water.

Even on the shortened drive, the highway offers many opportunities to view a vast variety of wildlife. If you enjoy watching beaver, there are several active lodges right near the highway. Moose? I have seen several off in the distance, but with wonderful backdrops of mountains and glaciers. Not to mention waterfowl, which, in the spring time, is plentiful; particularly Canada geese and trumpeter swans. The best place to view waterfowl is down the Alaganik Slough Road. The Alaganik Slough is a massive collection of wetlands buffering the many braids of the Copper River as it flows its way toward the Prince William Sound. There are several pullouts along the road, and near the boat landing at the end of the road is a long boardwalk with several viewing blinds.

I made a trip down the road each morning we were in Cordova for the shorebird festival. Each morning the skies were either clear, or mostly clear with scattered, beautifully textured clouds. I stopped at two beaver ponds each morning, one to photograph with the landscape, the other to watch the very active and busy beaver. When I stopped at the boardwalk at the end of the Alaganik Slough Road, I was disappointed to see that the boardwalk was closed. Apparently, the rather moist and soft environment did not treat the supports for the boardwalk very well as many had collapsed, causing the boardwalk to list seriously to one side. Fortunately, plans are in the works to fix it this summer, so it will hopefully be there next spring. On my second morning, as I crossed a bridge over one of the many braids of the Copper River, I saw an eagle swoop down out of the trees, catch a fish, and land to eat it. I literally parked my car on the bridge, set up the tripod and waited. Over the next twenty minutes or so, he caught another four or five hooligan (eulachon), landing each time to feast on a short stump in the river. When he was done, we threw his head back and let out a celebratory series of chirps. Then, he would go back to watching the stream, hop down, catch a hooligan and go back to the stump again. After getting a few good images, I continued on down the road.

While being a wildlife hot spot, the drive down the road is also a landscape photographer’s dream. It provides both a perfect morning light opportunity as well as an evening light, as the road lies on a straight north-south direction for most of the trip. The mountains to the east of the road are very craggy and jagged, with glaciers spilling out to join the moist landscape. Several braided rivers with gravel bars flow through the landscape as a result. I have often seen dew or frost on the ground in the mornings, adding yet another element to a good landscape or macro composition. Once in a while a thick fog bank, when combined with a rising sun, adds a spectacular but challenging element to include in the viewfinder. The numerous ponds also provide superb reflections. I paused at several along the way, shooting them straight, some with a graduated neutral density filter, others taking several exposures for an HDR composite using Photo Matix.

With as much as people rave about driving the road in Denali National Park & Preserve, there are so many equally wonderful opportunities to capture scenic and wildlife images along the Copper River Road for any inspired photographer. Additionally, there are several hiking trails lead away from the road, giving even more chances to explore more into this magnificent landscape.

About in Cordova

Saturday, May 8th, 2010
About in Cordova

Let me preface this blog post by stating that I am not in any way connected with the Corodva Chamber of Commerce or any travel agency that sends people to Cordova on vacation. With that said, Cordova is my favorite coastal town in Alaska.

I cannot explain fully why it is my favorite coastal town. And let me set the record straight that my experience in coastal towns has been limited: Valdez, Seward, Homer, Seldovia, Whittier and Cordova. I have yet to visit the Southeast and its many coastal communities. Some day I will, and I am sure I will find other favorites along the way.

Here is what I do like about Cordova. It is isolated, which means it is less likely to get random travelers and tourists. Not that I disdain tourists, but it is nice to know that there are some places where I can get away to in the summer and not be overrun. There is a sixty mile road to nowhere known as the Copper River Highway that ends on the other side of the Million Dollar Bridge at the point where the Copper River continues on toward the Prince William Sound after passing through Miles Lake. The drive is well worth the time to have the opportunity to view a calving glacier from the comfort of solid ground, as the Child’s Glacier sheds its ancient ice into the Copper River. Along the drive you will have numerous opportunities to view all sorts of birds and wildlife in the Copper River Delta and along the Alaganik Slough.

Cordova is also home to a long-lasting, robust and economically sound salmon fishery. As a result, the rather large harbor contains boats that are primarily working fishing boats of all shapes and sizes. It’s most famous product is likely the early fishery opening of the Copper River Sockeye and King Salmon, particularly the Sockeye which sell at high prices in Lower 48 restaurants literally hours after they are harvested from the ocean. What makes the Copper River run so popular? For one thing, the Copper River is considerably colder than most anadromous streams, leading to the development of a thicker fat layer in the salmon and a more melt-in-your-mouth flavor. The other reason it is so popular is that the Cordova fishing community has developed a stellar marketing program. Due to the longevity of the fishery, the Cordova fishing community often collaborates with the Bristol Bay fishery on a variety of issues. It is no surprise, then, that I did not find a single pro-Pebble Mine bumper sticker anywhere. In contrast, cars, boats and store fronts were well decorated with anti-Pebble sentiments.

We were still there well before the town was fully open for the season, but my favorite eating establishment was fully open for business. And they had seriously upgraded since I was last there six years ago. I am talking about the delicious, wonderful, delightful Baja Taco. On your way down to the south harbor, it was the unmistakable fire engine red school bus that served excellent tacos, burritos and what-not out of a side window. The red bus is still the kitchen, but they have built a building around the bus to accommodate both indoor and outdoor seating. We had a way overfilling breakfast burrito our first morning. As for dinner, the only place that was really open was the Reluctant Fisherman. With both meals, the food was outstanding, and the setting could not be better – old wood and copper interior with a spectacular overlook of the harbor.

For lodging, there are a variety of B&Bs and a couple of lodges (even the Reluctant Fisherman is also an Inn), but the only place I have ever stayed is at the Orca Adventure Lodge. Located at the far end of a narrow road along the coast heading north out of Cordova, the lodge is an old cannery, with several outbuildings from the original operations still on site. The rooms in the main lodge are small and lack a TV or other typical amenities, but you don’t go to Cordova to watch television. The cafe uses the old cannery cafeteria, and boasts some the best family-style food I have ever had at an establishment in Alaska. In the evenings, staff, guests and locals hang out at the large bonfire pit on the edge of the water, looking out on Orca Inlet and some old dock pilings. On our last evening, we joined a group that was burning some pallets and various large pieces of wood that had been extracted from a demolition project.

Aside from the many wonderful recreational and wildlife viewing opportunities in Cordova, the town has a charm of its own that makes it all worth the while to visit if you want to have a true Alaskan experience.

Traveling on the ferry

Friday, May 7th, 2010
Traveling on the ferry

Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined. Needless to say, travel along the Aleutian Islands, through Prince William Sound and in the Southeast is very maritime in nature. Many people have leisure boats, particularly in the Prince William Sound, but most travel on the waters using the Alaska Marine Highway, or ferry. And for most of these coastal towns, that is the only way to get in other than a plane. They are not connected to the rest of the state through the road system.

Our vessel to carry us to Cordova from Whittier was the M/V Aurora. Our particular route was a straight shot to Cordova for a seven-hour trip. Sometimes they have a diverting route that stops at Valdez in between Whittier and Cordova – not this time. With the high-speed ferry Chenega, this would only be a three-hour trip. Unfortunately, the Chenega is out of commission until early July. I have made this trip a few times before, but it was Michelle’s first time on the ferry.

I absolutely adore riding the ferry. When out exploring, I have always preferred the slower modes of travel. I prefer Nordic skiing over Alpine skiing. I prefer paddling a canoe over taking a motor boat. I was also born in love with the ocean, but really did not fully appreciate my adoration for the open sea until I served in the Navy. Put these two things together, and the ferry makes for a great way to get around. Along the way, I frequently take walks about on the weather decks to enjoy the scenery, watch birds and look at the many marine mammals along the way. On this leg, we saw several sea otters, several groups of Dall’s porpoise, and two humpback whales. The whales were too far away to photograph, but one was engaging in some rather odd behavior. It was close to the shore as we approached the Orca Inlet on our final turn into Cordova. It was repeatedly thrashing and whacking its tail against the surface of the water, over and over, as if it was trying to beat the very ocean itself into submission.

Aside from the scenery and views, the ferry is also a really comfortable ride. The lounge areas have theater-style chairs as well as booth setups with tables. There is a lounge with a large flat screen television that offers some programming (I don’t know what – Michelle and I watched episodes of “Eureka” on my laptop). There is also a cafeteria that provides a decent menu and a variety of snack foods. But my favorite part is the deck chairs and outdoor heaters. If you are really tired (like I was when we returned to Whittier, leaving Cordova at 5:00 a.m.), you can stretch out on the long deck chairs and take a nap. If it is chilly out, you can sleep in a covered area with blasting heaters overhead – the Solarium. I think I took a four-hour nap on the way back.

The other things that makes the ferry a superior mode of travel is the relationships you can build with perfect strangers. If you have ever taken the train cross-country, you know what I am talking about. You get to know the people who sit near you, you tend to talk to the same people who are out on the weather decks looking for birds and marine mammals, and then, after you see them for seven hours on the ferry, you run into them frequently throughout the weekend. And for those who are just visiting like you, there is the chance to get to chat with them some more on the way back home.

I would highly recommend to anyone traveling to Alaska to use the ferry system if you want to be on the ocean for long periods of time and travel from port to port. You control your own schedule and you have a more raw, natural experience.

To Seward for some Pink Cheeks

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010
To Seward for some Pink Cheeks

Michelle and I went down to Seward on Friday so she could participate in the Pink Cheeks Triathlon on Saturday.  I knew that we were not going to be spending much time in town, so I decided to focus my efforts on photographing the harbor.  After a delicious dinner at Ray’s  of cajun blacked halibut cheeks, Michelle retired to the room and I spent a about an hour and a half after nightfall photographing the boats in the harbor.  The next morning, I got up right around sunrise at 6:00 to go back out and explore the harbor with the morning light.  Due to the steep ridges and peaks of Resurrection Bay, the sun never actually hit the harbor until I was finishing for the morning.  After breakfast, Michelle and I went for a walk on the docks, photographing boats, a raven, a couple of dogs that were snarling at me, and, when Michelle pointed it out, a Stellar sea lion cow meandering among the boat docks in the harbor.

 Then, we headed over to Seward High School, the focal point of the Pink Cheeks Triathlon.  Pink Cheeks is what is referred to as a “sprint” triathlon, in that the swimming is 900 yards, the running is three miles and the biking is only six miles.  It is also the first of many triathlons for the year in Southcentral Alaska.  We hooked up with Michelle’s sister, Linda, and her kids, Tyler and Maddie.  Tyler and Michelle were part of a three-person team, while Linda was doing the triathlon solo.   For those who were swimming as part of a team, the swimming came before the run.  In order to accommodate all the swimmers, locals were required to swim on Friday.  Following the swim, there was a mass start for all runners, followed by the bike portion.  Then, for many of the people doing the triathlon solo, the swimming came at the end.