Who hasn’t dreamt of a trip to Alaska? It may not seem such a big deal for residents of west coast or NW USA, but for the rest of us it seems as far away as the moon. Even so, wherever we traveled we’d run into someone who waxed lyrical about their Alaskan cruise. Finally, the opportunity of snapping those images of bears catching leaping salmon was too much to resist.
Once I started researching the trip, it became apparent that a cruise wasn’t the best option for us – even though the entire tourist infrastructure seems geared to cruise ships, and traveling independently can be a real logistical nightmare.
So, everything eventually planned and booked – but what gear? There were a couple of journeys planned on small planes with weight and space restrictions, so I couldn’t pack everything. The final choice was my much-loved Nikon D800 for landscape duty, and D500 for wildlife. Lenses were the Nikon f/2.8 “trinity”: NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G for those amazing wide-angle landscapes, NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G for “everyday” use, and NIKKOR 70-200 f/2.8G VR (i.e. 105-300mm effective on the D500) for the wildlife. The NIKKOR 200-500mm was no-go because of the weight. I’d also thought about the Sigma 24-35mm plus 50mm f/1.4 Art duo instead of the 24-70mm, but since each of them weighs as much as the Nikon…
Our first stop was Juneau (via Seattle) on the SE coast. Why they chose to build a state capital in a place where there are no roads in or out is anyone’s guess. And remember what I said about cruise ships? The cruise ship terminal is at the heart of downtown. The airport is 16 miles out of town (with no public transport), and the Marine Ferry terminal even further away. So if the city seems so determined to discourage independent visitors, why bother? Because Juneau is the jumping-off point for this:
The Tracy Arm fjord has two glaciers, but the glaciers are only part of the attraction, with plenty of photo-ops along the way:
The glaciers themselves are heralded by their short-lived cast-offs:
The cameras worked hard here. The weather was very dull and grey, and we were on the deck of a small boat, bobbing up and down – so juggling ISO and shutter speed to keep images sharp, yet reasonably noise-free, was a constant battle. I have to say I was very happy with the results – no NR used. And in many ways I found these ice-floes even more photogenic than their parents. Maybe next visit I’ll have time to take a paddle through the ice and get really close!
When you finally see the face of the glacier, it’s difficult to appreciate their size. That wall is over half a mile away:
Always useful to have another boat or creature to give you a sense of scale:
And of course, it’s not just the panorama. Each face is full of amazing shapes and details:
A ferry ride from Juneau to Skagway, and we enter a different world. Sadly, the little town – the main arrival point for prospectors joining the Klondike gold-rush – was shrouded in rain and mist. Luckily this didn’t detract too much from the stunning landscapes as we took the tourist train from Skagway up to Carcross in Canada:
The rail line was built towards the end of the gold-rush, closely following one of the foot ‘trails’. Not all of the original railway survived, providing some evocative ‘ghosts’:
The guides regaled us with stories of the hardships endured by the poor deluded prospectors, including the ‘ton of goods’ they had to haul up to the Canadian border before the Canadian authorities would let them in:
A fascinating history lesson, and on the way back to Skagway, something slightly different:
The next stage of our trip was centered on Anchorage, and this is where the cruise-ship option would have fallen short.
Not On a Cruise Ship
Earlier, I said we’d discounted seeing Alaska by cruise ship. Here’s why:
This part of our trip centered around Anchorage, with road trips to Valdez and Seward. But first, those bears. Remember I mentioned those inspiring Nat Geo shots of bears fishing? We paid a small fortune for a bear-watching trip with a large, well-known Anchorage tour company. We were flown to a tiny creek on Redoubt Bay, spent three hours sat on a boat, our view obscured by several salmon fishermen, and as we were about to leave, finally saw one bear, for less than a minute:
Back in Anchorage, the wildlife came to us. My wife spotted this, about five blocks from downtown:
Our first road trip was to Valdez. Only about a hundred miles away if you’re a crow, but nearer three hundred when you have to drive around the sea, the mountains and the glaciers. No mind, the roadside scenery is the main reason for doing this trip:
Small side roads contain slightly less obvious treasures, like the Rusty Cars Picnic:
Roadworks around the entrance to the parking lot meant we couldn’t get too close to Worthington Glacier:
On the way back from Valdez, we got close – very close – but the weather wasn’t cooperating. Still, using my wife’s Panasonic LX100 (didn’t have any pockets big enough to accommodate a Nikon in the pouring rain), I did manage some fairly dramatic shots. And we can both truthfully say we have actually touched the face of a glacier:
Mention of Valdez might inspire images of oil refineries and rocks covered in oil slicks, but actually the setting of the small boat harbour – surrounded by mountains – is superb:
Valdez is also the launching point for the very impressive Meares Glacier:
Like other glaciers, the scale is deceptive (half a mile wide and three hundred feet high in this instance), until some other boat or creature gives you some scale:
Notice those little dark splodges off the bottom left of the ice face?
I did take a multi-shot panorama with the D800. Any idea where I can get a 20k+ pixel-wide image printed? The road from Anchorage to Seward was similarly scenic (though only about a hundred miles):
The scenery was almost alpine at times:
Lots more glacier shots, though this one (Holgate Glacier) somehow felt much colder than the others, and the sea of ice-floes much more serious:
Seward provided some lovely wildlife shots. The Sea Otters seemed completely unfazed by us, and continued lazing or playing:
I’ll spare you the shot of the remains of a porpoise (which had been dismembered by a pod of Orcas) floating by the boat…
Our final day, in the Eagle River Valley near Anchorage, seemed almost bucolic by comparison. We were warned to keep singing and talking loudly, since there was a black bear in the area (though fresh footprints and scat were the nearest we came) – but even the slight nervousness couldn’t detract from the natural (and photogenic) beauty, sculpted partly by spring floods, and partly by several active beavers:
Sadly Denali couldn’t be fitted into our timescale this visit – but it gives us an excuse to go back again!
From a technical standpoint, all the cameras (D800, D500, LX100) behaved impeccably – though I’m still regretting not being able to take the Sigma Art 24-35mm and 50mm instead of the Nikon 24-70mm. This was the first and last major outing for the D500 – it will be replaced by a D850 once Nikon sorts out any launch bugs. Sorry Nasim! – yes, I did read your post on ‘camera hype’, but my logic is that with D800 + D850 I don’t get the expense and weight of having to buy and carry two sets of lenses, which I would need to do if I stuck with D800 + D500…
Congratulations by the way to anyone who noticed photos labelled as ‘D610’. Those were actually shot on the D500, but disguising the camera’s identity is Raw2Nef’s way of fooling Capture NX2 into opening the RAW files.