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.
Heading for inside passage cruise in a wk. Enjoyed your post. You have mostly professional gear, which most of us enthusiasts can only crave for. Noticed, all photos with high shutter speed and therefore the 2.8 F comes in handy. I am counting on my Tokina 2.8F 28-70mm to help here with my D7100 Nikon. Hoping for the weather to cooperate on excursions to make the trip worthwhile.
Can I ask what did you use for rain protection? Camera plastic sleeve works or some workaround?
So sorry! Only just seen your comment! I hope your cruise lived up to expectations. Why not post some images?
To answer your question (a bit late to be of any use), I didn’t really use any rain protection, since we didn’t have any proper rain. The one day it did rain, I left the cameras in the car and just took the Panasonic LX100 compact. It mostly stayed in my pocket, and only came out for (quick!) shots. The cameras are supposed to be reasonably weather-sealed, so all I did was wipe the sea-spray off them regularly, and resisted changing lenses until we got inside.
Beautiful photos, the glaciers with something for scale were amazing. I had no idea they are that big. The floating ice shots are beautiful. I should go up that way, I live 40 miles from Canada in Idaho so the drive isn’t that far. Thanks for sharing your trip.
OK, living so close, you have no excuse! The nice thing about the ice floes is that those shots are unique. Those lumps of ice calved off one of the glaciers and will have melted away within a day or so, preserved only thanks to the magic of Nikon! So every time you sail out you’ll be seeing something that no previous or future trip will see. I’d love to be brave and do that trip by kayak to get really close!
Just looked at your images. VERY impressive. Now I’ve got to find a way to get there too. Thanks a bunch!
Glad you liked them! I also need to get back there and see the things we didn’t have time for – Denali, etc….
When can we expect chapter 2? We’re heading to Alaska next June on a cruise and hoping to get more tips from you.
I have sent it in. I guess Nasim is just waiting for a suitable gap in their posting schedule. I think most of the things we did would accessible from a cruise trip. Most of the local guides/trips are geared to the cruise ship timetables. The only exceptions would be the road trips (hold your breath for part 2!), but I think you’ll still have more than enough to keep your camera busy!
The train in Skagway has a multitude of picturesque spots along the route – it’s called the Scenic Railway of the World! If you’re keen on hiking to and on a glacier, check out the Laughton Glacier Tour by Packer Expeditions in Skagway. You’ll get incredible experience and super close to the ice as well! The Mendenhall Glacier Juneau is a different beast and just as incredible, which various options to access it. Helicopter/sea plane flights are awesome ways to see the Lynn Canal and the glaciers from above! I worked for Packer in Skagway so I’m quite familiar with the area and things to do and see. It will definitely be a trip to remember!
I’m not sure if raw2nef would work for the D3300, but definitely worth asking. Have a look at www.bagnon.com. If they don’t support the D3300, the other option would be to use Nikon NX-D to open the files, then save them as 16 bit TIFF, then open the TIFFs in NX2. You may need to reload NX2 if NX-D tries to kill it off – I vaguely remember reading something about that, but I’ve never had both loaded on the same PC. But definitely worth persisting with the RAW files. The first couple of years I had a D300S I only shot jpeg (under the influence of another well-known photo website), and I’ve been kicking myself ever since!
Thank-you VERY much for this beautiful post! I hope you and yours make it to Alaska again before not too much longer!
Canberra, where a light frost counts as cold
Image #11 is how I see the world :)
Another option is Gray Line Alaska. That’s how I did my Alaska tour some years ago. It wasn’t too expensive and they took care of the accommodations and transport. It sure was a lot of fun. I hope to make it back someday.
Nice photos, the blue ice is photogenic, and the scale is quite impressive. Talking with several American friends, I heard that Alaska during summer was stinky and covered by annoying insects. You don’t mention it, is that a legend or where you lucky?
Thanks for this first preview, looking forward more wildlife!
I can’t say we noticed anything ‘stinky’. We were prepared for insects, but they really weren’t a problem (OK, I did get get one bite on my hand, and the lump took about 2 weeks to go down!). We spent most of our time on or near the coast, which is always less of a problem. And when we were inland, it was usually the middle of the day. I would imagine if you’re around the rivers at dawn or dusk the mosquitoes would make your life hell. Maybe we’ll find out next time if we venture up to Denali!
Glad you liked the ice. When the glaciers got the slightest hint of sunshine, they seemed to glow blue from within.
Love the phopos as i willl never be able to take a trip like that or any trip i just bought a CoolPix Nikon 900p havnt had the chance to use it yet but i know its great Hope to see some more soon
The big zoom on that Coolpix gives you lots of options – have fun with it!