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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Alaska By Sea

Tremendous photo opportunities await in America’s Great White North

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A coastal brown grizzly bear chases a salmon in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
In the past, I’ve photographed eagles from kayaks in Glacier Bay and icebergs at arm’s length in Prince William Sound, and I currently use a variety of Pelican cases to keep my two bodies and four lenses both dry and available. Kayaking in wet suits and spray skirts is cumbersome compared to water shorts and Tevas on the Colorado River, but that’s soon forgotten when the sea otters eye you quizzically on a glassy morning in Kachemak Bay near Homer and continue unperturbed with their breakfast as you paddle by. Shooting at water level allows for reflections of the subject and simply is a very effective point of view, especially with wider lenses.

If kayaking with cameras seems a bit foolhardy, no worries; book a spot on the numerous small tour boats that ply the waters of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park, or Prince William Sound out of Valdez, or Glacier Bay out of Gustavus or Bartlett Cove. Experienced skippers have a fine eye for local wildlife and are worth their fee, so ask about their knowledge and bring both long and short glass.

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Hiking along the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
One of my favorite Alaskan wildlife images is of two Dall’s porpoise swimming off our bow on a surreal calm morning in Prince William Sound. They have the look of small orcas, and I used a 20mm to encompass their glide moves and a doubly reflected sun. It’s an otherworldly image and would have lost that quality with a long lens. I like to work with two camera bodies, one with a wide zoom and the other with a longer range zoom, as changing lenses invariably will cost you a critical moment.

I also love to photograph people exploring and playing in Alaska, and one fine June morning I captured 18 climbers who had just reached the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley. The pilot said convincingly that he had never seen such a large group on top of this giant, and they seemed exultant when viewed through my pressurized window at 21,000 feet! That was shot from a Navajo Chieftain aircraft out of an airstrip near Denali National Park. On a calm mid-September evening years ago, I chartered a bright red Cessna out of Talkeetna and flew around Denali at 14,000 feet, marveling in a sunset and alpenglow that just wouldn’t end. The mountain glowed pink into ruby, while the glaciers in shadow turned purplish-blue—a flight and a night to savor, and part of the magic of Alaska.

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Juvenile Steller sea lions play near Point Bullhead, Glacier Island, in Prince William Sound.
On a particularly wet and cold day, I found myself wearing crampons on the Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau. There I photographed people sampling and saving glacial meltwater that to my eye was like liquid sapphire, and it was so appealing visually that I joined in their 10,000-year-old natural cocktail mixer and even brought a bottle home to the desert.

Another summer found me taking back roads to McCarthy, the gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. At six times the size of Yellowstone, studded with 16,000-foot peaks and endless glaciers and hikes, this is a place where you could spend all your summers and not exhaust its wonders. In McCarthy, you can book glacier hikes with climbing guides, but bring boots that accept crampons. Next summer I’ll be back again on the scenic Root Glacier, hiking the steep trails around McCarthy in search of wildlife and ice-carved vistas. This is truly a world-class park and worth the drive from Anchorage or Valdez! Plan on several days and, amazingly, the tiny town of McCarthy offers some fine dining, so you don’t have to rough it at night after a physical trail day.

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James’ Alaska photography is exclusively produced with Pentax cameras and lenses. He finds the K20D combined with the weather-sealed construction of Pentax DA* lenses to be particularly useful in the extreme environments of Alaska.
Photo cruises are one of the very best ways to see and photograph the splendor of Alaska. In 2009, I’m teaching workshops on four Alaska photo cruises between June and August. I’m also teaching a land-based workshop, Wild Alaska, in June 2009 for Friends of Arizona Highways, which will take us to Glacier Bay, Prince William Sound and Wrangell-St. Elias, plus a ride on the Alaska Railroad to Seward and Kenai Fjords. These are some of my favorite places for getting dramatic images of Alaska.


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