The Last Frontier

Grizzly bears, old-growth rain forest and state-sized glaciers are just a few of the photo opportunities in Alaska‚’s Chugach Mountains

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The Last Frontier Matanuska Glacier, Alaska

Looking out the window of the small, red Super Cub, Alaska’s two-person version of an air taxi, I’m awed at the jagged, snowy peaks rising out of the dense, temperate rain forest. There are no roads, buildings or signs of humans—just mile after mile of thick green forest, turquoise lakes, alpine meadows and crevasse-laced glaciers. Having guided wilderness trips for years around the globe, I’m struggling to remember a location to match the raw beauty below. This pristine landscape consists of some of the most rugged mountains anywhere. Known as the Chugach Mountains, this Alaskan wilderness is an outdoor photographer’s paradise.

The Chugach Mountains, named after the Inuit people who lived in this area, stretch 300 miles from the St. Elias Mountains in the east to the head of Cook Inlet near Anchorage. Bordering the Gulf of Alaska, these jagged peaks get more snow than anywhere else in the world, more than 600 inches a year. This snowfall contributes to some 8,200 square miles of glacial ice, a quarter of Alaska’s total. Wildlife is abundant. Wolves, grizzly and black bears, moose and Dall sheep are regularly seen. Take a coastal trip on Prince William Sound bordering the Chugach Mountains and add humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, otters and more bald eagles than you can count to the list.

The Last Frontier
Horned Puffin, Pribilof Islands, Bering Sea, Alaska

The good news for photographers is, despite the rugged nature and remoteness of the Chugach range, there are easily accessible areas to photograph close to the road. You can access many areas simply by flying into Anchorage, renting a car and spending a week or more visiting locations along the road system.

Photography in the 49th state can be a little tougher than in the "Outside" what Alaskans call the Lower 48. Summer temperatures are normally in the 60s during the day and 40s at night, and in winter, temps range from zero to the 20s. A huge bonus to photographing in Alaska during the summer is 20 hours of daylight, with hours of beautiful, warm twilight. Rain is always possible, so bring good rain gear and sturdy hiking shoes. Despite being famous for its mosquitoes, bugs are similar in quantity to many other areas outside of Alaska, although having bug repellent is a good idea. All of Alaska is bear country, so be alert when hiking, and make noise when traveling in low-visibility areas (yell "Hello, bear!"). You want to see the bears, but you don’t want to count their molar teeth. Surprising a bear, especially a sow and cubs, is dangerous.


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The Last Frontier
Evening Light, Pioneer Peak, Chugach Mountains, Alaska

If you ever wanted to justify buying a big lens, Alaska is your answer. Wildlife photography is abundant, and having a long telephoto is a good idea. I normally carry lenses from 17mm all the way to 500mm. A sturdy tripod is a must, and vibration reduction/image stabilization is handy for shooting from boat decks. I normally carry my photo backpack loaded with all I need, including a rain cover for my pack and camera with lens. Make sure you bring enough flash cards because you’re going to need them!

Where To Go

The Last Frontier Fireweed, Portage Lake, Alaska

Portage Glacier. One of the highlights of the Chugach Mountains is Portage Glacier. Drive south from Anchorage along the scenic Seward Highway for about 50 miles until you reach the entrance to Portage Valley. On the drive south, watch for Dall sheep at milepost 107 near Windy Point. Sheep often graze right by the road. Occasionally, you can watch beluga whales feeding on salmon in Turnagain Arm, and bald eagles are common along the highway. On good years, fields of purple lupine are found along Turnagain Arm near Portage.

The Last Frontier Northern Lights, Chickaloon, Alaska

The highlight of Portage Valley is Portage Lake and Portage Glacier. Visit the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center for excellent interpretive displays and then head to the lake. Often, car-sized, blue icebergs line the shore, providing excellent photo ops. For around $29, you can take a one-hour cruise onto Portage Lake to the glacier face, where you can photograph more icebergs and, if you’re lucky, ice calving off the glacier into the lake. Portage Valley has numerous small lakes and glaciers, each offering interesting photography. Black bears, moose and bald eagles are common. South of Portage Valley on the Seward Highway is the Placer River Valley, where tundra swans nest and fields of magenta fireweed bloom.

Chugach State Park. Comprised of nearly a half-million acres and nestled near Anchorage, this is the third-largest state park in America and offers numerous photography opportunities, especially for those willing to hike a few miles. One of my favorite trails is Bird Ridge. This hike begins at milepost 100.5 on the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. The trail is steep, gaining 2,500 feet in about 1.5 miles, but the views of the Chugach Mountains and Turnagain Arm are astounding. The trail begins in dense boreal forest and switchbacks up onto the tundra and exposed rocky ridge. Wildflowers are common, and the boulders on the ridge make an interesting foreground for the views deep into the Chugach Mountains. The trail is south-facing, so snow melts early in the season.

With its reputation as the last great frontier in North America, Alaska draws outdoor photographers year-round who are looking for unique and pristine landscapes, as well as a bounty of wildlife. Places like Denali National Park and Preserve and the Chugach Mountains offer photographic possibilities that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. The rugged Chugach gives you many photo opportunities—from dramatic landscapes to extreme skiing and snowboarding. In and around Denali, you’ll find huge herds of caribou, bald eagles and an incredible assortment of other species.

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The Last Frontier
Iceberg Lake, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

Another great photography location in Chugach State Park is Eklutna Lake. Take the Glenn Highway north out of Anchorage and turn at the Eklutna Lake exit at mile 26. Follow the signs for 10 miles to Eklutna Lake. Eklutna Glacier carved out this narrow valley, leaving seven-mile-long Eklutna Lake sandwiched between steep mountains in the Chugach. There’s a flat, easy trail along the north side of the lake, with numerous vantage points to photograph the milky turquoise waters framed by birch and spruce trees. For the adventurous, try renting a kayak and paddling on the lake for unique perspectives (kayak rentals are available near the parking lot). For great views of the entire lake, take the Twin Peaks Trail from the parking lot. This trail slowly climbs out of the valley into the tundra with stunning views of Eklutna Lake. This area is a kaleidoscope of yellows during the fall.

Matanuska Glacier. Located two hours north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, the Matanuska Glacier is the best location to photograph on an actual glacier. This valley glacier winds 27 miles from the highest peaks in the Chugach down to the highway. From the parking lot at the toe, or end of the glacier, you walk less than a quarter mile before stepping onto the ice. The photography is incredible, from cerulean streams running on top of the glacier to huge scalloped fins of ice. Occasionally, you’ll hear a popping sound as the glacier continues its movement below your feet! In mid- to late summer, pink fireweed blooms along the edges of the glacier, offering a great contrast to the blue ice in the distance.

If you visit Alaska in the winter, the Glenn Highway near the Matanuska Glacier and nearby Eklutna Summit are excellent vantages from which to photograph the northern lights. These displays are sporadic, but a great resource for predicting the northern lights is the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska. Go to the Aurora forecast page at www.gedds.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast.

Thompson Pass/Worthington Glacier. Located about five hours from Anchorage, close to Valdez, Alaska, Thompson Pass and the Worthington Glacier are two more scenic areas of the Chugach Mountains accessible by car. The Worthington Glacier is similar to the Matanuska, although smaller, with a short trail leading out to excellent views of the ice. This glacier isn’t good for hiking on the ice. The glacier drops steeply from the Chugach Mountains, and morainal pools near the base offer great reflections. Fireweed is common near the glacier in late summer.


Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Fairbanks And Denali National Park & Preserve

No discussion of an Alaska adventure would be complete without addressing the region near Denali National Park & Preserve. Fairbanks, the gateway to the Arctic and the Alaskan Interior, is a 45-minute drive north from Anchorage and provides some of the most lush and rugged parts of Alaska’s wilderness. It's also the second-largest city in Alaska and is close to Denali. Catching a stunning glimpse of the northern lights during the early-morning hours, from late August to April, you can capture stunning greens, reds, purples and the most consistent yellow-green swirling lights.

And if you’re in Fairbanks during the summer months, you’ll fall asleep with plenty of sun—with more than 21 hours of daylight.

If you want to photograph wildlife and rivers, meandering mountain lakes, vast frozen tundra and alpine meadows, hop on the road for a two-hour drive to Denali National Park & Preserve (www.nps.gov/dena) or board a train for the four-hour trip.

One of the largest national parks in the U.S. (it’s larger than the state of Massachusetts), Denali covers six million acres of wilderness.

Mostly tundra, the park is home to Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America, which rises to 20,320 feet.

There’s only one road, the Denali Park Road, and most private vehicles aren't permitted on this 91-mile stretch of gravel highway, but you can catch a bus that runs along boreal forests and tundra that takes you to scenic vistas and mountain views. If you’re hiking, be cautious; the area is home to grizzly and black bear, caribou, Dall sheep and gray wolf (and their dens), among other species

Just down the road toward Valdez is Thompson Pass, where you can photograph tundra right from your car. Tundra plants, including bearberry, crowberry and blueberry, make excellent macro subjects. In the fall, the bearberry turns crimson, transforming the pass into shades of red. Thompson Pass is famous for the World Extreme Skiing Championship. Receiving 75 feet of snow in the winter, this is one of the best places to photograph extreme skiing and snowboarding.


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Prince William Sound. A large part of the Chugach Mountains is bordered by Prince William Sound, and no trip exploring this range would be complete without taking a boat cruise on the sound. Whittier is the access point that’s closest to Anchorage (about one hour south) and is accessible by car. During the summer, a number of full-day cruises depart Whittier, exploring numerous tidewater glaciers, stunning coastal scenery and lots of wildlife. Oneof my favorite areas is Harriman Fjord, a narrow bay capped by glaciers and sinuous waterfalls. Humpback whales, orcas, otters and puffins are seen regularly, sometimes coming very close to the boat for good photographs. Mountain goats patrol the cliffsides beside the glaciers.

For a more intimate view of the sound and exceptional photography, take a trip with Dean Rand on the Discovery (www.discoveryvoyages.com). Live aboard a comfortable boat for multiple days, cruising and photographing at a relaxed pace. You have the opportunity to go ashore numerous times to photograph beached icebergs and rocky coasts. Colorful starfish are found in the tide pools, and black bears forage below the tideline.

I’ll never forget eating a gourmet salmon dinner aboard the Discovery while we drifted in front of the Surprise Glacier. All at once an enormous piece of the glacier began to calve into the fjord. Instantly, everyone jumped up, grabbed cameras and knocked over wine glasses, running out the door to capture the crashing ice. In Alaska, photography trumps gourmet food every time!

Resources
Alaska Travel Industry Association
http://www.travelalaska.com
Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau
www.anchorage.net
Cordova Chamber of Commerce
& Visitors Center

www.cordovachamber.com
Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau
www.explorefairbanks.com
Girdwood Chamber of Commerce
www.girdwoodalaska.com
Kenai Convention & Visitors Bureau
www.visitkenai.com
Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau
www.alaskavisit.com
Seward Chamber of Commerce
& Visitors Bureau

www.sewardak.org
Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau
www.valdezalaska.org

For more Alaska resources, go to page 100 in Travel & Workshops

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit www.tombolphoto.com.

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