Alaska. Just the mention of the word conjures visions of boundless wilderness, massive glaciers and abundant wildlife. Just down the road from Anchorage lies one of Alaska's most accessible photographic gems—Turnagain Arm. Turnagain Arm is a branch of Cook Inlet, where Captain James Cook sailed in search of the Northwest Passage in 1778. Upon reaching the entrance to the Arm, he mistakenly thought it to be a river and turned around, naming the area River Turnagain. It was later renamed Turnagain Arm by Captain George Vancouver.
The Arm extends some 40 miles east of Anchorage. Varying in width from 15 miles to less than a mile at its head, it snakes between the Chugach Mountains to the north and the Kenai Mountains to the south. Seward Highway, one of America's National Scenic Byways, runs along the north side and affords stunning views of wildlife, glaciers and mile-high mountains rising from the sea. Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Arm is its extreme tidal range; at 38 feet between low and high tide, it's the second largest tide in the world.
Temperatures in spring and summer range from the 40s to the 70s (degrees F). Winter temperatures can range from 20 below to 40 above, but normally are in the teens to low 30s. A word of caution: prevailing storm patterns blow in from Prince William Sound to the east of the Arm and can bring winds of up to 70 mph. Carry protection from driving rain and snow for your camera gear, but don't let this stop you from photographing in less-than-ideal weather conditions.
During summer, beluga whales are typically seen in the winding channels near the road. Potter Marsh hosts a variety of waterfowl and shorebirds, from tundra swans to mallards. Bald eagles and moose are common. Dall sheep dot several mountainsides, and coyote, fox and black and grizzly bears make the shore their home, but are less frequently seen.
The Kenai and Chugach mountains form impressive backdrops for the landscape photographer. In winter, the Arm is choked with ice floes, often several feet thick and tens of acres in size. Flowing in and out of the Arm on powerful twice-daily tides, these floes crash into each other and the shore in a spectacular display of the force of nature. Video cameras are particularly effective at capturing this natural demolition derby.
At the head of the Arm lies scenic Portage Valley. Built on the western shore of Portage Lake, the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center overlooks glacier-clad mountains and a lake dotted with icebergs from the retreating Portage Glacier. A real treat is to witness chunks of ice below the waterline of icebergs breaking off and surfacing in a tumultuous cacophony of sight and sound. During summer, boat tours visit the calving face of Portage Glacier.
Spring brings lengthening days and warming temperatures. The ice floes melt, leaving still snow-covered mountains rising above the greening valley floor. Summer has moderate temperatures and 19-hour days.
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