When speaking to Kennan and Karen Ward, and especially looking at their images, you can see why they're so passionate about Alaska. Before long, you'll find yourself seduced by the boundless photo opportunities that are available in America's northernmost state.
"One of the best parts of Alaska is that there is so much wilderness still intact," says Kennan, who began his love affair with the state in the late '70s when he worked as a backcountry ranger in Denali National Park. Along with his wife, Karen, the two photographers have often returned to Alaska to compose images that are impossible to capture anywhere else in the country. "Unlike the Lower 48, where in 20 minutes there's always a development, up there you can really get into the wilderness and experience it in ways that you can't elsewhere," says Kennan. Both Wards are eager to share their knowledge of the wild beauty that is Alaska.
Denali National Park And Preserve
Encompassing a complete subarctic ecosystem, Denali includes more than six million acres of federally protected lands abounding with large mammals like moose, wolves, grizzly bear and Dall sheep. It also features more than 600 species of flowering plants and 160 species of birds. With the majestic 20,320-foot peak of Mount McKinley as a backdrop, it’s a location that easily inspires the creativity in any photographer.
“It’s the champion of parks,” says Kennan of Denali National Park and Preserve. “It’s the Everest to a photographer or to any adventurer who wants to see the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley. It’s also the place to see grizzly bears, moose, caribou and wolves run rampant. This is where your chances of seeing these wild animals are pretty good.”
The Northern Lights
“If you thought of only one thing to shoot in Alaska, it would be the northern lights,” says Kennan. “There’s something that’s so awesome about it, and people worldwide come to see it.”
The natural phenomenon that appears like a moving multicolored light show against the dark screen of night is produced as a result of solar flares from the sun. Molecules, traveling at high speeds, move through the Earth’s ionosphere and space. As they travel along the Earth’s magnetic field, the electronics impact with oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, producing a fluctuating show of color. Although not completely understood by scientists, it results in a unique display of colors that are never reproduced.
“Many people have a dream to go see the northern lights, and once they’ve experienced it, they really have seen something special,” says Karen. “It affects people very deeply. There’s a raw beauty to it that’s completely unpredictable and awesome.”
Refuges And State Parks
“Denali State Park is a beautiful place to work that isn’t as crowded as the national park and doesn’t suffer from limited access,” explains Karen. “Denali National Park has very limited access for photographers and the public. You have to have a photo permit, and that can really throw people for a loop because they realize they just can’t drive through it like they can in the parks in the Lower 48.”
Adjoining the national park, the 325,240-acre state park offers a wealth of opportunities for photographers. The park has a stunning backdrop, which includes the Curry and Kesugi ridges, a 35-mile-long alpine ridge. It features large expanses of arctic tundra, valley glaciers and ice-carved gorges.
“There’s another national wildlife refuge called Kenai and it has a wide variety of birds,” says Kennan. “I think that one of the most spectacular and underrated opportunities in Alaska isn’t just the awesome big game, but the different wildlife and waterfowl. Although a lot of people are thinking about grizzly bears and wolves and caribou, there’s also so much birdlife there that it’s just phenomenal.” Often called “Alaska in Miniature,” Denali State Park includes mountain tundra, a northern boreal forest and numerous lakes and wetlands, offering ample locations and opportunities to photograph an assortment of wildlife.
There are several other sites to explore as well, including Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
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“There are small boat cruises in the southeast where you get on a boat with six to 10 guests,” says Karen. “That offers one of the better photo opportunities for those who are looking for access, but aren’t looking to put themselves in dangerous situations as when you’re looking out for bears. In this way, you have not only the safety of the boat, but also a knowledgeable operator.”
In addition to providing an excellent way of travel, the local operators often are aware of reports of wildlife movement, which are useful for photographers.
“They’re very enthusiastic people who live there and have committed their lives to the region,” says Karen. “They know more about the area than someone who finds it on their own, even with the Internet. A lot of them have done the hook-and-bullet crowd. Now they’re into nonconsumptive resource use. People who have been commercial fishermen for over 20 years are kind of tired of pulling fish from the sea and watching coolers go south. For them, it’s refreshing to be around a group of people that are excited when you show them an eagle, an orca, a whale or a sea lion. To them, that’s a lot more fun than gutting a bunch of salmon and halibut.”
“Birdlife in Alaska is an amazing thing,” says Kennan. “My favorite abundant wildlife story happens around May when several million dunlin sandpipers make their way around the coast of southeast Alaska and go into the interior. That’s probably one of the most abundant concentrations of wildlife left. We used to hear about passenger pigeons blocking out the sun and making it dark during their migration, but the waves of birds that follow the coastline as winter turns into spring is one of the most phenomenal spectacles that I have ever seen.”
Birdlife also includes the ptarmigan, which is Alaska’s state bird, the eagle, the gray jay and the spruce grouse.
The Wards’ passion for Alaska is infectious. “When we’re shooting with other photographers in Alaska, the excitement carries over to the other people that we encounter out there,” says Karen. “It’s such a neat passion to enjoy the outdoors and photography, especially when somebody gets something unique. You recognize how rare that is, and that’s a celebration for all of us as photographers.”
As the Wards’ experience and photography shows, Alaska offers photographers a lot to get excited about.
Kennan and Karen Ward are adventure naturalists whose landscape and wildlife images have been published in numerous national and international magazines and books. Their books include Denali: Reflections of a Naturalist and The Last Wilderness: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. To see more of their work, please visit www.kennanward.com.
Alaska Photo Workshops, Tour Outfitters & Accommodations
Unalaska/Port Dutch Harbor Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.unalaska.info