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Alaska is often referred to as the last great wilderness for nature photographers who want to see the big game of North America. Africa’s Serengeti and the Alaskan frontier are in the same class when it comes to the diversity of wildlife and the vast regions of unspoiled habitat that support these animals. Like Africa, it’s not easy to reach North America’s ultimate wilderness, but if you want to see the splendid flora and fauna this special place has to offer, the trek is well worth it. From bald eagles to caribou to whales, every aspect of the landscape offers its own treasure trove of wildlife.
If you can’t devote months at a time to live out in the wild, the best way to experience and photograph in Alaska is through a workshop or on a ship set up for this kind of ecotourism. Photo expeditions don’t have that feeling of being cooped up on a ship at sea and give you more freedom as far as scheduling.
A ship can get you into some places that are far from any town or road, so the options depend on how you feel most comfortable traveling.
The Southeast: The Inside Passage To Tongass
The area most frequently visited by photographers is the southeastern region of the state. The Inside Passage stretches south from Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve north of Juneau to Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan. This stretch is popular with maritime tours, as the vistas are breathtaking. The Coast Mountains are the background for the thousands of protected islands and coastline.
This part of Alaska is also the home of the largest temperate rain forest on earth. Tongass National Forest encompasses more than 15 million acres of cedars and hemlocks and is habitat to thousands of bears and eagles, to name just some of the animal inhabitants.
When you think of Alaska, of course, you’re apt to have a vision of a glacier in your head more than a rain forest. This region is home to flowing glaciers, with ice that’s some 1,000-feet thick or more. These glaciers are the irresistible forces that carved and are still carving the dramatic landscape. Glaciers extend from the rugged mountains to the coastline where they meet the ocean in a form of primordial geological combat. The endless battles result in the frequent births of huge icebergs, which slough off and make their way into the Pacific. Ever since the very first photographers came to capture this wilderness, icebergs have been favorite subjects to photograph as these behemoths migrate into the open ocean.
The Summer Season: Plan A Workshop Or Tour Now
The best time to visit Alaska is in the summer. Wildlife that hunkers down for the long hard winter or else migrates to friendlier climes is found in abundance in the relative warmth of midyear. It’s at this time you’ll spot bears, dramatic salmon runs and more bald eagles than you’ve ever seen anywhere else. Whales leave their winter homes for the nutrient-rich waters to feed on the bounty that exists off the jagged coastline.
With such an abundance of photo opportunities, it’s no wonder Alaska is on the lists of so many photographers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. While you can make all of your own arrangements, it’s far easier to sign up with a group that can take care of everything for you. These outfitters know the ins and outs of the unique places in Alaska and how to streamline the challenges of getting there. Photography workshops and expeditions, however, are naturally geared to the particular requirements that shooters need in order to make the most of a trip. Going to a regular tour operator can be worthwhile, but you’re not as likely to get schedules that include plenty of time for photography at the times of day when it’s most productive. This is a common issue for photographers on any kind of tour—we tend to want to be out doing the most with our cameras at precisely the times of day when the non-photographers on the trip want to enjoy breakfast or dinner. Traveling with a group that specializes in photographers pays off—big.
Ready Your Gear
Okay, so you’re ready to book the trip, but be certain to carry some key gear essentials. Alaska is a wet place in the summer, so bring gear to waterproof your camera. In this issue, check out “Gadget Bag: Weather Tamers” on page 98 to see some of the camera covers that are ideal for an Alaska photo safari. You want to be sure that your camera bag is prepared for perpetually damp conditions, too. A waterproof cover that envelops the whole bag or a bag that’s waterproof on its own is key.
Once your photo equipment is ready, give some thought to the particulars of outfitting your body. At Outdoor Photographer, we’re great fans of garments made with Gore-Tex® membranes. The waterproof and breathable jackets, boots, overpants and other clothing will keep you warm and dry, and that in turn will keep you comfortable so you can stay outside and work on taking pictures. Also, be sure to talk to your workshop leader or tour operator about any special clothing you might need to cope with unique situations.
Among your camera gear, be sure that you have a sturdy tripod. We’re in the midst of a sort of tripod renaissance, as manufacturers are using exotic materials that are lightweight, yet capable of solidly supporting your camera and your largest lenses. Naturally, you’ll need to have lenses that cover the gamut. Alaska offers everything from broad, wide-angle-friendly vistas to animals that can only be photographed with a long and fast telephoto. Carry lenses that will work for the full range of what you expect to see. If you’re shooting digital, plenty of memory cards and a laptop or other downloading device will serve you well.
Winter is the ideal time to plan your Alaska adventure. Although summer is several months off, workshops and tours are finalizing itineraries for the season now. This is also the time to plan what kind of gear you’ll take and to make sure you know how all of it works. Practice, practice, practice. For most photographers, Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so be sure you don’t spend prime shooting time stuck in your room with a camera manual. Be prepared for the unexpected, and you’ll come home with images that will feed the imaginations of everyone who sees them.
For a free Official Alaska State Vacation Planner, visit www.TravelAlaska.com/apr