Chugach Adventures

Michael DeYoung shares his experiences amid the stunning landscapes and wildlife opportunities that this part of Alaska has to offer

Explorer Glacier from Moose Pond in the Portage Valley, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Just beyond the foothills of Anchorage lies Chugach State Park—a half-million acres of some of the most accessible hiking, skiing, camping, rafting, climbing, wildlife-viewing and photographic opportunities in Alaska. These are the grounds that New Mexico-based photographer Michael DeYoung has been exploring, camera in hand, for over two decades. His experience as an Air Force meteorologist has given him the tools to be acutely aware of weather patterns, using this knowledge to get into position at the right time and right place in a place known for climatic extremes.

Sockeye salmon spawning pair in Sixmile Lake, Anchorage, Alaska.

The name “Chugach” derives from the native Alutiiq culture in the regions of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. This magnificent area of the 49th state has survived both man-made and natural disasters. In 1964, a tsunami generated by the Good Friday Earthquake destroyed the Chugach village of Chenega. Twenty-five years later, the fishing-based Chugach economy was severely damaged by the environmental catastrophe caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Yet as DeYoung’s photographs illustrate, this area first designated as a protected area in 1907 by Theodore Roosevelt has persevered.

OP: How did Alaska and, in particular, the Chugach become a focal point for your photographic efforts?

Michael DeYoung: I’m originally from Florida. The Air Force brought me to Alaska in October 1988. It really was the beginning of a new life. My wife Lauri and I had just gotten married, and our trip up there was pretty much our honeymoon. I had also recently won Best of Show in the Montana State Fair photo contest and had my first picture published as a full page in Montana Magazine. I was already thinking of wanting to turn pro, so when I got out of the Air Force in 1992, I started as a freelance photographer. In 2006, Lauri and I moved from Alaska to New Mexico, but we keep returning, mostly during the summer and a few times in late winter. We keep going back because though we’ve traveled the world, it’s the most awesome place we’ve been. Also, we have friends and business contacts there—I’m still a major contributor to Alaska Stock, I get Alaska shooting assignments, and I teach workshops for the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers, Alaska’s most prominent photo club. Chugach, in particular, is an amazing place to photograph.

Squirrel-tail grass, Glenn Highway near Tahneeta Pass, Alaska.

OP: How are you able to capture the essence of Chugach?

DeYoung: I don’t know if I’ve captured the essence of Chugach, but I keep trying. I think my primary skill in the attempt is my study and awareness of the light. The changes in seasonal light are far more extreme in Alaska than in the Lower 48. The Chugach Range straddles the 60th parallel, so even a month can make a huge difference in lighting. Valleys that are beautifully lit in June aren’t lit at all in October. The area also has a predominantly cloudy wet climate, which can limit the days with really nice light. When I was starting out as a photographer, I didn’t have a lot of funding, so I learned to shoot in my own backyard, which was the Chugach. For those who have never been to Alaska, the Chugach are just as majestic and exotic as the Brooks Range. To this day, I haven’t forgotten that.

OP: What are the most important subjects to focus on to best tell the story of the area?

Scenic sunset over Knik Arm and the mouth of Sixmile Creek near Anchorage, Alaska.

DeYoung: I’ve focused primarily on the grand landscape of the Chugach, as well as its recreational and adventure activities. The Chugach are different and unique from what I was used to seeing in the Rockies. The sheer scale of endless peaks, vast deciduous forest, and steep cliffs and glaciers that come down to sea level have always captured my imagination. There are fewer life zones in the Chugach than one would find in the Southern Rockies where you get life zones from desert to alpine. The area has a wet, cold, subarctic climate. What I really like is the change from interior climate with boreal forest of mainly birch, poplar, cottonwood, white spruce and aspen to the marine zones that face Prince William Sound, where there are predominantly dense fir, spruce and hemlock forests and more glaciation. I really like the abundance of freshwater, too. The Chugach has major glacial river systems, countless streams, lakes and fjords. You can also see both continental and marine wildlife. The timberline around Anchorage is about 2,500 feet, so there’s lots of terrain with big sweeping views.

Autumn scenic of Eagle Lake and Eagle Peak in the Chugach Mountains, Chugach State Park, Alaska.

OP: Where are the best places and what are the best times to go for photography in the Chugach?

DeYoung: We’re talking about a huge range here, about 250 miles wide and heavily glaciated. The tallest peaks, including Mount Marcus Baker at 13,176 feet, are remote and steep. There are places in Prince William Sound where mountains rise from sea level to eight and nine thousand feet, which is pretty spectacular.

The easiest and most popular access is right out the back door of Anchorage. The range rises east of town and is the city’s iconic backdrop. The Seward Highway travels south along the base of the Chugach and along a fjord called Turnagain Arm. Near Portage Glacier, the Chugach continue as the Kenai Mountains. You can drive through a tunnel from Portage to Whittier, which gives access to western Prince William Sound and the marine side of the Chugach. To the north, Glenn Highway goes up the Matanuska River, with stunning views of the Chugach’s north face to the south. Thompson Pass along the Richardson Highway from Glenallen to Valdez has the highest road access in the Chugach.

Fireweed and Bridal Veil Falls in summer, Keystone Canyon near Prince William Sound, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

In terms of road access, I like Bird Point and Portage Lake for morning and sunrise and sunset. You can take a tram to the top of Mount Alyeska for great views and sunrise and sunset photo opportunities. Eagle River Nature Center has fantastic evening views in summer, but the valley isn’t lit in winter. Outside of the Anchorage area my favorite views are along the Glenn Highway from Sutton to Sheep Mountain Lodge. This is a fantastic fall colors’ drive that’s best in early morning. For Matanuska Glacier, around sunset is the time to be there. Worthington Glacier near Thompson Pass is great for sunrise and early-morning shooting. There are lupine blooms in early summer. Keystone Canyon near Valdez has fantastic waterfalls.

OP: What about for those who want to buckle up their bootstraps and explore on foot?

DeYoung: For hiking around Anchorage, Glenn Alps trailhead and Flattop Mountain are the most popular in the Chugach—lots of people, but fantastic sunsets. Further north, hiking up the South Fork of Eagle River can get you fantastic views of Eagle Lake and Symphony Lake, especially in the early evening. It’s 12 miles round-trip. Hikes up Bold Valley and Twin Peaks Pass are great for views of Eklutna Lake at sunset. A short, but steep hike from Whittier is Portage Pass with sweeping views of Portage Glacier and Passage Canal. It’s best to be there for the morning light. Serious mountaineering glacier traverses can be done in the Chugach. Crow Creek Pass with views of Raven Glacier is a very scenic hike from Girdwood. It’s 26 miles to Eagle River. Bird Ridge is a very steep hike from sea level to 4,000 feet in less than three miles, but the reward is stunning views of the Chugach and Turnagain Arm with great wildflowers in June and July.

OP: Of course, this being Alaska, there are some extraordinary opportunities for photographing wildlife, as well as dramatic landscapes. What would you suggest for photographers wanting to explore wildlife photography in the Chugach?

A hiker along the foot of Raven Glacier, Crow Pass Trail, from the Girdwood side, Chugach State Park, Alaska.

DeYoung: The best wildlife shooting in the Chugach is the marine wildlife in Prince William Sound. Beluga whales come up into Turnagain Arm, visible, but all I’ve ever seen in 25 years is the white hump as they quickly take a breath and then submerge again.

There are whale-watching tours out of Whittier, and I have friends who have breaching orca shots. Orcas, humpbacks, sea otters, harbor seals can all be seen in Prince William Sound with road and ferry access in Whittier and Valdez, and plane or ferry access only to Cordova. Sea otter are abundant around Cordova.

There’s lots of bird life. Potter Marsh just south of Anchorage is a great place to photograph waterfowl, including trumpeter swans and arctic terns. They also have salmon in season and sometimes great moose ops. Cordova has millions of shorebirds, and is a great place for trumpeter swan photography. I’ve seen several wolves and lynx in the Chugach over the years. Two years ago, as we pulled up to camp in a meadow along the shore of Knik Arm in the lowlands on a cloudy night, a young lynx walked out of the woods and laid down about 50 feet from us staring at me. I always keep my Canon 400mm ƒ/4 DO and 1D Mark IV at the ready. I had set my ISO to 1600 and got off about 10 shots before it got up and simply vanished.

Early on in my career, I did a lot more Alaska wildlife work, but it was mostly in Denali, or at bear-viewing places like Katmai and marine wildlife in Kenai Fjords.

A moose cow emerges from the fog in a birch forest near Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska.

OP: In addition to the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and 400mm lens, what other gear are you working with?

DeYoung: My main camera bodies are the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III and Mark IV. The lenses I use the most are the Canon 17-40mm ƒ/4 and the 70-200mm ƒ/4 L. I use the Canon 24mm tilt-shift a lot for roadside landscapes. I really like wireless speedlighting, and I use them for supplemental lighting, even for landscape work. I was an early adopter of the Canon 600RT speedlight. I use a Really Right Stuff carbon-fiber tripod and their BH-40 Pro head for general shooting. For hiking, I have the lightest 100-series Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-30 head. For wildlife, I use the Canon 400mm ƒ/4 DO because it’s hand-holdable from a boat deck or canoe where tripods aren’t practical, and I can still pack it in for a day hike without breaking my back. Since I work around water a lot, I use a Patagonia fly-fishing vest to carry filters, CF cards, cable releases and other essential accessories.

There’s no special gear needed in the Chugach that you wouldn’t need in other mountains unless you plan on glacier travel. For that, you need crampons, mountain axes and sometimes climbing gear. There are guides in Valdez and near the Matanuska Glacier and in Girdwood that can make glacier travel possible for those with no experience. In winter, carry snowshoes and backcountry skis with skins and avalanche safety gear. Chugach mountain trails are steep, especially Bird Ridge, Twin Peaks and Pioneer Ridge trails. I use trekking poles on hikes now. If there was any particular gear I use in the Chugach versus the Rockies, it would be bombproof rain gear and a well-made bug jacket.

See more of Michael DeYoung‘s work at