Walking off the plane, it’s apparent that the temperatures in Anchorage are much milder than the summer I’d left behind in Texas. In short, Alaskan summers are generally phenomenal because of mild temperatures, some overcast days, and a sun angle that is curious and tolerable all-at-once.
Just a couple of weeks before, I was here in Anchorage following our Alaska Uncharted Wild Coastal Brown bears trips, and in a way, it felt like I’d never left. It’s always good to be here.
This time, however, all of our efforts are focused on the broad stretch of land that is bounded by the Cook Inlet on the west and Prince William Sound on the east. Anchoring the landmass from the rest of Alaska is the broad and beautiful Chugach Mountains. Throughout the peninsula, rivers, natural lakes, and glaciers are the jewels in the crown of this beautiful part of Alaska. And in early August, the area is ripe for exploration.
When I meet the group at the hotel, the excitement was high and everyone was ready to travel afield. While many Backcountry Journeys trips involve guests who are new to our travels, this group had three people who’d been on many trips before. As such, the trip orientation part of our meeting was smooth and straightforward. The topics of conversation revolve around the sights we’ll see during the week and the weather that the Kenai Peninsula may throw our way but in large part, we set around the broad table at Jen’s Restaurant in Anchorage and got to know one another.
Soon we wind down our meeting and head back to the hotel. We’ve got an early morning departure so everyone is anxious to pack up for tomorrow’s adventure. The Kenai Peninsula is a broad piece of southern Alaska and during the week, we’ll do our best to explore some of the highlights of the area.
While the clock says it’s early (5 am), the amount of ambient light outside is jarring. While we’re well past the summer solstice, the long days still abide. Once everyone is settled in the Backcountry Journeys’ van, we head towards our destination.
As the sky lightens a bit we are driving along the Turnagain Arm where the tides are ripping in. This branch of the Cook Inlet has some of the highest tides in the world and looking out over the water, the combination of the fast-moving tidal surge and the increasing wind speeds makes the water choppy and uninviting. Soon, rain begins to spit from the sky. It looks like the weather predictions are true.
For almost all of our drive, the rain falls and by the time we arrive in Seward, it is still coming down. Undaunted, we board our boat for a tour of Resurrection Bay. Hoping the skies will clear by the end of the day, we take a chance and head to sea.
On the boat, the seas are choppy and the rain continues to fall. The photography conditions aren’t great but we continue. We do manage to see a trio of Orcas hunting for food and the fluke of a humpback whale but for the most part, the weather is uncooperative and thus our photographic efforts are thwarted. However, you can’t do much about the weather except hope for a better tomorrow so as we turn in after dinner, we do just that.
We awaken in Seward and for the most part, the inclement weather has passed. However, a thick fog settled in over the quaint town overnight but the shroud of mist and moisture made for some interesting atmospherics that made the imagery around the harbor compelling. Before we head out for Homer, we pause at the harbor and explore for a bit. The boats moored here are varied and visually compelling and helps tell the story of the area.
Soon we are on the road. Along the way to Homer, we stop at Tern Lake where we photograph fireweed while misty mountains loom in the distance. We take a side road to photograph a lake surrounded by mountains but the highlight of that stop was the immense fields of fireweed that blanketed the meadows.
When we pull onto the Homer Spit, the place is hopping with activity. Summer vacationers line the boardwalks and enjoy the quaint town’s atmosphere. Our group eats a quick lunch and heads down to the harbor where we meet our boat captain, Gabe, for an afternoon on Kachemak Bay.
On our boat ride, it’s unlikely we’ll see any whales as we did on Resurrection Bay over at Seward. However, Kachemak Bay is full of sea otters and birdlife, and seeing them by boat is the perfect modality for close encounters.
As our boat heads out to the bay, the weather turns a bit sour. Not the high winds that we’d experienced the day before but a steady pattering of rain begins to fall. Undaunted we continue out on the water. Sea otters swim about and we see a bald eagle or two. We also see a group of harbor seals lying on a remote beach. However, the most compelling location we see is a small, craggy island near the China Port spit.
On this island, birdlife is everywhere. Tufted puffins, murre, cormorant, and gulls all vie for space on this tiny piece of real estate. While we circle the island, a sea otter preens itself near the base of the rocks. For more than an hour, we watch all kinds of birds fly in and out of the island. It is a true birder’s hotspot.
It’s been a long day and after dinner, we turn in to our hotel for the night. In the morning, we’ll embark on another adventure that promises to be exciting.
For the third day in a row, the weather at sunrise is rainy but the forecast calls for clearing throughout the day. So we start with breakfast and talk about the day ahead. Soon, we are back on the road with Nikiski, Alaska, as our destination.
The road is long but the drive is beautiful. We arrive at the little town early so we have time to have a picnic lunch before our plane departs. Soon we are climbing aboard the de Havilland Otter seaplane and flying over the Cook Inlet en route to Crescent Lake – a long, narrow lake nestled at the base of the still-active volcano Mount Redoubt.
The flight takes about half an hour and along the way, we make a close pass to the volcano before landing on the lake’s placid waters. As the plane taxis toward the shore, a sow and her trip of cubs hang out near the beach as soon as we climb from the plane, all of the cameras are out and we begin to snap pictures.
Once the plane leaves, we climb aboard a jon boat and float around the lake for close encounters with brown bears. The bears are numerous here because of the mid-summer salmon run.
All afternoon we float past bear after bear, each with their personalities. Some of the bears stand around and fish from a single spot while others make their way up and down the shore looking for dead fish.
Besides the wildlife, the scenery here is fantastic. We’re surrounded by mountains and everywhere we look is a stunning scene all on its own. While it doesn’t seem possible, six hours later seems more like two and soon, we are back on the plane for the flight back to Nikiski. One more pass of the volcano and the glaciers that flow around it is an amazing sight. No matter the angle, the country is beautiful.
After an amazing day photographing bears, we once again turn our attention to the water. Early that morning, we climb aboard Gabe’s boat to once again explore Kachemak Bay. Before we even leave the harbor, a curious sea otter flanks our boat and entertains the guests.
A short boat ride later and we find a pair of bald eagles that allow us a close approach and spent some time photographing them. From there the boat ride was slow and purposeful. We photographed landscapes and looked for more wildlife and soon, we were turning into the harbor at Seldovia.
Only accessible by boat or plane, the old Russian trapping village was established in the late 1700s and today is a fishing and tourist hamlet boasting about 250 permanent residents. The town is idyllic and here we’ll eat lunch and spend a bit of time exploring the historic boardwalk and the old Russian Church on the hill.
Following lunch, the group separates and explores the tiny town on their own. I am especially enamored with the colorful buildings along the historic boardwalk. I take a few pictures and buy a souvenir or two. Soon, we are all back on the boat and exploring Seldovia Bay. In the distance, we see a black bear but he’s too far to photograph. On the way back, we find more bald eagles to photograph as well as a smattering of otters.
After the boat trip, we adjourn to the Land’s End conference room for a session on Lightroom and image organization. While today was a bit rainy, it held off well enough to get in another great day of photography.
Today, the weather begins to clear and we’ve got more traveling ahead of us. After breakfast, we drive to a big overlook to get a panoramic view of the Homer Spit. The anomalous stretch of land lies where competing currents move water and deposit sediments in a singular place over time.
Moving on from Homer we spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon driving and stopping for photo spots along the beach and since the weather is clearing, we stop at spots where we could see the Illiamna and Redoubt volcanoes in the distance.
After lunch, we make the push towards Girdwood, Alaska, where we’ll spend the night. On the way there, we stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and get a chance to see some of Alaska’s endemic wildlife up close. The encounters are controlled but it is an entertaining and informative way to see some wildlife up close.
After a long day of driving and exploring, we check in to the palatial Alyeska Ski Resort for some dinner and relaxation.
On the final morning of our trip, the weather finally cooperates for a morning shoot. Glaciers are on the docket today so we head over to the Chugach Mountains and the Portage Glacier. While the portage is the most famous glacier (perhaps the most famous in Alaska), there are five other glaciers in the area. They aren’t as visible as the portage, but they are beautiful nonetheless. Therefore, all morning we photograph glacial lakes, spawning salmon, and the glaciers in ever-changing light and cloud cover that’s indicative of southern Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula.
Like all trips, the one must end. As we load into the van one last time, I am pleased by the opportunities we’ve experienced this past week even though the weather didn’t always cooperate. Over lunch, the conversation is lively and infectious. We all relive each part of the trip that stuck with us. In all Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula proved to be just as magical as it seems.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com