It is hard for me to imagine a place with such a diverse bounty of wildlife and landscape experiences as Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai offers some of the most breathtaking landscapes and abundant wildlife photography anywhere in the world. And as you might expect from Backcountry Journeys, this trip did not disappoint.
Our group of six met on Saturday for the trip brief and to get to know one another. And Sunday morning, we were off! I picked up our adventurers for an early morning drive from Anchorage to Seward, where we met our boat captain Jim and his first mate Brook. As we set out on this small, fast vessel to tour Kenai Fjords National Park, the partly cloudy morning offered perfect light.
The all-day boat trip started in Resurrection Bay. We spotted bald eagles, sea otters, stellar sea lions, pelagic cormorants, and horned puffins (the less attractive cousin of the majestic tufted puffin), as well as two spectacular humpback whales.
This memorable day led us all over Resurrection Bay and across to Aialik Bay and up the Holgate Arm and where we ate lunch in front of the Holgate Glacier. After lunch, we booked it back to finish the boat tour with the extraordinary landscape of Spire Cove. These rock features shaped by the erosive waves of the bay can create mysterious images like they did when the fog set in on our way back into the Seward Harbor.
The following day our group left early for the drive to Homer with a few stops along the way to photograph the picturesque landscapes around Moose Pass’s Trail Lake, Tern Lake, and the salmon fishing along the Kenai River. The morning began with rain, but the closer we get to our destination cloud cover lessens. We met Gabe, our boat captain in Homer, ready for another marine adventure around the beautiful Kachemak Bay.
And oh, did Gabe deliver! We saw Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and more Glaucous-winged Gulls than I can even come close to counting. But the real star of the day for me was the close-up action of the tufted puffins.
These majestic marine birds put on quite a performance for us. Swooping around the boat, on and off the islands, and generally entertaining us for quite some time. And if you can’t tell, these are my favorite puffin.
After our puffins, Gabe got us close to a commercial fishing boat as they hauled in their nets, taking time to describe the work they were doing. He finished up our outing with close-up shots of bald eagles! These beautiful scavengers were feasting on the remains of a salmon left by a fisherman. One of the eagles took a brief flight and posed on some rocks for us.
By the morning of day four, the clouds and rain had fully sopped in the coast of the Cook Inlet as we traveled to Salamatof north of Kenai. Our day’s mission was BEARS! We got to the airfield to meet our Bear Guide, Badger. This was the day that we had all been waiting for; Bears! We flew in a DHC-3 Otter out of Salamatof to Big River Lakes across the Cook Inlet from Salamatof about 35 miles on the eastern border of Lake Clark Wilderness Preserve. The DHC-3 Otters and DHC-2 Beavers, built in the late 1950s’, are essential planes for Alaskan travel as they can carry a large amount of cargo, land and take off on everything from mountain lakes to glaciers. Once our group lands in Big River Lakes, we taxied to a small floating peat island where the boat was anchored. Using a small wooden dock, Badger got all of our crew on board, and we set off to find some bears.
After a short wait, Badger’s predictions came true; three bears – a Momma and two cubs came walking down the waterfall we were watching. The momma bear took some time to check us out but started showing her cubs how to fish and turn rocks over for grubs. But as with all children, the cubs got bored and decided to climb up onto a rock outcropping and pose for some pictures. After our bear siting, we headed out on the lake to see what other animals were out on a rainy morning.
We saw several bird species, including bald eagles and trumpeter swans. By the time we had toured the entire lake, we had headed over to a lodge owned by the company we had flown out with for a warm-up and wait for the plane. The wait was longer than we had expected because the fog had set in around Salamatof, but we made it back to Homer and called that day’s adventure a win.
On day five, we set out with our captain Gabe to see more of Kachemak Bay and the picturesque town of Seldovia. This amazing town was once a booming first stop for ships sailing up the Cook Inlet. Since the destruction of the original boardwalk by the 1964 earthquake, the town has contracted to fewer than 300 year-round residents. We walked up to the bridge connecting the town across the Seldovia Slough. Even though it was raining, everyone enjoyed photographing the new boardwalk.
This view shows the boardwalk and all of the homes and businesses built on piers on both sides of the Seldovia Slough. After photographing from the bridge, we all walked down the boardwalk, which offers too many photographic opportunities to list here. Needless to say, we were late for lunch, but the restaurant seated us anyway, and we enjoyed talking about this unique experience. After lunch, we split up to work on our own. I went to visit St. Nicholas Chapel, a Russian Orthodox Church which dates back to 1891. This small chapel adds to the charm of this small town. After wandering around Seldovia, we headed back out of the harbor but had a wet eagle encounter that lent to some striking images.
With its feathers puffed out to dry, the eagle had an extraordinary texture complemented by the rocks. As the weather was clearing, the landscape of the Seldovia Bay revealed itself for one final shot.
The next morning we moved out of the lower Kenai Peninsula, searching for more eagles. We stopped at Whiskey Gulch beach to find a young 3 to 4-year-old eagle protectively eating a salmon. The overcast light made for even exposures with no shadows. After a few more stops along the Kenai coast of the Cook Inlet, we turned inland, stopping back at Tern Lake for a second round of birds. We continued to eat lunch in Hope, looking out over the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. As we turned off the Kenai Peninsula, we noticed a family of Trumpeter Swans in the Placer River Delta area.
The cob (the male) in front (the pen the female) behind him and the seven cygnets. It was about 200 yards, but we all had long lenses and came away with some tight environmental images of the family. After this rich experience, we headed into the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where we got to visit all of the animals that we hadn’t seen on the trip and a few we needed to repeat. AWCC is a non-profit organization dedicated to conservation, research, education, and animal care. After we toured AWCC, we headed into Girdwood, checking into our rooms at Alyeska Resort. The group had our final dinner together at the wonderful Spoonline Bistro in Girdwood.
The final morning we got up early to try to see the belugas in Turnagain Arm. Unfortunately, with wildlife photography, sometimes, the animals just don’t come, so we headed over to Portage Glacier for a final look at Alaska’s majesty. By the time we got to Portage, the rain was coming down pretty hard again, so we made our images and got back into the van. Our final stop of the trip was at the world-famous Potter Marsh, where we saw more impressive birds like the Wilson’s snipe and the green-winged teal. We finished the trip with our final bald eagle sighting and closed out at South Restaurant in Anchorage for lunch.
This trip was fantastic not only because of the wildlife but the guests. Their flexibility, passions for wildlife photography, and fun-loving nature led to an epic Alaska adventure, one that is sure to set a standard for future trips.
Tom Turner is an artist and educator based in Eagle River, Alaska. Turner has taught at the Art Institute of San Antonio, Northwest Vista College, Saint Mary’s University, Texas Tech University, and The Creative Light Workshops in San Antonio, Texas.
Turner’s artistic practice, which is principally in the medium of photography, focuses chiefly on the landscape, how we perceive time, and how our memory alters that perception of the natural world. His fascination with image-making began during his undergraduate studies at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. He continued this pursuit at The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. After completing his education, he spent the next seven years working as a photojournalist. He worked for newspapers and magazines in Michigan, Southern California, Central, and East Texas. In 2010 Turner began his graduate studies at Texas Tech University, where he completed an MFA in Photography.
Turner, known for landscape imagery, which uses color and time to abstract the scene, his subjects range from national parks to appropriations of scientific imagery. He has exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally. Turner feels honored to have his work seen in Wired Photo, 4th International Photography Annual (INPHA 4), Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine, and most recently in Fraction Magazine. Check out Tom Turner’s website at https://tomturnerphotography.com.