Trip Report: Interior Alaska, Denali & Prince William Sound – Sept 2021

Alaska is vast. I mean, it’s really big. And much of the state is inaccessible by road.

Most travelers who come to Alaska experience one region of the state – they go to Denali to see the mountain, or they go to Seward, Homer, Valdez, or Juneau to see the wildlife and the coastal landscapes, or they head north to try and see the northern lights and the rugged peaks of the Hays and Delta Mountain Ranges. But with Interior Alaska, Denali & Prince William Sound, we experienced all three. The guests experienced an epic nine-day adventure spanned over 1200 miles, some of which were on dirt roads across the interior of Alaska, dropping into Valdez and Prince William Sound for marine wildlife and over multiple mountain passes for some of the grandest landscapes in the world. 

Our nine-day adventure began right after our welcome dinner with an immediate drive out to Birch Lake, where we attempted to see the Aurora Borealis. In my experience, the aurora can be elusive; unfortunately, this night it was. But, we had fun hunting for it never less. The following morning, we woke up early to drive to Denali National Park, where the group boarded a Denali Parks tour bus to mile 42. Unfortunately, in late August, about two weeks before the trip, Denali National Park and Preserve announced that a portion of the 92-mile Denali Park Road would be closed for the season because of a fast-moving landslide creating unsafe road conditions at Polychrome Pass. The vast majority of Denali National Park remains open for visitors. 

On the drive, the bus driver regaled us with intimate knowledge about the park, stopping for wildlife sightings along the way. On our trip, we were able to see the entire Denali mountain, which is rare due to the frequent low-pressure systems that move north from the Gulf of Alaska and collide with the mountain peak. Only about 30% of visitors to the park see the tallest mountain in North America because 7 out of 10 days, it is covered by dense cloud cover. We also saw moose, a grizzly bear butt (no, really that’s all we saw of the big guy, he was about a mile and a half up, on the side of a cliff taking a nap with his back to the road. But we saw him! Confirmed and verified!), dahl sheep, caribou, and willow ptarmigan. After our outing in the park, we headed to dinner and then our lodge for the evening. 

Early on day three, our group is off again into Denali National Park and Preserve; the wake-up call paid off big. With the early morning departure, we saw a new set of animals from our roadside stops. Including a moose and calf, which we then dubbed “mooslings,” more ptarmigan, and the piece de resistance a northern hawk owl perched high atop a black spruce eating some delicious looking ground squirrel.

We also saw a small herd of grazing dahl sheep high on the mountainside. The light had changed significantly from the day before and offered what felt like a whole new opportunity for landscape photography as well. After reaching mile 42, we turned around and began heading back. Not long after heading back towards the visitors center, we came across a golden eagle circling overhead, I assume looking for its next prey. Once we departed the park, we headed to our new lodgings in Talkeetna at the Denali Overlook Inn, where the hotel owner met us with a warm campfire and comfy beds. 

The morning of day four, we found foggy, misty light as we headed out to the van. The type of light that can offer up real photography gems. So we started our adventure by driving out to Lake Kashwitna to waited for the mists to clear to photograph this unique little peninsula. The black spruce and birch trees outline the shore of this little lake and offer a unique little landscape. We discovered as the fog cleared that someone was trying to play a trick on us and had placed a yeti cutout on the tip of the peninsula. I’m sure it gives many children an exciting tale to tell; it sure gave us a chuckle. Once the mists had cleared, we drove up the Denali Parks highway to take another look at the mountain and photograph it at a different angle. The peak was out big and bold for us to see, with a small cloud hovering just at its peak. While driving north, we came across the beautiful Montana lake where Denali was visible over the fall foliage. Then we proceeded to Denali Overlook South Viewpoint, where regrettably, Denali decided to hide in the weather again. After a great morning, we drove back to Talkeetna to board a plane that would take us to land on Ruth Glacier. Our flight took off from Talkeetna in a De Haviland DHC-Otter; flying over Denali State Park and into the national park, we flew by Mt. Providence, Mt. Hunter, and then around the Moose’s Tooth.

With great views in the bag, we flew up the Ruth Glacier’s Great Gorge, a one-mile-wide and 10 miles long run-up to the base of Denali, finally landing on the glacier on the north side base of the Moose’s Tooth. After spending about an hour photographing Mt. Dan Beard and Rooster Comb, we took off again for the second half of our flight through the Alaska Range. Being in the center of the Alaska Range at the base of the highest peaks in North America created a sense of awe among our entire group. It was a truly sublime experience. 

Sunrise the following day was spectacular. We captured both the fall colors and pink moment on the Southern face of the Alaska Range. Setting out from Talkeetna towards the Matanuska Glacier and Glacier View, we drove over the backside of Hatcher Pass, where we saw some beautiful landscapes and discovered pika, small mountain-dwelling mammals found in rock piles, at the top of Hatcher Pass.

We learned from two of our groups Kathleen and Peggy, that these cute little guys are lagomorphs and related to rabbits! After our drive over the pass, we stopped to learn about long exposure photography with neutral density filters. We explored the uses of ND filters in photography slowing the water down in Fishhook Creek. That afternoon the group continued our journey to Matanuska Glacier; driving along the Matanuska River in the valley, we stopped several times to photograph the fall color, and in the evening, we went back down the road a bit to top off our evening, searching for beautiful evening light and beautiful fall foliage. 

The next day we set out for Valdez. We stopped immediately for the spectacular mourning light hitting the eastern Chugach Mountain Range crest and highlighting Mount Witherspoon and Mount Einstein. Continuing towards Glennallen, we were ever-watchful for wildlife sightings. We stopped at one of my favorite Alaska State Park’s Liberty Falls State Park, to shoot this remarkable little waterfall. We continue toward Valdez with stops at the Worthington Glacier and Thompson Pass. As we make it into the Valdez area, we stop to photographed Keystone canyon, home to Horsetail Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, two enormous 300 plus foot waterfalls. This historic three-mile-long canyon has been used to connect Valdez to the rest of Alaska for over 120 years through projects like the Trans Alaska Military Pack train Trail and several attempts to build a railroad over the Thompson Pass.  

At 7:30 AM the following day, we boarded our boat, the Kai Moana, with captain Josh Miller for a water-based excursion to see the port Valdez and the Valdez arm of Prince William Sound. Our tour began with playful otter sightings, the requisite flock of seagulls, and unique cloud-covered landscapes. Our group encountered a pelagic cormorant in our voyage, multiple eagles nibbling on that end-season salon run, a plethora of sea lions, and marbled murrelet. We boated to the base of Shoup Glacier in Shoup Bay, then went to the Valdez Narrows in Prince William Sound, where we saw Anderson Falls, which flows off of the Anderson Glacier. One of the most extraordinary animal sightings was a Red-Necked Phalaropes. The Red-necked Phalaropes that we found were nonbreeding immature birds who hadn’t developed their distinctive markings yet. After spending time by Anderson Falls and with the Phalaropes, our captain took us to a rock outcropping where we saw three enormous sea lions posing on rocks, just waiting for us to take photos of them. We boated into Sawmill Bay State Marine Park to find a raft of otters that typically contain anywhere from 10 – 100 otters.

The raft we were lucky enough to see was about between 30 and 35. Otters group up to keep from drifting out to sea when resting and eating. They are also known to wrap themselves in kelp to keep from drifting. After a few more sightings like spotted seals, Canadian Geese, and a beautiful sailboat, we progressed to Jack Bay, where we made some misty landscape images before heading back into the harbor. 

The morning of day seven, we drove back over Thompson pass, heading out of Valdez. The day’s theme was landscape images and fall foliage, which was bright yellow against dark green. This quick seasonal change in Alaska is something to behold for the traveler. The weather had decided to close in on us, and a cold rain was our companion for the journey north up the Richardson Highway. At one point, though, we were lucky enough to see a break in the clouds that perfectly lit the Delta Range most dramatically. We concluded our evening at the Lodge at Black Rapids just south of Delta Junctions outside Fairbanks. 

Our final morning started with a fresh cup of coffee and a quest for morning light over the Hays Range. The light broke through in a few places, and we called it a success.

Our group headed back to the Lodge at Black Rapids for a final check of the rooms, and then we headed back into Fairbanks for a wrap-up lunch, where many of our crew departed, and several stayed on to chase the northern lights with us… But that’s a tale for another time. 

Tom Turner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Photo4th 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.

 

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