Photographing Alaska Glaciers and Fjords

Whittier Alaska Tour with Gary Randall Photography

Photographing Alaska Glaciers and Fjords – The gurgling sound of the twin 200 horsepower outboard motors mounted in tandem on the stern of our excursion boat mixed with the sound of camera shutters and the random “ooh and ahh” as we cruised back and forth through the still, ice laden water at the face of the massive wall of glacial ice before us. Once everyone was through photographing this incredible scene our boat captain eased forward on the throttle turning the gurgle to a roar as we left the sheltered cove to head back to where we started this incredible day. Our group of intrepid photographers sat at rest enjoying the views after a full day of cruising the Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska photographing wildlife and the immense, wild remote scenery that surrounded us.

Our day started at our log lodge located near Palmer in the beautiful Matanuska Valley located about an hour northeast of Anchorage. We had a drive to make and a schedule to adhere to as we had to be at the Whittier Tunnel on time to pass through with the regularly scheduled opening that allowed visitors and residents to get to the little town of Whittier located at the other end on the majestic and scenic Prince William Sound. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, commonly called The Whittier Tunnel, is a tunnel that was made through a mountain between the town of Whittier and the the Seward Highway, which is a major thoroughfare taking traffic to and from the Kenai Peninsula to Alaska’s mainland.

The Whittier Tunnel is a one way, single lane, tunnel 2 ½ miles long. It’s the longest highway tunnel in North America. The roadway includes a set of train tracks to accommodate the Alaska Railroad. The inside of the tunnel is rough rock, almost cave like, and is a bit claustrophobic the first time through, but is a bit exciting nonetheless. There’s a time schedule for opening the tunnel that accommodates the train as well as car and truck traffic in each direction at different times. If you miss your scheduled opening you must wait an hour before it’s open again in your direction.

On this morning our group awoke with adventure on our minds. We all climbed into the van and headed out. We were right on time, although the bathroom break along the way threatened to cause a little concern about catching the tunnel, we made it with time to spare. Our destination this morning was Epic Charters and the boat that we had reserved to take us out into the fjords of the Prince William Sound to photograph not just scenery, but also for the chance to photograph its wildlife.

The day was calm with some overcast skies. The ride out into the sound was calm and exhilarating. The Chugach Mountains surrounding us tower up from the water to reach an average height of 4000-5000 feet with peaks as high as 13,000 feet. Many have majestic glaciers covering their flanks and filling their valleys with some ultimately crumbling into the ocean waters. As we travel along we pass small islands covered with sea lions, rafts, as they’re called, of sea otters and eagles flying overhead while we hope to see orcas on our search for black bears.

Our skipper navigated our boat into a couple small bays, one of which was the location of a remote salmon hatchery where we found at least a dozen or more opportunistic black bears roaming the shore, dipping their paws into the water and dragging out a fish with little challenge. We left there and made our way to another bay where we found several more bears away from man made surroundings, a small group of which consisted of a mother and three cubs hiding in tall grasses on the shoreline. Their heads peeked up every so often just to keep an eye on the boat full of shutterbugs sitting in the water beyond the shoreline.

We left that bay and made our way further into the sound to a little island where we all stepped off of the boat to stretch our legs for a little while before making our way into the incredible Harriman Fjord, a finger off of the sound into the realm of huge hanging and tidewater glaciers. Our boat made it to the face of Surprise Glacier where we floated around taking in the massive mountains and huge flows of glacial ice. Massive waterfalls flowed down huge solid stone walls from the ice fields and hanging glaciers above. The boat slowly cruised through the iceberg filled water, several of which were the size of the boat itself as we observed walls of ice calving into the ocean creating waves that would gently rock the boat as we stood there in amazement of the scene surrounding us.

In time we turned to head back to Whittier. As we skimmed over the calm water we passed by the glaciers in the College Fjord before heading back into deeper water and passage back. The boat’s captain pushed the throttle further and brought the boat up onto a plane as our group sat at the stern watching the scene disappear behind us. As we sat there taking it all in for one last time, and recalling all that had happened on that day, a rainbow appeared behind us as one final parting gift from this spectacular land.

Our group left the pier and our captain as we gathered together to make sure to catch the tunnel scheduled opening for our trip back through and to the Seward Highway for our drive back to the lodge, with one more stop for a meal at the Turnagain Arm Pit, a favorite barbecue restaurant along the way. Once back at the lodge all everyone wanted to do was rest and look at all of their photos from this amazing time. This trip has become a favorite part of our yearly Alaska Adventure tours, but is only one day of the five that we spend photographing Alaska. Each and every day is filled with another incredible experience.

 

 

Turnagain Arm Sunbeams

Turnagain Arm Sunbeams

Turnagain Arm Sunbeams – The Turnagain Arm is a waterway in the Gulf of Alaska and is one of two branches of the Cook inlet, the other being the Knik Arm. It happens to be one of my favorite places for photography.

The Turnagain Arm was named by William Bligh of the HMS Bounty fame who served as the sailing master for Captain James Cook, British Explorer and cartographer, on his third and final voyage on his quest for the Northwest Passage. In the exploration of the Cook Inlet a party was first sent up the Knik Arm only to return reporting that it led to a river. A second party went up the next Arm only to turn back saying that it too was only a river. In their frustration of having to turn back again they named it the Turnagain River, later to be designated an arm of the Cook Inlet, thus the Turnagain Arm.

The Turnagain Arm’s geography affects the weather in dramatic ways. On the south side of the waterway lies the Kenai Peninsula with its mountain peaks averaging 3000′-5000′ while on the opposite side rise the Chugach Mountain Range with peaks comparable in size to the Kenai Mountains but, because of their position to the Cook Inlet set world records for snowfall with averages 1500 cm (800 in). With the waterway between the weather can be intense, and the sun being low on the horizon most all seasons, the light is incredible an inordinate amount of times throughout the year.

Another unique part of exploring the Turnagain Arm is it’s bore tide. A bore tide happens only in a small handful of places around the world. A bore tide is a tidal phenomenon where the incoming tidal flow meets an outgoing flow of the bay or a river. The leading edge forms a wave that travels up the arm on the incoming tides. It’s always fun to go to the Turnagain Arm and chase the bore tide.

We always make the Turnagain Arm a primary feature of our Alaska workshops. When the bore tide happens just before a sunset, magic can happen. We had the opportunity on this particular evening to chase and photograph the bore tide and the Alaskan surfers along the Seward Highway, a sunset and as a bonus we experienced Baluga whales breaching just below where were were standing taking in the last light of the sunset.

These experiences are hard to describe, even with a photograph to accompany the narrative. They are things that one must experience in person to appreciate. Darlene and I have a combined total of over 25 years of experience exploring Alaska. If you have ever considered an Alaska adventure please consider signing up to one of our Alaska workshops.

Knik River Ice Cracks

Knik River Winter Ice

Knik River Ice Cracks  – This was a great day of photographing the patterns in and on the ice on the Knik River near Palmer Alaska. Darlene and I were invited to shoot by our friends and Alaska photographer Calvin Hall. Another fantastic photographer, Jason Dahlquist joined us for the evening. It was cold. It was 5°F (-15C) but there was no wind. The wind pulls the heat from you as you stand outside in this kind of cold. We lucked out and our cold weather gear kept us comfortable.

I was able to come away with a shot or two that I like from this location, this one included.

After we were finished here we relocated closer to Palmer to photograph the overflow ice on the Matanuska River. It was there that we photographed the sunset.

Alaska on Ice

Jason at The Knik River Alaska

Alaska on Ice – During my last trip to Alaska I and Darlene were able to met up with two of Alaska’s best photographers, Calvin Hall and Jason Dahlquist. Calvin took us all down to the Knik River to photograph the river ice. The temperature was about 5 degrees fahrenheit (-15C) but the temperature was the last things on our mind. The ice had patterns, layers and bubbles as well as beautiful little ice flower crystals. In the distance were the Chugach Mountains. It was incredible made better by being with friends.

While we were photographing the ice I glanced over and decided to get this photo of Jason. In this photo you can see the patterns in the ice, and Jason’s dashing smile. 🙂

Alaska Winter Bush Plane Glacier Adventure

Knik Glacier Alaska
Ice Columns of the Knik Glacier on an Alaska Winter Bush Plane Glacier Adventure. 
 
This photo is of the huge ice face of the Knik Glacier in Alaska. I was able to photograph this miraculous location due to my good friend Bill Nafus and his amazing new hand built Super Cub bush plane. Bill built the airplane from the ground up and it’s perfect in every detail.
 
Our plan was to fly up the Knik River and then back down, not expecting to land. We flew across the face of the glacier, very near the surface below us when I noticed that Bill was throttling back and dragging the huge balloon tires across the snow. He then pushed into the gas and we lifted back up again, circled tight and then returned again to drag the tires through the same grooves made by the first pass. And we lifted off again, circled back and this time we dropped into the tire tracks and stopped.
 
I was stoked. Was this actually happening??
 
Bill and I hopped out of the airplane and we walked out across the snow covered Knik River braided riverbed, not knowing what was under it, testing it along the way. It could be sand, ice, overflow ice or even open water. As we walked we watched for anomalies in the surface that may indicate danger, we got closer to the big ice wall.
 
The light at the glacier was amazing in its smooth even forgiving nature. I was easily able to take the photos by hand without the need of a tripod. This allowed me to be able to keep walking and taking photos as I saw them. It also allowed me to keep walking to keep warm in the -5F cold. The moon would peek out from behind the top of the glacier as i walked. The ice walls were a deep blue and transparent and as shiny as glass with a web of cracks lacing it giving it texture and depth.
 
In about an hour we made our way back to the plane, got back inside and flew back to Bill’s home in Palmer.
 
I was so excited! As we flew that day we saw moose, Dahl sheep as well as a Jeep Caravan that had made its way up the frozen river to a spot not far from glacier and was returning back to civilization. We flew above deep blue crevices, ice canyons and ice fields of no less than four glaciers. We flew through and past the jutting granite peaks of the Chugach Mountains.
 
Just the action of taking off from a frozen lake and flying around Alaska is sensational on a bucket list level, but to add the landing at a glacier to the trip made this day one that I will never, ever forget. I can’t thank my friend Bill enough. He’s a man that makes things happen.
 

I love Alaska, but I love her people even more.

 

Upper Trail Lake at Moose Pass Alaska

Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska
 A front row seat to the light show at Upper Trail Lake at Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.
 
The story behind this shot… Darlene and I had scouted this location out earlier in the day and then drove in the Seward to get a room for the night and some food in our bellies. We returned about dusk to wait for the show. When we arrived there were two guys there with their tent set up.
 
We parked and I approached them and said hello. They were from Germany and were touring British Columbia and Alaska by car. They flew in to Vancouver, bought a cheap used car and hit the road.
 
We had a great time visiting and shooting the aurora. Darlene wasn’t feeling so well that night and so as she was sitting above and behind she decided to take a photo of us down by the shore. When she showed me the shot I had to do it too, of course. 🙂 This is my version of the scene with our new German friends and Darlene standing at the shoreline getting their shots of the aurora.
 
The other detail that might complete this scene was that there was a beaver who would swim past every now and then and slap his tail on the water to try to chase us away.
 
Props to Darlene for standing back and capturing the scene and not just the scenery. 🙂

Alaska Glacier Workshop 2016

Matanuska Glacier Workshop 2016

Alaska is an amazing place. It’s so expansive that the scale is nothing that can be imagined but needs to be experienced to comprehend. Even the travel from location to location can be challenging in its distance. There is so much to see in Alaska that careful planning or a lot of time to wander is required.

Darlene and I have just returned from our trip to Alaska. We were there to conduct a workshop at the Matanuska Glacier. I guided seven photographers out and onto the ice for a four day Alaska workshop, and what a time we had. Everyone was blown away by the experience and the photos. The chance to explore a glacier is one that is not experienced by many.

The months prior to our arrival were unseasonably wet in Alaska. We were fortunate that the weather cleared up to provide optimal conditions for the workshop. The skies cleared and the temperatures become quite moderate which made walking around on the ice much more comfortable. Nobody was uncomfortable the whole time.

Our home base was the Long Rifle Lodge in Glacierview. The food was great, the view of the glacier from the dining room is breathtaking. A couple of the attendees stayed there as well. The rooms there were quite adequate, clean and comfortable especially considering that during the workshop all that one has time to do in them is sleep. Other’s stayed in various cabins or bed and breakfasts in the area.

On day three we all decided that the conditions for Autumn colors was optimal so we all decided to go to Hatcher Pass. While there we all wandered through the tundra, photographed arctic ground squirrels and explored the old historic Independence Mine with a side trip to Summit Lake and the amazing highland views through moving clouds and mist that created beans of heavenly light. It was a truly incredible day and a good call to go there.

Everyone was tired at the end of the four days, but were all left wanting more.

If you’re interested in an Alaska adventure please consider joining us next season.