Monday, September 15, 2008

Back in Dallas and final thoughts on our Alaskan Adventure

Wow, what a trip!! The Alaskan license plate on their cars says “ Alaska- the last frontier” and that just about sums it up. Everywhere you go in Alaska you are surrounded by beautiful mountains. There is wildlife everywhere but not always immediately visible. Alaska is so big that the wildlife has plenty of room to move around; however, it is everywhere. We saw some beautiful moose right in a forested part of Anchorage. Alaska is a total outdoor environment. That is why people live there. They love the outdoors. If you are into cities that is not the state to move to. When we were in Anchorage we went to REI ( an outdoor gear store ) and that particular day REI was having a sale and the entire parking lot was full.

The hunting and gun culture is alive and well in Alaska. The tip off was seeing trucks full with dead animals and antlers sticking out. We also noticed as we were driving around that practically all the road signs had bullet holes in them. Sara asks me “what’s up with that” and my reply was “the road signs make good target practice”. Driving around was actually pretty easy. There are only several roads and the driving distances were not that great. The vast majority of Alaska is remote and can only be accessed by bush plane.

We found the people to be very friendly and helpful. You can tell that they have a definite toughness. The winters in Alaska can be severe. You have to be somewhat rugged to handle that type of environment. Some parts of Alaska can get down to forty and fifty degrees below zero. Lodging and food was pretty expensive but we finally realized they have from May to September to make their living. The rest of the year a lot of places are closed for the winter. Plus Alaska is a good distance from the rest of the country. It took us as long to get to Alaska as it takes us to get to Europe.

I shot 7000-8000 digital pictures. Many of them were the same picture but with different exposures which can be blended together to capture a wider tone range. Alaska is definitely a photographer’s paradise. You do have to know where to go and at what time of the year. We were very pleased with our selection of places and time of year. Sara did a fabulous job of arranging the flights and accommodations. I keep telling her she could be a tour director in another life. As usual our total travel weight was about 250 -300 lbs. The majority of that was camera gear and camping equipment. I actually built my own rolling carry on bag which I managed to get down to 3 ½ lbs but still we had a load.

Here is our last slideshow: End of Vacation

Note: If you click any of the small slideshows on the Web site you can view them full size.

To sum our trip up - we accomplished our goals which were not to get mauled by any bears, don’t need a medi-evac or rescue, and see beautiful Alaska and take good pictures. We hope you enjoyed our commentary and pictures. This was Sara’s first blog and I think she did a great job with it and I know she had fun with it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bears and Eagles in Haines

We reached Haines late Monday evening after a relaxing four hour ferry ride. We got up early on Tuesday morning and met with Ron Horn who is a minister in Haines and also is a superb photographer. Ron spent the morning showing us around Haines and pointing out all the hot spots for photography. Haines is famous for their eagle populations especially in November when the chum salmon make their final run up the Chilkat River. What we did not know was all the other photo opportunities in Haines. They have a very good bear population and the scenics are fabulous when the weather is good. So we were lucky enough to see quite a few eagles and bears. Unfortunately, the weather was somewhat cloudy, windy and rainy during our visit so there were no scenic opportunities. However we found plenty to do.

Haines is a cool town. It has a permanent population of around 1,600, a little more in the summer. It is only 39 miles from the Canadian border, and Tuesday we took a drive up to Canada to check out the views which were quite impressive. We went by a Native American center on Wednesday and saw an actual totem being carved. It was quite impressive and takes an extraordinary amount of time and work.

Here is the latest slideshow:

We are now back in Juneau arranging our luggage for the trip home. Hopefully Hurricane Ike will not prevent us getting back to Dallas, otherwise we will probably be stuck in Chicago over the weekend. Hopefully all our friends in Houston will be safe.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Juneau Float Planes

We had problems uploading these photos of the float planes we saw in Juneau, so here they are now.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Alaska Highways

On Friday we drove the Denali Highway from the west Parks Highway, to the east Richardson Highway. The views were beautiful with the fall colors coming on strong and the tundra turning red. We also found a very cooperative eagle that let us get very close for photographs. The drive took us over seven hours since we could only go 25-35 mph and made numerous stops to take pictures. The road was in good condition for a gravel road, although with the rain and dust we totally covered the car in mud. Hunting season has started, and the road was full of hunters on ATVs, consequently we didn’t see any moose who wisely were hiding.

The next day we drove down the Glenn highway and decided to stop at the Matanuska Glacier. The Glacier is massive and very cool but looks somewhat dirty from all the glacial debris produced by the glacier. We camped at the glacier for the night, and in the morning walked onto the glacier and hiked around a bit. Then we headed back to Anchorage, managing to get a flat tire on the way.

When we got back to Anchorage we went out to look for moose. We had been given a tip from a guy we met at the Denali campground who lives in Anchorage and sure enough we found several moose in the place he suggested. It is a little mind boggling to have so much wildlife everywhere you go including the wild areas around a city. Bear in mind Anchorage is the biggest city in Alaska and we have more people in Carrollton, TX than they do. As a matter of fact, Dallas has more people than the whole state of Alaska.

We flew to Juneau this morning and had a nice lunch down on the port where all the cruise ships come in. There was a very cool float plane operation working all using the old single engine Otters with the turbine engine conversion. We are now on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry traveling up the Inside Passage going to Haines. It is a four hour ride; we may get lucky and see whales. Haines has lots of bears and eagles but it is rainy season here so we may be somewhat restricted.

Here is the latest slideshow from the Denali and Glenn Highways:

Alaska Highways

Friday, September 5, 2008

Denali National Park

We just spent four days inside Denali National Park camping at the Wonder Lake Campground which is 87 miles inside the park. It takes a long six hour bus ride to get there along a small gravel road, however the views are gorgeous and usually there is some wildlife along the way.

Mount McKinley (called Denali by the Alaskans), is normally only viewable 20% of the time. The mountain is so big (20,320 feet) that it can actually create its own weather system, and is typically obscured by clouds. Denali has the highest vertical face in the world, even larger than Everest, since the base of the mountain is at 3,000 feet. We were treated to clear views for three days and had beautiful autumn weather, although the temperatures in the tent at night were around 32F.

Click the slide show below to see the pictures in full size. If this does not work from your email try this link: Denali National Park

The bugs were pesky; however we got a tip from an Alaskan hunter that if you break off a bush branch and hold it above your head it helps keep the bugs away. We thought the guy was putting us on to make us look stupid, but we tried it and it actually does work. We did look stupid, but we were bug free!

It does not get dark until after 10pm, so John came up with a method to create his own darkness by pulling a hat down over his eyes and wearing an eye mask. We met some lovely people at the campground, mostly all of them photographers, so there were a lot of people getting up at dawn for photo opportunities.

Wild blueberries grow abundantly in this area, which is what the bears eat. We started picking them, and they are delicious. John asked Sara if they need to be washed first, the reply was they are completely fresh and organic. We will never enjoy store bought blueberries again.

We were so lucky with the weather we left the campground a day early. Since it was John’s birthday on the 4th and we had been wilderness camping for four days we decided to treat ourselves to a nice room in a lodge.

We have three days before we need to be back to Anchorage so we are going to drive the Denali and Glen Highways. The Denali highway is 135 miles of gravel, but should have great views. Supposedly rental cars are not allowed on it, but we have seen no evidence of this rule in our agreement, so we are going for it anyway.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Heading to Wonder Lake

On the way out of Talkeetna we stopped at a lake to take pictures of some float planes. On the spur of the moment we decided to take a scenic flight of Mount McKinley on one of the float planes, the weather was beautiful, and the mountains were all clear, unusual for this area.

View of the glaciers

Mount McKinley

It was an amazing unforgettable experience.

Today we head into the park to Wonder Lake. We have enough food and equipment for weeks, should be a fun experience.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kenai Peninsula

After leaving the bear lodge on Wednesday , we drove down the Kenai Peninsula and found an old historic Russian Orthodox church which was unique and interesting. We then drove down to Homer which is on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Homer is the Halibut fishing capital of the world and is a prime spot for eagle photography in the winter, although not many this time of the year. When we were over at the bear lodge we mentioned to the owner we were going to Homer and were planning on camping on the “Spit” (the beach on the end of the peninsula). He said “oh, you are going to be “Spit Rats “. He was referring to the Hippies that lived on the beach back in the late 60s and early 70s. Apparently they were pretty rowdy and pretty much trashed the place. The Spit Rats are still there but in much smaller quantities.

That night (Wednesday) as we were sleeping in our tent at about 2:30 in the morning we were woken by a bunch of loud, drunk “Spit Rats”. Someone out in the ocean was in desperate need of help. Apparently their boat sank and they fired off three flares as a SOS signal and started yelling for help. The drunk Spit Rats reacted immediately and called 911. The 911 call went something like this- “there is someone in the water yelling for help, the MF is drowning as we are talking, you need to get the F-ing Coast Guard out here right now. Then the lead drunken Spit Rat decided that shooting fireworks and flashing our car headlights would be a good signal to let the person in trouble know help was on the way. So now we are at least official junior Spit Rats. (The people were saved.)

Thursday we moved on to Seward which is a cool little town with mountains and glaciers surrounding it. The food and lodging in Alaska is very expensive but we have managed to find some great places to stay at reasonable rates ($100 per night). You can easily spend $40 to $50 for breakfast. We have worked out we can either camp at $10 night and eat out, or stay in a room and cook our own food! We found a great room in Seward, and were excited to have heating and a shower, after a week of no heat.

On our way out of Seward on Friday we stopped at a family run Iditarod dog sled team kennel. Four generations of the family have competed in the Iditarod race, and won in 2004. We went for a wheeled sled ride behind a sixteen dog team; it was a lot of fun.

On Friday we drove to Portage valley and found a great campsite nestled in the mountains, with great views of the glaciers. It has been quite cold, and dropped to 40F in the tent that night. This required another trip to REI on our way through Anchorage on Saturday to pick up more warm clothes in preparation for five days in Denali.

Here is a link to the latest slide show:

We are currently in Talkeetna, a tiny town with a population of around 800, which is the jumping off point for expeditions to Mount McKinley. We can see the Alaska Range in the distance, where we are heading tomorrow. We are sending this entry from the Roadhouse, a historic log house with a cafe/rooming facility. We just had the worlds best raspberry Cinnamon bun, we need to be fattened up for the upcomming cold nights. We feel like bears preparing for hibination!

Tomorrow we are taking the bus to Wonder Lake Campground in Denalia park, we will be there until Friday. We will send an update when we get back.

That's all for now from historic Talkeetna.

John and Sara

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Last Day at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge

We've just finished our last day at this amazing location. Our guide Drew did a wonderful job driving us around and finding bears for us to photograph, he is a Texas boy who grew up in Denton, and moved to Alaska eight years ago. We can't say enough good things about him.

We spent most of our time photographing with some lovely New York chaps, and one from San Diego. The whole group was a lot of fun.

As promised here is an album of some of the 4,000 photos John took. You can also see this on the main blog site. Click on the top slide show button or individual images to see the full size pictures.

Tomorrow we fly back to the Kenai Peninsula, and then drive to Homer which is on the tip.

More to come,

John and Sara

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bears at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge

We have had an amazing several days photographing bears in Clark National Park. We are staying at Silver Salmon Creek lodge with a great group taking care of us, and have already seen a bunch of bears, some that passed by us within 20 or 30 feet. The bears are mostly fishing for salmon and today we were treated to a fine fishing display by a mother bear, watched closely by her cub.

To get here we rode in a Cessna 207, a small six seat plane. Our first flight in Alaska was what we consider to be very sporty, we had to drop off one passenger at another location, and little did we know that we were going to land on a narrow beach next to a cliff, with one wheel in the water and one on the beach. Our landing at the lodge was not quite as exciting, but still on a beach.

Yesterday we went to Duck Island and spent several hours photographing Horned Puffins, which are rather colorful exotic birds; it was a very special opportunity. The weather yesterday was beautiful, sunny all day and very pleasant. We've had cloud and rain on and off the rest of the time, but it hasn't slowed us down at all.

The operation here is outstanding, the food is phenomenal. They generate all their own electricity here with a diesel generator and battery system, with additional help from a solar panel. We are staying in the Dolly Den, a nice little cabin with minimal amenities. It was 48F in the cabin the first night, good snuggling weather.

Tomorrow is our last day at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, and we plan to make the most of it and see as much bear behavior as we can. we have limited Internet access here so will upload more pictures later.

John & Sara

Ps We have had a few questions about subscribing to the google group we created. You don't need to do anything, you will be emailed when we post an update, or you can go directly to the blog at to view everything together

Friday, August 22, 2008

We made it to Anchorage

As we flew into Anchorage, looking out of the airplane it was totally overcast to the east, but we could see beautiful totally snow covered peaks sticking above the clouds which reminded us of Nepal. It was a long day of traveling with long delays, missed connections and missing luggage. However we finally made it to Anchorage, have all our gear, and managed a trip to REI. We are off to Soldotna, and will fly to the bear camp tomorrow.

Our goals for the vacation are:
  • Don't get mauled by a bear
  • Don't require any medi-vacs or rescues
  • See beautiful Alaska and get lots of good pictures

Stay tuned, more to come.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The packing challenge

We are struggling with our usual problem, how to make everything fit and still meet the baggage limits with the airline....

All our clothes fit in the green bag, everything else is equipment, and we still need to add a carry on for John's camera gear.

Getting Ready

We leave for Alaska on Thursday, can't wait. We are busily preparing and packing, should be ready in time. John has a few more things to build, including a new light weight carry on suitcase. It gets harder each trip to get all our equipment on boad the plane.

Here are our plans:
  • Thursday 21st fly to Anchorage, pickup the car on Friday and drive south to Soldatna
  • Saturday 23rd - Tuesday 26th - Bear photography at Silver Salmon Creek lodge
  • Wednesday 27th - Sunday 31st - drive up to Denalia National Park, with a definite stop in Talkeetna.
  • Monday Sept 1st - Friday 5th - camping in Denali at Wonderlake Campground
  • Sunday Sept 8th - fly to Juneau, and take the four hour ferry to Haines
  • Tuesday 9th - Thur 11th - hang out in Haines and photograph the eagles.
  • Friday 12th - Final trip home to Dallas

We don't know what sort of Internet access we will have on the trip, but plan to try and update this blog as much as we can.

Stay tunned!