allie and i spent the first three weeks of august trekking around alaska. it was one part camping, one part road trip, and a whole lot of glaciers, nature, mountains, and wierdness.
this ~20 day trip left us with over 4000 photos, quite a few stories, and in general just blown away by this crazy part of our country. i have to admit i began entertaining the thought of returning here -- for another vacation, as a seasonal worker bum, or as a crazy arctic circle recluse -- almost immediately. the beauty and vastness is just as stunning as you could expect.
for the same reason, it has been a bit of an ordeal to try to summarize in photos, and especially in words, every part of the trip. so i'm not going to try to live up to expectations here for terribly-punned commentary, and instead try to pick out the highlights.
we started the trip by flying into anchorage; naturally, i had to get familiar with local customs and dress, so i picked out a hat at the local beret store.
our plan: fly into anchorage, spend a week (or so) in denali, rent a car, and drive around for the remaining two (or so) weeks.
we hit the road the next day for denali national park; here we are on a tour bus into the heart of the state. decent commentary, great views.
here's allie outside "denali mountain morning hostel", a fun little joint just on the outside of the park entrance. since we didn't have any park reservations, we decided to kick it here for a night, work out camping the next day, and head into the wild after that.
horseshoes and beer at "panorama pizza pub", right across the highway from the hostel.
time of alaskan day = 10:54pm.
riverside canvas tent. originally we wanted to stay in a cabin thing, but i'm glad this was all that was left; much cooler.
it is going to take us the whole trip to figure out how to take effective photos here; here's me pouting (?) around our fire pit at midnight.
the next morning, we set about our first priority: backcountry permits.
the way it works is this: denali is an amazingly huge park, but there's only a couple of campgrounds; they are small, remote, and pretty feature free. the real treat is backcountry camping: the whole park is divided into parcels, with a quota of 2-3 campers per night per [giant] parcel. basically, you can camp anywhere you like. so long as you can endure this instructional video.
the other thing that is awesome about this system: there are no advanced reservations; you show up at the backcountry center and can request permits up to two days in advanced. in other words, you don't have to plan your trip 6 years ahead of time to get an awesome, mountain-valley, glacier-pond backcountry site. perfect for, shall we say, the procrastinator among us..
we completed the "don't fuck with bears" instructional video, picked a few cool looking parcels out of the map at the backcountry center, and transcribed some maps.
allie packed a diverse selection of granola bars and fruit leathers, which she was very happy about.
the camper bus: another essential part of the denali system.
though denali is huge, cars are mostly forbidden from it. a 100-mile rough dirt road extends deep into the park, but to get past the first 15 miles, you are required to travel by camper bus. these are rugged school busses, with a mic'd driver.
as i had threatened allie several times, you can also get on and off the camper busses anywhere.
a few miles into our trip, mr moose decided to have a look at us.
looking east (towards the park entrance) as we stopped along polychrome pass for a break.
looking west along the pass.
the scenery here proved a big test for your correspondent's commitment to his site's motif; if ever there was something capable of bending the monochromatic rule here, it'd be the awesome greens, oranges, and swirling grays of "polychrome pass" and denali n.p.
we were again interrupted by a fox engaged in a fight with some sort of hawk; here he is scampering off.
a pit stop about 1/4 of the way in.
when an opportunity to use an outhouse this scenic presents itself, i always, ah, make sure to get my money's worth..
mount denali (or mount mckinley, depending on who you talk to). we we're told many times we were lucky to even see it, as apparently it is completely obscured by weather 2/3rd of the time..
and here we are posing with the beast.
wonder lake! this is the campground at the end of the road. after the 10 hour bus trip, i am disappointed to discover our camp food "looks like ****".
scratchy little bushes everywhere have ripe, wild blueberries ready for the picking (which we were encouraged to do).
i was perhaps a bit too eager to scarf these down, but the pit toilets available at wonder lake were luxury compared to the pits we would need to dig in the backcountry..
walking around the campground; wonder lake is as close to denali as you can get.
light, still, and perfect for reading and relaxing in the tent at quarter to eleven at night.
cooking breakfast in the wonder lake shelter the next morning. it was actually pretty warm and sunny here.
after two nights at wonder lake (and various hiking trips, not shown), we headed back east on the camper bus to begin stage two: backcountry camping.
here's one of many random caribou along the road.
we stop again along the pass for photos; even clearer today.
we've reached the midway point -- eilson visitor center, a small lodge shoved into the side of the mountain. since we were novice backcountry campers, we picked a backcountry lot near here (in case we needed a dramatic rescue.)
another denali rule: you can camp anywhere in the backcountry, but you've gotta be completely out of view from the road that bisects the park. we had to hike a mile or two in, and hide ourselves behind a ridge.
to get around, we should have had those terrain maps we bought and diligently marked up at the backcountry center. but i decided to leave them on the bus for an extra challenge. oops!
fresh bear print. not pictured: the many piles of fresh, berry-seed-laced bear dung.
we settled on this backcountry spot, which had a glacier, mountains all around, a fresh water pond (right there behind allie), and a gorge. i guess it was O.K.
this was to be our home for the next 3-4 nights.
the scenery at night, the sounds, and the critters seen and heard scurrying around, were all wonderful.
... but the silence of it all, the completely lack of any other humans and removal from civilization, the fresh bear prints, and that forest fire smoke rolling in from the right all conspired to give us crazy dreams. so we decided to cut our backcountry time a little short, and hiked back into civilization after only a night.
we were a little bummed about not spending more time in the backcountry, but the decision quickly turned quite serendipitous: after climbing out of our ledge, through a riverbed, up through a half a mile of thick brush, we ran into some friends we made a few days previously on the bus.
later that night, we camped out on the edge of the park and ran into these two people, juan and evelyn, a pair of teachers from san francisco. we had so much fun together that we decided to convoy for the next week.
here's allie, goofing around on the train from denali to anchorage. (it may be a bit of an expensive tourist trap, but this train ride was awesome.)
evelyn and juan, shortly before we lost him in a catastrophic tunnel accident.
i rented a big-ass 200-400mm bazooka lense for the trip. i actually carted that shit around the backcountry, which i began swearing about after 3-4 steps in. but it was really worth it for fun zoom shots like these, hanging out of the train hatch.
(allie and i both brought camera bodies, and we had a 10-22mm wide lens along with this one, and traded off taking shots.)
we all spent the night in anchorage, then decided to drive to valdez over the next two days: a 300mi drive through some very scenic, two-lane-road country.
here's allie, hanging out at the musk ox farm.
allie and ox make nice.
one of many scenery stops along the drive. here's juan, just before we lost him in a catastrophic bridge accident.
i think this is around or near "chickaloon, ak", a place which, like "big bone lick state park, ky", we wanted to visit only because of the funny name.
a rafting information stand somewhere along the highway.
hanging out with a mountain.
we started thinking about campgrounds for the night, around 7pm. when we asked locals about where to camp, the common response was to look at us like we were complete idiots: "it's alaska, dude. you can camp anywhere."
we lost juan in a momentary, catastrophic zero-gravity incident.
i wanted to find a more dramatic spot to shoot the pipeline, but this was all i got. it runs north-south, and this was along the way south to valdez. i'd been fascinated by the thing before the trip, but it really isn't that interesting once you are there.
i was wondering, too, if you can walk right up to it. i guess so. there was a little informational sign, even.
well, shit. we stopped at the ranger station for wrangell-st. elias park, located on a dirt road in some town of about 13 people. and i decided to lock the keys in the car.
the town blacksmith saves the day, prying open the car door and rescuing the keys in a tense, 20-minute standoff with physics.
a fish well -- my preferred way to fish.
traffic along the way was glacial.
alaska: land of no-sign-left-un-shot. seriously. every freaking sign in the state was like this.
alaska: also land of many disclaimers.
another stupid moose gets in our way.
closing in on valdez, juan (not pictured) starts lobbying for a rafting trip. hard to tell, but the glacier-runoff rapids are very strong and rough here. easy to tell: i am cold and being difficult.
the next day, in valdez, we went on a little rafting trip. i didn't get any photos, unfortunately, but it was good fun.
the raft bums live in little cabins right on the river and have a river-cooled-keg of alaskan amber, which they invited us to share. this was great.
(pretty much everyone here works seasonally, may-september. one dude was going off to australia after the tourism season. another had an established hawaii/alaska rotation. not a bad life. many moments spent contemplating career change to river-rafing-keg-master.)
valdez of course has a big oil transportation plant, and a lot of fishing boats.
strolling along the harbor, shortly before we lost juan in a tragic and catastrophic ladder disaster.
my favorite boat.
fish processing area.
we spent 3-4 days in valdez -- it was more than we had planned, and more than needed, so we had some time to kill. we headed out of the port of valdez on a glacier cruise.
one of many ice fields along the glacier cruise.
the boat slowed to near idle around these guys.
seal hanging out on an ice floe. (ok, i don't know if is technically a floe, a berg, or what have you. but this is probably my only opportunity to say 'floe'.)
more ice chunks.
... and more ice fields.
a silly tourist who leaned too far over the rail.
a couple of seals, which delighted all the girls and buoys.
allie, inspecting the token piece of glacier ice brought aboard for us tourists.
"this ice is millions of years old!"... yeah, not like all that new synthetic h2o...
ok, so this part i was really excited about: car ferry!
the alaska marine highway runs between many southern alaska ports, and serves as a link to some islands and far-off places that you just can't drive to. we're on our way to cordova, a scenic, road-isolated fishing town.
lots of little guys like this were racing out to sea.
cordova is a small town, but the real treat was 60-70 miles deep into the place: childs glacier, a "constantly calving" & very close-up glacier. to get there requiring ignoring our rental contract and driving 45 miles on this unmaintained, desolate road.
along the way to childs.
far from civilization once again, a creepy glacier swamp about 35 miles in.
we made it! here's the "famous" million-dollar-bridge; the campsite and childs glacier is to the left, on this side of the bridge.
i attempt to check my portfolio and sports quotes on an unmaintained phone.
excited graffiti along the bridge.
child's glacier, as seen from the bridge. this place is my personal favorite from the trip.
the campsite and viewing area there by the trees on the left; it makes the glacier feel so close you can touch it. there's also what feels like a 5-10 degree chill noticeable in the air, as you emerge from the trees.
closer to the glacier, a nest of some angry eagles squawked at us.
it was indeed, constantly calving. i can't do this place justice, but i'll try: imagine sleeping to the sound of constant rumbles, cracks, and huge thunderous thuds.
we took this pictures (and many many others like it) on the opposite bank, which is about 3/4mi from the face.
the scale of the glacier does weird things to your brain: a falling chunk of ice looks like a small snowball - certainly not enough to make a noise. it hits the water, and you see an unexpectedly large slow-motion explosion; a few seconds later, a tremendous thunder echoes around the face. then silence; a minute later, small ripples break into large waves crashing against the bank.
we were here all alone, save for a crew of coast guards that stopped by for a pit fire and a chat.
a plant collecting some delicious dew.
hey! it's the coast guard!
we made friends with the coasties, and decided to pay them a visit at their facility along the unmaintained road.
driving into the property, marked "keep out - authorized personnel only - active airbase", we wondered if the coasties we had met around the bonfire were really serious when they said "drop by".
fortunately, they were serious - and surprisingly excited to see us. (we learned they are out in cordova for months at a time, don't get many visitors, and were more than happy to give us a tour.)
these guys mostly do search and rescue operation; they all have specific roles (pilot/copilot/navigator/etc). the guy on the left helping allie into the basket is the rescue diver.
beware of beast.
the hangar was filled with rescued and recovered rings from various ships.
we took a quick joyride around the coast and practiced snatching people up with the basket. (just kidding).
here's the crew - thanks guys!
we returned to cordova, where the exciting summertime fun never stops..
the cordova harbor and overlooking mountain.
we treated ourselves to a hotel overlooking the harbor for the night.
what the devil, it's josh cripps!
so, a good chunk of our trip is missing: specifically, a drive out to homer alaska, and a return trip, where we met up with josh. homer was a bit of a disappointment: it was big, urban, and didn't have much to interest us. (may if we were into halibut, dreamcatchers, or RVs, we'd enjoy it here.)
our sudden changing of plans worked out great again, because we managed to meet up with josh!
josh and mel just returned from a full summer spent on the alaskan island of gareloi -- a true wilderness journey which would surely put our little meet-and-greet with the wild to shame.
we convinced josh and mel not to go to homer as planned, and instead tag along with us for our final couple days in alaska. we headed to kenai fjords national park and clambered up exit glacier.
josh and mel scouted things out.
we had a few snacks and hiked back down.
some mountaintop near the glacier.
next, we took another glacier tour, this time around kenai.
whale tail! the long lens really came in handy here; unfortunately, the big guy was a bit far away and did not breach.
another big pile of snow just waiting for us.
the ice field close to the glacier.
more ice field.
perfecting our lean-out-of-the-boat-or-train-and-take-long-zoom-portrait technique.
more explosive calving.
seals, which had become victims of the feared zorro of the sea, "X436".
i'm sure whoever lives here is crazy. the question is, are his kidnap victims brought back to the boat first, or only after being bound and gagged in the stilt house?
we're nearing the end of the trip; the days have gotten shorter, and the beard has grown in.
we take a final nature walk with josh and mel.
last call at the pizza parlor befor our red eye.
if you have made it this far, i salute you. thank you to everyone who made this trip special!