This year, to celebrate the National Park Service Centennial, a few individuals have embarked on well-publicized trips to visit all 59 U.S. national parks in a year. Besides releasing Treasured Lands, whose early reviews seem to acknowledge as “the” book of the Centennial, I am celebrating by quietly completing a second round of national parks visits – my first one was completed in 2002. Prior to this September Alaska trip, I had four left to go to 59, and on that trip, I traveled to two of them. Whereas the first week was a road trip, on the second week of the trip, we visited two parks without road access.
On Monday, we flew to Lake Clark National Park by scheduled flight. That day saw the most heavy rain of our trip, and it was also the day we were set to start a backpacking outing! After hanging out in Port Alsworth, hoping for the weather to improve, we resolved to hit the trail. At one point, the rain let out a bit, and at the same time, I found an opening in the trees along the mostly forested trail, that let me create this layered composition with a beaver pond in the foreground and Lake Clark in the background.
On Tuesday, we made good use of the only sunny day of our second week in Alaska for a hike up the Tanalian Mountain. The steep trail climbs 3,200 feet in 2.5 miles from forest to tundra for stunning views of Lake Clark, and on the way down I photographed the only colorful sunset of the whole trip. Afterward, I needed to be careful not to lose the lightly used trail that my friend and I had all to ourselves all day, getting back to camp around 11pm. But I didn’t go to sleep after dinner since that was the best night of the trip for night photographs – all others were just too cloudy.
On Wednesday, the rain resumed (doesn’t it sound familiar ?), but on the way back from the campsite at Kontrashibuna Lake, I photographed a beautiful intimate forest scene with the ground vegetation providing great color. Fall color is not only on the trees! By now, I have photographed fall color in almost each national park where it can be found. Check out my article on that subject in the October issue of Outdoor Photographer! In the afternoon, we flew to King Salmon and then to Katmai National Park. The most tricky part of the trip was the transfer from one bush plane to another, since one was on wheels, and the second on floats.
Thursday was bear day, spent at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. I had visited the place in July, and was curious about September. It turned out to be a great time to visit, with fall color and far fewer crowds than in summer: even the Brooks Falls platform was never full, whereas in July there was a waiting list and a 1 hour time limit, and this one a decade and half ago. One of the reasons might have been that some of the most interesting activity took place at the lower platform, but that one also never filled up. Bears were less active at the falls, but overall their activity was more diverse, and they looked great: fat and happy!
Friday was hiking day. Most people come to Brooks Camp only to view the bears, but right from the campground, a great trail leads up to Dumpling Mountain, 2,400 feet above Brooks Camp, for a panoramic view of Naknek Lake, Brooks Lake, and the Brooks River in-between, which has to be one of the shortest rivers anywhere. Brooks Camp is heavily forested, but Dumpling Mountain is above treeline, and besides the views, the tundra delighted with its mosaic of autumn colors.
Saturday was road trip day, although the vehicle was a high clearance tour bus that had to cross streams, one of them fifty yards wide and quite deep, requiring momentum not to get stuck. We visited the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Although Katmai National Park is nowadays renown mostly for bear viewing, Katmai was established as a National Monument in 1918 to protect the site of the 1912 Novarupta eruption, the largest volcanic blast of the twentieth century. In other places, the age of canyons would be counted in hypothetical tens, of not million of years, so it is remarkable that this one can be dated precisely to just about a hundred years ago, a testament to the severe weather and soft ash.
On Sunday, the last day of our trip, I was back along the Brooks River. Although I waded a bit in the river to try and get bear shots at eye level, the best opportunities came from the platforms. Just one hour before our floatplane flight out of Katmai, the very last scheduled flight of the season, a sow and her cub took a nap next to the footbridge over the Brooks River. Everything in Brooks Camp revolves around the bears. When they are too close to the trail, it closes, resulting in what is locally called a “bearjam”. However, on this occasion, instead of being stuck on the trail, we were privileged to witness from the safety of the platform an intimate moment between those two family members.
On Monday, I woke up one hour before sunrise to pack because instead of staying in a hotel in King Salmon, I had pitched my tent on a patch of dirt next to a hangar. Due to a flight delay, I didn’t get home until 1:30am. However, during the long day, Alaska offered me a last treat: a glimpse of the immense glaciers and mountains of the St Elias Range.
Stay tuned for more detailed postings – and finished photographs – about highlights of that trip!