Terra Galleria Photography

Grizzlies in Autumn, Katmai National Park

Most visitors to Katmai National Park come for bear viewing during July to see thousands of salmon jumping over Brooks Falls, sometimes straight into a waiting bear’s mouth. The autumn is a much less known time to visit, but it is also great, providing a quite different experience.

Brooks Camp stands out as one of the few places in the world where humans can coexist beside the bears in their own natural habitat. It is one of the most reliable places for seeing a large number of bears up close. At Brooks Camp, services are offered from June 1 through September 17.

Summer in Brooks Camp

In June, the salmon run hasn’t yet started. In July, salmon swim in massive numbers up the Brooks River towards their spawning grounds, with the peak of the salmon run occurring in the middle of the month. This is the only time of the year to try and capture images of a brown bear catching a salmon flying midair. At that time, bears are most numerous, and so are people. See my detailed description of bear viewing at Brooks Falls in July that covers all the bear viewing basics.

The main logistical difficulty is booking a place to stay in Brooks Camp during the salmon run window of late June through late July. The small lodge often sells out a year in advance, and you can’t camp within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls, except at the designated campground, which also fills up fast. The viewing platforms are often full. When that happens, a quota is set. A ranger takes your name for a waiting list, and after you get in, calls you out after one hour. During my July visit, shooting shoulder-to-shoulder with other photographers, there was no room to even spread out the tripod. Besides other bear viewers and photographers, the salmon run also attract a lot of fishermen who are standing in the river.

Fall in Brooks Camp

August is a quiet month along the Brooks River. It is often empty of bears because the density of salmon is low, and those present are still energetic and therefore difficult to catch. At that time, bears seek smaller streams in the area with higher salmon density. In September, sockeye salmon are spawned out and dying, making them easy to catch. At that time, bears return to the Brooks River, and they are still fishing. The scientific name for this feeding phase is “Hyperphagia”, when the bears try to put on the last pounds before their winter hibernation.

Usually more than thirty bears hang out in the Brooks Camp area during the fall. Early in the season, the bears look fairly ratty, but after a summer of feeding, they look big and fat again, with more shinny and full coats. Like most mammals in North America, they look their most magnificent in the fall.

During the summer, most of the bear activity takes place at Brooks Falls, and in the fall, it is still a great place for bear viewing, with an occasional fight even taking place. Occasional means that it’s the only one I saw out of 3 days of (part-time) bear-viewing. However, a lot of activity takes place at the lower platform near the mouth of the Brooks River, where the behaviors are more diverse. I also find the scenery more appealing there, and in addition, mid-September brings beautiful fall foliage to the area. The weather at that time of the year is often more cloudy and rainy than in summer, but that is not a problem for bear photography.

Maybe the factor that makes an autumn visit such a great experience is the relative lack of crowds. One month in advance, there were still plenty of campsites open for online reservation. Even at midday, the Brooks Falls platform was never full, and therefore never subject to a time limit. The fact that you could move freely from platform to platform and never have to wait for a spot to free up made for a very relaxed experience.

The summer season winds down mid-September in Alaska, with most places shutting down, and Katmai is no exception. Although the campground remains open, on September 17, the visitor center and lodge close. More importantly, all scheduled flights also stop, which means that you need a more expensive charter flight to get there. I wished I could have stayed longer when I boarded the very last scheduled flight of the season. Just an hour before, we were still stuck on the other side of the Brooks River, as a napping sow and bridge had closed the footbridge!

Treasured Lands wins IPPY and IBPA Benjamin Franklin book awards

I am honored that Treasured Lands has won not one, but two of the most respected book award competitions in the independent publishing world.

This was especially gratifying because although I have had three books of photography published before, Treasured Lands is the first for which I was in total control. Besides providing the photographs and doing the pre-press imaging work, I envisioned the concept for the book with an initial design, wrote all the text except for the foreword by Dayton Duncan, worked on the maps, and participated in the final image selection and book design. However, much of the credit goes to the great art director Iain Morris of Cameron Books, as well to the rest of the team, mostly publisher Chris Gruener, editor Jan Hughes, and designer Melissa Greenberg.

Treasured Lands won the Gold Medal for the category “Coffee Table Books” in the 2017 Independent Publisher Awards. The “IPPY”, as it is known in the book publishing industry, is the world’s largest book awards competition, with more than 5,000 entrants, running now for 21 years.

Treasured Lands won the Gold Medal for the category “Arts and Photography” in the 2017 BPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Administered by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), For nearly 30 years, the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards have been regarded as one of the highest national honors for small and independent publishers. Over 150 librarians, booksellers, and design and editorial experts – most of whom have decades of book industry experience – judge the books submitted to the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. The judging process takes close to six months, beginning in September and continuing into March each year. At the end of the process, every entrant receives written critiques from the three individual judges who reviewed their book.

That Treasured Lands got recognition from the independent publishing community is significant, since the project would not have come to fruition without independent publishing, but this would have to be a subject for another post.

If you haven’t got your copy yet or would like to stock up for gifts, note that Amazon currently has the book at an incredible 50% discount. I even placed an order for myself there!

Lake Clark National Park on the Go

Lake Clark National Park is the third less visited of America’s 59 National Parks. Lack of road access may contribute to that. My summer visit used a chartered floatplane to travel deep into the park’s backcountry. On a recent 2.5-day visit aimed at seeing some of the park in the autumn, I limited explorations to the immediate area surrounding Port Alsworth. Find out how despite the town being the largest and most easily reached community within the park, you can have a quick and excellent wilderness experience nearby.

Traveling to the park

Flying anywhere else into the park requires a charter plane, but Port Alsworth is a large enough community (population 159) to be serviced by regularly scheduled flights from Anchorage, which are more affordable than charter flights – as of 2016, the cost was $540/person round-trip. That would be our only expenses in the park. The arrival in Port Alsworth disconcerts, as you land on an unpaved airstrip next to a hangar. However, a walk along the runaway (watch for planes!) brings you soon enough to the familiar sight of a national park’s visitor center. Together with the adjacent historic exhibit, it is the only facility in the park operated by the National Park Service, and they besides information, they will provide you with free bear canisters loans, which are mandatory for camping in the backcountry.


Unlike national parks in the continental U.S., many Alaskan national parks include private in-holdings, which means private lands surrounded by public lands. Much of the lands around Lake Clark are private, including Port Alsworth. Half-a-dozen private lodges offer comfortable stays – at a cost typical of Alaska, and there is a private campground within walking distance from the airstrip. The sites cost $50/night, however, they include tent enclosures with clear roofs and mosquito netting for walls, as well as firewood, potable water, and showers. If you ask your air service, they will point you to a spot next to the runway where you could pitch your tent for free, but backcountry camping provides a much nicer experience.

Lake Clark

There isn’t much to see in Port Alsworth since all the lands are private. The only access to Lake Clark is via an easement (a trail with public access on otherwise private land) situated at the West end of the north airstrip, the one located closest to the lake. It leads to a pebble beach next to a stream where you may see salmon. Other than that, to explore Lake Clark, you’d need to rent a watercraft from an outfitter. Kayaks and motorboats are available. Past the General Store, located towards the East end of the south airstrip, you will find the trailhead for the only maintained trail system in the park.

Tanalian Falls Trail

The 5-mile round-trip (300-foot elevation gain) trail to Tanalian Falls passes tundra meadows, birch groves, and beaver ponds frequented by moose and waterfowl along the lower Beaver Pond Loop. On the way back, you can take the other branch of the loop, called the Falls and Lake Trail for a higher view. Although the trail is mostly forested, on a rainy day, I found an opening between the trees for a layered composition including beaver ponds and Lake Clark.

The falls are fed partly by runoff, so they are most robust in early summer. They are only about 50 feet, but quite wide and dramatic. The view from the base, reached by a short spur trail, includes the sky, so it works best when the falls are well lit, which is in the afternoon, as they are west-facing. For a different perspective, you can walk the other spur trail to the brink of the falls.

Kontrashibuna Lake

By hiking another mile round-trip from the falls, you’ll reach beautiful Kontrashibuna Lake. It is smaller than Lake Clark and offers compositions with mountains situated at a closer distance. A trail hugs the north shore of the lake. After hiking in steady rain, I was elated that the clouds broke for a short instant. But after a quick photo, I had to rush to take opportunity of the dry moment to pitch my tent because I knew the rain would return soon.

The Kontrashibuna lakeshore features the best backcountry campsites around Port Alsworth, and the closest one was even equiped with a bench and a campfire spot nearly next to the water. There are a few canoes there too, but they belong to the Port Alsworth community and are not for public use. The site lies only slightly more than 3 miles from Port Alsworth, yet you will feel you are camping in the wilderness, save for the occasional sounds of air traffic.

Tanalian Mountain Trail

If you are ready for a strenuous hike, from the junction with the Beaver Pond Loop, the Tanalian Mountain Trail is 4.8 miles round-trip with a steep 3,250-foot elevation gain. It starts in a lovely deciduous forest. The autumn color display was superb at the end of the second week of September.

From the mid-point of the trail up to the top, the trail gets more faint, as the forest gives way to tundra, which also turns shades of gold and crimson in autumn. On one side, fantastic views open over fifty-mile long Lake Clark. Port Alsworth and Tanalian Mountain are situated approximately in the midway the Lake Clark, and this is the view looking Northeast.

On the other side, the views are over serpentine Kontrashibuna Lake and its turquoise-colored waters. Having such a high viewpoint gave me a different perspective on the park that I didn’t even get during my previous week-long backpacking trip during which we did not hike up mountains – upon returning to the civilization of Port Alsworth, we did not feel like tackling one and turned around at the falls.

The narrow summit offered a fantastic 360-degrees view, with a glimpse of the active Iliamna Volcano in the distance. I lingered on Tanalian Mountain until one hour before sunset so that I would reach timberline just at sunset time.

I was happy that for the first time in more than a week, the sky was clear enough to let in a golden glow over Lake Clark that I photographed looking Southwest before going back to the woods.

Descending in the forest by night, I needed to be careful not to lose the lightly used trail, getting back to camp around 11pm, after a few night photographs on the way. Since the instant we set camp for two nights to the time we broke the camp, we didn’t see a single other person, and that included our time on the trail during the day. It would have been easy to hike the same trails starting from Port Alsworth, but camping by the lake elevated the experience to make it one of my most satisfying two-day trips.

More photos of Lake Clark National Park

Which is the Best Photo of Horsetail Fall Firefall?

I wrote previously about finding a new view of Horsetail Fall, Yosemite “natural firefall”. The high vantage point let me frame the waterfall in a rich wide-angle composition that brought me much satisfaction. But would most people consider it to be “better” than the classic photograph? What would their relative preferences say?

On the day I finally photographed Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall firefall, I had started to hike late. The first reason is that the day before, I had already scouted the location and figured out my favorite composition. More open views were available from spots below the wall, on a high scree slope with a large opening above the trees. From there, no rock wall obscured Cathedral Rocks from nicely balancing El Capitan for a “reverse Tunnel View”, and those spots were also much safer from falling ice and rocks. The photograph below was made after sunset, when the glow was gone.

Although getting close to the rock wall obscured Cathedral Rocks, this was more than compensated for by the foreground seasonal waterfall providing depth to the image, and with the frozen crust, an additional contrast of fire and ice. That would have been enough, but like to find something extra. That less obvious ingredient was the reflected glow on the wet rock, and to capture it with breathing room, I needed to stand right at the base of the wall, at the most dangerous spot. Refer to this post for the resulting image.

My second reason for starting late was that on the previous day, a Thursday, there was only another photographer at the location. Maybe because it was a Friday, the next day, to my surprise, the number had grown to at least two dozen. Most of them appeared to frame the open view, but I noticed a few including the waterfall, and subsequently, a friend pointed out to me two such shots posted on Flickr, although without the left glow. Small world! The number of photographers up the hill was still a far cry from the hundreds gathered in the two much smaller viewing areas on the valley floor.

It could be some had scrambled up the slope so that they would escape the circus, but maybe they also went up for the wider view, which would have indicated that my thinking was far from unique amongst dedicated photographers. The firefall had been shot more than forty years ago, and I had seen hundreds of images so it was a familiar sight to me, although I had never seen it in person before. Like for other well-worn subjects, I thought it would be more interesting to state its presence without making it the obvious and sole center of attention of the photograph. Compare the bold framing of El Capitan by Carleton Watkins, and the more sophisticated photographs by Ansel Adams, or look at how many current renditions of landmarks use a wide-angle composition where said landmark occupies a relatively small portion of the frame.

One of the advantages of positioning yourself for a wide-angle view is that you can always shoot a tigher composition from the same vantage point, while the reverse isn’t true. Because the firefall lasted only a few minutes, I did not have time to change my position to shoot the “reverse Tunnel View”, however I briefly switched from a wide angle lens (35mm) to a telephoto lens (300mm) to shoot a more direct composition of the firefall filling the frame.

I did not think much of that image, which was not the main goal of my outing, but nevertheless posted it on social media sites. On Instagram, the wide-angle composition got 213 likes versus 99 likes for the tight view. But on Google+ the wide-angle composition got 115 likes and 2 shares, while the tight view got 173 likes and 13 shares. Those numbers represent a small sample and may not be meaningful, but what if they were? I tried to think, past my initial puzzlement, about the implications.

If you had never seen the firefall, the tighter view would be more impressive because it gives you a clearer representation of the event in all its glory. And if you came to see the firefall, the tighter view would remind you more of what you came to see. Instagram is a platform entirely dedicated to sharing photos, and as such its demographic includes a high proportion of photographers. Google+ is a more general-interest platform whose typical user is much less likely to post photos.

Most dedicated nature photographers are aware of the firefall, but the general public is not. For photographers, the firefall is a mature subject for which an indirect approach is preferred since a straightforward photograph seems unoriginal. For the general public, the firefall is a not mature subject, and they may prefer a direct, textbook-like representation. Even if they have been at the event, it is the awesomeness of it that they remember. As a photographer, it is easy to overestimate the exposure, and therefore maturity of a subject, especially if one’s social interactions are mainly with other photographers. This could be why the iconic views of the national parks can be dissed by some photographers, while they continue to be admired by the general public. The photographers want to see the photograph, but the general public wants to see the subject. Some photographers cringe at slot canyon photographs, but in the while Peter Lik makes milions out of them – even from a single print sale, but that would be another topic. Besides being an art, photography is a form of communication, and one cannot ignore the composition of their audience.

Did you experience instances where your audience’s reaction did not go with your personal preference? And was the wide-angle composition the best photo of Horsetail Fall Firefall?

Pinnacles Moses Spring Waterfall at Least

For most of the year, Pinnacles National Park is quite a dry place. I revisited right after the high rains of this winter – which put to shame last year’s El Nino conditions, to observe the place transformed by the flow of the creeks and to photograph another elusive waterfall.

Pinnacles lies less than 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but the park is in the rain shadow of the Santa Lucia Mountains, resulting in a modest rainfall of 16 inches per year, mostly from January to March. The rest of the year sees frequent drought conditions, resulting in the hills being mostly covered by chaparral vegetation.

ISO 50, 24-70mm @26mm, 0.5s, f/16

To be sure that I would see the creeks flowing, I made a visit during the tail end of a period of rain. Although I had visited Pinnacles eight times since it became a national park in January 2013, this was the first time I saw the Chalone Creek flowing. To find a composition with a pleasant curve along the creek’s bank, I got my feet wet by crossing it. Using a polarizing filter, that I adjusted to maintain a balance between the silvery character of the creek and the color of its bed, let me slow the shutter speed just enough to smoothen the water. All the while, it was raining, which contributed to the atmosphere, but I just held my umbrella with my left hand, while controlling the camera on a tripod with my right hand.

ISO 200, 24-70mm @56mm, 15s, f/8

After Chalone Creek, I hiked Bear Gulch. Bear Creek was flowing nicely. It was the first time I saw the Moses Spring waterfall running that strongly, but it was getting quite dark. Since it was raining, I could not point the camera upwards to photograph its whole drop without getting the lens wet, and the water was not bright enough in comparison with the overcast sky. I made a distant photograph which failed to convey the height of the waterfall.

ISO 125, 24-70mm @65mm, 1/80s, f/8

My next visit was on a partly sunny Saturday, with the family. Because of timing and clouds at the wrong time, I had to content myself with a few hand-held photographs at Moses Spring, getting drenched in the process (to my wife’s disapproval) when an unexpected gust of wind shifted the waterfall towards me.

ISO 1000, 24-70mm @26mm, 1/60s, f/5.6

An easy-to-miss short spur from the main trail led to an unusually lush spot at the base of the waterfall. The hand-holding shutter speeds allowed me to capture the individual water drops and their impact in a small pool instead of longer streaks or mist that would have resulted from a slower shutter speed.

ISO 100, 16-35 @19mm, 15s, f/11

As the Bear Gulch caves were flooded and necessitated wading in knee-deep water, the photographic possibilities were intriguing, but nobody was in the mood for waiting. When I returned by myself on the next Monday, I was a bit disappointed that the waters had already receded to about ankle-deep, but it was still more than I’d seen in this location on previous years.

ISO 100, 24-70 @27mm, 0.3s, f/11
ISO 100, 24-70 @57mm, 1.6s, f/11

The flow level turned out to be excellent for photographing the waterfall that spills out from the reservoir into Upper Bear Gulch Cave. On Sunday, it had been more impressive, forming a solid sheet of water. However, I preferred the braids that appeared with Monday’s lower flow levels. Since it was a sunny day, I arrived there early to capture the scene in full shade before it would be partly illuminated by the morning sun.

ISO 50, 24-70 @53mm, 0.3s, f/22

My main goal, however, was to photograph the Moses Spring waterfall. I came better prepared than on Saturday, wearing full rain gear, and even bringing my spinning rain deflector, but the waterfall was again just a trickle. However, the best light conditions would nevertheless maximize the contrast enought to make the scant water sparkle. This meant that the water would have to be directly backlit by the sun against a background rock wall in the shade. Having studied the location on previous visits, I was able to estimate the proper time window precisely enough to make the photograph within half-an-hour of arriving on site, at 11:30am. I tried a range of shutter speeds, and liked the effect of stopping down to the maximum – I avoided using a filter since I needed to minimize lens flare.

The light conditions that I used to capture Moses Spring reminded me of Horsetail fall minus the sunset, but although I was lucky to photograph the world-renown waterfall on my first try, it took more persistence to at least photograph the modest Moses Spring.

Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall Firefall at Least

In mid to late Feburary, Horsetail Fall on El Capitan is backlit by the setting sun, creating the unique natural phenomenon known as the “natural firefall”. Nowadays, the Yosemite firefall is widely known to the public, and even makes media headlines each year. The National Park Service has to close the inner lanes of the park loop road near the two viewing areas to provide parking for hundreds of viewers, whose cars line up the road for almost a mile. This year was the first time I photographed the Yosemite firefall. Why did it take me that long?

The Yosemite firefall was first photographed by Galen Rowell in 1973, and included in his seminal book Mountain Light (1986) that I read a few years later. During the first year I visited Yosemite, in 1993, I identified the location of Galen Rowell’s image and concluded that there was little room to make a different composition from there. I do not disdain iconic views, far from it! However, unlike wide vistas such as Tunnel View where varying light and weather allow for an almost infinite number of different images, the Yosemite firefall is in essence always the same. Despite all the accumulated knowledge, and the progress in camera technology, I noticed that hardly any of the thousands of images posted on the Internet improved on Galen Rowell’s, which when you think about it for a moment, is quite remarkable. Arriving in the morning to reserve a spot and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of hundreds of photographers to repeat an image from someone else isn’t exactly my idea of nature photography.

In 2015, maybe because the crowding at the two viewing areas had reached a critical point, for the first time photographers found higher viewpoints which allowed to include Horsetail Fall in the context of Yosemite Valley. I was much inspired by the potential shown in images by Michael Frye and Shawn Reeder, but in the winter of 2016, I was way too busy trying to complete Treasured Lands to even think about a trip to Yosemite. This year, we had initially planned a family trip somewhere else during the school winter break of February, but when it was canceled due to unforeseen circumstances, I found myself with a few free days. I set my sights on the Yosemite firefall, on the last “good” day according to photographic wisdom, with the goal to create an image not seen before.

On Thursday, Feb 23, I hiked the Four-Mile Trail up to the point where it became washed-out by an avalanche. While the trail didn’t offer the views I was looking for, from it I spotted a promising location. After traversing precarious terrain (definitively not recommended, and remember that I am a more experienced mountaineer than most!) that included boulder fields, a steep gully and the partly frozen Sentinel Creek, I arrived at the base of a seasonal waterfall. I recognized it from a picture I saw a few days before, but due to the recent cold snap, a new crust of ice had formed, adding to the wintry impression. Since I knew that the waterfall flows only during wet years, I made sure to make it a main component of my composition. I liked the symmetry, that it echoed the distant Horsetail Fall, and that a sliver of wet rock, when photographed at the right angle, took on a specular quality, reflecting the sunset sky. I had started the hike under light snow flurries, hoping that clouds would allow a hole at sunset, but this did not happen. Apprehensive of coming back via the same hazardous terrain, I opted instead to go straight down directly in the forest, despite that being a new route to undertake in the dark. Although there was a bit of bushwacking, it turned out to be a much easier and safer route.

Friday morning was clear, but as the day progressed, the clouds built up to fill up most of the sky. Thinking that if nothing else, I’d get some exercise, at 4.30PM, I hiked up the steep 700 feet slope to the base of the cliff, passing on the way open views that included Cathedral Rocks with El Capitan on the right – a composition also available from the Four-Mile Trail. Due to warmer weather, chunks of ice were periodically falling down, making the base of the cliff quite a dangerous place to be – as is often the case of Yosemite cliffs. I kept an eye and ear upwards, ready to run away, and improvised some protection for my head. Next time, I will be sure to bring a sturdy mountaineering helmet! As I was beginning to think that a third attempt would be required, a shaft of light began to illuminate the base of Horsetail Fall. Within two minutes, a large part of the waterfall glowed, and less than two minutes later, the light was gone. It was a marginal show compared to some other days, when the light could last for more than ten minutes and the waterfall was illuminated from top to bottom. But to have witnessed that ephemeral and magical moment felt even more precious and lucky. Was the photograph worth the wait?

Kenai Fjords National Park by Helicopter

In Alaska, because of the size of the land and the limited number of roads, much of backcountry access is by small plane. I have made aerial photographs in each of the Alaskan national parks. However, when planning an aerial session in Kenai Fjords National Park, it was exciting to notice that helicopter flights have become available there.

This is possible because Seward is a sizeable community by Alaska standards, and located a short distance from the national park. Kenai Fjords National Park packs such a diversity of scenery in a relatively small area that you could see a lot even on a half-hour aerial tour: mountains, glaciers, the fjords and lagoons, and icebergs. We extended our tour to one hour, which allowed us to reach places such as Pedersen Lagoon which has all of the above in single spot.

Compared to airplanes, helicopters have several advantages for aerial photography. The available range of speeds varies from hovering in a stationary position to speeds comparable to airplanes when you need to cover distances to get somewhere. They can fly at very low elevations, providing a stronger perspective since the foreground is much closer than the background. You could even land in many places, although not in the national park. The main drawback is that the charter cost, even with a relatively low-cost helicopter such as the popular Robinson R44, is still double that of a fixed-wing aircraft.

The Robinson R44 doesn’t have a sliding window, but our pilot, the excellent Mike Culver of Marathon Helicopters graciously agreed to remove the doors, a practice uncommon in Alaska! When you fly in a helicopter with doors removed, you have to make sure not to have anything loose in the cockpit, as turbulence could cause objects to get blown out the door and into the tail rotor. The tail rotor is the most fragile part of the helicopter and is critical to prevent uncontrolled spinning of the aircraft. I carried two cameras constantly strapped to me, one with a 16-35mm lens, the other with a 24-70mm lens, and kept spare batteries in my pockets.

Mike had told me that if I wished, I could lean out of the door to photograph, but when I tried to do so, the wind was unbelievably strong and I could barely hold the camera which was vibrating like crazy. For the rest of the flight, I made sure to not even stick the lens barrel out. Yet, with the doors removed, the back of the helicopter was still one of the windiest places I have ever experienced. Shutter speeds of at least 1/1000s were necessary to ensure photos were not blurred. Although I wore tops and bottom windbreaker fabric, I breathed a bit of relief when the flight ended and the wind stopped.

We had planned to take the flight in the early morning, but at that time the winds were too high. They would cause turbulences that make it unsafe to fly low. It was the only clear day of our trip, so we took off in the late morning. At that time of the day, even at those northern latitudes and in September, the sun was quite a bit higher than ideal, resulting in rather flat front light and side light. I mitigated the problem by shooting often slightly or entirely backlit, which increased the contrast and created a shimmering effect on the water. The window would have caused flare, so removing it was worth it!

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park: Best Place Anywhere to Witness Glacial Retreat?

The combination of easy access, interpretive signage, and dramatic change makes Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park possibly the best place in the world to witness glacial retreat with your own eyes. This is an account of the changes I saw in my four visits to Exit Glacier from 2001 to 2016.

Exit Glacier is one of the most easily accessed glaciers in Alaska. After a 12-mile drive out of Seward, a pleasant city with plenty of amenities, you walk on a good trail to the edge of the glacier. The walk is getting longer as the glacier is retreating, but in 2016, it was only about a mile each way. The approach road and trail are punctuated with signs that indicate the position of the glacier terminus over the years.

Edge of the Glacier

After a 0.3-mile paved section, the trail splits. The well-maintained upper Edge of the Glacier Trail climbs the moraine, offering a view from above of a wall of blue ice fractured by crevasses and seracs. Because you are a bit higher, the perspective let you take the size of the glacier.

Exit Glacier, Edge of the Glacier Trail, 2000

I first visited Exit Glacier in 2000 when it was indeed possible to walk right to the edge of the ice.

Exit Glacier, Edge of the Glacier Trail, 2006

Returning in 2002, I looked for the spot where I had made the photograph in 2002, but noticed that the ice would have been too far to photograph the reflexion. In 2006, the glacier had retreated much further, but the terminus still ended on the plain, with a final slope that was gentle enough to make approaching the wall of ice safe.

Exit Glacier, Edge of the Glacier Trail, 2016, standing at the 2010 terminus point

I last visited Exit Glacier in the fall of 2016. Although I was expecting to see changes, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got to the end of the trail. It was enclosed by fence lines to prevent visitors from continuing further since the terrain beyond is a closed area, as it was too steep to be safe. Standing there, I was separated from the glacier by a distance of hundreds of yards. Yet a sign showed that the glacier reached this point in 2010. The glacial retreat had clearly been accelerating.

Exit Glacier terminus, Sept 10, 2016

In the late afternoon, Exit Glacier is in the shade, and under those conditions, the ice takes its characteristic blue tint. Water flowed out of the glacier from underneath an intriguing free-standing ice arch, and carried out icebergs. I immediately wanted to get closer.

Outwash plain from Edge of Glacier

Looking in the opposite direction revealed the deep gorge uncovered by Exit Glacier over the last decade, which nowadays is the only route that takes you closer.

Toe of the Glacier route

Exit Glacier, Toe of the Glacier route, 2000

The lower Toe of the Glacier route (not a set trail) crosses the rocky outwash plain of dark rock, which provides a striking contrast with the ice. During my previous visits, I was able to make my way to the terminus of the glacier to see it from below without getting my feet wet. The glacial stream meandered lazily on the glacial plain.

Exit Glacier, Toe of the Glacier route, 2016

In 2016, you had to go past the narrow gorge uncovered by glacial retreat. There is much less room in the gorge, and the stream is flowing right at the edge of the gorge’s wall. To come closer to the ice, I had to cross the glacial streams several times, the first one being right where the maintained trail exits the woods. As you can guess, the water was ice-cold. I was glad that I came well-prepared, wearing chest waders.

Exit Glacier, Toe of the Glacier route, 2016

Moreover, the flow was much stronger. Even in knee-depth water, the force of the flow worried me. I definitively needed my hiking poles for the crossing. Even without listening to the stream’s roar, you can tell its power from the fact that it is now carrying icebergs, which I never saw in my visits of a decade ago.

Exit Glacier terminus, Sept 11, 2016

Since the terminus of the glacier is now much steeper than before, the danger posed by falling ice is considerably higher. If a block of ice was to detach itself further high, it could roll down quite a ways. Although there are no signs nor fences there, I stayed at a respectful distance from the terminus. It didn’t take long for the glacier to change. The free standing arch that intrigued me the day before had already collapsed the next day!

A day on and under the ice, Wrangell-St Elias National Park

Although Wrangell-St Elias is a national park of immense size – the largest of all with immense potential for exploration, perhaps none of the experiences it offers is as accessible and remarkable as exploring its Root Glacier. Find out what I discovered by spending a day wandering above and also under the ice.

Of all U.S. national parks, Wrangell-St Elias provides arguably the easiest access to a glacier and the most interesting glacier to explore. You need a long hike to reach the glaciers in the continental U.S. There are only three Alaskan national parks with roads, Denali, Wrangell-St Elias, and Kenai Fjords. The Alaska Range and its glaciers are very far from the Denali park road. The terminus of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is quite close to the trailhead, but it is too steep to be explored safely, and therefore you need to hike up a trail with 1,500 feet elevation gain before approaching the glacier. By contrast, the hike from the historic mining town of Kennecott to the point where you enter the Root Glacier is less than two miles on the mostly flat and well-maintained Root Glacier Trail.

In 2000, I crossed the entire width of the Root Glacier on my way to Mt Donoho. I was carrying a big backpack (above) that included my camping gear and 5×7 camera system. This limited my agility on the glacier. Last fall, I returned to Kennecott to explore the glacier more thoroughly, and in particular to visit its glacier caves. Glacier caves, often called ice caves, are caves formed within the ice of a glacier, often by water flowing underneath the glacier. Iceland has probably the best ice caves in the world. At lower latitudes, they are often unstable, like the Mt Rainier Paradise ice caves which are now mostly collapsed. By contrast, Alaska’s latitude is northern enough to offer stable ice caves even at lower elevations.

After several days in the Nabesna Area, I had just one day left to spend in Wrangell-S Elias National Park. There was no flexibility because the next day was going to be the only day of our trip without rain, and we had made arrangements for an aerial photo shoot in Kenai Fjords. With little time to poke around randomly, I thought it would be more effective to go with a local guide who would know where the ice caves are located. St Elias Alpine Guides offers a $95 ice cave trip, but their website mentioned “glacier hike required prior to booking”. Since I am a government-certified hiking guide and a technical mountaineer with some documented accomplishment, I was disappointed that they would not waive that requirement, which I found a bit questionable, since the skills needed for the ice cave exploration are different from those needed for hiking on a glacier. It turned out that you didn’t even need to wear crampons to access the ice caves, but at that time I didn’t know that, and I hadn’t packed them for this trip, hoping that some of the Kennecott outfitters would rent them – they do not for liability reasons. Since I was traveling with a friend, we ended up hiring a guide (Chris, who was excellent) for a full day private trip, at a cost of $275/person, the first time I did so in the mountains since my formative days.

It was worth it. During my previous visit, I had spent a whole day on the glacier, and an additional half-day on the day back. Yet, I saw some nook and crannies of the glacier that I had missed. Besides waterfalls and moulins – holes drilled at cavernous depths into the glacier by flowing meltwater, the highlight was to walk into a crevasse carved via meltwater from the bottom, an experience which reminded me of a slot canyon. Besides the fact that you are wearing crampons, the glacier hike is not more difficult than a normal hike, and you get to explore an otherworldly environment that you would not expect from looking at the glacier from a distance.

The ice caves are not located on the glacier, but rather at its edge, and the most reliable ones have been carved by Jumbo Creek, as it flows below the glacier. Jumbo Creek is the only significant creek crossed by the trail, at about 1.4 miles from the trailhead. From there, a scramble down a steep and loose user trail leads to the edge of the glacier where the ice caves are situated.

Raingear is needed, as there are sections of the cave with dripping water, and so are helmets, since rocks can fall from the surface of the glacier as you enter the cave. Once inside, the floor is quite muddy, and low ceilings require some contortions and crawling, but there is nothing that is beyond the ability of a fit hiker. The reward is experiencing that mystic blue glow passing through the translucent walls of ice, as well as the variety of textures and patterns of the walls themselves. If you are going to photograph, due to dim light levels, don’t skip your the tripod, although it is quite awkward to deploy, and an environment quite hostile to cameras!

The Road Less Traveled: Nabesna Road and Skookum Volcano, Wrangell-St Elias National Park

Besides the incredibly raw ghost mining town, the Nabesna road in Wrangell-St Elias also provides access to the more expected experience of a national park: a beautiful scenic drive that leads to several trailheads for great hikes, with a campground and lodges available. But unlike on other park roads, you won’t have to share with experience with a crowd.

The road

There are only four roads in Alaska’s national parks. The three others are the Denali road which is mostly restricted to park busses, the short Exit Glacier access in Kenai Fjords, and the Mc Carthy road traveled by the vast majority of visitors to Wrangell-St Elias. So being able to drive deep into an Alaska national park is a big deal. The Nabesna Road begins at mile 60 of the Glenn Highway (Tok Cutoff), in the town of Slana. No gas is found in Slana nor along the Nabesna Road. It ends at the unincorporated community of Nabesna which, comprises a few homes, the Devil’s Mountain lodge, and an airstrip. It takes about 1h30 to drive the 42 miles one-way.

The mostly unpaved road is well-graded, but three stream crossings might require high-clearance vehicles or become impassable after rains. Many travelers turn back at Mile 29, the first of the stream crossings, because they don’t want to risk getting stuck on the far side, should the weather turn to rain. Most of the traffic is from locals and hunters. On both my visits, I didn’t see more than half a dozen other vehicles each day there.

Along the road

For the first 25 miles, the road passes through lowlands where thickets lining up the shoulder often obscure views of the distant mountains. However, of interest at closer range, moose and caribou browse the wetlands and lakes. The Wrangell range comprises some of the most voluminous volcanoes in the world. The best views of those peaks to the south are between Mile 15 and Mile 18. From there, they are quite distant and require a telephoto lens.

Lakes of various sizes abound along the road. Around mile 17, there is a large pull-out on the north of the road, overlooking an unnamed lake. From the pull-out, the lake is obstructed, but by strolling down a short distance, I found a fine view. Around mile 21.5, I photographed Rock Lake right from the road.

Skookum Volcano

For a day hike starting from the Nabesna road, I picked the Skookum Volcano Trail, possibly the most rewarding and unique of the several hikes accessed from the road. By contrast to the soaring Wrangell mountains, substantial erosion has reduced Skookum Creek Volcano (7,125 feet), an old shield volcano, to a modest size, but also revealed fantastic shapes and colors unexpected in this landscape.

The trailhead is at mile 36.2, and after a section in the forest and along a stream, the terrain changes to high and open tundra. The trail ends at a high pass (1,800-foot elevation gain, 2.5 miles one-way) which was frequented by Dall sheep and offered great views on both sides. The low cloud ceiling obscured the weird mountains, but I was glad that it didn’t rain. If we hadn’t changed our itinerary upon landing in Anchorage, we would have been soaked in Kenai Fjords!

Instead of retracing my steps, I descended into the unknown on the other side of the pass to complete a loop (8 miles) on trail-less terrain which consisted of tundra followed by a rocky streambed which made route-finding easy. At the transition between the two, a steep ravine required a bit of tricky climbing on crumbling rock.

Where to stay

Kendesnii Campground, the only developed National Park Service (NPS) campground in the park, is located at mile 27.8. By the way, don’t let “developed” raise your expectations too much: here it just means that there are picnic tables, fire rings, and two vault toilets. However, the location, next to a lake, is quite scenic. I made the photograph below while walking on the campground loop road.

You can also camp primitively at several other waysides along the road. The public use Viking Lodge Cabin (mile 21.8) may be reserved at the Copper Center Visitor Center. There are two private lodges along the road, the Sportman’s Paradise Lodge at mile 28.5, and the Devil’s Mountain Lodge at mile 42. The later also doubles as an outfitter and air service.

More images from Wrangell-St Elias National Park