Alaska: The Big Browns & Decoding Denali

August 11, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

 After the four of us had convened at the airport in Anchorage (2 from Seattle, 2 from Portland) we hailed a cab for the drive to Iliamna Air Taxi which would fly us to, you guessed it, Iliamna on the Alaska Peninsula. Before I could ask our driver, Achmed, how he had arrived in Anchorage from Somalia, he had popped on his shades and turned 80's rock up to "stadium" volume, and we were off. With his only nominal acknowledgement of signals, stop signs, speed limits and the center line, we arrived in heart-stopping time, to check in at Iliamna. When you fly on a 9 passenger prop plane, your weight and the weight of your gear are critically important, so be prepared to share personal information.

Once aboard, the pilot, dressed in the formal Alaska crew attire of unreadable logo'd t-shirt, very comfortable jeans and sneakers, turned around in his seat and said, "The oxygen masks are under your seats and work just like the airlines', the fire extinguisher is behind the co-pilot's seat, so fasten your seat belts and we'll get out of here." Perfect, done! The flight and pilot skills were flawless and the views just a hint of the spectacle to come.

Landing at Iliamna is like landing at a late 50's cargo airfield. Vintage, highly reliable and lovingly maintained prop planes are the lifeblood of the Peninsula and the roar of these beauties is exhilarating. As Jerry Jacques, our host and pilot at Bristol Bay Sportfishing Lodge would later explain, whether it's a can of coke, a TV or a sheet of plywood, it costs about $1.90/lb to airfreight it in. Add that to your cost of living!

Jerry picked us up for the short drive to the Lodge which would be our very comfortable base for the next few days. We were fitted for the chest-high waders we would live in for the duration, had the first of many superb dinners and breakfasts, and got trained on the protocols of bear behavior and more importantly, ours. All of the staff were outstanding, caring, thorough and made you feel right at home, especially since we were in their home.

Our first two days were "epic" in every sense of the word. Flying in a 7 passenger float plane, staring out the window at the mountainside seemingly at arm's length, or the endless expanse of lakes and tundra were worth the trip alone. After landing on a lake (totally new concept!), hiking in and fording a creek, we were ready to shoot from a small mid-stream island. It was beyond exciting. At one point we counted 21 bears in view, 13 adults and 8 cubs, and I laughingly posed the question, how are we gonna get out? Our guides always carried serious side arms, but honestly I just never felt uncomfortable with these massive animals nearby. They had one focus, fish until they gained back their 40% weight loss from hibernation. They were magnificent.

Monday's weather was socked in and our original plan to fly to Brooks Falls was in serious jeopardy. We agreed to go back to our previous spot with only a 15% chance of going to Brooks Falls. After flying awhile in a low, but doable ceiling, I noticed Jerry reaching down and, without saying a word, dialed in new coordinates. I thought, "I'll bet we're going to Brooks Falls." And we did. It was another epic day and it was Jerry's skills that got us in and got us out.

A brief aside on how to photograph grizzlies from someone who had never done it before, my experience for what it's worth. You need a minimum reach of 400mm a good deal of the time. 500-600 is better. You don't always need it, but when you do..... I shot all of the grizzly images with an FX Nikon 80-400 mounted on a D7200 crop frame, giving me the 600mm equivalent. Or, as Jack Graham said, "You just bought a backup camera and teleconverter all rolled into one." Generally, stay wide open, high shutter speed, higher than you might think, pushing the ISO whenever necessary. Don't always zoom in all the way, so you can catch a cub or other bear moving into the frame. Extremely important, keep looking behind you and around you. Some of my best shots came from breaking away from the obvious and seeing other activity, arrivals and interactions behind or off to the side. Stay alert, never wander too far from your camera as things change in a heartbeat. Don't be afraid to shoot massive numbers of images the first day. You can dial it back later as you get a sense of the animals and their behavior patterns. Shoot in short bursts, and be sure you have memory cards with fast write speeds so you don't lose shots to buffering. Regardless, know your equipment thoroughly, as the adage goes, "The best camera in the world is the one in your hand." In these circumstances, you have to trust your equipment.

As the "Bristol Bay Four" (our moniker coined by the Iliamna Taxi staff) parted ways in Anchorage, I picked up my rental car at 6:00pm (after our flight back had been delayed 1.5 hours) and now had a 5 hour drive to Denali where I would stay in the Bootlegger cabin at the (what else?) Grizzly Bear Resort. After catching a quick meal, taking some midnight sunset images, and trying to scout some socked in vistas, I fell into bed at about 1:30am. I had to rise at 4:00am to prep and then make the 5:00am call for the 5:15 shuttle bus into Denali.

The road into Denali NP is 92 miles one way, but you can only drive the first 15 miles. The iconic shots are all further in, so the shuttle buses are a must. For photographers they make more sense than the tour buses because you can get off a shuttle, shoot at a location awhile and catch another shuttle coming through. It takes study, familiarity with the schedule and flexibility (the next bus could be full), but you get the maximum out of your day. Take the earliest bus you can and plan for a very long, beautiful day. Or, camp inside the park! Either way, pack all of the food and drink you will need as there are no services in the park unless you are staying at the very expensive lodge at the other end of the park. Be sure to sign up to go as far as Wonder Lake. Everyone wants an iconic shot of Denali, the mountain, but it is usually visible one day out of three (its mass creates it own weather system), so best you plan to stay several days or take what nature gives you, which in Denali is considerable! You can't get it all, but you can get a lot.

A quick word on Matanuska Glacier. Go and photograph it! It is on tribal lands and quite a treasure trove of possibilities. If you go on the ice, wear ice trackers at minimum. I managed on the ice in some Keen boots, but it was treacherous and I don't recommend it. Don't even think about moving from one spot to another on the ice without packing your gear in your bag, even if it is only a few feet. One slip and you will do serious damage to yourself, or, more importantly, your camera! Take the extra two minutes to make your whole trip a success. Matanuska is photogenic, Exit Glacier in Kenai is OK to see, but not a real photographic opportunity.

And, lastly, when in Anchorage, stay at Maria's Creekside B&B. Delightful lady, new and spacious rooms, great food, and meticulously well kept.

Next visit, I know I will spend time in the Seward area. There is always more to see! 







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