Autumn in Alaska - Part 2: Landscapes
Even as months have now passed, the Alaskan landscape still looms large in my memory. Vast expanses that easily create optical illusions as to how grand they actually are until one starts trying to walk from Point A to Point B. Additionally, autumn in the Last Frontier is a lesson in the nature of impermanence, color theory, and overcoming obstacles (both physical and mental) all rolled into one.
Having arrived in Alaska early mid-August and staying through the first few days of September, I was able to watch as the tundra went from green with a touch of yellow undertone to past peak autumn color when the low lying shrubs have gone past bright red to the dull brown-grey that heralds winter's imminent arrival. The pace of change was only further emphasized by my exploration timing of the area, where Denali was my start, mid, and end point of the three week adventure. This gave me a look at how quickly the change was as I could say "I was just here last week and this area was greenish yellow!" when now I'm staring at an expanse of deep yellows, reds, and browns.
As I said in my previous article (Autumn in Alaska - Part 1: Wildlife) we had rain at some point each and every day of my 21 day Alaskan adventure. Regardless of location within the state, from the Kenai Peninsula to well above the Arctic Circle, the rains found us. Some days it was better than others with a few showers moving through quickly. Other days it was a steady rain intermingled with downpours from sun up to sun down.
While wildlife photography can still happen during these times, landscape photography, at least for me, is a bit more difficult. Mentally I think this is because I know that the mountains and trees will still be there when the storm passes and that the landscape will look better with more light on it. Additionally, wildlife photography is just personally more rewarding to me than landscape photography, thus I'm willing to put up with more for those subjects. Not that I don't love landscapes, but it is not as intense of a drive (in many situations) that wildlife subjects bring to me. We should all have a feel for what brings joy in this craft and what we are willing to do to create certain types of images while maybe taking a breather around the others. As a nature photographer, I just cannot be "on" all the time I'm in the field or else I would quickly burn out. In order for me to avoid that burn out, I look for opportunities that speak to me, that spark my interest and energy to get out, regardless of the weather, terrain, or other challenges that make this type of activity uncomfortable.
But I digress. The Kenai was the rainiest of my locations with the fewest landscape opportunities. With so much time spent on the water, the rain and fog kept the majority of the traditional landscape scenes hidden from us. Despite this, we were lucky to get a reprieve from the rain while at the base of one of the glaciers. This allowed for a few pictures and for us to witness a large calving - both amazing to see and yet disheartening due to the implications of such events and the warming of the planet.
Above the Arctic Circle, the rain continued and made the famous Dalton Highway a slippery mire in different sections. The oil rig truckers were reporting mud as deep as their 18-wheeler axils! There was a general consensus that these were the worst conditions seen on the Dalton in almost two decades.
The areas of the Brooks Range that we were actually able to reach were stunning. Hiking in the backcountry wilderness of Alaskan tundra is an experience in and of itself. Tussocks (a type of wetland tundra grass) fields can really divide a party. For those not familiar with what a tussocks field is, think of a swampy area covered with small haystacks. A hiker traversing this has to stay atop the "haystacks" created by the tussocks growth. However, they are not super stable and are rounded in nature. It is very easy to slip off one and find yourself in a hole knee deep between the plants. Ankles and knees beware!
Most of our group found them to be nothing but a brutal challenge. We even had commemorative stickers created that state "I Survived! The Brooks Range Tussock Hike." Maybe its my flatlander self coming out or that I grew up frequently visiting wet, muddy, swampy type environments in Florida, but the tussocks field was actually one of the easier parts of the hikes for me. Relatively flat in topographical gradient, I had fun maneuvering from one tuff to the next with the mentality that "the floor is lava" without the pressure of the lava rising. My challenges came when faced with having to climb slopes to gain a higher perspective. Again - Flatlander. But we all persevered and have the images to prove it! Here is my favorite from this particular hike.
For all the rain we had, we were gifted many rainbows as well. I don't think I have photographed as many rainbows as I did over these few weeks. It came to a point where, unless it was positioned just so over a great vista, we wouldn't stop because they were so numerous and long lasting. For me, this kind of made up for the lack of visible aruras due to clouds. I say kind of because I am still a tad bit salty at Nature over this. A week of camping out under the area where the Northern Lights are formed and can usually be seen if they are at all active, and I didn't even get a glimpse. Oh, well. Next time, right?
Beyond the amazing vistas, moody weather, and popping landscape, there were many small details surrounding us. Mushrooms, rain drops, the textures and berries of the various lichen and small flora all created an environment in which it was hard to focus on exactly what it was I wanted to capture as I wanted to cover everything. Since this was the first major trip with my Sony mirrorless system, I didn't have a lens with macro capabilities with me. Without the macro lens, I turned to doing close-ups with the Tamron 18-300mm which, I have to say, worked really well once I figured out what distance I needed to be from my subjects to capture them the way I wanted.
Now, on our last night in the Arctic, we stayed up past dark to build a bonfire on the beach and hope that the clouds would hold off so we might get a peek at the KP6 aurora that was suppose to be taking place that night. Nature had a mind of her own, as she usually does, and the clouds rolled in just as the sun was setting along with a few scattered showers. To the west, the sun broke through and, collectively, we all ran for our cameras, hastily changing settings and compositions, with several of us charging into the shallow but frigid waters of the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River. And here is why.
We had literally no more than two to three minutes of the light coloring these clouds and with each passing moment the color waned. It is one reason why if you see another shot from this scene on this evening from someone else who was there, they may not have the color across the sky as much. It just depended on how fast you ran as to how much color you captured. I was pretty fast......it was flat.
Leaving the Arctic, I finished out my time in Alaska in Denali once more. Early October, the vast majority of the tundra was either at peak color or was just past peak. A mix of stormy weather and brighter partially cloudy skies swirled over the park for those few days and it is when I created the most landscape images within the park. Between the colors and the spotlight and dramatic lighting situations, it was hard to choose when to continue on for more compositions or to stay and watch as the weather and light moved across the landscape in front of me. Often the compromise was based on the bus schedule and determining when I'd have another opportunity to catch a ride further into or out of the wilderness section of the park.
Overall, I came away with many more landscape images than I originally anticipated with a better variety than what I had initially thought I would capture. Alaska is always an adventure, be it for wildlife or landscapes, and continues to draw me back for more each season. Looking forward to the next time!
Want to join David W Shaw and me above the Artic Circle in the Brooks Range
for an amazing photography adventure?
Contact me to get on the waitlist to be the first contacted when registration opens for our 2024 tour!
PS - What type of landscape article would it be if I didn't include a few abstract/impressionistic images as well?