Getting Around Alaska: Photography in the “Last Frontier”

Massive Denali, at 20,340 feet high the tallest mountain in all of North America towers above Wonder Lake in Denali National Park.
Massive Denali, at 20,340 feet high the tallest mountain in all of North America towers above Wonder Lake in Denali National Park.

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

Background

Over the last several years, I have written in this space about each of the eight wonderful national parks scattered throughout our 49th state. Alaska is so big, wild and open that getting from one of these huge parks to another is not as easy as jumping on the interstate highway system in Ohio and smoothly cruising to somewhere like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

During my many protracted circuits through the vastness of Alaska, I have traveled by RV, SUV, bus, motorboat, commercial airlines and, most importantly, with those ever-present and indispensable symbols of Alaska travel, tiny bush planes. With names like DeHaviland, Piper and Cessna, these little craft crisscross Alaska’s skies every hour of every day.

Sightseeing by floatplane in Homer, Alaska.
Sightseeing by floatplane in Homer, Alaska.

Hopping from one scenic place in this rugged wilderness to another with these tough little planes and their even tougher bush pilots adds yet another dimension of adventure to any exploration of “Seward’s Icebox.” Using an assortment of skis, floats and somewhat mushy over-sized tires, these diminutive craft are equipped to go anywhere and land on any type of Alaska’s varied terrain.

With just a scant network of roads, this huge chunk of land that Secretary of State William Seward bought from the Czar of Russia in 1867 for less than 2 cents an acre, is still wide open and largely pristine.

Caribou antlers and tundra in front of Mt. Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley).
Caribou antlers and tundra in front of Mt. Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley).

Getting started

The gateway for just about any exploration of Alaska is Anchorage International Airport. From there, it’s an easy drive over a well-paved highway to this state’s first and most popular national park, iconic Denali National Park & Preserve. The same holds true for getting to the tiny town of Chitina, jumping off point for the largest single national park in all the world, huge Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. Along this route make time for a brief stop at the Wrangell-St. Elias visitor center at Copper Center for some orientation.

Chitina is where the easy stuff ends and the fun begins. It’s about sixty miles from there to the park’s easiest access point at McCarthy.

The re-born village of McCarthy deep in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Once in Chitina, you’ll have three choices as to how to proceed. You can choose to violate your car rental agency’s agreement and drive the unpaved road with its century old rusted railroad spikes hiding just beneath the surface, ready to make rubber bands out of your tires or ride the jostling van service to McCarthy, walk the little foot bridge over the McCarthy River, then transfer to another van into McCarthy and then on to Kennicott, or take the air taxi run by Wrangell Mountain Air.

Touring the long-defunct Kennicott copper mill in Kennicott, Alaska.
Touring the long-defunct Kennicott copper mill in Kennicott, Alaska.

Once in Kennicott, feel free to tramp around to your heart’s content through this 20,000+ square mile paradise. Don’t forget your crampons!

However, the best way to penetrate the heart of Wrangell is still by small plane from McCarthy. Charter a craft and pilot and off you go!

Bull caribou posing for photographers in Denali National Park.
Bull caribou posing for photographers in Denali National Park.

Once heading north from Wrangell and Denali, the blacktop passes through bustling Fairbanks, a great place to watch for the Aurora Borealis if you want to be here in February (Too cold for me!). Once past Fairbanks, you’ll see a sign for the somewhat-less-bustling metropolis of Livingood (population 200). It’s about here where the pavement finally gives out.

The rest of the route up to the North Slope, Prudhoe Bay and the Beaufort Sea is a fairly narrow unpaved track. For those who have seen “Ice Road Truckers” on TV, this is where it all happens. When those big tanker trucks barrel past you, their tires throw up gravel that acts like shrapnel and can really put chips in your windshield. Your car rental agency will not be happy about this either.

Typical Alaskan floatplane. in Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Typical Alaskan floatplane. in Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Above the Arctic Circle

Once you traverse the bridge over the mighty Yukon River and cross the fabled Arctic Circle, head on up to Coldfoot (I’m not kidding.) From here catch an air taxi to tiny Bettles. Not much more than an airstrip surrounded by some basic, but cozy, rooms and a small National Park Service visitor center, this is your gateway to fabulous Gates of the Arctic National Park.

If you want to soak up the most stupendous, unequalled scenic wilderness in all of North America and are up for the challenge, Gates of the Arctic is the place for you!

Serrated Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Serrated Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

While you can hike anywhere here or launch your own raft for a float trip down the Keokuk, John or one of the other rivers in Gates, one great way to enjoy the park is being dropped off with your camping gear by air taxi on one of the countless gravel bars and marching forward from there.

With over 13,000 square miles of pure, raw, untrammeled wilderness, spending some time in ‘Gates’ will be the highlight of anyone’s year.

A word to the wise: wilderness skills are not optional here. The big brown bears, wolves and other wildlife that call this place home have not read the park regulations and are too busy shopping for dinner to have a sense of humor.

Great Kobuk Sand Dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park.
Great Kobuk Sand Dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park.

There is yet another great place up here in the Arctic; Kobuk Valley National Park. In addition to the mountains and rivers in this park are the two fields of gorgeous, undulating sand dunes. Sand dunes in Alaska? Yup. Don’t miss the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes.

While it is possible to reach Kobuk Valley from Bettles, it may be preferable to take an Alaska Air flight into the little Arctic village of Kotzebue. The town has a terrific NPS visitor center and some charter air services to ferry you into Kobuk Valley. Another good option is a rafting trip down the placid Kobuk River. Doing that can take you as close as a mile or so from the sand dunes.

While based in Kotzebue, try to take in a bit of the Cape Krusenstern National Monument and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Ephemeral ice sculpture floating in Glacier Bay.
Ephemeral ice sculpture floating in Glacier Bay.

Heading South

Well, we have now discussed the four Alaskan national parks in the northern part of this sprawling state. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the other four further south.

Glacier Bay National Park stands alone in the southeast corner of the state near Juneau. Fly commercial into tiny Gustavus airport. The green school bus from Glacier Bay Lodge will pick you up. To see the park adequately you have four choices. Hiking is definitely not one of them.

  • A large tour boat with a park ranger aboard offers daily tours up and down the bay where you can see the important glaciers as you pass.
  • You can charter a licensed boat and captain to take you anywhere you wish, maneuver and linger at your choice of location (within NPS rules). The very best option, but not inexpensive.
  • Charter a small plane that will pick you up at the dock with similar flexibility and cost as above.
  • Take a commercial cruise with Glacier Bay as one stop on a larger on the itinerary. This option provides just a brief ride through the bay, but without a doubt, a really big buffet.
Along the shores of Naknek Lake, Katmai National Park.
Along the shores of Naknek Lake, Katmai National Park.

Along the Southern Coast

Once you get back to Anchorage, it becomes your hub from which to take the scenic drive down the Kenai peninsula to Seward and Homer, as well as flights to Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks.

When driving south, enjoy the sights of Cook Inlet, as they appear right along the highway. Near the intersection in Girdwood consider stopping at the Alaska wildlife refuge for some intimate portraits of great creatures in captivity.

Nearing Seward, take the right turn to Exit Glacier and walk the paved trail up to the massive snout.

Once you arrive in Seward, traveling into Kenai Fjords National Park means taking an all-day boat excursion with one of the tour companies at the marina next to the NPS visitor center. Your craft will carry you down through Resurrection Bay to the tidewater glaciers of these fjords. With names like Holgate and Northwest, you might get to see some iceberg calving up close.

For a unique perspective on the Harding Icefield and its frozen fingers, take a scenic flight in a small Cessna from tiny Seward airport.

Back on the road, cross the peninsula to Homer, one of the gateways to Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks. From here Mt. Redoubt volcano in Lake Clark NP appears right across the Cook Inlet.

And you can charter one of Homer’s many air taxis to Port Alsworth, located right on the shore of Lake Clark itself.

Hungry bear enjoying a salmon in the Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Hungry bear enjoying a salmon in the Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

Alternatively, board a larger DeHaviland aircraft on floats (pontoons) to the shores of Katmai National Park for a day of bear photography. Guides are experienced in both finding the big brown bears and keeping you safe while you feast on these apex predators. Photographically speaking, of course. Make sure to bring both medium telephoto and long lenses. A zoom with a tele-extender will come in very handy. Weight restrictions apply.

A very different plan revolves around the airports in Anchorage itself. Regular commercial and charter flights depart from here to famed Brooks Lodge in Katmai. Multi-day packages usually include both transportation and your basic cabin. Be prepared for great bear photography on a platform at Brooks Falls and equally great food in a rustic and invigorating atmosphere.

From Merrill Airfield adjacent to Anchorage International, scheduled flights are available to Port Alsworth in Lake Clark NP, where you can stay in a cabin right on the lakeshore and pack or air taxi into the park’s rugged Chigmit Mountains interior, home to even more brown bears and lots of other creatures. Without a team of experienced guides, you’re on your own in this pristine wilderness.

Musk oxen in the Alaska Wildlife Sanctuary, Chugach National Fores..
Musk oxen in the Alaska Wildlife Sanctuary, Chugach National Fores..

To be effective, the logistics described here do require a fair amount of planning, energy and perseverance. Take heart. Not only the photographic results, but certainly the experiences themselves are well worth it.

Jerry Ginsberg is an award winning and widely published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.  Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com