Story and Photography by Jerry Ginsberg
Alaska is often called “the last frontier” for good reason. The overwhelming majority of our 49th state is still pristine and wild. When traipsing around this wonderful wilderness, I am constantly reminded of the American pioneers of yesteryear such as John Colter and Jedediah Smith, so open is this vast state. It is truly in a class all by itself. Perhaps the prime feature shared by all eight national parks of Alaska (only California has more) is this singularly pristine wildness. These wonderful parks are vast tracts of pure, untamed and untrammeled Nature. Towering volcanoes, sparkling glaciers, crystalline lakes and mega fauna in the wild seem to be everywhere.
A century and a half after being acquired by Secretary of State William Seward from Russia’s Czar Alexander II, “Alyeska” remains remote, sparsely populated and largely roadless. Throughout this immense state, if you want to get around beyond the point where the few roads end, you will likely be using a raft or canoe to navigate the many river drainages or the ever-popular and ubiquitous bush planes for just about everything else.
One of these very special places is Lake Clark National Park in south-central Alaska. At just over 4,000,000 acres, this immense park is almost twice the size of big Yellowstone, but gets only one half of one percent as many visitors annually. So during the summer season when Yellowstone can be really crowded, it can seem as though you will have Lake Clark all to yourself. Well, you’ll have to share it with a few mosquitoes until the first frost.
The rugged Chigmit Mountains, a component of the Aleutian Range, run through Lake Clark National Park. The tallest of the Chigmits are parts of the famed Ring of Fire along the edges of the Pacific Ocean. Here, perched on the eastern edge of the park along the coast of the Cook Inlet, are the immense volcanoes Iliamna and the still active Mt. Redoubt which can begin belching steam and ash any time it chooses.
Once you arrive deep within these 6,000 square miles of wilderness, you will be able to camp virtually anywhere you wish. Accessible gravel bars often do nicely. This is brown bear country. Just as you are free to go where you choose, so are these fearless 700 pound omnivores. Protect yourself by keeping all food well away from your campsite and always having bear spray at the ready. Carrying a firearm may be optional. Check with park management.
This is a raw, trackless land of winding glaciers and countless un-named peaks. Traveling here is strictly for those whose wilderness and survival skills are up to the rigors, but the rewards of such an adventure will stay with you forever.
If you choose to backpack in Lake Clark, weight will be a key factor. Perhaps two DSLR bodies and just a couple of zoom lenses will have to suffice. With no ability to recharge your batteries (other than storage batteries, which will add even more weight) taking some extras will also add to your pack.
In this northerly latitude, you will have long days and short nights through late summer. Some of my best images here were made in great light at around 11:00 PM. Subjects such as mountains bathed in soft light reflecting in shaded waters can make for some thrilling compositions. As always, be careful to preserve a difference in exposure of about one stop of light between the lighter subject and the darker reflection.
Commercial flights from Anchorage can get you to the small, but hospitable Port Alsworth on the edge of namesake Lake Clark. While in the Port Alsworth area, enjoy the pleasant hike up to scenic Tanalian Falls. To penetrate directly into the park’s raw and untamed interior, chartering a bush plane from Anchorage, Homer or Port Alsworth can get you anywhere a plane can touch down on wheels or floats. (For pilot recommendations, please email me.)
Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance 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 National Parks with medium format cameras. Ginsberg has been a National Park Service Artist in Residence in several National Parks.