Where to begin? You know you've been on a long trip when you get a haircut and oil change en route. North to the Yukon and Back was a long trip, a very long trip, seven thousand five hundred and thirty road miles and thirty seven hours on Alaska's famous Marine Highway ferries. But what an adventurous trip it was. No wonder I don't know where to begin this blog.
So I will start at the beginning. This trip was conceived to combine two long-delayed travel goals into one extended trip. These travel goals were to explore southeast Alaska's Inside Passage and to tour the historic Alaska Highway. Exploring the Inside Passage implied maximizing opportunities for wildlife and nature photography and making as many stops along the Marine Highway as possible.
A cursory check of various maps and publications confirmed that this concept was feasible. We could sail the Inside Passage on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system and drive the Alaska Highway from Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, to Dawson Creek in British Columbia. From there getting back home to San Diego would be a "snap".
After several months of internet searches, emails and numerous telephone calls, I had a complete and detailed itinerary for this monumental excursion. Jane and I partnered up for this adventure with Bruce Hollingsworth, our good friend and photo buddy. On August 12, with Willie Nelson singing our road trip theme song "On The Road Again", we three adventurers headed north to the Yukon on Interstate 5 from San Diego. All the planning was now behind us and ahead lay the exhilaration of a fantastic photo journey.
As with any journey of this magnitude and complexity, there were times of elation when expectations were fully attained, and those low, dispirited periods when all went awry. At Prince Rupert, gateway to the Inside Passage, I had arranged for two days of chartered whale photography with Foggy Point Charters (www.foggypoint.com). Rodney, caption of the Orca Breeze, was excited about taking us to where he knew with certainty the whales would be. All the enthusiasm and excitement dissipated as the weather turned blustery and the whales were not to be found. The second day was cancelled due to high winds in the Chatham Sound. Thus were my high hopes and expectations of breaching whale images dashed. Not only at Prince Rupert, but also Ketchikan, Wrangell and Gustavus where the Icy Strait is know for its predictable population of humpback whales. It was a major disappointment of the trip. At Wrangell, however, I had scheduled two days of black bear photography at the Anan Wildlife Observatory that turned out to be a truly memorable part of our adventure.
Ketchikan was our first stop along the Marine Highway. It is also a major port-of-call for cruise ships plying the Inside Passage. Five massive cruise ships disembarked their thousands of passengers while we were in town. Needless to say, streets were jammed with shoppers and local attractions packed with sightseers. We did manage to find solace at Totem Bight, a small Alaska state historic park some ten miles north of Ketchikan (www.dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/totembgh.htm). This quiet little enclave has an impressive collection of restored and re-carved totem poles representing Tlingit and Haida cultures. In Ketchikan we also got away from the crowds with two days of flightseeing with SeaWind Aviation (www.seawindaviation.com) to the Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness and to Traitor's Cove Bear Observatory.
Our next destination was Wrangell and Wrangell was a total delight. No flocks of tourists to contend with here, just friendly locals and a handful of adventurous independent travelers like ourselves. Not all was perfect, of course. We did lose out on a whale photography charter due to high winds out in the Sumner Strait. But our two charters to the Anan Wildlife Observatory turned out wonderful. All our charters in Wrangell were booked with Alaska Charters and Adventures (www.alaskaupclose.com).
The Anan observatory is about 30 miles southeast of Wrangell, that is, the way the crow flies. The trip is a bit longer by boat. Brenda Schwartz, one of the principals at Alaska Charters and Adventures, piloted her high powered jet-boat smoothly and quickly through the Eastern Passage and Blake Channel to get us to the Anan Creek trailhead. There we were met by U.S. Forest Service rangers who, together with Brenda and her "bear gun", guided us to the observatory. As we hiked along the trail, we observed plenty of evidence (scat) that this was bear country. The observatory was a newish, wooden structure constructed above Anan Creek from which bears could be observed while sheltered from rain. Below the observatory, almost at creek level, was a canvas covered photo blind where the three of us spent most of our time photographing the black bears of Anan Creek. I have created a gallery just for the Black Bears of Anan Creek.
Gustavus was next on our itinerary. This tranquil community of about four hundred year-round residents was a delight to visit. Talk about friendly people! A wave of the hand, or a warm "good day", was obligatory when passing people on the street or in their cars. Gustavus is the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park, but no cruise ships stop here. There is no infrastructure to accommodate these mega-ships and the throngs of passengers they carry. Instead, cruise ships bypass Gustavus, sail pass Bartlett Cove into the Silakaday Narrows, and on to the glaciers in Glacier Bay.
The weather and an early migration conspired against our last quest for breaching and bubble feeding whale images. We had three days of whale photography arranged with Glacier Bay Sport Fishing (www.glacierbaysportfishing.com). Although we actually did get on the "Stoic" with Mike Halbert each day, they were not productive photo sessions, with high swells, fog and rain in the Icy Strait. The best we could conjure up were some whale tail shots and a pass along a Steller's sea lion colony. Mike speculated that warmer than normal ocean water had created an over-abundance of plankton. Being low man on the food chain, this high concentration of feed stock resulted in the whales fattening up earlier in the feeding cycle and starting their migration south several weeks ahead of their normal start. Irrespective of this disheartening reality, no great "money" shots of whales breaching, we enjoyed immensely our stay in Gustavus.
Next we sojourned to Haines, leaving the quietude of Gustavus behind. From now, there would be no more frustrated attempts at whale photography. We were back on the mainland and the famous Alaska Highway beckoned. At Haines we concentrated on landscape photography and a stop at Steve Kroschel's Wildlife Center (www.kroschelfilms.com). We had arranged for local photography guides with Rainbow Glacier Adventures (www.rainbowglaciers.com). Weather continued to plague us in Haines. The ice fields of the Chilkat Range created dense low clouds that obscured picturesque peaks and hanging glaciers. Rain and fog made photography of the colorful, autumn-colored, tundra difficult along the Chilkat and Three Guardsmen passes in the foothills of Nadahini Mountain. Bad weather also confronted us at Steve Kroschel's Wildlife Center. We arrived early in the morning with a dense overcast and light rain, resulting in low-light wildlife photography. Not good! Steve raises "wild" animals for his film projects. Joe Ordonez, of Rainbow Glacier Adventures, had arranged a private photo shoot at Steve's menagerie. I was able, under difficult conditions, to obtain some images that would be impossible to obtain in the wild, including a pine marten, lynx and wolverine. See the Other Wildlife gallery for images from Steve's place.
After Haines, it was North To The Yukon. We drove the Haines Highway to Haines Junction, at historic mile 1,016 of the famous Alaska Highway, in the Yukon Territory. This was our most northerly penetration and from Haines Junction our journey continued southeast along the Alcan to Dawson Creek, mile zero of the Alaska Highway. It was a four day journey with stops at Marsh Lake, Watson Lake, Fort Nelson and Dawson Creek. At Watson Creek we left Yukon Territory and entered British Columbia. With embarkation onto the Marine Highway ferry in Prince Rupert, some twenty-five days earlier, and arrival at Dawson Creek, the primary goals of the adventurous expedition had been realized. Now, we just had to get home.
We traveled home at a leisurely pace with sojourns in Jasper, Kananaskis Village and Many Glaciers. Jane and I had visited Jasper in the past and thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance of this tidy community. For our travel home, therefore, we included a four day respite in Jasper. We savored its restaurants, pubs, shops and, of course, its grand and spectacular scenery. We departed Jasper well rested as we headed for Kananaskis Village along the Icefields Parkway, through Lake Louise, Banff and Canmore. On the way, we took advantage of the many scenic photo opportunities the northern Rocky Mountains offered. See the Scenes Along the Way gallery for impromptu images taken along our route.
At Kananaskis Village, our last stop in Canada, the weather delivered an unexpected surprise. After a blustery and rainy day, we were greeted, the next morning, with a light dusting of snow on the high mountain peaks surrounding the village. This "terminal dust" portends the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. For us, having a dusting of new snow on the jagged, craggy mountain peaks offered a welcomed enhancement to the beauty of photographing the scenic environment of Kananaskis Country.
After our last coffee stop at Tim Horton's in Pincher Creek, Alberta, we crossed into the U.S. at the Chief Mountain border station. We were most relieved that we were allowed back into the country. From the Chief Mountain entry, it was a short jaunt to the Many Glaciers section of Glacier National Park in Montana. We overnighted in the park lodge at Many Glaciers, something Jane had wanted to do for some time. This venerable old lodge lacked many of the hotel amenities we now take for granted. However, the historic elegance of this majestic and grand eighteenth century lodge more than made up for its understandable shortcomings.
So now our monumental odyssey North to the Yukon and Back draws to a close. After Many Glaciers, we three intrepid wanderers stowed our gear and prepared to head home. Bruce departed via Delta Airlines from Kalispell while Jane and I enjoyed some additional days of solitude with hot Jacuzzi soaks at our Glacier Wilderness Resort timeshare.