Sure, the days are growing shorter and the air chillier. But humpbacks still ply the harbors, bald eagles swoop above, and glaciers continue to slide. Even as the tourist season winds down, there’s plenty to photograph in Southeast Alaska. And if you can’t make it this year, it’s time to book a trip for next summer.
Big cruise ships are the most popular way to visit. For photographers, though, the best bet is a small-ship cruise, such as the “Alaska’s Whales and Wilderness” Pentax-hosted photo tour, which Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com) invited me to take aboard its 84-passenger, 166-foot Spirit of Discovery out of Juneau in May.
Onboard, loaded with tips and Pentax equipment to lend, were pro shooters Kerrick James and Julie Quarry. I brought along a Pentax K20D, a variety of lenses (including the 50-200mm f/4-5.6 Pentax DA ED zoom I used for the photos in this spread), polarizing and split neutral-density filters, and a Manfrotto 695 Magfiber monopod to steady my 300mm f/4 Pentax DA* ED (IF) SDM lens.
We explored coves big ships can’t reach. Inflatable craft took us to wooded shores. We drifted as whales sounded around us, female harbor seals nuzzled their pups, and bears foraged at water’s edge. Knowledgeable “excursion leaders” guided our sightseeing. And we visited with Tlingit people, whose ancestors first discovered this region’s natural wonders.
Whether you go on your own or on a cruise, here’s a handful of can’t-miss photo ops in the Alaska panhandle. Be sure to pack protective gear for your camera-wet weather is the norm.
Alaska’s capital started life in the gold-rush-you can photograph the ruins of the defunct mines on a couple of short and easy hikes just out of town. The busy Perseverance Trail, a 4-mile walk behind the city, leads past abandoned mining equipment and close to Ebner Falls to the Silverbow Basin. From downtown, take Gold Street to Basin Road, which ends at the trailhead. Bring a tripod to cope with the dim light under the tree cover, and to smooth streams and waterfalls.
GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK AND RESERVE
Tidewater glaciers and dense forest, humpback whales and Dall’s porpoises, bald eagles and tufted puffins, black bears and grizzlies, seals and sea lions and otters-all overlooked by the Fairweather mountain range. This huge park has the scenery and wildlife you came to Alaska to see. You’ll need a long telephoto lens (at least 300mm) to get close to calving glaciers and wary creatures, plus a wide-angle lens to capture the sweep of this dramatic landscape. A monopod will help steady your DSLR aboard ship. For info, go to www.nps.gov/glba.
Sitka Once a center of Russian Alaska, and before that a Tlingit village, Sitka has become a major cruise stop. Photo ops abound: the volcanic cone of Mt. Edgecumbe, Sitka National Historical Park (with a big collection of totem poles), seals and bald eagles competing for fish in the harbor. Kayaking, biking, or hiking will get you closer to nature-or bring your underwater camera housing and go scuba diving or snorkeling (yes, they provide dry suits) with Island Fever Diving and Adventures.
TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST
The world’s largest temperate rainforest encompasses more than 26,000 square miles, enveloping most of the Alaskan panhandle and its islands. Sitka spruce, hemlock, and red cedar soar above, while peat bogs called muskegs carpet the ground. A macro lens will capture the details and textures up close. Make some noise while you’re shooting-you want the bears to know you’re there so they won’t be surprised to see you.
For more info, contact the Southeast Alaska Tourism Council.