Non-Stop August

            I wasn’t back in my gallery long before I already had the itch to get back out and go photographing.  I had planned on going in a couple of weekends to photograph whales in Juneau, but those plans changed.  That whole week everyone who came in my gallery was showing me amazing photos and videos of humpback whales bubble feeding from their iPhones, so I knew I had to go immediately.  My friend Aaron, from Yellowstone, lived in Juneau and I had been in communication with him about the following weekend, so I was happy he could accommodate me the next day.  My plans became final at 4 p.m. on July 28th, and at 5 a.m. on the 29th I was on a plane to Juneau.  When the wildlife gets hot, you can’t waste any time and have to go immediately.  I was very grateful to have good friends in Juneau that I could crash with, and borrow their truck too.

            They picked me up at the airport at 5:50 a.m., great friends!, and then we went to Mendenhall Lake.  My friend and his girlfriend are glacier guides on Mendenhall, so we first kayaked two miles to the glacier across a fogged in lake, we could hardly see, but as we got closer it started to clear some.  It was awesome being the only ones out there and kayaking to a glacier.  We pulled the kayaks on shore and then put on crampons and walked onto the glacier.  The ice was very blue that morning, and just gorgeous.  I got some real nice shots of the glacier, and then we went and found an ice cave.  Seeing and walking into an ice cave under a glacier is quite the experience.  It’s something I can’t describe except through the photos I have.  It was an amazing, but scary, experience at the same time, and the photos came out great!  We had a great time and then kayaked back.  I was so grateful that they took me out on the glacier for free.

The beauty of and unreal look at the inside of an ice cave under a glacier.

The beauty of and unreal look at the inside of an ice cave under a glacier.

            They both had to work after that, so they dropped me off in town and I went on a whale watching tour that started at 3:30.  There were 50 people on the boat, not my favorite, and we got to see what I came for.  We found a group of humpbacks, they are usually solitary, and they were moving along the shore together.  They did bubble feed a couple of times, but it happened so fast and unexpectedly each time, and I didn’t get much.  It was neat to see, and I would be better prepared for next time.  On the 30th I did a long hike by myself to try and get above the Mendenhall Glacier and get a more aerial shot.  As I got higher I got into the clouds, and they weren’t breaking up.  I didn’t want to sit up there all day and get nothing, so I called a different whale watching company and they had an opening at 1:30, so I hurried four miles back down the mountain.  My friends picked me up as I got there, and dropped me off at the harbor just in time.

            This time I was on a small ship with only 12 people, and it was much better.  I just knew we were going to have success, and success we had!  We went straight out to where a group of whales were bubble net feeding, and what a sight it was.  Seeing a group of 10 whales come up at the same time with their mouths open is quite the site!  My boat even had a microphone under water, and we could hear the different sounds they were making, and would know when they were about to come up.  It was such a better experience than the day before, and I got some great shots!  I was bummed we left as soon as we did, but where we went we found a pod of Orcas!  They were being active and staying close to the surface and being somewhat playful.  There was a baby in the group and it even jumped a couple of times.  What a great trip! And I get to go with the same company tomorrow.  So glad I flew down the mountain to go whale watching.

A group of humpback whales bubble net feed.

A group of humpback whales bubble net feed.

            My first tour was at 7 a.m. on the 31st, and my friends dropped me off on their way to work.  We saw a few orcas and single humpbacks, but nothing great.  I learned from this trip it’s actually not best to be on the first trip of the day, because they have to find where the whales are, and spend more time searching.  I was trying to decide after that tour whether to stay tomorrow morning before flying back to Skagway, because my next tour went out at 2 p.m.  I went back and forth, but ended up deciding to leave after my tour this afternoon so I could be back in the gallery tomorrow, and I had a feeling I would get more shots on my last tour.  My gut was right, and we got to see more bubble net feeding, and I captured some nice scenic shots of them feeding!  By 7 p.m. I was back on a plane to Skagway and home by 8 p.m.  What a crazy three days, but it was more than worth it!  You have to go with your gut in wildlife photography and not look back and just go.  Heading back to the gallery was a great idea, because on the 1st  we had a killer day, and was a great way to kick off August!

A baby orca breaches.

A baby orca breaches.

            For the next couple of weeks I worked the gallery and stayed in Skagway.  As the summer has gone on, I have gotten more comfortable in my own gallery and learned more about what the people are looking for and how to sway them to buy art.  It’s never easy, and each day is drastically different than the day before, but I’m learning a ton. When I’m in Skagway, I’m trying to catch up from all the time I was gone, and then get ahead a little for when the next time I’m gone I don’t have a mountain of work to come back to.  It’s a never-ending cycle, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.

            On the afternoon of August 15th I left Skagway and headed for Denali.  I slept in the car somewhere along the way, and then got to Fairbanks the next afternoon and got some car work done and bought a few things you can’t find in Skagway.  I stayed at a friends that I had met in the backcountry of Denali a few years back, and it was fun to catch up.  The morning of the 17th I picked up my friend, Tin Man, from the airport and we headed to Denali.  I had a special travel permit that started on the 18th, so we went on the 17th to explore a little.  We found some nice caribou and did some short hikes, but didn’t get anything great.  We camped further back in the park and were ready to go the next morning when we could drive the entire Denali road in my car.

We left camp at 4:30 a.m., only to be stopped a few miles away because the road was closed to fix part of the road.  We only had three days of the permit, and this wasn’t how we wanted to spend it, waiting on road construction.  So we waited until 7 a.m., very painful, and then continued on.  Denali mtn. was out, but we were to far away from where we wanted to be, and wouldn’t have been if the road wasn’t closed.  You can never take the mountain being out for granted, and it quickly got covered in the clouds.  So frustrating!  We went to some of my favorite spots anyway, but not much was going on.

          After a while we headed back toward the front, and that turned out to be a great decision! There was a caribou that had just shed his velvet, and had very red antlers.  We were able to stay with him a while and got some great shots!  I’ve been trying for a few years to get a caribou like this.  After him, we decided to hike up a mountain to another large caribou, and he posed for us on the mountainside once we were able to get to him.  Hiking in the Denali tundra is not easy, and Tin Man had never done it before.  It is unrelenting, and very bushy and hard to maneuver through.  I have years of experience in it and can find easier routes, still not easy but easier, but Tin Man struggled.  He pushed through, though, and made it to the caribou in time.  We were even able to spot a huge moose below us that we photographed after we left the caribou.  It turned out to be a great first evening, after a very disappointing start to the day.

A caribou has very red antlers after shedding his velvet.

A caribou has very red antlers after shedding his velvet.

            The road was closed again until 7 a.m. on the 19th, so we slept in until 6 a.m. and then left.  Having two of our three days start way later than we want really stunk.  It is a special privilege to have the permit I had, and not be able to fully use it hurt.  The mountain didn’t tease us this morning and was fully behind clouds and rain.  We didn’t spend much time far back in the park before heading back to where we knew caribou and moose were.  I’m glad we didn’t waste our time back there, because we immediately found a bull moose.  He wasn’t huge, but we got a few shots.  Some really nice caribou were close by, so we went to them.  They stayed in a group and gave us some great opportunities! I love how different all caribou antlers are.  

A couple of large, very different sized antlered caribou check me out.

A couple of large, very different sized antlered caribou check me out.

            After we had got our fill with the caribou, we decided to head back deep into the park because the weather was improving.  Almost immediately we found a cow and bull moose when we got out there.  They were in a depression with a pond, so we stayed and waited for them to come out.  It was worth the wait, and the bull posed for us on the hillside with the mountains behind him.  It took us a while after to find another moose, but we finally did, and the light was great!  We trekked up to him, but he was not cooperative.  It was a brutal hike through the tundra to get to him, and then he would move out of range.  The light was great and we hadn’t found anything else, so we kept trying.  I’m so glad we did, because eventually he relaxed.  Tin Man had a bad back and couldn’t keep up, but he did make it, which was not easy for him in the type of terrain we were in.  The bull moose decided to pause on a little ridge for minutes with the mountains behind him and great light! I couldn’t believe it!  Then he came to the pond I was near and ate basically right in front of me.  It was absolutely incredible!  I don’t even know how many miles we trekked, but the shots we got were insane!  We finally left the moose at 10 p.m., and didn’t get back to camp until after midnight.  What a day!

A decent sized bull moose on a ridge.

A decent sized bull moose on a ridge.

A large sized moose on a ridge in the evening.

A large sized moose on a ridge in the evening.

The large bull moose eats in the pond directly across from me.

The large bull moose eats in the pond directly across from me.

            After the day before, you would think we would sleep in, right? Wrong! There is no sleeping in if you’re a wildlife photographer, and by 5 a.m. the next morning we were heading back out.  We found a beautiful cross fox first thing, and it was the first fox we had seen.  Only a couple more miles down the road we saw two bull moose on a ridge, and I knew we would go after them.  I had only had four small donuts for breakfast, and was to tired to actually eat when we got to camp last night, but when there are photographs to be had it doesn’t matter to me.  So off we went across even worse tundra to trek through than yesterday. 

A large and small bull moose hang by a pond and have a perfect reflection.

A large and small bull moose hang by a pond and have a perfect reflection.

     When I got to the top of the ridge, there were three bull moose, and they went to pond to eat.  Tin Man unfortunately couldn’t make it because his back was really hurting him.  But I kept going and ended up following these moose for over three hours.  You just never know what or where an animal will go, but you have to have patience to stay with them and wait it out.  When I left the car that morning I would have ever dreamed of the shots I would get a few hours later, and am still excited about the shots I got that morning!  Let’s just say that after miles of following, losing them, and finding them again, I got to photograph all three on a ridge silhouetted against the Alaskan Range and reflected! Those shots will never be duplicated, and those are the shots that all wildlife photographers strive to get and spend months working for.  I’m still ecstatic about that moment and how incredible it was!  When I finally got back to the car, and Tin Man, I felt bad telling him about it and wish he would have been there with me.

The same two bull moose silhouetted, and reflected against the backdrop of the Alaskan Range.

The same two bull moose silhouetted, and reflected against the backdrop of the Alaskan Range.

A bull moose walk the ridge on a beautiful day in Denali.

A bull moose walk the ridge on a beautiful day in Denali.

            We didn’t find anything else deep in the park, so we went to the front and were hoping to find that huge moose from our first night.  Sure enough, high up on the hill he was standing in the willows.  He was a very long way away, and in some nasty terrain.  The threat of rain was also strong, but I decided to go in the end.  When in Rome, or Denali in this case was my mindset.  It was a very hard slog to where the moose was, and I wasn’t positive where he was because he bedded down.  I somehow managed to find his antler between the brush, and not to much longer he got up and began eating again.  He was huge, and I was glad I decided to go.  I got some real nice shots of him, and after a while another bull- moose came from somewhere and joined him.  The way he responded to the other moose was aggressive and interesting to watch.  Glad he didn’t show that aggression toward me.  It started to rain harder, so I went back.  But what a beauty of a moose he was!

The monster moose checks out the other bull moose as it approaches.

The monster moose checks out the other bull moose as it approaches.

            What a three days of the permit! We didn’t take any time off and had 15-18 hour days!  But we were rewarded for our hard work.  On the morning of the 21st we packed up and left by 7 a.m. and explored the entrance area of the park.  We got to follow another nice bull- moose around and got some nice pictures before having to head back to Fairbanks for Tin Man to catch his flight.  After dropping Tin Man off I continued on my way back to Skagway and spent the night in my car along the way and got back on the morning of the 22nd.  It is a 14-hour drive from Denali to Skagway.

            After being back a day at the gallery, my parents came on the 24th.  They got to experience the difficulties of Alaskan travel when their plan was delayed for hours because of low clouds.  But they made it in, and got to see my gallery all set up!  My parents were in town four days, and spent most of that time in the gallery with me, and exploring the area around Skagway.  I took the scenic train ride with them one day, and had been trying to do that all summer.  It was fun having my parents in town and them getting to see my gallery in action and all the prints on the wall. 

            On the morning of the 28th I flew from Whitehorse to Vancouver to help my fiancé move.  She was moving to Canmore, AB to be more in the mountains and in a much quieter place.  I was glad I could fly down to help her with this move and take some stress off of her.  We hired packers for the move, but there was still a ton to do.  It was neat being there as her life transitions to Canmore and creates a new life there.  She has a great view of the mountains from her deck, and I can’t wait to go back and visit!  I flew out on September 4th to go back to the gallery to close out the summer.

            As you can see I am a man who is constantly on the move.  There is not time to rest in the Alaskan summer, because it is short.  I’d have it no other way and enjoy everything that comes with being in Alaska.  But I am more than looking forward to the fall and winter, to take it a little easier, and finally take some time to relax.  What a summer it has been though!  I’ll wrap up the gallery in a couple of weeks and head south.