I grew up in a small town in southern Wisconsin where I developed a passionate interest in nature and the outdoors. In 1981, after high school, I set my sights on Alaska, seeking adventure in a wilderness landscape, along with a university education in Fairbanks. Following graduation, I combined my childhood love of the visual arts and outdoor interests to forge a career as a freelance nature photographer. My Alaska is revealed in the collection of images that defines my photographic career, which now spans four decades. The pictures tell a small part of a larger story, one of a curious student in nature’s grand classroom. Along this personal and professional journey of life and art, I’m continually reminded that the gift of seeing requires more than the eyes that see. Where to photograph in Alaska?
I’m often asked this question, but find it very difficult to answer. Part of Alaska’s lure and fascination to me is found in its tremendous diversity of environment. Sampling from one makes the uniqueness of the others more prominent. I like winter because of summer, and I like summer in part, because of winter. Change and diversity really make travel across this landscape both distinctive and remarkable. Then there is the equation of wildlife, which is quite different in the Arctic than in Southeast’s marine waters, both of which are astonishing in their own right. So as unsatisfying as it seems to not “name” a particular spot or location, Alaska’s collective spaces win me over. I was raised in the Midwest and became addicted to wide-open spaces very young. I like the ability to see for long distances and across great vistas. Alaska feeds this addiction well. Out of fairness, the question of where to photograph in Alaska is a good one—it is a BIG place!
So instead of naming a favorite, I’ll list a few places that I enjoy photographing—mainly from a photographic perspective, not necessarily the pure nature experience or absence of people. They are not secret spots by any measure, but they’re rather well known for a reason.
Katmai National Park
I like the topographical relief of this area: the nearby mountains, the aqua blue water of Naknek Lake, the orientation of the sunrise, the diversity of wildlife, and yes, of course the amazing congregations of brown bears. Access to Brooks Lodge on the shores of Naknek Lake is made via a commercial flight to King Salmon and then a small floatplane ride. It is a busy place because of the unique opportunity to watch bears fish for salmon from Brooks Falls. Because of the high bear density during the summer months, there are a lot of behaviors to watch and photograph.
Prince William Sound
(Marine Life and Glaciers)
This sheltered waterway of Southcentral offers views of long fjords choked in lush green hillsides, coastal landscapes, vibrant wildflower meadows, and thick and active glaciers calving into the sea. The glaciers are a defining feature in Alaska’s geological make up, and Prince William Sound is abundant with them. The weather can be wet, but not as severe as Southeast. The bird life, marine wildlife, and the interface of human participation through kayaking and/or maritime industry make it intriguing for photographers. In May, during the spring birding festival in Cordova, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds migrate through creating an amazing spectacle.
Arrigetch Peaks of the Gates
of the Arctic National Park (Mountain Landscapes)
The Brooks Range arcs along the great Continental Divide in northern Alaska separating the Interior from the Arctic north. Within this area the rugged, yet intimate, series of spires and rocky summits of the Arrigetch peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park afford some outrageous landscape photography opportunities. It is extreme, austere—beautiful. Far less populated than the other areas mentioned above, the Arrigetch peaks are equally as difficult to access. But the landscapes fascinate me with their serrated mountains and the infusion of light in the summer.
Denali National Park
(Wildlife/Caribou or Moose)
While I often go to Denali Park with mixed feelings—there are soooooo many people to contend with along the road corridor—it does remain a very productive and beautiful place to photograph. The road moves through four different mountain passes, which parallel rivers with grand vistas—all in just 90 miles! I know of no other road system in the state with this much diversity in such a short distance. The wildlife is abundant, relatively speaking, and varied as well. Moose inhabit the forested regions of the park, and because they have not been hunted, they are less fearful of humans. During the autumn season, the bull moose vie for breeding rights and are often more visible and accessible during this time.
Alaska’s High Arctic and Coast
(Polar Bears or Musk Ox)
Alaska’s Arctic coast is a vast tundra area, inhabited by creatures that have adapted to very difficult conditions and harsh life in the bitter cold. Two of these animals are the polar bear and musk ox. Both have unique adaptations to survive the severe weather. Watching polar bears swim through the Beaufort Sea and then crawl onto a snowy shore allows visitors a glimpse of this great icon of the Arctic and reveals the animal’s amazing ability to live in two different ecosystems.