Our family was giving a gracious Christmas present by my In-laws of this trip to Alaska. We spent 11 days there and it was an amazing time. I will try to give you some of my thoughts about the trip along with my gear and how that went, but I realize the most of you just want to look at the pictures, so there will be plenty of those as well.
Flew into Anchorage and stayed downtown-ish the first night. Nothing special to write about that except we went to the REI store with the kids and they loved it. The boys were able to get a mounting plate for their GoPro… which then lead to us hearing the name GoPro mentioned about a million times… “Hey dad! I just Gopro’ed that…” or “Hey Nate… get the GoPro out!” Also thanks to my super-sleuth wife when it comes to food, we ate at this great place called the Moose’s tooth. Be warned there is a pretty decent waiting line if you don’t got at a weird time like we did. Great atmosphere and food, and the hats and shirt will make you look like a tourist… I mean cool.
On to Seward, Alaska by way of Costco! As a family of 6, with two of those being 15 year old boys… the amount of food consumed is astronomical. Costco to the rescue! The down side of this is trying to fit all the crap we bought into the van while still leaving room for our kids to have a place to sit. Then it was a four-hour trip down the coast to Seward. Great views long the way and the kids actually put down the ipads for a while to spot moose and look for bears and whales. We got out at one scenic spot to be greeted with 30mph winds that let us know we were not in Florida any more.
Seward was our favorite place in Alaska. Picturesque views of the harbor and the snowcapped mountains with sea life swimming around, it was amazing. Shannon did a great job of renting and apartment for 4 days that was on the top floor with great views and most importantly a full kitchen and washer and dryer.
The boat ride of death! One of the first days we got up early and jumped on a boat to go out to see the glaciers and do some kayaking around the icy bay. The weather had been a little rough and so we had changed our schedule around a bit, but this day looked really promising. I had pictured a fairly large boat taking us out and carrying the kayaks. Nope… about an 18 foot vessel that basically had a forward deck area and a steering cabin. Since I get motion sick, I needed to be out in the open air while everyone else was nice and comfortable in the cabin. The waves were choppy and I was turning green. We stopped by a rock out cropping where sea-lions were, but I was busy laying on the deck trying not to die. Shortly thereafter I was able to test out the puke resistance of the awesome coat that Canon had given me a while back and I was just getting to wear for the first time since I live in Florida. Nothing like the CPS logo surrounded by a field on green! (Ok that may have been TMI… sorry about that!) My kids thought it was hilarious, and I would have killed them all if I could have worked up the energy, but being my kids that knew exactly how to kick a man when he is down and run away before he gets up. I asked the captain if he could drop me ashore and let me hike back over the mountains, he said I might be able to make it if it weren’t for the bears. So I suffered on until we reached the bay. I must say, even in my weakened and grumpy condition, the bay was incredible. The glacier was calving with sounds like gunshots and thunder. Bus sized icebergs and ice all in the bay with seals popping up and following the boys around in their kayaks. (The boys in the kayaks, not the seals… that would have been weird… and cool at the same time.) The wind picked up for a bit and the boys paddled in the same spot for about twenty minutes going nowhere, but then the wind died and we all enjoyed a little tour around the bay in the boats. Then the words I dreaded to hear came out of the captain’s mouth. “Time to head back.” I asked him if I could kayak back… it should only take me about two days… and he told me to stop being a baby and get back in the boat. (Not really, but it makes the story better…) I figured out that I could negate my motion sickness by standing in the front of the boat while holding on to one of the ropes and riding the boat like I was surfing or skiing. Something about interacting with the deck and the waves allowed me to feel completely fine for the whole ride back. Unfortunately it was a 2 ½ hour trip, so by the time we made it back into the harbor, I couldn’t feel my legs. We spotted several whale on the way back and the scenery was absolutely awesome… especially when seen through non-nauseated eyes. I think I spotted Sig Hansen out there but it could have been me making things up. :D
I took one afternoon/evening to break away from the family to go explore and shoot. I found a great little area where folks were fishing and bald eagles would come to scavenge the fish guts. So I went and got the kids and Shannon and we went back and checked out the birds and the fishing and the kids played in the rocks. I think next time I will just take the kids to a quarry. If you need kid entertainment… just add rocks. Well, so I asked one of the locals when the sun dipped below the mountain, thinking I needed to hurry and ditch my family again to be able to shoot during golden hour. He told me it should start to get dark around 11:30pm. So I took the family back to the apartment and then proceeded to go out and shot for the next four hours until almost midnight. I now have less respect for Alaska photographers, because that is just cheating in my book! But, man did I love it!
Sea lion encounter:
As I am shooting boats in the harbor… it is 11:30 and I am starting to think about wrapping up. You know in situations like this your mind can start to creep yourself out as you think about the surreal settings and that you are all by yourself. Right about that moment I hear out of nowhere this heavy breathing that sounds like and old man that is trying to catch his breath. I look down in the water and four feet away from me is a least a six-foot sea lion that held his breath just a bit too long. I don’t’ tend to think about animals messing up and being out of breath, but this guy was panting and trying to recover like an old man with six pack a day habit, and he had no clue I was stand right above him. I started laughing and said to him “Stayed down a bit too long huh?” he spun around looked at me with a sense of surprise and dove back under water probably to die of lack of oxygen. It was a pretty cool encounter. :D
Seward has a great Aquatics center and marine life rehabilitation facility. I took the two youngest there one day and had a great time seeing all of the animals. The highlight of the experience was that Woody the 2400lb sea lion was swimming behind the glass and pooped right in front of Sarah and Sam. I mean how can you not like seeing a big animal drop that big of a load and muddy the water right in front of you. They didn’t stop talking about that for quite a while. A couple of days later I took Sarah back for a special father daughter treat… went got to spend an hour doing a mammal encounter talking to one of the trainers and seeing the behind the scenes of the sea lions and seals. Woody… aka Mr. Poopers was excited about it being mating season, and sees every male both sea lion and human as a threat… so he was not happy to see me back there hanging with his ladies. He was giving me the stink eye and making some wonderful sounds. I of course remained polite and in no way started dancing and egging him on…’cause that would have been wrong. We finished up by getting to go into the seal enclosure while the feed the seals and had one of the main guys come up and touch Sarah’s shoe with his nose. That was so cool for Sarah, since we are pretty sure she is going to be a vet or biologist.
Panning for Gold:
After leaving Seward we headed back towards Anchorage and stopped in a town called Girdwood. We spent the day at a Gold Mining camp and everyone got to try to strike it rich. I figure it out… After spending the entrance fee and renting all the gear and finding about five bucks in gold… the Gold Mine refers to what the owners of the place have. :D On a side note, it seemed like every place we went, we ran into folks from Tampa or the surrounding area. I went down stream to try to get a picture of the waterfall and came across a great guy that was a retired fireman from St. Pete. It seems like that is an Alaska – Tampa connection, that is being kept on the down low… but know you know.
Denali: Another name for Mt. McKinley… who knew?
Yep, Denali and Mt. McKinley are one and the same. Only took me a couple days to figure that one out. :D The scenery is great and the older boys and Shannon love hiking so they had a great time out there. Unfortunately to do much in the park, you have to ride the buses… and I already had such a great time on boats! I asked one of the bus drivers if I could drive her bus since I get motion sick, but she just looked at me funny and told me to stay away from her! Not to miss out, we signed up for an 8 hour bus ride that I thought was going to be the end of me, but turned out to be pretty neat since the bus goes so slow and stops a lot to see animals. We saw just about everything… bears, fox, moose, caribou, bald eagle, mountain goats, etc… It was definitely a worthwhile time. We spent several days in Denali and it was good, but if we had a chance to redo it, we would go back to Seward and spend more time there.
There was obviously a lot more stuff that happened, but I don’t want to bore you, and I have typed way too much already. Feel free to ask me any specific questions and I will be happy to shoot you an answer. Now below is a little bit about the gear I used.
Photography portion of the trip:
Think Tank International camera back
2 SanDisk 64gb Compact flash cards
Neutral Density Filters
Gtec external hard drive
Wacom Intuos medium
Cables and chargers
Canon 600ex flash
4 Nalgene insulated bottle bags
Manfrotto tripod with ball head
Thoughts about what to take:
I had room for one checked bag and one carry on. My carry on is always loaded with my camera gear and computer, and my checked bag gets anything that I can live without or is too bulky or heavy for my carry on. I put my tripod, Spider Holster, extra batteries and chargers, the Wacom Tablet and cables in the big bag, and then everything else when in the Think Tank carry on. I took out the dividers and put my insulated coat in the bottom to act as extra padding, and then I put all my lenses in the padded Nalgene bottle carriers and tucked the extra gear around them. This let me pack more stuff and still keep everything secure. The computer and Ipad fit in the front pocket for quick access and let me keep an eye on them.
Normally if I was going to go on a trip for the purpose of shooting, I will try to take two camera bodies… One full frame for the wide shots and a crop sensor for zooming in on wildlife etc… Since I was going on a family trip, photography was secondary to time with the family so I opted for just one body. My main reason for choosing the 1DX besides it being just an amazing camera is its weather-proofing. I knew that we would be taking boats and kayaking as well as being in wet areas with rain potential and so I wanted to make sure that the camera could handle it. This body just laughed at the weather.
Since the 1DX is full-frame I added a 1.4x teleconverter coupled with the 100-400mm for getting as much reach as I could. The good news is that the 1DX still allowed for autofocus with that lens because it can handle apertures up to f/8. So I was able to shoot at a 560mm equivalent with the teleconverter on the long end. This lens stayed on most of the time so I was ready if any critters appeared, but then if a picturesce scene popped up I generally had time to switch to a wider lens. It is not a fast lens, but I was shooting generally in well lit times and my priority was to get close, so it did great. The Noise handling of the 1DX also let me shoot higher ISO. When I had this lens on, at first I made the mistake of shooting AV (aperture priority) and ended up missing shots because the shutter speed dropped too low and I had lots of blurry animals because of them moving and camera movement. (They all looked crisp in the view-finder! :D) I then changed over to TV (shutter priority) and set it to at least 1/640 and set the ISO to Auto so that it would deal with the changing lighting situations as we travelled by boat or by bus. That worked out much better and my keeper to miss ratio improved.
I found myself mainly shooting with the 100-400 or the 24-70 most of the time, and they were always on my Spider holster belt. I only used the 16-35 and the 70-200 for certain situations. I used the 70-200 for a few shots in the aquarium area and for a couple of portraits of the kids, but on the whole I could have left that one behind… even though it is my go to lens for just about everything back home. The 16-35 was great for landscapes and I was glad I had it, but if I had to cut back on lenses and weight even more, that one could have been left behind. When I was going around with my family I wouldn’t pull out the tripod and the neutral density filters, but when I went off on my own one afternoon/evening I brought them out for some great landscape shooting. I stacked a couple of filters to allow for at least at 5 – 10 sec shutter speed and cranked my aperture up to 22 to get some nice starburst (when I remembered…) This helped to smooth out the water and give a much nicer presentation of the bay.
Spider Holster is the way to go once you get where you are going. We rented a minivan, so I had the luxury of having my Think Tank hold my gear and then I could “suit up” according to the situation. I loved being able to walk around hands free with my gear on my hip and ready to go at a moments notice. This was great for hiking up to a glacier and riding on the boat. (It also left me hands free for holding on to the railing while I was throwing up. :D) Even on the bus ride I looped the belt around the railing in front of me and had the camera hanging right there ready for action, but completely secure when I was using it. If you haven’t checked out the Spider system, I can assure you it is a great system.
Things I would do differently…
I had grand plans to edit and play with my photos on the trip, so I brought my Medium Wacom tablet and it just sat there and taunted me for being lazy on the trip and it was right. So I would have left it behind and felt better about myself. :D I should have uploaded photos from the first day when I got back to the room, so that I would have seen my mistake about shutter speed with the 100-400, but I was tired and had some big memory cards so I waited two days before looking at my shots. Missed some good stuff because of the simple oversight. I would have had less kids… ok that was a joke I threw in here just to see if my wife actually reads this far. Probably not. :D I would stay in Seward longer than Denali and finally I would have opted for the rocket launchers on the minivan to blowup the slow drivers who refuse to pull over to let the crowd of cars behind them pass. No I don’t have issues… why do you ask? :D
So there is my take on our trip, I hope that gives you some insight to travelling that beautiful place and maybe will give you some thoughts about shooting and gear and help you prepare. Thanks for reading.