Alaska by Road and Camera

Writing and photography by Jack Malson

Alaska is a BIG state, I mean really big. Covering over 586,400 square miles (1.5 million sq km) it is the largest and least populated state in the US. That means a lot of ground to cover and a lot of subjects for photography. In the three months I traveled Alaska I explored less than a quarter of the state. All that beautiful space provides endless opportunities for photography: from caribou roaming the tundra or the aurora borealis dancing over some of the biggest mountains in North America, to puffins soaring around sheer rock cliffs along the coast. Alaska is a wonderland for all types of photographers. 

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Our journey starts just south of the city of Anchorage, a city that sits upon the edge of the Cook Inlet. Heading south we travel along the coast, where steep mountains collide with the wide expanse of water known as the Turnagain Arm. High above me a bald eagle soars on the updrafts and out in the bay belugas spout water high into the air. The mountains glow with a soft golden light as the sun slowly sets into the Arm. My camera’s shutter quietly clicks capturing the stunning scenes before me.

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Next we stop in Girdwood, a small ski town situated in a glacier-carved valley. Here you will find many opportunities for mountain top scenery. You can take the tram at the Alyeska Resort for an easy five minute ride to the top of Mount Alyeska, or you can choose to hike the two mile 2,000 foot climb to the top. If it’s a greater challenge you seek you can hike 8 miles (12.8 km) to an off-the-grid cabin at the top of Crow Pass.

We continue on to the small fishing port of Whittier where the majority of the population live in the same apartment building. From Whittier there is a trail that guides you over Portage Pass and down to the shores of Portage Lake. A boat tour cruises the shores of the lake providing scale to the immense size of the glacier.

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We then pass through the town of Seward and head along the Sterling Highway to the town of Soldotna. Here the town revolves around the salmon run in the Kenai River where the bears and humans both feast together on the fish.

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The next stop is Homer, a fishing hotspot situated on the Kachemak Bay. One of the main attractions for visitors to the area is a boat tour across the bay into one of the many deep glacier-carved inlets. This place is home to a nesting colony of over 15,000 birds, including Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Murres and a smaller colony of Tufted Puffins. From the boat we see puffins diving down to catch fish and seagulls, swooping into crevices in the rock where they have made nests. We cruise through the bay and stop for a moment to watch a humpback whale slowly making its way up the inlet. The engine turns off and we hear the majestic creature spout water high into the air. Homer is a hotspot for wildlife photography.

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We power north on our journey and reach the quaint town of Talkeetna. Photographers will find Talkeetna filled to the brim with lovely forests, majestic mountains and the awe-inspiring Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights). One part of our day is spent exploring the riverside where the Alaska Range is visible. Near town the Hurricane Turn train takes you north into Alaska’s backcountry where hardy souls live off of the land in remote cabins, hunting and growing food. The train is considered a flag-stop train, one of the last of its kind in the entire world. What flag-stop means is that the train stops for anyone wanting to be picked up for a ride into town or dropped off in the wilderness. It is a lifesaver for the cabin owners providing a way to socialize and meet new travellers.

Moving on, we head to Denali National Park. In the summer the sun shines down for over twenty hours providing endless light to venture and explore. In the winter the sun stays up for a mere four hours leaving the rest of the day shrouded in darkness. For all of those wildlife photographers out there you have enough animals to satisfy almost everyone. You’ve got the classic Big Four: Grizzly, Caribou, Moose and Wolf. Black bears roam the woods in near town and Dall Sheep roam the steep rocky mountainsides. The only way to get deep into the park is the aptly named Park Road, which leads 92 miles (147 km) deep into the park’s interior all the way to Wonder Lake.

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Heading northbound we reach the city of Fairbanks. Not as big as Anchorage, Fairbanks is a hub of the North and the last major metropolis on the route to the Arctic Circle. One of the major draws for people to the area is the ability to see the Aurora Borealis. Travel just 15 minutes outside of town and you will get skies dark enough to see even the faintest auroras.

Alaska covers a large area, encompassing some of the most amazing scenery in the world. I explored only a small fraction of the state and yet it took months. I already want to go back. No matter what kind of photographer you are there is something for you. Alaska has it all. This state will hold a special place in my heart. It was where I truly began to hone my photography and start pursuing this amazing passion. I can not believe how fast the time went by and it is still too early to take Alaska off of my bucket list. 

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Check out more of Jack’s photography on his Instagram page: @jackandstills