Alaska, 2014 (Part I)

So there it was.  January 28th, 2014, 8:00 a.m.

As expected, my bags were not packed - only my camera gear had been organized.  With the flight 7 hours away, one might have thought I would only need to tidy up a little and head to the airport.  That's just not me.  

Don't get me wrong though.  Everything I own was clean and hanging in my closet, but I enjoy chaos for what it is.  A challenge.

After a much-appreciated ride to the airport, I found myself at the airline check-in where my bag was weighed.  Despite weighing it myself with a hook at home, it came in at 5 pounds overweight.  I was presented with the option of paying $100.00 each way as a penalty for extra weight, or simply carry some items from my bag as a "personal item" on the plane.  Not a tough call.  That snag aside, I was quite pleased to be through check-in, customs and security in about 20 minutes.  It wasn't long after that I was relaxing in my seat on a Delta CRJ200 awaiting take-off to Minneapolis before connecting to Anchorage.  

I should pause here and make a note that I was quite nervous about this plane.  It is a 50 seat plane and from all accounts from the airline, carry-on room is extremely limited.  It is for that reason that I was nervous about my camera gear.  It goes without saying that it is rather expensive and the thought of it needing to go below wasn't something I would look forward to.  To be ready for that possibility, I researched and measured a Pelican 1500 hard, padded case for my valuables.  

My camera gear, safely stowed away.

You'll have to forgive me this one time for including a shot from my phone.  Above is my camera and the three lenses I chose for the trip.  My wide angle 16-35, my kit lens 24-105 and my new 70-200.  To complement, I picked up a 2x teleconverter to give me a bit of extra reach - something that would become quite useful as you will see.

The first hitch of the trip took place immediately.  After boarding was complete and my camera safely stored over my head (much to my relief!), we remained silently and quite stationary at the gate.  After a short while, the Captain introduced himself and announced that we were delayed due to a weight imbalance which would have to be sorted out.  After some rather loud rumbling below, a second announcement informed us the weight still wasn't right and we were again treated to the sound of our carefully packed things being shuffled around again.  A third announcement came soon after advising that the computers at Pearson Airport in Toronto had gone down, and air traffic was not allowed until it was remedied.  

Nervously, I looked at the time and thought about the one hour layover I had, and how those minutes were melting away here in Toronto.  Finally, after just under an hour at the gate, the Captain announced that were finally cleared to depart.  

Nearing Minneapolis, I asked the lone Flight Attendant about my stop in Minneapolis.  Incredibly, as if he had been aware that we had been delayed, he announced that we would be landing on time.  This initiated much conversation among those of us in the first five or six rows.  Evidently, most of us had a short layover there before we caught our next flight on to our destinations.

When our plane did finally land and safely reached the gate, I exited with my camera from my third row seat and took off at a run up the jetway to find my next gate.  As one might expect, it was in another terminal which was accessible by a train.  Exiting the train and at a full run, I found my gate and was immediately boarded thanks in part to spending an extra $12 to board early.  

This delay and ensuing cardio workout would prove to be the only real issue of a trip where several things could have gone wrong, but came out right in the end.

Arriving at the Westmark Hotel, I learned quickly that driving in Anchorage wasn't the same as in Toronto.  Despite opting for studded tires, the rental was all over the road.  Salt doesn't seem to be in their inventory as it attracts animals such as moose who enjoy the taste.  

The room itself was simple and nothing fancy.  The usual bed, tv and bathroom - just enough to be warm and comfortable between adventures.  Bring it on.

The first morning brought all of the wonder of where to go.  Weather was to be fantastic, roads were wide open and I had a car.  The decision was made.  I'm going to find Denali, otherwise known as Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, and the fourth tallest in the world.  After consulting Google Maps thanks to Data Roaming package from Bell Mobility, I was in the car and on my way.  I was encouraged early by the sight of moose roaming in the distance that they would probably be the first of many.  

The drive to Denali was beautiful.  Although the tall mountains near Anchorage slowly gave way to low rollers, the view was still very nice, and the traffic of the morning slowly disappeared, making it a relaxing trip north and after a little over an hour, I found myself at the Southern Viewing Area.

Denali/Mount McKinley

After parking the car, the walk to the viewing area was a challenge to say the least.  Between my camera bag, tripod and hard case, I had to make my way through snow that was well above my knees in some places about a hundred yards.  There were several spots where the snow was ice and I could simply walk on top, but in others, I sank through.  The work was worth it though.  The viewing area was solid and I stood atop a two foot layer of snow and ice.  Here there was a sign describing the mountains ahead with the different names of each.  

I have to admit one thing, and it's a terrible thing to say.  As I stood, taking in the view below, one thing kept crossing my mind, and maybe it will yours too.  Look at this photo and see if you're on the same page as me....

Denali/Mount McKinley Panorama

Do you see it? Do you feel it? Perhaps not.  Photos don't do justice to the sheer size of the mountain range ahead.  What I was thinking was, "It's too bad these tall trees are obstructing the view!"

I know.  I'm a horrible person.  I shot some video of the surroundings and did contemplate the idea of staying until dark to shoot it with the stars overhead, but I didn't dress for the cold of night so far away from the car, and quite honestly, I didn't know what to expect of animals.  It had taken a fair bit of time to make the trip to here from the car, I didn't want to find myself in a bad spot unprepared.

Back in the car, I decided it was worth driving further up, perhaps in to the park itself.  It wasn't long before it felt like every bend in the road led to another mountain face.  

Each turn led to a more beautiful view.  I would love to do nothing but show more and more mountains, but I will have to find another place for that.  Rest assured, I have lots.

Unfortunately, as I drew closer and closer to Denali, I realized the sun was beginning to drift back down.  Already three hours from the car, it became clear that I shouldn't stray too much further.  Especially without proper cold weather or overnight gear.  It was at this point that my better judgement took hold and I decided it best to turn around.

Along the way back, I found myself in a small community called Trapper Creek (who knew they would have their own Wikipedia entry).  I stopped in at a roadside gas station and had a sandwich and on the advice of the owner, I found myself driving slowly along an ice-covered dirt road in hopes of darkness bringing my first show of the Northern Lights.  The road ended after a mile or two with a dead end at a creek which was obviously well traveled by snow machines or snowmobiles as us Canadian folk call them.  

Traders Creek

It was here that I decided to call my home for the next few hours as I waited for it to get dark.  

Now, while its true I didn't have much in the way of layers on, being able to be in the relative comfort (warmth) of my rental car, a Suzuki SX4 compact, I was able to pass the time listening to the radio while my camera became acclimatized to the cold.  I also had the forethought to pack some chemical hand warmers, so at least they would be toasty warm.

As the sun slowly made its way down, the starts began to present themselves one by one.  I was treated to an incredible view of the constellation Orion which to my eye looked like it was lit not by stars, but by bulbs in the sky.  The view was spectacular.  It did become clear after a while though that the Aurora was not likely to show.  I decided at that point that I would try something I hadn't done before.  Time lapse movies of the overhead night sky is something I had enjoyed seeing from other photographers' work.  I felt it was time I gave it a shot.

As my first time lapse movie, I'm fairly satisfied with it.  It was unfortunate though that I did have to learn a lesson the hard way.  As time went by and my camera worked, I would check on it to ensure it still had battery power or simply hadn't run out of memory.  It appears that on one of those checks, I accidentally exhaled a breath in the vicinity of the lens.  This condensed on the glass and froze and ruined roughly 200 shots which would have made up approximately 10 seconds of video.  It did teach me a lesson though so I suppose I can be thankful for that.

With my lens now frozen, my night was over.  There is little that can be done to a lens once this happens.  It was must stored properly and dealt with later, and with that, I began the two hour drive back to the hotel to get some sleep before my guided tour the next day - here is where I will end this entry.  While this blog only contains two days, rest assured that I have no intention of this trip being described over numerous entries so please check in again soon.