Denali Grandeurscape

written september 12th 2012 at the Denali Visitor Center

I’m Excited! Over the past few days I fulfilled several different dreams. For starters I shot my first photos of the Aurora!! I’ve wanted to do this for as long as I’ve had a camera! I saw wolves in Denali and took my first images of Canis Lupus not in captivity. To top it off I also photographed stars above Denali and the Alaska Range!! These were my first real photos of the trip where I had time to step back and be a photographer rather than just a driver or cook and snapshooter on the side. But more than these a greater dream was fulfilled.

Things looked grim on Sunday (sept 9th). We went to the wrong bus stop near the visitor center at 7am. After finally hitching a shuttle bus back to the Wilderness Activity Center we were on standby. It was 8am. Our bus hadn’t left yet. No buses had. The road was closed due to snow. Maybe 9am .. By 9 the word was 10. Our driver told us we’d head out any minute after that. At noon the status went from standby to cancelled.

Denali is all about grandeur! Like most national parks, throngs visit to walk around the visitor center snap some pics of pull outs along the road and rave about it. I’m really proud of my dad. Unlike the vast majority of silverheads visiting he made it into the bush for two separate forays- even had some Alaskan bushwhacking thrown in for good measure. He was impressed by what he saw and unlike the “where’s the restroom?” crowd he walked away from something that will stick with him the rest of his life. I like that a lot!

For this trip I was his guide. I packed his pack, cooked meals, selected his clothing, handled the food, destinations, route-finding and everything in between. But I wouldn’t be here today without him- not just for the obvious reason that he’s my dad. It wasn’t so many years ago I was in 3rd grade. That tiny 8 year old had help with his meals, packing his pack, clothes, the route and everything in between.

That tiny 8 year old had his eyes opened. He grew and bushwhacked around the hills of NE Washington. He discovered the mountains and grew to be a man in that world. My father has done a lot for me but this is the largest gift he gave me. It transformed me and was one of the main shaping forces in who I am today. It taught me who I am and what I’m made of. It’s taken me to places of untold beauty & taught me lessons that flowed through all aspects of life. This trip is about a lot of things, yet here in Denali it is about a simple thank you- a chance to share with him the majesty he taught me to seek.

Even the bus rides into Denali are great! There are lots of wildlife sightings and great folks to chat with. I had met Terry briefly the day our bus was cancelled on that snowy Sunday Sept 9th. I was impressed Monday morning as we rolled out on the bus to Savage River. He hopped on wearing Carhartts coveralls and jacket, summer edition. His hood was all snow. He said it had been a chilly one. Terry is from West Virginia but lives in Alaska now and loves it. On the ride out we also met Ben, a wildlife photographer from South Carolina. He’d been out calling moose and following some around for great shots. They both mentioned how folks will think they’re dumb because of the southern accent. How dumb of those who think that! People of all stripes are found wherever one goes. We saw Bears, Moose, Caribou, and a variety of other creatures on the way in!

We were dropped off at Wonder Lake. This is practically the last stop and certainly the most popular stop. It’s quite beautiful. One is only 20 miles from “the mountain” and it’s only a couple miles back up the road to Reflection Pond where Ansel Adams made his famous shot. Ben said he’s counted over 80 photographers there at sunset!! I shot that spot in 2003 and didn’t have a compelling desire to do so again. Different perspectives draw me off the beaten path. While we didn’t stray exceedingly far from this path we still made it out to a place where we didn’t see other folks. Down on the McKinley River Bar we had great views of the mountains and enjoyed a chilly night there along the river. I was told the next day the weather station at Wonder lake reported a low of 25. The station at McKinley River Bar said 15! For most of the night I was up, shooting photos with all the clothes I’d brought. Landscape photography, especially at night, isn’t an activity to warm oneself with. I may have to soften up at some point and get those chemical heat packs for hands and feet! The night was spectacular though! I had gone to bed at 10:30 after post sunset color and set my alarm for just after 11. However I woke with a start when I realized I had overslept and it was 1am! I popped out of the tent to see the Aurora dancing with greens and a tinge of red! It was spectacular! I shot and shot though the night. Eventually there was too much pre-dawn glow to shoot stars over Denali. I had gone through 3 of my 4 camera batteries! and still had a 2-3 days left in the park!

While one is seldom completely satisfied with a shot since there are always little things one can do better I felt happy with the images I’d created in the cold! It was my first real stab at photography on this trip! For that I was quite happy :) After shooting the sunrise and morning light we had food and lounged waiting for the ice to break up. During the night the sand I was standing on was frozen solid. The braided river channels around us had frozen about 2-3 feet out from each bank! Ice was breaking up all morning. We had to wade a few of those on the way out so the idea of less ice sounded like a good one. We hiked back out to Wonder Lake and missed the bear others had seen on the trail. I’m glad it was only a few miles to backpack out as I’d carried a ton of camera gear! We spent some time at Wonder Lake then hopped a bus bound for Kantishna to see the end of the road and the private in-holdings grandfathered into the park. As the bus headed back for the park entrance we hopped off near a pond I had spied. My dad wasn’t too keen on the bushwhack down to it (a ways through steep brush in places). I scouted above the road and found a reasonable route to higher ground. We made our way up and up to a spot that also had a big pond. It was breezy though so I didn’t shoot it in the evening. Our perfect day of weather on the first day and good day of weather on the second day was turning into a pretty cloudy evening. There was decent slanty light on the peaks to the east before sunset but then the show was over. I was relieved as I was too tired to shoot well and didn’t have much battery capacity left anyways. I set a better alarm than the night before by drinking a bunch of water. When I awoke to some clouds over the mountains with stars above I considered watching it for improvement. However one stupid act at 1am changed that. Instead of putting both shoes on outside the tent it seemed to make sense to put one on and hop over to the tripod. On one foot I collapsed the legs. As the last one went down so did my balance and support. My finger was pinched in the collapsed section. At first I though it would just be a blood blister but upon inspection in the tent with a headlamp I noticed I’d taken a chunk out of a fingertip! Only a flesh wound :D Whoops.

The morning had far more clouds. We heard the rumble of the 6:30am wonder lake bus as we were packing up and thought we’d catch the 7:30 bus. We made it down to the road with time to spare but no bus. It was one of those mornings where the night had been clear enough to get cold but clouds covered the canopy as the sun rose preventing warming. We dug our puffies out as we waited. Light pierced the canopy of clouds in spots for some nice highlights to the west and down to the McKinley River Bar & Turtle hill near where we’d slept the previous night. Eventually the bus rolled in an hour and change later then we expected realizing it had gone from Wonder Lake to Kantishna and back. On the ride out I met a number of great folks from Nome, Philly and Seattle. We exchanged stories about Denali and life! One of our new found friends had recently returned from Vladivostok and Siberia! We saw Dall Sheep and Moose and Bears and Wolves!!! on the way out. It was fantastic!

From there it was back in the car for another adventure east along the Denali highway and down into McCarthy & Valdez before a layover in Anchorage. More on that next time. Thanks for reading! I hope you are well and I look forward to hearing from you in the comments of via email or facebook!
Take Care



The Dalton ‘Highway’: A trip up & back into ‘Merica’s Far North

The Dalton highway is almost something of legend. It makes me think of the old days on the Alcan. In the early 1950′s Lynne’s grandparents drove the Alcan for their first time. I picture that road something like the Dalton today only worse- rougher, more narrow and with far inferior tire technology. From Fairbanks to Prudhoe to Fairbanks it was was under 1000 miles and about a quarter of that was pavement, albeit poor pavement. In many stretches the dirt is preferable to the pavement- no frost heaves. Like Lynne’s grandfather a number of people told me I was crazy for driving the Blue Roo up that road. I wouldn’t make it. Most know how I respond to such encouragement. Lynne’s grandfather was in fact a bit more crazy than I though as he had a 6 month old aboard both on their first trip up in ’53 and again in ’55! I can’t imagine. What an adventure. Thinking back I can’t recall any other cars way up north on the Dalton highway. It’s truck land- 4X4 pickups and semis. I’m sure other cars make it up there but it’s not a common sight.

I view the Dalton in ways as I do the North Cascades Highway. I really enjoy the access and am glad I can see such an area so easily. However it’s sad in a way to think of piercing such a vast wilderness. we can thank the oil embargo in ’73 for turning the tide in Congress. Just like the North Cascades Highway though solitude is easily found in winter! We saw muskox right off the road, moose and more. And near a camp on the tundra ~30 miles south of Deadhorse I think I saw a wolverine crossing the braided river channels of the Sagavanirktok (the Sag). They have such a distinctive gait!

Fall is in full force up the Dalton. After a later than anticipated start from Spokane we ended up timing it just right for the far north. Colors are ablaze from the Brooks range south to Livengood, about 80 miles north of Fairbanks. Down in the deep south lands of Fairbanks fall has only just begun. Many of the trees are still lime colored. On the way north we started seeing signs of fall colors in mid BC and were worried we had missed the colors up north. Much of the interior though will change at a similar time. In 2010 when my pops and I headed north in late September we had stunning colors from the US border in Idaho to Whitehorse YT! Last Saturday (September 1st) moose season opened so we weren’t the only ones out enjoying the great outdoors. Most of the pipeline pullouts had hunter camps and we saw many a successful hunter with racks loaded on their rig headed south with fresh meat for id. with fish & game.

Wednesday evening we enjoyed the Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfot AK and watched some cool films, visited with the staff and sat in for a presentation by the NPS ranger there who grew up in Wiseman (10 miles away). Her presentation about all 4 seasons at Coldfoot/ Wiseman was quite interesting. 33 days of darkness in the winter and 33 days of sunlight in the summer. From the extreme quiet of winter to the explosion of sound and light in the summer. Her photos did a good job showing the transformation of life through the year. While getting gas at the Coldfoot restuarant/ everything place I met a fellow taking big drags from a cig. We chatted. He’s Spanish. Last year he rode his motorcycle around the world in ~37 days. Yes that’s right, around the world- from Spain through western then eastern Europe, Kazakhstan and to the Ocean in the east! From LA he rode route 66 across the US and took a boat home to Spain at the end. He said that was 7 days short of the Guiness record. He also is on the ‘Pan-American’ planning to do it in 3 months. I like to smell the lichen along the way, meet the people and write words about the trip. Like myself he’s shooting go pro footage of the ride. His footage is off to Discovery channel Latino.

Late Thursday afternoon we made it back to Fairbanks. In town we immediately went to the Subaru/ Toyota dealer. Our friend Jen noted they had the cheapest tire repair in town- strange a dealer wins that contest! However they only do plugs and I wanted/ needed a full patch. So they sent us to American Tire and after some bartering I came up with a reasonable price. They did a great job and used a patch plug combo. I appreciated the guys in the shop. They were very helpful and went the extra mile. Props to them!

At times on a large journey the only thing one knows is exhaustion. Things blur together, days of rain, wind & cold- even hunger. Miserable conditions and many hours of driving rough roads can at times induce one to seek ‘bed’ over cooking in the biting rain. But it’s still a happy sort of tired, most of the time anyways. As in other life situations we must keep ourselves from becoming too hungry or tired and therefore crabby apples. Seeing the sky would be nice though. I do happen to have a camera with me and would love to use it on some Auroral activity! let alone landscapes. Today we roll south to Denali deeper in the interior where temps are expected to drop. We’ll see snow lower than we did in the Brooks Range and as on other trips we expect to see a variety of Large Game. This morning in Fairbanks I had a shower. It was fantastic!! I let hot water pour me over marveling at the feat. The cold washed out of my body. Being ‘indoors’ was luxurious! The sun is out and we’re feeling recharged and ready to be back on the road, not with the same vigor we had early on in this trip but the excitement’s still there. Early on I was soo excited to be done with the long driving days so I could relax and get some fine backpacking and photography in. I’ve yet to take one serious photo 2 weeks into this trip but I’m excited to change gears once the weather cooperates. As I said though the sun is out- we’re on the move. To Denali we go!

By the numbers we traveled 3110 miles from Spokane to Prudhoe Bay and with the drive back to Fairbanks our total is currently 3672 miles with each of us having spent ~$325 on gas thus far.

From College Coffee near Univ Alaska Fairbanks, thanks for reading! Enjoy the pics and be grateful for all the little comforts life offers!
Till on down the road




Prudhoe Bay AK: Like Patagonia with Polar Bears … & 5500 Oil Workers

We’re at the top of the continent, as far north as you can drive in the new world. This is the beginning of our epic journey south. From here we take it easy, learn and play and live. To say it’s different here would be classic use of British understatement. If Mars was industrialized and had a small colony living in portables where everything was covered by mud you’d be at a decent start but not really. Prudhoe Bay aka The North Slope feels like Chilean Patagonia in so many ways: the harshness of the landscape, wind & rain married a few notches above the freezing mark. Sparse.

Looking down from the pass along the Dalton passing through the Brooks Range Saturday morning we could see a pretty lil cloud below some pretty lil peaks. Soon the pretty lil peaks were gone but the clouds & fog stayed. They stayed with us all the way north to Deadhorse Alaska. Mountains sure do a good job of holding them pesky clouds back. Tundra and fog morphed into one as we each had our first taste of the far north.

Lotsa people said I wouldn’t make it to Deadhorse in the trusty ole Blue Roo. But she did make it and with only a minor hiccup. Even that wasn’t her fault. 20 miles south of Deadhorse was the first really rough stretch of road we hit. At 40 mph it shook your bones apart. I decided the ride was best somewhere around 60 mph. Eventually a rock pierced the soul of one of our trusty bfg snow tires in the rear. At first I pulled too close to the edge of the road as a courtesy to truckers but like milk on a hot day, that was a baaad choice. The jack and the whole car started sliding towards the ditch!! EEEk! We couldn’t get it high enough to mount the spare so we put the flat back on and moved the car further towards the center of the road. Like a seasoned backcountry Nascar crew we had it changed in a jiffy. The blowing rain was motivation. To mount the blown 14″ tire underhood in the spare tire hole we had to coax it a bit! Once it was started with four hands and two bars I had my pops open the hood completely and I jumped up and down on the tire. Even then the hood needed an extra slam to close. Mud covered our clothes as we wrapped up.

Yes it’s Chiliean Patagonia, the weather that is. One must remove those strange wind sculpted trees from the scene along with Gauchos atop their horses sheltered from the melee by their leather ponchos & said trees. Add in oil workers, lots of them, portables, lots of them too, trucks, heavy machinery galore, snow cats, drilling rigs, buildings insulated from the permafrost with liquid nitrogen or more simply on stilts and you start to build a picture of the objects that stick above the ground here. The tundra from what we’ve been able to see through the fog and rain is beautiful! Fall colors decorate the plants clinging to the ground and tell of colder darker days on the near horizon.

The Prudhoe Bay Hotel is $125 for a person/ night. This provides a stay in a portable & a warm cafeteria style meal! The meal on its own is all you can eat for $20. We have spent the past 2 nights in the cozy confines of Shangri La Blue Roo. With food bags, clothes bags, tents, tools, camera gear, laptop and a whole bunch more moved to the front seats, it’s cozy in back but warm, wind-free and a bit safer from our Ursus friends. Yes there are bears here & Brown Bears aplenty. A polar bear sow with cub was seen in town recently too. EEEEEKK! Polar Bears and the constant windy wet made sleeping in a summer tent less appealing. Not that the Roo is much of a defense but hey it’s better than nylon. Becky at Deadhorse camp told us she saw a brown bear nosing around someones tent recently when they were away. They must have been good about odors because it left things alone. She hasn’t gone on runs this summer due to the plentiful population of Brownies. This morning my pops was back to his old routines from home and left the Roo just after 5am to head out on a morning walkabout. He made it 90% of the few miles from our camp to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. A guy in a truck picked him up to go the rest of the way. He had another ride to head over to the Prudhoe Bay General Store (which by the way is the coolest hardware store I have ever seen- I was a dork yesterday and shot video walking its aisles!). Yet another ride from a security fellow got him back to camp but only after giving the guy a few false turns for spice. Yesterday my the pops headed out in the Roo for a trip to the General Store / Post Office and got lost for a spell in Prudhoe, disoriented he says not “lost”. Even with buildings this place is disorienting. Most things industrial look very similar. The roads are all dirt and potholed. Mud is everywhere. You can’t avoid getting it all over. We look like little kids who just had a ball out in the garden with a hose and mud pit! And that’s civilized world here. Imagine navigating on the tundra. I’ve read stories about the Inuit using different senses to navigate this vast world. Scale is different, even time itself seems altered on such wide open spaces.

This is the Arctic, a world of it’s own and for that reason fascinating to no end! It’s the ultimate in extremes, daylight, space … frozen ground. In the summer lakes sit atop the permafrost. We saw loons, arctic swans and many other fowl on its waters. Birds travel a long ways to summer here! Despite the seemingly constant rain this is a desert. They receive less precip than central Washington! 6-7 inches per year! Some of that comes from the less than 2′ of snow on the ground in the winter. That’s one of the reasons it’s so flat and why  during the ice ages there were no glaciers here. It’s a land of contradictions. It’s been damp every day yet I have to drink more water than normal and the ground has received hardly any water. We went past sand dunes yesterday on our way to the ocean. Brown Bears burrow into the soft sand to hibernate. They’re omnivores but plants are tough to come by when the surface is snow and ice. Meanwhile Polar Bears work year round to find food. They’re carnivores. Brandon, our tour guide to the ocean told of a polar bear that swam an astonishing distance recently, something like 300 miles. As a security contractor for an oil company he must keep a keen eye on any polar bears when they show up. This bear slept for 3 days after its epic swim!

The Arctic Ocean! It’s the one of the many reasons for our being here. We officially began our trip Sunday morning September 2nd 2012!! Since Sept 11th 2001 the oil companies have shut down private traffic to Prudhoe Bay itself on the Arctic Ocean.  You can drive to within 10 miles of the water but there’s a guard station to prevent private vehicles from going further. While it seems a terrorist would have to be quite determined to come to Alaska in the first place and drive the entire Dalton highway, I worry for the other 400 miles of the Alaska pipeline that are near the road. What if the terrorists read wikipedia or saw pictures that this pipeline is so close to the road? Even though the road itself requires determination and a vehicle ready for the journey such folk may be out there. I’ve even seen roads that go near high tension power lines!! What if the terrorists wanted to take out chunks of our power grid? We should be afraid, very afraid! Big oil and the entire energy industry need to take some lessons from TSA in the 48 and step up their ruse of security beyond the point of absurdity. That way we can all sleep better at night because we all know what can happen with just 4.2 oz of shampoo! Here at Deadhorse AK the folks at the airport are some of the nicest around. I’ve become Tom Hanks in the film Terminal, spending my time on their wifi to comb through photos, compile mailing addresses, write postcards, deal with UPS and work on this blog! I’ve gotten to know the staff and while the weather outside is frightful .. well, we’ve grown accustomed to this place at the top of the road.

Anyways I think I was talking about the Arctic Ocean and how incredible it was! For the low low price of $49USD one can make reservations to go on a tour to the ocean 24 hours ahead of time so security (for your security). They will ask you for your driver’s license & credit card #’s and make sure you’re not an Errorist. You will be escorted in an oldish tour bus that’s spent its days traveling the Dalton Highway. If you come soon, your guide will be Brandon. He’s awesome!! Funny and full of facts you will actually be glad you paid the steep fee and your grumbling will subside. For the Aspergers fans out there he will rattle numbers and stats off until you’re red in the face with glee. Did you know they have to drill 9000 feet deep for oil!! using one 32 foot section of drill after another! Not only that but over 90% of the wells out here use directional drilling now. That means that they utilize a well 9000′ deep and THEN go 6000′ horizontally with an accuracy of 5 feet!!! Holy Moly, there are some geologists and engineers out there who’ve been solving some wild problems. Oil, more oil it’s what we all need or at least that’s what most of our actions state. A blue T shirt for sale in the Prudhoe Bay General Store shows a Polar Bear clinging to a tiny chunk of ice. The caption says, “Global Warming Sucks!” As I said this place is not without its contradictions.

The Arctic Ocean is a wee chilly!! Going in the water is a lively experience! You have that feeling of fullness that comes in times where our senses are heightened when our body is a bit stressed by what’s happening. I think it’s a little chemical called adrenaline. I tried jumping as high as I could but between the peat bog on the beach and legs numb below my knees I didn’t set any records. It felt better than I can describe to begin this trip after 10 years and plenty of struggles along the way. Getting back in a bus with a heater thawing my bottom half felt pretty decent too. After we make another lap around the sun I hope to jump in an ocean connected yet far away, one cooled by the Antarctic current and ravaged by winds that discourage habitation. Penguins, no bears.

From the top of the Road in the Americas: Latitude 70 degrees 15 minutes and 19 seconds NORTH Longitude: 148-20’14” W Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear from you and see you as we make our way to South America.
Jon Jantz