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Trip Report: Northern Exposures: Wind, Sea & Byways of Alaska – March/April 2022
by Russell Graves
It’s on the travel list for many: Alaska. Its name is mythical and conjures up untold adventures in a place as mysterious as it is immense. No matter how often you go there, it is impossible to see all of it. I think that’s part of the allure, though. 

Alaska is big and full of wildlife, mountains, taiga, beautiful water, and photographic opportunities. It’s a place that holds the promise of a memorable photograph everywhere you look. Even if you’ve been to Alaska before, the state holds something new in store for you every time you go. You see a landscape in a way you haven’t seen before, or you experience the culture of the 49th state in a fresh and exciting way. Either way, you are beckoned for more.  
That’s the way I see Alaska. I love her for what’s familiar and yearn to know more about what I have yet to see. It’s a tug that keeps me motivated to head there whenever I can.


Northern Lights
I’ve seen the aurora dozens of times. In fact, on the twenty-something days, I’ve sought the aurora borealis, there’s only been a pair of nights where they haven’t appeared. A thick overcast of clouds made seeing them impossible. While there is a scientific explanation for why they appear in the northern skies, I still find it hard to wrap my mind around the mysterious phantoms. They are utterly otherworldly and since no two displays are identical, straying afield is always a worthwhile endeavor.


Seeing the Northern Lights and sharing them with others is a delight. On this trip, we spend the first three nights searching for them. While days are spent seeing the sights around Fairbanks and experiencing the local culture and fare, the nights are spent heading out to logical places where we may catch a glimpse of them. A combination of cloud cover forecasts, general weather observations, and the auroral activity index (Kp scale) guides our decisions. 


The first night we caught a glimpse of the aurora. A weak Kp index coupled with a scum of late-arriving clouds hammered our efforts, but it did give us a chance to hone in on the skills needed for shooting nice photos of the aurora. Night two found us south of Fairbanks at a remote cabin. The conversation was lively and lessons in three-point lighting and light painting helped balance the night while we armed ourselves by the fire, snacked on s’mores, and waited…
On the third night, the skies exploded with color and movement. Overlooking a frozen lakebed north of Fairbanks, we watched as the skies came alive right at dusk. For the next five hours, the skies were alive with the aurora caused by the sun’s coronal burst a few days beforehand. To say the night was remarkable seems like an understatement.

Talkeetna
Waking up the next day, it’s hard to leave such a fantastic spot with the night’s memories still fresh on everyone’s minds. Undaunted, we head south across the state for our next destination – the quirky burgh of Talkeetna and the Denali Overlook Lodge. It’s a long drive there, but we stop and photograph roadside landscapes along the way, see a lynx and ptarmigans, and discuss both the history and contemporary lore of the state’s midsection. 

Once at our edge, we don’t have to travel far. We have dinner and photograph the Denali Range from the deck of our lodge. From here, a creek is slowly coming back to life from a frozen winter’s slumber and trickles past us. Across the broad valley, the entire Alaska Mountain range is before us. Near the center, Denali stands sentinel. While most of the mountain is visible, the summit is shrouded in clouds – a predicament that continues for the next two days we’re here. 


However, the next day we take to the air and can see the summit in a way that most never do. Boarding a Dehavilland bear airplane, we ascend from the Talkeetna airstrip and head north towards the mountains. The pilot knows we’re a photography group and takes the scenic route on the way up the Ruth Glacier. We’re at an untold altitude when the clouds part and the summit is visible. As surreal as it sounds, here we are floating on the aerodynamic forces of airflow and lift as we traverse the top of North America. It is an experience to behold. 


Our landing on the Ruth Glacier is uneventful as landings should be and we deboard the plane and explore a tiny part of the mountain bowl. It feels like we are a thousand miles from nowhere.
Departure from the glacier is predictable but bittersweet, and soon, we’re back on the ground in Talkeetna. The nearby town is too quirky to ignore, so we explore the town’s shops and restaurants before an evening shoot and some well-earned rest back at the lodge.

Alyeska Glaciers and Wildlife
Heading further on our trip, we run through Anchorage south towards Homer. Our night is spent at the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood. Still, we explore the immediate area by photographing the portage glacier, the Chugach Mountains, and the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet.  



Along the Turnagain Arm, we see Dall sheep in the mountains and stop to photograph them standing on what looks to be impossible footholds. Regarding native Alaska wildlife, we stop over at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see caribou, musk ox, black bears, grizzlies, and wolves. 

We only have a day in the area, so from here, we’re off to Homer for a night. From here, we’ll spend the last of our trip across the bay and in a place that’s truly off the beaten path.

Seldovia
Why I waited so long in my life to go to Seldovia, I’ll never know. I am glad I got there, however. Seldovia is a small seaside Alaskan town that you can only access via plane or boat. It’s a quiet little settlement, but its reputation as a fishing village maintains its charm for the benefit of the tourists who come here each year. We are outside the chief tourist season on our trip, and the town is quiet. It’s a silent solitude you’ll experience as the sun goes down on the harbor and the night envelops the town and the surrounding water and mountains.



From here, we launch in a boat and explore the waters and wildlife of Seldovia and Katchmak Bays. At any given time, bald eagles soar overhead while sea otters flit and play in the emerald water that is a mix of glacial meltwater mixed with salt water from the ocean. Here, we ride along the ragged edge where freshwater and saltwater combine to create the perfect ingredients that provide exquisite habitat for wildlife.  
Day after day, we photograph sea ducks, eagles, mink, otters, and wading birds like black oystercatchers in a setting that is so quiet, so private, and so pristine. Our day photographing is matched by exquisite hospitality and meals at the Seldovia Boardwalk Inn. Even though the town is empty, walks around the streets and on the boardwalk provide a nice respite from the boats, vans, and planes we’ve been traveling. The walks yield each trip member some memorable images that help round out their Alaskan portfolio. 


Like any trip, the last day is like the last day of summer camp. It’s bittersweet and celebratory as everyone is ready to go home. Still, no one’s really prepared for the trip to conclude. On the boat ride back to Homer and eventually to the airport, we’re treated to an otter dining on crabs, and a bald eagle fly by. In the end, it’s a fitting way to close this adventure.  
Alaska wouldn’t have it any other way. 













If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words.  Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.

A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets, and in 2010, he began delving into television production.  His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled his and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape.  The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.

Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from the Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence,  but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com
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  • A Great Experience!

    What a great experience! The trip was well-organized from start to finish. Great photography locations from deep jungle to beach to river boat to night hikes. The schedule kept us busy but never hectic, and the accommodations were super comfortable. Shout out to our guide Ben - we saw so much wildlife! I'd highly recommend a trip with them.


  • In October I traveled with BCJ to Joshua Tree Natl Park for their night sky photography trip. This was my third trip with BCJ and I just reserved another trip. I keep coming back to this company because of the great experiences I'm having. I love the small groups and excellent guides. 


  • This was my first trip with Backcountry Journeys. It was excellent, and I have since booked two more trips. The itinerary, and the guides were excellent.

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BACKCOUNTRY JOURNEYS
"Backcountry Journeys offers guests the unique opportunity to explore our natural world from behind their own lens. We run a selection of hand-crafted Photo Tours, Workshops & Safaris to incredible locales such as Yosemite, Alaska, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, Utah as well as Botswana & Costa Rica."

- Russ Nordstrand, Backcountry Journeys Founder & Director
All Images & Content are property of Backcountry Journeys - Copyright 2022
CONTACT US
Monday-Friday
8am to 4pm Mountain Time
928-478-1521
adventure@backcountryjourneys.com

TRIP CATALOG

Download our Trip Catalog for detailed information on our many destinations for photography tours, workshops, and safaris.

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