Alaska, An Excellent Choice ~ Days 2 & 3, Denali

Published: October 16th 2015
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Photos from this time in Denali National Park

Denali, an excellent choice. (I can’t wait to expound on these “excellent choice” repetitions when the time comes, and I hope you stay with me at least until then.) We were among the last to visit Denali National Park when the mountain was still named McKinley. If we could have arranged (had we known) to visit the park this first afternoon of our visit instead of the second, we would have been able to see it.

We boarded the bus at Princess Lodge in Fairbanks around 10 in the morning, and headed south for the Princess Lodge in Denali, just outside the third largest national park in the US. The drive is just over 2 hours, but it took us just over 3 because of the mandatory gift-shop stop in Nenana, home of the world famous Nenana Ice Classic. To win, you simply have to guess the day & time the Tanana River will break its ice for the summer. This year’s prize was over $300,000. Photos 2, 3 & 4 were taken at this stop. Not sure what Barb bought in the gift shop.

When we arrived at the lodge in Denali, the day became the most pleasant of the whole trip, and yet it was a day we had nothing in particular to do. The lodge was actually a group of lodge buildings scattered about, with a few bars and restaurants mixed among the usual gift shops. The only other visible sign of mankind was a plethora of shops across the street. Alice’s famous restaurant, where, it was sung, “You can get anything you want,” couldn’t have been as well-stocked as this outpost. In addition to the obligatory souvenirs, they had everything from Argentinian wine to a Harley-Davidson shop. Not sure how Arlo Guthrie would have rhymed that one.

This day wouldn’t have had anything to write home about (unless you allow me to go on about how good the company was), but it nevertheless played a big part of the snapshot snafu that silently plagued the rest of my part of the trip. It started when we had a wonderfully delicious lunch. I had my camera strapped across the back of my chair. Since there was no room and no need for traffic behind me, I felt it was safe. When a waiter later made a motion as if to slip behind me, I politely moved in a bit instead of protecting the camera. It apparently wasn’t enough. The camera hit the floor lens-first, yet seemed okay in the first test before the soup came. Later as we strolled about the grounds, it became clear that the lens was feeding the camera misinformation. At first I didn’t mind, figuring I’d learn to compensate if the pattern wasn’t random, but suddenly all communication between the lens and camera ended. Initially I couldn’t tell if it was the body, lens, or both. Long-story-short is photos 6 thru 9, all taken after the fall, were the last I was able to use the main lens with any accuracy on this trip. No tripod. No main lens. No sunlight. No kidding this wasn’t a photography trip.

Still, we had a great evening, and went to bed rather early to get a good start on what we hoped would be a great day of sunshine in Denali National Park.


Well, the great day of sunshine was the night we went to sleep, and we awoke to a steady, cold rain that kept us company all day. If overcast means heavy clouds blocking the sunshine, this was
an outcast day where the clouds were so low they mixed with the fog that blended with a low mist. Visibility was so bad that our driver-guide declared that he was there for 27 years and this was the worst he’d ever seen. He said this near the end of the trip where he pulled into this huge parking area where we were supposed to get our shots of Mount McKinley. He then asked if anyone wanted to get out, and no one moved. We were probably all too afraid that if we stepped into the cloud outside, we’d either fall over a hidden cliff, or never find our way back to the bus. As for me, I figured I could duplicate that shot anytime with a white piece of paper held in front of the lens.

It was our son Matt’s birthday, and thoughts of him carried us through our day replacing the gloom with bright memories we shared in his first 29 years. The visibility wasn’t always so bad as when we actually made it to the Mount McKinley lookout. The visibility was always bad enough, however, to negate the possibility of a good photo with the available equipment. The animal photo ops, on the other hand, discounting the lack of light quality, were plentiful. Of the 102 exposures I processed from the day, 21 were of moose, 29 were of bear, and others captured caribou, sheep and birds. Yet in the gallery there are only 4 of moose, 6 of bear and a few of the other creatures, and none are worthy of wasting ink.

Many of the photos in today’s gallery were given that painterly treatment my eyes have come to expect. It’s actually a digital darkroom maneuver made necessary by the lack of quality in the exposures. To some, it makes at least partially acceptable representations of what we saw, and hints at what we could have seen had the elements been more conducive to wall-hanging magic. Denali, like all of our national parks, is uniquely amazing and covered in beauty.

We barely made it into the park when we spotted our first moose, photo 11. A very short time afterward we noticed our first bear, photo 14, although it was quite a distance away. Ever since I was a little kid in the back seat of our family car I would imagine walking or running around the areas we passed, whether it was a farm or a field, a hill or a valley. You can at least get a sense of how thrilling those imaginings were for this grownup kid as we drove through this wonderful landscape. Denali National Park is a wonderland for hiking and exploring. Six million acres is a lot of area to cover, and even in a bus for 7 and a half hours we could only glimpse a small portion of it. Of all the places we visited on this trip, Denali is the one place I would have liked to spend at least a month. And would have preferred a tripod and a longer, better quality lens –and perhaps a can of bear spray in case I got careless.

Mary Ann was the only one of our group who said she would like to return to this cold region. Joe promised to wait for her in Florida. If I was outfitted with warmer clothing and proper camera gear and my own transportation arrangements, I’d be back in a flash. But who wouldn’t under those cozy conditions? As Barb and the others agreed, there are plenty
more warmly inviting places rising to the top of our bucket lists, so it doesn’t seem likely I’ll ever get any quality shots of this magnificent landscape.

The bear you can see in photos 37 thru 41 eventually came within a few feet of our bus, and of course no one got out to disturb her, although some had to be convinced that a selfie just wouldn’t be wise. I had the 24-105mm lens that I still tried using occasionally. Although it worked sporadically for a few landscape shots, it was too undependable to try when the shot mattered. For this bear encounter I should have taken the time to at least find the 16-35mm in my bag and use it, but I was afraid the opportunity would have walked away by the time I did. With the overall limited possibility of getting a good shot no matter what was used, I pretty much just used the little SX50 even when we stopped to walk around. It was raining all day, even when it slowed to a drizzle, and, unless you had a tripod and long lens, it wasn’t a day for photography.

It was, however, the perfect day for hanging out at the lodge with our fun cast of characters. We dined at one of the restaurants, and our waitress turned out to be the gal who also managed the Harley-Davidson shop across the street. We had such a great time, and she was such a remarkable personality; we handed off our table and server to another group of six we met earlier in the trip.

The day ended, but the rain didn’t. We slept with a calming pitter-patter, and dreamt of sunshine.

Additional photos below
Photos: 11, Displayed: 11


16th October 2015

Lots to see!
That's an interesting article, Marty ... thanks for sharing your experiences with us. One can tell the difference between the first shots and later ones -- I can just imagine your horror at losing full use of your camera and lenses, but you did manage to get interesting shots of the bears. I can empathize with you about the lousy weather for photography: my wife and I recently travelled to Agawa Canyon north of Sault Ste Marie to shoot the Fall foliage, but it turned out to be a rainy and foggy day, and we ended up with nothing significant to show. Well, at least you got to see Mt (McKinley) Denali. Cheers!
17th October 2015

Thanks, Fred. Good thing it wasn't about the photos. hehe. At least that's what I kept telling myself.
21st October 2015
Move along... there's nothin' to see here.

Move along
Love this photo.
21st October 2015
Move along... there's nothin' to see here.

Yeah, natural protection at its finest.

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