To the End of The Road

There is only so much road to explore and we explored most of it.

Dangerous River
The Dangerous River bridge at the end of the road.

Yakutat, like so many Alaskan communities is accessed only by sea or by air. Not to say there are no roads, they just do not go anywhere else, much less connect to the road network that crosses the continent.

In the case of Yakutat the furthest you can get from town is about 26 miles as the crow flies taking the road to Dangerous River and Harlequin Lake. This road is a well maintianed gravel road heavily used to access popular fly fishing rivers and hunting areas, as well as by loggers harvesting the local hemlock and sitka spruce.

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Nordic Quest 2014

As is my habit, I have produced a video summary of this summer’s voyage in the Nordic Quest. Take a few of the best photos, a little video, a snippet of timelapse, a decent tune, and mix well…

Nordic Quest 2014 from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo

Having done this more than a few times now it is getting harder to be creative. Still there are always unique shots that come back from any voyage, such as the mother grizzly and cubs. There is also a sequence I had always wanted to try, a timelapse of the huge Alaskan tide change. This time I had a chance to shoot it, and had some success.

Nordic Quest 2013

Sorting through thousands of photos, dozens of video clips, and assembling time-lapse from yet more thousands of frames, all to create a mere five minutes of video. It is quite the chore, but also a lot of fun. In a way I relive the voyage, each photo a cue to recall all of the little experiences that make a great trip.

Having another couple photographers along provided a great source of material, it is not all of my photos. Randy and Nancy sent me some of their best, which have been woven in to create a better video. We got lucky on the weather, while it was cloudy and rainy for much of the time, we had a glorious day for visiting the ice at the top of Glacier Bay. We were lucky with wildlife as well… Orca, grizzly, humpback whales bubble netting, mountain goats, eagles, even a set of fresh wolf prints on a beach, all of the big game.

It was fun…

Nordic Quest 2013 from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo.

Postcard from Alaska – Over the Ice

Over the Ice
The Juneau Ice Fields from a float plane air tour
Touring around a sunny Juneau you might not suspect that something completely different lies above the city. But here and there you can see hints. Atop the ridge that lies behind the city you can see ice, suggesting that what lies beyond Juneau is something a little more wild. Look above the Costco and there is a little glacier atop the ridge. Just a bit further north and you will find the Mendenhall Glacier, the terminus of a river of ice a mile wide with a photogenic lake at the face.

Take a plane or helicopter above the high ridge that rises above the city and you find ice, thousands of cubic kilometers of ice. The Juneau Ice Field is 140km (86miles) north to south and stretches almost 90km (55miles) into Canada. In places it is over 1400m (4600ft) thick, a sheet of ice that remains from a time when the world was colder.

When visiting Juneau it is worth the time to see this place. An air tour from town climbs over the ridge an into another world. Once over the ice the scenery is dramatically stark, ice everywhere, with bare rock and rugged mountain peaks punctuating the white. You would think you are over Antarctica, indeed the Juneau Ice Field has stood in for the south pole in a few movies.

Postcard from Alaska – Mendenhall Glacier

A massive river of ice flowing down from the high ice fields above the city. When visiting Juneau go visit the glacier, only a few minutes drive from the airport and worth the visit. if you have the time and can make the arrangements take an air tour of the ice field. An fantastic flight, cross the ridge above the city and you are over the Juneau Ice Field, an enormous expanse of ice punctuated by spires of rock. From below there are only hints of the ice, from the air it becomes an unworldly experience.

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier flowing into the lake of the same name, Juneau, Alaska

A Tidewater Glacier

A wall of ice, hundreds of feet high, towering above the water with jagged teeth waiting to crush any hapless vessel below under blocks of ice the size of minivans. The stuff of adventure novels and endless nature documentaries. Such places do exist, where the power of nature is seen raw and in full glory. Witnessing such a spectacle is worth making the effort to get to one of these remote places, where rivers of ice meet the sea.

Margerie Glacier
The towering face of Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, 28 June 2004
At the northern end of Glacier Bay several glaciers still ride on the tide. This entire fjord was once filled with ice. When the early European explorers first sailed into Icy Straight they were met with a wall of ice where the mouth of Glacier Bay now sits exposed. The ice has retreated over sixty five miles, and a number of the glaciers no longer reach tidewater. But those that do provide a show worth sailing up to see.

The show is generally best on a rising tide, as the sea level increases the face of the glacier is lifted and the most unstable pillars of ice come crashing down. Watching from a safe distance gives a chance to see the process in action. No guarantee of a large collapse, no way to predict what will fall on any given day. One can only try to time their visit with high tide to allow the best chance of seeing ice collapses.

When one of the towering seracs does collapse it generally gives warning, small ice falls around it increase in frequency. Something that large does not move fast, but collapses with a slow motion slide into the water. A photographer with a ready camera will have ample opportunity to grab a few frames as the avalanche of ice comes down. The collapse will create a large wave that threatens any nearby vessels, wise to stay well back. Even half a mile away the waves created by the ice will rock any vessels in the fjord.

Postcard from Alaska – Iceberg

Ice dots the water across the entry, large bergs lie beached near the shore stranded between tides. We pick are way carefully though the crowd, many of the chunks larger that our vessel. The bar across the entry to Tracy Arm is betrayed by a long line of icebergs grounded to reveal the shallow water beneath. Here the history of a thousand winters lies shattered about the landscape like broken glass.

Icebergs in the entrance to Tracy Arm, Alaska

Alaska Roundup

It is over, an odd and melancholy feeling pervades. After three weeks out the boat begins to feel like home, leaving it a sad thing. But we are also ready to go back to our regular lives, which are not really all that bad in Hawai’i. Looking forward to seeing friends and getting back into the swirl of the life we have built on the island. I return to the observatory, with a major project coming to a peak with the delivery of the K1 laser. Deb has gotten a call from the school, they want her back for the next school year.

Nordic Star in Ford's Terror
The Nordic Star anchored in Ford’s Terror while we explore
It is just the trip in between which promises to be a real pain, too much luggage and a very long layover in Seattle await. We are still in the hotel in Juneau, checked out of the room, but with hours to kill before the flight. At least I still have WiFi connectivity to do a little blogging from a conference room just off the lobby.

Three weeks on the water. Three weeks of beautiful weather, whales, halibut, icebergs and fantastic scenery. Hard to think of how the trip could have gone better, maybe a few more fish caught?

Week one was spent mostly touring with just enough fishing to eat and a little for some friends to take home. We headed south from Juneau to the fjord of Tracy Arm to dodge icebergs for a day. From there it was further south around the end of Admiralty Island. As we passed the Brothers Islands there were whales, both humpback and orca everywhere, also sea lions and porpoise. Up Chatham Straight we stopped at Barnof Hot Springs and one of my favorite places, Tenakee Springs.

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Postcard from Alaska – Tracy Arm

Tracy Arm is one of the must see places near Juneau. If you are not traveling in your own boat you can jump on one of the fast excursion boats that make the run from Juneau each day. A classic fjord with walls that tower thousands of feet above, waterfalls everywhere, and icebergs to make navigation interesting as you make your way up the glacially carved canyon. The terrain beneath the water is just as dramatic, not unusual to be a few hundred feet from shore with a thousand feet of water below the keel. In some places the depth finder can not find bottom, over 1,200 ft or more down.

At the top there is Sawyer Glacier, a tidewater glacier that drops those icebergs into the water as you watch. There are actually two glaciers, in twin arms of the fjord that separate near the end of the trip. Sit among the ice flows watching the seals and ice crashing from the cliff-like face. If you can time your arrival for high tide it is far more likely to see a really big calving, with hundreds or thousands of tons of ices breaking free from the face to crash into the water and create waves that rock the boat.

It is customary to scoop up some of that glacial ice floating around to fill your coolers. Crystal clear and very dense, the ice from the bottom of the glacier is interesting stuff. We break it up and make cocktails out of it to enjoy as we cruise back down the fjord.

Tracy Arm
Looking up Tracy Arm, a classic fjord in southeast Alaska