8 Participants + 2 Guides Mark Rayner and Dave Metcalf
For me, my relationship with Alaska began in my bedroom in Wellington, New Zealand listening to John Denvers music about the grandeur and beauty of this great land. I became quite obsessed with the place, reading every book I could get my hands on, including the classic James Michener book – Alaska and I dreamed of visiting one day and seeing for myself if all the descriptions were accurate.
One particular quote really struck with me from the naturalist and explorer John Muir was “ Never go to Alaska as a young man because you’ll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live”. Well, I did not take much notice of this because in 1979 as a young man, my curiosity got the better of me and I flew from Wellington to Alaska and ventured above the arctic circle to Nome, and spent a few days in the Anchorage area.
I remember seeing the Mountains from the aircraft window as we descended into Anchorage. I had never seen anything like this in my life, the magnitude of it all, the snow covered Mountains seemed to stretch forever and I was immediately hooked.
I loved the thought that in those Mountains was true wilderness, nothing but pure, clean, untouched nature and wildlife as it had been for millions of years.
Two years later I spent 2 months in the summer in South East Alaska, discovering this area, which I think were some of my happiest travel days, seeing Bald Eagles, Grizzly Bears, Moose, Whales for the first time in my life, and meeting some real characters with many stories to tell.
And then in more recent times I have started to take groups of photographers to share my love for this incredible place. I realise once the spirit of Alaska takes over it pulls you back time and time again.
But now I want to write about some of our experiences there in September 2022, as we did a circle, starting in Juneau on September the 10th and finishing back in Juneau on the 20th, traveling through Haines, Haines Junction, the golden circle in the Yukon, Skagway, Haines and then Juneau, by boat, small plane and van.
Every day was special but two in particular stand out . Day Three: A DAY WITH THE BEARS
Our private charter small 12 seater plane was delayed taking off from Juneau airport due to fog and there was some concern that if this does not lift we will not be able to experience what I knew would be one of the highlights of the trip.
Admiralty Island, also called Kootznoowoo, a Tlingit word which means “ The fortress of the Bears” is a huge island 145 kms long and 56kms wide with nothing but bears and an indigenous community that lives in a small town called Angoon. This is true Grizzly Bear country, home to the highest density of Brown Bears in North America with an estimated 1600 living on the island.It also has one of the highest densities of Bald Eagles in the world.
Fortunately the fog started to dissipate and we were cleared for takeoff. The flight that morning was SPECTACULAR. As the fog cleared and the island revealed itself we were able to point our cameras at a million acres of old growth rainforest, alpine tundra and rugged , beautiful coastline.
After our seaplane dropped us on the island, the pilot waved us goodbye with the parting words, “I will come back and pick you up about 4 pm, its just you and the bears now”.
And he was not kidding. Our group were the only people in this area. Within 5 minutes of landing , almost on que, a mother Grizzly and 2 cubs started walking along the seashore towards us! With a mixture of excitement and a little fear the cameras were soon in action taking advantage of this incredible opportunity.
These bears were not interested in us! They were safe and interested in shoreline food only. However that feeling of just us and the bears, surrounded by all this beautiful wilderness, just as nature arranged it was an experience none of us will ever forget.
Then magnificent Bald Eagles started flying above us searching for their prey and more bears came down to the river feeding on salmon almost oblivious to our presence.
Just one of those perfect, sunny, warm, cloudless Alaskan days. The flight back was even more spectacular in the late afternoon light.
HAINES is my favourite town in Alaska, it is so authentic, non touristy, full of interesting characters, and surrounded by wilderness, wildlife and stunning mountain scenery.
We spent 4 days here teaming up with Tom Lang, a local legend, rafting guide, writer, story teller, and just a top bloke who has spent about 35 years in Alaska with many great stories to share. It was such a privilege seeing this part of Alaska through his eyes, and his passion and love for the place was infectious.
But the other incredible day that will live in my mind forever was our last day in Haines.
The day began a little cloudy, but we headed about 15 miles out of town to a beautiful lake area and to photograph Bears feeding on berries and salmon in the river, with Bald Eagles soaring all around us! And it only got better!
THE SOUL FILLING EXPERIENCE
We spent hours that morning pursuing this activity, then after a gentle walk in the rain forest , the sun started to shine through just in time to meet our bush pilot and experience one of the most incredible joy flights in the world. By this stage the weather was perfect, no wind, no turbulence and we seemed to glide across the Mountains and Glaciers of the Fairweather range, our wingtips close to the jagged peaks at times, as our small plane soared over the Mountains, Ice Fields, and lakes like an eagle.
This was such a powerful experience which can never be truly be captured on camera, it was one of those soul filling experiences that cannot be described, only experienced. I think that bush pilot has the best job in the world.
The rest of the trip we drove from Haines to Whitehorse in the Yukon and experienced the fall colours in their prime, along some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. As you can imagine with a photography group it took about ten times longer than usual, with lots of wows along the way. Here are a few photos of what we saw along the way.
We are going back in 2024, but at a different time and a different route, but it’s Alaska, everywhere is remarkable.