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Looking for Alaska: Chris McLennan details his cherished Alaskan journeys

Chris McLennan reveals the abundance of reasons behind why he cherishes his Alaskan journeys

10 January 2016


Chris McLennan reveals the abundance of reasons behind why he cherishes his Alaskan journeys

New Zealander Curt Perano on the frozen Yukon River during the 2014 Iditarod race; Nikon D800E, 70–200mm, f/5, 1/3200s, ISO 200

It’s no secret that I travel a lot for work, and from the number and variety of locations I have been fortunate to visit, it’s hard to pick a firm favourite. But it’s also no secret that, if asked, the wilds of Alaska are always somewhere at the top of that list. I’m not sure what it is about this incredible destination — the largest yet most sparsely populated of the US states, and yet a world apart in so many ways — but something about it just draws me back time and again.
Spread over nearly two million square kilometres, and larger than most of the world nations, Alaska is home to a plethora of unrivalled natural features, including North America’s highest peak Mount McKinley — towering over the Denali National Park at 6168m above sea level; the world’s most perfect volcanic cone, Mount Shishaldin, which is more symmetrical even than Mount Fuji; over 54,000km of tidal shoreline, including the earth’s largest tide at Turnagain Arm, where the tidal difference can be over 10 metres high; more than three million lakes and 12,000 rivers; over half of the world’s glaciers, which cover nearly 45,000 square kilometres of land; and a vast interior region of immensely beautiful and mostly uninhabited wilderness. Alaska is truly something to behold. 

Jon Korto mushing his dog team at sunset, Galena; Nikon D800E, 500mm, f/9, 1/2000s, ISO 320

It is to the State’s central region that I have travelled a number of times to photograph what is undoubtedly Alaska’s most famous sporting event, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Covering a distance of more than 1600km from Anchorage to Nome, teams of up to 16 dogs and their mushers race each other across the frozen ice and snow, taking anywhere from eight to 15 or more days to complete their hazardous journey. Sub­-zero temperatures can be as low as minus 40 (or more) degrees Celsius, with blizzards regularly causing white­-out conditions, and pushing the wind chill to minus 70 or more. The race is a true test of endurance and fortitude, although there are checkpoints along the way for safety, and to ensure the mushers sign in and have somewhere to rest and restock supplies as needed — including the dogs who are vet checked at each stop. However the top competitors usually push on and camp along the route, braving mountain passes, steep inclines, frozen waterways, dangerous ice, and densely forested sections of the course. 

Exploring the remote wilderness of Alaska’s interior at night with the Northern Lights under a full moon; Nikon D800E, 14–24mm, f/2.8, 20s, ISO800

It was in 2011 that I followed a large section of the race on a snowmobile for more than 1200km through Alaska and across the frozen Bering Sea — an adventure I won’t ever forget.
Alongside the Iditarod, Alaska is now just as well known for its Dalton Highway, featured in the Ice Road Truckers TV series. A 666km stretch of highway, running from just north of Fairbanks through Coldfoot and up to Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean, the route serves the Trans­-Alaska Pipeline System, which was built in 1974. This is the route I took when I was in Alaska last year in order to visit Wiseman, a tiny village just north of Coldfoot from where we photographed the incredible Aurora Borealis.

The winter wonderland just off the Dalton Highway and near the Arctic Circle; Nikon D800E, 14–24mm, f/16, 1/320s, ISO 200

Taking photos in the Alaskan winter — or in any cold environment for that matter — does present a few unique challenges. Fortunately, camera technology has come a long way in the digital era, and without the high number of moving parts prevalent in the old film-­camera days (requiring grease lubricants that would freeze), most modern equipment can be used well below the minimum operating temperature of zero degrees Celsius most commonly stated in the user manual. In fact, your fingers are likely to freeze up well before your camera does. I use large heat packs in my camera bag — and smaller ones in my gloves — just to take the edge off. I make sure I have extra spare batteries, as they do tend to drain quicker in the cold — keeping the batteries warm will extend their life a little. Never take your gear from the extreme cold into a warm environment as this causes condensation, which can instantly freeze on the outside of your very cold camera, taking hours to clear. I usually leave my kit safely in my backpack overnight, or at least for a couple of hours, only removing the memory cards and batteries, which I do before heading indoors. And most importantly, wear the right clothing and keep yourself warm. You can’t take photos with frostbitten fingers … 

Mother and cubs digging for clams at Lake Clark National Park; Nikon D800E, 70–200mm, f/7, 1/1250s, ISO 400

However, Alaska isn’t all wind and snow and freezing temperatures. Visit in the summer months and you’ll be warmed by a balmy climate ranging from 15–25 degrees Celsius, long days with up to 22 hours of sunshine in some areas, fields of glorious wild flowers, air that is clear and crisp, stunning scenery, and a chance to see one of my favourite wildlife species, the Alaskan Grizzly Bear. With males weighing around 500–600kg, and often heavier just prior to hibernation, the Alaskan Grizzly is considerably larger than the same species in other regions. As they fatten up on around 40kg of salmon per day during the peak salmon season, it’s not hard to see why. The summer months for this species are all about food, with the grizzly bear’s omnivorous diet allowing them to snack not only on salmon, but also on clams dug up along the coastline, sedge grass, berries, and less frequently on carrion found by the bears. Standing at a height of up to three metres on their hind legs, they are certainly an impressive sight to see. 

A grizzly bear launches himself at a darting salmon, Silver Salmon Creek; Nikon D810, 500mm, f/6.3, 1/2000s, ISO 800

A grizzly bear launches himself at a darting salmon, Silver Salmon Creek; Nikon D810, 500mm, f/6.3, 1/2000s, ISO 800

Photographing the bears is all about observation and timing. They seem mostly oblivious of us as they wander the shore digging for clams, or ford the streams on their hunt for salmon. Their unawareness allows me to observe their behaviour and set myself up for the shots I want, choosing my background and waiting for the right moment. Where possible I will use composition to frame the animal within its environment, and then it’s just a matter of watching the bear’s body language to choose the best possible moment to shoot. The action can happen very fast if the bears decide to fight over a favourite fishing spot, or chase a salmon through shallow water, so having continuous focus ready is helpful too.

But undoubtedly the best thing about Alaska is the people I have met there. From Jon Korta in Galena, living a simple life with his young family on a remote section of the Yukon River, to Dave and Oliver Coray — owners at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge — through to Jessie Carlstrom at Tourism Alaska, all have become close friends I look forward to spending time with. And that’s just to name a few. People in Alaska are some of the most welcoming and friendly people I have ever met, and I can’t wait for my next trip back there to share that experience with others.

This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 67. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: