TOURING SOUTHEAST ALASKA: How to Get the Most from Your Experience

The morning sun, breaking through the clouds, struck the spruce and cedar trees of the island, painting them a golden green. A bald eagle cried out from the high branches. In the silence of the morning, I could hear humpback whales blowing just outside of the cove and sea lions barking in the distance. It was just another day in southeast Alaska, but for me, it was a morning that is forever etched in my memory. I loved the experience so much that I’ve returned every year since.

Southeast Alaska is wild, remote, and inhabited with a variety of marine life and sea birds. The cold waters of the far north are rich with nutrients, making it a perfect spot for whales, dall porpoise, harbor seals, sea lions, birds, and salmon. That makes it a perfect spot for wildlife photographers, too.

Humpbacks and Orcas feed in these waters, sometimes singly, often in groups. It’s not uncommon to come across a pod of six to ten whales in one area, feeding or playing. Whales lunge-feed, spy-hop, and breach, propelling their multi-ton bodies out of the water completely, as if they were small fish jumping.

The region known as southeast Alaska encompasses over 500 miles of coastline, and includes the larger towns and cities of Sitka, Wrangell, Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Juneau, the capital of Alaska. These towns are scattered across the many islands that make up “Southeast.” Fishing villages and towns grew up in areas featuring good harbor waters, but they remain remote, dependent on air and water transportation for their supplies and mail. The Tongass National Forest marches thickly to the edge of the sea in much of the region, and there are few roads or trails that extend very far inland.

Because it’s so remote, the only way to see and experience this part of Alaska is by boat, with an experienced captain. Miles of channels, straits, sounds, and canals lace across the land, creating a wonderful network of waterways to explore. Where the sea and forest meet, there are hundreds of coves and inlets, and you can go ashore and photograph in meadows and brackish marshes, witness magnificent waterfalls, glaciers, or salmon-choked streams, and slip into the emerald kingdom of the rainforest for some landscape photographs and peace. Fishing is also great here, and with a license, you can try for salmon and halibut, among other species. We had fresh-caught halibut for lunch one day, the best I’ve ever eaten.

The small villages are culturally interesting to visit. Sitka has a strong Russian Orthodox influence; Petersburg is of Scandinavian descent; and the totem/longhouse site in the heart of Wrangell brings you closer to the Tlingit peoples of the northwest. Juneau, the capital, boasts the most tourist attractions – but even these are outdoor-oriented. A visit to Mendenhall Glacier is a must-do. Taking the tram to the top of Eagles’ Crest and hiking down is a spectacular experience, especially during the wildflower bloom. There are salmon bakes to consume, fish ladders to ponder and photograph. A day or two in Juneau with a rental car is time well spent.

Tour Options

When the time comes for you to explore the waters and forests of southeast Alaska, you can either book a longer boat tour, or fly in/out of each town and book day trips out from each place. The longer tour option, however, provides an in-depth experience. There’s nothing like awakening on a boat to the smell of breakfast and the sounds of whales spouting and eagles calling.

How do you choose a quality tour? There are several key factors to think about to ensure you have a quality experience:

  • Choose a photography tour if you’re going with a plan to concentrate on photography. Other types of tours don’t spend as much time with the wildlife as photography tours do, and even a natural history trip can leave you frustrated if the others in the group aren’t as keen on photography as you are.
  • Select a boat that provides maximum flexibility as well as comfort. My preference is to utilize boats that hold only twelve to twenty people. Larger vessels often cannot move as close to wildlife or the shore. On a smaller vessel, you have the freedom of anchoring in beautiful and pristine coves with names like Windfall Harbor, Scenery Bay, or Warm Springs Bay. Larger boats must stay outside these wonderful places.
  • The captain of a smaller, chartered boat can cater to your interests. When the wildlife action is great, you can bet that a good tour captain will stay with it as long as you and your group want, unless safety takes precedence. This is not the case with cruise ships that must stay on schedule to arrive at the appropriate port each day. Ask the potential tour company the following questions:
    • How large are the viewing/photography areas on the boat?
    • Does the boat have good viewing from indoors as well as outdoors? (On drizzly days, you can watch for wildlife from inside and venture out with cameras when you spot something worthwhile, minimizing the camera’s–and your–exposure to the elements.)
    • Can the boat run at slow speeds to minimize vibration while you’re photographing?
    • Does the boat have a skiff you can use to go ashore, closer to certain wildlife opportunities?
    • How much experience does the captain/crew have?
    • Is there an experienced naturalist on board?

Many tour companies now have Web sites with photographs of their boats as well as scenes from former trips. The Web has made it easier to choose travel options.

Tour itineraries can vary widely. How often you will be going ashore, and what opportunities will you have once you’re there? Some tours are led by experienced photographers; some are not. If you’re signing on for a tour led by a photographer, ask about his/her experience in the region as well as his/her experience as an instructor/leader. It’s your money, and you want to be certain you’ll be led by someone with a good track record.

The topic of weather cannot be avoided when discussing a trip to southeast Alaska. The reason the region is so wonderfully green and rich is it rains a lot. That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy some sunny, blue-sky days, but in order to have a great time in Alaska, you must be mentally and physically prepared for rain.

Gear Requirements

Waterproof hats, jackets, pants, and knee-high rubber boots are musts for any successful Alaska trip. Boots are great for wading into streams, wet meadows, marshy areas, and getting in and out of a skiff on shore. The rain gear simply keeps you dry and warm. What about your camera gear? A good waterproof cover for your camera bag is essential, as is some sort of rain hood for your camera/long lens–especially if you want to photograph bears. Bears love cool, rainy weather and show up more frequently under those conditions than on warm sunny days. (It’s a little known fact, but true.) If you’re prepared, you can work in a light rain and get great photographs. In addition, sunny days create too much contrast and can make wildlife photography more difficult.

Great Expectations

What can you expect to experience on a boat tour through southeast Alaska? A typical day might start with waking up to exquisite reflections of the sky and mountains in the glass-like surface of the cove’s water. Then, you may go a-shore for several hours to photograph bears feeding in a salmon-choked stream. You might photograph mushrooms, wildflowers, or the lush green carpet of the rainforest. Or, you may explore the waters of Frederick Sound, the best feeding area for humpback whales in southeast Alaska, searching for dynamic whale photographs. You could visit a sea lion colony on a rocky point, float past seabird colonies, or travel through a fjord comparable to Yosemite for its steep walls. You could photograph pure, blue ice and crystalline formations of icebergs and glaciers. And you could end your day on deck watching twilight’s colors reflecting in quiet waters, a moonrise, or perhaps a never-quite-setting midsummer sun lighting up the clouds above snowy peaks across the water. No matter what the day brings, it’s sure to be an adventure and an experience you’ll long remember.

Text and photographs by Brenda Tharp

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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