Alaska Unfiltered : Photo Road Trip

If you have been following me long enough, you will know that I’m slightly bonkers about Alaska. Mostly because of the wildlife, scenery and adventure that awaits around every corner. Plus you have the added benefit of clean air and being away from people, which seems to have made me slightly happier in this post-pandemic world in which we live now.

Still I was here to take photos and work as normal in my favorite place, Alaska.

So my first trip back, with camera in tow was a little odd with car hires almost impossible to find because the major car hire companies sold off their entire stock Which resulted in me hiring a car from a man in a caravan some distance from the airport.

Think of the movie Snatch and you will probably guess how that went when I was presented with a car which I called “The Last Hire Car in Alaska”.

The rental was a somewhat silver Jeep (think paint blemishes) clocking over 60,000 miles, aircon that smelt like someone from a 1950s casino was smoking into the car since then. On top of all that, the steering rack was “liberal” to say the least. Various parts were screwed to the body using the same screws you used to fix your Granddads fence. The final insult was the Bluetooth system disconnected every time Google Maps told me a change in direction, so no music either.

Beggars cant be choosers so I collected the car with a slight smug feeling thinking of those landing at the airport with only a u-Haul as their best option. Hashtag winning.

Best Buy Car Rental Alaska

You are going to find Alaska difficult without a car (or a pilots license) because Alaska is so large and most cities are at least a 2 hour drive and thankfully we managed to get one regardless of how crap it was.

Flying is always an option of course assuming you have a fist full of dollars to throw away.

On our list of places to visit was Homer, Seward, Valdez (said Valdeeez), Talkeetna, Chinitna Bay and Turnagain Arm which consisted of over 3,000 miles of road and mountain passes.

Check out where we actually travelled in the map below.

Map of Places to Visit in Alaska

Starting in Anchorage we planned out moving in three directions from here, South to Homer (4 hour drive) and Seward, East to Valdez (5.5 hour drive) and North to Talkeetna (about a 2 hour drive)

The plan was to stay in Seward and charter a boat in Resurrection Bay before heading over to Homer. In Homer my buddy would take us to a Yurt for 2 nights which is situated around 120 miles south east of Homer, close to Dog Fish Bay. Then we travel up to Talkeetna for some glacier landings, after that we travel 11 hours round trip to Valdez, where we would be taken out into the wilderness and dropped off in Heather Bay. Surviving for 3 days of living off the land with some kayaking in-between the icebergs that broke off Columbia Glacier some 5 miles away.

Sounds action packed ? Yes indeed but before all that I would take a float plane over to Chinitna Bay where the bears are gathering before the Salmon runs which start mid June / early July. Getting to Chinitna Bay is a 90 mins flight from Anchorage but you can get flights from Homer which is closer, and I expect cheaper. As you know I run bear tours in Alaska in Kodiak and Katmai National Park but I wanted to see other places with large a population of brown bears bears, especially before the coastal feeding starts.

If you do get to Alaska early in the season it’s a great place to see grizzlies with an “almost” guaranteed viewing both on the beach and meadows. Just be aware there is a lodge over there and while you can stay for an outrageous fee and the accommodation is average at best. Food is included for overnight stays,  I haven’t tried the food as I wasn’t a guest, however if you’re going for bears, its well worth the day trip at least.

Long glass is the best option, throw in one wide lens into your bag as a few vistas are begging for pictures, plus the wider lens is easier to use on the plane out and back. In my case I took the Nikon 500mm NIKKOR f/4 adapted to the Nikon Z7II. Also in my backpack was the 24-70mm Z f/2.8.

Seward & Homer

Next onto Seward after I collected my buddy JR (of Outex fame) from the airport in Anchorage. Seward is a great town with some brilliant places to eat and still keeps its charm even when it’s flooded with tourists with its vintage style shops and marina stuffed full of people. After reaching Seward we found the weather to be unusually glorious, almost every time I have been the weather is never good. By “never good” I mean sideways rain or thick mist, or sometimes both. So you can understand my delight that our chartered boat would not only run, but run in fine weather with a half day on the water.

Unfortunately the whale watching was a little lackluster, but we did see almost everything else from Puffins, Sea Lions, Mountain Goats, Bald Eagles and much more. We really got to test out our gear, while I was shooting the Sony a9 with the 200-600 G lens, I also had the Nikon Z7II and the 24-70 Z f/2.8 both covered with Outex to fight the elements (incase of a change of weather and the wave spray from the boat).

However we had another chance to see more wildlife over in Homer, on the Sothern tip of the peninsular. A short 2 to 3 hour drive, and on our way we could stop off and check out some Moose and Bald Eagles which distracted us nicely.  We did stop off to hike the Lower Russian Falls, a short 6 miler and has some spectacular falls to view and of course a chance to see some wildlife.

Homer has an abundance of Bald Eagles which feed off the local fishing industry. Homer is also known to be the Halibut capital of the world no less, so rich pickings for the Eagles that live on the spit, which is a strip of land around 50ft wide that goes out a mile or so into the bay.

I took the Sony a9 with the Sony G 200-600mm lens out onto the Homer Spit to see what shots I could get in the rain of the Eagles and they didn’t disappoint.

Where to find eagles in alaska

After exploring we had to stay overnight for the weather to clear so we could use the boat to take us out to the Yurt, however the weather wasn’t being kind to us. Again Homer is situated on the coast so that means we are more likely to get fog and rain, of course that’s exactly what we got.  That afternoon we managed to get out into the bay via a skiff and got some sea otters and birds enjoying Halibut Cove.

We spent overnight and left the next day to head to Talkeetna. A 6 hour drive via Anchorage.

Seward Marina


Talkeetna is meant to be behind the inspiration of the TV show Northern Exposure but it was actually filmed in Cicely, Alaska. A nice bit of useless information. The small town is very close to the base of North America’s tallest peak, Denali. Super helpful for a flight and glacier landing, a highlight I was looking forward to.

Before we set off on the plane, we explored the local shops and historic downtown which is full of character and charm. Just be warned that in peak season Talkeetna is a complete tourist trap but still worth seeing. Expect lots of people !

So disaster struck again, the Alaskan weather was kicking us in the nuts for the second time and the cloud surrounding Denali prevented a safe landing on the glaciers. The pilot took us up anyway but no landing and the weather meant we could only see so much of the highest peak in North America.

Still, seeing the glaciers was epic and the flight was interesting in itself. Although I felt I had been cheated out of a day hiking or spending the day doing field work.

Another day spinning our wheels wasn’t going down well BUT we had the next part of our trip to look forward to, Kayaking near the Columbia Glacier a few miles outside of Valdez. A feisty, winding road 8hr drive from Talkeetna awaited.

We packed our “almost falling apart Jeep” and got ready to roll.

Talkeetna Alaska
Denali Mountain Range
Road Trip in Alaska With A Jeep

Valdez and Columbia Glacier

The drive over to Valdez has one on of the best road trip roads in the US, I would also challenge and debate that with higher praise, maybe in the world.

Around every corner is a new vista, new glacier to see with the road reaching a peak of 2,700ft just outside Valdez, all the way down to sea level. The range of meadows, tundra, waterfalls and mountain peaks will keep any driver distracted. Matanuska Glacier is on the way and recommend stopping, it has been commercialized unfortunately and various stops offer tours from private land to the glacier itself (cost about $60).

There are ways to get to the glacier but it does carry you over some dangerous terrain.

A few other notable stops along the way are the Glenn Road just before the Richardson Highway meets the road road at The Hub, there is a fantastic view of the road which is dead straight and leads the road into the mountains in the distance. Around 11 miles outside of Valdez are lots of amazing waterfalls to see just off the road.

Road Trip to Valdez from Anchorage
Waterfall In Alaska Richardson Highway

We stopped many times but we were really looking forward to getting to Valdez to do what we came to Alaska for. Kayaking with Orcas.

To stop us killing ourselves and doing “stupid shit” we hired a local guide to help us out. My survival skills are a little weak however JR needed to be prized away from the luxury of daily showers and a warm bed, in exchange for no showers, alternative toilets, and the cold of glacier waters. Aiden was there to make sure we got back in one body part, rather than several parts.

After a couple of hours of leaving Valdez by boat we landed in Heather Bay, and set up camp. Where we would spend the next 2 nights out in the wilderness.

However before we go into the water we covered all our cameras with Outex, and using the dome to cover the Nikon Z7II with the 14-24mm Z f/2.8

We kayaked a good few miles exploring the local area and what it had to offer. This time lady luck was on our side as the weather stayed mostly clear and sunny but the temperature was much lower than in Valdez, often around freezing or at 50f at best. The water much colder and while we did bring dry suits my body just wasn’t ready to to dive in. JR on the other hand got into the water for around 20 mins and I watched from the shore as icebergs collapsed around him. Not sure that was too safe but made for a great video that I’m not sure will see the light of day, however the Outex dome made some fantastic split shots and again kept the camera dry from the Alaskan waters.

The strip of land we were on was only a few feet wide when the tide was high, leaving the land scattered with icebergs wedged on the shore as the tide retreated into the bay in the morning.

Day 2 was much cooler and with a slight breeze making hard work for kayaking across the bay especially in a double kayak, later on we had some rain.

We created some time-lapse of the sunset and tide using Nikon Z 24-70mm, tethering solar power for continued shooting and on a tripod. The camera was wrapped in Outex to ensure the elements didn’t destroy it. The evening temp dropped quite dramatically and thankfully our sleeping bags matched the elements even if the tents were a little “drafty” with the cool air coming off the bay, the cameras survived the evening and hopefully the night too.

A challenging nights sleep followed.

Heather Bay Looking Towards Columbia Glacier
Kayaking in Heather Bay

A rude awakening the next morning with an “announcement” (think yelling) from the water, well kayak actually. Aiden had spotted a transient pod of Orcas in the bay and was keen to get us up and ready.

Without a hint of breakfast, food or water we headed out into the bay to find the Orcas, with cameras ready to take some photos. Yes wrapped in Outex.

With much paddling we tried to keep them in view but alas they were much too quick for our old arms to paddle along with them. Smiles were in no short supply though as it was an absolute pleasure to see them in the bay.

I got the shot below looking over JRs shoulder in our Kayak.

Orcas Found While Kayaking

Our last day we decided to be transported over to the face of Columbia Glacier after packing up our gear and transferred onto the water taxi.

Glacier calving was immense to watch and hear, with loud bangs as the huge house sized lumps of ice would fall into the water below, then breaking up as it makes its way through the bay. The sound was easily heard as the blast ricocheted off the glacier path into our camp a few miles back, however being this close you really appreciated the scale of the event.

With kayaking you have to make some choices with camera gear and while I didn’t bring the “long” glass with me due to it’s size and weight, I think my knowledge gained here will help me plan for taking the glass next time. Dry bags can only fit so much inside and the fear of losing or destroying a $12,000 lens (or a $5,000 one as well) when going into the unknown is something that didn’t sit too well with me, the sleeps were cold enough without having to worry about expensive glass.

Blue waters, ice cold temps and cracking sounds from the ‘bergs are all just a few of the amazing thoughts and memories I have of the area and can’t wait to come back and explore more.

Check out the video I shot just before we left Heather Bay for Columbia Glacier.

Alaska The Last Frontier

Now you will guess that this isn’t the last you will hear from me on the topic of Alaska and you have to remember I’m not a native to the US of A. I’m a “Brit Abroad” if you will, and still wide eyed about many places in this vast country. Out of the entire US that I have visited, It’s the state of Alaska that contains so many places that spark the imagination.

Alaska is unlike many places on the planet that boasts such a wide variety of ecosystems, from the Arctic Circle to Glacier Bay and it’s surrounding rain forests. 18hr day light in the summer and only 3hrs of day light in the winter. All complete with the northern lights keeping the sky beautiful.

Here are a few images from our trip.

A quick thanks to Outex, Think Tank Photo, Anadyr Adventures, Aiden “Goose”, Paul Brand and Rust’s Flight Service for making this adventure possible.

If you want to buy some Outex gear for your camera, then use the code “danmlee” at checkout to get 10% off.

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