*I know. I’m painfully behind on this blog. My camera has just been taking too many photos for me to keep up with. I hate when that happens … NOT! Anyway, trying to get back on track here… *
Alaska. What a magical place. It’s almost difficult to find words to describe it. Ben and I spent two weeks cruising up and down the southeast coast aboard the Diamond Princess. So you might be wondering, “Isn’t two weeks a little long to be stuck on a boat?” Our conclusion: “Nope.” There’s just so much to see and do that even after the two weeks, we were bummed it was over.
For this blog post, I decided to do something a little different. I’m not going to give a day-by-day journal-style account of our trip. (Though if you’re really interested in that, I will post something similar in a separate gallery) Instead, I’m going to write a photographer’s guide to visiting Alaska by cruise ship. After my trips to Alaska, I didn’t realize how much I’d researched and learned from experience. Then I got an email from a fellow photographer who was heading up there himself and asked if I had any tips or tour suggestions. My response was like a book, and he was totally grateful for the info. So here goes:
The amount of activities you can do in Ketchikan may vary depending on how long your ship will be in port there (sometimes they leave pretty early). If you’re there all day you may have time to fit two activities in. On this recent trip we did the kayaking excursion to the Tatoosh Islands. It was beautiful, but the shooting opportunities are minimal when you’re in a kayak. The guides were even nervous about us bringing the big cameras in the kayaks. So though we had a great time, I only got a few vacation-type shots there.
I have also been on the Misty Fjords Wilderness Explorer excursion and that was excellent. The scenery is great throughout, and there may be wildlife-spotting opportunities. You’ll definitely see bald eagles. The boat is big and has an inside area, so if it’s rainy (and it often is in Ketchikan) you can at least protect your gear and go in and out as you’d like. You’re also not limited on gear here. I actually brought a tripod and a whole ThinkTank Airporter 2.0 rolling bag.
I’ve also been shooting at Totem Bight State Park, which was very nice. If you’re planning on heading there, keep this in mind: The excursions offered by Princess are nearly $100 and they include a guided tour. Ben and I took the public bus for ONE DOLLAR and the admission to the park is free. You don’t have the guided tour, but the place is not huge, and from a photographer’s perspective, I wouldn’t want to be shooting in one of those huge groups and be limited to where the guide is. If you decide to do that, stop in the visitor center by the cruise ship port and they will show you exactly what bus to take and where to pick it up. (it’s super close to the cruise ships)
The town of Ketchikan is really cute, and if you’re going to shoot there, I’d head in the direction of Creek Street. Just keep in mind that it’s going to be full of tourists and gift shops. There are some nice totem poles interspersed throughout the town to shoot on the way (though if totem poles are your thing, go to Totem Bight park). You’re going to have tons of opportunities to get smoked salmon during your cruise, but Ketchikan is the salmon capitol of the world, so I would recommend getting it there. (and trust me, you wont have a hard time finding it)
If you’ve never been to Juneau, you must go whale watching here. I’ve done it twice and saw breaching whales, pretty close up, each time. This is THE place for whales. You’ll probably have a lot of time in Juneau, so if you wanted to pack in more than one excursion, it’s doable. I would recommend one that combines whale watching and a visit to Mendenhall Glacier.
I have done the photo safari (twice) that incorporated both the glacier and whale watching. The negative was that we had a limited time at the glacier, and a lot of the instruction was along the lines of how to use f-stops (if you’re a beginner, this is great), but the positive is you get a nice hike in, and when you go whale watching you’re on a much smaller boat that’s catered toward photographers.
Visiting Mendenhall is another thing you can do on your own, as shuttles go back and forth all day. We did that during our second day in Juneau. As a photographer, it’s nice not being tied to a group. You can move about freely, without a bunch of other tripods in your way (be ready for it to be crowded with tourists though). When shooting Mendenhall (and any other glacier) it’s nice to have something in there for scale. These massive rivers of ice will just blow you away, and it’s hard to capture their scale in a photo, especially for viewers who have never seen a glacier before. If you see a smaller boat out there that happens to be close to a glacier, take the time to capture the image. You wont regret it and it will definitely add the “wow factor” to your photo.
Another Juneau excursion I loved was the helicopter ride that lands you on Mendenhall and and lets you walk around on the glacier. It was spectacular, but keep in mind that you don’t get a lot of time there. It’s definitely one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences. If you ever decide to do a helicopter excursion, know this: You can’t take any bags, even small ones. So I had to choose one lens for my camera, and was able to stuff another into a pocket. That’s all you get.
They’re probably going to talk up the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau. If there’s not a huge line to get in, definitely check it out. It’s a lot of fun. If there is a long line, and you want to get some good food, check out Tracy’s Crab Shack. It is exactly how it sounds, and it’s awesome. I heard it was voted by the food channel as one of the top 10 places to eat before you die.
Any excursion you do here is going to be beautiful. On the recent trip, we went on the Lake Bennett excursion that included a trip on the White Pass railway into the Yukon. We were both blown away by the scenery on this route. If you do the train, try to get the car in the back. There’s an outdoor platform that you can shoot from. We spent most of the train ride out there as the entire trip was just gorgeous. At Lake Bennett, you get a dining hall style lunch and at least an hour to go exploring up there. (Note: If you go on any trip that enters Yukon Territory, remember to bring your passport.)
In Skagway, I would also highly recommend the Glacier Point Wilderness Safari. You start off on a large boat that’s very easy to shoot from and the vistas are stunning. You end up on the beach of a little island, which is also a nice shooting spot, but your time is limited there. You will go on a short 1/4-mile hike to the spot where you’ll get in some large canoes. (If you do this… BRING BUG SPRAY. And have clothes with a hood to protect yourself from the mosquitos. You’ll only have to worry about them during the short hike, 15 minutes max, but they’re BAD.) You will paddle the canoes right up to a glacier. I actually brought a decent size camera bag, which I kept at my feet, and just kept my camera in my lap. You can easily shoot from canoes. Not kayaks.
The town of Skagway is also nice and has the most character of all the ports, in my opinion. The buildings can be fun to shoot, so allow yourself a bit of time for that. Also, if you have time, go to the visitor’s center on the way in to town and see when the free walking tours are. There are several per day and they’re really interesting because they give a lot of info and stories about the gold rush and what the people went through to get up there. If you like beer, there’s the Skagway Brewery almost near the end of the main street there. That’s a nice way to cap of a day of shooting! There are also a few hiking trails you can pick up right from town. I have not yet had time to hike them, but was were told they were beautiful (and strenuous).
Keep your camera with you the whole time you’re in Glacier Bay, because you never know what you’re going to see. The time your ship will arrive there may vary from super early morning until mid afternoon. Your ship’s staff should give you a whole rundown the day before. (If you’re cruising on Princess, I know for sure that there are informational sessions for all the ports/scenic cruising days.
You’re obviously going to see a lot of glaciers, and Margerie Glacier is definitely the star of the show. This is where you’ll see and hear calving, and the ship will hang out here the longest. (and get pretty close) In my opinion, the best shots are here. But my advice would be this: The ship’s naturalist should give a talk or two the day before you get to Glacier Bay. Go to that, because they will tell you everything you need to know, down to arrival times and the best spots for seeing wildlife. You may or may not have a cabin with a balcony on your cruise. If you have one, it will be tempting to shoot from it. Just keep in mind that you could potentially miss something that’s happening on the other side of the ship. (It would kind of stink to hear the thunderous sound of a glacier calving followed by the gasps of the passengers… and not be able to see it or shoot it). I found it convenient to shoot from the 7th or 8th deck (whichever one has the walkway that circles the ship completely) because I could constantly move around and switch sides depending on where the action was.
College Fjord, or Hubbard?
In my experience, you either stop at College Fjord or Hubbard Glacier, but not both. (Unless you’re doing the longer cruise like we did) College Fjord is amazing. You can see up to 9 glaciers all at once… if it’s a clear day. The best thing to do here, is to get on deck with all your gear and stay there for the entirety of College Fjord. For Hubbard Glacier, I’d have a harder time giving advice. I was only there once, and it was REALLY overcast and foggy. There was also a lot of ice in the water so the ship couldn’t get as close as we would have liked. Hopefully you would have get a nicer day than we did and can post a link to your own Hubbard images!
The cruises that I’ve been on stopped/turned around in Whittier. Yours may or may not do the same. My advice on Whittier excursions wont be the best, because I’ve only been on one excursion there. However, I liked it so much that I did it TWICE. It’s the Prince William Sound Wilderness Explorer Glacier Cruise. (a mouthful, eh?) It’s a long day, and the entirety of it is spend on board a fairly large tour boat. There are two levels and an interior with booths and a kitchen. A crab cake Lunch is standard on this tour. It’s nice having the option of going inside or outside at your leisure. The day is pretty full in that you see a LOT. In July, we saw gulls and bald eagles, otters, harbor seals, humpback whales and the salmon hatchery. Oh yeah… and glaciers! I believe the whole tour covers over eight hours and 100 miles!
The town of Whittier is small. So small, in fact, that all the residents live in one building. Not kidding. So you can really see the whole area in less than an hour. There are some gift shops, cafes, etc.
There are a few different ports your cruise might start and end from. (Vancouver, Seattle, Victoria, etc.) I’ve only experienced Vancouver, so here’s my take on it. If you only have a short time there, because you’re catching your flight or your ship, then check out Gastown. The old steam clock is there as well as some nice artists’ shops. I also enjoyed taking my camera down the walkway that goes along the water in front of the convention center. There are often a lot of seaplanes taking off and landing, and boats coming in and out.
If you have more than a few hours I would check out Granville Island. From the downtown area, it’s only about a 2o minute walk and a really short ferry ride. I just loved this place, especially on the weekend. There is live, spontaneous entertainment on the streets, the restaurants all have a lot of character, and the local market is AWESOME. Whether you’re shooting, shopping, whatever. It’s colorful, friendly and full of amazing food and artists. It is just an excellent way to spend a day in Vancouver.
Weather As you probably know, Alaska is a rainforest and the weather is unpredictable. It’s often cool and rainy, so be prepared for that. However, Ben and I also had a trip full of unexpected sun. The point is, be ready for anything. Also, this may sound obvious, but it’s always much colder when you’re closer to the glaciers. Even if it’s warm in the towns, it will be cool or cold near the glaciers.
Remember to LOOK For photographers, one of the hazards in Alaska is that we can for get to just LOOK… minus the lens. Don’t get so caught up shooting that you forget to just take in the scenery with your own eyes. It’s spectacular. Soak it in.
The Karen Rule Warning: This has nothing to do with photography. Whenever I’m on a cruise ship, I have one rule, and I stick to it. No elevators … at all. So you might be thinking, “What if you’re on deck 4 and your room is on deck 14?” I climb 10 flights of stairs … every time. Before you think to yourself how awful and cruel that is, know this: With all the buffets and 5-course meals on these ships, I’ve never gained a pound. Just sayin’.