Thursday, August 22, 2019

The whale action has been intense lately in Southeast Alaska. I've been traveling the waterways of Alaska's Inside Passage
  on the luxury adventure cruise ship Safari Quest. I absolutely love getting people out with the humpback whales on our small skiffs. The low vantage point, almost water level, gives a whole new perspective of how big these animals really are. When you are in a small inflatable boat the size of a suburban, and you are surrounded by animals the size of city school buses you can't help but feel in awe of their sheer size and power.

Today was one of those lucky days where we had so many close humpback whale encounters from the skiff, and the water conditions were so calm, that I was able to get a bit creative in my whale photography. We were able to position our skiff to view the diving humpback whale in between us and the Safari Quest. I always like to think about the backgrounds in my pictures to see if I can use anything to help tell more of a story or give it more of a sense of place. 

  I know the passengers on board this week will always remember this experience...especially since we also got to see killer whales during the same skiff tour! You can read about that experience and see photos here: Killer Whales From Water Level Post

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Friday, August 16, 2019

Leaping Humpbacks

  Things are hopping here in Southeast Alaska at the moment, and by 'things' I mean 80,000lbs humpback whales! Frederick Sound in the middle of the Inside Passage seems to be the place to be. At one point last week we were surrounded by the leviathins. However one whale stepped up to really steal the show. So much so, that at one point a whale swam under our bow and hardely anyone took notice because they were still watching the showoff.

Whale Photos
  Once or twice a year I come across a humpback who breaches over and over again. I talk about these rare occasions during my photography talks. These repetitive breaches are a photographeres dream come true. It is still quite hard to determine where and when they might breach next but they give you multiple chances and you have some idea of what distance away they might be. Eventually everyone on the bow was able to snap at least a few pictures of this great whale as it breached away the afternoon. 

  I often get asked where do the whales breach the most, in Hawaii or Alaska. Its always a toss up, although today Alaska really took the cake.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mom and cubs
  I havn't seen a lot of brown bears yet this season but this one encounter more than made up for it. We were exploring the shoreline of Baranof Island, one of the ABC Islands famous for their dense population of brown bears.

   We had seen a few bears from a distance, but nothing up close. That is before we rounded the point of a peninsula jutting out and came almost face to face to with a family of Ursus Arctos, or brown bears. A mom with three cubs was hanging out on the rocks. They didn't seem too bothered by us drifting by, or our other skiff motoring up to join us in the show.

  The cubs occasionally wrestled a bit while momma bear snagged a salmon out of the water every few minutes. We were near the Hidden Falls Hatchery so the salmon return is quite plentiful here. The entire family of bears looked very well fed. 

Brown bear cub antics

  We all delighted in the encounter. It was another experience of being all alone with the wildlife which Alaska is so amazing at offering. We stayed with the family for a good 20 minutes before heading back to the boat...anxious to see what our photographs looked like.

   There's nothing quite like a good brown bear encounter from a skiff. It is the perfect way to get close and feel comfortable to a 600lbs predator. Everyone felt very lucky.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Northern Lights in August!

  I still can't believe it. We had a couple of very clear nights last week as we sailed the Safari Quest through Southeast Alaska. Not only did that bring some beautiful sunsets, but one night it brought something even rarer, Aurora Borealis!

   To see the Northern Lights you need a combination of factors. You need a clear night sky, darkness, and a perfectly timed release of charged particles by the sun. There are a few apps out there that are getting better at predicting the chances and intensity of the northern lights, however just getting a clear night sky is a task in itself here in Alaska. It is the rainforest, which means low hanging clouds almost all the time. Plus it is still summer, so the days are long, and the nights not very dark.

  Our night deckhand shocked me with a midnight wake up call for northern lights. I lept out of bed, threw on my clothes, grabbed my camera and bolted up on deck. I was amazed further at the intensity of the lights. They stretched from horizon to horizon, clearly visible with the naked eye. They persisted until everyone had had enough and slipped back into the beds.

  Not too shabby for my last week up in Alaska this season. 

  You can read about the first time I saw northern lights here, back in 2015.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Huge Glacier Calving Caught on Tape

  It takes a lot for me to switch from still photography to video mode on my Canon 5d but this event was worth it. We had spent the morning kayaking up to Dawes Glacier from about four miles back. We weaved our way through the ice, sometimes hearing small calving events that still sounded like thunder off in the distance ahead of us. When we finally got closer I was able to capture the end of a huge calving event including a couple of shooters rising up from below, with our skiff in the foreground for a little perspective.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Orca Encounter from Water Level

Orcas from Water Level

    Today was our morning to cruise for charismatic megafauna, aka really cool big animals, in the whale rich waters of Frederick Sound, Southeast Alaska. We were nearing a group of islands called the Brothers Islands which are well known for having a stellar sea lion haul out. I often like to take the small groups aboard the Safari Quest to these islands and then get a more intimate experience by loading into our small skiffs. As we neared the islands this morning however, I knew it was going to be a skiff ride to remember.

   As we slowed down the Quest to load the skiffs the captain and I were both looking in the opposite direction from our destination islands. Sure enough there they were again, surfacing and heading our way. It was a pod of transient orcas, or killer whales. I can count the number of times I’ve seen orca from a skiff on one hand, so I was anxious to load everyone up. We quickly got all the guests into their lifejackets, onto the two skiffs, and off we went. A skiff ride to remember indeed!

   The orca circled around us for what seemed like an eternity. What they were actually circling was a distressed male sea lion. It looked like they may have injured it as it was having difficulty breathing and wasn’t trying to escape. But in the end the orca mysteriously left it behind as they eventually started moving out heading south across the sound. At one point the orca disappeared for a few minutes and then popped up with a loud ‘whoooosh’ about 10 feet behind our little skiff. It took everyone by surprise, myself included. It felt good not to be a sea lion in that moment. 

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Sunday, July 28, 2019

Waterfalls and Mountains: Red Bluff Bay, Alaska

  Baranof Island is the 10th largest island in the world, slightly larger than the state of Delaware. It was named in 1805 by the Russian Imperial Navy to honor Alexander Baranof. Sitka is located on the west side of the island, while the rest is covered in temperate rainforest and controlled mostly by the Tongass National Forest. The southern part of Baranof is my favorite, as it is designated a Wilderness area by the National Forest which gives it the highest protection in the 17 million acre forest. This week on the Safari Quest we explored a small part of this wilderness area by boat, kayak, skiff, and paddle board.

  The entrance to Red Bluff Bay faces east towards the whale-rich Frederick Sound. Red Bluff is named after the hillsides near the entrance and their distinctive reddish coloration due to the high levels of chromite. The opening to the fjord doesn't look big enough for a ship our size, but for those in the know an amazing wonderland exists inside.

Marbled Murrelets
   Waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet down the cliffs into the protected bay cascade out from the rainforest. Snow capped peaks provide the background and the meltwater for the waterfalls. Salmon make their way towards the back of the bay, which means bears also make their way to the streams. This visit we didn't see any bears but a few Sitka black-tailed deer did make an appearance.

   We anchored here in the evening just before dark. Waking up in this majestic place, surrounded by nature, and realizing that we were the only ones pretty priceless, and very Alaska.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sleeping Whales Wake Up and Go Wild!


  Fortune favors the bold…the early bird gets the worm…

   Here at Uncruise it should read, ‘never let a little rain hold you back.’

        It was a beautiful drizzly grey afternoon as we pulled into Steamboat Harbor in Southeast Alaska. We had just seen dozens of humpback whales out the window during lunch. The conditions in the bay were perfect for open paddle, but with whales just outside the bay and within striking distance of a skiff, I also offered up an impromptu skiff tour for the guests. 

    Folks looked outside as the rain drops gathered on the railings of the Quests. They peered around inside at the beautiful lounge, bartender mixing drinks, and the library upstairs looking particular cozy for curling up and reading a book. I got the skiff ready and waited for the incoming guests to gather up… and waited… and waited… 

    One brave guests showed up. And it would go down as one of the greatest decisions of Linda’s trip. So the two of us headed out on a private skiff tour for one. We cruised up Cleveland Passage checking the shoreline for bears and other furry creatures to no avail. We finally turned around to head back out to where we saw the whales earlier. We came across two humpbacks at the surface, floating and resting like a couple of logs. I shut off the engine and noiselessly drifted by them, listening to them breath from time to time. 

    Just as we started up the engine to leave we heard a huge explosion from behind us. The two whales had woken up in spectacular fashion. A huge breach. And another. We jetting back over and hovered about a hundred yards out. The two whales turned out to be a mom and calf who continued to breach, chin slap, and pec slap for about twenty minutes! After nine seasons with UnCruise it was one of my most special whale encounters ever. And Linda had it all to herself.

    One bold decision to go. Bragging rights for a lifetime.

    This is UnCruise in Alaska.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Climbing Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's Highest Peak

    From our spot in Jeffersonville, Vermont I can see the highest peak, Mount Mansfield. It is not just the tallest summit in Vermont at 4,393ft, but it the same mountain where the famous Stowe ski area can be found. I have always looked at the mountain, which resembles the profile of a giant face looking up towards the heavens, and wondered how I could get up to the summit. During this visit to Vermont I was determined to make it happen, so after a bit of research I did just that.
Crossing beautiful streams on the way up

   My calves are still burning as I am writing this, several days later, but the pain is all worth it knowing that everytime I look up towards the mountain I will remember standing on top of it and soaking in that 360 degree view. Here is how I made it....

Breathing hard on the way up
   A short 25 minute drive away from Jeffersonville is a place called Underhill State Park. It is located at the base of Mt Mansfield and houses several trails leading up to the summit, which is actually the chin of the giant face. Upon arrival at the parking lot I was pleased to find an open spot, aparantly the small lot can get filled up fast, especially on weekends. I chatted with the park ranger, paid my $4 parking fee, and enquired about the different trails. I was intrigued by the Laura Cowles Trail as it appeared to be a bit shorter than the popular Sunset Ridge Hike to the summit. The ranger said it is steep, then he added, 'its very steep'. I said, 'sounds perfect. I can take one trail up and another down and see twice as much.' He suggested I take the Laura Cowles trail up rather than down...I soon figured out he was right. 

Where the trails meet
   The trail meandered its way up through a beautiful forest, along a tumbling creek until splitting from the main sunset ridge trail. From there I followed the creek which was more like a waterfall for about 3000' straight up. At some points the trail and the waterfall seemed to combine, so I worked hard to keep on the dry rocks as best as I could. On hikes like these where you are hopping from rock to rock, having the traction of dry shoes can be a lifesaver. If the trail had been any steeper I would have needed to use my hands in order to scramble, or climb instead of hiking (hence the sore calves.)

   The stream became smaller and smaller until finally I reached an altitude where the rocks were covered in a thick blanket of moss that continuously seeped out water like an oversaturated sponge. It was pretty wild to see, especially since it was a beautiful sunny day without a single raincloud in the sky. Yet here was the headwaters of the everpresent river down below.

Alpine summit environment
Summit of Mt. Mansfield, VT
  Finally I busted out of the treeline to an amazing view out over Lake Champlane backed by the Adirondack Mountains. I made my way along the rocky ridgeline through an interesting alpine environment. The rangers had roped off a lot of the non-rocky areas in an effort to preserve the rare alpine species that live here.

     A USGS survey marker was at the very top of the summit. I was surprised by the number of folks up here, as I hadn't passed a single person on the trail up. I later found out that there is a much easier way to the summit, one that most of these folks had taken. Over on the Stowe side of the mountain you can drive up the toll road which takes you to the very top of the Stowe ski area lifts. From here it is short climb followed by an amble along the ridgeline to the scenic summit. I stopped for a hearty picnic lunch at the top, soaking in the beautiful weather and cool breeze. And after a few pictures from the summit I raced down the Sunset ridge trail, passing folks on the way. I felt like I was setting a pretty fast pace to try and get back home before Catalina woke from her nap. That pace was definitely put into perspective as I crossed paths with a trail runner literally racing up the trail.

  In the end it was a great half day's adventure. In fact the total time I was up and down including lunch was three hours. And I made it back before Catalina woke from her nap. Mark that as another great Vermont adventure.

The summertime view of Stowe ski resort, from the Chin