Expeditions Alaska newsletter.

Ramblings; Nov, 2012

Hey Folks,

Hello once again to the official Expeditions Alaska newsletter, "Ramblings". To all those new subscribers, welcome! It's been a great year so far, with a lot of good people and some really cool trips. Sometimes it's too much fun.

I've got a lot of of 'stuff' in the newsletter this edition, so bear with me. Apologies if I ramble too long.


  1. Revisited: a free trip to the Wrangells
  2. New Years in Denali
  3. Gear Review
  4. Back to the Beach
  5. Odds and Ends
  6. Recommendations and Connections
  7. Be well

Wrangell - St. Elias gives us all a gift

So this year I finally did something I've been wanting to do for a long, long time; I finally put offered up a free trip for folks in my favorite park, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park. That place has been SO awesome to me over the many years I've been visiting and living there, and I have long felt it would be nice to put something back. And ever since I had the most amazing New Years eve, skiing for 90 minutes under a full moon, over the changing of the year, through the great north woods of the boreal forest, I've thought, "man, I should really offer this opportunity to people as a gift". And so late in 2011 I put the word out, and via the power of social media and word of mouth, received many entries.

Come the due date, I picked 4 people to join me for a week in the park. Doug, Jim, Paul and Ryan came to Alaska from all over; California, Colorado, Ohio and Minnesota. avid photographers all, we had a good ole time exploring the north side of the park. We even took a long ride in the van and went down to the south side of the park, and then ventured on to Valdez, over Thompson Pass; just to see the insane snow they had received there this winter. It was awesome. We had fantastic weather, unbelievable weather, with alpenglow on nearby Mt. Sanford virtually every morning of the trip. That's a treat indeed.

So thanks to Ryan, Jim, Doug and Paul for making it such a great trip. It meant a lot to me to share a place that means so much to me with people who, in all likelihood, would never have otherwise visited it. It was a lot of fun and a great week together.

The group together, Alaska.

The gang and I, finishing out trip in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, Alaska.


Denali in the Winter

Savage River cabin in winter, Denali National Park, Alaska.

The Savage River cabin in Denali National Park, Alaska.

So this year I took off out of town immediately after the Xmas holiday, and met up with my friend, composer Erik DeLuka, from Virginia. He was here in Denali National Park as part of the Artist in Residence program; only the 2nd time they've offered a winter program. It was a treat indeed to be invited to join him out in the park for a week or so.

We skied in to the park to the Savage River cabin, at about mile 13. Temperatures plummeted once we got going, starting out at -10 or thereabouts; by the time we arrived at the cabin, it was closer to -40.

Fortunately, working with the NPS meant we didn't need to haul all our gear/food in. The NPS dog mushing team handled all that, which made the ski an easy jaunt. Plus, it meant we were able to bring all the gear we wanted, plenty of big, puffy lofty down jackets, hats, booties, socks, gloves, base layers, ad infinitum. We also ate well; life's in the backcountry is so much easier when you have the luxury of someone/something else to haul your food around.

We spent a little over a week inside the park. Days are short in the dead of winter, so we hung out in the cabin a bunch, reading, talking about art, music, the environment, place and the world. Great conversation! Each day we'd head out to do our work; I'd ski off, look for some landscape photography locations, and stare in wonder at Mt. McKinley. Erik would mostly snowshoe or hike off somewhere and set up his mics and recording gear. He'd record the landscape, everything from the breeze to water flowing (yes, water flows, even at minus 40deg - amazingly!).

It's pretty cool to listen to the sounds of a landscape recorded through high-tech gear; it redefines 'silence' for us. I'd listen, intently, to the surroundings, and hear nothing. Not a breath of air, nothing stirs in the winter of the great North Woods. Yet these mics would record an array of sounds completely impervious to our ears. It wasn't really silent at all; the sound is just not perceptible to the human ear.

I think the highlight of the trip, for me, was New Years Eve. After a great day in the mountains, I came back to the cabin, had some supper, then headed out again at 11:30pm, under a clear, moonlit sky, for a 90 minute ski. As the year rolled over and 2012 came into being, I looked up to see the aurora borealis glowing in the sky over the Alaska Range. So I have a feeling this year, 2012 is going to be a good one.


Gear Review:

The mitts are also pretty durable. I've worn mine a bunch, and they've held up well. One thing I recommend, for photograph, is to use a short cord (maybe 3' or so) and tie them together. Now, when I have to remove the mitts to operate the camera/tripod/fix my shoelace/whatever, I can simply loop the cord over my shoulder or whatever, and not drop the mitts in the snow. Dropping mitts in the snow sucks - well, up here dropping ANYTHING in the snow sucks, because it'll instantly disappear. One of these days I'll tell you a story about a certain cell phone and the snow.

Plus, with a draw cord, the mitts hang with the opening facing up, which means I can keep a small chemical warmer pack (like the Hot Hands 2) inside, which make a huge difference when I put those mitts back on. Without a heat source, at temps below 0 deg F, the mitts simply get full of cold air when I remove my hands. Then, when I'm done with the camera adjustments (or shoelace tying), I'm putting my hands back inside a mitt full of really, really cold air. This is no good. So for cold, cold temperatures, go with hand warmers inside your mitts.

The other thing - get the red ones; I think they come in black as well. The red ones are easier to find when you're inside in the dark, cold winter. And when you're outside with them on, they're mega-stylin'!


Those of you who know me know I'm not a gear-head at all. So gear reviews aren't my thing at all. But, that said, I do appreciate good gear. And I do get frustrated by bad or poor gear. So what is it this time?

OR Alti Mitts. This is a simple review. Buy some. These things rock. My hands get cold in the winter, photography is such a project here, when the temperatures dip down. These mitts are the best solution I've found (short of a bona fide pair of real beaver mitts or some other animal fur). They're ridiculously warm.

I generally wear a light liner glove underneath the mitts, knowing I have to take them off to manipulate my camera controls, etc. Even a light fleece liner makes SUCH a difference when you have to grab hold of a carbon fiber tripod or aluminum ballhead at -35degrees.

On the colder afternoons here I'll wear mitts when xc skiing, and they're great. Certainly more cumbersome than gloves, but the warmth is what matters at arctic temperatures. They're not ideal for skiing, but I find gloves just aren't warm enough when it's colder than 10-20 below zero. Even my Black Diamond Guide gloves, which totally rock, aren't warm enough for skiing at those temperatures.

A hike to the beach

You might remember from a previous newsletter about a trip to the beach last fall (2012). The one with my friends Erin and Hig and they're 2 toddlers? Well, I this August I headed back to the area, with some folks for a walk across the Malaspina Glacier. We intended to start at the Samovar Hills, north of the glacier, and walk south over the ice to the beach, then east along the coastline, retracing parts of the journey scouted last fall. A great plan.

Even the best laid plans succumb to the wily weather of Alaska. On our arrival in Yakutat, we found out we couldn't fly in to the Samovar Hills, because of the ridiculously high snowfall they'd had last winter (over 370 inches in Yakutat); snow was still accumulated on the area of the landing strip at the Samovar Hills, and so our air taxi wouldn't be able to land there. Switch to plan B.

Plan B meant to land further west, at Icy Bay, and then hike/packraft an extra 35 miles, to meet up with our intended route across the glacier. What's 35 miles or so through brush, across deep, wide and super-cold glacier rivers, and over a glacier, right?

Well, it all turned out OK. The group of hikers on this trip were all (almost all) folks who'd done 3 or more trips with me. In fact, the entire group and I had just finished hiking the Skolai to Glacier Creek route down the Goat Trail the week before as a percursor or warm-up hike. So we were definitely ready.

The group consisted of Sergei, the Russian rocket, Geoff and Jodee from the northeast, Mike O, an expat Aussie now living the high life in Spain, and Jodee's dad, Larry. Larry was the only "newbie" on the trip, as the Goat Trail trip was the first one he'd done with me. The other folks have done several or more hikes with me, and I knew we'd all be up for the task. And what a task it turned out to be!

Camped at Icy Bay, with Mount Saint Elias in the background. Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska.Icy Bay is an amazing place. The view of Mt. St. Elias from there is just about as grand a view of any mountain as any; it's simply incredible to see an 18 thousand foot tall mountain rise so dramatically from sea level. Absolutely awesome!

With a bit of bush whacking, and a half day/1/2 miles ferry via packraft over the Cetani River, we finally made it on to the Malaspina Glacier by the 3rd day. We camped on the ice that night, and ended up camping on the ice for 4 more nights. It was quite a trek to make up the extra mileage we had to cover; and like any glacial traverse, quite an adventure. Some stretches were easy walking, like rolling down a highway (a highway with no automobiles, and huge, snow-capped peaks all around us); other stretches were tumbling and jumbled, with moulins (holes in the ice) and seemingly endless ridges and crevasses to navigate around. It was definitely a good challenge though, and with the help of Geoff's GPS we ended up right on point. We'd mapped out, earlier where we wanted to get off the ice, and if I must say so myself, we nailed it. Awesome job everyone, and thanks Geoff (with great help in the planning from Hig and help from his google earth images and coordinates

Once off the ice, we had a bit of a mission getting down Fountain Stream to the beach. "Fountain Stream" should be called "Fountain Raging Torrent of a River". It was a bit of a mission to shuttle everyone and all the gear down the river, and involved a bit of bushwhacking for the group, but wow; what an amazing day, to be on the ice at breakfast, wearing every shred of clothing I had with me, and that night be camped under the stars by a fire on the beach, sitting in a pair of long johns and t-shirt with no shoes or socks.

The next day we were treated to a nice wildlife viewing opportunity with a pod of Stellar Sea Lions resting on the boulder stacks just offshore. Geoff and I got to photograph them for a while, while Sergei sat and watched. Mike, Jodee and Larry kept up a frantic pace walking down the beach, where we all met up later at Sitkagi Lagoon.

We camped there, and I took both Jodee and Geoff on quick 'lagoon-tour-rides' in the packraft. Amazing; the lagoon is the very edge of the Malaspina Glacier. We paddled up to the cliffs of ice at the east end of the lagoon, where you see forest of spruce trees growing on ice. Yes, trees growing on ice. There's about a foot of top soil, at most, above the ice, and that's enough for these hardy trees to grow upon. Pretty cool stuff.

The next day we hiked off along the beach again, heading west. Another fire on the beach, and we were picked up the following day before shuttling via air taxi back to Yakutat, where we enjoyed great hot food at the Glacier Bear Lodge, and an awful, $15.00 per person cold (I mean, insanely cold) shower at the Yakutat Lodge; well, except for Sergei and Jodee, who showered first and used up all the available hot water. :)

Good times though, folks, and a really memorable trip. There's nothing quite like hiking over a glacier for a classic and somewhat uniquely Alaska adventure. Sharing that with such good people as Mike, Geoff, Jodee, Larry and Sergei just made it all that much better! Thanks folks for some wonderful hikes over the years.

Jodee and an iceberg on the Sitkagi Lagoon, Malaspina Glacier, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Jodee and an iceberg on Sitkagi Lagoon.

Spruce trees on ice, Malaspina Glacier, Alaska.

Spruce trees on ice.



Odds & Ends

Among other things, Expeditions Alaska was certified Gold Standard this year by Adventure Green Alaska, a "certification program for tourism businesses operating in Alaska that meet specific standards of economic, environmental, and social sustainability". I was pretty stoked to receive that certification, and proud of the achievement. It's nice to have some form of recognition in the industry about something so important.

Expeditions Alaska is also now a formal member of Sustainable Travel International, and partnered with Patagonia in their 'common Threads Initiative. You can read more info on these and more on the "Tread Lightly" page of the website.

Speaking of the website, I haven't fully updated it yet for 2013, so if you have any interest in getting in early for a trip, let me know before I start getting too many things booked. Once trips get set in stone, that really limits what other options I have for the short summer backpacking season.

For those interested, I'm still working on my book project on Wrangell - St. Elias National Park. I had actually hoped to be a little closer to finishing it by now, but apparently, I'm not. The park seems to get bigger and bigger the more I explore and study it. just as I think I'm getting close to having some kind of project that fits my vision of the park, I realize my vision is SOO incomplete. So it's back to work. I'm still working on a few particular images, including some aurora borealis shots in the dead of winter, as well as a few other images I have in mind. We'll see how they pan out this winter.

I'll have details on the website soon regarding the 2013 Polar Bear Photo Tour. We had a simply fantastic shoot up in the arctic early October, and I'm already excited about returning in 2013. We made some good friends, some great images, and had a bunch of fun. There's a video online from the trip, which I posted on the blog yesterday. Watch the video of these young polar bears playing on the ice. They're having WAY too much fun.

Coming over the winter I'm looking forward to a trip to Haines, Alaska, to photograph the great bald eagle gathering there, and am hoping to stop in at Kluane NP in Canada, which is adjacent to Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, and photograph the Dall sheep there.

Speaking of old man winter, ski/snowboard season is right around the corner; anyone have any big plans for winter trips? I'm thinking of some time in the Chugach, but also wanting to do more backcountry ski stuff over in Wrangell St. Elias this winter. There's so many options for exploring around over there.


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So here are my plugs for this newsletter:

Music: check out Aussie singer-songwriter Karl Broadie. He's great; Nowhere Now Here is a very cool album. Also, if you haven't heard Gary Clark Jr out of Austin, his Blak and Blu album is worth a listen. I like it a lot.

Photography: what more can I say than spend some time looking at the winners galleries for the Veolia Environment Photographers of the Year awards. Absolutely fantastic images this year. Congrats to all the winners.

Books; I'm nearly finished re-reading a great book by Jerry Mander, called "In the Absence of the Sacred: the failure of technology and Survival of the Indian Nations". It's a great read, and he makes some powerful arguments. Pretty amazing that a guy is actually really, seriously, named Jerry Mander though, eh?

Movie: well, I don't really have a recommendation here, but I did watch the first season of an episode called "The Killing", on Netflix .. super great series .. I can't wait for season 2. It's awesome.

While I'm giving recommendations, here are some gear plugs for 2012:

  • Backpack: The Mystery Ranch Snapdragon daypack.
  • Tent: GoLite Shangri La 5 is an awesome shelter.
  • Boots: My Asolo Drifters were the most comfortable boot I've worn. They exploded on the Malaspina Glacier though.
  • Camera: I still love my Nikon D700
  • Lens: I LOVE my Nikon 14-24mm f2.8
  • XC skis: Madshus Annum
  • Winter softshell jacket: Arc'terxy Gamma MX
  • Fall sleeping bag: Western Mountaineering Lynx
  • Hiking poles: Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Pole - totally awesome!

So that's about it for now. I'll send another newsletter soon enough, and try to catch up before the holiday season. Stay in touch via email, or through one of the social media channels below. And, as always, if you have any comments or thoughts on the newsletter, please don't hesitate to drop me a line and respond to this email. And I'll upload a regular html version of this newsletter to the website you can view if you have any issues with this format.


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To all those folks on the east coast having a hard time from the storm, my thoughts and best wishes to you all. Hunker down and be well.

Travel safe


Carl Donohue
Expeditions Alaska
(ph) 770. 952 4549

2 young polar bears at play in arctic Alaska.