Alaska Walkabouts

The adventures of an Alaska Wildlife and Nature Photographer.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

College Fjord 2013

On October 30, 2013 I launched my boat at Whittier and Bryn and I headed out for 19 days to photograph the College Fjord region. The area has some interesting history and here is a link if anyone want's to know more about it:  I was thinking about going there this coming  March but I believe the area freezes for the winter. Since I had nothing better to do I decided to go before that could happen. But bad weather delayed us for a month with storm after storm delivering rain and wind. When it looked like a break was coming I got ready and left. My destination was a lagoon I had seen in an aerial photo. I had to have a place that would get the boat out of the drifting ice pack from the many tidewater glaciers that dump into the head of College Fjord. About two hours after leaving Whittier, I reached my destination only to find it was too shallow and surroundings were not suitable for what I wanted to do photography wise.

Although pretty, I decided this lagoon was not to be my home for the rest of the trip so after looking around for a few minutes, Bryn and I moved deeper into College Fjord and closer to those big mountains on the right. I needed to be where I could find some great vantage points to shoot aurora from. Just before sunset I arrived off the area where I was to stay for the next 18 days. But the first night I had to anchor offshore in the ice pack.

The view of Bryn Mawr and Harvard Glaciers from the cabin of the boat.

When I first arrived it didn't seem like the ice was going to be a problem but that was because the incoming tide had pushed the ice up towards Harvard Glacier at the head of College Fjord. Early in the morning it came on the falling tide and became a bit of a pain. But the first night started off well with clear skies, a beautiful moon, and a mild aurora display.

What a way to start out the trip!

College Fjord

I was like a kid in a candy store that first night. But a low tide there were vast flats here and whenever Harvard Glacier up there dropped ice, waves would come surging in and I worried about my little Zodiac inflatable that I used to get ashore. It was tied to the beach and totally vulnerable. I knew that come morning I need to find refuge.


During the dark of early morning the falling tide brought the ice down on me at fast enough rate to hit the bow of the boat pretty hard. Hard to sleep with that going on! So in the light of day I got in the Zodiac and
Bryn and I went exploring. We found a creek channel over there near Bryn Mawr Glacier and I quickly moved the boat into it.

Anchored among the ice

Exploring with Bryn on the first day

Bryn at Bryn Mawr Glacier

12 years ago I named my puppy after the glacier that we ended up next to for the duration of the trip. Bryn is getting old now and I am happy that we got to do this before he leaves me.

Me crawling around on the safe part of Bryn Mawr Glacier

Me at Bryn Mawr

Bryn at Bryn Mawr

Refuge. It was much better at low tide.
While exploring with Bryn I found a creek channel that seemed like my best chance to get out of the ice pack and relax just a bit. At high tide I was still a bit exposed but it was shallow enough to keep the big icebergs out. The main danger was the potential waves that Harvard Glacier can produce if a truly big calving event occurs. Out on the open coast I could see signs of that happening as some pretty big rocks were tossed up into the grass. I saw no sign of that up the creek channel and as long as a huge wave came at low tide I had little to worry about.

Bryn Mawr Glacier in the moonlight
The second night was stunning with a brilliant moon but no aurora. It was a magical scene especially at low tide with all the stranded icebergs.

Bryn Mawr Glacier in the moonlight

Up Ted's Creek in the moonlight at low tide

The creek channel that I now call Ted's Creek (why not eh?), was perfect. At low tide I could simply step out and hike around. But my first attempt at anchoring and tying the boat down did not work out very. Early one dark morning I awoke to the sound of waves on the shoreline after a big calving event from Harvard Glacier. Even though it was 5 miles away the surges would reach me in about 3 minutes. I remember hearing it roaring even as other waves were buffeting the boat which pulled one of the anchors out. I was thinking "Please Harvard Glacier, give it a break until low tide OK?". So at daybreak after the tide went out I stepped out of the boat and got to work pinning the anchors down under piles of rock. Of course after I did that we never got hit by any other big surges.

Pinning the anchors 

Settled in up Ted's Creek near Bryn Mawr Glacier. The next time I got here I want to get a bit farther up the creek channel. It turns out that my creek comes out of a big beaver pond.

I had to go above the beaver ponds to find safe drinking water and one evening I went even higher to get some panoramas of the area. To the right are the beaver ponds and the creek coming out is where my boat is. It can be seen just to the left of the spruce trees. The big rubble field to the left was deposited by Bryn Mawr Glacier, the first glacier on the left, when it retreated. In 1990 I was here and it is unreal how much the glacier has melted. 24 years ago the glacier was covering all of those flatlands and was out into the main fjord. On the extreme left at the head of the fjord is the mighty Harvard Glacier which kept sending waves into my creek channel.

Harvard Glacier does its thing! And this is a small event :P
On a couple of occasions Bryn and I made it up the face of the mighty Harvard Glacier in my little Zodiac. I managed to capture a couple of good calving events. In the shot above if you look very closely you will see a seagull flying in from the left which lends some scale to this humbling scene. The gull is halfway up the left side and is just beginning to pass in front of the falling berg. So halfway up the image and a bit to the right and you will see it.

Bryn waits patiently for me take pictures

Meandering with Bryn

Moonlight and weak aurora at Bryn Mawr Glacier
On the third night I was treated to another stunning time among the icebergs and glaciers. The moon was awesome but the aurora achieved only the faintest of glow on the northern horizon. The next day the rains came and that was the story for most of the next 12 days.

Bryn enjoys a sunbeam. Something that was to be very rare for the next two weeks.

Our small but comfortable refuge from the rains
Life became very structured as day after day of rains kept us pinned down. Luckily these northern fjord escape most of the winds that were buffeting the rest of the region. But we did not escape the rains. One particular storm droppe 5 inches of rain on us and the little stream we we sitting in got quite a bit bigger. But we were in a boat so I didn't worry too much.

The rainy view out the back door. The hours I stood here just willing the clouds to part with my mind!

Our little stream got a lot bigger when the rains came.

We did some nice walks in spite of the rain. 

Life became very structured during the long spell of bad weather. I would stay in bed as late as I could, one day I didn't get up until 2 in the afternoon, and I had to dangle carrots to get through the long days (dinner at 6, a couple beers or wine at 10:pm and turn on the iPod to celebrate the end of another rainy day), I was bound and determined to stay put until the weather patterns shifted. All of Alaska experienced a delayed winter while the jet stream pushed one warm storm after another into us. This time of year is usually the onset of winter and I marveled at how warm it was. I told my family and friends that I did not know when I would be home so if it took a month to see the night skies again then so be it. But I remember on Halloween morning, when the weather reports called for another 5 days of rain, I almost gave up. I started packing to leave but I forced myself to take a deep breath and relax. I decided to wait at least until the beginning of the third week. In the long run it was the right decision but I had to wait out another week of rain. But we had our breaks now and then which got us out of the boat and that was just what we needed.

A beautiful break in the rain!

A wet walk for Bryn

The rains gave some dramatic lighting to the icebergs

A beautiful iceberg in the rain

An American Dipper
If there were any disappointments this trip it was the lack of wildlife. I was too late for the bears, the beavers only came out in the dark of night, the migratory birds had already headed south, and only a few sea otters and seals were around. But an American Dipper fed up and down my stream and he gave us a little company every now and then.

One night the clouds broke off for about an hour and a half and some auroral glow came through. It was such a joy to see the sky again! I had to wonder how much aurora I was missing during the cloudy rainy nights but friends back in Anchorage were  keeping track and said I didn't miss much. On November 6 I got my wish and the rainy spell ended.

This was the morning that the weather finally broke. I was in heaven! Bryn and I quickly got back to the photography and exploration.

Bryn was loving the return of sunshine as much as I was! And the aurora kicked in for the next three nights in a grand way. All the waiting, all the risk, all the costs, the whole trip was validated and became a stunning success with what I got during those glorious nights. Here is a small cross section of auroras on the final three nights of the trip. I absolutely loved those nights of shooting and will never forget them.

On the morning of November 29 I decided to leave the head of College Fjord and move out to where I expected to find  more wildlife. I didn't really want to go home but as I listened to the new weather forecast, and as a storm as coming in, I decided to quit while I was ahead and go home. So I did. I really miss being out there but on March 1 of 2014 I plan on heading out for another photo safari with Bryn.

Leaving College Fjord as a storm rolls in.