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Re: Maine Master Thread We planned to shoot the sunrise – got up at 2:00 AM, drove to Schoodic, hiked out to this spot in the pitch black, and were in position for the 4:00 sunrise. The sun, however, slept in.  ;D
September 20, 2011, 10:34:52 PM
1
Learn Photography Master Thread
Amazing pics!
I wish I knew how to take better pics.
Umm...can I get a photography class from you?
Wow.

I've been getting the impression around here lately that there are a great many people here (not just Dan ;)) who would love to get more into photography. In every trip report, half the comments on the pictures is someone wishing that they could take pictures like that, that they could maximize their camera's potential.

For a long time I've wanted to start a thread on learning photography, starting from the very basics and progressing to more and more advanced topics. I've made a rough outline (see below) of what I would like to cover.

I'm thinking this could even be more than just a simple how-to. Have a question about a certain technique? Always wanted to get a certain 'look' in a photograph and don't know how? Want to know why all your indoor pictures are blurry :)? I'd be more then happy to give you my $.02. Hopefully other DDF'ers who are knowledgeable about photography could chime in as well..

This is probably gonna be a lot of work from my end, so I don't want to do it if there's not much interest. If you think this is something you'd enjoy please let me know by posting here.

Here's a rough outline of what I'd like to cover. If anyone has any ideas/recommendations/requests please let me know.

______________

Choosing a camera
Point and shoot vs. mirrorless vs. DSLR
Camera specs and what they mean
Which specs to focus on and which to ignore
Balance between needs/price/convenience

Lenses 101 - technology, terminology, and specs, zooms vs. primes, basic/advanced/unique lenses

Lighting 101 - focusing specifically on easy to afford and easy to use setups
Small flash - on camera, off camera, modifiers and accessories
Studio strobes
Continuous lighting - fluorescent, LED, and halogen
Basic light modifiers - umbrellas, softboxes, gels, reflectors
Basic supports - lightstands, umbrella brackets, backgrounds, etc.

All about accessories - memory cards, tripods, bags, filters, remotes, adapters, grips, geotaggers, and more)


So I bought all my stuff - now what?

What makes a compelling photograph?
Exposure basics - the shutter speed/aperture/ISO triangle
Depth of field
Composition basics - rule of thirds, perspective, framing
Advanced composition - negative space, inclusion and exclusion, compression
Light - natural, golden hour, basic flash usage.

Let's start shooting...

Kids:
In the park
Playing sports
At home

Landscapes and wildlife:
"Grand" landscapes
"Intimate" landscapes
Seascapes
Waterfalls
Cityscapes
Wildlife
Birds in flight
Shooting in bad weather

Portraits:
Babies and newborns
Single person - indoors
Single person - outdoors
Families/siblings/groups
Natural light
Artificial light - simple
Artificial light - complex
Mixed light

Others:
Close up and macro
Product photography

How do I...? (Some specific scenarios/techniques - Basic)
Shoot out of a plane window?
Shoot underwater?
Shoot compelling black-and-white?

How do I...? (Some specific scenarios/techniques - Advanced)
HDR
Long exposures
Light painting
Twilight landscapes
Milky Way
Star trails

Basic editing concepts:
Exposure
Contrast
Clarity/sharpening
Color
Layers and masking
______________

So... what do you think?

(A quick note on my photographic "record" and where I'm coming from:: I was a salesperson and later trainer in one of the biggest photo stores in the US, and trained salespeople in all topics I hope to cover. I currently work as a product developer for a large manufacturer, where I design and develop photo and lighting equipment and accessories. You could see a small selection of my photography on my Flickr page - click the little globe under my user name to get there.)

April 29, 2013, 01:24:23 AM
3
Which Camera Should I Get? Master Thread Can't decide which camera to get? Trying to decide between a Mirrorless or a DSLR? Ask away!

Please ask your questions here instead of in the Learn Photography Master Thread. Let's keep that thread to photography related discussions, not camera buying discussions.

May 07, 2013, 12:56:27 AM
1
Wyoming Photography Trip (2012)
Post some of those amazing pictures and you'll probably entice Dan more. I remember you posted some of them on ddf before.

Just a small selection (I'll post many more in my TR in the Wyoming thread when I finally get around to it):

(Click on any picture for full-res.)

Schwabacher Landing Sunrise:


Some 20 minutes later:


Oxbow Bend Sunrise:


Mt. Moran and Pelican at sunrise:


A shachris like no other:


Milky Way over Jackson Lake:


Star Trails and aurora over Jackson Lake:


Hendrick Pond sunrise:


Lower Falls of the Yellowstone and double rainbow from Uncle Tom's trail:


Minerva Terraces hot springs at sunset:


Pronghorn Antelope:


Bison on Antelope Flats:


Bison and calf:


Pelican at Oxbow Bend:


Foraging Moose:

July 17, 2013, 12:02:14 AM
3
Shutterfly Master Thread There are countless threads here discussing various Shutterfly deals and coupon codes. I think it's time we kept them all to one thread, a la the Groupon, Staples, Jos A Bank, etc. threads. Maybe we could also keep an up to date wiki with only current codes listed.

I'll start:

Free 8x8 book (new customers only) - use code BCFREEBOOK.

September 08, 2013, 04:00:08 AM
2
Re: Wyoming Photography Trip
Great TR.
How did you get the moose to smile for ya :D

I told him he could eat my friend when we were done :D.

November 29, 2013, 03:29:01 PM
1
Re: Learn Photography Master Thread Lesson 5
 
Remember, click on the Wiki if you want to see only the lessons and not the other posts.
 
All about memory cards
 
While buying a memory card appears at first glance to be an ultra-simple affair, there are actually many factors to consider. Your choice of card can make a tremendous difference in your day to day shooting. Let's have a look at the numbers, standards, and features you should be aware of when buying a card for your camera.
 
Types of card
 
There are a few different types of memory cards on the market today. Generally the type you need will be dictated by your camera; if it takes an SD card only there's no way you could use a CF card in it. There are however a number of cameras that accept more than one type. Since the most common card by far is SD, I'll focus mostly on that.
 
Compact Flash (CF): These are the bigger, square memory cards. These days they're mostly used in pro cameras such as the Canon 5DMkII or the Nikon D800. The advantage of CF over SD is mainly in physical strength. While SD cards are prone to braking, a CF card is virtually indestructible. On top of that, they tend to be a bit faster than SD cards, meaning that any new jump in performance will appear in the CF market before the SD market. The one disadvantage with CF cards is that the socket relies on a series of pins, which are easily bendable.
 
Secure Digital (SD): This is the most common card type in use by far. If you have a camera, chances are it takes SD cards. These are smaller than CD cards (about stamp-sized), and are not as strong physically. I have an entire collection of cracked and broken SD cards flying around the house. The 'secure' part of the name refers to the read/write protection switch on the side. To be honest this feature is mostly useless, and only adds to the complexity, and therefore breakability, of the card.
 
SD cards come in a couple different flavors:
 
- SD: This mostly obsolete standard was for cards under 2GB. They could still be bought today, but why someone would is anyone's guess.
- SDHC (High Capacity): This is the most commonly used standard today, and covers cards from 2 - 32GB. Virtually every camera in existence supports the SDHC protocol.
- SDXC (Extreme Capacity): This is the newest SD standard and supports cards from 64GB all the way up to a theoretical 2TB. This uses the exFAT file system, and so will not work on some older computers. Most newer cameras will support SDXC.
- MicroSD: This is a tiny version of a regular SD card, and also comes in all three SD flavors. Due to its size it'll be more expensive than a comparable full-size SD card, as well as being very prone to getting lost. It is used in most smartphones, as well as some point & shoot cameras and video cameras (the GoPro for instance).
- SD cards also come in a veriety of wireless models. These cards will automatically upload pictures to your computer via Wi-Fi.
 
Memory Stick (MS): This is a proprietary Sony card, and is used only in their cameras. At one point this was a horrible mess with as many as 10 types of Memory Stick on the market, none of which was compatible with the other. These days Sony has cleaned this up, with only the Memory Stick Duo surviving. More importantly, Sony finally buckled and now all their cameras accept SD cards as well, so you could easily forget about this overpriced card and move on with your life :).
 
There is also the new XQD card, which so far is used only by the Nikon D4 camera.
 
Card Speed:
 
This is the most important thing to know when choosing a memory card. Today's cameras move a massive amount of information to the card every time you take a picture or video. If your card is not fast enough, you will have to wait for a couple of seconds after every picture, as well as when looking through your pictures on your camera. Video-wise, if the card isn't fast enough the camera will drop frames, which will cause your video to be choppy and jittery.
 
Unfortunately, card manufacturers try their best to confuse the bejiggers out of you with an overwhelming amount of different speed specifications. Let's have a look at all these specs, and what they actually mean.
 
The first thing to remember is that pictures and video require a completely different type of speed in order to work properly. With pictures, you're throwing a huge amount of data at the card in short, intense bursts. On the other hand, the video data stream is much smaller, but continuous. With that in mind, let's have a look at the specs.
 
Rated Speed - written as MB/s: This is the maximum speed of writing chunks of data to the card, and applies to photos only. Common speeds you'll find are 45MB/s or 60MB/s. This means that the theoretical transfer speed will be 60 megabytes per second. Why is this important? Take a Nikon D600. Each RAW file is about 28MB. That means that if I use a card rated at 30MB/s, I will have to wait a second between each picture. Now imaging I'm shooting continuous - if I take 8 pictures in about 2 seconds, I then have to wait 6 more seconds until the camera is ready to shoot again, since it has to finish writing all this data to the card. This means that I will keep on waiting, and keep on missing shots.
 
Now imagine I had bought a faster card - say 90MB/s. This means that I would never have to wait between pictures (since each picture will take about a third of a second to write). Shooting 8 pictures in 2 seconds, I would have to wait less than a second until I'm ready to shoot again.
 
If you have any newer high-megapixel camera, this should be the number one spec you look for. It will be the difference between taking pictures and forgetting that a memory card exists, and between getting stuck waiting all the time and cursing the card out for making you miss the shot yet again.
 
X Rating: This will be written as 400x, 533x, etc. This means the exact came thing as Rated Speed, and is a direct conversion. It is simply another way for the card companies to drive you nuts. Each 'x' is equivalent to 15KB/s. Doing the math, 400x will be 400*15=6000, which would be 60MB/s.
 
Class Rating: This will be written as Class 6, Class 8, Class 10, etc. This applies to video only. What this is the minimum sustained write speed. A class 10 for instance, will maintain a write speed of at least 10 megabytes per second. Currently, no standard camera exists which can take advantage of anything over Class 10. This means that if you have a Class 10 card, your card will always be fast enough to keep up with the video data stream being thrown at it.
 
UHS Class: Again, this is a direct conversion from Class Ratings. UHS-1 simply means 10MB/s minimum sustained speed, which we already know is Class 10.
 
So basically you have to look at only two specs: Rated Speed and Class Speed. The Rated Speed will tell you how large a chunk of data (photos) you could transfer at one time, while the Class Rating will tell you the minimum continuous (video) data speed.
 
Read speed vs. write speed: Another very important thing to remember is that the Rated Speed applies both to read and write speed. That means you have to be very careful reading the specs, as some brands (ahem Lexar ahem) have wildly different read and write speeds, and write only the higher number in big obvious text. For example, their 60MB/s Class 10 SD card is actually only 20MB/swrite, while the 60MB/s is only on read. This means that it's still quite slow in your camera; only transfers to your computer will be fairly fast. This is of course extremely misleading, so keep your eyes peeled.
 
Memory Brands
 
Does it matter which brand memory card you got? Heck yes. Memory is cheap enough these days that you could afford to buy the best; saving $10 to go with a lesser brand in absolutely not worth it. Behold:
 
Chip Quality: At the very basic level of a memory card sits the humble silicon chip. These chips start their life as a large, circular wafer around 18" in diameter. This wafer is subsequently cut into a couple dozen square or rectangular memory modules. Due to the manufacturing processes, the closer to the center of the wafer the module comes from, the more perfect and free of defects it will be. Since flash memory is a commodity market, there are two or three companies which control most of it. These companies will take the highest quality center modules for themselves (or their partners), and let the little fish scramble for the inferior, cheaper ones.
 
What all this means for you is simple: The higher priced memory cards are priced like that for a reason: they use the highest quality chips. End of story. Sandisk and Lexar are on the top, followed very closely by Sony and Panasonic. Kingston is somewhere in the middle, and companies like Transcend are just about on the bottom of the food chain. The only thing lower are all the no-name brands - Dane-Elec, Wintec, Silicone Power, et. al.
 
Why do you need a high quality chip? Because a cheap one will eat your pictures one day. They are prone to getting corrupted and can't be erased and reused too often before they start to deteriorate. Would you trust your pictures to the lowest common denominator to save a few bucks? Personally, I don't think it's worth it. Now mind you - I've had Sandisk cards conk out on me; nothing's foolproof. But after years of hearing first-hand horror stories from countless people, the simple fact is obvious: It's not worth it to cheap out on memory.
 
Claimed Specs: Very often, you'll find with the cheaper brands that their claimed specs are often inaccurate and are actually slower then claimed.
 
Physical Quality: Look at any Sandisk box above the Ultra level (which is just about all of them): waterproof, temperature proof, and shock proof. I've put Sandisk cards through the wash and they work as good as ever. You won't find that with cheaper brands. Drop a card and chances are it'll break; leave it in the sun too long and it may not work again. The higher quality brand, the more the card will survive. Imaging coming home from vacation and finding that your full memory card cannot be read. With cheap cards, this is a far more common occurrence than with good ones.
 
Note that SD card are an inherently weak design and every one of them will eventually break. The difference here is how long it take until that actually happens, and if the data could still be read off it at that point. From my entire collection of broken Sandisk cards, all but one still technically work - that is, I could still read and write to them properly. Not that I'd want too; but the point is that I didn't actually lose any data when it broke.
__________
 
Lesson Summary:
 
Card types:
- CF cards are mainly used in pro cameras these days
- SD cards are the most common:
--- SD is up to 2GB
--- SDHC is 2 - 32GB
--- SDXC is 32GB - 2TB
- MS is a Sony proprietary and could safely be ignored these days.
 
Specs:
- Rated Speed gives you the maximum read/write speed in MB/s. Used for pictures only.
- X Rating gives you the exact same thing as 300x, 400x, etc. Multiply by 15 to get the MB/s.
- Class Rating gives you the minimum sustained data stream as 1 per class. Class 8 is 8MB/s, Class 10 is 10MB/s, etc. Used for video only.
- UHS Rating gives you the exact same thing as Class. UHS-1 is the same as Class 10.
- Be vigilant and check both the read and write speeds. They may be very different from each other.
 
Brands:
- Cheaper brands use cheaper, lower quality chips.
- Lower quality chips are very prone to failure.
- Cheap brands often fudge their numbers so their cards appear faster.
- Cheaper cards are often physically weaker and may break earlier.

December 15, 2013, 06:08:04 PM
2
Re: Alaska Master Thread
Has anyone tried to order pre-packaged meals from Pomegranate, Noahs Ark...ect to bring on their cruise? I am taking

Norwegian Cruise Line to Alaska in the summer leaving from Seattle, and was thinking to order a few of these meals to bring to have better food.

Anyone have experience with doing something like that on a cruise line?

Thank you

You should probably ask this in the cruise thread.

ETA: Never mind, I see that you already did.

April 25, 2014, 12:19:04 PM
1
Alaska RV Trip (2013) Trip Report

We went to Alaska last summer for a couple of days, from June 30th to July 4th - I finally got around to writing up the TR.

Fair warning: It's long :D.

Click on any picture to see it in high resolution.

Planning and preparing:

The first thing we discovered while planning this trip is that Alaska is incomprehensibly large - there is absolutely no way to 'see it all'. You have to choose a region or two, and leave the rest of the state for a different time. We decided to focus on the Kenai Peninsula, which offered a tremendous variation of activities and sights, without involving crazy amounts of driving time. Even so, we weren't able to see all of the Kenai - even this tiny portion of Alaska is huge.

This map put the sheer size in perspective. The Kenai Peninsula is the little thing sticking out from the mainland in the south (directly above the "A" of Alaska):


(Source)

The second thing we discovered was that the weather, no matter the season, is simply nuts. No matter what the forecast calls for, the weather will change in a matter of minutes. Our mindset was that we could expect to be cold and wet during the entire trip; if we weren't, it'll be a bonus. (We ended up with two days of pretty miserable weather and three which were quite nice.)

We also learned very fast that this is tourist country. Prices are insane all over - cars, hotels, activities. Cars especially - unless you book 6-12 months out, you could expect to pay an obscene $100-150/day for a compact, and that's with after status, codes, and all that. Want an SUV? Good luck with that.

Hotels presented a problem for us. Outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks there are hardly any big chains hotels. Everything is a small, private operation. The prices were not that horrible - they're around what you'd expect in a touristy area during the high season. However, Alaska being the size that it is, it's silly to be based in one spot, since you'd be driving hours every day to get where you want to go. We also hate switching hotels in the middle of a trip, so a different place every night or two was not the answer either.

After puzzling over this issue, and considering the cost of a car, we decided to rent an RV instead. The market there is dominated by one company - Great Alaskan Holidays. There's a Cruise America location there too, but not only were they more expensive, but they were closed on Sunday too. There are a couple of smaller rental places, but I found far too many horror stories online about them.

Even though Great Alaskan Holidays was the most expensive per day, it turned out that after taking into account all the fees the others were tacking on that GAH was actually the cheapest. We got a 25' Winnebago (sleeps 6) for $243 a day. The price included 400 miles (for all 5 days), with unused miles being refunded @ $0.20/mile (we got about $35 back in the end). Even including gas, this was still much cheaper that a car+hotel.

The RV was fantastic. We were able to go where we wanted, when we wanted. Every night we camped somewhere else, so we didn't waste time driving back and forth to the hotel. Tired? Just stop on the side of the road and get into bed for an hour. Hungry? Microwave leftovers from last night's dinner in the middle of nowhere. Covered in dirt and dust after ATVing for 5 hours? Take a shower in the parking lot! The sense of freedom you have is incredible.

This was our first time in one, but we're definitely hooked.

Most activities in Alaska are also quite expensive. While we usually like to do things on our own and shun tours and the like, Alaska is a wild place. Many places are either inaccessible by yourself (such as most glaciers), or unwise without a guide (ATVing in remote grizzly country). There are tons of outfitters available for just about any activity, but they'll cost you dearly. I scoured Groupon for months beforehand and was able to get some really nice discounts. The Alaska Toursaver coupon book is worth it's weight in gold and paid for itself with the first deal. At 100 bucks it's not cheap, but it saved us far more than that. Even better, I bought it together with YehudaS who was going two weeks after me, so it was only $50. You could also sometimes find them on ebay, just make sure to see which coupons were already used.

Another thing we were totally unprepared for was the midnight sun. In the summer, the sun hardly sets. Further north the sun doesn't set for weeks at a time, but even south in Anchorage and Seward it never really gets dark. The Sun sets around 11:30 and rises again around 3 - the "night" is really a perpetual twilight, never quite getting dark. We of course knew all this, but we weren't aware of the effect this would have on us. Since it's always light, your body thinks is time to run around non stop. We found ourselves getting exhausted and wondering why, before we figured out that we've been doing stuff for 15 hours straight. It's quite disconcerting to feel like it's 7, but knowing that it's actually 11 at night. It was quite the experience, although waking up on vacation at 2am every night for Maariv was quite annoying ;).

Midnight in Alaska (it didn't get much darker than this):



As far as clothing the trick is to bring layers - there's no real need for specialized clothing during the summer. I also picked up a raincoat and rainpants set in Walmart for $25. The raincoat split after two days, so it was obviously really crappy quality, but it was definitely good enough. Waterproof boots/hiking shoes are vital to keep you warm and happy. We also got these phenomenal rain hats in the general store across from the Seward harbor for $35 a pop - they were worth their weight in gold.

Day 1:

Sunday morning we flew United LGA-ORD-ANC. We landed at about 2PM, and caught the shuttle to Great Alaskan Holidays to pick up our RV. The process was painless, if not exactly quick. Before you take the RV, you have to sit through a 45-minute video giong over the systems (water, electric, generator, etc.), as well as learning how to deal with some driving issues unique to RVs (tailswing, leveling, backing up, etc.).

Eventually we were given the keys and did a walk around, with the attendant giving us a complete tour. We spent some time unpacking our stuff and getting settled. Our 25' Winnebago officially slept 6, so there was plenty of room and storage space. In addition to the closets and cabinets in the cabin, there were plenty of large outside compartments to keep our suitcases, lawn chairs, and whatnot.







The largest vehicle I had driven up until that point was a 15-passenger van, so the first couple of minutes driving such a large truck was a challenge, to say the least. It took a few miles for me to get comfortable, but a while longer for my wife to become convinced that we're not going to die just yet and put her tehillim down :D.

We stopped in Walmart in Anchorage to stock up on paper goods, rain gear, and bear spray. The only kosher food I saw was some Sabra hummus; there may have been more, but I wasn't really looking.

As soon as we were done we headed south on the Seward Highway. This is considered one of the most beautiful and scenic highways in the US. It's only about 125 miles long, but it could take a full day to do it properly; there are countless pullouts and amazing places to stop on the way. We had about 5 hours of full daylight left, so we had to take a bit faster than we had wanted to. The weather was pretty lousy, cloudy and windy most of the time, and raining and cold otherwise, but that didn't diminish the beauty of the road at all.

The highway winds alongside bays, rivers, and lakes. Huge mountain ranges, their snow-capped peaks hidden in the clouds and glaciers hanging precariously on are visible throughout. Every now and then a turnout leads to amazing views. It is absolutely spectacular.

I had a GoPro mounted inside the windshield - here are some of the highway highlights:



Alongside the Turnagain Arm:



Alaska Railroad tracks:




The Chugatch Mountains:





The first night we didn't have any campground reservations, figuring we'll stay in one of the 6 Seward municipal campgrounds on the bay. However, since we got into Seward relatively late, all campgrounds were full, so we camped in their overflow campground (basically a big parking lot). There were no hookups, but the RV had plenty of electricity and water to last the night (and longer). The picture of the "night" sky above was taken from this campground.

Day 2:

On Monday we had booked a cruise to Kenai Fjords National Park with Major Marine. Using the Toursaver book we got 2-for-1 tickets, saving about $160. When we were planning the trip we had to decide if we want to take a cruise out of Seward, or rather out of Whittier (which is a bit further north). After lots of research it seemed that the Whittier cruises focused mostly on glaciers, while the Seward ones saw much more wildlife in addition to the glaciers.

Most of the national park is only accessible by water, and is extremely remote. The six-hour cruise would sail out of Seaward and through Resurrection Bay, into the Gulf of Alaska, round Cape Aialik, and up Aialik Bay to the immense Aialik Glacier. Along the way we'd search for humpback whales, orcas (killer whales), sea otters, and bald eagles, as well as visit sea lion colonies and bird rookeries.

We woke up in the morning to freezing cold and pouring rain - perfect cruise weather ::). We bundled up in 3 jackets each, plus raincoats, rainpants, hats, and boots, and headed down to the Major Marine office by the Seward harbor. According to their website they would cancel the cruise in horrible weather, but they claimed that today wan't horrible enough.

Off we sailed...

Supposedly there are gigantic snow-capped mountains all around us... Yeah right :D.





It didn't take us long to start seeing wildlife - and lots of it:

Far-off bald eagle:



Humpback whale:





Cute little sea otters:

"Hey, look! Tourists!"



"I think it's Something Fishy"



"Hi!"



Passing Pederson Glacier in the fog:



The weather was getting progressively worse. As we approached the Gulf of Alaska the captain ordered everyone into their seats, and as soon as we headed into open ocean the ship started jumping like a bucking bronco in the high seas. After a few minutes we rounded the cape and headed into the much calmer Aialik Bay.

A while later we approached the absolutely immense Aialik glacier:







50-foot icebergs were floating all around:





Every 2-3 minutes, house-sized chunks of ice would break off and fall into the water with deafening noise (it sounded just like thunder):







The size of this glacier is incomprehensible: the face (the wall entering the water) is more than a mile across and over 600 feet tall - imagine a 50-story building stretching halfway across Manhattan. The chunks breaking off every few minutes are as large as houses - big houses.

The scale really hit me when I was getting frustrated trying to shoot the calving (that's what the ice breaking off is called) - by the time I heard the crash, the event had long ended. It took about 5 seconds passed from when the ice hit the water until I heard the sound.  I had thought we were at most a couple hundred feet away from the glacier - turns out that the boat was almost a mile away from it, and the sound simply had to travel all the way over. That's when I realized how tremendous the thing I was looking at was - from a mile away it still looked like I was right beside it.

The crew lowered a bucket and scooped up some mini icebergs ("bergy bits" they call it in Alaska), and chopped it up and gave it to the kids on board, which was cute.

After hanging around the glacier for a while we turned around and headed back down the bay and around the cape, passing Three Hole Point:



As we headed into the the ocean ocean in the Gulf Of Alaska, the captain got a call that a family or orcas (killer whales) had been spotted not far from where we were. Orcas being somewhat rare around here, we headed straight over. By the time we got there, the weather had reached it's worst point. 70mph winds (!) were driving pouring freezing rain nearly horizontal, and 10-foot seas were tossing the boat violently up and down. Everyone was sitting in the relatively warm cabin trying to keep their lunches down, not exactly being interested in what's going on outside. I was the only person outside, crawling across the upper deck on all fours. One arm was wrapped around a chain for dear life, the other holding a camera and shooting madly ;D. Luckily a $5k+ camera and lens combination is built to take abuse, as both were deluged with icy water. They continued working just fine, although the viewfinder was completely blocked by water the water that had gotten inside.



All the tour companies cooperate with each other (in fact it was a competitor who called in the orcas in the first place) - as soon as we arrived other boats started showing up too:



After a bit we headed back into Resurrection Bay. This time we went along the other coast as the way out, and headed to an area called the Eldorado Narrows. 1000-foot cliffs tower above the ocean. Thousands upon thousands of seabirds nest in every tiny crevice, flying back and forth and feeding their chicks. Dozens of sea lion lie lazily on the rocks below, while puffins swim and fish all around them. Every now and then a humpback whale blows a spout of water high in the air. It is truly and amazing (and loud!) spectacle to watch. At this point the weather had turned almost nice - the rain and wind had died down, and the waves relaxed.















We then headed back to Seward. We spent some time in the RV warming up and drying out, then headed towards Lowell Point, where we were going to camp that night. It's only about 2 miles down the road from Seward, but gosh what a "road". Only a bit wider than one lane, with cliffs on one side and the ocean on the other. More potholes than asphalt, rocks all over, and pouring rain. All this in a huge RV, having to pull over for oncoming traffic, as well as anyone behind me... Oddly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed driving it. Go figure.








That night we camped at Miller's Landing campground. We had a beautiful spot right on the beach, with water and electric hookups.

Whenever an RV is parked for longer than half and hour, it has to be perfectly level, or the refrigeration system could break down. High-end RVs have a self-leveling jack system, but for most regular RVs you have to use leveling blocks. I discovered that night that attempting to level an RV on blocks on a pebbly beach, in the rain, with only inches of clearance to the water hookup post, is no fun at all :'(.
 
Hooking up:



Lovely location:



To be continued...

April 27, 2014, 03:07:11 AM
1
Re: Alaska RV Trip (2013) Trip Report Part 2 (Link to part 1)

Warning: this one's even longer than part 1.

Click on any picture to see it in full resolution.

Day 3:

We woke up to another cold and wet morning (surprise, surprise!). Looking out of the window of the RV we watched a couple of otters cavort around the early morning fishing boats right off the beach. According to the weather report it was supposed to stop raining soon, so we were a bit hopeful.

Miller's Landing, where we were camping, also offers guided kayak trips. We had booked the Caines Head Adventure from them through Groupon before we came. The guided trip included a 9-mile round trip paddle in Resurrection Bay to Caines Head Recreation Area, as well as a 5-mile hike.

By the time we were at the office and ready to go, the weather had cleared. It was still cloudy and quite cool, but actually very pleasant.

We met our group and guide, who gave us some paddling instruction and geared us up. This part was easier said than done. Ever see a 6'-8", 260lb guy try to stuff himself into a kayak? Trust me, it's a sight to behold. After trying all of their kayaks (and getting stuck in most of them too :D), I was finally able to squeeze my legs into one of them, kinda sorta.

First things first: let's get that GoPro mounted 8):



Before we knew it, we were in the water. It was an absolutely amazing experience (at least the first while, when our arms were still functioning :-[). The kayak sits four inches above the surface; your feet are actually underwater. It's completely quiet: the only sounds are the waves lapping at your kayak and the rhythmic splish, splash, splish, splash of the paddle hitting the water. All around you are snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see; here and there, an otter floats lazily on his back. A pod of porpoises swims by.

Splish, splash, splish, splash.







After a while however, the magic started to wear off. 4.5 miles is a long way to paddle for first timers - and that's just one way. Our arms started hurting, plus our rudder wasn't working properly, so we were wasting a tremendous amount of energy just trying to go in a straight line. The splash skirt you wear which seals the opening of the kayak didn't fit me either (duh!), so each and every time I took a stroke with my paddle freezing cold water would land right on my lap. I was soaked to the bone.

Eventually we made it to Caines Head and landed on the rocky beach. We all sat on some logs and took a well deserved break. We got to know our guide a bit then - turns out she only lives in Alaska during the summer where she guides wilderness tours. In the winter she lives in a self-sustaining jungle colony on Molokini in Hawaii. They grow all their food, build their own shelter, and only come out into the real world once every couple of months.

She got curious when she saw us eat some Green's rugulach, so I offered her one. It was the weirdest thing - you could think I offered her the most exotic delicacy on the planet. She simply could not stop raving about them, and promptly finished the whole entire bag ;D. "Man, these Jewish pastries are awesome! You could get anything you wanted by trading this stuff!" I told her that she should save some for when we get back so she could try it with milk, as it's even better that way. Nah, she says, she hasn't had any milk in weeks: "I only drink milk from cows whose names I know". :D ::)

After the break we started the 5-mile hike up to the top of the head, where there’s an abandoned WWII fort called Fort Mcgilvray. The hike itself was exceedingly underwhelming - basically walking up a wide gravel pathway through the rainforest. It was more an "uphill walk" than a hike. The fact that it's actually a rainforest as probably the most interesting part of the hike, as you don't quite expect to find a rainforest in Alaska. On the way we passed some abandoned bunkers and storehouses, all uninteresting. When we got to the top we spent some time exploring the fort itself, which did actually prove quite enjoyable. There were also some great views from the top.

The very difficult "hike" ::):



Some interesting rainforest scenes - totally unexpected in Alaska:





The cliffs of Caines Head:



Abandoned bunkers and storage areas:





The view from the top:



The huge gun platforms:



We explored the fort for a bit and then headed back down through the rainforest to the beach, and another 4.5-mile paddle back to Lowell Point. On the way back the weather had cleared up a bit and the sun even peeked through once or twice:





We had planned on exploring Seward when we got back, but we were so exhausted and in so much pain that we just fell into bed and slept for a couple of hours. Basically we had bitten off far more than we could chew. Neither of us had ever been in a kayak before, and today we had paddled for 9 miles, plus hiked another 5 miles. Every muscle in our body was aching.

What I would recommend for anyone considering such a trip is to take it easy - don't go for such a long paddle if you've never done it before, and skip the Canes Head hike. Miller's Landing (and of course all their competitors) have many different trips to choose from, plenty of them shorter or less strenuous.

After a good long nap and shower we headed north again on the Seward Highway towards the Portage Glacier Highway, where we would be camping that night. The campground was called Williwaw Campground, and is administered by the National Park Service. We had a wonderful pull-through spot in a private, wooded area. Again here we were 'dry camping', meaning that there were no hookups whatsoever. No matter; the RV had plenty of water, propane, and battery power left.

The campsite has beautiful grounds, including views of Portage Glacier and a platform over the river where you could watch the salmon running. Unfortunately we weren't able to take advantage of any of those, as we arrived late at night and left early the next morning.

Day 4:

We left the campground in the wee hours of the morning, and headed north. Again onto the lovely Seward Highway and through Anchorage, and on to the town of Palmer to meet up with our ATV guide.

There are many companies that will take you ATVing in Alaska. All however do it in large groups. In addition, all of their 2-passenger ATVs are the side-by-side golf cart style ones. What I didn't like about those is that they're not nearly as powerful as regular ATVs, plus sitting in a bucket seat with seatbelts and a roof and windshield doesn't sound like too much fun to me ;).

Eventually I discovered Heiny's ATV Adventures, which is a small one-man operation and gives private tours on standard front-to-back ATVs. I was a bit nervous of having a random redneck take me into the Alaskan wilderness, and read every review I could find on the guy. Everything I found turned out to be very positive, with most people saying how much fun Marty (the owner) was. I decided to give it a shot and called him up. He asked me lots of questions about my ATVing experience (of which I had a bit of, but definitely not too much), then proceeded to talk me out of the route I had chosen. He said that the trail is really messy this year, and he had a few people tip over already. He recommended a completely different trail, one that was actually cheaper. I was fairly impressed by his honesty, and decided to book.

Since this was a private tour I was able to choose the starting time and meeting location. We met up with him in the parking lot of a grocery in Palmer, and then followed him for about half an hour to the trailhead.

Following our ride out of town:



Turns out Marty was a really funny guy and a great guide. He was armed too, in case we get into a confrontation with a mad grizzly (which unfortunately didn't happen in the end :(). We were a bit annoyed that he had brought a visiting friend along, but as it turned out the guy was also great company and didn't get in the way at all. He just hung back behind us and didn't make us feel crowded.

We did the Wishbone Lake Trail, and had the times of our lives. Up mountains and into valleys, from open meadows to deep forest and bushland. The trail itself was also a great combination of fairly smooth track and deeply rutted and rocky sections, with lots of steep ups and downs. There were plenty of puddles and river crossings to keep us nice and muddy ;D.

The weather was wonderful too, overcast and cool. Unfortunately we didn't meet any bears, but we saw plenty of moose. All told it was about 5 hours of driving.

I had the GoPro clamped to my ATV, and also put in on the ATV behind us for a different perspective:







Marty showing us some gold mining equipment from the early 1900's:





Crossing a stream:









Some of the scenery along the way:



Lunch by Wishbone Lake:



Shooting for the first time 8):







With Marty and his friend:



We then headed west on the Glenn Highway, another breathtakingly beautiful road. It follows the course of the Matanuska River, sometimes at its level, sometimes rising hundreds of feet above it. The mighty Chugach Range follows alongside the entire time, towering over the river.

While I found the highway beautiful, it was also quite nerve wracking. Driving a heavy RV along a curvy, high road, with everything in the back rattling loudly with every bump, and the wind buffeting it all the time is not for the faint of heart. On top of that there are lots of stretches with very long downhill grades, and going at fairly high speeds it always feels like you won't be able to brake in time. In reality it's a brand new, well maintained, and extremely safe road; nonetheless, I was not as comfortable here as I was on the Seward Highway.

Along the Glenn Highway:

















In many places the road is cut right out of the mountain:





Our destination was Grandview Campground, located right on the highway. This was our fanciest campground yet. Every site had full hookups (water, electric, and sewer) and a fire pit and picnic table. There were beautiful grounds, as well as hiking trails. All for $37 bucks a night.

Walmart was out of those little barbecues, so we MacGyvered our own :):



View from the campground - the mountain to the right is called Sheep Mountain (supposedly it looks like a sheep's head), and the white area to the left is Matanuska Glacier, where we’re going trekking tomorrow:



Day 5:

Today was our last day, and we were going glacier trekking.

Most people who come to this region of Alaska and want to get up close and personal with a glacier visit Exit Glacier in Seward. This was our plan as well. In researching it we saw that while it's easy to get to the glacier, the only accessible part is the very edge of the ice - and even that is (officially, at least) not allowed. There is one path that brings you to the edge, as well as another which brings you to an overlook where you could see the entire thing. None of this sounded very exciting, so I started searching for alternatives. Then I discovered Matanuska Glacier.

Matanuska Glacier is one of the largest Glaciers in Alaska, and only 100 miles or so from Anchorage. This picture from Wikipedia was taken from 20,000 feet and shows the size of the glacier - an immense 4 miles wide by 27 miles long!


Only the 'toe' of the glacier (on the bottom right) is accessible - even that relatively tiny area is incomprehensibly massive.

The glacier itself is part of a state recreation area, but the road access is through private property. There are a couple of different outfitters leading treks and climbs, all of whom were pretty highly recommended online. MICA guides are the biggest, but we ended up signing up with Matanuska Glacier Adventures for a couple of reasons:

- MGA is operated by the landowners, so the access fee is included in the guide fee. With the other you have to pay their fee plus the access fee.
- Since they are run the place, they are able to take more - and therefore smaller - groups than the others, where it's a whole process of being shuttled in from a remote office.
- They actually had crampons for size 18 boots ;D, as opposed to MICA.
- We were leaving from ANC later that day, so we had to be on the road at a certain time. MGA had no problem letting us set up a tour with times which worked for us, whereas the MICA tours were all 'official' and inflexible.

The best part of setting a custom time for our tour was that we were able to start at 8:30 - a good hour before anyone else arrived at the glacier. This meant that instead of being in a loud, busy group, we had a private tour and the glacier all to ourselves.

Our campground was a short 10-minute drive away from the glacier, so before we knew it we were driving down the steepest, hairiest, dirt road and over a shaky wooden plank bridge to the glacier. Before we went I checked out the road on Google street view to see what it looks like, and couldn't believe that an RV could make it down there. But lo and behold, there were some 18-wheelers visible at the end, so I figured that if they made it I could too.

The "road" down (you could see the glacier off in the distance):





Oy vey:





We went into the office/gift shop to sign the waivers and meet our guide, Michael. We then headed out to the glacier proper and got fitted with crampons, helmets, and trekking poles. Michael also carried an ice ax, rope, first aid kit, and radio in case of an emergency.

Michael had been guiding treks on the glacier for a couple of seasons, and knew it like the back of his hand. More than once he held us back just before a yawning chasm in the ice. He was also extremely knowledgeable in the geology and physics of the glacier, and kept up a constant stream of fascinating commentary.

The snout of the glacier is actually buried in the rubble of rocks it pushes forward. While it seems like you're walking on solid ground, it's actually a layer of pebbles an inch or so thick. The meltwater cuts channels ahead of the glacier, and every couple of days the portable bridges have to be moved to keep up with the ever-changing channels. The cones in the background mark the rough path from bridge to bridge:



Right away the ice takes on fascinating shapes where the water had undercut it. In the beginning the ice is quite dirty, with lots of pebbles mixed in:





Soon though the ice becomes more pristine:



Now we were on the glacier proper, trekking across ridges, along crevasses, and into deep valleys. It was an absolutely amazing experience. It's absolutely, perfectly quiet, and you're surrounded by towering walls of ice in every shade of blue. It's like being on a different planet.

The glacier is so huge that it creates its own weather - very few glaciers are capable of that. The immense volume of ice absorbs all the moisture from the air, so even if it's pouring rain all around the area, there will usually be perfectly clear skies over the glacier. Indeed, even though it was cloudy when we arrived, as soon as we got onto the ice we were under beautiful sunny skies most of the time. The glacier also absorbs cool air, so while everything around you is ice cold (duh!), the air is warm and balmy. In fact this was the only time during the entire trip that we were able to take our jackets off.

The effect is so complete, that at one point I sat down on an outcropping to rest for a moment, only to jump right up with my pants sopping wet and freezing cold. Between the warm, sunny weather and the amazing grip crampons give, I had literally forgotten that it's ice I'm walking on.



Most of the ice surface was melted into this beautiful pattern:



The meltwater had carved deep crevasses, which are cracks only about a foot or two across but hundreds of feet deep. Michael, being familiar with every nook and cranny, kept us safely away from these. Whenever we came across a random rock, we would drop it into a crevasse and time how long it took till we heard the crash. We were able to estimate the depth of the cracks like that - they were all at least a hundred feet deep, some a few times that.

The way a glacier works is that its own weight presses down on itself, expelling every impurity from the ice down to the molecular level. This means that the meltwater is the purest water anywhere in the world. Since the glacier forms high in the mountains and is constantly moving forward, it means that the ice which is now melting is about 400 years old - perfectly perfect, with not a trace of dirt, pollutants, or anything else.

There are some spots where the water pours out above the surface, and we stopped to drink. Never in my life have I tasted anything like this - it was absolute heaven. I had prepared some bottles back in the RV to bring along, but of course I forgot them ::). I sat in an ice crevice and drank and drank and drank. The water comes out under extreme pressure, in a supercooled state. This means that it was about 25° cold and still liquid - delicious, but painful when you're using your hands as a cup :o. My hands were numb, but I didn't care; I simply could not stop ;D:



Soon we came to a massive icefall - tremendous pinnacles of ice all leaning against each other and ready to come crashing down at the slightest disturbance:













We then headed to a glacial lake, where meltwater had been accumulating:





We then reluctantly headed off the glacier and back onto terra firma. In total we had done about 4 miles on the glacier, plus another mile or two back and forth from the parking lot.

One last stop for a view of the glacier from the Glenn Highway:



We had a plane to catch :'(...

Conclusions:

- Alaska is huge; don't try to see it all
- The weather can be nasty; don't be surprised if it's cold and wet the entire time
- RVs are great, and extremely practical in Alaska
- A Kenai Fjords National Park Tour is probably better than one out of Whittier
- Don't kayak 9.5 miles if you've never done it before
- Skip Exit Glacier - go for Matanuska
- Matanuska Glacier is awesome
- Matanuska Glacier is so awesome I had to repeat it twice :)

---The end---


May 14, 2014, 08:02:11 PM
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