Category Archives: Travel


Maybe I Could Get A Job Here

I suppose the port areas that the typical cruise ship passengers see are about as “Alaskan” as the Caribbean cruise ports are “Caribbean.”  It’s possible to find actual native art, handcrafts and souvenirs, but you have to really look.  My impression of Skagway is that it might be a little more “Alaskan” than some of the other places we visited, but that is only my impression.  There were still the usual “Ship Recommended” stores, but based on my research those weren’t the places you were going to get the real deal.

Broadway Street in Skagway with a view of the surrounding mountains
Broadway Street in Skagway with a view of the surrounding mountains

We started our day with a ride aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railroad.  A 110-mile railroad line originally constructed in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, it is now operated as a scenic railway constructed along the original gold rush route.  Our tour covered only the first 20 miles of the route, to a turnaround point at the US-Canada border.  It was a very interesting 20 miles, however, as the WP&YR climbs almost 3000 feet in just 20 miles and features steep grades of up to 3.9%, cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. The steel cantilever bridge was the tallest of its kind in the world when it was constructed in 1901.

Aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railway in Skagway, Alaska

Since we were early in the season I knew that we would see snow, but I was not prepared for just how much snow we would see!  In some places near the White Pass Summit the snow was as high as the train cars.  They told us that the railroad owns a rotary snow plow – which we later saw in town – that had been restored as a showpiece but that had been put into service this winter to keep the tracks cleared.  That snow will mostly be gone by mid summer, but they’ll start seeing snow again in early September.  Short summer!

Aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railway in Skagway, Alaska
Aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railway in Skagway, Alaska
Aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railway in Skagway, Alaska

The scenery is simply breathtaking along the way, and if you don’t mind standing on one of the outside platforms of the train you can get some pretty good photos.  Since the train is moving and doesn’t have the smoothest ride, you need to be a little careful with shutter speed, and you have to be a little strategic with timing since there is really only one good spot on each end of the car, and the side to be on varies on which side of the mountain the train is on.  Since we had done this tour on our first visit and were lucky enough to have the last car on that tour, with unobstructed views from the back of the train, I mostly stayed inside and enjoyed the view from where it was warm, except for a few spots where I knew the views were good.  I also spent a good bit of time outside at the summit while they swapped the engine from one end of train to the other.  Best to have the engine in front on the downhill run!

Aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railway in Skagway, Alaska
Aboard the White Pass & Yukon Railway in Skagway, Alaska

Since we didn’t have far to travel from our previous stop in Juneau, and didn’t have far to sail to our next destination in Glacier Bay, we were essentially in Skagway from 7:00AM until 10:00PM.  That gave us plenty of time to explore after our train ride, but we only needed a few hours before we felt like we had pretty much seen Skagway.  Go figure!  We did make time to have a very good lunch and some locally brewed beer at the Skagway Brewing Company.  It was a good spot, a little pricey but worth every dollar.  There aren’t too many places where you can get an authentic Alaskan Salmon sandwich for lunch!

Nice Boots!
Random photos from walking around Skagway, Alaska

We had been to Skagway on a previous cruise, but didn’t see any of the town on that trip because we ended up booking two tours, and since we barely had time between the two of them for lunch, we didn’t have any chance to explore.  We took a much slower pace on this trip and were glad to get a chance to see the town.  The focus on tourism is very apparent, as the storefronts are all very attractive and inviting.  A lot of it is very kitschey, like the brothel tours “10 for 10 minutes, we call it The Quickie,” Glacier Ice Cream (really?) and the usual T-shirt outlets, but there were a number of shops with some really nice, locally made merchandise, such as a lot of jewelry, carvings and paintings.  You could find diamonds and tanzanite too, but I’d be willing to bet that most of those proceeds would not be staying in Alaska.  Many of the business had signs touting their native-ness, proclaiming “Alaskan-owned since 19XX” or “Alaskan Homeowners since 19XX.”  So there is a little bit of contentiousness between the natives, the seasonal business people and the permanent transplants.  I suppose that is the same everywhere.

Random photos from walking around Skagway, Alaska
Random photos from walking around Skagway, Alaska

One of the interesting features of Skagway that I have only seen in a few other ports, is that the rock cliff by the pier is covered with paintings commemorating ships that have visited.  As I understand it, each time a ship makes its first call in Skagway, it is traditional for the crew to paint a spot on the rock wall with the name of the ship, the date and the name of the captain.

Random photos from walking around Skagway, Alaska

We really enjoyed our visit to Skagway and are very glad that we took the time to visit the town.


Fogbow in a bay along the Chatham Strait aboard Sea Princess approaching Juneau, Alaska

Our arrival in Juneau was delayed by about 3 hours due to a combination of a late departure from San Francisco, rough seas and wind, and a temporary problem with one of the ship’s diesel generators (described by the captain as a “bolt” that took about 2 hours to restore).  As a result, we had to forgo our planned dockside lunch at a little crab shack we had heard about, but fortunately we did not miss our whale watching tour with Harv & Marv’s Outback Alaska.

Aboard Sea Princess in the Chatham Strait approaching Juneau, Alaska

Our tour had been scheduled for 3:30, but since we didn’t arrive until 4:00 I called the company and they assured me that they were aware of our late arrival and had made plans for our tour to go on as scheduled.  We were very relieved at this, as several of the ship-sponsored tours and most of their earlier tours for other passengers on our ship had to be cancelled.  The tour turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, so we’re glad we didn’t miss it.

Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn

 After a short van ride to the Auke Bay harbor, we met up with Captain Shawn and boarded the M/V Alaskan, a custom-built boat designed specifically for wildlife viewing.  Captain Shawn is a 14-year veteran of whale watching tours and has been with the company since 2010.  If I remember correctly, he told us that he has a degree in Marine Biology, so he was well-suited for the tour and turned out to be an excellent guide.  There ended up being only 4 of us on this vessel designed for 14 passengers, so we had the run of the boat, which was very nice.

Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn

We spent about 3 hours cruising the waters of Auke Bay, Lynn Canal, Saginaw Channel and Favorite Channel.  We saw a lot of whales, most of which were too far away to properly photograph, but we did get close to a few.  Because they are very unpredictable, photographing one is a little like playing Whack-a-Mole.  They blow, surface and dive in a very short time, all while they are moving.  But it’s an amazing sight to see!  We also saw a number of seals Sea Lions, Dall’s Porpoises and bald eagles.

Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn
Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn

Since sunset in mid-May is around 10:00, we had pretty nice light for most of the tour, although it was starting to get a little dark by the end.  We arrived back at the dock a little tired and cold, but overall very happy, and headed back to the ship for a late dinner.

Herbert Glacier, "the most photographed glacier in Alaska" according to Captain Shawn. Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn

If you are ever in Juneau, I highly recommend Harv & Marv for your whale-watching adventure!

Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn
Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn
Whale watching cruise in Auke Bay near Juneau Alaska with Harv & Marv's Outback Alaska aboard the M/V "Alaskan" with Captain Shawn


Back to Reality!

The Golden Gate Bridge viewed from our harbor tour aboard Blue & Gold Fleet

Kathy & I returned home late Sunday after an amazing vacation to California, Alaska and back to a few days in Sonoma, CA to visit wine country.  This was our first time to California, second visit to Alaska, and of course – since we hadn’t been to California before – our first time to wine country.  What an experience!

Famous Cable Car in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

A good time was had by all, the weather was relatively uneventful, with the usual cool weather in San Francisco, a little snow in Alaska, and gorgeous weather in wine country.

Random photos from walking in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

I ended up with just under 3000 photos, but with the 5D Mark III it turned out to be just shy of 100GB of data, so I am now pushing the limits of my storage capacity and am now in the market for a new set of hard drives!

Random photos from walking around Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

I took the MacBook Pro along and did some captioning and keywording, and I even processed some photos, but I purposely decided to “stay on vacation” and not try to post stuff while I was away, since that tends to take me away from enjoying where I am while looking at where I’ve been.

California Street from the top of Knob Hill while walking in San Francisco, California prior to our cruise on Sea Princess

So here are a few of my keepers from the first several days of the trip.  I plan to follow this with a little summary of the various parts of the journey over the next few days.  Stay tuned!

Aboard Sea Princess departing from San Francisco, California

A Whole Lot of “Not Exactly”

Fall Color at Laurel Knob Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Marion, North Carolina

Several years ago, a well-known car rental company described how much better they were than the competition by using the line, “There’s Us, and There’s Not Exactly.”  We’ve used that line over the years to describe things that almost but not quite measure up to our hopes or expecations and feel like it aptly describes our last several weekends.  We’ve had a lot of fun but somehow it seems like this year – at least from a creative standpoint – we’ve been coming up a little short.

But I’m not complaining!  We just completed our third of four weekends chasing fall color.  We’ve had a great time, I’ve gotten some good photos and overall it has been a great adventure, but we were talking on the drive home yesterday about some of the ups and downs of our recent weekends.  Overall we’ve enjoyed ourselves, but haven’t come across that “Wow!” moment that can make a trip memorable, or that situation that makes you look back and think, “Man, I’m glad we were here!”  Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.  But that’s what keeps us coming back.

Morning along the Blue Ridge Parkway near the intersection with Virginia Route 97 near Galax, Virginia


Several of my co-workers frequently ask me on Monday mornings how my weekend was.  They know we’ve been on the go and claim to travel vicariously through our trips.  We have had “Chamber of Commerce Weather” for three weekends in a row, and while that is great for tourists it is a challenge for photography.  And I really sound silly complaining about beautiful weather!  It’s not that you can’t make good photographs on sunny blue-sky days, but it can be a real challenge between morning and afternoon “prime time” when the light gets harsh.  You can only photograph so many backlit leaves against a blue sky or so many sunstars, and I’ve done my share!  From a standpoint of enjoying our travels it has been great, but a few clouds here and there would be nice, thank you very much.

If someone would have asked me to give odds on 3 cloudless weekends in a row I would have had to say they would be very low.  So what do we do?  A little sightseeing, lunch at a new restaurant, a hike or maybe even a nap.  We never lack for something to do, it just doesn’t always involve a camera.

Morning light and fall color from Pounding Mill Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Brevard, North Carolina


We typically like to maximize our time in the mountains in the fall, and most years we have either just taken a whole week off work or have taken every Friday or every Monday off, but this year we’ve used up just about all our vacation time and have had to limit our travel to the weekends, leaving town after work on Fridays and essentially just having all day Saturday and Sunday morning to get our shooting in.  Having fewer chances at the good light has limited our opportunities and our variety.

In addition, we simply don’t have an interest in the all-day photography “death march” so we build in time for other activities such as sightseeing and nice dinners.  The great thing about this time of year is that the more civilized sunrise and sunset times allow us to get a little more sleep in the morning and plenty of time for a nice dinner in the evening, but there is still only so much we can do!  We hope to get back to our usual habits next year.  I’m looking forward to a few more vacation days – a privilege of my tenure!

Fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Balsam Gap near Waynesville, North Carolina


With the exception of a fabulous show around Grandfather Mountain a few weeks ago, color overall has been spotty and in many places very muted.  It seems like elevation and orientation have been even more of a factor than usual this year, and we’ve been hard pressed to find the kinds of color displays we like to see.  A lot of this is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and we tend to pick a destination and work it, for better or for worse.  We prefer to work a smaller geographic area rather than spend a lot of time driving around chasing color, so combined with limited time that sometimes makes it tough to find the right mix.  We’ve found some pretty nice color though.

Sunrise on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Laurel Knob Overlook

Inspiration and Creativity

I’ve been pondering the “What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?” question for some time, and it sometimes rears its ugly head when I am out trying to find something to shoot.  I have traditionally been a Grand Scenic sort of guy but have recently been delving into the Mindful-Thinking-Intimate-Scenic realm and sometimes get myself confused.  Give me some trees and a little fog and I’m in heaven.  Big puffy clouds, sunbeams and a hillside covered with color and I’m in business.  Harsh, cloudless blue skies and Houston We’ve Got A Problem.  I’m exaggerating of course, but you get the idea.

Again, this is not to imply that I’m struggling, because I’m not.  We’re having a great time traveling and enjoying our time in the mountains.  I do get a bit discouraged, but it’s primarily due to the fact that I’ve not always been able to find something to put my personal “stamp” on.

Fortunately we don’t have a strict definition for what constitutes a “successful” weekend, and we certainly don’t measure productivity based on how many photos we take or how many “keepers” we get.  Any weekend not spent at work or doing household chores is a good one, and if we get to spend some time enjoying beautiful scenery, having a nice meal or two and generally spending some quality time together, that sounds like success to me.  And if I come home with a few decent photographs that is just icing on the proverbial cake!


Grandfather Mountain at sunrise from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Laurel Knob Overlook

Kathy & I spent this past weekend on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the first of several weekends planned around fall color. We spent most of our time on the section of the Parkway between Linville Falls and Craggy Gardens, knowing that early in the season the higher elevations would be the place for color. It’s always interesting to see how the color starts and progresses as the season comes and goes. The show generally begins at higher elevations, but climate and orientation to the sun & winds play an important role. As the color change progresses, areas farther South and with lower elevation will soon join in the show. It’s all very “scientrific” as my kids liked (and still like) to say.

Fall is a wonderful time of year for photography, but for me, Fall is also a difficult time to get in the groove and photograph creatively because of the temptation to point the camera at the color just because it is so beautiful. But it is important to remember that color in and of itself is not necessarily going to make a good photograph. Composition, light and weather all need to come together to make a compelling photograph regardless of the time of year. Of course, the lower sun angle, crystal clear air and blue sky can often combine to provide some wonderful ingredients.

As we traveled around I looked out over some of the scenes and decided that, while the color was certainly beautiful, the conditions often were just not conducive to making the kind of photographs I like to make. “Color” as a subject is very difficult to pull off. Many of the scenes, if viewed just a few months ago when everything was green, would have been just as beautiful but for a lot of people – photographers and non-photographers alike – would not have been something to get out of the car for.

Fall is also a difficult time for photography because it is such a popular time for travel and things can get busy. Fortunately, most of the good light happens before the throngs arrive and well after they have retreated to the comfort of their buffet dinner. But every time we pulled into an overlook, or sometimes just pulled off the side of the road for a shot, there would be at least one car – often several cars – that would stop right beside me or pull off in front or behind me to see what I was shooting. And of course they get out of the car, try to make small talk, and usually end up asking me to take their picture. Fortunately Kathy handles that business, since I usually just ignore them. She’s a lot nicer about it than I would be.

Sunday we got an early start and spent most of the morning at a nice quiet little spot along the Linville River near Linville Falls. We weren’t too far from the Parkway and could hear the traffic, but in the 2 hours or so we were there I think we only saw about 6 cars. We needed to get back to civilization early so a little after noon we decided to drive toward Blowing Rock, which took us past Grandfather Mountain. What a mess! People were lined up to get into overlooks, parked on the grass and just stopping in the middle of the road to take a picture. It was absolute mayhem, and certainly not a place I wanted to stop and take pictures! We ducked into the picnic area near Price Lake to use the rest room, but decided we had had enough and headed for the nearest exit.

In his most recent e-book “The Inspired Eye 3,” David duChemin discusses the role of solitude in the creative process. Among other points, he states that “if there is one thing we’re in need of as creatives in an increasingly noisy and chaotic world, it is solitude.” I know some people thrive on camaraderie and social interaction when they photograph. Not me. For the kind of photography I do I prefer to be by myself or with a small group of like-minded photographers. I’m not going to find my creative voice at an overlook with dozens of cell phone camera wielding tourists looking over my shoulder and jockeying for position. If that means I don’t come home with photographs from that overlook, so be it. They wouldn’t have been “my” photographs anyway, and any photographs I did take that reflected my mood at the time would certainly not be anything I’d want to share!

This past weekend was the latest of many where I have tried to find my own images in a world filled with many potential subjects. I learned a lot about how and where to find my place. Learning how to weed through the noise, distractions and mayhem is a difficult part of the process but necessary in order for me to successfully make photographs that reflect my vision. I’m looking forward to the next weekend!

Table Rock and Hawksbill at sunrise from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Laurel Knob Overlook

Photographer or Tourist?

I’ve been thinking lately about the propensity that a lot of photographers – famous and otherwise – have for traveling to and doing workshops in places they don’t live, and the fascination we “mortals” have for spending big money for the privilege of traveling with big name photographers to such far-flung places. I certainly can’t blame the photographers because presumably they are being well-paid to go by those with the cash to afford their workshops, and it’s great that people are willing to shell out dollars to be able to rub elbows with famous photographers in exotic locations.

Kathy & I have been talking about and making a list of places we want to go while we’re still working and have the money, places we might not be able to afford when we retire and have the time (what’s fair about that?). I love to travel, but have accepted the fact that the kind of photography I tend to do requires that I either learn about a place and keep going there until I get what I am looking for, or wander around with a camera until I see something that catches my eye and photograph it. The former approach is very location-specific and requires repeated visits. It’s best done when it is close to home. The second approach is what I often find myself doing when we travel. The interesting thing about that is that many or most of the “better” photographs I come back with are not location-specific. They could have been taken anywhere. Then I think, “if I can make a photograph like that anywhere, why do I have to travel halfway around the world and spend a bunch of money to make it?”

Kathy & I went to Alaska several years ago. It was a trip we really wanted to take, we did it to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we took the kids and it cost us a bundle. I don’t regret for a second that we did it, it was that worth it. In preparation for that trip I convinced myself to take the plunge into digital photography. I invested a lot of money in new gear, all of it I still have and use. That was worth it. We were in Alaska for 12 days and I came back with about 2500 photographs. A lot of my photographs are pretty darned good and would make an interesting presentation to the local Rotary club or even a local camera club meeting. There are a few photos in there that I count among my “heroes,” but since I had no control of the schedule, the conditions or the weather, everything I got was due mostly to good luck. For the most part they are a bunch of ordinary photographs of some really nice locations. Some of them are probably better because of my “eye” or my skills, but most of them are pretty ordinary. The fact that I am five years down the photographic journey may have an effect of how I feel about them now, but I’d like to think I would make different and hopefully better photographs on a return trip, all else being equal.

If I spend a bunch of money to go one someone’s photo workshop or take a vacation to an exotic location, am I going as a Photographer or as a Tourist with a Really Good Camera? I suspect that it may be the latter, and I think I’m OK with that. If I come back from a great trip with a few heros, fantastic! If not, as long as I accept that I may end up with a bunch of ordinary photographs of a really nice location, I can live with that too. I feel better knowing that my expectations are in line with the expected results. Enjoy the journey, and take some good photographs along the way!