We made two trips to Alaska, one just as tourists, and the other specifically to photograph this beautiful state. I will touch only briefly on the first trip, and discuss the second visit in much more detail.
We chose to travel to Alaska the first time with a tour company. This turned out to be a disaster turned blessing in disguise. The tour company we booked with went out of business while we were on our tour. Luckily they provided us with a guide from another agency and a partial itinerary with only part of the reservations made. Our guide, Peter, handled this most awkward situation with great aplomb, driving us all over the state, making reservations as we went along, and generally facilitating our travel. We stayed in some great places, and enjoyed some excellent cuisine. Our favorite activities included our flight over Mt. McKinley on a "severe clear" morning, a cruise on Resurrection Bay to look for whales, the train ride between Talkneetna and Fairbanks, and our two days hiking and sightseeing at Kennicott Glacier. Lodging highlights included the Kennicott Glacier Lodge in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park near McCarthy (www.kennicottlodge.com), where we climbed up to the glacier and skated on the ice, and where the food is delicious; A Taste of Alaska Inn near Fairbanks (www.atasteofalaska.com) where the breakfasts are simply divine, the views are exquisite, and the accommodations more than comfortable; and the Denali Overlook Inn in Talkeetna, where Mt. McKinley came out to play in magnificent splendor.
For our return to Alaska, we decided to book most of our own tour, with the exception of a photo safari to the Katmai Peninsula to photograph its famous brown bears. We took the train from Anchorage to Seward, where we stayed in the Captain's Cabin at Millers Landing (www.millerslandingak.com). We loved the train ride. Although it is hard to photograph sights along the way, the people on the train are delightful, the food is good, and we had a lot of fun! The Captain's Cabin is advertised to sleep 4 - 5 people, but the two of us were pretty cramped there. Sleeping accommodations are in a loft, where I was unable to stand up straight (and I'm only 5'2" tall!). It also necessitated a taxi ride every time we needed to go into Seward proper. There were some nice hiking trails there, and we were almost right on the beach, which was lovely. While in Seward, we went on a cruise on Resurrection Bay, and got some great shots of a glacier calving, and some good views of stellar sea lions and gray seals hauled out on the rocks just above the sea. We also photographed some sea otters among the ice bergs at the foot of the glacier. On our last day, our taxi driver suggested a side trip to Exit Glacier to use up some extra time before our train. This was an excellent suggestion. This glacier is very accessible, and offered some great photography as well as some good hiking and scenery.
We booked the second leg of our Alaskan trip with Joseph Van Os' Photo Safaris (www.photosafaris.com) so that we could stay at the well-known Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park (www.katmai.national-park.com). We flew to King Salmon, and then caught a small float plane out to Katmai. We stayed in a cabin at Brooks Camp on a path sometimes traveled by a mama brown bear and her cubs. (Everyone cleared all paths when the bears were about!). The cabin was somewhat primitive, featuring bunk beds and a shower that had hot water for 5 minutes only--and they really meant that, as Bill discovered. But all of that was offset by delicious meals served in the lodge proper and frequent visits to the bear platforms to watch and photograph these magnificent animals. We got pictures of bears catching salmon on Brooks Falls, a mama bear teaching her cubs to swim in the cold waters of Brooks River, salmon beginning their up-stream swim, and a merganser with a flock of chicks. And that was just for starters! This is a photographer's dream--and a nature-lover's, too. It is just glorious!
The Van Os program was useful for getting us to Katmai and facilitating our stay, but we were somewhat disappointed in the quality of the program itself. Perry Conway, our photographer guide, took us out to the platforms, and then we were pretty much on our own. He did make some suggestions as to exposures, but otherwise gave little information. While we both loved Katmai, we both felt that we could have gotten more from the photography portion of this experience with more input from the guide.