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Trip Report: Brooks Range Autumn Workshop 2023

This was the eighth year that owner Carl Johnson has led a five-night photo workshop up in the heart of Alaska’s Arctic mountain range, the Brooks Range. Here are some highlights of what the group experienced and photographed during the autumn 2023 trip, which ran from September 20-25.

Day 1Arrival in Fairbanks

The first night of this trip always starts in Fairbanks. We met for dinner at Lavelle’s Bistro and got an early night’s sleep due to cloudy conditions. The forecast called for clear skies in the afternoon on the drive up to Wiseman, so we looked forward to a full day of photo opportunities. We had four guests joining us for the excursion.

Day 2Fairbanks to Wiseman via the Elliot and Dalton Highways

The reason we drive to Wiseman instead of flying to Coldfoot and then driving to Wiseman is the photo opportunities along the way.

Due to a wet summer, many areas of Alaska were experiencing late fall colors. We found peak fall colors along the Elliot Highway, which runs about 60 miles north from the community of Fox to the start of the Dalton Highway.

Once on the Dalton Highway, we saw a definite shift in the fall foliage, with most of the colors gone from the trees or brush. After a stop for lunch at the Yukon River Camp, we continued north. Our first photo stop on the Dalton was at Finger Mountain, a favorite for its 360-degree view, alpine tundra plants, and amazing rock formations. Aside from the photo opportunities, we found some plump blueberries to photograph and snack on. And the rocks are often irresistible to those with an urge for climbing.

Shortly after Finger Mountain is one of the two obligatory sign-posing photo stops on the Dalton Highway – the Arctic Circle sign. Carl never minds lying down in the dirt for a photo opportunity.

From the Arctic Circle sign, it is about another 76 miles, or nearly two hours of driving, to Wiseman. Nestled along the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Wiseman sits away from the Dalton Highway on a separate three-mile gravel road. We settled in to our rooms at Boreal Lodging and unloaded supplies for our four-night stay.

After our first of many tasty meals prepared by Alaska Dinner Factory (Boreal Lodging does not provide any meals), we headed out for our first evening in the Brooks Range. We were awarded on our first night with clear skies and a dazzling aurora borealis display.

Day 3Wiseman to Chandalar Shelf

Before heading out for the day, we conducted a photo review to make sure that everyone’s aurora borealis photos turned out well from the night before. On the way out the Wiseman road back to the Dalton Highway, we encountered a Spruce grouse that was very cooperative for photos. This was the first of two good photo opportunities we would have with this particular species of bird during the trip.

For the rest of the day, we explored different locations north of Wiseman as far as the Chandalar Shelf, just at the base of the climb up to Atigun pass. We encountered a mixture of clear and cloudy skies along the way. Knowing we would see this stretch of road again, it was a good first scouting opportunity for the group.

Day 4Wiseman to Galbraith Lake

We started early with clear, blue skies and sunshine. Our first stop was to capture a low fog hanging over the landscape near Mt. Sukakpak, the first striking peak along the road to the north. The ground was already freezing and a small pond at the base of the mountain was covered with thin ice. The bright, warm morning sun shone through the fog and burned it away in short order.

Continuing on, we made some stops along the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River and near Mt. Snowden to take advantage of the great morning light and to scout some locations for aurora photography. We find a spot along the Dietrich River on the way to Chandalar Shelf to enjoy lunch.

Up at Chandalar Shelf, we enjoyed the wide-open Arctic views above the tree line. A broad braided river valley dominates the landscape as the road continues on toward Atigun Pass, the highest point on the Dalton Highway at 4,739 feet. It is also the crossing of the Continental Divide. Once up in Atigun Pass, we encountered a thick ceiling of clouds. The cloud cover added some interesting mood to the landscape photo opportunities, including isolated patches of a deep blue color.

But we continued north to Galbraith Lake and waited for a bit to see if the skies would clear. With a strong cell signal from nearby Pump Station 4, we could check the cloud modeling data. When the skies did not clear as forecasted, we did some group poses with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and decided to start our way back south toward Wiseman.

Along the way, the skies started to break, and ultimately completely cleared overhead before we reached the base to climb back up into Atigun Pass. We took a break to set up a bonfire and enjoy dinner while we waited for the aurora borealis to appear. This is a common goal of the trip, to identify one day where the skies will be clear as far north as Galbraith Lake so that we can have dinner that far north and slowly work our way back in the dark while chasing the northern lights.

Day 5 – Wiseman and Middle Fork Koyukuk River

We enjoyed a leisurely morning after a late night out aurora-chasing. After breakfast, we had another classroom session to go over Lightroom processing of various images with an emphasis on processing aurora photos. We explored the grounds at the community of Wiseman to photograph historic cabins and the lifestyle, as well as paid a visit to longtime resident Jack Reakoff.

We headed out into beautiful afternoon sunshine to hike along the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River to photograph evening light along the river with Mts. Dillon, Wiehl and Sukakpak.

After dinner, we had a short window of clearing skies before the clouds rolled in to block a full view of the aurora. On this night, while the Bz was over +20 north, the Bt was over 30. This produced a very subtle aurora with extremely rich colors emphasizing the reds.

Day 6 – Wiseman to Fairbanks

Our time in Wiseman was over, so it was time to leave behind the Boreal Lodge and make our way back down the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks. While everyone was fairly tired for the trip back, we made two photo stops along the way. First, we had to stop just past Pump Station Five to photograph a beautiful brown bear sow that was intensely browsing on a massive blueberry patch. Second, we stopped at the frosty forest area just south of the Yukon River. The trees were already gathering their frost base. I look forward to seeing those trees again in February for our Alaska Winter Wonderland photo workshop.

Click here to join us on our 2024 Brooks Range Autumn Workshop or to try a more wintery version in the 2024 Brooks Range Spring Aurora Workshop.

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