A Week on Unalaska Part 1

I peak inside the mail bag and respond to a listener and then I give you all the details on my recent journey to the Aleutian Island of Unalaska which after some contemplation got me thinking about what makes YOU excited about the images you create so we’ll have some listener feedback on that as well.


I reference this map in the episode briefly, basically, it’s intended to give you an understanding of the different locations we photographed.

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Image Gallery for the commentary: http://www.latitudephotographypodcast.com/galleries/unalaska-island/

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Main Topics

Today I’m talking about:

  1. What’s in the mail bag
  2. My time in Alaska
  3. Contemplating on the idea of what makes us get excited in our photography.

The mail bag

Listener message from Terrell

What an informative podcast on sensor size. I really didn’t understand as completely as I thought I had. I was wondering would you think a show on lens resolution would also be just as informative. Being a gearhead it gives me a reason to buy stuff if there’s a logic behind the purchase. 

With these new bodies now seeming to start at 30+ MP I keep reading and hearing that such and such lens (older) can’t resolve these newer big files. Is this just a sharpness issue or more? Do I need to buy new lenses? And the last thing: I’ve played around with that new RF 70-200 for Canon and no issues I had but what I would like to know is the external focusing a result of physics or cost? Just curious.

Answer: Yes, I do think an episode on lens resolution would be good. I’ll look into that.

As for your question, I’ll look into it a bit more before tomorrow’s episode is out, but with the RF70-200 I think it’s a dual issue for that lens design. Physics so they can decrease the size of the lens when stored and I’m sure it’s probably cheaper to build as well, though Lensrentals did a teardown of that lens and found it to be one of the best built lenses ever, so Canon didn’t skimp on build quality. They had to though given all the extra moving parts and not being able to protect everything inside the barrel like the older lens designs.

Why Unalaska?

Jeana, a long time listener, asked me how Unalaska came to be on my radar in the first place.

I’ve been dreaming of the Aleutian Islands for some time now. This was my first experience in Alaska. I’ve wanted to go for so long but the size and multitude of opportunities the state offers makes it a daunting task to figure out what you’re going to do. I chose Unalaska for a few reasons. 

First, it’s rather remote so most folks don’t go there. I like to get to the fringe of the earth as it were. If it’s less known I’m more interested in it and if I do go to a really well traveled place you’ll find me searching for other images that aren’t so known about the region, like when I went to Hong Kong and spent most of my time on the small islands and not in the heart of the city.

I had Alaska Airlines miles, and it was cheap to get to. Cash outlay was $12 for the airfare, plus air miles of course. And finally, being such a small island with limited access to trails and the like, I knew a majority of the time would be spent hiking, exploring and shooting and not trying to get to the place to shoot. I love a compact area that has loads of opportunities for photography and Unalaska is overloaded with photographic goodness. There’s so much there, even with a week we were barely able to get beyond the surface, as it were.

So initially, it was just the allure of the wild Aleutian Islands, Adak being my initial draw since Alaska Airlines actually does fly there, but I Ultimately chose Unalaska because it was better suited to be my first experience on one of the Islands.

I was expecting terrible weather, and we got it. High wind, you betcha. Rugged landscape, absolutely. Amazing photographic opportunities around every corner? Yes!

The journey up there

It took all day to get there. Waking at 2:30 a.m. a bit earlier than needed for my 5:00 a.m. flight out of Walla Walla, I started out on the wrong foot, literally. In my slightly sleep deprived daze I put on my shoes, one of one type and the other a mismatch. They’re both Keen, so they felt very similar, but when I landed in Seattle at about 6:15 am and got off the plane I felt a difference in my feet. And I’d seen what I’d done. I was kinda ticked, but figured I should just laugh it off. But as I waited for the next flight I’m sitting there watching all these people walk by with matching shoes, I was jealous for their feet, feeling the same and not sticking out like mine were. But I had two pair of boots packed so I knew I was going to be OK once I got there.

Just before we boarded for Anchorage I met Randy Gemar, my companion for this trip.

A few months ago I put out a request for someone to join me and to split costs. We chatted on the phone and figured to go ahead with it. My friends and parents are all asking me in hushed tones, “are you sure this is a good idea?” Let me tell you, Randy is the best photo buddy anyone could have along with them. Everything was just perfect plus, I had the added security of someone else with me. When you’re 800 miles from the nearest hospital and the only way off the island is a medivac flight in dire situations, you want someone with you who can help should the worst happen. And Unalaska has tons of cliffs over 800 ft high and several other potentially dangerous hazards that can cause problems.

The lay of the land

Unalaska is the first island in the Aleutian chain of islands with a major settlement. The Alaska Peninsula stretches about 350+ miles from Katmai National Park and Preserve out towards the little town of Cold Bay. Then you have Unimak Island, a few much smaller islands, and then Unalaska. The port is called Dutch Harbor and it’s the nation’s top fishing port. In 2015 they brought in 787 million pounds of fish totaling about $218M. All other Aleutian Island Ports combined brought in 467 million pounds totalling $111M. This is also where they film the show “The Deadliest Catch.”

However, in the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas the town is so quiet and calm. Whenever we drove about we were pretty much the only vehicle on the road.

I’ll publish a map to the facebook group and here in the show notes. This is a custom drawn map that shows the different places we went to for shooting. I’ve also color coded the locations by the day we were there as well.  

The tundra is definitely one big sponge to walk on. Many times that sponge is sopping wet and you get the sense of it like this. (play the sound of walking on the tundra)

Other times it’s dryer yet it’s so soft your foot is completely swallowed by it as you step across it. If you go off trail you can’t even see your tracks until the tundra is frozen and the ice causes it to keep its form a bit from your stepping upon it. 

The wet sopping type of tundra is more grassy, or field grasses, and the type that swallows your foot is a plant that’s rather like a bush, but it is very low lying and very cushy. They are often interchanged on the same trail over and over again.

The temp hovered around 40º the whole time we were there, this is at sea level though. The snow level was at about 1,000 ft, depending on the day. We had a storm roll through on Wednesday which brought the snow level down quite a bit.

First day of shooting

We decided to head up Mt. Ballyhoo. The previous evening we drove about getting our bearings and I’m so glad we did. We were able to find the trailhead for this hike and then that made it a whole bunch easier in the darkness of the morning. The sun didn’t rise until about 10:30 and we started hiking at about 8:00 a.m. The hike starts at about 250 ft. elevation and quickly ascends to 1,600 when you’re on top. We made it to about 1,500 ft. The entire trail is about a mile long, so that’s about 1,250 elevation gain in roughly a mile. It was rather a tough hike but very much worth it. I’ll go through the images shot that day which are on the website in a special gallery. The link is in the show notes. 

(Specific commentary on images)

I left my bag at about 900-1,000 ft elevation and only took the Sony a6400 and the 18–135 lens on up to the top. I was just so tired of carrying all that weight and the Sony did a fantastic job.

We spent longer than we originally planned up there. Bit it was so worth it. The light was amazing and there was so much to shoot. On the way down, as it was so steep and snow covered for half of it, we both slid and slipped a bit. You just have to stay clear of the cliffs and other really steep edges and you’ll be fine. We picked up our bags and continued on the rest of the way down. We finished up at about 3:30 or so and with the sun setting in two hours we didn’t want to spend too much time getting to the next spot, but we did take a brief break at the apartment before heading out again. 

For sunset we went up Bunker Hill. There’s a road that takes you up to the top but it was gated off and I didn’t care for that. I was beat from the morning hike. But I did it anyway. And it was also just gorgeous up there. The hill is on the southern part of town so I got a nice overview of the town, but you can also look directly into Captains Bay. The clouds really moved in so we didn’t get any dynamic light, but I still got one good image of the bay and the mountains surrounding it.

Day Two

I didn’t get hardly any shots that were keepers today. First off, I was so beat from the two hikes on Sunday that I simply CRASHED when I got back to the room. I didn’t eat supper and I was just so wasted. I needed to rest. So that’s what I did. I think it made Randy a little nervous but that’s also one of the primary reasons I really wanted a photo buddy along for the trip, safety is a huge concern as I have five other people depending on me at home. I’m the sole bread winner so I need to take certain precautions to make sure all is safe and I get back home in one piece, and that I’m functional when I return as well 🙂

So Randy went out in the morning but the rain was just really coming down hard. I didn’t get out of bed until about noon and after a massive breakfast we headed out at about 1:30 or so. We did a few errands such as buying a SIM card for my phone so I could finally communicate with the family and a few other things. I did make a few images of a small waterfall but they are already deleted. They weren’t any good. We drove around some more to get our bearings on the Overland Drive and I did get a few images of the snow line, but the sun was already down and it was quite dark. One image I did get that isn’t in the online gallery is a complete abstract. It’s literally a shot of the fog that is completely out of focus and almost feels like a mistake. But I kept it because I just loved the mystery is conveys and how moody it is. We were unable to make it over the pass due to the snow on the road so we turned around and went back to the apartment the way we came.

Third Day

This was Tuesday, December 17, 2019. We decided to go to Ugadaga Bay. The trail starts at about 800 ft elevation and descends to sea level. There’s a few waterfalls along the way but as we started once again at about 8:00 a.m. on the trailhead we didn’t shoot until we got down to the bay. It’s a large bay that is part of the larger Beaver Inlet so it’s well protected from the Pacific Ocean currents and the storms and other energy that comes from the Bearing Sea. So that meant the tiny waves coming on to the rocky shore were very small and peaceful. Very calm. Like this: (play sound of lapping water)

(Go through images and describe them from the gallery)

Again, we spent longer than we originally anticipated we would. We started hiking out at about 1:30 and were back at the car by about 4:30. We hiked a total of 6.7 miles and as we were heading out the rain came on once again. It got stronger and stronger as we got closer to the car so we skipped a few spots that we really wanted to shoot. But with the decreasing energy and the increasing rain, mixed with decreasing light, we decided to see if we could come back. We didn’t, but I’m OK with that as we got some other excellent shots.

We got back to the apartment and just took it easy with a massive supper and time to dry off. I didn’t want a repeat of what happened Sunday evening either, but I was feeling much more in tune with all the hiking. Lesson learned: I need to get out more so I’m in better shape.

Fourth Day

For Wednesday we planned to hike the Peace of Mind Trail. In looking at the elevation gain and reading about the trail we knew it would be such a bugger of a hike. It started at about 750 ft. elevation, gained to about 850 then had a sheer drop of about 500+ feet in less than a half mile. That drop was about 1.5 miles in as well, and it was another two miles to the bay. So we looked at the map I bought on Monday and decided to try out the first mile or so, until that big drop. Maybe we’d see some waterfalls there. But we didn’t. I got one shot just to prove I was there. It’s not pretty but I decided to keep it purely for story telling purposes.

We then got back to the car and drove up the Overland Drive again trying to see if we could get over the pass this time. And we did! And we decided to shoot up there as we  had about 360º views of awesome mountains transitioning from snow covered to not at about the 1,000 ft level. And the pass is roughly at about 1,000 ft. But, the wind was blowing at about a sustained 45mph. It was tough shooting.

My battery died and I had left the bag in the car, so I left it to got get another battery. and after doing so I decided I’d better spread the legs out further. I had the camera on a ledge, if it had blown over it wouldn’t be destroyed, but it’d have to go down a small hill to retrieve it. As I returned I slid the last 15 ft to the tripod trying to stop since it was downhill and the wind was just blowing me so much, and the tripod was only on two legs. So I’m glad I went back as I’m sure it’d have gone over if I’d let it be. I spread the legs out further and then ran up the hill against the wind to get another battery.

We then drove around a bit after a brief lunch. We headed up north to Constantine Bay. 

(Discuss the images as seen on the gallery)