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This time of year in the mountain regions of the Alaska Range, there are huge fields of blossoming wild sweet pea. They cover the gravel areas of river drainages, and hit their peak bloom about summer solstice. I took this photo last week while driving to Anchorage. The wild sweet pea is very fragrant, and if you walk out into the midst of these large fields, you will be immersed in a wonderful aroma. It is worth a mountain journey just for that experience. I used a 16-35mm lens to make this picture.

Wild sweet pea, Miller Creek, Alaska Range mountains. Caon 5 D Mark III, 16-36mm f/4L IS.

Wild sweet pea, Miller Creek, Alaska Range mountains. Caon 5 D Mark III, 16-36mm f/4L IS.

On another note, I just finished loading my backpack with 60 lbs. worth of gear for a 115 mile trip in Alaska’s Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park. The smoke from forest fires are all over the state, and just moved into the Brooks Range. I’m hoping some future wind and weather patterns will change that. I plan to have some photos to share upon my return.

My pack stuffed to the max., about 60 lbs total.

My pack stuffed to the max., about 60 lbs total.

  • Mark - Patrick,

    Love the photos as always. As for your 60lb. pack:

    When are you going to switch to Sony’s FF mirrorless cameras to save you some size and weight on such trips? The new A7R II will even do pretty good AF with Canon glass and the right adapter. Or, get a few of the smaller f/4 Sony/Zeiss lenses to save even more size and weight. You know you want to. For even more size and weight savings you could go with the APS-C mirrorless option, though I understand why you might be reluctant to go that small and light. June 28, 2015 – 12:25 pmReplyCancel

  • Chuck Ashley - Enjoy the Brooks Range & Gates of the Artic Patrick, looking forward to the photosJune 28, 2015 – 4:00 amReplyCancel

  • Syed Tajgeer - Have a nice and safe trip Patrick. Very nice color, I wish one day I can smell them.June 27, 2015 – 11:15 pmReplyCancel

  • Karen Casebeer - Lovely sweet pea photo! Safe travels on your next trip.June 27, 2015 – 4:05 amReplyCancel

Human powered adventures in Alaska’s Brooks Range are always just that…an adventure of sorts. I mean “adventure” in a wilderness context, i.e., a human powered travel mode that takes you across trail-less country, up and over mountains, while route-finding, problem solving and embracing the discovery of new sights all the way along.

I shared a few photos in my previous post about the land portion of a hike and packraft trip down the Matthews River in Alaska’s southeastern Brooks Range. In total, the trip was about 50 miles, and maybe 20 or so on foot and 30 in the raft. Or in this case, due to low river water, a lot of in and out of the raft. It was my first trip with a new whitewater packraft that I purchased from the good guys in Fairbanks at Northern Alaska Packrafts. They also rent boats and gear which is a good option for some people.

This country is big and scenic, while the river is relatively small and intimate. It is certainly the most diverse river I’ve traveled in terms of breadth. It ranges from wide open braided sections and then shrinks to a span of about 5 feet wide when passing through a slot canyon.

Unlike the rivers in Alaska’s interior–of which most are fed by glacial runoff and are therefore an opaque gray color–this river is mainly fed by spring runoff and rain water and can be sparkling clear. It was a wonderful 3 day trip.

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Traveling the headwaters waiting to find enough water to put in our boats.

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View up river – thinking, I’m glad we are not there right now.

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Labrador tea blossoms on the tundra.

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Me lining my raft in shallow water. photo by Heath Sandall

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Looking downriver at the entrance of the slot canyon.

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Heath paddles through the slot canyon, view from the top.

Me paddling through the canyon. Photo by Heath Sandall.

Me paddling through the canyon. Photo by Heath Sandall.

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Looking up river at the entrance to the first canyon.

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Lapland rosebay on the spring tundra.

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Heath paddling through the first canyon.

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The beautiful Matthews River.

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Look at that water!!!

  • Pamela Harris Gordon - Stunning scenery and photography! I enjoyed looking at several posts. Visiting from Carol Mattingly’s blog.June 27, 2015 – 1:54 pmReplyCancel

  • Janet - Beautiful, looks like a fun time.June 25, 2015 – 9:55 amReplyCancel

  • Patrick Endres - Thanks Karen, that dark foreboding sky in the distance offers good contrast.June 25, 2015 – 6:49 amReplyCancel

  • Karen Casebeer - All are lovely, but I especially like the foreground treatment in the second image.June 25, 2015 – 5:45 amReplyCancel

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There is a window of time in Alaska’s early summer where one can get out and explore after the snow has melted, but before the waves of mosquitoes emerge. It is a narrow time frame, and in the Southern Brooks Range mountains, it is usually before June 15. But the change in seasons is still in process at this time, and winter may still have a few cold breaths to blow over the mountains. This was the case during my recent venture to backpack, packraft and photograph along a few rivers in the southeastern Brooks Range. In addition to fluctuating weather and temperatures during this time of year, water levels can vary considerably as well. Snow melt and precipitation can alter the flow of a small river significantly.

A friend and I made a 50 mile backpack & packraft (and due to low water-a lot of lining the boats) trip east of the Dalton highway along the Matthews river. A very early warm spell in late May helped melt the snow in the high country, but this also meant low water in the river. While I would prefer to raft, rather than line a boat through shallow water, the clear water found in the absence of abundant runoff is worth the trade off. The crystal clear water has a mesmerizing quality, and to peer through it to the river rocks below is a sort of soul-food. It reminds me of a quote from Norman Maclean’s book, A River Runs Through It.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Adding the process of photography to a trip like this is consistently challenging. I find this true for a number of reasons.

  • The first being that it takes a fair amount of energy just in the process of moving, hiking, climbing and navigating, not to mention having the extra time and energy to create compelling images.
  • Camera gear adds weight to an already hefty pack that includes all the necessary gear for pack rafting (paddle, pfd, dry suit, dry gear, raft, etc.)
  • In addition, this time of year can be wet and chilly. Cold, wet hands erode my motivation quickly.
  • Getting in and out of a boat to find a perspective other than water level also takes time and energy.

Every veteran photographer learns that the weather can be a friend or foe, and sometimes both simultaneously. But this is all part of the lure, the paradox that often comes with adventuring in mountain country: the extremes of weather, the views from high places, the arduous work of getting there, and the route finding along unknown pathways.

I took my Canon 5D Mark III with the 16-35mm f/4L IS and the 24-105mm f/4L IS. One lens would simplify things and omit the need to change lenses in rainy and wet conditions, but I can’t seem to go anywhere without at least a 16mm wide lens. There is nothing like capturing the sky in such epic places. I left the tripod behind, but that was largely due to weight, since my pack was already about 52lbs.

The trip began on foot, trekking up a drainage and over a mountain pass. Here are a few images prior to reaching the river.

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  • Jay C - Neat trip! Did you get any photos of the first canyon of the Matthews? I was told it is sort of slot canyon-ish.June 16, 2015 – 5:49 pmReplyCancel

  • Karen Casebeer - I can see why you wanted your 16-35mm with you. Wonderful scenery!June 16, 2015 – 5:51 amReplyCancel

  • Jean - OK, I need to get the maps out and see where the Matthews River is. Thanks for posting this. I always enjoy reading about where you have been and seeing your photos.June 15, 2015 – 5:50 pmReplyCancel

  • elizabeth - What marvellous scenery: I want to come back! The photography is great of course!June 15, 2015 – 12:40 pmReplyCancel

After my return from Zion National Park, I’ve already rescheduled a trip to the Brooks Range twice due to weather. At this point, I’m hesitant to say what I’m “going” to do, and it may be best to tell it after the fact. But for the record, I am leaving for a week in the Arctic tomorrow. So in contrast to photos of desert blossoming plants, I’ll have some Alaska material to share.

But looking back a few weeks, it was somewhat springtime in the Zion area, and the sight of colorful blossoming plants was a welcome contribution observed and photographed on many hikes. The flora of that region is unfamiliar to me, which made the sights all the more new and interesting.

Here are a few pictures from that stunning landscape.

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Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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Indian paintbrush, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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Indian paintbrush, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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Indian paintbrush, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

  • Syed Tajgeer - Zion Canyon is even more beautiful in Fall you must visit once to share its beauty with all of us. Very nice view with this wide angle lens. We can see a lot more with a different ratio then we can see naturally. Kind of very nice. Thanks for sharing.June 6, 2015 – 8:32 pmReplyCancel

  • Mark Van Bergh - Yea, I guess you don’t have cactus in Alaska. Always enjoy seeing your work.June 6, 2015 – 12:08 pmReplyCancel

  • Karen Casebeer - Wonderful images and a great study in depth of field. Thank you!June 6, 2015 – 5:19 amReplyCancel

In the field with the Canon 11-24mm f/4L

Canon 11-24mm f/4L USM

Canon 11-24mm f/4L USM

My preference for landscape photography may suggest that acquiring the Canon 11-24mm f/4L would be an easy question for me to answer. The price tag of $3000 slowed me down a bit but I finally bought the lens and had a chance to test it when recently photographing in Utah (Zion National Park) and Arizona (Grand Canyon National Park).

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Checkerboard Mesa, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

This is not a full, technical review of the lens, others have done a great job at that (a great review of the Canon 11-24mm f/4L is at the digital picture). Instead, these are my more practical thoughts on using this lens in the field. I often find that the only way to really know if a particular lens will work for me is to simply give it a try in the context of my specific shooting style, methods and locations.

The lens

For starters, this lens stands alone as the widest rectilinear zoom lens out there. It is big and heavy, at 2.5 pounds, with a giant front element just hungry for dust, water splashes, and potential scratches. Since the human eye sees at an approximate 50mm equivalent, looking at the world via 11mm is quite a different look. There is a considerable “reinterpretation” of the landscape that takes place.

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Checkerboard Mesa, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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Checkerboard Mesa, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

The lens cap

The lens cap is equally large, with a broad wrap around edge, which I no longer own because it slipped out of my coat pocket and bounced (like a spare tire) along the rocks of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, leaping through an open space in a Juniper tree for a base jump down the canyon. I tried to order a replacement, but they are not even available yet. Not being able to protect the front element with a filter, and being cautious about scratching that big hunk of glass, puts this lens in a different category from my normal “crawl around and don’t worry about the lens” shooting style. In the future, I’ll make sure the lens cap is in a secure pocket when scrambling around looking for photo perspectives. In addition, I now have a large, soft cloth as a backup cover so I can at least put it in my bag with some protection.

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Angel’s Landing, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

Shooting at 11mm

Although I photograph ultra-wide quite often, using a focal length of 11mm is not an automatic decision. The amount of real estate apparent in the frame is immense, and composition becomes extremely critical. The basics of wide angle landscape photography become screamingly clear. A foreground is fundamental and critical. As a general rule, being within a foot a foreground object is helpful with this lens, unless you are using it to grab sky. Watch out that you don’t include your feet, shadow, or tripod in the frame!

Lens flare and sunburst

Because the lens grabs such a wide view, lens flare can be an issue on a sunny day, although it handles that quite well. Holding a hand high above the lens and out of view can curtail lens flare pretty easily. But, the camera and lens, held with one hand is pretty heavy and a tripod can help a lot for stability in these cases. The truth is however, that I am often using this lens without a tripod, so finding a secure posture that gives stability is important. The 9 blade circular aperture renders a clean and pleasing sunburst, with 18 point star shapes, unlike the 24-105mm (one of my most used lenses), which is often messy and full of flare.

Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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The Narrows, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

Panoramas

It might sound silly that one would even think of needing a panorama stitch made from this lens because it covers such a wide focal range to begin with. But, sometimes I like a larger file size, and I did generate a few panoramas from this lens. One thing worth noting is to use about an 80% overlap when taking the subsequent photos to be stitched later. This is because there is so much distortion between the beginning and ending frame, and the stitching process works much better with considerable overlap.

Conclusion

I do find it a little ironic that I purchased this lens right at the same time I’m considering getting a mirrorless camera system to save on size and weight when doing backpacking and remote hiking excursions. The truth is, lenses have their specific use. And, they can really shine when used in that appropriate situation. The “one lens to rule them all” remains as elusive as the “one camera to rule them all.” For now, my lens kit gets continually tweaked, and I load my camera bag with what is the most appropriate for the specific task at hand. While writing this, I’m packing for a hiking trip in the Brooks Range, and the 11-24 is not in bag. Instead, I switched over to the 16-35mm f/4L IS, which is pretty wide, and lighter than the f/2.8 version. All in all, I really love what the 11-24 can do, and it is a keeper for me and my shooting style.

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The Narrows, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

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The Narrows, Zion Canyon National Park, Utah

  • Robert Woodward - Thanks Patrick for linking the review to reality.May 31, 2015 – 12:37 pmReplyCancel

  • Heather Snow - What mirrorless camera system are you considering?May 30, 2015 – 8:21 pmReplyCancel

    • Patrick Endres - Heather, I’ve been looking at the Sony system, although I’ve not finalized a decision yet.May 31, 2015 – 10:50 amReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth Parnis - I like the last one best. There seems to be less distortion that can appear unnatural. But wonderful scenes and photos . ThansMay 30, 2015 – 7:22 pmReplyCancel

  • Karen Casebeer - Wonderful images, Patrick. I’ve missed your more regular posts. Is there another site where you are posting more often? KarenMay 30, 2015 – 6:43 amReplyCancel

    • Patrick Endres - Hi Karen,
      I’ve taken a short break from the scheduled blog posts, but plan to be back on board for weekly posts on average. I make more regular, short, photo posts to my instagram and facebook accounts, if you choose to follow there. Thanks for your interest.May 30, 2015 – 7:59 amReplyCancel

  • Bruce Faanes - Excellent review. Think it will be a great anniversary present for my wife. If it’s to heavy for her t5i, guess I’ll keep it. Outstanding photos. You have a very unique skill set to capture the best in nature. Always enjoy your shots. Coming up to your neck of the woods (Lake Clark with Charles Glatzer, 7/1). Hope to learn & get some keepers. Thanks for the great info. Cheers!May 29, 2015 – 2:11 pmReplyCancel