Alaska: Denali National Park

In a well rehearsed goodbye, Mt. McKinley shows its majestic body above the clouds and begs me to come back. I smile at it from my airplane seat and I feel a mix of excitement and sadness as the mountain view recedes from my eyes. My visit to Alaska was short, barely 3 days but it was intense, both on the amount of miles I covered as well as the number of wildlife I’ve seen. The experience quite unique: my first wolves sighting, grazing bull moose, grizzly cubs wrestling, rivers running toward an infinite landscape… Denali National Park conquered my heart. A park that has nothing of the fast paced, bumper-to-bumper, Yellowstone rush hours, a park that was created for nature to preserve itself rather than to become an overpopulated vacation destination. I got a taste of this immense wilderness and I’m addicted. In the next few months I know I’ll be busy planning a return, a comeback in grandeur where I’ll be able to see more, to experience more and to lose myself in a land beyond time; me and my camera. Take only pictures, leave only footprints behind.

Denali truly is a haven for a landscape, as well as a wildlife photographer. In just a day I saw more wildlife than what I’d see in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in a year. By mid-afternoon yesterday I watched a large number of caribou walking lazily across a valley, two rams and many sheep, two wolves, ten grizzlies, four bull moose, two golden eagles and so much more.
The mountains were hidden by what felt like perennial clouds and the rain was nearly incessant, but that made for richer greens and allowed me to take some spectacular landscape images. If you come here for a limited time, as I did, take a green bus to Wonder Lake and if you’re lucky enough your driver will give you plenty details about the place and will be capable of spotting wildlife before anyone else sees it, mine did. The bus stops whenever somebody shouts “Stop! I saw something!” and that increases the amount of time it takes to get to destination, but remember: it’s about the travel itself. With so many alert eyes on board it won’t be long before you get your chance to come home with the photograph of a bull moose or grizzly you always wanted to take. My personal recommendation is to seat on the driver’s side of the bus, heading west, as you’ll be directly facing a more dramatic landscape as well as areas where the animals are more likely to be. This was just an explorative trip for me, already knowing that I would’ve wanted to come back, and it gave me ideas of what to do next time I visit Denali; how to manage my time in the park; what to do and see and most importantly what to bring. My gear of choice this time was: my Canon 7D (I left the 5D Mark II at home as I wanted the extra reach of the 7D but didn’t want t be bothered by the weight of two bodies), Canon EF-S 10-22mm for those special landscape shots, Canon EF-100-400mm L IS, Canon EF-24-105 L IS. These two ended up being the most used lenses, particularly the 100-400 which made more than one person jealous. Sure, I was wishing I had the new Canon 800mm, but how many people can hand-hold that lens for more than 10 seconds without getting tired? (Without even considering the nearly-prohibitive price of that lens ).Also, remember that you’re on a bus for a long time, therefore you’ll have vibrations and bumps and the 100-400 is a lot easier to handle, hiking with the 800mm might not be wise. Moreover, with the 7D crop factor it becomes an actual 160-640mm lens. When the bus stops because of nearby wildlife you cannot get off as park regulations forbids that, but you can get off the bus at any other time and hike from there until you’re ready to jump back on-board, which could be an hour or a week later, according to your taste and preparation
The other accessory that has become essential to me is my Cotton Carrier, no more hiking getting bruises on my neck or back pain (read a review here). I also brought a circular warming polarizer but I never got a chance to use it. With so many wildflowers in July it’s also a good idea to bring a macro if you enjoy capturing the details of plants and flowers.

Review: Cotton Carrier

Hiking is a big part of the landscape and wildlife photographer’s life and mine but this means that we often return home with lower back pain and a chafed neck caused by the camera strap. I also find annoying having the camera hitting me  repeatedly in the stomach while I walk with the strap around my neck. My old Minolta 9Xi suffered major scratches from constantly hitting my belt. Some time ago I purchased a camera backpack which does the job of easing the carrying part, but what if the situation arises when you need your camera quickly in your hands? Take the backpack off your back, open it, remove the camera, watch the critter go, place the camera in the backpack, wear it again and keep hiking without that unique shot. I’m sure this situation is familiar to many photographers.

Fortunately, the smart people at Cotton Carrier thought of a system that allows for the camera to be in the near-ready position at all times and reducing the fatigue from carrying it around your neck. The system consists of a vest that wears comfortably under or on top of any other garment and can be fitted with a side holster (sold separately or as part of a package) that allows for carrying a second camera. I often hike with two cameras: my Canon 5D Mark II fitted with the 24-105 L and the Canon 50D (soon to be replaced by the 7D) with the 100-400 L, in this case the side holster is a welcome addition. For the times when I’m only interested in shooting landscape, I can remove the holster or, using a rubber band, I can even use it to carry a small bottle of water.
I took the Cotton Carrier out for a few test hikes and I was immediately surprised by how well it distributes the weight around the shoulders/upper back area. The vest, actually, is streamlined enough to allow the use of a backpack on top of it. For my test hikes I picked a variety of terrain: flat, uphill, downhill, in thick brush, off-trail and rocky. In all these situations the Cotton Carrier revealed itself to be of great help. In some of them, like hiking on rocky uphill terrain off the trail I’d say it was nearly essential. Not only could I stop worrying about my camera swinging around, but I was able to use both my hands to gain a solid grip on the rocks while ascending. On flat terrain I also took a test run, jogging moderately without touching the camera to see if the carrier would come in handy in that situation. Every once in a while I find myself having to run from a spot to another with the camera strap around my neck while holding it by the lens. Needless to say after a few yards the fun is over. Not only was I able to run faster with the Cotton Carrier but the weight of the camera was once again greatly minimized.
The system comes in black only, the new model has just been upgraded with a hard anodized aluminum hub (the part that gets screwed at the base of the camera) and at first is a little hard to lock but the company has informed me that after 20 or so ins and outs it will slide more smoothly; which in my experience turned out to be true . The package comes with an instruction sheet (with photos) for a step by step set-up as well as a care and maintenance sheet. It took me only minutes to set it all up and adjust it to my body without even taking a look at the instructions (but do make sure that the arrows marked on the hub points in the right direction). The vest will fit a small person as well as a large one as the straps and Velcro are highly adjustable. The system is covered by a 1 year warranty against manufacturer’s defects.
There is an additional accessory for tripod use but I did not get a chance to test it. Toward the end of the day there were times when I completely forgot I was wearing it.

With winter approaching, as I often shoot snow sports for magazines I look forward to wear this over my winter jacket while I snowboard. Skier photographers will be able to use their poles while still carrying their camera at the ready. This system has definitely revolutionized the way I carry my gear.

In conclusion, my impression of the Cotton Carrier system is highly favorable. It’s light, comfortable, efficient and once folded small enough to pack anywhere: luggage or backpack. It will definitely become an essential part of my photographic equipment. Prices start at $109. Accessories are also available.


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