Photo Essay: Alaska #Vanlife Road Trip

Jesse Cunningham Road Trip 001

Cover image: Whitehorn Mountain across Kinney Lake,  Mount Robson Provincial Park, BC. I awoke early in the morning and hiked alone to Kinney Lake before starting my driving for the day. It had been weeks since I felt like I could move freely in the mountains. I could feel the tension and uncertainty of the last few weeks melting away as I moved quickly in the crisp morning air. All images: Jesse Cunningham

A year ago I obsessively started planning a campervan conversion project and spent much of the winter acquiring materials and building our dream rig for family adventures. At some point during the project,  we decided that our first big adventure would be a summer road trip to Alaska.

Should I Stay or Should I Go

As we moved toward this goal we were faced with several financial setbacks and family emergencies, each time thinking that we may have to give up on our Alaska road trip dream. 

The last setback occurred only three weeks before I was scheduled to drive the van solo to Alaska (my family was planning on flying up to join me and we'd all drive home to Washington). I shattered my collarbone in a mountain biking accident, and after surgery, the surgeon recommended that I not drive solo. As I struggled with pain, healing, and limited activity over the next few weeks, I also struggled with whether there was any way I could still make this trip happen. Ultimately, with two days left before my scheduled departure, I decided to go for it. I hoped that starting the trip would help me move forward and would give me the opportunity to relax and heal.

Embracing iPhone Photography

As a photographer accustomed to carrying around heavy camera bodies and lenses, I had to recalibrate my expectations for this trip. While traveling in recent years, I have embraced phone photography as a way to connect with the pure joy I experience in creating images, without being concerned about image quality, post-processing and setting up the perfect shot. It has been truly liberating, and I enjoy the sometimes grainy, low-quality images because they capture a feeling and an experience without the burden of feeling the need to perfect the image.

Jasper National Park by car. Road closures due to wildfires in BC forced me to detour to the east and through Jasper National Park. I had a long day of driving ahead of me and had already taken a hike so I made the tough decision to keep driving. Someday I will return and do some hiking in this beautiful park.

An early morning stroll to Liard Hot Springs. The scene reminded me of a classic landscape painting.

Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park, BC. An oasis in the northern forest. It was a welcome rest stop after four full days of driving. I spent the night there so I could soak in the hot springs in the evening and return in the morning before I resumed driving.

Crossing through the Rockies in the Yukon I saw a lot of wildlife on the roadside- black bears, grizzly bears, bison and stone sheep. It was also the beginning of the rainy, unsettled weather that would follow us for most of the rest of the trip. This photo was taken by the side of the road during a break between heavy rain showers.

As I neared Anchorage on my last day of solo driving, the Chugach mountains that had seemed so distant finally started to come closer. I was struck by this scene where the mountains seemed to hover in the clouds.

Hatcher Pass, AK. On our way to Denali National Park we took a detour and camped for the night near Hatcher Pass. In the morning I took a short hike up the ridgeline from Hatcher Pass toward Hatcher Peak. I hiked up in a light drizzle with low visibility. On the way down the clouds parted and I had nice views back toward the pass.

The view towards Polychrome Mountain from Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park.

We spent several days with friends visiting Seldovia, a town accessed only by boat or plane near the tip of the Kenai peninsula. My friend Tricia and I hiked the Otterbahn trail from town to this old quarry site near Outside Beach. I love all of the shades of gray and the textures in this shot.

Seward, AK., at dusk.

A hike to Tonsina Point included lots of foraging for salmonberries and blueberries, watching salmon spawning in the Tonsina River, and play time for the kids on the beach at low tide.

Salmon Glacier, BC. A worthwhile side trip from the Stewart-Cassiar highway on the return road trip. The road takes you through Stewart, BC to Hyder, AK and then back to BC where you can get spectacular views of the glacier spilling down the valley. 

Jesse Cunningham lives in Ellensburg, WA and is an Oboz ambassador, photographer, and father to two young adventurers. He enjoys motivating his children and others to get outside and chase their own adventures almost as much as he does plotting and pursuing his next big trip. His favorite Oboz? "The Crest Low Bdry has everything I could want in a low cut trail shoe." Follow his adventures on Instagram.

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