The Negative 40F Aurora Club

While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.

Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up.  Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!

With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!

The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂

At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!

Dog Mushing in Alaska

On Martin Luther King day I got to take a new ride out for a spin.This ‘ride’ was not like many you find in the lower 48! It had 16 legs and accelerated like a drag racer; when the dogs at Black Spruce Dog Sledding take off they do so with gusto! Check out the video below for an excerpt of an afternoon of mushing!

This actually wasn’t my first dog-sledding rodeo, but it was 11 years ago that I was on a on a dog sled. Some things I remembered well. For instance, I remembered the excitement! As you stand on the rear of the sled and the dogs are baying and pulling against the gangline the feeling of thrill builds! When the quick release (a rope and pin tied to a non-moving object) is pulled the team takes off like a race car. Rule #1 is to hold on!  From the kennels we headed out with our tag-sled team for a 13 mile loop. The dogs settled into a rhythm of about 7 mph on the uphills and ~10 mph on the flats. That is the pace that Jeff tries for when racing his dogs for mid-distance (300 mile) and longer races (1000 mile Yukon Quest or 2000 mile Iditarod). The constant pace of the run is essential for the dogs, they perform the best by establishing that pace.

On this particular trail it’s not long before the beginner’s baptism-by-fire comes into a view. A 90 degree turn after a road crossing was looming and my senses were keen as I considered how to navigate the obstacle. Jeff coached me by telling me to lean into the turn and try to stand on one ski while peddling one foot on the outside of the turn. He deftly performed the lesson he gave to me and I deftly tipped the sled into the snow bank! “I’m Down!” was all I had to call before Jeff had put on the break and I righted myself. Rule #2 – hold on during a fall! Fortunately, it was the only time I dumped the sled on our tag-sled tour. However, that doesn’t mean other section did not feel harrowing! On steeper down hills it was critical to keep plenty of weight on the drag to slow the sled and the team down. Zipping between black spruce trees we hurtled over snow drifts, wound through tight corridors, and leaned around turns. It’s amazing to me how mentally active you have to be when riding with a dog team in those conditions! Anticipating the turn or terrain ahead was essential to placing my weight correctly in the sled. Being centered, on the left ski, or the right ski changed how well I coped with the turns and the terrain.

I think it took me about five miles to start to feel comfortable in the sled. I no longer felt that I was going to tip at each turn and I began to feel my body relax. The smile which had not left my face since take off was still glued on. The joy of running with the dogs is infectious and the beauty of the scenery was unforgettable.  During the night and morning a heavy ice fog had built up scales of hoar frost on the trees. The encapsulated trees glinted in the sun that burned through the fog bank. We concluded our 13 mile tag sled run (2 sleds pulled by a larger team), and then I took my own 4 dog team out for a short, local loop. It was great to test my skills with my own (albeit smaller, but more manageable) team! By the time I left that day the sun, now low in the sky, ricocheted through the gem-encrusted limbs in an orange light ending a truly great day!

For more information on the kennels you can always check out : http://blacksprucedogsledding.com/

Gray Jay Black Spruce Dog Sledding
At the kennels the Gray Jay is a food thief. All food containers have to stay closed to keep these marauders out!
Laughing Sled Dog
We stopped to tell some jokes along the trail – I guess Inferno thought they were pretty doggone funny! 🙂 In reality though, each time we stopped the dogs LOVE to dive through the powder that their ganglines allow. Here, the dog “Inferno” is enjoying a roll in the snow.
Sled Dog Profile
Take a break – but ready to run!
My team of 4 is taking a quick breather - but they're ready to keep running!
My team of 4 is taking a quick breather – but they’re ready to keep running!
The sun breaks on the hillside behind black spruce encrusted in hoar frost.
The sun breaks on the hillside behind black spruce encrusted in hoar frost.
The hoar frost built an intricate lattice of ice on each needle of this black spruce. Quite pretty!
The hoar frost built an intricate lattice of ice on each needle of this black spruce. Quite pretty!
Hoar Frost builds up up on a black spruce limb. Look at the size of those crystals!
Hoar Frost builds up up on a black spruce limb. Look at the size of those crystals!
A shrub with a heavy layer of hoar frost was illuminated by the setting sun.
A shrub with a heavy layer of hoar frost was illuminated by the setting sun.
A frosty beard after the 13mile tag-sled run!
A frosty beard after the 13mile tag-sled run!

Celestial Sights : Comet Lovejoy in Alaska

Comet Lovejoy has been visible in the Northern Hemisphere, but peaked in magnitude on January 15th and is now headed away from Earth. Viewers can still see it with binoculars for probably only a while longer, so get out there soon. It will not be visible for another 8,000 years! Last night I went comet chasing, which I think is the first time since Hale-Bopp! I was just 9 years old at the time, but I remember sitting on the back deck at the house and observing the skies. You may have heard of comets in the news lately. During November 2014, the Rosetta Comet landing (Philae Lander) by the European Space Agency made history as the first time humans have landed a craft on a comet. Some incredible science will hopefully be done once the lander’s solar panels start gathering light again. However, one of the incredible things to come from the observation of the comet was the “sound” that a comet makes. “ESA’s Rosetta probe detected cyclical changes in the comet’s magnetic field environment. To make the comet’s magnetic ‘song’ audible to people, researchers sped up the data 10,000 times its actual rate.” (www.space.com). It has been likened to Predator (the movie), and the similarity is uncanny! The timelapse below includes the eerie and amazing ‘song’!


Comet Lovejoy does not have a huge tail, however is very, very distinctly green. I was told it was green, but the forest/lime green color was much more distinct that I was expecting! Through the night I shot the Lovejoy comet in a variety of methods, I learned a lot! The three images here are meant to give you an idea of where to find Lovejoy current, as well as the look of different focal lengths. At ~300 mm the maximum length of exposure without star trails is about 1.5 seconds.

If you want to get out to see Lovejoy in the next couple of nights let me know. It is worth it!

This image of Lovejoy will give you a good idea of where to look in the skies. The cluster of stars you see is the constellation the '7 Sisters'. On 01/17/2015 the comet was located below, and to the right of that constellation. This image was taken at 17mm, f/2.8, 25sec, ISO 1600
This image of Lovejoy will give you a good idea of where to look in the skies. The cluster of stars you see is the constellation the ‘7 Sisters’. On 01/17/2015 the comet was located below, and to the right of that constellation. This image was taken at 17mm, f/2.8, 25sec, ISO 1600
This images of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 100mm. f/4.0, ISO 3200, 3.2 seconds.
This images of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 100mm. f/4.0, ISO 3200, 3.2 seconds.
This image of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 286 mm. It starts to give you a pretty good idea of the green halo/fuzz which surrounds the comet. f/5.6, ISO 2500, 3.2 sec
This image of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 286 mm. It starts to give you a pretty good idea of the green halo/fuzz which surrounds the comet. f/5.6, ISO 2500, 3.2 sec
This abstract shot of the Comet Lovejoy was assembled in Star Trails. Because of the noise associated with these shots I had to edit it heavily. However, I love the neon green path that it it plows across the sky!
This abstract shot of the Comet Lovejoy was assembled in Star Trails from ~200 shots. Because of the noise associated with these shots I had to edit it heavily. However, I love the neon green path that it it plows across the sky!

January 17th : Alaskan Snapshot

When I was home for Christmas break one of the questions I got asked fairly regularly was “what’s it like to live in Alaska in the winter?”. I always grin, which seems to be what people expect because they grin back, but I think I disappoint them by explaining that a lot of times the winter conditions are not as desperate as you think. Yes, 40 below is cold, but in Fairbanks the wind rarely blows making the cold very tolerable. 20-25% humidity ensures that it is a ‘dry cold’ (think of someone from Arizona explaining the dry heat). In the eyes of many, the hardest thing to adapt to is the short days in the winter. Although we are gaining length now, the dark days at bottom of winter make getting out of bed hard and sleeping easy. In Alaskan winters I celebrate and cherish the sun because I miss it! The darkness lately has been compounded by cloudy skies, so when the sun was out this morning I knew I wanted to be outside for it as much as possible! I gathered together my gear for setting burbot lines (more on that soon!!) and headed to the Tanana river. But, my trip to the river certainly was not linear, all along the way I found things to swing my camera lens at in that beautiful sunshine. So, today I give you a snap shot of January 17th in Alaska, a beautiful day! Photos are time-stamped and in order of occurrence. Hopefully you’ll see that not all winter days are so bad in Alaska!

11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee plans its next move at my feeders outside of the house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee looks before it leaps and is eyeing up some suet.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find. Red-backed voles have actually been demonstrated to spend a large portion of their days in black spruces which is a recently documented behavior!
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces.
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces. This seems to be a pretty normal winter behavior – move as little as possible to conserve energy.
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed "jumbled ice". The shadows of small snow-dunes are beautiful!
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed “jumbled ice”. The shadows of small snow-dunes indicate a rough texture underneath!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing! This is easily my favorite panorama to date because it is a view I get to enjoy everyday, and this picture captures it well!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We've gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Todays day length is just over 5 hours!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We’ve gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Today’s day length is just over 5 hours!

2014 in Review : A Good Year!

It’s incredible that one 36th of the year is already gone as I type this. Weren’t we just clinking champagne glasses as the ball dropped in New York just last night? As 2015 begins, I wanted to take the time to thank all who support this blog and my writing. I would not just write to myself; your comments and input are much appreciated!

I am incredibly thankful for my time here in Alaska. My travels have taken me to hundreds of miles south to enjoy the coastal ranges in Anchorage and Seward. In the opposite direction, I have beaten the punishing gravel of the haul road to cross the Brooks Range onto the Northslope three times. Within the Alaskan wilderness I have hunted big game, fished its rivers, and enjoyed bears, fox, and wolves, along with a plethora of bird species. During the dark skies of winter I have been graced by the dancing Northern Lights and cloaked in inky darkness. I have found there is always something to do in Alaska, and I feel that in the last 365 days I have had the adventures worthy of two year. It has indeed been a good year!

Below is a small gallery of the hundreds of photos that have been taken in Alaska during 2014 and featured in the blog. I have opted out of any captions, but if you would like to know more about an image, leave a comment. Thanks again everyone, and here’s to 2015!

January


Burbot Fishing

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February


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March


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April


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May


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June


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July


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August


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September


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Igloo Campground Fall Color Pan 2

October


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November


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December


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