By a Team of Seven Into Heaven

It seemed like a good omen that the clouded skies cleared to bluebird conditions as we pulled into the parking lot of Wickersham Dome. The unexpected blue skies cheered us on as we went about threading our ganglines, clipping on snowhooks, and packing our sleds. Eager and expectant dogs watched our progress, and when we began to hook them up their tug lines, they fed upon each others energy. Leaping, pulling, and baying they waited for me to pull my snowhook and quickrelease. When I did, the sled lurched over the hardpack of the parking lot, banked left onto the main trail, and we were on our way to Crowberry Cabin, 30 miles into White Mountains.

Sled dogs have a plethora of personalities. Jeff (friend and owner of Black Spruce Dog Sledding) let me know that Sooner, one of my dogs in lead only pulled well for “people he liked”, and I was conscious of that trait as we made our first stop. I walked up to the front of the team and gave Sooner a good pat on the head. “Keep it up, bud”, I stated. I’m not sure if my initial approaches made a difference or not, but Sooner and Stoic, the lead along with him, pulled great the entire trip with their heads down, and always with some tension on the tuglines. Behind the leads, Simon, an old veteran pulled well too. As a veteran dog he knew his roll in the team and worked hard. Sniffing the tip of Simon’s tail was Beaver and Scorch. Finally, taking “wheel”, Grizz and George were responsible for pulling hard. George can be a great worker, and out of my entire team he is my favorite. He loves to check out what’s going on, and since his position was closest to the sled, every time I opened the sled bag he craned his neck to get a look inside. Together they were my team of 7, and I was happy to be pulled by them!

Crowberry cabin sat on a facing to the west, and the peaks of the White Mountains surrounded us. The wooden cabin looked iconic for the Alaskan Wilderness. Throughout the Whites, these public use cabins serve as refuge for those who venture far. Trappers, hunters, mushers, or snow machiners make use of them. The full log construction of this cabin was wonderful, and when once we built a fire and warmed the inside, it was a truly incredible getaway. The four bunkbeds, dinner table, and camps stove, and lantern made it into a 5 star Alaskan Suite. However, admiration of the cabin was actually secondary to the task at hand. I walked along the gangline of the staked out dogs and tossed out beef snacks. We layed down straw for each of the pairs to keep them off the snow, and started heating up water for their main course – kibbles and meat. Building a fire, we enjoyed the sunset and fed the dogs their final meal.

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This was Jeff’s dog, and a notorious chewer. To prevent any damage to the gangline or necklines, this dog got his own bed of straw and post at a tree.
Our lookout.
Our lookout.
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A moody landscape over the White Mountains.
Curved black spruces in the white mountains
Curved black spruces in the white mountains
Crowberry Cabin
Crowberry Cabin
The sunset over the white mountains illuminating the edge of the snow-carrying front.
The sunset over the white mountains illuminating the edge of the snow-carrying front.

The next morning an inch of powdery snow had fallen over the night. My team was wide awake as I stepped outside for the first time, and George gave me a happy tail wag. I dusted the snow off my sled, packed my gear, harnessed my team and hit the trail. The dogs were just as eager to set out on the trail as the day before. The intermittent, light snow shaded the hills and made our ride home far different. The sprawling vistas of the White Mountains were gone, replaced by a moody gray. The next 4 hours breezed by, and before I knew it the Wickersham Dome parking lot was back under foot, ending an incredible experience and trip!

The opportunity to experience dog sledding for an overnight trip is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I have literally wanted to drive my own team since reading about fictional characters “Lew and Charlie” in Fur Fish Game, stories by Jack London, or books like Jim Kjelgaard’s “Snow Dog”. Those stories have fueled my imagination and desire to visit open spaces since I was twelve. I have always been drawn to the mystery, adventure, and vastness of remote areas. The White Mountains are just one of the broad wilderness areas of Alaska, and the opportunity to experience it using the low-impact “Alaskan” method was truly a gift!

Jeff's team was a bit faster than mine, and I captured them here as we headed back home.
Lindsey’s team was a bit faster than mine, and I captured them here as we headed back home.
The crew. Jeff, KattiJo, and Lindsey. A great trip!
The crew. Jeff, KattiJo, and Lindsey. A great trip!

Into the Mouth of an Ice Beast

The receding glaciers in the Bays of Southeast Alaska are opening up barren landscapes and new lands for colonizing vegetation and birds like arctic terns. As we walked along Sitaantaagu (Tlingit : “The Glacier Behind the Town”), I felt connected to the misty, snow covered mountains, and rocky lake shore. It is renowned and spectacular country!

Mendenhall glacier is receding at up to 150 feet per year, and in 1900 the large quantities of melt water began forming Mendenhall Lake.  The lake is now home to salmon which have colonized glacial streams. Remarkably, it seems that colonization by salmon occurs in a decade or two. Much shorter that I ever suspected!  As we, a large group of wildlife biologists, walked along the shoreline of Mendenhall Lake and told stories of field seasons gone-by or hypothesized on natural processes, icebergs which had calved from the glacier drifted in the middle of the lake.Naturalist Bob Armstrong introduced me to a small, alpine wildflower called purple mountain saxifrage.  This early bloomer, he stated, is a critical resource of early emerging insects like the bumble bees.

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Purple saxifrage is one of the first spring flowers to bloom in the Juneau region.
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Purple saxifrage filled with the rains of Juneau.

The face of the Mendenhall Glacier got bigger, and bigger, and bigger as we approached. By the time I reached the front of the glacier it loomed in front of me for almost a half mile.  I walked up the river of melt-water in front of the glacier and  touched the edge of the the ice cave it had carved. I grinned a bit, threw myself over a three foot bolder guarding the cave and stepped inside into the mouth of the icebeast. I was awestruck. Curved, turquoise ice hung over my head like whipped meringue. The sound of the river reverberating in the small space was numbing, and was fed by each drop of water that fell from the ice into the river. Looking further up the cave, the color transitioned from turquoise to cerulean blue. As I walked further the surrounding area turned so blue, that I could have been scuba diving in an ocean.

The hardest part to capture in these pictures is the scale of the ice cave. It stretched back over 100 feet, and as I walked in the ceiling diminished from 7 feet, to 5 feet, and finally I was relegated to crawling on my hands and knees in the narrow space.

The way ‘out’ was graced by a set of rock ptarmigan. These birds, allowed me to get very close, and I framed up this shot with the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in the background. These ptarmigan won’t be white for much longer!

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A beautiful rock ptarmigan in front of Mendenhall Glacier
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A puffy rock ptarmigan!

Glacial recession in expansion in Alaska has occurred since the last glacial maximum. The Little Ice Age caused the expansion of Alaskan glaciers about 4,000 years ago, and recent recession has exposed what has been buried for nearly a millennium. These stumps were exposed by the receding Mendenhall glacier and were aged to nearly 1,500 years ago! “Deep time” can be hard to comprehend, and it amazing to think the Imperial Chinese Empire had been established for 800 years and that Medieval Europe was enforcing fiefdoms through rigid monarchies when these hemlock and sitka black spruce were buried!

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A large stump of a forest buried by ice ~1,500 years ago. It has been determined the forest was composed of hemlock and sitka black spruce.
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This stump field is degrading fast, but it’s likely more forests will be uncovered as the Mendenhall Glacier receeds even further.

The Aurora Gets the Last Laugh

Just a few days ago I was writing to that it would be six months until I went chasing the lights again. Little did I know that one of the best nights of the season was still in store! Last nights aurora swelled overhead in vibrant shades of purple and blue. I was there to capture the action as the sunlight filtered out of the horizon at 10:30 and didn’t leave until nearly 2:30AM!  The clouds rolled in and out through the night, and are evident in these shots.

Since I thought the Lights were all wrapped up for the summer – I guess they got the last laugh!

An Ode to the 2015 – 2015 Aurora Season

It will be another 6 months before I wander out into the night in chase of the lights. Each night brought its own set of  wandering wonders, whether that was me wandering through snow-encrusted black spruce forests or the aurora wandering unpredictably overhead. This season has been described by many Watchers as “the best in years”. Indeed, the frequency and colors of the aurora this season were spectacular. I have enjoyed the Northern Lights from the comfort of a sleeping bag, over the northern edge of the Arctic Circle, and from the comfort of my own home. Braving -40 degree temps or enjoying 30 above zero have all been part of the experience. Over the season my knowledge of how to capture the aurora has grown immensely. The timelapse video below captures the highlights of this season for me. I hope you enjoy it. 

Highlight Timelapse 2014 – 2015:

The images below are my Top 20 from the season. I must say, it was difficult not to extend it to a top 50 ;). These assorted pixels are a cross section of aurora intensities and color. Subtle or fluorescent greens, crimson reds, banded pinks, and royal purple danced for those below with necks craned up. Each of these auroras is unique, and I can say with hopeful certainty that I will never see the same pattern of auroras again. That’s why I chase, because you never know what lies in wait as you step out your front door.

Aurora Top 20: