Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra

Our trip had taken us from Fairbanks,Alaska up the Haul Road (Dalton Highway), over Chandlar Shelf, and peaked at Atigun Pass (4,738′). We traversed the valley on the north side of the Brooks Range, and explored as far as Toolik. Although we were on the tundra, we never went far enough to leave the Brooks Range out of sight. Because of the incredible backdrop the mountains provided, I was compelled to place what we observed in their natural habitat. The resulting pictures and galleries provide a slice of diversity of the flowers and birds found on the tundra.

One of the remarkable birds seen during the trip was a bluethroat. These awesome birds are one of a few species which winter in Asia, but breed on the tundra in Alaska. Due to the amount of migration time needed they spend a lot of time on the wing! When we found it with help from another birder, the male bluethroat was displaying in the air and calling out in the voices of many species. Bluethroats are almost perfect mimics, and as it sang out we could hear the calls of redpolls, gray-cheeked thrushes, and swallows in its repertoire. A bluethroat female will find this male attractive if it can mimic enough other birds. The video below captures a few of the calls of this unique and beautiful bird, and shows of its stunning throat!

The northern hawk owl was another great bird of the trip. These raptors are efficient predators and unlike most owls are active during the mornings, evenings, and even during midday. This adaptation arose from the lack of nighttime in the tundra. The hawk owl we found was perched in the dead limbs of a burned black spruce, and actively twisted its head back and forth at every new sound. Suddenly the twisting head stopped, and it fixed its gaze on some unfortunate small animal on the ground. It dove off the branch with tucked wings, swooped low above the shrubs, but then perched again with empty claws. No breakfast this time! The second video below shows the intense stare of this bird.

Bluethroat Video:

Northern Hawk Owl Video:

Yellow, purple, pink, white, and red splashes of color were evident all across the tundra. Each color was associated with a pointed, rounded, tall, or stunted flower and stalk. The flowers of the tundra come in many different colors and shapes! Often the species are associated with a particular habitat type. Alpine arnica were found in the higher alpine tundra, arctic poppies in the short tundra, and bell heather tucked into the low pockets of the tussocks. One of the unexpected flowers of the trip were the frigid shooting stars that lined a small stream south of Toolik Field Station. Although I have wanted to see them for years now, I never thought the first time would be on the tundra! The flowers are aptly named, as their unique shape trails behind them as if they fell from the sky.

I am about to sing the unsong of the mosquito because each bite from the armies of flocked, winged, beasts can cause doubt that they serve any purpose but to cause misery. However, during the trip I documented one of the mosquito’s greatest contributions to the ecosystem. In the tundra, bees and butterflies are not as abundant as they are in forested areas, however, as shown above the variety and abundance of flowers have to be pollinated by something! In step the buzzing, nagging, mosquito. Male mosquitoes do not feed on blood, but rather nectar and thus spread pollen. Their hunger ensures that the blooms of the tundra create seeds and propagate for the next year.

Mosquito Pollination
A mosquito extends its proboscis peacefully into a pink plume to take a sip. It will carry pollen to the next pink plume it feeds on!
Frigid Shooting Star Mosquito
A mosquito perches on a frigid shooting star. It serves as further proof that they like nectar meals, but also gives some scale to the shooting star flowers. They are not that big!
Bird List
Our bird list for the trip, a total of 42 species 🙂

Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy

By the time we reached Galbraith Lake, North Slope, Alaska, the low light of the solstice sun to the north was casting shadows on the peaks of the Brooks Range, which finally lay to the south of us after hours of driving. Although rain showers had passed through earlier in the day, the lingering clouds were just cotton in the sky, lit to the orange color of hot coils of a stove. Our trip was planned for three days, and our mantra was to have “nowhere to be, and all day to get there”! We observed, absorbed, and enjoyed the birds, flowers, and beauty of the Tundra during solstice. Due to the many photos from the trip, the results will be broken into two chapters, “Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy”, and “Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra”. I hope you enjoy this first installment!

During the day we drove the Haul Road to various hiking destinations. A creek bed, a bird sighting, or a nice pull-off were all excuses to hike around and check out a new region. Although the road was busy with traveling semi-trucks and tourists, as soon as you walked away from the road the solitude was immediate. Few others hike around on the tundra at this time of the year, and its vast expanse ensures that even if they do, you do not have to see them unless you choose to. Since creek beds offer a natural hiking corridor through and around ankle twisting tundra humps, tussocks, we used them often. The small, bubbling rivers bottoms flowed through rockfields created by spring melts, and were just a fraction of their size during the melt a few weeks prior. However, flow was higher than normal for the time of year, as a snow storm just 10 days earlier fed them from the mountains. I was drawn to the colors and sizes of rocks on the stream beds, and the mountains behind them which birthed the running waters.

Brooks Range River.
A small mountain stream runs out of the mountains south of Atigun Pass.
Haul Road River
The Haul Road runs over this stream, and is visible in this shot. Multple stream braids flowed into each other in small rapids.
Brooks Range Reflection
West of Atigun Gorge, this small pond is joined to Galbraith lake and reflected the still snow-covered peaks of the northern Brooks Range.
Brooks Range Panorama
The north edge of the Brooks Range was lit up each night in the low light of the midnight sun. What a scene!

At the end of each day we set up camp on the tundra, targeting soft patches of sphagnum moss for our sleeping pads. The mattress companies of the world should take note of the comfort of the tundra – it is unparalleled in soft-yet-supportive sleep. From our camp we took small hikes to check out the local flora and birds. The hikes always brought something new to see and experience. Near one of our camps we discovered this baby longspur (either a Smith’s or Lapland) on the tundra. It perched on the moss in the warm sun, and was likely waiting for food from its parent. Unable to escape, this baby bird’s instinct was to sit as still as possible. I snapped a few shots, and then stepped away so its parents could rejoin and feed it.

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As we walked around each night I looked for settings to put up a solstice timelapse. The advantage of a timelapse over a single shot is to show the traveling path of the sun as it reaches the horizon and then curves back into the sky. Over the Brooks Range, being so far north, the sun stayed far above the horizon – it hadn’t dropped below the horizon there for over a month. This was in stark contrast to shooting at Finger Mountain about 15 miles south of the Arctic Circle where the sun just dipped below the curve of the earth. The resulting shots from each location have been fused together, and shown individually below. The lighting of the composite shots, in particular, I believe is very striking. Since each image is made of 8-10 shots over time, each plant has been lit from many angles. Because of this, extreme detail can be seen in each flower in the tundra foreground.

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This solstice shot was shot June 21 – 22nd from Finger Mountain, about 7 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Smoke from the over 200 active wild fires in the state (at the time) came in from the south, staining the sky red.
Finger Mountain Solstice Composite
This composite timelapse shot was taken over 4.5 hours. Since this was shot just south of the Arctic Circle, the sun disappears behind the horizon at ~2AM.
Solstice Sundial
This solstice shot was taken from Galbraith Lake Campground. In the foreground, an Oeder’s Lousewort stands as a sundial.
Solstice Composite Galbraith Lake
This composite makes the foreground of the tundra particularly epic. The small mountain avens that would be hid in a single shot really pop out when lit from many angles!

Solstice Composite Galbraith Lake 2

Solstice Tent
This solstice shot was taken June 20 – 21st, just west of Atigun gorge over camp for the night.

Atigun Gorge Solstice Composite

Mosquito Army
Our trip to the tundra was spectacular, but was not without its setbacks! Clouds of mosquitoes emerged about 10 PM each night, and were thick in the face, eyes, and back of the neck until we went to bed. However, during the night they receeded, and the mornings were quite pleasant again.
Brooks Range Camp
Kassie, Jess and I at camp with the Brooks Range in the Background.

A trip to the Tundra will bring as much to experience as the eye can behold and the brain can perceive. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of birds and blossoms!

A Portrait of the Great One

You never know what you will experience when you start into Denali National Park. I guess the beginner’s luck of my brother Sean and sister-in-law Jada, first time Park visitors, was what allowed us some of the magnificent views of Mount Denali. During my previous trips to the park I have never experienced the magnitude of the Mountain like we did. The first time we saw it from about 50-60 miles away the twin summits were fully exposed against blue bird skies, and it lay across a broad river valley. We crossed the valley and crested a rise which brought full views of the Mountain. The beauty and size of Denali simultaneously released endorphins and adrenaline which made me smile and babble about its incredible beauty. The significance of its name,the Great One, was evident!

Denali National Park, Black and White
A full panorama of Denali as seen from Eilson Visitor Center. I love this black and white transformation of this shot.
Denali
Denali from Eilson Visitor Center. This shot captures well Mount Brooks and the foothills of Denali. Mount Brooks. Although Brooks is almost 12,000 feet it, it was dwarfed by the 20,000+ foot Denali!
Denali Pano
As we moved further into the park, clouds starting to form over Denali. The twin summits were slowly hidden from sight.
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A full view of Mount Brooks and Denali from Wonder Lake. Clouds had moved over the top of the mountain.
Denali Wonder Lake
The clouds formed quickly, obscuring the summit
Here was our first view of Denali across a broad river valley. The far rise brought us to our first full (and spectacular) views of Denali!
Here was our first view of Denali across a broad river valley. The far rise brought us to our first full (and spectacular) views of Denali!
Alpine Tundra and Denali
A common tundra alpine tundra flower, Narcisus Anenome, sits in front of the Great One. Wildflowers like these were everywhere in the park.
Denali Group
The lucky group in our first opportunity to get a photo in front of Denali. From this point on the mountain continued to grow was we go closer and closer…
Denali Group, Wonder Lake
…And then we were a lot closer! The mountain stood far above all else!

As we sat and and soaked in the views of the Mountain from Wonder Lake Campground, I took advantage of the time by shooting a nice timelapse. It’s fascinating watching the clouds form over the peaks! Check it out here :

Wonder Lake
The water of wonder lake is very clear. The lake stretches for a couple miles and reaches over 300 feet deep. On it we found a nesting Common Loon.

Our entire trip was marked with fun wildlife sightings and remarkable beauty. In particular, wildflowers were found on each slope accenting the mountain scenery. Mountain Avens, One Flower Cinquefoil, Moss Campion and many others. Rather than write, I’ll let the captions and pictures speak for themselves on this one!

Caribou Savage River
As we walked back along the Savage River trail, and group of bachelor bulls had moved across the trail. It was easily my best opportunities to see caribou to date!
Curious Caribou
Although the caribou did not mind me much, this one was eyeing me up a bit. This shot gives you a great idea of how big those antlers are!
Caribou Science
One of these caribou is not like the others. I’m not talking about its coat, nose, or antlers. The middle one is wearing a collar! I’m not sure of the intent of this study, but he’s being monitored.
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Arctic ground squirrels are winter survival masters. Once hibernating, their heart rate slows, metabolism slows, and brain activity nearly ceases. However, they wake up once per month enough to re-establish brain activity before falling back into deep hibernation.
Dall Sheep Kids
Three ewe dall sheep perch on the cliffs below us near polychrome pass. This particular spot offered shade, and as always, the mountains protected them from terrestrial predators. Although safe from four-leggers, golden eagles are known to take the kids (lambs)!
Teklanika Ridgeline
Hiking the ridgeline over Teklanika Campground. Endless scenery!
Savage River Hike
At the end of the Savage River loop, the valley gorge pours over loose boulders. We found a natural bench and took advantage of it. I love this group shot!
Savage River Bridge
A small footbridge cross the Savage River as it flows down the gorge. Alaska scenery is the best!
Polychrome Pass Wildflowers
One-leaf cinquefoil in the alpine tundra of Polychrome Pass. The Polychrome Mountains in the distance were shrouded and beautiful!
Alpine Arnica
Alpine arnica are a common and beautiful flower in the rocky slopes and along the roads. We hiked to this ridgeline just a mile or two out of Teklanika Campground.
Alpine Moon
As if the shrouded clouds weren’t enough, the moon appeared above the polychrome mountains. Can you pick it out?

“Roughing It” In the Bush.

This post starts from the first step up the bank of the the Porcupine River to Joe’s cabin. We were relieved to see the flood waters had not topped as far as the cabin, although plenty of water had still gone over bank-full height and flooded the lower terrace of his property. I hauled the gear from the boat as Joe set about opening the cabin.

Since there was no flood damage to be repaired, we started a leisurely existence at the cabin consisting of small projects (what Joe (and ironically my Dad) called “puttering”), eating, sleeping, and reading a book. Between sessions of tackling Alex Haley’s “Roots”, I went for birding walks around the cabin, and ventured into the local slough. As needed, we traveled a few miles upriver to a clear-water stream and filled five gallon pails full of water for filtering.

One of the greatest lessons I learned on the trip came from Joe when he said “Just because you live in the Bush, doesn’t mean you have to do without”. Certainly over the years, through sweat, countless trips up the river and through the air, he and his wife had transformed the cabin into a home away from home. When living there permanently, the four garden plots just out the door provided fresh vegetables.  A solar panel amply charged a battery pack in the cabin allowing for electric lights and a water pump for a shower. In fact, it was possible to take a steaming hot shower each day if one desired! A large kitchen, bedroom, eclectic and huge library, and centralized wood-stove made living there extremely comfortable!

Cabin Pano
This 360 degree panorama inside the cabin might be a big confusing, but take a while to look at it and appreciate how amazing it was!

The cabin was crafted by Joe and took four years to build. One year to cut the logs, strip the bark, and let the logs season. Another season to put up the walls and cut the lumber for the roof, and a couple more to finish the cabin entirely. All of the log-milling was completed with a chainsaw. For his first and last cabin, Joe did a perfect job. The cabin is in pristine condition, and I marveled at it a lot!

Cabin outside
This outside shot of the cabin shows just some of it’s beauty and perfection!

Aside from birding and reading, I enjoyed the views of the river. Life on the river changed constantly. After the first couple of days the water receded enough that a prominent gravel bar emerged for the first time since the flood. A  flock of twelve long-tailed ducks repeatedly flew up river and drifted down. Each cloudless night the moon rose over the far banks, and the low light of a mid-night sun lit up the bluffs across the river in orange and gold. Life was good on the banks of the Porcupine.

Cabin Bluffs Pano
Low-light each night would light up the bluff across from the cabin in dramatic and beautiful light.
Moon and Bluffs
Going to the bathroom was no drudgery at the cabin – this was the view from the outhouse door!

I did my best to capture video of life around the cabin. Throughout the days at the cabin I captured some timelapse and clips of wildlife. The music is pretty relaxing – you can check out the video here:

Although not all experiences in the bush need to be plush and care-free like this trip, I certainly have a new viewpoint that such an existence is even possible. Just because you live in the bush doesn’t mean you have to do without!

Delta
Delta enjoyed the leisure time as much as I did.
Delta
Our cabin guard dog 🙂

Go When The River Says Go

I was excited to head far into the Alaskan bush by river to help a friend open his cabin for the season. Almost a week of packing led up to the Wednesday we were supposed to leave.  However, when the middle day of the week arrived, high water reports from Fort Yukon and the Upper Porcupine River were ominous. Record snowfall in Old Crow, Yukon Territory, had swollen the giant river systems. They were far above travel-able levels, and over-flooded banks were pulling dangerous amounts of debris, ‘drift’, into the river. Our final destination was 220 river miles through the high water and drift of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, and the experienced judgement of Joe dictated that we would wait a few days before heading up to his cabin. Four days later the river had dropped to acceptable levels. It was go-time : the river was saying so!

Before I get into some of the stories of the trip. Come along on the trip with me by watching this video:

The notion of taking a boat far into the Alaskan bush is exciting! A long-time resident of the bush, Joe was anxious to open his cabin, and assess his estate because bears, humans, or weather can all impact an unoccupied cabin.  The boat-trip up river started in Circle, Alaska on a cloudy day. As we headed downstream in the Yukon River, we quickly entered the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. This expansive refuge is critical, critical habitat for breeding waterfowl and birds. In fact, the refuge hosts 150 species of breeding birds from 11 countries, 8 Canadian provinces and 43 of the 50 states. That’s remarkable diversity!

This is Delta, our wonderful river dog companion!
This is Delta, our wonderful river dog companion!

The Yukon Flats is aptly named. As we cruised along in the boat, the shores were a steady patchwork of riparian habitat consisting of willows, birch, and spruces. There was no perceptable climb in elevation. The fast, high water of the river kept progress slow, and Captain Joe was constantly vigilant for pieces of drift. Three foot-long sticks and entire trees were coming down the river at the rate of several or more pieces per minute. Hitting a small branch may result in a dented prop, but a large stump could have ended the trip. By the time we reached Curtis Slough to stop for the night, the intense driving had drained Joe (and rightfully so!). Overall we made it about 135 river miles from Circle.

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As you move along the river there are cabins dotted along the way. Some of them, such as this one provide permanent shelter year around for bush dwellers. Others are seasonal or may just provide shelter for passing travelers.
Schuman House
An old cabin at “Schuman House”

We pulled into a small log cabin along the banks Curtis Slough, hoping to spend the night. The traditional landing was underwater, but I jumped ashore with the bow rope and headed to tie off to a nearby tree. I glanced at the cabin, and immediately saw that the plywood door had been torn in half; peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. “Hey Joe”, I stated, “A bear broke into the cabin, by tearing the door off”. “Ok, does it look fresh?”, he questioned. I assessed the raw wood in the torn door from 25 feet away and responded, “yup, sure does!”. By that time Joe had climbed up with Delta, our dog companion. Delta moved towards the cabin and sniffed the door; her demeanor immediately told us that it was a very fresh break in, and then I heard a can rattle from inside. The bear was still in the cabin! In two flicks of a lamb’s tail we were in the boat and headed across river to camp on a more desirable (bear free) gravel bar. Joe, knowing the owner of the cabin, made a satellite phone call to inform them of the situation. Remarkably, this bear encounter was the only one of the whole trip!

The next morning we continued up the Porcupine River, and moved out of the Yukon Flats and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic NWR is the largest piece of land in the refuge system, and home of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. No longer in the flats, we saw a mountain on the horizon! More significantly, that mountain was the beginning of the rocky ramparts which would line the river for the rest of our trip. The tall and colorful ramparts and bluffs of the Porcupine Rive were a welcome contrast to the Yukon Flats! As we moved through the landscape, the smile of enjoyment could not have been erased from my face by the spray of a skunk. The area was absolutely stunning; on a small scale, I was reminded of the Grand Canyon. Red, orange, and black rock walls rose high above the water. The bluffs held countless caves and spires shaped by wind, ice, and snow. The refuge of the high cliffs provided important nesting habitat. As we passed we noticed nests of golden eagles, ravens, and a peregrine falcon protected on all sides by the vertical rock faces.

Two hundred and twenty-two miles upriver we passed the final bluff across from Joe’s cabin. The boat swung around towards the opposite bank and soon I tied it off onshore. Already I felt connected to this beautiful region, and was excited to spend the next five days exploring it. The next chapter of cabin life to come soon!

Oh, and as one last, unrelated note the blog turned two on May 28th. Thank-you ALL for your continuing support. Your feedback, comments, and enjoyment of the material here is much appreciated!