O’er Hill and Dale to Haines

Dearest Reader,

What I am about to recount is greater in grandeur than I ever suspected when I packed up everything I owned into one vehicle and left Fairbanks, Alaska to move to Hoonah. I found the road from Fairbanks to Haines was filled with wildlife, mountains, signs of spring, joy-inducing beauty, and adventure if I sought it. Herein lies the account of my travels.

Of the Aurora Borealis, I cannot speak more highly of its beauty and grace. From my perch above Castner Glacier, just south of Delta Junction, Alaska, I watched the blues and gold of the sunset fade away. Clear skies danced with twinkling stars, and a brilliant full moon hung in the sky; it was nearly to bright to look at. From my ridge post, I looked far up the valley to the illuminated peaks of the Alaska Range. Directly in front of me, the looming face of the glacier was hidden in the shadow of the valley. Its ice was banded with layers of sediment and polished clean by the winds which occasionally blow violently down the valley. Fortunately, on this night there was not even a breath of wind. Eventually the aurora built to such proportions that it arched over the full glacier. It danced in pinks in green that must have released many positive endorphins inside of me, for I felt very calm and at peace.

Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory is an enchanting valley of ice. The morning after I arrived, I stood on the ice in the pre-dawn to watch the sunrise. Surrounded by high mountains on each side, the sun takes a long time to break the plane of the mountains. Slowly the mountains to the west were lit in an ethereal orange light until the sun broke the ragged edges of the mountains to the east.  At that point the light turned white and the day had begun. At the southern extremes of Kluane Lake I found many big-horn sheep. Although none of them had the large, signature curls of a mature ram, it was fun to watch the kids and ewes feed along the mountainside. A wildlife bonus was watching the crossing of two coyotes across the center of the lake. They were dwarfed by the magnitude of the mountains.

Along Kluane National Park I surprised to see the first signs of spring in the Taiga. Willows were opening their fuzzy buds, and even small rivers were beginning to open and trickle through the snow.  I met the most enchanting little bird along the waters of a fast moving river. An American Dipper was feeding for fish from along a small ice flow. It dipped and bobbed its butt in the signature dance move of the small bird.

From the river bottoms of Kluane National Park I climbed into the enchanting winter-wonderland of Haines Pass, at about 3,500 feet. Up there, tyrannical winter was still in full control with only a few inklings that spring had a foothold. Much like the high arctic,most large trees were relegated to river bottoms out of the wind. Although prime habitat for the all-white Willow Ptarmigan, I saw only a few. Snow accumulation, to my best estimate, was around 6 or 7 feet in the pass. I was fortunate the road was cleared and the day so beautiful! The mountains landscape was truly more than I expected, and I say without pause that its beauty was intoxicating!

I descended to Haines, Alaska where it was evident that Spring was fortifying itself for a full on attack on Winter in the highlands. In Haines, the rivers flowed with vigor, and the mountains accented them by reflecting vigorously from the shimmering surface. I found that Haines in the night was  perhaps even more beautiful than in the daytime. Jutting mountains stuck up from behind the city and lit by a full moon it was truly a sight to behold. Seeing as this was the first time I have seen Haines, this will likely be how I always remember it!

Well, dearest Reader, I hope you have enjoyed the account of my trip from Fairbanks to Haines. I do hope you have the opportunity to partake in it someday and extend upon the numerous opportunities of which I have only scratched the surface. The images below may also help tell the story as they are set chronologically from my departure to my arrival.

Sincerely,

A New Southeasterner

Into the Alaskan Night

This winter, and the winter before that, and the winter before that, I spent more time outside in the darkness than I did in the sun. It is the nature of living in a land where the Lights in the darkness outshine in beauty the pleasure of the sun’s flare.  I have found tremendous joy, solace, quiet, and refuge in watching the Aurora Borealis sway and bend across the northern sky, and documenting the Northern Lights has been an endeavor that has kept me up hundreds of hours. Locked away in terabytes of pixels are the proof of my labors. The images that I hold will be a legacy to pass on to my children and perhaps to my grandchildren. It is possible the pictures I have taken will even document change in the Arctic as our climate warms and the landscape transitions to something else.

I have learned more than I can measure about the natural world in Fairbanks because the Arctic is a deceptively complex place, and it is rapidly changing. There are many examples of its uniqueness. Its ecosystem has evolved to support wildlife at extreme temperatures from -60F to 80F. A highlight of its incredible diversity and unique importance are the hundreds of species of birds that return there each year from several continents to breed. Without the Arctic as a breeding ground, populations of waterfowl would be vastly diminished. To create the right conditions to support life for a short summer, the input energy into the system has to be massive, and the never-setting Midnight is the catalyst that fuels the prolifery. From its heat and light rise the microbes,plants, insects, and small mammals which fuel an entire ecosystem that provides resources for those animals and humans that live in it, as well as humans who profit from its export to other regions of the world. The Arctic has become a land which I look forward to returning to, as there is still so much to learn about and see!

At the end of every  night comes the dawn. A chance for the world to be seen in a different light, from a new perspective. I have been incredibly blessed with the opportunity to experience the wonders of Interior Alaska, but along with the moving world, I will be shifting my life to Hoonah, Alaska. In Southeast Alaska along the coast, I look forward to plying the sea for salmon and watching its waters for whales, otters in seals. With endless photographic opportunity in the region, I am thrilled to show you and write about the resource rich world of Southeast!

This season’s Aurora Borealis Time-Lapse, “Into the Alaskan Night”, comes not at the end of the Aurora Season but at the end of my time in Fairbanks. In a way, its production is a piece of closure of my life in the interior as I move to Hoonah, Alaska, where I look forward to wandering into the night.

2016 World Ice Art Competition

The 2016 World Ice Art Championship has just finished up by unveiling the multi-block results, and for the third year in a row the creativity of the carvers and the results of polished ice have left me speechless. In one word, the sculptures are “awesome”. However, it would take a plethora of adjectives spanning  the alphabet from Astounding to Zestful to capture everything they have to offer. This year, more than ever, I was amazed by the minute details that each carving contained. The attention to the micro aspects of the carving contributed to the entirety of the piece in ways that can only be appreciated once you have stared at each sculpture for awhile. The refracting light off a lizard is because of the individually carved scales, the polish of a perfect sphere warps the scenery behind it, or a martian equipped with an astronaut has a face inside of the helmet. It is evident the amount of work that the artists put into their work to achieve greatness.

After three years of attending this event I have been struck by the variety of sculptures made. As I wrote this article, it has been a real treat to review the artwork of the 2014 World Ice Art Championships and the 2015 World Ice Art Championships. From that, I am reminded that each Abstract submission is fresh in its ingenuity and content. It seems the creativity artists who submit their art to this event are limitless in their ability to mold and shape ice into surreal scenes. Similarly, the Realistic submissions recreate in ice what would seem difficult with a more stable medium like stone or wood. The first place winner of the Single Block competition this year put together an acrobat performer so realistic that if given clothes and some music, she should have stood up, grabbed the sixteen inch ring from her toes, taken a bow, and the audience would have stood in a standing ovation.

It was a joy this year to have my parents with as first-time visitors to the Ice Art Competition. Their reaction the incredible beauty and uniqueness of this event was a joy to be a part of! As a long-time photographer himself, some of the images below were contributed by my dad, Chuck Johnson, as well.

Single Block

In the single block competition, a lone, 8x5x3 foot block of ice is transformed into unbelievable sculptures of giant proportions. The artists creatively slice-and-dice and weld the ice back together to extend the sculpture in 360 degrees.  They may be set firmly on the ground or perch precariously on a small base. The attention to detail is key and many of these sculptures seem to come to life, or at least you wish they were real!

Multi-Block

The Multi-block competition is combines attention to detail and designing large scenes. Competitors transform up to ten, 6x4x3 foot blocks of ice into towering sculptures of up to 25 feet or sprawling scenes. I was particularly drawn to the sculpture scene from Cinderella which won first place realistic. In it, the Prince stands near the viewer and beckons Cinderella down a ten foot stair case just as the clock strikes midnight. Her expression as her glass-slippered foot hangs over the last step and his demeanor make the carving to alive. Truly enchanting!

A Bird in the Bush, Aurora

I have a  story to tell about the kind of thing that only happens once in a lifetime. Last night I arrived home at 1AM from an amazing night of aurora watching with my parents – their first in Alaska! The forecast, a level 2, tripled to a KP 6 with an unexpected shock passage of energy.  Throughout the night the Lights waxed and waned until the entire sky was covered from the southern constellation Orion’s Belt through the north star  and to the northern horizon. Throughout the sky the Aurora Borealis shifted and rippled in green curtains of light. Outside of my car at my house, a dancing corona erupted over my head so I quickly snagged my camera and sprinted for the ski trails behind my house to begin shooting. It was as I stepped into the woods that the remarkable part of this story began to unfold.

Aurora Family Portrait
A successful night of aurora chasing!

I was making no attempt to conceal the heavy pound of my foot steps, and my first few steps into the woods were loud enough to wake a grouse which was sleeping along the trail. It started from its slumber, and with rapid flaps, thundered its wings just a few feet from me. I jumped high at the sound in a blind moment of panic  thinking for a second it was a moose. As I gained my composure I noted where it landed in a spruce tree only about 15 feet from me. I turned my headlamp in that direction, and the beady, black eye of an immature Ruffed-grouse glinted at me. The opportunity to shoot wildlife underneath the aurora has always been a desire of mine and I was keen to take advantage of it here! I set up my camera and began to shoot, hoping to capture the scene. My shutter clicked twice and the grouse stayed in place, although I’m surprised the sound of my pounding heart boosted by adrenaline in my ears did not spook it. My shutter clicked a few more times and I boldly moved towards the grouse. With each crunch of snow underfoot, I moved closer, and closer, and closer. The grouse, either too scared to move or over-confident in his camouflage did not move a muscle and soon my camera sat only 18 inches from the nervous bird. Overhead the aurora was still brilliant and as my shutter clicked I pulled off an image that may truly be the first in the world – a wild Ruffed Grouse perched under the shimmering emerald of the Alaskan Aurora Borealis.

Ruffed Grouse Aurora Borealis
The immature Ruffed-Grouse that I stirred up eyes me from the shadow of a spruce tree.
Ruffed Grouse Northern Lights
A Ruffed Grouses sits extremely close to my camera – a 12mm lens gives the shot an incredible angle!

It is amazing that the grouse did not fly away. I think it was a combination of the pure confusion of the moment, the shine of my light, and the benefit of the darkness. Perhaps he had convinced himself that even though I was so close, I had not noticed his presence.  However, eventually he decided that enough was enough. He could watch the aurora without such nosy neighbors and took off into the night leaving me to revel in the unbelievable encounter.

Ruffed Grouse Aurora
The Ruffed Grouse gives me one more glance before taking off into the night.

The Galaxy Rises in Alaska

Growing up in Minnesota one of my favorite constellations was Orion. The appearance of his belt at earth’s horizon was a sure sign that autumn was approaching, and as I fell asleep each night I would watch him out my southern facing window. Many people, cultures, and seasons are tied to the position of the stars. In Alaska and as a night-photographer, I have grown to appreciate the rise of the Milky Way Galaxy to the north as spring approaches. Although at least a part of the Milky Way is visible through the winter, its growing prominence and brightness in February and March really documents the changing season. The Milky Way rises through the summer, but by the time we are able to see into the center of the Galaxy the sun will never set! Of course, the sun blots out any opportunity to see the center of the Milky Way from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.
Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.

I have been researching and “perfecting” techniques (lots of room for growth and creativity!) to stitch together large panoramas. The images here were created from stitched 25 – 32 images. The results are certainly  interesting and beautiful! My goal when creating these images is to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible. On moonless nights like March 2nd in Fairbanks, Alaska the Milky Way shows up as a bright band in the sky. With some luck, the aurora accents its celestial beauty. As part of the Panoramic technique the resolution of the image grows to extreme proportions. These panoramas here are approximately 21,480 x 10,850 pixels! That’s nearly 233 megapixel resolution! The power of the technique the possibility of wall-sized panoramic prints. Hint, hint – I would love to see one of these printed to 50″ or bigger! If you are are interested, you should contact me!

A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.

From a bit purer side of photography, I was also able to capture the galaxy and aurora in single images. However, there is an interesting distinction in them over many of my other aurora shots – they are no longer “real”. I am a stickler for not over-processing aurora shots to  give the viewer the truest colors and most accurate representation as possible. However, to emphasize the galaxy it necessary to compromise on the color of the aurora. The aurora in these single shots and the panoramas is more vibrant than it was to the naked on this night.  Because of the color changes these are truly “works of art”, not just documentation of the aurora.  Its not a bad thing, but I feel should be made clear, as there is a growing opinion that aurora photography does not represent how it truly looks. In this particular case, that is true.

A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
Star Trails
A long star trails shows off the multitude of stars on a moonless night in Fairbanks, Alaska.