Category Archives: Dog Sledding Tours

Creating an Image 365

For the last year I have strapped my camera to my back, placed it in my backpack, or put it in the front seat of my truck to meet my goal of taking a picture a day for 365 days. My intent of the project was to simply take a picture each day to improve my photography skills. Looking at the results I am shocked by how the project changed my view of photography and my photography skillset.

30 days in the project I was already starting to feel that I was repeating the same shots days after day. The constant feeling of the need to do something different each day forced my growth as a photographer. It was critical  I go out of my comfort zone of wildlife and landscapes by taking advantage nearly any shot that presented itself and finding an opportunity when there was an obvious one. The greatest lessons I learned was defining the difference between “taking a picture” and “creating an image”. I think creating an image captures the essence of the object or the moment and is ultimately at the heart of the what brings me joy in photography and continues to make it interesting. The difference seems subtle, but to illustrate it,  standing parallel to the horizon and taking a picture of the sunset is different than making an image of that same sunset by adding in the reflection of the water through the trees. By creating an image, you can tell a story through photography. That became my goal as the days ticked on by.

The results of this project provided a picture diary for a year. Be sure to flip through full gallery from January 1st – December 31st, 2015 here . As I flipped through them it was a trip down memory lane. I selected images  exemplifying essential lessons I learned from this project. Many of them are connected to each other and all of them helped me create an image rather than just take a picture.

10 Takeaways When Creating an Image

  1. A portable system is a huge benefit.  First and foremost I really appreciated the portability of my Olympus OMD Micro 4/3 system. The small size enabled me to carry a full featured camera and an array of lenses everywhere that I went.  That portable system helped me take advantage of the opportunity to capture this Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I was biking to the office when I encountered it and was able to snap a great moment.
July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk
July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk

2. Take an opportunity when you have it. I learned really quickly that if you intend to take a picture every single day, it is absolutely critical to capture an image regardless of the cost. Okay, I am definitely being a bit facetious, but this particular sunrise caused a five-minute tardiness on my way to class. It was just too beautiful to pass up, and I needed time to set up a tripod!

February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank's ice climbing wall
February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank’s ice climbing wall

3. Be creative. I often mounted only a single lens to my camera, and then forced myself to capture an image with that lens. In line with taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2), it is was also necessary to look for opportunities.  The particular image below was created because I had an f/1.0 50mm lens. I knew that depth of field would enable me to have tack-sharp pieces of an image, and a soft background which I think was effective in this skull image.

January 21st : Empty your mind.
January 21st : Empty your mind.

4. Diversify by taking advantage of all forms of photography. As I searched for shots, I extended into photography that is not my bread-and-butter wildlife or landscapes. Learning to set up food shots, portraits, and composites all helped build my photography skill set.

June 17th : Anniversary!
June 17th : Anniversary!

5. Light is everything. Photography is the “art of capturing light”, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska most of the year presented a significant challenge in the winter months. Short days ensured that if I was going to take advantage of an opportunity (see #2) in the daylight I had to be quick. I also had to get creative (see # 3) on cloudy days by either moving indoors or finding a shot that worked in flat light.

September 9th : Golden Birches
September 9th : Golden Birches

6. Make something out of nothing. There were a lot of cloudy, dark days where I never got the opportunity to take an image outside. If that was the case, it was time to be creative (see #3) by designing indoor scenes, capturing phenomena in the dark (aurora borealis, moon, or stars). I dug around in the kitchen and provided some side-lighting for this scene (see #4 on diversity). In these situations my goal was creatively create an image.

November 24th : Cooking Essentials
November 24th : Cooking Essentials

7. Have fun editing. As a wildlife photographer I often consider my work to be documentation, rather than art. I would point to a critical difference that documentation should represent the subject closely whereas art is the utilization of creative license. It was a new realm for me to experiment within Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate imagery and create art out of them. Often I used effects to emphasize the subject of the image.

June 3rd : Bluebells
June 3rd : Bluebells

8. Take advantage of your cameras settings. I pulled up to the train tracks right as the arms went down in front of me. I had not taken a picture yet (see #2) and was drawn to the stationary cross arm. Rather than “stop” the train, I slow down my shutter speed and stabilized my camera on the dash of my car. By taking advantage of my cameras settings I was able to capture an interesting shot showing motion.

August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass
August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass

9. You won’t always knock it out of the fence. It’s inescapable that poor lighting (see #5) and not taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2) will result in a less than optimal image. That’s OK!! I found the most important aspect of this challenge was to find an object and capture it in the most interesting way possible by taking advantage of interesting angles or the camera’s settings (see #8).

July 18th : Sawyer's tools
July 18th : Sawyer’s tools

10. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are beyond the realm of “not knocking it out of the park” (see #9).  Mistakes are fine unless you only have one image from the day.  The image below is a mistake that was meant to be a starspin. However, I learned why the image did not work (see #8), so that I would not repeat it in the future.

September 23rd : Light pollution
September 23rd : Light pollution

In summary, this project provided incredible growth for me. A photography growth spurt if you will. The results created a photo journal of an entire year of my life and I hope that you can take away  a few key points along with enjoying the imagery of my self-imposed assignment! Just in case you missed it, you can review the full gallery HERE!

Top Shots 2015

Hello Everyone! 2015 was a great, great year. Traveling took me from the North Slope of Alaska  to the southern coast of Texas. Professionally I am headed back to the “real world” after completing my thesis in December, and will enjoying a married life by mid-summer! The images below are some of my Top Shots from 2015. If there was a blog post associated with the image I included it in the caption. I hope you enjoy.

If you have enjoyed the blog this year please take the time to pass it on to a friend who would enjoy it too, and encourage them to sign up for the emails. Thanks all!

Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis has become an addiction of mine, and these two particular some of my favorites from the season.

Sun-kissed Aurora, Fairbanks, Alaska
Sun-kissed Aurora, Fairbanks, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/the-sun-kissed-aurora/)
Aurora and a moonset, Fairbanks, Alaska
Aurora and a moonset, Fairbanks, Alaska  (http://ianajohnson.com/the-negative-40f-aurora-club/)

 

Dog Sledding

Dog sledding in Alaska has been a tremendous treat, and there couldn’t be a better mentor than my friend Jeff Deeter at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.

George, taking a break on the trail. Fairbanks, Alaska
George, taking a break on the trail. Fairbanks, Alaska
"Picket" at the Crowberry Public Use Cabin, White Mountains, Alaska
“Picket” at the Crowberry Public Use Cabin, White Mountains, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/by-a-team-of-seven-into-heaven/)

Landscapes

These array of landscape shots capture the beauty and phenomena of Alaska and beyond.

Alaska Range in the pre-dawn. Donnelly Creek, Alaska
Alaska Range in the pre-dawn. Donnelly Creek, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/highlights-of-an-alaskan-bird-a-thon/)
Inside Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska
Inside Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/into-the-mouth-of-an-ice-beast/)
Star-trails in a winter wonderland, Fairbanks, Alaska
Star-trails in a winter wonderland, Fairbanks, Alaska
Windy day and a half moon at Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska
Windy day and a half moon at Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-portrait-of-the-great-one/)
Mount Denali Panorama, Denali National Park, Alaska
Mount Denali Panorama, Denali National Park, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-portrait-of-the-great-one/)
Matanuska Glacier, Alaska
Matanuska Glacier, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/matanuska-glacier-peril/)
Summer Solstice on the North Slope, Galbraith Lake, Alaska
Summer Solstice on the North Slope, Galbraith Lake, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/solstice-solitude-soliloquy/)
Thunderstorm at the Lake, Minnesota
Thunderstorm at the Lake, Minnesota (http://ianajohnson.com/thunderstorm-at-the-lake/)

Wildlife

From the bottom of tide pools to the tops of mountains, it has been a great year to shoot wildlife!

Breaching Humpback Whale, Seward, Alaska
Breaching Humpback Whale, Seward, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-whale-of-tale/)
Anemone in a tide-pool. Homer, Alaska
Anemone in a tide-pool. Homer, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/on-the-beaches-of-homer/)
American Golden Plover, North Slope, Alaska
American Golden Plover, North Slope, Alaska
Northern Hawk Owl, Dalton Highway, Alaska
Northern Hawk Owl, Dalton Highway, Alaska
Caribou, Denali National Park
Caribou, Denali National Park
Willow Ptarmigan, Denali Highway, Alaska
Willow Ptarmigan, Denali Highway, Alaska
Woodfrog, Fairbanks, Alaska
Woodfrog, Fairbanks, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-wood-frog-blog/)
Sandhill Crane Silhouette
Sandhill Crane Silhouette
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Green Wing Teal
Green-wing Teal, Porcupine River, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/go-when-the-river-says-go/)
Cross Fox
Cross Fox in Fort Yukon, Alaska.

Flowers

Fireweed are iconic to Alaska, and I love how a single stalk seems to stand out above the others here.

Standing out.
A broad field of fireweed where one seems to stand out over the rest.
Single Lily
A single white lily in Minnesota.

Miscellaneous

Dew of Summer
The world reflected over and over in the heavy dew of summer. (http://ianajohnson.com/on-that-misty-minnesota-morn/)

Top Video

Heart to Heart with Black Spruce Dog Sledding

Over the last year and a half I have developed an awesome relationship with Jeff and KattiJo Deeter at Black Spruce Dog Sledding. When they approached me about shooting a video about their kennel to dive into their operation and put on their website (www.blacksprucedogsledding.com), it did not take any convincing to get me on board! After a lot of discussion on what the final product would look and feel like, we decided to feature daytime and nighttime activities at the kennel, and that it should remain conversational. Of course, in the winter in Fairbanks night is a predominant period of time anyway! With those ideas in mind, we spent several sessions through the winter filming. The night scenes that you will see in the final product below were targeted under the full moon, but happened to be on a night of sub 40 below temperatures. Needless to say, by the time we ended the shoot early in the morning we were ready to warm up! I found out the next day when my thumb lost a lot of feeling that I had nipped it with frost. Such is life! I was more than happy with the footage shot by the Sony A7S under the moonlight.

The final product really displays the amount of time that Jeff and KattiJo put into their dogs, their training, and their business. They are very dedicated to their sport, which shows not only in their daily lives, but in their connections to the rest of the mushing community as well. I hope this video can help you appreciate the lifestyle and dedication of these two mushers, and realize that the same dedication emanates from many other mushers throughout Alaska. Enjoy!

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.

P4040117
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.
P4040131
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!

Happy Dogs, Happy Days, Happy Trails!

Well folks, this post is officially #100 on this blog. A huge thank-you to all who have supported me and followed in my growth as a writer and photographer! It’s amazing to go back to old posts and reflect on how this site has changed. Some things have not changed much; it is still my mission and joy to bring you photography of wildlife, landscapes, and adventure, and couple some science along with it! Have a favorite moment on this blog from the last 100 posts? I would love if you left it in the comments below! Don’t worry – this site won’t be going away anytime soon 🙂

Early this afternoon I was being pulled by six eager sled dogs. Trails had been degraded and made icy by the recent 50 degree temperatures, and the sled which normally has some drag in snow, slid like it was on Teflon behind the twenty-four turning legs. The excited dogs would have fun as fast as I allowed. Of course my preservation of self made sure to reign in their energy; dumping a sled on these crystallized trails hurts more than on the snow! My sleeves were rolled back and my ungloved hands gripped onto the handle of the sled. The passing breeze did not even feel cold in the 55 degree temps. Leaning around turns and dodging spruce trees, I made my way along the fire break of Old Murphy Dome. Not a cloud was in the sky as we passed impressive vistas stretching to the north.  In the distance, the snow of the White Mountains was starkly white against the tree covered hills of the lower foothills.

I passed by Jeff, who had stopped his team in front of me. He wanted me to practice passing another team, and commands of “Gee”, “Alright”, and “On-by” ensured that the leaders knew to keep moving past the other team of stopped dogs. We practiced the procedure a couple more times. Over the winter Jeff has done a great job getting me comfortable with the sled, and teams. It was important to practice passing for our upcoming trip to the White Mountains. More dog-sledding adventures will be reported I return from Crowberry Cabin!

We made several stops along the way to help cool the dogs down. The warm spring temperatures are a dramatic change to the -30 degree temperatures only three weeks ago! Each time the dogs would dive into the snow banks, and push their faces into it. Their panting faces were obviously smiling. It was a beautiful and great day to be a dog or a driver. I did my best to capture their doggy-grins and the excitement of the day. I hope you enjoy!

February 7th : Dog Day in Alaska/ Live Aurora Footage

Saturday was a dog day for me in Alaska. When my friend Brandon and I arrived at noon to Black Spruce Dogsledding the dogs greeted us with baying and loud voices. Or mission for the day :do some mushing and then shoot some night sequences of the dogs and mushing for an upcoming video.

My confidence was much higher from the last time I had been mushing. As my six dog team took off the same adrenaline rush hit me, but my newly acquired skills reigned the excited dogs to a more reasonable pace. My heel weighed on the drag a bit to control the sled speed, and my toe sat on the runner. The stance allows stability around turns and maintains control on the sled during downhills, it is a very useful position!  As we headed into a north wind the -40 below windchills were exacerbated by the movement of the dogs. Any bare skin was out of the question! I pulled up my facemask over the tip of my nose and adjusted my ski goggles. Once encased inside of my cocoon I stayed very warm, in fact, my hands broke a sweat due to the activity!

Of course the temperatures were very limiting for shooting, but I do have some stills of the day which capture the dogs and some of the cold!

February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Made it through the cold temps -
Brandon made it through the cold temps.
These pups are ready for a run!
These pups are ready for a run!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!

We settled into the house after our 9 mile mush and warmed up with some hot supper, by the time we stepped outside again at 8PM, magic was beginning to happen in the sky.  A faint rivlet of aurora was growing, and by 10:15 had grown to a flowing stream which  then topped its banks! Ribbons of pink, green, and purple aurora flowed and dashed across the sky. The show lasted for 15 minutes, and then mysteriously faded away. Sometimes seeing the best aurora is just about being at the right place at the right time. The images I captured that night are easily some of the most colorful and sharp to date! What a show!

Part of what I have to offer today is footage shot with Brandon’s Sony A7S. This camera can almost literally see in the dark. Although the footage is not of the highest quality possible (for that check out Ronn Murray’s incredible work!), I couldn’t be MORE happy to catch some real-time auroras for you! These have been sped up to make it a bit more interesting to watch (since we didn’t catch the show at the most epic point), but allows you to see all of the movements, rather than what you miss in the timelapse!

Last, but not least, I have a new photo project! You can  check it out at the 2015 Photo Project!

February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I'm counting it for the 8th
February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I’m counting it for the 8th
P2070496
Certainly one of my favorites shots to date! The blues, purples and pinks here are all visible to the naked eye too. A Stunning show!
P2070465
Brandon posing for an Aurora shot.
P2070480
A bright band of pink lights up the bottom of this aurora. The reason this shot feels ‘fuzzy’ is the aurora was moving too fast for the exposure length. BUT, it still captured a lot of great color!

P2070497 P2070495 P2070494

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!