Category Archives: In Alaska

The Hooligans of Haines

The Great Hooligan Run

Alaska is known for its runs of salmon, but each year in the spring an equally impressive and ecologically important run of fish ascend the streams of Southeast Alaska and as far north as Norton Sound. The small, silvery fish, provide bountiful food for birds, bears, and people and signify that spring is here. I had the opportunity to observe the abundance of life that greet the Hooligan in the Chilkoot River, just north of Haines, Alaska.

Thousands of gulls, dozens of eagles, and tens of Stellars Sealions gather at the mouth of the Chilkoot River to feed on Hooligan.

The Chilkoot River system where I stood watching schools of Hooligan is surrounded in spectacular scenery. The 70 yard-wide river valley is dotted with large boulders which were deposited there by retreating glaciers.  High mountains that rise along each shore are covered with snow and feed the cold-water system for several months, until mid-summer.  During April and May, its shallow, clear waters, house thousands of shimmering gray shapes. Hooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus, also known as “eulachon” or “candle fish”) return by the hundreds of thousands to deposit their eggs.

The Ecology of Hooligan

Hooligan are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their adult life in the ocean, but return to freshwater to breed. The most well-known example of anadromous fish are salmon species, however Hooligan do not necessarily return to the same river like salmon do.  The timing of their spawning run is determined by water temperature and hence shifts later into the year as you move from Southeast Alaska up to the western coast. After breeding, a majority of Hooligan die, but there are some fish that return to the river. Why only some die after spawning is just one of the many things that are not known about this fish. For instance biologists are also unsure what effects the size of the run which has varied highly in recent years. In the Chilkoot River, the run was estimated at 300,000 in 2015 but >1.8 million in 2016. That is quite a difference! After talking to the locals, it sounds like this year’s run in the Chilkoot was strong and echoed the strong run of 2016.

Hooligan Run, Alaska, Haines, Chilkoot
Thousands of Hooligan swim in the shallow waters of the Chilkoot River.

The Effect of Hooligan

You do not really have to see the effect of Hooligan to understand their importance to the ecosystem – closing your eyes and listening will probably tell you the story that needs to be told. Envision the sound of the lapping surf at your feet and the hum of the wind past your ears. Now layer in the raucous sound of thousands of gulls from multiple species raising from the beaches in an excited chorus. Add the grunting, bold, bellow of an adult, bull, sealion. The chir and ki-ki-ki of many bald eagles. The whistle of a goldeneye’s wingbeats. This is the audio picture of the Hooligan run and I was astounded by its magnitude.

Hooligan, Chilkoot, Haines, Alaska
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines. Gulls, Eagles and Stellars Sealions feed on Hooligan at the mouth of the Chilkoot River.

It was obvious from watching the behavior of various animals that they had mastered the art of catching an easy meal and nutritious meal. Hooligan are an important food source because of their high energy value. Dried Hooligan are so oily they were traditionally burned by Tlingits as candles. One of the most impressive behaviors was how Stellar’s Sealions herded the fish against the shore. Working together the sealions breached from the water in a wall to spook the fish upstream. The breaches ocurred in synchronized sequences, with the whole body of the sealion coming out of the waters, followed shortly by another individual. If the maneuver was successful a large school of finned-dinners would be pinned against the shore and a feeding frenzy ensued. Swirling waters and flippers were all that was visible of the fast-moving sealions as they snatched up fish below the water’s surface. The gulls were equally effective at catching Hooligan and dove repeatedly into the water, coming up with a fish frequently. After successful dives, the fish protruded from the gull’s mouth and were consumed on the wing . It’s amazing to think they could swallow them at all! The bodies of the fish were not the only thing being consumed. Countless eggs (they lay up to 30,000 per female!) were strewn across the beach, stranded as the tide went out. I watched a tiny, Least Sandpiper scoop up mouth-fulls of the eggs, providing a high-calorie caviar snack.

Hooligan, Chilkoot River, Haines, Alaska
A Bonaparte’s gull consume a Hooligan on the wing moments after snatching it from the river.

I wish that my time at the Chilkoot River could have been longer. Two evenings observing it just did not seem like enough! What any one-person takes away from an experience can vary vastly. My viewpoint is one a naturalist and scientist looking to sponge knowledge and learn from what I observe. I hope that you, the reader, can see it some day to see what you learn. Alaska is known for its larger-than-life wildlife spectacles, and in my opinion the Hooligan run and the abundance of life it creates is an experience that should be seen, felt, and heard by anyone that appreciates the wild places of earth.

Sources (also used in hyperlinks through the article):

  • http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=eulachon.main
  • http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/fish/searun-fish/page.aspx?id=6448
  • http://www.subsistence.adfg.state.ak.us/techpap/tp213.pdf
  • https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/ProcRpt/PR%202006-12.pdf
  • http://www.alaskapublic.org/2016/04/28/hooligan-make-strong-return-to-chilkoot-and-chilkat/

For The Past and For the Future : Xunaa Shuká Hít

When the citizens of Hoonah, Alaska and surrounding Southeast communities arrived at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park during the morning of August 25th, 2016, it was a homecoming over 250 years in the making. The powerful events of the day were the culmination of nearly two decades of collaboration between Hoonah Indian Association and the National Park Service which helped heal the past and prepare for the future.

Glacier Bay National Park is the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit. In the early 1700’s, Sit’k’i T’ooch’ (“Little Black Glacier”) in Glacier Bay National Park surged forward and pushed the Huna Tlingit from their homeland by destroying their settlements, including L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan. This forced the Huna Tlingit out of their homeland and they eventually settled in Xunniyaa (“Sheltered from the North Wind”) which is today known as Hoonah.  Eventually the glacier receded and the Huna Tlingit began to hunt, fish and gather in Bartlett Cove where there had once been ice. However, in 1925 the establishment of Glacier Bay National Monument and regulations that followed ultimately led to a strained relationship between the people of Hoonah and the National Park Service. This was coupled with ongoing cultural loss due to integration into Western society.  Through a tragic portion of American and Tlingit history much of the language and culture was lots due to repression. Fortunately in recent years patience and collaboration with the NPS has led to development of many program that have helped to strengthen the relationship and served to bring back traditional activities in the park boundaries. In 1995 the concept of a tribal house in the Park was first suggested and the dedication of Xunaa Shuká Hít on August 25th brought that dream to reality.

Entering the Park

The ride over to Bartlett Cove was marked by a Fire Bowl Ceremony symbolizing “feeding the ancestors” and remembering those who were no longer with us. This somber entrance was a reminder to me that this day was not only about going forward for the future, but also to commemorate and embrace those not able to see the day  themselves. After the ceremony we continued to the shores of Barlett Cove and walked up to the Tribal House site.

To begin the ceremonies in Bartlett Cove the traditional donning of regalia commenced. Following tradition the opposite moeity members dressed each other while stating “this is not me placing this on you, but __________”, filling in the name of an ancestor. The regalia marked the clan that each was from with incredible artistry and color. The oldest robe was over 100 years old and its faded colors stood in stark contrast to the vibrant new shawls, but was no less incredible to see.

When entering the park we stopped to remember those who are no longer with us, but entering in spirit.
When entering the park we stopped to remember those who are no longer with us, but entering in spirit.

Canoe Landing Ceremony

After donning regalia hundreds of people walked down to the beach of Bartlett Cove and lit a welcome fire for the canoes.  As I mentioned in my previous article, these hand-carved dugouts were commissioned for the entrance into the park and their emergence from the far shore was remarkable to watch. The heavy fog of the morning shrouded Bartlett Cove in a thick haze, and  by squinting you could see the canoes appear through the curtain of fog. Custom-carved and painted paddles dipped seamlessly into the flat water and the three, vibrant-red boats glided closer to us. On the shore, many members of the community and kids from school were dressed in traditional colors, robes, tunics, and headbands. They stood on the shore waiting expectantly and with anticipation. The canoers approached with their paddle blades raised in the air to signify they came in peace. As the bow of the canoe slide onto shore and the first feet set onto the beach drums broke out, and with paddle blades raised the pullers danced while the throngs of people and brilliant color swayed to the music. As the songs receded the canoe was hoisted onto many shoulders and brought to the Tribal House. A beautiful, hand-woven Chilkat Robe was presented to Master Carver Wayne Price. He was the first of many to wear the robe to celebrate canoe journeys as the robe will travel to future events which include canoe journeys.

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Each paddle was hand carved and painted and tells something about its paddler.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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An ornate and vibrant paddle leaning against the tribal house at Bartlett Cove.

Tree Ceremony

Without the correct process the dedication of the tribal house would not be complete. Per tradition, the tree ceremony acknowledged the resources that were required to make the tribal house and canoes. Without the yellow cedar and spruce nothing would have been possible.

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Giving thanks to the trees during the tree ceremony.
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Giving thanks to the trees during the tree ceremony.

Screen Ceremony/Naming Ceremony

All of the artwork in the Tribal Households symbolize stories that are just waiting to be told to be told. During the screen ceremony the clan leaders described the exterior screen of the Tribal House to let the people know what the design symbolized. Finally the name of the Tribal House was announced and breathed life into the Tribal House. Xunaa Shuká Hít. The crowd repeated it three times and it gave me goosebumps. The name approximately translates to “Huna Ancestors House’”. It could not be a more fitting name for a building made to tell the story of the past and prepare for new generations.

It was a privilege to walk into Xunaa Shuká Hít with the Tlingit People. The inside smelled of fresh cedar and spruce, and throngs of people packed around the edges to leave room in the middle for the elders. Each clan leader began to tell the story of their clan as expressed on the interior house screen and house poles. Their stories mingled with the low murmur of the crowd. As they concluded the drums started to pound and the dancing began. The sound made the walls of the tribal house throb and pound. It was a joyous end to a dramatic and memorable day.

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The screen ceremony and naming ceremony was led by the clan elders.
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The pounding, thumping, joyful dance of the Huna Tlingit in their tribal house.

Regalia

For me one of the most incredible pieces of the dedication was the art and colors of traditional Tlingit ceremonial clothing. Many of these pieces of regalia are only exhibited during special events. The blankets and robes depict clan crests which are images that document a significant event in a clan’s history and stake claim to a particular bit of territory. An example of this may be seen in the Chookaneidi regalia. In it, the octopus design is meant to memorialize an event in which two Chookaneidi men gave their lives to defend the community against a giant octopus. The crest then stakes the Chookaneidi claim to the Inian Islands where the event occurred.

The Future of Xunaa Shuká Hít

The tribal house dedication is only the beginning of a greater and better relationship between Glacier Bay National Park and the people of Hoonah. This photograph of Tribal President Frank Wright shaking hands with NPS Superintendent Philip Hooge says a lot about a relationship that is starting to bud and provides hope that future trips to Xunaa Shuká Hít will continue to remember the past while preparing for the future.

 

Phil Hodges and Frank Wright shake hands after receiving the NPS Directors award for collaboration.
Philip Hooge and Frank Wright shake hands after receiving the NPS Directors award for collaboration.

Special thanks to Mary Beth Moss of the National Park Service for her review of this article.

The Tlingit Cultural Heritage of Hoonah, Alaska

Since I arrived in Hoonah, Alaska in March I have been thrilled and privileged to  experience the beauty of Tlingit culture and the dedication of those creating traditional art. The constant, thudding-pulse of adzes sticking into wood have resonated outside of my office. Each swing by the carver has pulled a woodchip from a 45 foot long, 3 – foot diameter spruce log. Two of these logs are being carved into traditional dugout canoes. In a separate area, two 45-foot long facades, and four totem polls telling the oral history of the Tlingit were being painstakingly carves by hand. Each bead of sweat, aching muscle, and hour of lost sleep were in preparation of the re-entrance of the Huna Tlingit to their traditional homeland in Glacier Bay National Park which occurred on August 25th, 2016.

Canoe

The commissioning of two, 40+ foot dugout canoes resulted in the largest, traditional dugout canoes in Southeast Alaska. The effort was lead by Master Carver Wayne Price, and after nearly a year of carving by a slew of volunteers, the final boats are incredible to behold. The process starts by flattening the top of the spruce log. From there the wood is pulled out of the center resulting in a hollow, log with curved edges. The log is steamed  by heating volcanic pumice found near Hoonah and placing it in the canoe which is filled with water. Like a rib-spreader, the cavity of the canoe is opened up little by little by wedging in longer boards. Incredibly, the first canoe started with beams at 39 inches and expanded to 69 inches! The tree was able to accommodate 30 inches of new space. Once spread the canoes were given a modern touch with fiberglass and paint. The painting style follows the traditions of the Tlingit people. Each canoe was outfitted with a sail that in the right conditions can push the large vessel up to 8 miles per hour.

The first time the canoe went into the water was a very powerful moment. Flat conditions greeted the paddlers, and as they moved out near a couple of miles near Cannery Point two sea otters fed in the kelp bed. The 42-foot dugout was accompanied by two smaller dugouts and the paddlers inside worked in unison to make the canoe glide through the water with surprising speed. As they rounded Cannery Point, it is likely they were the first to do so in a dugout in several decades or more. The first journey was a landmark moment for the carvers and the community and set the determination for the second canoe to be finished in time for the Tribal House dedication. I was fortunate enough to witness the canoe on the waters several more times during training sessions; its red sail was striking against the often gray conditions of Port Frederick! The legacy of these canoes will live on for decades to come.

Tribal House Screens

The Tribal House being built in Glacier Bay National Park at Bartlett Cove will be built in the traditions of Huna Tlingit Clan Houses, but is different as each of the four clans will be represented in the structure. Historically, Clan’s each had their own house. This presented a unique challenge for Master Carver Gordon Greenwald. It was necessary for him to design the “screens” of the front building facade and inside to tell the history of the four clans (T’akdeintaan, Wooshkeetan, Chookanedi, Kaagwaantaan). By listening to the elders a couple of days he drew the design for the screens and house-post totem poles. As he told me the story of the meaning of one of the screens, I was astounded by the information the artistry held. The intricacies of the hand carves wood brought the stories to life and were part of the reason it took five years for the work to be completed.

The story in the screen is complex, and represented by small and intricate details in the carving. My account here should in no way considered to be complete. Rather, I hope it gives you insight into the deep meaning of these powerful works.  There were originally 4 clans that settled in Glacier Bay. They came from Lituya Bay (on the left side of the panel) where their was a glacier. In the panel, you can see the spirt of the glacier. However, in Lituya Bay, there was a large tsunami (scientists now know it reached 1,400 ft) that washed a large and very dangerous rock out the mouth of the bay. It allowed for safer travel in and out of the bay. The people of of Lituya bay are still anchored in Lituya Bay even though they now live in Mount Fairweather. In the panel you can see the canoe anchored in Lituya Bay and the spirit of Fairweather Mountain symbolizing that. The people of Glacier Bay were very used to icebergs in Icy Straits, and around the panel the spirits of the icebergs are predominant – however each carved spirit is different as no iceberg is the same as the next. In the center of the panel is the spirit of the Glacier. It is that glacier that pushed the Tlingit people from Glacier Bay 200+ years ago when a girl called the glacier towards them by throwing out fish bones – she called it to them as you would call a dog. In the panel, you can see the glacier reflected in the girl’s eyes. Even though they were pushed out by the glacier, there are others still anchored in Glacier Bay. Both Porpoise and Octopus are still anchored in Glacier Bay.  Wolf and brown bear are still anchored in their homeland. The panels also indicates the importance of the marbled murrelets when the Tlingit lived in the mountains during the great floods. Finally, at the top of the panel is a canoe with no crest or design. It represents every else who are welcome to join the Huna Tlingit in Glacier Bay – the paddles are raised to signify friendship. It shows they have nothing to hide.

The enormous size of these panels is hard to represent in a photograph. Each facade is constructed from a single (!!!) yellow cedar planks. They stretch 18×45 feet.

The time that I’ve spent with the carvers and learning about these incredible projects has helped provide a connection to a community and a culture. I hope in the years to come that I continue to understand more fully the meaning hidden in their incredible artwork.

Why Do Whales Try To Fly?

Last week I was floating under gray skies and windless conditions on a whale-watching boat outside of Hoonah, Alaska.  We drifted with engines off while Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) fed around a rocky reef a hundred yards that was exposed by a shrinking tide. The distinct kee-kee-kee of hundreds of marbled murrelets, (Brachyramphus marmoratus, small pelagic birds) rang out around us and the bellow of sea lions droned from a distance green channel buoy. Towards that buoy an enormous nose broke through the surface and in a fraction of a second a mature Humpback Whale hung in the air with only the tips of its tail in the water. Its re-entry sent water far into the air with a crash. On its second breach I was ready and captured a series of shots as it arched into the water. My heart was racing as I soaked in what had just happened! Ultimately its leap from the water set my mind turning on why a whale would try to fly at all.

Mature Humpback Whales are gigantic creatures weighing between 45-50 tons (NOAA) and reaching up to 45 feet. I think Whitehead (1985) has it right when he states, “A Whale’s leap from the water is almost certainly the most powerful single action performed by any animal.” He found that a 12-m long adult humpback must travel at about 17 knots (3 times their normal cruising speed) to break the surface and expose at least 70% of their body. The energy required to thrust their entire body comes at an expense of energy, and begs to question about what they gain from it.  It is possible whales breach to communicate with others, to act aggressively towards another whale, to show strength, or to “play” (Whitehead 1985).

Humpback Whale Splash
A huge splash results from the breach of a humpback whale.

A lot of research on aerial behavior has tried to associate breaching with group dynamics. These studies have yielded interesting correlations. Whales breach more often in groups (Whitehead 1985). They were more likely to breach within 10km of another whale. Humpback whales surface activity (including multiple behaviors above surface) increases with group size and also occurred more with underwater vocalizations (Silber 1986). There also seems to behaviors which foreshadow breaching. For instance, breaching often comes after a tail lob. A tail lob is another visual and audio spectacle where the whale slaps its tail against the water.  Since breaching occurs more often in groups, these lends to the notion that it is a form of communication.

For some researchers, time spent on water results in findings that have little explanation. For instance, whales may breach more as wind speed rises (Whitehead 1985). Although support for why that would be is nearly impossible to determine, it has been shown that surface slaps can carry for several kilometers and the amount of sound created changes depending on what angle the whale strikes the water (Payne and McVay 1971, Deakos 2002 citing Watkins 1981). The distance that a breach can be heard is unknown, but it certainly surpasses the visual extent lending to the hypothesis that it is a form of communication, however, what message it conveys is unknown.

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By listening to whale vocalizations (for which humbacks are famous) that occur leading up to breaches, researchers found there is a relationship between the amount of vocalizations and breaches. Male to male interaction and above water behavior were often correlated with increased vocalization between males (Silber 1986). It is likely these vocalizations are aggressive and that males are plying for position or to mate with a female. The subsequent breach is probably an “exclamation” (Whitehead 1985) on the underwater vocalization rather than an attempt to harm the other whale during the breach.  Certainly it would demonstrate to a female the prowess and strength of the male (Whitehead 1985).

Insight into breaching behavior may be gained from researching other percussive behaviors. Deakos (2002) found that pectoral slapping varies with age class, sex, and social position. Females were likely to slap pectoral fins on the surface to indicate readiness to mate, while males often did it to compete with other males without full-on combat. Pectoral slapping was shown to be frequent in young whales and is likely an important piece of their development (I was fortunate to see a calf breaching last year).   However, pectoral slapping and frequent breaches from young and feisty individuals taper off as the whales mature and get older (Whitehead 1985). This likely means it not a form of play for older animals. From these findings in pectoral displays we likely assume that a breach from male, female or young calf means separate things.

Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The same humpback whale that breached also showed off pectoral slapping. The behavior went on for 5 or 10 minutes after the breach.
Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The resulting splash of a pec-slap from a humpback whale.

My review of the science and literature surrounding whale behavior is stumped by the same issue that plagues the field : the true question of “why” a whale breaches is illusive because “what” they are trying to convey is likely different for each whale.  Much like the way that we clap our hands different at sporting events, golf tournaments, at a wedding, or after a concert, whales likely use the clap of the water to communicate different feelings.  Answers are relegated to vaguery due to the inherent difficulty of researching an underwater animal. I can only conclude that whales breach to communicate.  It seems most plausible that humpback whales and other species breach to add emphasis to a message or to get a point across.

Cited:

Deakos. (2002). Humpback Whale (Megaptera Novaengliae) Commication : The context and possible functions of pec-slapping behavior on the Hawai’ian wintering grounds. Thesis.

Payne, R. S., & McVay, S. (1971). Songs of humpback whales. Science, 173, 585-597

Silber, G. 1986. “The relationship of social vocalizations to surface behavior and aggression in the Hawaiian humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)”. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 64(10): 2075-2080

Watkins, William A. (1981). “Activities and underwater sounds of fin whales [Balaenoptera physalus].” Scientific Reports of the Whales Research Institute (Japan).

Whitehead, H. 1985. “Why Whales Leap”. Scientific American.

 

 

A Stroll Through the Kelp Forest

The fresh morning air and sea breeze were refreshing to my senses. As I walked along the beach of Hoonah, Alaska the smell of the spray made my taste-buds tingle and buzz;  the ocean air is tantalizingly tasty. The smell of the ocean was particularly strong on this morning because as the tide poured out of Port Frederick it was leaving shallow kelp forests high and dry on the rocky beach. Newly exposed vegetation was increasing the olfactory pleasure.  Stranded kelp on the beach is not a daily occurrence, but the large size of this tide exposed a world in the kelp forests that would normally only be accessible by diving into the frigid water.  From high tide to low this tide would raise and lower the waters in Port Frederick by over 22 feet!

Sunflower Seastars

I was amazed by the abundance and diversity of sea creatures that I had never seen up close before. The first was an enormous, fire-red and purple sunflower sea star. Stretching about 30 inches across, it is actually a top predator of the sea floor. It was evident to see how fast they are as it slid across the rocks by using its long and plentiful tentacles to propel itself. On the bottom they prey on nearly anything that they can get like abalone, starfish, cucumbers and others. The vibrancy of their colors was really amazing. Some were purple and red, some just purple, and some just red. I am not sure if these are different species or not. The video below shows off a bit of the sunflower seastar and the next creature to be found, the Sea Cucumber.

Sea Cucumbers

There are many examples of bizarre creatures in a kelp forest, but the sea cumber is certainly a good example! These creatures, although ugly and dangerous looking, are actually detritivores. They feed on the bottom sucking up soil and convert them into nutrients that are used further up the marine food web. They were too interesting looking to not at least poke one with a finger. When I did I was very surprised to find that they did not have a hard shell, but instead were gelatinous and rippled like a water-balloon dropped on the pavement. As I looked around I found many of the sea cucumbers had molded into the cracks of the rocks at the tideline – once they are out of the water there is not enough support in their body to maintain its shape. In Alaska, this species, the giant red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), are commerically harvested. They are marketed locally and in Asia.

The Humpback Whale

As summer warms up the waters of Port Frederick, large blooms of phytoplankton feed the base of a food chain that ultimately brings many whales into the sound. As I stood on the edge of the kelp forest at low tide deep water stretched out in front of me. A humpback whale surfaced a mile out, and then a half mile out. It seemed to be headed my way. I grabbed my camera with my 200-500 telephoto lens waiting for it to get closer and surface again. I saw shocked to see the water boil in front of me much, much closer than I could have ever imagined. With a WOOSH! the spout of a fully grown humpback broke the surface in front of me just 20 yards away! With my adrenaline rushing through my veins I captured what I could of the huge animal. It is amazing to consider that even if the water was 50 feet in that location that he could have spanned it from the bottom to the surface!

This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!

My morning along the edge of Port Frederick was wonderful because it was everything I saw was new and foreign. It is truly magnificent to consider what is out there to just be experienced. The information I learned on my stroll through the kelp forest gave me an even further appreciation of this beautiful region of Southeast, Alaska.

The (nearly) Eternal Golden Hour

You are sitting on a warm, tropical, beach drinking a margarita. As you watch the day wane away the sun dips lower on the ocean horizon, and the landscape transforms into brilliant oranges and purples. Behind you the palm trees are bathed in orange, and the landscape has taken on incredible colors with accentuated shadows of even the shortest plant or sandcastle.  Almost certainly you bring out your cell phone or camera, because, like all photographers, you find the beauty of the Golden Hour to be irresistible, and you know the peak experience will be short lived.  Perhaps you even think to yourself that you wish the beauty of that light could last forever. What if it could?

The Golden Hour is also called the “magic hour” and for a landscape photographer there is no better time to be outside. The terms refer to the period of time when the sun is 6 degrees or less from the horizon. In many regions, like the balmy beach scene above, the moment as the sun sweeps through that 6 degree sweet-spot is relatively short. However, in Polar regions like Alaska, the winter sun has such as a low, southern trajectory, that the sunset-like colors almost never fade.

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This diagram demonstrates the concept of solar angle, which, as I found out, stays at <= 6 degrees for a full three months in Fairbanks, Alaska. http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/azelzen.gif

There are a variety of tools, apps, and websites to calculate the solar angle at your location.  I used the NOAA ESRL Sun Position Calculator to determine that in Fairbanks the sun dips to the 6 degree mark on October 24th, 2015 and will remain below 6 degrees until February 26th, 2016. To illustrate the effect of the polar magic hour the images below showcase the colors, and shadows achieved by the low-lying sun. For 3 months, the silver lining of our short, winter days is a luxurious landscape lit by an eternal Golden Hour.

Golden Hour Tamaracks
Although we often want to watch the sunset, the objects that it lights up behind us can be brought to life. These tamarack cones are bathed in the remarkable light of the Golden Hour
Golden Hour Angel Rocks
Because unique light of the Golden Hour, it offers the perfect opportunity for black and white transformations. Do you prefer the full color or black and white image?
Black and White Golden Hour
Because unique light of the Golden Hour, it offers the perfect opportunity for black and white transformations. Do you prefer the full color or black and white image?

I used several key resources for this article. If you are interested in calculating your sun angle check out :

http://www.suncalc.org/

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/azel.html

http://www.golden-hour.com/

An Early Christmas Part 2

The feedback on An Early Christmas Part 1 has been really great, thanks! I wanted to share with you how I have embellished on that first concept of shooting Christmas ornaments under the Northern Lights and also get a bit poetic about the aurora.  The aurora this week has been remarkable thanks to a coronal hole from the sun allowing high speed solar winds to reach earth.

I walked out on the ski trails behind my house because the broad and brilliant band of aurora overhead indicated to my aurora-sense it was going to be an early showing. I meandered through snow covered trees maintained in their icy encasement by complete lack of wind for nearly two months. The trail was firm, but as I stepped off my body sunk into thigh deep snow which even though it had fallen 6 weeks ago, was still perfect, soft powder thanks to consistently cold temps. In fact, on this night my breath steamed away at -15F, and a few days earlier I woke up to -23. My anticipation grew as the aurora continued to build in strength and at 10:30 PM an auroral bomb exploded in the sky. The metaphor of a bomb is perfect because it was so sudden that I was caught off guard, and was forced to shoot my camera where I stood in an effort to capture adequately the green and pink shrapnel which rippled and writhed in the sky. The explosion caught me in a towering cathedral of spruces which in the images all point to the source of the disturbance. In five minutes the waves of light ended, but it was only the beginning of series of barrages that kept me awake and in awe until 3AM.

The Lady Slipper
“The Lady Slipper” – In a towering cathedral of spruces that point to a brilliant display of aurora.
Aurora Around the Bend
“Aurora around the bend” – The ski trail I was on rounds the bend, and makes me wonder what views would have awaited if I were not rooted to the spot.

I have been building on the initial ornament concept in a few ways. Although it is difficult to hide a camera in front of a mirror, I am placing it in ways that is not obtrusive. From its hiding place I have shot a full 90 minute star-lapse in the bulb! That image, featured below, is the only one not taken on the night I described. I have also shot a full time lapse in the ornaments which turned out quite wonderful! I hope you enjoy the festive twist on the aurora 🙂

 

This concept shot builds on the original in An Early Christmas by shooting a 90 minute star-lapse!
This concept shot builds on the original in An Early Christmas by shooting a 90 minute star-lapse!

Merry Christmas!

An Early Christmas

Now that we are past Thanksgiving I am definitely in the Christmas Spirit. I took my festive passion into the Alaskan wilderness last night to fuse together a little Christmas Cheer and the aurora borealis. I sat in the waist deep snow and tossed Christmas ornaments into the powder as I belted Christmas carols and watched a crescendo of pink and green aurora dance over my head like the twinkling lights of a monstrous, celestial Christmas tree. Of course, there is no reason to put a star on top of this metaphorical tree, it is a tree that is covered in them, not crowned with one. There were no presents under this tree, because it was already a gift. I had a lot of fun doing this shoot last night, I hope you enjoy!

If you are interested in a one-of-a-kinda Alaskan Christmas card and before you send your greeting cards this year, consider a purchase from my Fine Art America website. To browse a selection of these images as a greeting card, framed print, phone cover, or many other products please visit my page : Ian’s Fine Art America.

Merry Christmas!

Leaning Tree Aurora
A full sky of aurora. I stood nearly waist deep in the snow and framed up this wonderful leaning tree.
Brilliant Pinks
Brillant pinks are a sign of strong aurora! Lots of energy last night.
Moon in the Loop
Crouching low to the snow I watched the aurora flow through and over the moon.
Swirling Aurora
A beautiful full sky of swirling aurora, like oil in water.

Take A Seat for the Aurora Borealis

Last night I did it again, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Yup, when I bring someone out for their first aurora and they are so excited that they can barely stand, I share in that excitement. Their grin is my grin and their joy is my passion.  Their exuberance was warranted, as the aurora put on a beautiful show for us over the dogyards of Black Spruce Dog Sledding and for Alaskans across the state.  It was hard not pull up one of the empty sleds that beckoned to the watcher to layback, relax, smile, and enjoy the show. It truly is a beautiful world.

If you are interested in purchasing “Take A Seat for the Aurora”. Please top by my Fine Art America Site 🙂

Back in a Winter Wonderland

It has been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but all of that is about to change as I get my blog’n legs back under me. Until now I have been prioritizing my thesis which has now been defended. There will be several upcoming articles on the results of my work. I see no use in writing it if noone is reading it! I deem the upcoming articles as science communication”, and I hope you will find them informative.

I want to give you an update on the calendars too. Thanks SO MUCH to those who have purchased one. The response and feedback to them has been tremendous. I am now on my second and last printing. If you have been considering ordering one, now is the time! Visit: http://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/index.php/product/2016-alaskan-calendar/

Now onto the meat of this entry. Yesterday was my first day back in Fairbanks after being away for over 10 days. When I left, the remnants of a huge September snowstorm (17″) still lingered on the ground in low, shaded areas, but for the most part the ground was barren. It is amazing how only 10 days can change that. We now have 16″ of pure powder on the ground which is maintained by cold nights. Yesterday morning when I awoke it was -15F with a promise from forecasters that those temperatures will continue through at least this week. A seasonally late sunrise began at 9:15, and by noon the low light illuminated the tree tops and extenuated the shadows. I nearly skipped with joy into the  spruce bog behind my house where snow hung on the trees. I passed under trees that with a touch would have doused me in snow, and found pure joy in the beauty of this winter wonderland.

Later that night the landscape of refracting light and black spruce shadows transitioned to twinkling stars shining through a moonless night. I retraced my steps from only a few hours earlier and watched as the aurora built to the north. I watched for awhile and smiled outwardly at my knowledge of the stark contrast in light from just hours earlier.

Refracted Highlight
The sun highlights the top of a snow-pillow smothering an arched black spruce.
DSC_3248
The dynamic light of the landscape is what makes it so beautiful. Shadows of the low sun contrast heavily against lighted spires.
Black and White Winter Wonderland
I really like how the black and white contrast of needles, snow, sky lend themselves to back-and-white photography.
Winter Sun Burst
The sun erupts through a gap in the trees, but has no heat this time of year.
Arched Spruces
The large snow-load has bent many of the black spruces over. They will rebound in the spring once their burden has been lifted.
Snow Covered Aurora
At night, the aurora lit up the landscape where I watched the the sun play across the tree tops hours earlier.
Low Aurora
A combination of short and tall black spruces creates a beautiful effect in this winter wonderland.
Spinning Stars in a Winter Wonderland
This starspin shot was set up for 2 hours. Focusing on the north star, it is amazing to see how much they shift over that time!