Category Archives: Videography

By a Team of Seven Into Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ode to the 2015 – 2015 Aurora Season

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

Highlight Timelapse 2014 – 2015:

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

Aurora Top 20:

On the Frontline with the Aurora

As fast I could muster, my batteries, cards, camera, and tripod were quickly gathered for my unplanned trip. With my boots pulled on and winter clothes layered, I hurried to my truck, started the engine, and backed out out of my spot without even letting the engine warm. I justified that it was worth the wear and tear on the vehicle because it was imperative to hurry out of Fairbanks to see what I hoped would be a stunning aurora. My justifications ended up being correct, but I didn’t know I was in for my most memorable night of the aurora season. 

During the afternoon, snow had been falling heavily, and was forecasted to do so through the evening with strong winds in tow. Cloud cover was going to hide the effects of a G1 storm from solar winds emitting from a coronal hole. However, in opposition to the forecast, the skies opened up and revealed crimson red and shining green, and resulted in my rapid exodus from the house. Knowing that the aurora can disappear as quickly as it starts, I was anxious to reach my shooting spot on Old Murphy Dome Road.

The wind shook the truck as I parked, and snow laid down during the afternoon was transformed into biting crystals which targeted and stung any open skin; they were catalyzed by 30 mile per hour winds which gusted to 45. However, it was easy to forget the inconvenience of the wind, because my focus was on the aurora which stretched in front of me. Spanning across the sky it shimmered and danced, and patches of the heavens were lit in crimson red. Grabbing my camera, and stuffing some extra batteries into a chest pocket, I descended through thigh deep snow and set up my tripod. I simultaneously clicked my shutter and watched the sky. Aurora photography is a pretty active endeavor. I always make sure to address any “greener pastures”, so as the aurora constantly waxed and waned in front of me I fiddled constantly with camera settings and position.

As I sat and watched the aurora the most extraordinary thing happened : it went completely dark. I do not mean the aurora, I mean the whole landscape. I had not considered how bright the moon was until the clouds smothered its light. In fact, as I watched the dazzling light of the moon reappear, I realized I was on the edge of the weather and cloud front which appeared to be divided by the ridge line of Old Murphy Dome. Low clouds over the ridge line were pushed northeast by the howling winds like race cars, and applied a filter to the moon’s light as they moved past with a kaleidoscopic effect. The moon beams were composed of euphoria, or at least they must have been, because that is what I felt as I watched the soft moonlight dance across the snow like rays of the sun. Wave after wave of moonlight started to the south and passed over me. For ninety minutes I sat on the edge of the frontline, and the clouds provided opposing motion to the fluid dance of the aurora. It was amazing to consider that the solar winds which controlled the aurora, also created the wind on the ground which was still pushing up clouds of biting crystals.

I have never been in a more dynamic nightscape. The pushing wind, racing clouds, dancing aurora, and light of the moon were a pleasure to be a part of. The chance that I would sit along such a dynamic front may never happen again!

A timelapse of being on the “front line” during tonight’s aurora show. Note those moving clouds and the ground-storm:

Below is a gallery of the “snow storm” and the “aurora storm” from today. Be sure to click on images to enlarge them.

A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter

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
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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!
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Brandon posing for an Aurora shot.
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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!

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The Negative 40F Aurora Club

While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.

Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up.  Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!

With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!

The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂

At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!

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!