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Proof Photography Wisdom Comes With Age : A Tidal Lesson

A few nights ago I had a “breakwater” experience in my photography career. A tidal one. A heart-stopping, adrenaline pumping, oh-shoot-what-now, moment.  I’ve had quite a time laughing at it now and feel I need get it down for the record so that 10 years from now I can’t stretch the story too much.

Ocean, Light Painting, Stars
This story involves the stars and the tides. Pictured here. Perhaps if I had looked closer and could read the night’s fate in the stars I wouldn’t have gone out at all!

So here’s the scene. It’s is April 16th, 2018 and a new moon is leaving the sky void of light pollution. It was a slam-dunk, shockingly beautiful night with clear and luscious dark skies. For a night photography junkie like myself the opportunity was too good not to go out.  I arrived at Long Island outside of Hoonah, Alaska at 10:00 PM. This area is situated right on the ocean and a saddle of coarse sand connects the mainland to a 200 foot diameter island.  I began to shoot along that sand spit and was thrilled with the shots I was getting : smooth seas reflected the stars like opalescent pearls on the surface. The edge of the Milky Way rose to the north and was showing up brilliantly in my camera.  It was simply a stunning night to be out . Satisfied with the individual shots I was getting I began to deploy three DSLR bodies on 6 foot tripods being conscious of the high tide line. I programmed two to take images at regular intervals in order to create Star Trails images and one I placed on a robotic head to capture a timelapse of the Milky Way.  The robotic head was tethered to a battery which sat on the sand 5 feet below the camera. Smugly I thought to myself how good I was getting at this and decided that a few winks of sleep would be a great way to pass the time as the cameras did their thing. Sleep is a great way to lose track of time and reality.

Milky way, hoonah, alaska, stars
The edge of the Milky Way Rising in Hoonah, Alaska.

You may already know sleeping in a car seat never provides the best sleep. I woke up at 11:30 and saw the green light on my camera flicker, noting that it was taking pictures and that everything was OK. I woke up at 12:00, 12:30 and then at 1AM. Again, everything looked great! The stars were speckled across the heavens, the ocean was calm, and no sea-fog had rolled in. I wedged myself into a comfier position and passed out stone cold until 2:30 AM. When I awoke was when the real fun started.

I guess I have to tell you a bit about the tides since not all are familiar with them. In Hoonah, our tides swing as much as 23 feet from low to high. Huge amounts of water move like a large river and quickly flood tidal areas over 6 hours and then recede.In the video below (a result of the night) you can watch the tides come in fast.  Like all coastal areas there are two times of the month when then tides are greatest : full moon and new moon. I’ve already told you which moon I lay sleeping under.

At 2:30 AM I yawned, stretched, smacked my lips, yawned again, and then decided I should go check on my cameras. I opened the door and came face to face with my situation – salt water was rushing by my truck just below my floor boards like a river. Due to the new moon there was no regard by the ocean for the “normal” high tide line, it had gone past with the regard a lion gives a cob of corn. I tried to step from the truck and over-topped my 16″ tall rubber XTuff boots. Oh shit. I knew my first priority was to get my truck to high ground. Fortunately I had parked facing the right way and was soon there… but now about those cameras.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When you have thousands of dollars of water-sensitive camera gear caught in the embrace of a rampant high tide it is desperate times indeed. My first few steps to Camera # 1 with the extra battery brought me over my boots and then over my thighs. I was shocked to see 6 foot tall tripod only sticking out of the water by 18inches. Rescuing the large battery from the bottom of the ocean required submerging my arm up to my armpit in the icy brine. And I knew I was just getting started as I rushed the camera to safety on shore.

On any other day I would erase this image, but since the stream tail lights of my truck captures the pandemonium of the moment its a shot with a story.

Camera # 2 was placed much further along the saddle that connected the island to shore. I was over my boots and over my thighs when, to my dread, the ice flows began to solidify in the 25 degree night. A skim of quarter inch ice had built up like tiny armor plating to rub against my stinging legs. Fortunately (I guess?) I had no choice to scrutinize my options and further in I went. By the time I reached Camera #2 I was over my belly button. As a man I can say that it was extraordinary uncomfortable to be that deep in those icy waters.

Camera #3 was placed on a flooded bolder field. Hindsight is 20/20, but my legs were so numb and becoming dysfunctional by the third camera that navigating my waterlogged boots over the volcanic rock was quite difficult. With a few stumbles I was able to retrieve the camera which was still taking images and toddle my way back to my vehicle.

Star Trails, Alaska, Hoonah
All said and done the night was actually quite successful. Check out this beautiful star trails!

It is truly remarkable I didn’t lose any camera gear. The tides were a full 4 to 5 feet higher than I ever would have suspected. In river terms it had “topped” its bank. On that night I did a rare thing by raising all of my tripods to their highest height. It is much more typical for me to shoot with low tripods which would have flooded for certain. I’ll count my blessings and do a much better job of measuring the tides next time I go out!

Star Trails, Hoonah, Alaska, Light Painting
Star Trails captured on my nearly disastrous night. In one I used my headlamp the light the treees on the shore.

Star Trails, Hoonah, Alaska, Light Painting

Birding Oahu and The Big Island

In the South Pacific, the islands of Hawaii emerge like green jewels from the vast ocean. For many tourists these islands offer beaches and relaxation and forested hikes. Throughout these habitats are  dozens of species of birds that have evolved on the island and live nowhere else in the world. Known as “endemic” species they contribute to the biodiversity and beauty of the place and also to the allure of the islands to birders. There are also a multitude of stunning species that have been introduced from foreign countries through Hawaii’s long history of travelers and agriculture.  Last there are the migrants – birds that live in Hawaii each winter and feed in its rich forests.

Birding Hawaii for the first time is certain to add many species to your “life list” and after a week of casual birding my wife and I were thrilled at the chance to see some of these winged wonders.

Endemics Species

Endemic species are often highly evolved to fulfill a certain niche. This means they often rely on a certain food source or nest in a certain area. They are highly specialized and are susceptible to habitat destruction, climate change,  and competition from introduced species. These birds did not evolve with mammalian predators and have felt the pressure of cats and mongoose which came with humans. According to ABCbirds.org, 95 of 142 endemic Hawaiin bird species have gone extinct since human arrival. Of the 44 remaining species, 33 are on the endangered species list and at risk for extinction. These statistics have prompted many studies and efforts at restoration. Hopefully efforts will successfully save some of these beautiful species. Certainly the liklihood of extinction means birding Hawaii now may be your best time to see some of the species before they disappear forever. We only saw several endemic species and hope to pursue these more on our next trip to Hawaii.

Mongoose, Hawaii
Mongoose are introduced and have helped lead to the decline of endemic birds.
Cat, Hawaii
Cats pose a serious threat to Hawaiin endemic birds.

Introduced Species

Hawaii has a long past of habitat destruction and modification from humans. In the 1830s, the first successful sugar cane plantation was planted in Hawaii and “cane” plantations spread like wildfire from there. For nearly 180 years the cane plantations burned through acres and produced huge amounts of product. In 2016 the last cane plantation shut down.  However, that industry, development, military activity, and travelers introduced dozens of birds, plants, insects, and mammals. Many of these birds thrived in the warm and gentle climate and in time competed with the endemic species that lived there. We had an opportunity to see a wide sampling of these species on while birding the Big Island and Oahu.

Migratory Species

Of all the migratory species that we observed the Bristle-thighed Curlew was certainly the highlight! Very little is known about the habits of this bird, but they breed in northern Alaska and winter exclusively on islands in the south pacific. It was pretty remarkable to see them walking around the golf course near Kona!

Birding Hawaii made me realize again how connected birds make the world. Regardless of the distance and expanse they have to cover they are able to connect regions like the Bristle-thighed Curlew connects Hawaii and Alaska.  I cannot wait for the next time that I bird those gorgeous islands.

Chasing Lava at Volcanoes National Park

A Barren Landscape

When you arrive on the Big Island of Hawaii one thing is immediately obvious – lava is omnipresent and shapes the land in a big way. I know, you may be thinking to yourself, “Of course it does! It’s Hawaii”, but until you drive through miles on miles of black, barren, lava fields for the first time it is hard to imagine how dominant the lava is over the Big Island. Once you get past the incredible scale of lava fields and begin to zoom in on the lava formations themselves, it is even more difficult to determine how the intricate loops, curls, folds, chasms, and bubbles form in the fields. Bubbles within bubbles, curls over swells, loops and swoops, nothing it seems is impossible for lava. I was grateful to visit the lava leads of Volcanoes National Park which put some of questions to bed.

Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography
Curtains of hardened lava lie below open leads further up the hillside. How did the lava form all of these unique shapes and formations?

Hiking the Lava Fields

There is no official trail to the lava leads (open flows of lava), so you are “bush whacking” (an ill fitting term considering there are few bushes in the newly scorched earth) across the lava fields. When I took my first step onto the blackened earth it gave a satisfying crunch – like several thousand tiny glass panes had broken simultaneously. This isn’t far from the truth as I learned that the surface of the lava cools in a glass-like structure. With each crunching step we plodded closer to our goal – smoke rising from a hillside. About two miles in we caught sight of a bright orange flash on the hillside. Even in the daylight it was so bright that it seemed a person in a blaze-orange jacket was propped in the rocks. It was my first look at lava, and I couldn’t wait to get closer! 30 minutes later we were standing only 20 feet away from the open leads of lava to observe their beauty and feel their heat first hand. Check out the video below for a taste of the hike in and the beauty of lava.

On the Nature of Lava and Its Formations

Standing and watching the lava leads swell, break their crust, cool, and repeat helped answer a lot of the questions I had. For instance –

  1. How fast does lava flow? The answer all depends on the slope of the hill. Further up from us the lava flowed like a small river – much faster than a person could run. Near us, in the toe of the slope it ran much slower.
  2. The lava fields were incomprehensibly large, so how fast do they form? Much, much quicker than I expected. Open lava leads could form meters of new, scorched ground in just a few minutes. It became evident how quickly the lava leads could create new land or in many cases in Hawaii, new islands.
  3. How does the lava form the different shapes? There are so many complexities to this. I believe it has to do with the temperature of the lava (1300 – 2200 F), the crack it was bursting through, the wind, the air temp, the slope, the rate of flow, and so much more. I did get to watch as the lava formed bubbled as well as more unique shapes such loops and curls like overlapping layers of chocolate from a fountain.

Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography

An open lava lead flows just a few feet away from me.

Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography
Lava leads would quickly form and cool creating the black, barren landscape of the lava fields.
Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography
An open lava lead flows at night.

Darkness Falls Over the Lava Field

Our plan was to stay late into the night and photograph the Milky Way over the lava leads. The night was warm, but even if it had not been it is easy to stay warm in a lava field – if you pick the right rock it is like laying on warm concrete thanks to the percolating lava below. We curled up for naps on our geologically heated sleeping spots and then enjoyed the brilliance of the open lava in the dark night. At 10PM the clouds rolled in thick and light rain started. The rain in particular can create hazardous conditions when it comes in contact with open lava by generating nauseous gas, so we decided to call it a night and made the trek home. Overall the experience was my fondest of in Hawaii and is in the 10 of all-time life experiences!

Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography
Open lava leads shine bright under the stars.
Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography
Open lava leads shine bright under the stars.
Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography
A hillside dotted with open lava leads glowed brightly once the sun set.

Lava, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Big Island, Photography

Planning a Trip?

The lava conditions in Volcanoes National Park change constantly, and you will want to check on current conditions on the National Park Service website before heading out.  Our hike to the open leads of lava ended up being 10 miles round trip, but if you are fortunate the lava will be much closer to the road if you go for a trip. Bring good shoes, lots of water, food, and a camera!

A Night In the Aurora Photography Sandbox

Return of the Aurora

It has been a looonnnng time since the aurora forecast  has lined up with clear skies here in Hoonah, so when they finally did this weekend I wanted to make the most of it! Although I do not often focus on writing about photographic techniques on this blog, I thought I would focus on some creative photography techniques I employed and how they can expand your shooting opportunity. Read along to learn about some skills to expand your nighttime shooting (foreground composition, focus stacking, panoramas, light painting) or scroll along to check out some of the images from the night.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains
The aurora shines bright over Icy Strait. This is a very “typical” aurora shot and I’ll focus how creative photography can get you out of this envelope.

Foreground Composition & Light Painting

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Icicles
These icicles amplified the aurora and provided an excellent foreground for a unique image of the Northern Lights.

When I am out photographing a scene I am forever on the hunt for interesting foreground elements. Of course the definition of word “interesting” is determined by the photographer, but I search for elements that capture the essence of the scene, amplify the impact of a phenomenon, or create a pleasing set of lines that lead the eye.  On this particular night I was drawn to a rock face that was draped in large icicles. They were translucent and I knew that I could shoot the aurora through them – they were also perfect as a piece of the scene because they provided texture to the aurora’s light and were a part of the essence and juxtaposition where the ocean meets the shore.  I call the resulting shot “Aurora Light Sabers” and am thrilled with the unique perspective it provided to the landscape and aurora.  Not all foreground elements are so well lit, so you may consider bringing a flashlight along to help paint the scene.

Modern cameras are incredibly adept at picking up light, however, moonless nights in regions with truly dark skies will still leave foreground elements black unless you use a bit of focused lighting and enhancement. Thus, the creative photography technique “Light Painting” can help you emphasize and highlight your foreground elements.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack, Goonz
This maquette of the Goonz pole (Hoonah, Alaska) is lit using light painting. The bright light in the background is a crabbing boat that shined its light at me as I took the image.

On this night I brought a very unique foreground element with me. This model (maquette) of the Goonz Totem Pole in Hoonah, Alaska is an exact, 18″ replica of the life-sized pole. It was used to guide the carvers as they brought the full sized pole to life and it was truly a privilege to have the maquette with me. I set the maquette up close to my camera and began to shoot, creating the illusion that a full-sized totem was in front of my camera. I used a light panel and bounced the light off the surrounding snow to softly light the totem. Without light painting, the totem would have been completely dark and blank – simply a silhouette against the sky.

Focus Stacking

You can expand your depth of field and create sharp images using a technique called focus stacking.  I am a novice at the technique and referenced this article.

One of the disadvantages of using such a small maquette is that I had to be very close to it to take the shot and make it a significant foreground element. The close object brought the stars far out of focus (as seen in the maquette image above).  To get over this hurdle, I shot multiple images of the totem at different focuses in rapid succession and then combined them in Photoshop. Through focus stacking I was able to have my cake and eat it too – I created an image with a dominant maquette in the foreground and sharp stars in the background.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack
This image was created with the maquette and a technique called focus stacking. Used multiple images taken in succession and and different focuses to create the final image with a sharp foreground a sharp background.
Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack
This image was created with the maquette and a technique called focus stacking. Used multiple images taken in succession and and different focuses to create the final image with a sharp foreground a sharp background.

Panorama

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Panorama
This panorama capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights. It was created by stitching 6 images in Photoshop.

Often scenes are so expansive that they cannot be captured in a single image, and that is where a panorama can be very helpful.  As I stood on the beach and photographed I knew that I wanted to capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together (about 160 degrees field of view). I created the panorama below using 6 images and a 24mm, Sigma f/1.4. Each image is separated by 20 degrees using a rotating ballhead. I used 20 degrees because I know it provides ample overlap in the image for Photoshop to align and stitch with. You will need to change the amount of rotation depending on the length of the lens that you use. Using the panoramic technique expanded my field of view and helped me capture all of the celestial elements that I had in mind as well as the mountains of Homeshore and the mainland.

The Take Away

I am always learning new techniques and refining ones that I already know. Thinking outside of the box and on your feet during a photography session can expand your shooting opportunities during a single night. As I like to say “pixels are cheap”, so be sure to make lots of pixels as you shoot more creative photography.

A Mink in the Mussels

A few months back I was walking the shores of Hoonah, Alaska with my wife when we saw a furry brown streak shoot out of the rocks along the ocean. With smiles of pleasure we watched as the mink dove under a thick bed of green, leafy, rock weed that covered the rocks exposed by the low-tide and erupted from it a few feet from where its nose had entered. Like a swimmer diving through water it dove and emerged again and then it changed tactics. Like a cat playing with its paws inside of an empty brown bag it shuffled and flipped the weeds looking for any wriggling food underneath. I knew that the weeds hide small fish, crabs, and sea-cucumbers and any of those would have been a feast for this small mammal.

In its focused pursuit of food, the Mink payed me little regard as I moved closer. Soon I was within 10 feet of this active animal. I followed it along the shore for 50 yards enjoying  and watching its behaviors. I had not considered how many holes were in the rocks until the Mink poked its head into nearly every one of them systematically!  The Mink disappeared into a rock outcropping thick with rock weed and emerged with a sculpin as its prize. Although sculpin have heavy spines in their head, the mink crunched through the whole carcasses and even the bony head before heading to another rock outcropping to find some more.

The Mink consumes a sculpin that it scavenged from under the rock weed.

The Mink disappeared under a large bolder laced in blue mussels. I made my move and walked across the beach and stepped on top of the bolder. When the Mink reemerged it looked up and me and ducked back into the rocks. Obviously unsure if it was safe to come out but too curious to care it soon reappeared, took a glance at me, and then started to forage in the rocks under my feet. I was only 7 feet away from the lithe body as it scurried and poked and made me smile.

I’ve thought quite a bit about that Mink in the mussels since then because the opportunity was, well, opportune and I took the chance to watch and learn. In a world where everything is the next biggest priority this Mink was a reminder to stop and smell the roses. My advice to you is when you have a chance to sit, watch, and learn, take it. Whatever comes next can wait a bit.

A mink comes out of the rocks after scouting around for food. I watched this cute little bugger dive around in the rocks for almost 40 minutes.

A Day With the Vole Patrol

In northern Minnesota a chain of bogs and open forest near Sax and Zim are full of winged wonders. This track of land, the Sax Zim Bog, is renowned for its migrants from northern Boreal Forests that flit among the spruces and for the ghostly shapes of owls that drift on silent wings among the tamaracks. Spending time in the bog can provide amazing opportunities to watch these birds and learn about their survival skills in a harsh winter.

A Great Gray Feast

My dad and I arrived at Sax Zim Bog at 7:50 AM. The sun was just coming up in a bright blue sky, but it did not provide much warmth to the -20F day. However, without wind the day was quite pleasant and the conditions were perfect to find active owls. At 8:05 AM we found two active Great Gray Owls. The pair hunted 100 yards apart, perched on short, wooden power poles. In the typical behavior of owls, the closer owl swiveled its head back and forth, gathering the noises of its surroundings. Great Gray Owls are the largest owl in the world and their unique facial disc funnels sound directly into their ears like a satellite dish focuses a signal.  This adaptation allows them to be efficient predators able to locate rodents under the snow.

When the owl swiveled its head and focused its gaze I knew that the hunt was on. Soaring silently on a 5-foot wing span the owl plopped down in the snow 30 yard away. Its body was half in the snow and half out, and for 10 seconds it just sat in the snow giving the illusion that it was unsuccessful. But then the owl surged from the snow with a large vole grasped in its talons! I stood in awe at having witnessed the hunt first hand.

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl swivels its head to search for prey.
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A distant Great Gray Owl hunts along a tree line.
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray plunks into the snow in pursuit of a vole that tunneled below the surface. He caught it!
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
The silent flight of a Great Gray Owl to its perch. Look at that camouflage!
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl holds onto a recently captured vole.
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl holds onto a recently captured vole.

Pouncing Northern Hawk Owls

As their name suggest, Northern Hawk Owls are an owl of the far north that migrate south in the winter. Because northern climates do not get much darkness in the summer these unique owls have adapted by hunting at all times of the day. We found our first hawk owl at 1PM, characteristically perched at the very top branches of a dead tree. After watching for awhile the owl zoomed to a perch further in the forest and then another perch even further out. They do this to find new and unsuspecting rodents to munch on.

When we saw the Northern Hawk Owl kill its first vole, I was struck by how much different their approach was than the Great Gray. It took off from a branch and then hovered (stooped) silently above the ground (thanks to modified wing edges that dampen sound) much like a hawk or falcon would do.  It rapidly came out of the stoop and crashed to the ground to catch its first dinner. 20 minutes later it exhibited the same behavior. It is amazing to think how many voles the Owls of Sax Zim Bog must kill on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis!

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog
This Northern Hawk Owl caught 2 voles as several photographers and I watched.

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog
A Northern Hawk owl speeds to its next perch like a speeding bullet.

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog

A day at Sax Zim Bog can bring about AMAZING experiences, but please practice ethical photography of the residents that live there. Owls are very susceptible to the unethical practice of baiting. For the safety of the owls, please DO NOT bait them! Also, please give them their space as they make and consume kills and do not stay with an owl too long. Most of theses images were taken with an 800mm lens and thus were taken from a respectful distance. Doing these things will keep the owls safe and ensuring that you have the best day possible observing these amazing animals!

Top Shots 2017

2017 is officially in the books and it has been a tremendous year! Thank you to all who follow along on this blog or at www.facebook.com/ianlww! Your engagement in my work has been amazing! Your support is one of reasons  the reasons that I stay out late shooting the Aurora Borealis and get in front of bears with my camera. This gallery is features my  “Best of Photography 2017” and I hope you enjoy. I’m looking forward to bringing you more in 2018!

Cheers,

Ian

The Lights and ‘Bergs of Yakutat, Alaska

In the north end of Southeast Alaska lies Yakutat, Alaska. The community sits in a cathedral of mountains that make up Kluane National Park and Reserve. Among its peaks, Mt. Saint Elias soars to over 18,000 feet, earning it the title of second highest mountain in the U.S. and Canada.. All of the mountains are snow covered and laced with glaciers. They create remarkable, never ending scenery when the sun is shining and at night they provide a remarkable backdrop for the Northern Lights.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska
An iceberg floats under the Northern Lights in Harlequin Lake.

Forty-five minutes outside of Yakutat plus a 20 minute hike will bring you to Harlequin Lake. The lake is at the outflow of Yakutat Glacier, possibly the fastest retreating glacier in the world, which dumps a constant supply of ice into it the lake’s waters. We arrived at 10PM as the aurora was starting to intensify into a solid green band. Icebergs floated in the lake like ice cubes in a drink. They were  about 30 feet from shore which left me in a dilemma – go into the lake to bring the icebergs closer in my photos, or be happy with images from the shore? As the aurora exploded overhead into pinks and greens it made my choice clear.

My boots and then socks came off quickly and I sucked in my breath as I stepped into the frigid water. It crept over my knees and then to my mid-thighs before I finally stopped wading in. The aurora was still dancing overhead and the adrenaline kept my mind off my numbing feet. I stepped out of the water a few times to warm up, but was forced back into the water by the beauty of the combination of ice and aurora. The fifth time back in the water was nearly unbearable! I finally conceded that it was time to warm up, not knowing the climax of the night would come after I put my boots back on.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

When a glacier “calves” a chunk of ice breaks from it and crashes into the water forming a bouncing baby iceberg. It was evident from the gigantic sound coming from across the lake, that Yakutat Glacier was calving off a behemoth chunk of ice. The cannon-like roar that boomed across the lake accented the dancing Northern Lights overhead. The goosebumps stood up on my arms from the power of the moment. It was a fitting end to one of coldest and most memorable nights of Northern Lights watching that I have done.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

The aurora storm (kp5) lasted for another night and aligned with clear skies – a two night feature of cloudless skies which is unusual for Yakutat in October. There are many areas close to town that are devoid of light pollution, and I departed to Grave Yard Beach outside of Yakutat which is most famous for its surfing.  Adding to the sound of the gentle surf, the ocean-side location provided open skies for the aurora to dance, reflections in the sand, and a moonrise over the mountains. Whenever I return to Yakutat again, it will be impossible not to think of these two remarkable nights in the darkness and under the lights.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska
“The Double Dipper” – Ursa Major reflects in the sand and shines in the sky.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

Local Fungi to Dye For

Everyone knows that some mushrooms are edible, but did you know that certain species of fungi and lichen can create dye for yarn and other materials in every spectrum of the rainbow?  When Bessette wrote her book “The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyers Field Guide”, she was being quite literal! I had the unique opportunity to scout for local dyeing mushrooms as part of a workshop led by SE Alaska mycologist Karen Dillman. We used the newly acquired mushrooms to dye yarn and silks. There is no doubt that I look at the forest floor with a different level of detail now! I think I may be hooked on this unique form of creating color.

All of these colors and more can be produced by mushrooms and lichens. Colors vary on species and treatment of the fungi while boiling.

A Bit of History

Natural dyes extracted from plants, minerals, and even fungi and lichens have been used for more than 5,000 years. In Europe, Karen explained that classic tweed colors in Scotland were extracted from lichens (Parmelia saxatilis). In Southeast Alaska, the bright yellow colors for Tlingit Chilkat Robes were derived from a lichen now called wolf moss. Within the United States the formalization of the process  of dyeing with mushrooms and the resulting mushroom dyeing renaissance occurred when Miriam C. Rice began experimenting with and documenting the colors that each species of fungi and lichen created. Her resulting publications have inspired countless research studies since then and a wave of newborn mushroom dyeing enthusiasts.

The Fungi and Lichens of Dyeing

Picking the right fungi or lichen for the right color is a crucial first step in producing your dyes.  Fortunately the old growth forests in Southeast Alaska are ripe with many colorful species of fungi and lichens (a side fact – there are thousands of species of fungi and about 1000 documented lichen in Southeast Alaska).  For each of the species of fungi that we dyed with during the workshop I have included the color they produce and the general region they may be found.

  • Lobaria pulmanaria – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lungwort”
  • Lobaria oregana – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lettuce lichen”
  • Letharia vulpina – bright yellow and green (Idaho up through the Yukon)
  • Parmelia saxatillis – apricot and rusty browns (Southeast Alaska)
  • Orsalia (Umbillicaria genus) – purples (Nova Scotia), Rock Tripe (Umbellicaria) found in Southeast Alaska can produce purples as well.
  • Hydenellum peckii – blue (Southeast Alaska)
  • Hydnellum regium – black (Southeast Alaska)
  • Phaeolus schwinitzii – golds and greens (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called the dyer’s polypore
  • Dermocybes spp. – oranges and yellows (Southeast Alaska)

Fungi and Lichen are picky about the habitats they live in. Most species strongly associate with certain plant communities,  individual species of plants, or types of food (wood, bone, sphagnum, and many other things). For each of the fungi and lichen above you can increase the efficiency of your search by understanding their ecology. Dermocybe species are found at the bases of old growth spruces and hemlocks and the Rock Tripe (Umbella caria) lichen is associated with rock faces, and often grow in the alpine. Of course, mushroom diversity differs by region, so as you are walking around take note of the locations you find your dye mushrooms and look for similar features elsewhere.

Cortinarius, Dermocybe, Dye, Red, Orange
These two species of Dermocybe mushrooms (in the Cortinarius family) are found in Southeast Alaska. One provides vibrant reds and one provides a vibrant orange.
Cortinarius, Dermocybe, Dye, Red, Orange
These are both species of Dermocybe mushrooms found outside of Hoonah, Alaska. It’s pretty obvious which one produces red and which produces orange!

The Process of Dyeing With Fungi

Dyeing with mushrooms is actually quite easy – in many ways finding the mushrooms and getting them in enough quantity to dye with can be the difficult part! The most important thing is to add equal parts fiber (yarn, silks, grass, cedar bark) and mushrooms. The amount of water will not lighten the color of your dye because the dye is attracted to the mordanted yarn, so be sure to add enough water cover your fiber.  Once the mushrooms are in the water, bring the water to a boil. As it heats you’ll immediately see the colors extruded from the mushrooms. You can boil the mushrooms for various amounts of time, and the longer you boil the more intense the colors will become. Straining the mushrooms from the dye is optional. Add the fiber to the dye and simmer the fiber for awhile – it will transform from white to bright!

Fungi Dye, Mushroom, Red
Look at the intense reds that resulted from boiling red Dermocybe mushrooms! When dying with red Dermocybe, be sure to removed their stems or you will end up with an orange dye because the stems are yellow.

When you first begin you may be uncertain of which color will come from each species of mushrooms. To save some time and precious mushrooms you can boil up a bit of water and pour it over a mushroom sample. After 10-15 minutes the color should be evident if the mushroom is useful for dyeing. To test lichens, try adding them to a bit of bleach (be sure it’s newish bleach, old will not work) to extrude the colors.  If you like the colors produced by the test you can boil up the rest of your mushrooms right away or preserve them for later by drying or freezing.

Fungi Dye, mushroom, dye, yarn
Testing your mushroom for color is as simple as pouring some boiling water into it and waiting to see what colors emerge.

In order to derive the most vibrant colors and best results, you will need a bit of luck, some patience and a small knowledge of chemistry. Several of the mushrooms and lichens that we dyed with could be modified by adding alum or iron to the water. These two minerals are preferred because they are non-toxic and can be dumped out safely after the dye is used up. Adding iron to yellow dyes will generally make them turn brown. By changing the pH with soda ash to basic water (pH 9 or 10) you can transform the colors from black to blue when dyeing with Hydnellum suaveolens.  You can keep experimenting to find new chemistry that changes the color – just be sure to closely document what you did!

Most of the fiber materials are “raw” and need to be prepared to accept the dye. You can mordant wool yarn with iron or cream of tarter to achieve different colors. However, mordant is not necessary for lichen dyes, only mushrooms!

The Results

We used the dyes that we created to stain wool yarn and silk scarves. We also experimented with chiton shells from gumboots, and spruce roots. The results were incredible and stunning! Each skein of yarn extracted from the water baths  was draped over the back of a chair to dry and added to the spectrum of color created by it is predecessors.  We were pleased to see that some of the dyes were penetrating enough to color the bone-hard chiton shells and the tough, lignin of the spruce roots. I am a novice knitter, and the incredible vibrancy of the colors produced got me thinking about my next project – whatever that may be.

Fungi Dye, Yarn, Color, Red, Blue, Purple, Orange, Brown, Gray
All of these colors were made from mushrooms and lichens that we boiled during the workshop!
Fungi Dye, Yarn, Color, Red, Blue, Purple, Orange, Brown, Gray
Each of the colors were associated with the mushrooms that they came from on this sheet.
Chiton, Dye, Fungi, Musrhoom, Dermocybe
The red Dermocybe mushrooms were able to dye bone-hard chiton shells.

Thank you to Karen Dillman for introducing these techniques to us! Also thank you to Ron Hamill for his unwavering and undoutable knowledge of fungi. Karen attempted to pass on years of learning and experiments in a short day. To learn more about dyeing with fungi and lichen check out the resource books she recommended.This unique form of creating color is a learn-by-doing process. So, I hope you get out there and do it!

These books can provide a great resource for new and advanced dyers.

Petroglyph Beach : Tlingit Art From Before the Time of the Pyramids

In Wrangell, Alaska the Petroglyph Beach Historic Site is a rocky beach that stretches to the north of the Wrangell Island along the coast. Among the field of kelp, sand, shells and slate-gray rocks are carved the testaments of early Tlingit people from 8,000 years ago. In fact, with over 40 known petroglyphs, the beach contains the highest concentration of petroglyphs in all of Southeast Alaska! These carvings were undoubtedly significant to history Tlingit people, but their true meaning has been lost and shrouded by history.

I enjoyed carefully walking around the site to discover new designs in the rocks. It is hard not to be in awe of this location when thinking about its relation to early human events. Globally at 6,000 BC, the pyramids of Egypt had not started construction, and people were only just starting to practice agriculture. It wasn’t until about 5,000 BC that basic crop cultivation began, and in ~5,700 BC the eruption that formed Oregon’s crater lake began – certainly the Tlingit people felt that blast reverberate up the coast! The carvings are a testament to the long history of Native Alaskan occupation of Southeast Alaska, and their rich cultural history.  Even without fully understanding their meaning you can grasp at their significance.

Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
A twisted face and eyes.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Faces in the rocks.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
I am very intrigued by this design. It shaped like the cosmos, but I wonder what it actually represents?
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Several worn designs barely show through on the rock.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Its interesting that the eyes have preserved so much better than the mouth of this petroglyph.
This face is very worn and hard to distinguish.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Several faces carved into the rock.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
An unknown shape, perhaps a primitive mammal sketch?
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
Swirling designs.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
A bird carved into the rocks.
Wrangell, Alaska, Petroglyph Beach, Historic Site, Petroglyph
A petroglyphic face at Petroglyph Beach in Wrangell