I jumped when my alarm went off at 11:30 PM, and I looked at my surroundings to remind myself where I was. The sleeping bag wrapped around me and my reclined seat reinforced I was in my truck as my blurry eyes brought the steering wheel in focus. My memories flooded back to me; I arrived 30 minutes ago, and with no aurora in sight had set an alarm and took a nap. I was expectant that a G2 storm forecast was going to pay out, and as I peered out of trucks window it seemed I was in luck. The aurora was starting to show a band high in the sky. I turned the ignition, and drove down the road to find the “perfect”, golden tree – my goal for the night was to fuse autumn colors and the aurora together.
I stood on the road with my head craned up, watching a beautiful, green aurora band overhead. This aurora was Mr. Jekyll which soon morphed into Mr. Hyde – albeit a beautiful version of him. I was not ready for the full force of the aurora as it transformed the sky into a green and pink blanket of shimmering, dancing lights so different than what I had been looking at minutes earlier. The energy that rolled overhead, I learned later, was the result of a monstrous, KP7 event, that pushed the aurora into Washington and the Midwest. I was so overwhelmed by the aurora that I expressed myself by simultaneously singing, praying, and taking pictures by myself under the vast display of lights. For those who know me, you might guess that I was also grinning broadly from ear-to-ear. My smile would not have disappointed you!
For parts of the night, my only focus was to capture the overhead aurora corona to the best of my ability. The last time I successfully captured the corona was in Denali National Park last year. I couldn’t be more happy to show you this gallery of images from last night – there were many more taken! The gallery is chronological, and hopefully gives a sense of the scale of the aurora and how quickly it built. These images are taken at 9mm, and hence have a ~120 degree field of view!
Alaska is famous for its rivers which fill with salmon each summer. Each species comes at an expected time, first the kings (chinoook), then the reds (sockeye), and finally the silvers (coho) and pinks. Anglers throughout the state pursue them by boat, rod-and-reel, and nets depending on the location and intent. A specific section of the Alaska fishery is deemed a “personal use fishery”. Even more so than other fishing regulations, harvest in these regions is meant to fill freezers for the upcoming winter. Alaskan residents are allowed to use a variety of nets on poles to harvest up to 25 salmon each.
Chitina River is a 112 mile tributary of the Copper River. As of July 28th, 2015, 1,341,545 sockeye salmon had made the run upriver (adfg.alaska.gov)!! The abundance of fish attracts hundreds of fishermen each day. The Chitina River is highly braided and variable in depth, and flows out of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park from the Chitina Glacier. Because of the glacier melt, the water is chocolaty brown all year. Chitina drainage is a truly rugged and beautiful area; the banks of the river are renowned by the anglers who walk down them for their steepness.
I had a lot to learn before hitting the trail to the river. I was lucky that on a Friday evening it was packed wall-to-wall with fisherman. Most were standing around recounting the action of the day, cleaning fish, or planning for the next morning. I heard a group of four guys giving out tips to a fifth guy standing with them, and inched in to listen and then ask a few questions. The first thing the leader of the group emphasized was safety. Fishing in the “canyon” can be particularly treacherous due to the steep walls. Many fisherman choose to tie themselves to the rocks when fishing the canyon. Second, be ready to stay out for awhile because the fish come in pulses based on the flow of the water among other factors. Last thing was to find an eddy behind a bolder or point where the current was headed back up stream. Placing your net in the swirling, upstream current ensured it stayed open for passing fish using the eddy as an energetic rest-stop. Visibility was 0 inches due to the turbid waters from melting glaciers, so it was necessary to wait for the “bump” which signified a fish in the net. As he described the bump I could only hope I would know what he meant the next day.
Early in the morning we skittered down the steep banks of the Chitina River. I picked an eddy that seemed fitting, and as I dipped my net in the water its pocket billowed out perfectly. I perched expectantly on the shore and leaned lightly on the net to keep it turned open in the rushing current. As it turned out the bump was pretty distinct! Although I could not see the salmon swim into the net, I could imagine its nose hitting the mesh, it becoming disorientated, and lying flat in the mesh bag as it was pushed sideways by the swift current. It was at that moment that I raised the net out of the water to catch my first sockeye from the Chitina. It only took 7 minutes from the time I started fishing, and I had visions of completing my 25 fish limit quickly! However, the second piece of advice became very evident to me as I stood on the banks of the river. The fish only trickled into my net, and then after 4 stopped completely. I did not catch another for the entire day.
After two days of fishing I ended with seven beautiful sockeye salmon, and although I did not “catch my limit”, I felt very grateful and blessed to be able to partake in this unique, Alaskan fishery! As important as it is to put what you need away for the winter, it is important to save a couple for the grill too! These fresh salmon on the grill with lemon pepper and olive oil, and grilled sweet potatoes was as good as it gets, and a gratifying way to celebrate a successful trip to the Chitina River.
I was excited to head far into the Alaskan bush by river to help a friend open his cabin for the season. Almost a week of packing led up to the Wednesday we were supposed to leave. However, when the middle day of the week arrived, high water reports from Fort Yukon and the Upper Porcupine River were ominous. Record snowfall in Old Crow, Yukon Territory, had swollen the giant river systems. They were far above travel-able levels, and over-flooded banks were pulling dangerous amounts of debris, ‘drift’, into the river. Our final destination was 220 river miles through the high water and drift of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, and the experienced judgement of Joe dictated that we would wait a few days before heading up to his cabin. Four days later the river had dropped to acceptable levels. It was go-time : the river was saying so!
Before I get into some of the stories of the trip. Come along on the trip with me by watching this video:
The notion of taking a boat far into the Alaskan bush is exciting! A long-time resident of the bush, Joe was anxious to open his cabin, and assess his estate because bears, humans, or weather can all impact an unoccupied cabin. The boat-trip up river started in Circle, Alaska on a cloudy day. As we headed downstream in the Yukon River, we quickly entered the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. This expansive refuge is critical, critical habitat for breeding waterfowl and birds. In fact, the refuge hosts 150 species of breeding birds from 11 countries, 8 Canadian provinces and 43 of the 50 states. That’s remarkable diversity!
The Yukon Flats is aptly named. As we cruised along in the boat, the shores were a steady patchwork of riparian habitat consisting of willows, birch, and spruces. There was no perceptable climb in elevation. The fast, high water of the river kept progress slow, and Captain Joe was constantly vigilant for pieces of drift. Three foot-long sticks and entire trees were coming down the river at the rate of several or more pieces per minute. Hitting a small branch may result in a dented prop, but a large stump could have ended the trip. By the time we reached Curtis Slough to stop for the night, the intense driving had drained Joe (and rightfully so!). Overall we made it about 135 river miles from Circle.
We pulled into a small log cabin along the banks Curtis Slough, hoping to spend the night. The traditional landing was underwater, but I jumped ashore with the bow rope and headed to tie off to a nearby tree. I glanced at the cabin, and immediately saw that the plywood door had been torn in half; peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. “Hey Joe”, I stated, “A bear broke into the cabin, by tearing the door off”. “Ok, does it look fresh?”, he questioned. I assessed the raw wood in the torn door from 25 feet away and responded, “yup, sure does!”. By that time Joe had climbed up with Delta, our dog companion. Delta moved towards the cabin and sniffed the door; her demeanor immediately told us that it was a very fresh break in, and then I heard a can rattle from inside. The bear was still in the cabin! In two flicks of a lamb’s tail we were in the boat and headed across river to camp on a more desirable (bear free) gravel bar. Joe, knowing the owner of the cabin, made a satellite phone call to inform them of the situation. Remarkably, this bear encounter was the only one of the whole trip!
The next morning we continued up the Porcupine River, and moved out of the Yukon Flats and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic NWR is the largest piece of land in the refuge system, and home of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. No longer in the flats, we saw a mountain on the horizon! More significantly, that mountain was the beginning of the rocky ramparts which would line the river for the rest of our trip. The tall and colorful ramparts and bluffs of the Porcupine Rive were a welcome contrast to the Yukon Flats! As we moved through the landscape, the smile of enjoyment could not have been erased from my face by the spray of a skunk. The area was absolutely stunning; on a small scale, I was reminded of the Grand Canyon. Red, orange, and black rock walls rose high above the water. The bluffs held countless caves and spires shaped by wind, ice, and snow. The refuge of the high cliffs provided important nesting habitat. As we passed we noticed nests of golden eagles, ravens, and a peregrine falcon protected on all sides by the vertical rock faces.
Two hundred and twenty-two miles upriver we passed the final bluff across from Joe’s cabin. The boat swung around towards the opposite bank and soon I tied it off onshore. Already I felt connected to this beautiful region, and was excited to spend the next five days exploring it. The next chapter of cabin life to come soon!
Oh, and as one last, unrelated note the blog turned two on May 28th. Thank-you ALL for your continuing support. Your feedback, comments, and enjoyment of the material here is much appreciated!
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.
I really haven’t been around my home here in Minnesota for over 7 years. My time in college drug me away from here in 2006 and the ponds, roads and woods where I tread as a wee lad haven’t seen my toe prints in quite some time. However, today I went out and walked behind the pond, one of my favorite spots, and was rewarded with birds and wildlife. A grouse was drumming, but was too smart for me to get close and watch him. I did encounter the green below. He was bit skiddish, but posed in the back of the swamp for a bit.
On my way back I encountered the Minnesota equivalent of a Cicada hatch. The fish flies were hatching in vast numbers and a north wind was pushing them off of Big Pine lake and onto the mainland in front of me. The cedar waxwings, possibly a hundred or more, were dining, scoffing and pigging out on the crunchy flying wings. I sat and watched with my Mom for 15 minutes as waxwings gleaned in front of us. It’s amazing to me how everything we see is such a snapshot in time! If we had been there tomorrow we would have never known that such a large collection of bugs and birds had gathered. Below, I caught this waxwing going for the fishfly, which got away!
As we rounded down our gravel road we came upon a Hoary Pacoon (below) growing in the ditch. This prairie remnant was the only one blooming in an area that I recall having many along with prairie smoke and other prairie species. How long would it be before the small, wooded lot I watched the cedar waxwings in would suffer the same fate as these species? When I return 7 years from now, will there be any more hoary pacoon? Should I be saving the seeds and re-planting them somewhere else? But then, I walked by, sensing the fruitlessness of any interaction.
One bird we saw was a welcome sight was this Tree Sparrow. These birds are defined by the lone black spot on their chest. This one obviously has a family on the brain!
I do still see many of the things that are familiar to me. The forget-me-nots are in bloom, and these delicate flowers are always welcome around the house and in the garden! They remind me of growing up and going to my Grandpa’s, where a fast, ocean colored field of blue out back was always a contentious point between my grandmother and he. When to cut the lawn? Could the lawn be cut before the FMN’s were done blooming? YES! Said one, while “NO!” said the other. My grandmother always won, and the lawn wasn’t cut until the flowers stopped blooming.
So, it’s no secret, but time isn’t static. However, don’t lament in it, or feel bad for yourself. Instead use it as incentive to be out doing what you enjoy, knowing that it will never look the same twice!