After winter’s thaw and before salmon return to their natal rivers an important, silver fish appears by the millions along the northwest coast of North America. Spawning Pacific Herring provide a kickstart to the bounty of Southeast Alaska. Their oily flesh provides critical protein for migrating seabirds and returning whales and their eggs provide needed food to migrating shorebirds which have flown thousands of miles from their winter grounds. When herring spawn in abundance they attract abundance.
The Morning As It Happened
I didn’t set out with a group of friends at 4:15AM on a clear day in Alaska in pursuit of herring. Actually, it was for birds. The “Global Big Day” is an opportunity for birders around the world to submit what they see over 24 hours to a global database which tracks and counts birds. Even if you are not a birder, you probably know that early mornings have the highest bird activity – have you ever had them wake you up?
We arrived at our destination, stepped from our cars, and began to walk down a local trail. The sun burst on the horizon and its warmth only inflamed the calls of the birds. Townsend’s Warblers, thrushes, juncos, hummingbirds, and so many more! As we reached the tide flats about 20 minutes later we saw a large collection of the symbol of United States – the Bald Eagle. As it is unusual to see them in such large numbers I was curious to know why they gathered. With camera in hand I shifted my focus to that group of birds which were nearly a mile away on the coastline
The walk was longer than it looked! It took 20 minutes to get closer to the eagles and as our path wound down an estuary river we began to see what the fuss was all about : flashing herring were spawning in the rockweed. Other pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. Looking out at the ocean a large pack of Stellar’s Sealions patrolled the water, twelve harbor seals floated nearby, gulls passed over head continuously, a flock of Least Sandpipers flew by squeaking and squawking, and a Humpback Whale glided through the water only a few feet from the shore. They were here for one reason only – the abundant food.
Herring As Food
There are about 290 calories per fillet (143g) of herring and 26% of your daily intake of fat. For wildlife they are nutrient powerhouses worth working for. Diving seabirds specialize in capturing them and Humpback Whales have perfected scooping them up in their huge mouth. However, very little effort was needed to catch herring this day. Some of the herring were trapped by the receding tide and flopped on the rockweed. All around us were torn and mangled bodies of fish had been eaten by the swarms of eagles, gulls, and ravens through the night. The Humpback Whale lunge-fed dozens of times on the spawning herring as we watched.
Abundance. From Abundance.
The film below showcases what we saw that morning. I hope it gives you a sense of place and a connection to the importance of herring and the necessity of keeping them abundant. The images below show off just a small slice of the wildlife frenzy around the herring that morning.
Abundance is created from abundance. I was so fortunate to watch these sites unfold before my eyes. It caused me to reflect on the importance of a healthy herring population. Healthy herring populations create thriving fishing industries, maintain bustling eco-tourism opportunities through whale watching and other marine activities, provide food for wildlife, and provide the continuation of the cultural practices of coastal people that have relied on them since time immemorial. As the base of the food chain a healthy herring population is critical for a thriving ecosystem that provides for people and wildlife. Here’s the catch – not all herring populations are healthy.
Herring need your help – they need you to care about them. They are in decline due to overfishing and changes in the ocean. Particularly harmful is the sac roe fisheries which net up herring right before spawning when they are the most vulnerable. The sac roe fishery is highly profitable and creates a luxury food item – herring roe – for mainly Asian markets. Herring fisheries have a history of collapsing under industrial fishing pressure. With marked declines in SE Alaska and Canadian herring population occurring, that knowledge alone makes it impossible for me to support an industry that creates a luxury item and supports only a small portion of the fishing fleet. I do not believe the cost (loss of other fishing industries, marine mammal reduction, seabird die offs) are nearly worth the benefit (a luxury item). I encourage you to do your research on this topic, but believe we need to err on the side of caution and halt fisheries that harvest at the bottom of the food chain. If you believe what I am saying rings true then please consider advocating to your representative or joining your voice to Herring Advocacy Groups.
Peer into a tide pool and there is one thing you will notice for sure : all of that color!! Sea creatures with oddly shaped legs, flippers, fins, tentacles, tongues, and feet will dazzle you with their complex, rainbow coloring. Every nook has a new wonder to behold, and shifting your eyes to peer into a new cranny brings more new content than turning your TV’s channel. The combination of clear water and ROYGBIV-colored creatures abounding in our local coastal waters delighted my wife and I during a recent low-tide cycle in Southeast Alaska.
Walking along the water’s edge is one of my fierce joys of living along the coast. On that sunny day, my wife and I traversed the low tide line and the bottom of the inter-tidal world, abandoned by the ocean, laid bare in front of us in the fresh air. Hundreds of Sea Stars exposed by the receding water sat perched on the exposed sand and rocks, thrilling us. Black, blue, red, gray, green and everything in between. Camera in hand, I photographed each new variant and learned more as I looked closer. There was more than just different colors – each color had different shades. There were four or five shades of every color of starfish we found meaning I only captured a small slice of them below!
A Split World
Phytoplankton and small marine invertebrates drive Southeast Alaska’s abundant ocean resources. In the summer, those creatures turn the water green and cloudy – you may have heard of “marine snow”. However, after a long cold winter like we’d just come through the water is extremely clear due to a season of low light and low temps. With those conditions in mind, I brought my underwater housing and dome port and sought to tie together sealife with their surroundings. I am very happy with the final images which capture the full story of low-tide in this mountainous, coastal region.
Although Mottled Sea Stars are by far the most common of the sea stars in our area, they have some unique and vibrant relatives. The large red specimen below is a Vermillion Sea Star (Check out NOAA’s Guide) and the smaller pink one is a Northern ScarletStar. Their skin is so different than the Mottled Star! It appears to make it more breathable and flexible. I wish I knew why!
Green Anemones, despite their electric green color, are easy to overlook. They seek small, sheltered spaces and are a few inches in size. By putting your nose at the water’s surface you can truly appreciate their beauty. Fine striping in their tentacles and a green and yellow mosaic of colors on their flat surfaces. A beautiful animal!
Snorkeling the Low Tide
The following week I set out for another low tide, but this time it was a +3.2 tide – 6.7 feet higher than the extreme lows I’ve documented above. The water conditions were very different in the new estuary I explored. Tanins and silt washed in from spring melt and phytoplankton blooms added to the cloudy water. In the shallow waters, the cloudiness filtered the sun’s rays and added to the beauty of the scenes only a few feet below me. The currents slowly pushed me along the shore and I floated in my drysuit with my face in the water. The species diversity and multitude of colors mesmerized me!!
I would be remiss if I didn’t reflect on the joy these colors of nature brought me in the era of quarantine and shelter-in-place. To me it was another example of how slowing down and taking time to learn new things, enjoy more fully the time you have outside, and seeking opportunities to truly observe your surroundings is cathartic and valuable. You may not have a tidepool in your backyard and I hope my pictures have brought you joy, but here’s the reality : you don’t need a tidepool. Walking outdoors and taking a closer look will reveal amazing things. Microsms of color inside of microsms of textures inside of microsms of smells that will leave you hungry for more!
Last summer I built a camera trap with one goal in mind – photograph bears in their environments without people. I’m fascinated the insights you can gain into the animals and initially imagined all sorts of dramatic, National Geographic worthy photography. In short, I was convinced that “EPIC!” imagery was a guarantee. While I’m not there yet, I did manage to capture some dramatic moments, some fun ones, and learned a little about managing a camera trap along the way.
For humans there is a lot of ways to “skin a cat”, for bears there is a lot of ways to catch a salmon. Throughout my images I saw bears perch above to look down in pools, snorkel in pools, and charge up pools. I’m sure each of these techniques had their strengths and their weakness.
Family interactions was something I hoped to gather more of. These two cubs with their mother were a special treat with an extra story. I deployed this camera and then walked back to my vehicle along the river and watched with my telephoto lens. About 10 minutes later this mother and cubs strolled down the river and then got spooked by something in the woods – likely a larger bear. They sprinted down river a ways and remarkably went right past my camera trap. Apparently the sow was not too concerned with the larger bear as she permitted her cub to capture a fish.
Bears are very active at dusk and dawn. Next year I’ll be operating a camera with a flash to better capture these bears in the low-light hours. I learned quickly to program my motion trigger to only take images during the daylight hours as to avoid wasting battery on night shots. I do like the context and silhouette of this bear as it strolls in the evening, however
Bears are curious animals and I knew that could pose a risk to my camera. I housed my camera in an ammo can and that sufficed to keep the bears from wrecking it. There were some funny moments when the bears had to get a closer look though! One time a bear tried to eat the camera and another it walked straight up to the camera to smell it and fogged the glass. Photography can be risky business for your gear as I found out in this separate anecdote that always makes me chuckle.
Moments in the River
There were many, many images of bears being bears. Strolling up river, being observant, smelling out salmon and being gregarious. These are those moments and I challenge you to learn what you can from them.
Looking to Next Year
I simply cannot wait to continue to watch bears through my camera traps! This coming season I’m expanding my arsenal to two camera traps with upgraded capabilities. Two cameras will allow me to diversify my shots and provide new angles. I’m hoping to answer some questions such as “How do bears use hot feet” and “how to do bears use scratch poles” among others. Keep your eyes posted! You can always follow on Instagram or Facebook for the latest content.
Evoke emotion. Tell a story. Talk about science. Envision the shot and make it happen. As I’ve grown through my photography I have invested more and more into each of those ideals and concepts above. I have learned that the story is as important as the image and successfully telling that story is almost always hard work. I have seen first hand that you can change the perspectives of people with imagery and that we need effective science communication more than ever.
In 2019 I have focused on new skills and have grown a tremendous amount as a professional. I split my work into two brands and am now a business owner and science communicator. Thank you for those that follow along regularly and support my work!
My photography bleeds into my work and helps make me an effective communicator. I produced this video to showcase a stream restoration that we completed.
As this is the end of a decade its amazing to reflect on the last 7 years of photography that have brought me to where I am today. In 2013, I upgraded from a point-and-shoot and bought a mirrorless camera based on the suggestion of a friend. I never looked back. These “top shots” posts have been a regular feature on my blog since 2015 and I’m so glad I do them. You can view each of them at : 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. They archive where I’ve come from and where I’m going. They are full of memories of the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met, and the adventures I’ve gone through. Each yearly gallery reminds me that I’ll continue to grow and explore the world through my lens and writing. 2019’s Top Shots contain some of my favorite images yet. If I was to choose one image to crown them all it’s the one below.
I’ve got some broad goals in 2019 and I hope you’ll join me in Instagram, Facebook, or sign up for newsletters to keep in touch. I’ll be camera trapping wildlife, trying to document climate change through imagery, and venturing to a few places including Hawaii, Fairbanks, and Olympic National Park. I’m resolving to publish one blog entry per month (and no, not one doesn’t count for January). Thanks again for your support. I hope you have clear vision in 2020.
It may seem unlikely to see parallels in the far different regions of the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Arctic Tundra of Alaska, but they exist! On a recent trip to Northern Utah, the flat grasslands, small ponds, and jutting foothills reminded me of the Arctic plain as you cross over the mountains of Brooks Range. As I observed my surroundings I realized the connection was more than appearance; the newly-arrived winged from the Arctic plain were relying on the resources of this kindred land, the Great Salt Lake. Migrating birds, many from the Arctic, stretched from horizon to horizon creating a direct link between the two regions. My time in the Arctic had shown me the importance of that region for birds, and I realized immediately that I was standing in another critical area.
A Tale of Two Habitats
The Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake of northern Utah is an oasis in the desert. It was my first time there and what I found swept me off my feet. To imagine what it looks like simply conjure in your mind a cliche image of an emerald oasis in the desert. You might see in your mind grasses and trees growing in close proximity to water features which provide the life blood of everything in the area. Did you see any birds or animals using the water? If not, add them into your image – they are certainly there!
As its name implies the Great Salt Lake is very salty – 3-5 times more salty than the ocean. Its concentrated salts make the shallow waters uninhabitable for almost all life. However, Brine Shrimp (ever heard of “sea monkies”?) and sand fleas have adapted to the salty (hyper-saline) conditions. Since they are the only creatures in the lake they have no competition and can multiply rapidly. I took a few handfuls of the muddy water to peer into it and saw thousands of brine shrimp in only a the small cup of water in my hand. Although small – up to 1cm – their abundance makes them readily available protein for birds and life around the lake.
As you roll your vehicle up mountainous terrain and eventually over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range of Alaska, you emerge onto hundreds of miles of lakes and tundra. Welcome to the Arctic Plain spanning for over 20 million acres. This land is known for its abundance in the summer and desolation in the winter. Wind and winter cold trim any shrubs or trees that try to grow resulting in the short crop of the Tundra. Each year millions of birds return to the Arctic to breed and raise young in its grasslands and lakes.
Similar and Different
The two grassland landscapes described above are created by different forces and in different parts of the world. However, each is 100% necessary for the survival of many birds. In fact, the numbers are nearly unfathomable. Up to 50% (12 million) of North America’s shorebirds breed in Alaska. Over 1.4 million shorebirds use the Great Salt Lake for breeding and migration. Of course there are millions of other species and types of birds that use each as well. To put that in perspective imagine the 8 million people living in New York City spent half their life in the city and moved to Florida each year for the winter. Mass migration is an amazing thing!
Flying thousands of miles is no small feat and it takes a lot of energy. Migratory stopovers are used by birds traveling both north and south because they can provide the resources needed for food and shelter during their travels. After peering into the murky waters of the Great Salt Lake to see the life within, it was not hard to see why they were at this globally-important migratory stopover. The abundant food I saw in the water was translatable to the wealth I saw in the Arctic. On the Tundra, massive insect swarms and lakes filled with larvae provide young chicks is critical for their growth. The Great Salt Lake and the Arctic each plays their part in the cycle and life of the birds : are you starting to see some similarities in their function and habitat?
Migrants in Common
Birds connect the world, creating a network between many places. Like a computer network, the birds transfer nutrients and create a relationship between things. We “share” birds with other regions of the world. The bird feeding in your yard during the summer is another country’s yard bird in the winter. You should check out this incredible resource from National Geographic showing off the migrating paths of birds. It is normal for migrating birds to seek similar habitats as they move south and north so it is not surprising for shorebirds, ducks, and songbirds from the Arctic to be found in similar habit along the Great Salt Lake.
You don’t have to be a birder to be astounded by the abundance of birds using the Great Salt Lake. They stretch from horizon to horizon like and are as thick as the seeds on your everything-bagel. As many as Western 190,000 Sandpiper, 59,000 Long-billed Dowitcher, and 240,000 Red-necked Phalarope use the lake. If they were not hidden by the grass and expanse of the Tundra, you would see even more in the Arctic Plain.
Birds throughout the world are under threat from changes to the earth from humans. If you want to preserve birds for your yards and future children, it is so,so, so critical to protect their habitat where they are vulnerable. The Great Salt Lake is experiencing change which is may easily affect the brine shrimp and hence birds. Changes in salinity due to drought and mineral farming as well as pollution and water diversion are all linked to brine shrimp populations. In the Arctic rising temperatures are melting permafrost and oil drilling is impacting shorebird habitat. Failing to address these issues can only lead one direction for many species of birds : decline and ultimately extinction.
This story of connection is only one of many in the world. There is a multitude of important stopover and breeding areas for birds and throughout each continent birds are experiencing threats on the breeding grounds and migratory areas. I encourage you to look for and see the connections in the world and explore their importance.
I hate to only talk about the gloomiest parts of the status of birds but it is important to acknowledge the reality. There are stories of decline and also some stories of hope. To help educate yourself on the issues at hand and support land conservation groups such as Audubon or the Nature Conservancy. We can all be a part of the solution!
The Tongass National Forest. Ever heard of it? How about : The Amazon. The Arctic. The Pacific Ocean. These huge tracts of land and sea are critical to life on earth and have vessels into the hearts of our lives – even if we may not know it. A fortunate few will get to dip their toes into all of them and it is not even in question that each experience in those environments will leave an indelible mark on their souls as they connect the people and animals inhabiting them. They quickly realize why protecting them is so damned important. For those who have never been, why should you care about the fate of another land? What will compassion for that place bring you in the long run? The abstract nature of such vast and unseen lands makes it hard to know enough to care. Today my mission is “simple” : connect you to a place I have grown to love and that you may have never seen or smelled. I hope that by the time you read the last word of this article and observe its last pixel you will have a sense of Tongass, its importance, and its plight.
Acknowledging My Own Bias
This is not necessarily a light article and it contains both facts and my opinion based on those facts. I want you to trust what I say, so I think it is important that you understand some of my positions and personal views on conservation and resource use. I am a landscape user and a conservationist. My knowledge of the Tongass has been gained by using it while living on an island in rural Alaska for four years– my pantry is stocked with fish, deer, and berries. I am not only a wildlife biologist, I am also a carpenter and maker-of-things. My small business of framing my imagery relies on wood to make products which I sell to people. I am not hypocritical in my views of conservation – I acknowledge resources are needed and that we need to manage the land to generate them. However, there are some resources that are simply not worth harvesting because of their impact they will have on my children’s children. If they are non-renewable and linked to the health of an ecosystem and its ability to combat climate change then it is pretty cut-and-dried for me : stay away from them and find some other way to do business. In the context of this article, there are many renewable forms of timber in the Tongass. Transitioning to those is key.
A New Perspective
A new sense of perspective can change everything. The opportunity to see a new angle or hear a new voice can provide insight otherwise overlooked. A new perspective is where this article begins – through the summer I have been awed by insight I have gained while observing the land from helicopter, plane, and through the lens of my drone. I have learned new things about places I travel through frequently and about how each decision is connected at the landscape level. My deeper appreciation for the landscape has led me to be a more adamant protector of it.
The Tongass is a renowned “Salmon Forest”. Its landscape is bisected with small and large streams that host salmon. 79% of salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska are of fish that start in the Tongass and the average resident of SE Alaska uses 75 pounds of salmon per year. It can be hard to see the prevalence of rivers when you are standing in them or walking along their banks. However, from the air I was awed by the old growth stands bisected the flowing water and how beautiful the spires of old growth were near along the rivers.
The Tongass is so, so much more than a stand of very tall trees – although that is what most people focus on. It is an interwoven landscape of forest, streams, muskegs, and bogs. An eagle’s eye view will show you the brilliant blue water of the ocean contrasted against green conifers. The Tongass is a place where you can snorkel kelp reefs to touch starfish and urchins, emerge from the water, and dry yourself while sitting on the soft duff under the canopy of 150 or 200 foot trees that may be 800 years old. When you stand among those large trees the quietness and fresh air make it feel like a holy place.
Rivers are not the only thing that connect the land to the water. Red and yellow muskegs may stretch for miles from mountaintop to coast. These wetlands are devoid of tall trees due to moisture and soil conditions and are natural filters during water’s progress downslope. As open, wet, land muskegs house an entirely different ecosystem of plants and life. Short pines replace towering spruces and small, round ponds replace babbling brooks. These wetlands are filled with short shrubs and grasses that provide important habitat for migrating and breeding birds.
The presence of roads is impossible to miss as you look at the Tongass around Hoonah, Alaska. Many of the roads were used for logging and then transitioned to local use. You can see a few patterns when observing the road system from above such as young growth forests along the whole length of the road, and old growth in the river bottom. Landscapes like this are common throughout the Hoonah area. They represent the reality of a correlation : with the establishment of roads comes the sound of chainsaws and the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of old growth forest that will not regenerate to their former state until the year 2200 or more.
We need roads to move through the landscape, but roads can come with a consequence. Until I was in the air I never realized how large a landslide can be. These landslides often occur in steep slopes and roads in logged areas because of the changes to hydrology. Roads also bisect rivers and alter the ability for fish to move river/road crossings..
The climate of the world is changing fast and there are signs that its accelerating. Since world leaders are not showing signs of making decisions to stem the flow of CO2 into our atmosphere, it is prudent to keep nature’s carbon “sinks” (natural carbon storage) areas in place. Those areas are shrinking daily. A recent report from the United Nations put our impact on the earth’s surface in perspective. The report reveals “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.” When I read that it became apparent; the Tongass and the Native Alaskan Communities embedded in them since time immemorial are critical parts of the 25% of unaltered land on the earth.
An acre of old growth has about 1 billion needles that soak up carbon.
Old growth forests store 50% more carbon than logged forests.
A single 100-foot tree releases 11,000 gallons of water into the ecosystem.
Logging releases 60% of the carbon stored in the forest
I cannot think of any statistics that demonstrate more fully the importance of how the 16,700,000 acres of the Tongass, the U.S.’s largest national forest, are in our climate change resiliency.
Current Global Response Insufficient : Roadless Modifications
On October 18th, 2019 the U.S. Forest Service entered into the Federal Register a recommendation that the 2001 Roadless Rule be lifted from the Tongass National Forest. This flies in the face of a majority of comments received from Alaskans and U.S. Citizens which favored keeping the protections in place. The 2001 Roadless Rule guaranteed that roads for logging could not be built in 9.2 million acres of the Tongass. These protections were set aside because of the acknowledgement of the global and regional importance of leaving the Tongass in its natural condition. The “Roadless Issue” is a complex one, but this decision can only have negative outcomes for wilderness of the Tongass seeing as the removal of road restrictions are being coupled with increased timber sales.
These five lines are the summary of the United Nation report I referenced above are applicable to the Roadless Rule, the plight of the Tongass, and the plight of global ecosytems:
Current global response insufficient; ‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature; Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good Most comprehensive assessment of its kind; 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction
— U.N. Report May 6, 2019
The Tongass Needs You
I have been told many times that “nothing is final until it is written in law” and that is completely true for this process. There are 5 alternatives to the Roadless Rule that do not remove protections from the entire forest. This is not an issue where anyone one side should get everything they want and it is up to us to ask for better than the “preferred alternative” of a full exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. For the next 60 days you have ability to contribute your voice to this discussion and influence the fate of the Tongass. I hope I have helped you connect to the Tongass enough to weigh in. Here are your options:
To learn more information contact me. firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy to help you digest the issues of the Roadless Rule as it applies to the Tongass
Review project information and learn about the public review process by going to this USDA media release.
Zion National Park is an oasis in the desert. It is a hot and green paradise carved and nourished by the Virgin River which has etched tirelessly through countless layers of rock and minerals to form its massive canyons. Whether you are enchanted by its beauty, blown over by its grandeur, enticed by its challenges, or drawn to its dark skies you will find its amazing landscape and history will quickly win you over.
The sandstone structures of Zion Canyon are always beautiful, but never more so than during sunrise and sunset. During the low-sun the burnt orange canyons light up like embers. One highlights of the trip was ascending Angle Rocks. We were fortunate to start at sunrise, and it was fascinating to watch the changing shadows and morphing colors created by the rising sun.
While in Zion we visited history and made some history too! The ghost town of Grafton was a stark reminder of how difficult life was for settlers traveling west. Disease, conflicts with Native Americans, and stochastic events like floods and storms killed many. The interpretive sign in Grafton highlighted that two young girls were killed by a falling swing. There were a lot of ways to die in the west!
The Johnson Family converged and left a bit of its soul in the history of Zion. Our three families converged from Alaska, Minnesota, and Montana.
Be wary when viewing wildflowers in Zion – most of them are armed! It was wonderful being in the Park at time when cacti were blooming. Each of the colors was the most vibrant forms of oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples. They were spectacular to see! Early June was an excellent time to see a lot of species of wildflowers. Each of the photos below shows them off in their context.
The Stars in Zion National Park are : stunning, brilliant, dazzling. As an avid night photographer I was giddy to get out shooting! I was fortunate to have clear conditions and a new-moon to create inky darkness. An added benefit was the comfort of the night – far different than the 92 degree days! Night photography is a relaxing pass time. Long exposures of 20 seconds or more gave me ample time to appreciate the beauty of the star-lit landscape with my eyes and ears, not just through my viewfinder.
I do not think wildlife viewing and birding are primary reasons visitors go to Zion, however, there is ample opportunity for each. My wife and I are avid birders and we were thrilled to add well over a dozen species to our life list and observe dozens of more species. That was very exciting for us, but I won’t bore you non-birders with the details here :). However, one bird of note that you should care about is the California Condor. These magnificent and enormous raptors were once nearly extinct with a population of only 22 animals. Thanks to conservation efforts they have slowly made a comeback. A recent success story was the birth of a wild chick just this year! We were floored to see these raptors up close on two occasions!
As with so many of the places we visit a single week doesn’t seem like enough time! This trip to Zion was a gateway drug to future visits. I look forward to learning more about desert wildlife, the history and lessons of Native Americans in the land, and to experience its beauty. I hope you have a chance to do the same!
When something you expect and love (although sometimes you may not know you love it) is absent for a long time you experience great joy in its return. When the rains returned to Hoonah after the second driest July in 20 years I rejoiced in how quickly it rejuvenated the ecosystem and in the resilience and patience of salmon.
A July Without Rain
In July 2018, there was something very obviously missing from Hoonah, Alaska : rain. Even though this was only my third summer in Hoonah, it was not difficult for me to think back to previous summers and acknowledge how the lack of rain was impacting our local berry patches, rivers, salmon, and forests. The conditions reduced the wet muskegs to patches of brittle sphagnum moss and sedges. There was a noticeable impact on our salmon berries and blueberries. Very few salmon berries ripened, and blueberry barrens normally laden with ripening berries had nearly blank bushes. Our local temperature rainforest ecosystem was struggling without rain.
The lack of rain resulted in a lack of spawning salmon. It is expected in July that Pink and Chum Salmon would fill the holes throughout the rivers. However, the drought-like conditions reduced rivers to minimum baseflows and kept Chum and Pink Salmon from easily returning to rivers. Especially Pink Salmon were almost absent from all of Hoonah’s major rivers because they were trapped in the mouths. Without a large rain event they would remain at the mouths until desperation and time forced them upstream.
It is easy for time to erase the memory, and for past perceptions about the weather to vary widely. However, I talked to many in Hoonah who could never remember the rivers so low. I was curious to know if that was true or if time had changed the memory. Although Hoonah does not have a river baseflow station I used precipitation data and assumed that low monthly precipitation results in low rivers. The summarized data showed that we received 1.11 inches in July 2018 and that only 2009 was lower with 0.9 inches. 1999 was noteably low with 1.51. inches. As Hoonah is centered in a temperature rainforest each of those years was far different than the average of 3.95 inches of rain that Hoonah would expect in July. These results made July 2018 the 2nd driest in 20 years!
I was struck when summarizing the data in the amount of variation of precipitation over the last 20 years in Hoonah. Even 2018 was an example of that. It was in stark contrast to July 2017 which was noted as the “10th wettest” by Juneau weatherman Rick Fritsch. I needed to keep this summer in perspective : although it was obvious that our rivers, berries, and salmon were stressing from the heat and lack of precipitation, each had been through this before.
The Relief of Rain
In early August the drought came to an end. It rained and poured for nearly a week as an “atmospheric river” brought in moist air from the Gulf of Alaska. I can say with confidence I have never been so relieved to get rain. Overnight the muskeg ponds were filled and returned to the wetlands they were meant to be. The rivers were choked with water and soon after brimming with salmon. Despite the drought and the longer wait at sea they had returned anyway. I could only smile as I watched them in the rivers circling in the holes and splashing up the riffles.
With global climate change already heavily impacting Alaska the drought felt like a warning knell for times to come. Scientific modeling for the region suggests we will continue to warm drastically but that precipitation amounts will remain about the same. The outlook for salmon in a warming climate has different endings depending on who you will talk to. Certainly there is a lot of variability between glacial systems, snow systems, mountains, rain regimes, and so much else which makes a certain future hard to predict. Global warming will impact each salmon species differently (some potentially positively and some negatively) and there is no scientific concurrence how exactly what the impact of a warming world will be for salmon. My views are generally pessimistic for our salmon in the next 50 years, but their patience and resilience this year give me hope they will find a way to survive in the future, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 –
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.
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.
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.
An open lava lead flows just a few feet away from me.
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!
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!