Category Archives: feature

Top Shots 2016

Another year come and gone! This year has been nothing short of life-changing. I graduated with my masters in Wildlife from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, moved from the Interior to the incredible Southeast Alaska, married the love of my life, and have a job I love! Life is great, and life has left me less time to blog recently (lack of time compounded by no internet at my house). However, that doesn’t mean that my camera has been sitting picking up dust in the corner. On the contrary I’ve been out photographing the wild beauty of Hoonah and Alaska all year. Some of these images from 2016 have made their way onto Facebook. You can “like ” my page for daily photo updates at www.facebook.com/ianlww. For other images this is the first time they’ve been shown off! Previous year-end recaps have been in different formats such as dividing by month in 2014 and dividing by topic in 2015. This year I’m just going to scrap the text and the give you the top shots 2016 from around Alaska. I hope you enjoy!

Did You Just See A Proton Arc?

A proton arc is oftentimes described as a broad band of diffuse aurora. If you do a Google Image search for “Proton Arc” a plethora of beautiful images depicting a purple, red, green, or pale band of aurora will greet your eyes. Go ahead, really, search it, I can wait. Or, you can visit this website at Spaceweathergallery.com.

I had the pleasure of seeing this pale phenomenon in Juneau on September 20th, 2016 for the first time ever. In the scene, the aurora swirled to the north in front of me over mountains.  However, a  pale, confined, band of aurora ran perpendicular to the northern display, and stretched far to the south past a large, brilliant moon. In my camera it was cool blue/white in color and was in stark contrast to the green aurora that played on the northern horizon over the mountains of Juneau.  I posted the image to an aurora group on Facebook and labeled it a “proton arc” as so many before me had done. However, I received an interesting response from renowned aurora researcher Neal Brown – a true “proton aurora” is nearly undetectable by the human eye and the concept of a “proton arc” is a widespread misconception. The disagreement between the science and the public perception set my wheels turning, and even though I am not an aurora scientist, I would like to dissect why proton arcs are not truly visible.

Proton Arc, Hoonah, Alaska, Aurora Borealis
On September 20th, 2016 I thought I saw a “proton arc” in Juneau, however, it seems my misunderstanding of this auroral phenomenon is the same of many non-scientists.

There are two ways that auroras may be formed. Most auroras are formed when excited electrons collide with oxygen or nitrogen or if protons collide with nitrogen or oxygen. Electrons which are lighter and have a lot of energy result in the traditional, dancing auroras. Electron auroras emit light at many wavelengths including 630nm (red) and 427.9nm (blue). The second way that auroras can form is when protons collide with nitrogen and oxygen. The proton collisions result in emissions of 656.3nm (red) and 486.1nm (blue) (Lummerzheim et al. 2001).  Separation of these light bands are difficult because at 656.3 the emissions require a precise instrument to differentiate them from the electron aurora. The same can be said of the emissions at 486.1 which are nearly indiscernible from the electron emissions.  To quote Neal Brown’s response in the aurora group, “To prove it is a true proton arc one would have to use some sort of spectral discrimination to see if it contained only 656.3 and 486.1 nm emissions”. Aurora researcher Jason Ahrms had this to say in a detailed Facebook post – “We don’t use color, location in the sky, how long it’s been there, or anything like that to identify a proton aurora.”. This means that simply looking at an aurora with your eyes is not enough to determine if it is a proton arc – so why is it so commonly mislabeled. The mistake is likely an innocent use of scientific jargon; those posting the images (like me) simply did a brief search to confirm what they saw before spreading the lie themselves.

A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright : http://techlib.com/images/optical.jpg
A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright : http://techlib.com/images/optical.jpg

 

The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a "Proton Arc"
The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a “Proton Arc”

Although it is impossible to detect a proton aurora with your eyes, they have been successfully photographed once identified with instrumentation. Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com discussed the phenomena with University of Alaska Fairbanks Researcher Jason Arhns.  His image below shows how difficult true differentiation between electron and proton aurora is. Where the proton arc has been identified is barely discernible from the aurora.

This proton arc was captured by Jason Ahrns of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The region fo the proton arc was determined from spectral instruments, but as you can see it is very similiar in form to electron auroras. Image copy right to Spaceweather.com

It was interesting to realize that my perception of what a proton arc was had been so wrongfully influenced by what I saw online. However, if the pale auroras being captured by photographers (like the photos below) are not truly proton arcs, what are they? Incredibly, as Jason Ahrns explains, to date there are is no known explanation for these pale, elusive aurora displays! They are a new opportunity for scientific exploration in the aurora research arena. I hope they keep us posted.

 

Citations:

http://pluto.space.swri.edu/image/glossary/aurora2.html

Lummerzheim, D., M. Galand, and M. Kubota. “Optical emissions from proton aurora.” Proc. of Atmospheric Studies by Optical Methods 1 (2001): 6.

news.spaceweather.com/protonarc/

 

Sightseeing Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska is known for its mountains which sprout from the ocean and provide a stunning backdrop to the fishing boats which constantly traverse its water. However, Sitka averages 87 inches (7.25 feet) of rain per year which means it is constantly cloudy. It was pretty lucky that our first visit to this scenic city coincided with 3 days of sunshine! We were blown away by the juxtaposition of mountains and ocean. A series of fortunate events allowed us to explore enjoy the region and my camera was constantly clicking.

Mountains and Sunsets

We stepped off our short, 40-minute, flight from Hoonah to Sitka and received an invite. My pilot was an avid hiker and wanted to bring my wife, Kassie, and I out hiking at Mosquito cove. After an instant “yes” on our part  we were on our way. The coastal drive brought us to the edge of town (Sitka only has about 17 miles of road), and in short order we were on the trail to Mosquito Cove. Tall spruces provided a high canopy and the loamy smell of the undergrowth mixed with the salty-fresh air of the ocean. The rocky coast reminded me of the shores of Maine, except the tall mountains made it distinctly Alaskan. A colorful sunset met us at the end of the hike and graced us as we returned to the trail head. An amazing way to start our time in Sitka!

The next day we ventured to the top of Harbor Mountain. Winding switchbacks made me a bit car-sick, but the big payout was the views from the top. The many islands of the Sitka region lay below us and the blue skies allowed for miles and miles of views.

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Blues skies reflect off a pool on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
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The sprawling bays and Islands surround Sitka, Alaska as seen from Harbor Mountain.
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I was struck by the character of this dead tree in the alpine on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
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A colorful sunset puts Mount Edgecumbe in shadows in Sitka, Alaska

The Aurora Borealis and Night Skies

The clear conditions in Sitka happened to align with a level 5 aurora forecast. I knew the only place that I wanted to go was to the dark skies and huge vistas of Harbor Mountain. The Northern Lights began almost as the sun went down and stretched far to the south over Mount Edgecumbe.  By 10:30 PM the aurora was far overhead and dancing in incredible sheets of green and pink. I was blown away by its presence over the oceans and landscape.

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The moonless night in Sitka, Alaska made the Milky Way shine. I caught this shooting-star, whose tail stretched long in the sky.
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The Milky Way over Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.

On the Wing

The flight from Sitka to Hoonah was the capstone to a remarkable trip. The sunny conditions persisted and showcased tall mountains, alpine lakes, colorful bays, and long fjords.

Why Do Whales Try To Fly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Stroll Through the Kelp Forest

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

Sunflower Seastars

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

Sea Cucumbers

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

The Humpback Whale

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

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

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

The American Dipper

Before I begin to tell you about North America’s only fully aquatic songbird, lets set the mood. You perch on a large bolder along  the edge of a rushing river and the sound of gurgling water drowns out your senses. As you relax you realize you have effectively  no hearing due to the sound of the water, and your eyes seem keener and your sense of smell more acute.  You absorb more of you surroundings and the moss seems greener, the water colder, and the day more beautiful. You marvel at the inter-connectedness of it all. Your growing perception of the surrounding ecosystem is enhanced as a small, nondescript, gray bird flutters into sight. It dives into the water and re-appears with a mouth full of food. He is the harbinger of death for small fish and crustaceans. The death of the small creatures is not unwarranted, and you gain insight into the necessity of their harvest as the American Dipper flutters fifteen feet into the air where hungry mouths appear at the cavity of a moss-covered nest. It is springtime in Southeast Alaska, and the children are hungry. As the adults swoop down river the rushing water again over takes your senses and you wait for their return.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
An American Dipper perches with a mouthfull of food that it just scavenged from the river’s bottom.

The American Dipper, “Dippers”, is North America’s only fully aquatic songbird. Their range is expansive across the Western US from Alaska to Mexico, and I have been delighted to find that they are relatively common along the clear and cold rivers in Hoonah, Alaska. The scene that I described above was one that I experienced recently. After finding the dippers I sat on the water edge and watched their behavior for two-and-half hours.  After doing some research, I’ve realized that many of the things I observed about the Dipper that day are well documented behavior. The video below gives a one-minute real of highlights from the day.

Why a “Dipper”?

The American Dipper is aptly named. Everywhere it goes its knees bob which are synchronized with its tail. This comical effect has no explained reason. Bob Armstrong, one of Alaska’s most renowned birders, provides several guesses from conversations with birding experts. Some suggest it is a form of communication while some suspect that it enables them to see into the water by cutting the angle. Since dippers are such a small bird (about the size of a robin), I was interested to know how they were able to be so successful at hunting. I watched many times as they plunged their head into the water looking for prey in much the way that a Common Loon would.  This is different from many fishing birds which choose to fly or perch above the water before making their selection or growing long legs like a Great Blue Heron.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
The American Dipper checks me out from a perching point in the river.

Dipper Anatomy

In review of the images I took, I noticed something lacking in the American Dipper that I might otherwise suspect they would have – webbed feet. It should be an essential for a full aquatic bird, right? I observed the Dipper dive into extremely fast current above a small rapids, submerse it self for several seconds, and then reemerge in the same spot with food in its mouth. It turns out Dippers use their wings to swim and walk along the bottom. Again deferring to Bob Armstrong, you would be missing out not to watch some of his amazing footage of Dippers feeding underwater.

The Voice and the Little Ones

Dippers are songbirds and have beautiful voices. As I sat along the rivers edge with the sound of water pounding in my ears their trills and calls always cut through the din of the water. Their call is clear a true and may be heard in the video I posted too over the rush of the river.  I found that they mostly called right before leaving the water to fly to their nest in the cavity of the bridge. A series of trills brought the hungry mouths of the kids to the nest’s opening even before the parents arrived.

Nest, American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
Hungry mouths wait for the return of parents in moss-covered nest about the size of a volleyball.

In bird-watching language you may go out for a stroll never see the bird you set out for, it’s called “dipping”. For instance, “I went to see a blackpoll warbler, but dipped on them”. Next time you are on a small stream in Southeastern Alaska I hope you don’t dip on Dippers!

First Impressions of Hoonah, Alaska

Incredibly I have been in Hoonah, Alaska for an entire week already. There is so much to see, learn, and do in Southeast Alaska that I cannot wait to dive into life here more fully, but I hope to give you a small taste of what I have experienced up this point and foreshadow future opportunities.

Seeing as the community is along the rich waters of Port Frederick and the Pacific Ocean there is strong interest in the cycles of fish. The chatter throughout town is that the herring will be here any day and will fuel an entire diverse ecosystem. Once they arrive the whales, salmon, halibut, eagles, bears, and much more will all follow in short order. Four types of salmon may be commonly caught by simply casting a spoon from shore, and if you have a boat, the opportunity of a 300 pound halibut is just a stones throw away. I was told that whales bubble feed underneath the docks on the Hoonah Harbor. The waters here are so clear that if they are near the docks you can likely watch their underwater feeding before they break the surface.  Once the salmon are in the rivers, the highest concentration of brown bears in the world will flock to the rivers to fatten up on salmon for the winter.  All of these wildlife will present photographic opportunities that I cannot wait to shoot!

Clouds and rain are a staple of Southeast Alaska and fuel the temperate rain forests containing mammoth spruces, hemlocks and cedars growing to over 200 feet in height. Some regions of Southeast receive over 200 inches of rain each year and never seem to have cloudless nights. To my delight I was presented with a relative rarity in Southeast Alaska : clear skies. There are very few large towns in Southeast and light pollution is minimal. The conditions are perfect for night photography. I ambled my truck filled with camera gear high above the ocean to Gobbler’s Knob. From there the Milky Way stretched out in front of me and the aurora emanated from the far northern horizon. I listened to the sound of Long-tailed Ducks from the ocean below, the rumbled of diesel boats, and my own heartbeat. Certainly a memorable night more easily expressed through photos! The photographs below are a slice from Hoonah which I look forward to embellishing on and bringing your more of!

The Galaxy Rises in Alaska

Growing up in Minnesota one of my favorite constellations was Orion. The appearance of his belt at earth’s horizon was a sure sign that autumn was approaching, and as I fell asleep each night I would watch him out my southern facing window. Many people, cultures, and seasons are tied to the position of the stars. In Alaska and as a night-photographer, I have grown to appreciate the rise of the Milky Way Galaxy to the north as spring approaches. Although at least a part of the Milky Way is visible through the winter, its growing prominence and brightness in February and March really documents the changing season. The Milky Way rises through the summer, but by the time we are able to see into the center of the Galaxy the sun will never set! Of course, the sun blots out any opportunity to see the center of the Milky Way from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.
Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.

I have been researching and “perfecting” techniques (lots of room for growth and creativity!) to stitch together large panoramas. The images here were created from stitched 25 – 32 images. The results are certainly  interesting and beautiful! My goal when creating these images is to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible. On moonless nights like March 2nd in Fairbanks, Alaska the Milky Way shows up as a bright band in the sky. With some luck, the aurora accents its celestial beauty. As part of the Panoramic technique the resolution of the image grows to extreme proportions. These panoramas here are approximately 21,480 x 10,850 pixels! That’s nearly 233 megapixel resolution! The power of the technique the possibility of wall-sized panoramic prints. Hint, hint – I would love to see one of these printed to 50″ or bigger! If you are are interested, you should contact me!

A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.

From a bit purer side of photography, I was also able to capture the galaxy and aurora in single images. However, there is an interesting distinction in them over many of my other aurora shots – they are no longer “real”. I am a stickler for not over-processing aurora shots to  give the viewer the truest colors and most accurate representation as possible. However, to emphasize the galaxy it necessary to compromise on the color of the aurora. The aurora in these single shots and the panoramas is more vibrant than it was to the naked on this night.  Because of the color changes these are truly “works of art”, not just documentation of the aurora.  Its not a bad thing, but I feel should be made clear, as there is a growing opinion that aurora photography does not represent how it truly looks. In this particular case, that is true.

A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
Star Trails
A long star trails shows off the multitude of stars on a moonless night in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Music of the Aurora

In Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams, he spends a short amount of time reminiscing on the first time he saw the aurora borealis and how it can be difficult to put into words its colors, movement, and beauty. I was relieved to read that I was not the only person having that issue! I often struggle putting into words a description of the aurora that will cause those who have seen it to glaze over as they dream about it, and those who have not seen it to yearn for a huge night of northern lights. While writing this entry I reviewed the first time that I ever tried to explain the aurora. Reading “Poeticism, superlatives, and lists of glamorous, stunning, beautiful adjectives will abound in this post, for this was no mere night and cannot be described with just plain words. If this grammatical superfulism is not your style,  I would not blame you for skipping straight to the images on this one.” from that post almost three years ago makes me smile! I am not convinced chaining longs lists of adjectives together aptly describes aurora. It is as emotional as it is visual and is something best experienced for yourself.

Muted Aurora
Muted tones during a period of aurora pianissimo.

Thinking about the writing I have done in past describing the aurora, I was struck by my usage of musical terms to describe the aurora. In fact, the feelings music terms invoke bring both emotional and descriptive meaning to the adjectives I use to describe the aurora.  Reading back on an entry from September 2015 I found this, “As evening progressed the auroral symphony started to tune its strings. Beginning to the north it solidified and moved into a broad crescendo of dancing lights, and then falling to pianissimo, the lights went out. But then from the orchestral pit,Double Forte!“.   I love the vision it invokes in my head. A crowd of expectant viewers hush their voices and the lights are dimmed, a few plucks are heard in the pit of the orchestra, the conductor raises his hands, and the show begins!

Aurora Star Trails Purple
A long star trails shows of the changes of the aurora borealis over a couple of hours.

The idea of translating the aurora into music prompted me to work through formally composing and recording my first ever song on the guitar.  I began the song the way the aurora often begins. A steady, solid pulse of light that builds one beat at a time. The song is timid, unsure if the aurora will come to fruition, but then a light harmonic symbolizes change. The tempo of the song forces the aurora higher into the sky as it builds in speed and intensity. Shifting across the sky, short bursts of light are like a staccato.  They punctuate the underscore that has now turned into a fast steady rhythm. Rapidly the aurora rolls across the sky changing the visual dynamics. A region of forte that held your gaze diminishes to pianissimo allowing you to refocus to a new part of the sky. In the orchestra, the conductor is no waving stage left at the delicate sounds of violins but instead at the soft lyrical voices of the flutes. The change gives you goose bumps as it seamlessly transitions to a new rhythm and sound. The swell of color and light has finally ceased and the the steady pulse of light returns before finally fading out. The lights of the auditorium fade out, and the applause of the crowd erupts as they lavish in what they heard and saw.

Aurora Star Trails Collosus
“Collosus” A composition of change in the aurora over a 1.5 hour period. This composition shows off a variety of color changes and intensities.

As this posts winds down and concludes, I would be interested to know if the use of music and musical terms helps describe the aurora for you. In the video below, I tied together time lapes from this season in the Fairbanks region. The guitar track was composed and performed by me. I hope you enjoy!

Northern Accents

It was negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks, Alaska as I stepped outside to engage in my photographic addiction : capturing the northern lights. I set off into the night, stomped a trail through knee-deep snow, and tripped on a hidden tree. The trip loosened up a signature item of the black spruce bog that I was walking in; a four foot Black Spruce tree encased in snow. Around me arranged in clumps and with varying snow loads were hundreds of Black Spruces. Each layer of snow deposited through the winter hung heavily on each tree.  Some of them sustained the burden of winter and maintained their dignity by standing upright, however, many bowed over in graceful arcs waiting for the warmth of spring to set them free. The beautiful landscape I stood in was classic to the interior of Alaska in the boreal forest. On this night I was in luck, the aurora started up and with my camera and mind racing I began to take pictures that fused together two iconic elements of interior Alaska.

I began photographing the aurora borealis three years ago and since then have continued to morph my skills and technique. It is actually pretty amazing to consider the transition that my photography has gone through as I began to realize that although the northern lights are stunning they are only an accent to unique landscape. I began to focus less on tack-sharp stars and large vistas and more on the foreground elements. I no longer only seek tall “domes” (i.e., mountains, hills) to stake out my my tripod. Instead I often look for integral pieces of the landscape that epitomize it and place them close and directly in front of my camera. In order to capture landscapes like these I change my techniques. My camera and tripod are almost always at ‘snow level’ to take advantage of unique angles, and I set up only a few feet from the object in front of me. A bulbous, snow-covered black spruce only two feet away becomes the tack-sharp focus that the eye is pulled to. The dreamy and soft aurora and stars  provide the lighting that help pull out the essence of the landscape. They are punctuation to the beauty which lies all around.

In the age of digital photography that makes capturing the northern lights “easy”, I offer this article as a challenge to photographers to think outside of the box when shooting the aurora. You may find that it provides inspiration to your work and a beautiful twist to an astounding phenomenon.

Northern Archway
I chose this archway of spruces to photograph the aurora in. I was intent on capturing the aurora in a way that complimented their shape.
Window to the Northern Lights
I got closer to the archway and was thrilled by the aurora that dance in this natural window.
Northern Lights
Bulbous, snow-covered spruces and a framework and a dead spruce are set by the aurora borealis.
Aurora Borealis
A window to the aurora beyond.
Northern Lights
A broad vista of red and green aurora in Fairbanks.
Northern Lights Archway
Northern lights in an archway of black spruces.

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