This post is a celebration of the beauty and invigoration fresh snow, and early winter days when a cold nose is not a drudgery. Instead, a rosy tip is acknowledged as punctuation to an exciting time as the season changes. During the early days of winter, fall has not quite relinquished its beauty. Animals and humans alike are fat-and-happy.
Setting the poetry and light thesis statement aside, to all who read this, beware! Winter is here in Alaska, and for my friends in the lower 48, it seems it will descend upon you in short order! On Thursday a friend and I left for the North Slope for some caribou hunting (Note : I can’t leave that story open ended. I was archery hunting, and was a mere 3 seconds from success on two occasions but did not have the chance to deliver the coup de gras on some keen caribou.) The trip over the Brooks Range was marred by sloppy roads and rain. My truck was caked in thick mud which was slippery to walk on, not to mention drive on. Fast forward 60 hours, and the trip south revealed 8 inches of snow 80 miles north of Fairbanks which had fallen in our absence. What a change, and so quickly! It is likely that winter is here to stay, temperatures are staying around freezing during the day and dipping to the lower teens at night.
The snow did bring some incredible beauty as only a first snow can. Rivers were still flowing, and the bending branches of snow-laden spruce leaned into river channels along the Dalton. On Wickersham Dome ghost-trees already heavy with their first layer of hoar frost for the year kept silent sentry.
I did observe a very novel phenomenon – I would love to hear if anyone has witnessed this before! Behold, the snowbow. On our drive home we were met by gray skies and the hills were wreathed in falling snow. However, at the end of the Dalton Highway the sun broke and the landscape was lit as far as the eye could see. A snow cloud hanging low to the north of us caught the rays and formed a snowbow. I have seen many sundogs, but had never seen a rainbow caused by snow crystals.
I will leave you with this northern hawk owl which was a great bird to see along the way. These birds are known for their boreal habits. They spend the days on spruces watching for rodents and can be hard to spot. This was my first time seeing this bird, although they do occur in Minnesota in the winters during owl irruptions (i.e. owls heading further south than their ‘normal’ range due to environmental or food conditions). The clip below is a short one of a hawk owl behavior, cleaning.
Two nights ago I watched the Aurora with someone for whom it would be their last (for awhile), and last night I brought someone out for their first experience of it ever! Both moments are joyous, I believe and this is the tale of two auroras. Both of the nights have been put together into this timelapse which is undoubtedly one of my best to date. I grin at how well the music matches the event and the footage here gives a certain feeling to the urgency of the Aurora.
On September 25th my friend Jonathan and I headed to Eagle Summit (the same place where I timelapsed the solstice) for the aurora. Its location 120 miles north on the Steese Highway provides huge vistas and no light pollution aside from any passing cars. This Aurora was actually Jonathan’s last of his current career in Alaska, so we wanted to make it memorable 🙂
The new moon on the 25th provided inky darkness for a backdrop and the aurora used green and pink ink to sign its signature in the heavens. We were able to enjoy the brilliance of the Milky Way just as much as the Aurora which presented us an excellent show!
On September 26th the hype was high that the Aurora would be booming. In fact, I believe there were shows in Minnesota last night, and may be tonight too. Keep your eyes up!
One of the shots I wanted to highlight was this 30 minute exposure of the aurora. I have been trying to pull of this shot for a very long time, and the moonless night provided just the backdrop! The north star is the non-moving point of this shot. I couldn’t be more happy with it!
I wrangled my housemate Roman to go out for the Aurora with me. He is an international student who had not had the opportunity to see the the Lights before. The show actually burst at 9:30 and presented some great colors including the “watermelon aurora”. To top it off Roman was creative enough to build us a small fire – it was a great night!
The aurora last night was a prime example of what I want to illustrate – why does the aurora flare up? In the timelapse below the aurora dances on the horizon before exploding into one of the best shows I have seen overhead. During my time in Alaska I have tried to glean scientific information on the aurora. Last week I attended a talk by Dr. Akasofu who has been studying the aurora for 50 years, and his talk was focused on the very question I pose here.
So first, the setting. You are on top of a large hill in Alaska and it’s 11:00 PM. As you stare into the inky darkness of the moonless night a green band of light plays in front of your eyes, and it is OK, but it’s not a jaw-dropper. Often time that is the form of the aurora. But suddenly as you watch the green smudge it goes super-nova expanding rapidly in size, color, and intensity. In fact, it’s so intense that the snow is lit up green and even your coat might be. Over your head and on all sides, the aurora builds in greens and reds. Pulses of light can be seen on the far horizon which flow towards you like a wave over your head breaking in unpredictable patterns. Green light shoots in all directions.
Why did that happen? I always assumed the high intensity auroral moments were created by extra energy (solar wind) entering the system. In contrary to that, the research conducted by Dr. Akasofu and other suggests the aurora is a circuit. Incoming solar wind is pushed against the earths magnetosphere where it reacts in an auroral sub-storm. If more energy is input into the system than can be output it starts to build up in a ‘secondary circuit’. The extra energy is stored and builds up within the atmosphere. When the conditions are right the energy is released in ONE pulse of energy causing the aurora to erupt suddenly. It also explains why eruptions last roughly the same amount of time (1 hour) since a finite amount of energy can be built up.
Based on this model, the aurora goes through three phases. Growth which is aurora formed directly by solar winds and is often manifested by low-grade auroras. Expansion which is the unloading of the secondary circuit and direct solar wind. And finally recovery, which is just driven by solar winds.
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the science of the aurora! I’ll put my disclaimer on the end that I disseminated the information of the talk to you the best I could, and I hope I got it right!
First off, Thanks to all who contributed to the new watermark. Your input and voting helped a lot, and I was overwhelmed by the response. It was really great!
If this post had a theme, and I guess it does since I’m suggesting it, the theme would be that there’s always a “silver lining” or “blessings in disguise”.
When Aaron and I began our bike tour on the Denali Park Road our eagerness was tangible. Even the first big hill after Savage River could not dampen it. However, the next few long climbs put out some of our internal fires. While we are talking about hills, if you do go to Denali National Park remember, it is known for it’s mountains and one of them, who’s name literally means “The Great One”, is the tallest in North America. Gradients are often 5-9% and can extend for 2 or 3 miles. Getting over or around these stone giants is the name of the game.
The video here does a great job of capturing the incredible wildlife (bears, sheep, ptarmigan, wolves) as well as the joy of riding down a big hill and some of the scenery. For context on the video make sure to read the rest of the post 😉
The first night we peddled into the Sanctuary River Campground which was is located at mile twenty-three. We got a a late start, so when we arrived at camp around 8:30 PM it was time for bed. The next morning’s sky looked promising. Blue sky overhead was allowing the rising sun to illuminate the fall colors. Autumn in Denali NP was in full bloom. White-barked aspens were fluorescent yellow and stubby, dwarf shrubs were dark red. Willows along the banks were a mellow yellow and the bowl of mountains provided a stark, snow-covered backdrop.
Fallen colors in a small creek near Igloo Campground
A shot of yellow.
Mountain and fall splendor!
The flourescent colors of these aspen and red of the aging fireweed were stunning!
An incredible patchwork of reds and yellow in Denali National Park!
A willow ptarmigan surrounded by saturated fall colors.
As we pushed our gear up the road to Igloo Campground the curtains were pulled and the sky when flat gray. It stayed that way for the grueling climb over Sable Pass where we encountered a few inches of snow on the ground, but a clear road. The sky remained gray for our joyride down the back of Sable Pass. By the time we had reached the Polychrome Mountain Overlook rain seemed imminent. The Polychrome Mountains are known for their red-streaked banding which resulted from old volcanic activity. However, on Saturday we could barely make them out, and shifty fog was hanging in the valley and around the toes of the mountains.
At the bottom of Polychrome pass, approximately 43 miles into the park disaster hit. The bike that Aaron was using broke down when the spokes in the rear wheel loosened up. We knew we could grab a bus at anytime, but before hanging our hat on that fate pushed our bikes the 2 miles to the top of Sable Pass. We reached the top and a few minutes later a bus trundled up. The bus driver opened up the door and told us the great news – there were two wolves headed up the pass and would be there in just 90 seconds!! I grabbed my gear, set up, and just a few seconds later encountered my first wolves of Alaska when they popped up 50 yards away. One was a collared animal which I assume is female and was traveling with one of her offspring. Both of the wolves seemed a bit thin. Lately wolf numbers in the park have been way down for unknown reasons, so since approximately 25% of visitors see wolves I was ecstatic to be so close! The encounter lasted for less than 45 seconds before they moved on and were never seen again. It is amazing to think that if Aaron’s bike had not broken down and if we chose to take the bus right away that we never would have had this incredible encounter. What an experience! That’s my silver lining story!
After the wolf Aaron caught a bus back to Igloo campground and I biked through the snow and rain to the bottom. As night fell the sun broke through the clouds and lit the mountains up in coral pink. We were optimistic for great weather on Sunday!
The next morning Aaron got an adrenaline rush right-off-the-bat when he encountered a mature brown bear at the food lockers. The bear did not hang around long, but since Aaron was carrying food to the locker when he came up to it, the experience was pretty electrifying! Without bikes we decided to hike up one of the snow clear summit of Igloo Mountain. We climbed from about 1200 feet and were greeted by sheep, snow covered peaks, a piping arctic ground squirrel and blue skies. Our journey was almost done as we pushed our bikes to Teklanika River where a bear came to the rivers edge to strip berries and flip rocks for insects. We exited the rest of the park on motorized wheels. Trip accomplished with a final count of three grizzly bears, two wolves, loads of sheep, and buckets of memories!