You never know what you will experience when you start into Denali National Park. I guess the beginner’s luck of my brother Sean and sister-in-law Jada, first time Park visitors, was what allowed us some of the magnificent views of Mount Denali. During my previous trips to the park I have never experienced the magnitude of the Mountain like we did. The first time we saw it from about 50-60 miles away the twin summits were fully exposed against blue bird skies, and it lay across a broad river valley. We crossed the valley and crested a rise which brought full views of the Mountain. The beauty and size of Denali simultaneously released endorphins and adrenaline which made me smile and babble about its incredible beauty. The significance of its name,the Great One, was evident!
As we sat and and soaked in the views of the Mountain from Wonder Lake Campground, I took advantage of the time by shooting a nice timelapse. It’s fascinating watching the clouds form over the peaks! Check it out here :
Our entire trip was marked with fun wildlife sightings and remarkable beauty. In particular, wildflowers were found on each slope accenting the mountain scenery. Mountain Avens, One Flower Cinquefoil, Moss Campion and many others. Rather than write, I’ll let the captions and pictures speak for themselves on this one!
This post starts from the first step up the bank of the the Porcupine River to Joe’s cabin. We were relieved to see the flood waters had not topped as far as the cabin, although plenty of water had still gone over bank-full height and flooded the lower terrace of his property. I hauled the gear from the boat as Joe set about opening the cabin.
Since there was no flood damage to be repaired, we started a leisurely existence at the cabin consisting of small projects (what Joe (and ironically my Dad) called “puttering”), eating, sleeping, and reading a book. Between sessions of tackling Alex Haley’s “Roots”, I went for birding walks around the cabin, and ventured into the local slough. As needed, we traveled a few miles upriver to a clear-water stream and filled five gallon pails full of water for filtering.
This peregrine falcon is a yearly nester in the cliff across from Joe’s cabin and through the years, the young chicks have learned to hunt from the treetops around the cabin.
This Chipping sparrow was a new bird for the cabin, and an unusual one for so far north.
The chipping sparrow sang its heart out and chased all other birds away from its perch.
A small pond behind the cabin was home to this green-wing teal
Beautiful and close looks at this green-wing teal were a treat!
American widgeon were very common along the river, their call of ‘”wee wee wee” was often heard just below the bank.
In Fort Yukon I was fortunate to capture this Northern Blue Butterfly perched on a Wild Sweet Pea
This cross fox is an unsual color phase! It’s actually just a red fox, but an incredible treat to see!
A shot of the cross fox checking me out.
White-crowned sparrows were a common bird. Every morning, all day, and all night a particularly vocal one would sing outside of the cabin.
A cliff nesting raven sits over it brood.
Blue bells are a common and beautiful flower in the region. Here they are also pictured with Jacob’s Ladder.
Yellow cedum on top of Wolf Point
One of the greatest lessons I learned on the trip came from Joe when he said “Just because you live in the Bush, doesn’t mean you have to do without”. Certainly over the years, through sweat, countless trips up the river and through the air, he and his wife had transformed the cabin into a home away from home. When living there permanently, the four garden plots just out the door provided fresh vegetables. A solar panel amply charged a battery pack in the cabin allowing for electric lights and a water pump for a shower. In fact, it was possible to take a steaming hot shower each day if one desired! A large kitchen, bedroom, eclectic and huge library, and centralized wood-stove made living there extremely comfortable!
The cabin was crafted by Joe and took four years to build. One year to cut the logs, strip the bark, and let the logs season. Another season to put up the walls and cut the lumber for the roof, and a couple more to finish the cabin entirely. All of the log-milling was completed with a chainsaw. For his first and last cabin, Joe did a perfect job. The cabin is in pristine condition, and I marveled at it a lot!
Aside from birding and reading, I enjoyed the views of the river. Life on the river changed constantly. After the first couple of days the water receded enough that a prominent gravel bar emerged for the first time since the flood. A flock of twelve long-tailed ducks repeatedly flew up river and drifted down. Each cloudless night the moon rose over the far banks, and the low light of a mid-night sun lit up the bluffs across the river in orange and gold. Life was good on the banks of the Porcupine.
I did my best to capture video of life around the cabin. Throughout the days at the cabin I captured some timelapse and clips of wildlife. The music is pretty relaxing – you can check out the video here:
Although not all experiences in the bush need to be plush and care-free like this trip, I certainly have a new viewpoint that such an existence is even possible. Just because you live in the bush doesn’t mean you have to do without!
I was excited to head far into the Alaskan bush by river to help a friend open his cabin for the season. Almost a week of packing led up to the Wednesday we were supposed to leave. However, when the middle day of the week arrived, high water reports from Fort Yukon and the Upper Porcupine River were ominous. Record snowfall in Old Crow, Yukon Territory, had swollen the giant river systems. They were far above travel-able levels, and over-flooded banks were pulling dangerous amounts of debris, ‘drift’, into the river. Our final destination was 220 river miles through the high water and drift of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, and the experienced judgement of Joe dictated that we would wait a few days before heading up to his cabin. Four days later the river had dropped to acceptable levels. It was go-time : the river was saying so!
Before I get into some of the stories of the trip. Come along on the trip with me by watching this video:
The notion of taking a boat far into the Alaskan bush is exciting! A long-time resident of the bush, Joe was anxious to open his cabin, and assess his estate because bears, humans, or weather can all impact an unoccupied cabin. The boat-trip up river started in Circle, Alaska on a cloudy day. As we headed downstream in the Yukon River, we quickly entered the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. This expansive refuge is critical, critical habitat for breeding waterfowl and birds. In fact, the refuge hosts 150 species of breeding birds from 11 countries, 8 Canadian provinces and 43 of the 50 states. That’s remarkable diversity!
The Yukon Flats is aptly named. As we cruised along in the boat, the shores were a steady patchwork of riparian habitat consisting of willows, birch, and spruces. There was no perceptable climb in elevation. The fast, high water of the river kept progress slow, and Captain Joe was constantly vigilant for pieces of drift. Three foot-long sticks and entire trees were coming down the river at the rate of several or more pieces per minute. Hitting a small branch may result in a dented prop, but a large stump could have ended the trip. By the time we reached Curtis Slough to stop for the night, the intense driving had drained Joe (and rightfully so!). Overall we made it about 135 river miles from Circle.
We pulled into a small log cabin along the banks Curtis Slough, hoping to spend the night. The traditional landing was underwater, but I jumped ashore with the bow rope and headed to tie off to a nearby tree. I glanced at the cabin, and immediately saw that the plywood door had been torn in half; peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. “Hey Joe”, I stated, “A bear broke into the cabin, by tearing the door off”. “Ok, does it look fresh?”, he questioned. I assessed the raw wood in the torn door from 25 feet away and responded, “yup, sure does!”. By that time Joe had climbed up with Delta, our dog companion. Delta moved towards the cabin and sniffed the door; her demeanor immediately told us that it was a very fresh break in, and then I heard a can rattle from inside. The bear was still in the cabin! In two flicks of a lamb’s tail we were in the boat and headed across river to camp on a more desirable (bear free) gravel bar. Joe, knowing the owner of the cabin, made a satellite phone call to inform them of the situation. Remarkably, this bear encounter was the only one of the whole trip!
The next morning we continued up the Porcupine River, and moved out of the Yukon Flats and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic NWR is the largest piece of land in the refuge system, and home of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. No longer in the flats, we saw a mountain on the horizon! More significantly, that mountain was the beginning of the rocky ramparts which would line the river for the rest of our trip. The tall and colorful ramparts and bluffs of the Porcupine Rive were a welcome contrast to the Yukon Flats! As we moved through the landscape, the smile of enjoyment could not have been erased from my face by the spray of a skunk. The area was absolutely stunning; on a small scale, I was reminded of the Grand Canyon. Red, orange, and black rock walls rose high above the water. The bluffs held countless caves and spires shaped by wind, ice, and snow. The refuge of the high cliffs provided important nesting habitat. As we passed we noticed nests of golden eagles, ravens, and a peregrine falcon protected on all sides by the vertical rock faces.
Two hundred and twenty-two miles upriver we passed the final bluff across from Joe’s cabin. The boat swung around towards the opposite bank and soon I tied it off onshore. Already I felt connected to this beautiful region, and was excited to spend the next five days exploring it. The next chapter of cabin life to come soon!
Oh, and as one last, unrelated note the blog turned two on May 28th. Thank-you ALL for your continuing support. Your feedback, comments, and enjoyment of the material here is much appreciated!
Juneau, Alaska is one of the busiest places in the state due to its unsurpassed beauty, and accessibility by cruise ships. The town is surrounded in mountains which are often hidden in fog and rain, but grace the eyes when the sun comes out. Downtown is full of oddities which reflect the independent people renowned for living there. Due to the surrounding mountains, most of Downtown is accessed by an intricate boardwalk and staircase system which connects houses and properties perched on its steep slopes. Its amazing that houses could be built there at all! As I walked around Juneau and the greater surrounding area, I was struck but its uniqueness and setting. Here are 10 shots to help convey the beauty of the area.
I’ve got some new aurora science and colors for you. On Saturday night the aurora turned a royal purple in a show like I have never seen before! I have often heard that the blues of the aurora are most often seen in spring or fall, but did not know until recently the scientific reason behind that observation. In step the science of the Sun-kissed aurora. Known as “Sun Aurora” or “Day Aurora” the blues seen in the photo below are a result of the sun’s rays reacting with the upper plasma of the aurora (webexhibit.org). The highest chance of that occurring is in the spring or fall when our nights are relatively short and the aurora begins in the twilight hours. On the warm March night when I observed the phenomenon, the purple started out as a single pillar which was fairly dim to the eye, but discernible against the black of the stars. From the pillar it spread smoothly across the sky like aurora jelly on its celestial toast. After only ten minutes the purple had faded away as the sun moved lower behind the planet.
Be sure to check out a timelapse of the night:
During the night I got the opportunity to mix together two of my passions. Many know that I’m avid musician, and I enjoyed spicing up the shoot for the night with my trusty guitar. If only my skills were good enough to play Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It certainly has an appropriate title for the night! I hope you enjoy the aurora selfie and guitar in the foreground, I would love to know what you think of those shots!
The starting purple pillar of sun-kissed Aurora
The purple of the aurora spread out across the sky.
Earlier in the night the sun-kissed aurora could be seen on the left edges
Green swirls of aurora combined with some Day Aurora on the left
The height of this aurora is incredible!
Here’s a wider shot of the aurora as the purple developed
A strong pillar of Daylight Aurora
A double-band of sun-kissed aurora!
Crooning to the aurora!!
I love how this dead black spruce lines up with the aurora.
My trusty axe in front of the aurora!
The moon casting a long shadow under my guitar and the Lights
Well folks, this post is officially #100 on this blog. A huge thank-you to all who have supported me and followed in my growth as a writer and photographer! It’s amazing to go back to old posts and reflect on how this site has changed. Some things have not changed much; it is still my mission and joy to bring you photography of wildlife, landscapes, and adventure, and couple some science along with it! Have a favorite moment on this blog from the last 100 posts? I would love if you left it in the comments below! Don’t worry – this site won’t be going away anytime soon 🙂
Early this afternoon I was being pulled by six eager sled dogs. Trails had been degraded and made icy by the recent 50 degree temperatures, and the sled which normally has some drag in snow, slid like it was on Teflon behind the twenty-four turning legs. The excited dogs would have fun as fast as I allowed. Of course my preservation of self made sure to reign in their energy; dumping a sled on these crystallized trails hurts more than on the snow! My sleeves were rolled back and my ungloved hands gripped onto the handle of the sled. The passing breeze did not even feel cold in the 55 degree temps. Leaning around turns and dodging spruce trees, I made my way along the fire break of Old Murphy Dome. Not a cloud was in the sky as we passed impressive vistas stretching to the north. In the distance, the snow of the White Mountains was starkly white against the tree covered hills of the lower foothills.
I passed by Jeff, who had stopped his team in front of me. He wanted me to practice passing another team, and commands of “Gee”, “Alright”, and “On-by” ensured that the leaders knew to keep moving past the other team of stopped dogs. We practiced the procedure a couple more times. Over the winter Jeff has done a great job getting me comfortable with the sled, and teams. It was important to practice passing for our upcoming trip to the White Mountains. More dog-sledding adventures will be reported I return from Crowberry Cabin!
We made several stops along the way to help cool the dogs down. The warm spring temperatures are a dramatic change to the -30 degree temperatures only three weeks ago! Each time the dogs would dive into the snow banks, and push their faces into it. Their panting faces were obviously smiling. It was a beautiful and great day to be a dog or a driver. I did my best to capture their doggy-grins and the excitement of the day. I hope you enjoy!
Dome and Sooner take a quick break under the bluebird conditions. With the warm temps, I’m sure there is an advantage to being a white dog!
The following series of George captures his antics as he cools down in the snow. He looks like one happy pooch!
George cools down and gives me the big eye while straining against his tug line.
George grins for the camera.
Maybe my favorite picture of the day! I love the faces of George and Hera in this shot. Happy Dogs!
Hard to beat the scenery when while on break!
A wider view of the surrounding area and dog team. Such a wonderful day!
Leaning back and taking a picture of the action as we head along the trail!
As you walk through the fairyland of ice art sculptures at the World Ice Art Competition, it feels like you may be in the trophy room of the White Witch From C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Perfectly carved features of animals and humans etched in ice blocks provide never ending visual splendor.
The show provides insight into cultural preferences and beliefs, as well as “what the artists finds interesting”. High diversity is not surprising considering 100 artists are competing from over 30 countries. Serpents, meditation, the superbowl, super heroes, mermaids, and sea life were just a fraction of the pieces and viewpoints presented by artists competing in abstract and realistic categories of the single-block and multi-block competitions. In many cases, the carvers are from regions not associated with ice; it would be interesting to talk to Brazilian or Middle-eastern carver to understand how they got started!
Single block carvers are given a one 8x5x3′ block of ice and 60 hours. From the point the time starts, carvers work around the clock to finish their work in teams as large as four. The single block style demands that ice be used wisely. Economically it is in high demand with a limited supply! Artists often create sculptures over 10 feet from the 8 foot block. It requires precise cutting of the ice which is then welded together. As the sculptures grow out and up, many of them seem to balance on their pedestals precariously, and with impossible precision. Some of the most impressive sculptures extend 4 feet in any direct around the base. If the sculpture were to tip the fragile fingers of lizards, noses of swordfish, and tails of tigers would be sheered off. However, these artists know that with high risk comes high reward. Taking first place in a competition such as this a source of pride and accomplishment when competing against some of the best in the world!
The diversity of carving techniques and attention to detail makes this competition special. A basilisk lizard feature below had skin which was textured using a method to make it bulge and pop three dimensionally. A purple lion fish had huge fin rays a mere inch thick etched with textures so real that if the fish had swam away you would not have been surprised, but would have simply stepped aside to let it pass.
The images below capture only some of single block competition sculptures. The event space allows 40 entrants to the competition. One of the hardest things to capture is the size of these sculptures. Keep in mind that most are 6 feet tall minimum, and may extend to 10 feet!
Abstract – look at the balance and small pedestal!
An elephant and a dog
A leaping tiger.
The thin ice lattices of these wings are remarkable!
Looking into the secret garden
A mom and her foal
A slight gap between the noses which really makes this piece special
Fairy on a feather
Tomato breaking out the can
Incredible geometry and technical pieces!
Basilisk lizard chasing a fly
A close up of the texturing in the skin and detail of the hand
Catching the prey
Zebras in a disagreement
“H two O”
A captivating and provacative mer-couple. Look at the pearls coming off her neck! Incredible attention to detail
Multi-block carvers are given ten 6x4x3′ blocks and 132 carving hours. The final creations glued together from multiple pieces of ice may tower 20 feet tall! A caveat of the competition is no equipment may be used to move the ice pieces, but you are allowed help from other teams. Sounds a bit like assembling the pyramids!
It is impossible to capture in an image the scale of these projects horizontally and vertically. For instance the purple dragon featured below its dimensions are about 12’tall x 12′ long x 4′ wide. An absolutely stunning piece! The scence of the ship being taken down by the Kracken extends nearly 25 feet!
A towering 15 foot sculpture of bears on the falls
Bear and the raven together
“Peace in spite of evil”
A towering dragon is challenged to a duel
The sculpture actually feels real. Everything is to proportion.
Moving closer on the head – incredible detail!
The fangs, tongue, and scales are just a few of the exquisite details in this piece!
A jaguar stalks the night
Octopus in a sea life scene
A towering abstract piece probably near 20 feet tall
Through the fence
Interesting technique to create these rays
An assortment of superheroes take on the Joker
The Kracken claims a ship as the captain stands at the wheel
A panorama of the entire ship scene extending about 25 feet!
Front of the ship as it sinks
The Superbowl – an abstract piece
The experience of the World Ice Art competition is well worth the price of admission. By the time you have walked through all of the sites, your imagination will be popping neurons as you consider the creativity of the artists, and ponder the technical execution of these incredible pieces!
Like a chick pecking its way out of a shell, one by one the patches of snow fell off the trees of the forest. As each ounce was shed from the trees, they raised up their still lifeless twigs up as if glorifying the sun, thanking it for removing the burden of many months. Throughout the forest cascades of snow starting from the tops of the highest branches tumbled and glinted like diamonds in the sun as the chunks were forced through the sifter of small branches by gravity. The warm rays of sun, an unknown entity through winter, warmed the dark branches. One by one they were free.
The first time you taste spring after the winter is a moment of true joy. The resilience to cold developed through the winter makes you bold enough to walk in the 30 degree temps in a flannel. Moist air on your lips from evaporating snow, the heat of the sun on your face, and a touch of warm breeze on your face may make you bound for joy. Literally bound. It’s a bound that brings a smile to your face, and if others saw you, they would smile too. The feeling of spring is infectious.
Watching the bonds of spring being softened and eventually broken is a great thing! As the sun warmed my face this week the world was a visual wonder. Snow fell from the trees in smatterings and piles, sliding off from its own weight or from external catalysis. Busy chickadees feeding around the well-stocked feeder at my house perched on twigs, gleaned through the branches, soaked up the heat, and ensured all of the snow was sloughed away from the imprisoned trees before taking flight again.
The first taste of spring is bittersweet. The knowledge that it ‘came too soon’ only pushes me to enjoy it more while I can. Winter certainly will try to take hold once again, and I will inwardly smile knowing that the next time it may be vanquished for good.
A few days ago the winter wonderland at the Sustainable Village was erased in an afternoon. I realized that the moment was happening so quickly that it could be captured on camera. Setting my up my camera I timelapsed the scene for the rest of the day. As you watch this video, focus on a spot and watch the change. I hope it gives you cheer and excitement for spring. Even if it is just a taste!
Traditionally I think of the aurora being generated from a sun event. Often C-class flares, M-class flares, and X-class flares (the largest) hurtle plasma towards at the earth resulting in brilliant auroras. I have dug into the science of auroras during previous posts, and wrote about some of the science of the auroral colors and why the aurora can go from a nice show to a great show. However, last nights aurora event was generated by a “Coronal Hole” in the sun. That term was new to me, and although it sounds like a headline from an end of days article, it’s really not that bad!
Coronal holes are a simple concept. The sun normally has a stable magnetic field that controls solar winds and energy from the sun. During a coronal hole event, magnetic field lines extend far away from the sun and allow high speed solar winds to escape. Solar wind speeds may exceed 10,000,000 km/hr! Translating that to terms I understand more, solar winds can travel at 500 miles/second. That’s a quick commute to work, or in this case the earth! If the coronal hole is ‘geo-effective’ it means that those solar winds are headed towards our planet. These events can lead to a lot of high energy resulting in red and multicolored auroras even during times of low solar activity. (http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/what-is-a-coronal-hole, http://www.exploratorium.edu/spaceweather/holes.html)
Last night’s show was stopped at 10:30 due to clouds over Fairbanks. From 8:30 – 10:30 it remained subtle, but beautiful. The high energy from the coronal hole produced a quickly changing, but not well defined red aurora. I hope you enjoy!
The big dipper hangs over a the trees and in the aurora
While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.
Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up. Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!
With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!
This is likely my best aurora image to date! I was really focusing on composition all night, and this one has all the pieces of a great image!!
Tracks in the snow indicate where I came from as I moved along the firebreak.
The aurora is just starting ‘heat up’ in this great image looking through the black spruces.
Anytime you see pinks in the aurora it means there is quite a bit of activity coming in. The pinks came and went quickly in smothered by curtains of green.
Panorama from 2 images stitched in PS6.
A second image with the sentinel pine – do you like the square crop, or vertical crop better?
Bundled up for that -50 below windchill! Temperatures hovered at about -35 and a slight wind plummeted the “feels like” temp to -50
A lone, scraggly pine tree stands sentinel on along the fire break.
The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂