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.
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.
On September 1st, 2019 I crept outside into the dark night of Alaska to meet STEVE and it and I had a photo shoot together. It had been awhile! But usually once a year we have a chance to get a look at a each other. I’m not talking about my cousin Steve, in fact, STEVE is not a person at all. STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
The last time I wrote about STEVE it was to dispel the mis-classification of these images online as “Proton Arcs”. At that time scientists were grappling with what caused this mysterious form of the aurora. There was uncertainty on why it showed up white instead of green and what form of energy would cause the aurora at all. Although it has likely been observed by sky watchers since the point where humans could comprehend its beauty it was relatively new to science and only really entered the literature in 2016.
Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement
” Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement ” – that’s quite a load of Jargon! However, once you understand how these auroras form it makes mores sense.
Typical auroras are formed when energy from the sun collides with nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere. The collision results in green or red light being let off. However, based on recent science published on Space.com STEVE forms when charged particles are super-heated outside of the “auroral zone”. The particles emit the white and pink light we see on the ground.
If you are still a bit unclear remember that light occurs as a physical process – it’s the release of energy. For instance when you heat an electric cooking stove the orange light emitted is the release of energy. STEVE is a bit like a monstrous electric coil in the sky!
A Gallery of STEVE
I think my latitude in Southeast Alaska is a hotspot for STEVE. I have observed it 5 times to date since 2016. I recently added my photos to a database of STEVE observations. The images below are from the same night as the images above. You can see a short timelapse of STEVE that night by going to a video on my Facebook page.
The Rest of the Show
STEVE shows up on the biggest nights of aurora. It definitely seems to be linked to high amounts of energy coming in. During the nights and mornings of August 30 – September 1st the Aurora was visible almost anytime it was dark.
On the second night of the show I focused less on photography. My wife and I curled up on a blanket on the beach and watched the lights dance overhead. We had some pretty amazing coronas for Southeast Alaska!
I’ll be keeping an eye out for any further science and revelations on STEVE. I hope to see it again!
Some days are destined to be better than others and due to the probability of the seasons it has a 25% chance of being a day in autumn. There is something magical to the season wrapped into the death, color, and distinct smells it manifests each year. Fall mornings immerse all of your senses: the bite on your nose of frost in the morning, musk of decaying leaves, the sound or crunching leaves, and brilliant colors of foliage make the season like none other.
The magic and of the day started as soon as my eyes opened. I stepped from my bedroom to watch a subtle and beautiful sunrise over Neka Mountain and Port Frederick. As I sipped my coffee and watched from the window the warm colors of low sunlight started from the peak of Neka Mountain and progressed to its base. I smiled and thought through the possibilities of the day. The plan for the day was simple : go fishing and bring a camera.
Down in the River
Eight miles out of town Spasski River held the promise of fish and bears. I strolled through a muskeg full of color. 4-leaved, 4-inch tall, Bunchberry Dogwoods had transformed into red fireworks with colors nearing a poinsettia and lingering frost framed the sharp edges of sedges and grass. I crossed out of the muskeg and descended the banks of the river passing giant sentinels of Hemlocks and Spruces. Once in the river the circular ripples in the surface of the water over my fishing hole gave hint to the presence of Cohos below. Peering in I counted fourty 40 or more fish and noted some of them had turned the dark red of the season.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flinging my pink fly into the school of Cohos a pair of bears showed up on the river bank. I watched as the sow and cub came closer and stepped into the open so they could see me. The cub trailed closely behind the mother and after a couple of my woops acknowledging I was there they passed into the tall grass of the river bank.
When brown fur came into view again I had the privilege of gaining some insight into bear behavior. The cub emerged alone in the tall grass and it was evident it was very nervous. It stood on its rear feet to sniff the air and then sprinted forward in the long grass while looking back over its shoulder as though being chased by shadows. The young bear stood three more times to look and smell for its mother, but she was not to be found. Mother bears have a reputation of being helicopter parents to protect their cubs from aggressive males trying to kill them. It was evident the cub appreciated the protection of the mother and was nervous to be out of her shadow. When I left the cub and sow had not been reunited, but I was sure the sow had not left the cub as isolated as it thought.
With the bears on my brain I decided it was best to stop fishing. I needed to be alert and was not keen on carrying Cohos out knowing the bears may interested in them too. I turned my attention to the scene in front of me. Yellow Salmon Berries reflected off the surface of the river. My eye was led down the scene to the flat top of ear mountain presided over the river. It was a special place to be and I was there to enjoy it alone.
The American Marten
Leaving the bears I encountered the next fiercest mammal of the forests of Chichagof Island : the American Marten. I found it in the compromising position of scavenging trash, and snuck closer whenever it dropped into the green garbage can in front of me. I was about 30 feet away when it spotted me and the necessity for me to move closer was negated by the curious creature. Before long it approached me to within 10 feet and was perhaps trying to decide if I was edible. I stood stock still and it curiously twisted its head back and forth to size me up and stared my camera each time it clicked. The Marten, not totally trusting the large bi-pedal in front of it, dashed into the grass several times as though testing to see if I would pursue. Each time it poked its head up from the grass by standing on its rear feet. Finally bored or perhaps hungry it left the grinning human for good.
Muskegs on Fire
Throughout the day I had stopped several times to stare at and admire the incredible reds and oranges of the muskegs. Red leaves of Wild Blueberry plants transformed the floor the muskeg into fire. The read were accented by the evergreen trees sprouting from the muskeg and by the crystal clear blue skies. However, in one place the red colors were especially vibrant, rivalling the reds of the Maple trees that I grew up with in the Midwest. The beauty of that place held me there for a long time as I photographed it and felt privileged to be there.
Transition in Suntaheen
From the fiery muskeg I descended to the quenching silence of the Suntaheen River valley. Along the river I found autumn to be in full progress. Red Alders sheltered the slow flowing river with amber leaves. The fallen leaves of those trees covered the rocky river bank like the yellow brick road. Beams of sunlight backlit trickled through the canopy and individually lit some of the fallen leaves. Groves of Devils Club along the river’s bank were turning a vibrant yellow and sunlight poked through their decaying leaves.
In the river I was reminded by of the salmon that had choked its waters only a month before. Scattered ribs, spines, and salmon jaws lay where the carcass had been eaten by a bear or had simply died. The bones were devoid of flesh and provided evidence the fish’s energy had already been absorbed by its sourrounding environment. Its nitrogen and energy mingled with the decaying leaves of the trees above cycling to ultimately feed to tiny fish emerging from the eggs buried in the gravel. Some days are just better than others. On this beautiful day I felt blessed to watch nature, learn something new, enjoy the transition of seasons, and observe the cycle of seasons.
It is not every day you get to save the life a whale. In fact, it may not be more than once in a lifetime. However, I can say with certainty, that if you are able to successfully save a whale from entanglement it is the best feeling in the world. You will feel like life just cannot get much better!
On September 16th, 2018, the 35-foot landing craft, Silver Spoon, cruised through the flat waters of Chatam Strait about 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The bluebird day was abnormally sunny for autumn in Southeast Alaska. On board, Captain Billy Mills was taking Kurt Pesch, Kathy Pesch, Kassie Pesch-Johnson and myself up the coast looking for wildlife. We passed False Bay on the east side of Chichagof Island and were near when Wukuklook River when we spotted a whale on the surface.
Ordinarily a whale on the surface is just a sleeping whale. In a typical encounter they wake up, swim a bit, and may eventually take a dive. However, this whale displayed some peculiar behavior by keeping its nose above the water. As we got closer we could see it was pulling a set of buoys behind it and those buoys were keeping it from diving. We watched the whale from a distance to determine the extent of entanglement. The whale never dove and was making distressed chirping sounds with its blowhole. Armed with this information Billy radioed the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau to report the entangled whale. They collected information on the whales condition and informed NOAA, and informed us they not have any vessels in the region to reach us soon. The whale was moving quickly so the likelihood of NOAA resighting and disentangling the whale was low. Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.
Before I start into the rest of this tale I need to put out a disclaimer. Humpback Whales and ALL marine mammals deserve your respect. You need to respect all rules regarding minimum distances from whales and we only made the decision to approach this whale after knowing that professionals were not available to help in this situation. We felt the likelihood of the whale dying were high if we did not at least try to fix the situation.
We approached the whale slowly and encountered the loose green buoy line (the end not attached to the buoys) behind the whale about 100 feet. Using a boat hook we picked up the end and then began to pull the line into the boat. We pulled in much of the line before the whale panicked and took off. I was able to sever the line before the whale stripped it back out of the boat. Not many people can say they’ve had a whale on the line! The whale dove briefly but came back up a few hundred yards way to continue its pattern of swimming with its nose above the water. This just proved to us that the whale could not function without removing the buoys.
The whale was moving quickly, perhaps 12 knots, but we slowly came up behind it for a second approach. With boat-hook in hand our goal was to snag the buoys and complete the disentanglement. Soon I had the buoys in hand and we began to draw more line into the boat. We were fortunate! The loose end of the line began to slide through the whales mouth essentially “flossing” it. This allowed us to remove much of the line.
After pulling much of the line through the whale’s mouth something truly incredible happened. The whale stopped in the water, opened its mouth, and slid backwards into the ocean. It was almost as though it knew we were trying to save it! After sliding backwards into the water the whale began to move and pull the line. More slid through its mouth before finally catching. I severed the line and the whale gave a half breach, a flip of its fluke, and then we did not see it again. Although some of the line was left on the whale it was able to dive and stay down!! We felt confident the rest of the line would eventually get removed. We had done it!!!!
One of the puzzling things was why this whale was unable to stay down. Although the four crab pot boys attached it were very buoyant, it did not seem like enough to keep the whale on the surface of the ocean. The whale was medium-sized and pretty young. My theory is that the whale acted much like a horse would to the pressure of a bridle and reigns. The upward pressure of the buoys may have kept the whale on the surface. I do not have any proof that, just a theory.
After doing some research I discovered that crab pots like the one this whale entangled in are the most commonly reported. I know I will be doing my part by being as responsible as I can with my sets. Do not use floating line as was used on this crab pot set.
There are times when doing nothing can be better for the animal than doing something. It is likely in this case that the whale would have become more entangled in the long rope and would have injured itself or been unable to swim. I am proud of us all for giving this whale a far better chance for survival!
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.
Arguably herring are the base of the entire food chain in Southeast Alaska. They provide food for whales, salmon, seals, sealions, birds, and halibut with their bodies and with their eggs. For centuries humans have relied on the abundance of herring to provide for their families in the spring. In Hoonah, Alaska the return of herring marks a change in the a season and a bounty of fresh eggs brings a welcome smile to the elders and community members that receive them. However, in recent years the herring run has not bee large in Hoonah although anecdotally (and a bit facetiously) you could “walk across their backs to Pitt Island” only a couple decades ago. Ocean changes, over fishing, and habitat loss have all contributed to decreasing herring returns and fewer spawning fish in recent years. This knowledge made me feel particularly fortunate to get to see herring spawning in Hoonah and watch the harshness of nature unfold before my eyes as Bald Eagle scooped the silvery fish from the ocean.
Spawning herring rely on seaweed and objects in the water to glue their eggs to. Spawning females mix with males and each emit eggs and roe into the water. A sure sign that herring are spawning is a milky, blue water that combines the colors of the ocean and the white of the roe. The need to stick their eggs to seaweed brings the herring close to shore and thus susceptible to predation. As I walked near Cannery Point in Hoonah, Alaska over 30 eagles (a mix of juveniles and adults) lined up on the beach. The color of the water and brilliant flashes of silver near the shore left little doubt on what they were feeding on!
A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.
Trial and Error
One of the first things I noticed was the juvenile eagles were watching the adults very closely. They knew they had a lot to learn, and there was no doubt after several minutes of watching that the adults were much more efficient at catching the herring. Most of the adults would launch from the beach, strafe their talons on the water’s surface and come up with one or two herring. Some eagles opted for a higher vantage point and flew in from the trees on the embankment. Another strategy was to simply stand on a rock or in the water and hope to catch one in without flapping a wing. All of these strategies produced herring for the eagles and the juveniles mimicked them perfectly.
Meals on the Wing
Even though there was an abundance of herring one strategy of some eagles was to steal from those that were successful. The fierce competition from other birds forced successful eagles to eat very quickly and on the wing. Almost all of the eagles would transfer the herring to their beaks and then orient the fish head first before finally swallowing it hole. This occurred in just a few seconds to remove any chance of pestering, marauding eagles from stealing their catch. I did get to watch once instance where an eagle successfully scooped two herring at once, but did not eat them on the wing. Immediately three other eagles (2 adults and a juvenile) put up chase resulting in the eagle dropping one herring to get rid of the pestilence following it.
Two eagles settle a small squabble over who gets some beach space.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
It was incredible to watch the eagles feed on the herring and learn from their behaviors, but as a photographer I was grateful for the frequent and repeated attempts by the eagles to capture herring. I had the opportunity to tinker with camera settings and capture a lot of shots that are high quality and showcase the slice of foodweb that I was only a spectator to.
It is always a big deal when family comes to visit. For me, being a “big deal” is a positive thing! My wife and I are fortunate to live in a place surrounded by natural beauty with something to see or do around every corner. I always strive to show off my little corner of the world in Hoonah, Alaska and decided that my parents, uncle, and two cousins needed to see Glacier Bay National Park and the local whales around Hoonah during their visit. It’s nice when all the right things come together to bring “the full package”! We enjoyed incredible weather and wildlife sightings over 2.5 days.
Glacier Bay Tribal House
Over the last 2 years I have had the incredible experience to be at the dedication of the tribal house and to take part in the raising of two totems at the tribal house. Those two events were so very important to the Huna Tlingit, but they also gave me a tremendous connection to Bartlett Cove and the land where the Huna Shuka Hit resides. When I visit the tribal house I remember the stories of the people, the emotions of the day, and the power of the place. Stepping into the tribal house to observe the house poles, place my hand on the intricate carving of the screens, and smell the sweet aroma of cedar give me a sense of peace. I enjoyed sharing my stories of the raising and dedication with family as we toured around that special place.
Into the Park
Glacier Bay National Park is almost completely inaccessible unless you have a boat. Its long fjords and glacially-carved mountains extend nearly 90 miles from the entrance of the park at Bartlett Cove. The “Day Boat” of Glacier Bay provides access to visitors all the way to the end of the bitter end of the west arm where Margerie Glacier butts against the ocean and the Grand Pacific Glacier (responsible for carving the fjord of the park) recedes into the distance further than the eye can see. 250 years ago the Grand Pacific Glacier was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit out of Glacier Bay National Park when it advanced over 75 miles in only only a few decades. Traditional stories say that at times the glacier moved as fast as a running dog! Science has backed those claims, and it is truly amazing to think what that wall of ice must have looked like!
Glacier Bay National Park protected area full of marine and terrestrial wildlife. During our tour we had incredible view of breaching Humpback Whales, families of grizzlies, harems of sealions, rafts of otters, flocks of puffins, and families of goats. Each of these sightings added to the richness of the day and the overpowering feeling that we were in a very special place!
The face of Margerie glacier stands over 200 feet high and is a mile wide. It “calves” ice into the water creating a maze of jumbled ice.
The Whale Tail to End the Tale
We got a pickup in Gustavus from our good friend Capt. Billy Mills of Wooshketaan Tours. He took us across Icy Strait to Point Adolphus which is renowned for its whale watching. The rich waters are fed by the currents coming in from the ocean and from Glacier Bay and create abundant fish populations that bring in apex predators such as whales and sea lions.
As we sped along the 20 miles from Point Adolphus to Hoonah I admired the mountains, the tall groves of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock, and the abundant Sea Otters and Whales. The trip went quickly, and as we approached Flynn cove about 8 miles from Hoonah a gigantic splash ahead of us flung water high in the air. The Humpback Whale that caused it obliged us by breaching 5 times in total! It was the closest I had ever been to a breaching humpback and it was a thrill to share my giddiness with all on board!
With the memory of the breaching still fresh in our memory we turned into Port Frederick and after a brief stop ashore made our way up bay . The spouts of water ahead quickly gave the location of what we were looking for – a large pod of Humpback Whales were bubble net feeding in front of us! In the smooth waters we watched the circle of bubbles form on the surface from the whales below and the mouths of 40-foot humbpacks rise agape through the surface. We were the only boat on the water and got to enjoy the show in the lingering sunset and surrounded by family. I (we) were incredibly blessed to be in that incredible place together.
It has been a looonnnng time since the aurora forecast has lined up with clear skies here in Hoonah, so when they finally did this weekend I wanted to make the most of it! Although I do not often focus on writing about photographic techniques on this blog, I thought I would focus on some creative photography techniques I employed and how they can expand your shooting opportunity. Read along to learn about some skills to expand your nighttime shooting (foreground composition, focus stacking, panoramas, light painting) or scroll along to check out some of the images from the night.
Foreground Composition & Light Painting
When I am out photographing a scene I am forever on the hunt for interesting foreground elements. Of course the definition of word “interesting” is determined by the photographer, but I search for elements that capture the essence of the scene, amplify the impact of a phenomenon, or create a pleasing set of lines that lead the eye. On this particular night I was drawn to a rock face that was draped in large icicles. They were translucent and I knew that I could shoot the aurora through them – they were also perfect as a piece of the scene because they provided texture to the aurora’s light and were a part of the essence and juxtaposition where the ocean meets the shore. I call the resulting shot “Aurora Light Sabers” and am thrilled with the unique perspective it provided to the landscape and aurora. Not all foreground elements are so well lit, so you may consider bringing a flashlight along to help paint the scene.
Modern cameras are incredibly adept at picking up light, however, moonless nights in regions with truly dark skies will still leave foreground elements black unless you use a bit of focused lighting and enhancement. Thus, the creative photography technique “Light Painting” can help you emphasize and highlight your foreground elements.
On this night I brought a very unique foreground element with me. This model (maquette) of the Goonz Totem Pole in Hoonah, Alaska is an exact, 18″ replica of the life-sized pole. It was used to guide the carvers as they brought the full sized pole to life and it was truly a privilege to have the maquette with me. I set the maquette up close to my camera and began to shoot, creating the illusion that a full-sized totem was in front of my camera. I used a light panel and bounced the light off the surrounding snow to softly light the totem. Without light painting, the totem would have been completely dark and blank – simply a silhouette against the sky.
This it the full-sized Goonz Pole located in Hoonah, Alaska
You can expand your depth of field and create sharp images using a technique called focus stacking. I am a novice at the technique and referenced this article.
One of the disadvantages of using such a small maquette is that I had to be very close to it to take the shot and make it a significant foreground element. The close object brought the stars far out of focus (as seen in the maquette image above). To get over this hurdle, I shot multiple images of the totem at different focuses in rapid succession and then combined them in Photoshop. Through focus stacking I was able to have my cake and eat it too – I created an image with a dominant maquette in the foreground and sharp stars in the background.
Often scenes are so expansive that they cannot be captured in a single image, and that is where a panorama can be very helpful. As I stood on the beach and photographed I knew that I wanted to capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together (about 160 degrees field of view). I created the panorama below using 6 images and a 24mm, Sigma f/1.4. Each image is separated by 20 degrees using a rotating ballhead. I used 20 degrees because I know it provides ample overlap in the image for Photoshop to align and stitch with. You will need to change the amount of rotation depending on the length of the lens that you use. Using the panoramic technique expanded my field of view and helped me capture all of the celestial elements that I had in mind as well as the mountains of Homeshore and the mainland.
The Take Away
I am always learning new techniques and refining ones that I already know. Thinking outside of the box and on your feet during a photography session can expand your shooting opportunities during a single night. As I like to say “pixels are cheap”, so be sure to make lots of pixels as you shoot more creative photography.