You are sitting on a warm, tropical, beach drinking a margarita. As you watch the day wane away the sun dips lower on the ocean horizon, and the landscape transforms into brilliant oranges and purples. Behind you the palm trees are bathed in orange, and the landscape has taken on incredible colors with accentuated shadows of even the shortest plant or sandcastle. Almost certainly you bring out your cell phone or camera, because, like all photographers, you find the beauty of the Golden Hour to be irresistible, and you know the peak experience will be short lived. Perhaps you even think to yourself that you wish the beauty of that light could last forever. What if it could?
The Golden Hour is also called the “magic hour” and for a landscape photographer there is no better time to be outside. The terms refer to the period of time when the sun is 6 degrees or less from the horizon. In many regions, like the balmy beach scene above, the moment as the sun sweeps through that 6 degree sweet-spot is relatively short. However, in Polar regions like Alaska, the winter sun has such as a low, southern trajectory, that the sunset-like colors almost never fade.
There are a variety of tools, apps, and websites to calculate the solar angle at your location. I used the NOAA ESRL Sun Position Calculator to determine that in Fairbanks the sun dips to the 6 degree mark on October 24th, 2015 and will remain below 6 degrees until February 26th, 2016. To illustrate the effect of the polar magic hour the images below showcase the colors, and shadows achieved by the low-lying sun. For 3 months, the silver lining of our short, winter days is a luxurious landscape lit by an eternal Golden Hour.
Golden Hour Sunset at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
The golden hour casts long shadow, even filling in these fox tracks.
The light of the Golden Hour turns the landscapes into shades of pink, red, and orange.
Long shadows casts by the low sun.
The light of the golden hour pouring through a valley at Angel Rocks, Alaska.
The beginning of the Golden Hour reflecting off the trees and a tributary to the Chena River.
Subtle shades of pink during the Golden Hour.
Shades of pink and orange during the eternal Golden Hour of the Arctic.
The low-lying sun peaking through a downed spruce during the Golden Hour
Pink shades and long shadows in this golden hour shot near the top of Angel Rocks, Alaska
Magic lighting and sunset from Angel Rocks, Alaska.
Beautiful light off the peaks and snowdrifts.
I used several key resources for this article. If you are interested in calculating your sun angle check out :
The Alaska Songbird Institute has a goal for people during their second annual “Bird-a-thon” : find as many birds as you can within 24 hours in Alaska. We, team MRI (Madi, Ross, and Ian), decided to take the task seriously! We started our 24 hour window at 8:00 PM by birding a range of Fairbanks hot-spots. From there we headed south along the Richardson highway with the goal of making it Paxson to bird the Denali Highway – a 134 mile stretch of wetland potholes and alpine tundra chock-ful of birds.
May 15th was the first day the Denali Highway was officially open, and much of the Denali Highway’s tundra was still covered in snow due to 3000′ elevation gain. Because of the low-productivity of snow-covered areas, we targeted melt areas and ponds. There were many, many species of birds. Some of them, such as red-throated loons were still passing through to breed on lakes further north over the Brooks Range, using the Denali Highway region as a “stopover” until the ponds further north were ice free. But, the site was not a stopover for most. Many of the birds were there to make a nest and raise young in the 24 hour light. The tundra is the summer home of many species which are found in vastly different habitats during the winter. For instance, the long-tailed jaeger is an ocean bird. During the summer they nest in the tundra and eat berries and small rodents. Quite a change from the fish they traditionally consume! Wilson’s warbler migrate to South America, and arctic terns migrate to Antarctica (the longest animal migration). In fact, the Alaskan tundra is so unique and special that birds from six of the seven continents can be found on it. For those that see the tundra frozen in the winter, it is easy to forget the tundra is a highly valuable and necessary ecosystem!
Long-tailed Jaeger, check out that tail!
American Widgeon taking flight over the mountains
Wilson’s Warbler – one of my favorites!
A Willow Ptarmigan in front of the mountains
Cliff Swallow coming in for a landing!
White-crowned Sparrow showing off its namesake
A pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye. Such a beautiful duck!
A male Barrow’s Goldeneye – such an eye!
White-crowned Sparrow on the runway.
Lifer! Golden-crowned Sparrow 🙂
Aside from the birds, the scenery of the Denali Highway is never ending! The melting ponds and flowing rivers created a patchwork of light and dark across the land. To the north, the horizon was ragged like torn cloth with the mountains of the Alaska Range. In the twilight at 2:00 AM (because it no longer gets fully dark here), the Alaskan Range stabbed through the colors of the sunset and on bluebird days like the one we had its snow covered peaks starkly contrasted the thawing tundra and blue sky.
A sprawling mountain vista juxtaposed to the Denali Highway.
A beautiful lake and mountain scene. This lake held black scoters, a common loon, and surf scoters along with many species of waterfowl.
Just a beautiful view!
The sun sits high in the sky as we get closer to summer! Here’s a beautiful vista along the Denali Highway.
Perched up high on a hillside, we watched moose, caribou, and long-tailed jaegers from this particular position on the Denali Highway.
A piece of driftwood is set high and dry after the spring melt.
A shallow melt water stream pours of round boulders and rocks.
This panorama captures an active melt pond. The ice that was left concentrated many shorebirds and waterfowl in the open water.
In the twlight of the sun at ~2:00 Am the Alaska Range was lit up over Donnelly Creek.
Along with the birds, there was plenty of mammals to see. By the end of the trip we watched well over 20 moose and probably 30 caribou. Arctic ground squirrels fed along the roadsides, and frolicked across the snow. The young animals of spring are out and about, and we enjoyed watching a red fox kit chew on some grass outside of its den after we returned to Fairbanks.
So, bringing it back to where it all started, why go birding for 24 hours straight? It seems that it might be a bit crazy (for instance getting about 3-4 hours of sleep). To understand that, you simply have to understand what I believe birding is. Birding is a chance to observe the natural environment either individually or with friends. An opportunity to go birding with a two great friends (we rock, MRI!) in a place as remote and diverse as Interior Alaska is a moment to relax and learn something new (essentially a guarantee); it should not be passed up. Even if observing wildlife is not for you, my definition of “birding” can be modified to fit almost any hobby. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn and be with good friends. After 24 hours, we identified 68 species of birds; a pretty remarkable list and I cannot wait until next year’s Bird-a-thon!
As I stood at the start-line of the Iditarod in Fairbanks it occurred to me that we, the crowd, were all having the same experience. Each of us attended the start-line to see 78 mushers set out to tackle the “Great Last Race”, which was beginning in Fairbanks for only the 2nd time in the race’s 43 year history. Our fingers, toes and nose were all going numb from -3 degree temps, the same orange fence separated us from the teams in “the chute”, and many of the same looking,gloved hands were getting into our shots attempting to capture the moment. Not only were we having the same physical experience, but we recorded it in similar ways. Hundreds of cameras, phones, and TV crews captured the racers from every possible angle and moment. Each image owner would go home or on air to syndicate their message to friends and family. They would all be reporting on the dogs as athletes (a very true statement), the goals of the mushers, the logistics of a changed trail, and snow conditions. So what could I do that would be unique?
I stopped staring through my camera’s viewfinder and focused on the moment I was in. I watched the cheering people, barking dogs, loaded sleds, and lined up cars. My observations of them are unique, much more so than any photo I could capture that day. There were many stories to tell as I looked around; these are my unique observations of the Iditarod start.
Mushers are a diverse group of people, and the Iditarod attracts mushers from across the world and cultures. During the morning, the only time the expectant audience got to meet the musher was as they approached the starting line. All of the mushers had their team brought through the “chute” by a group of handlers. The chute is the equivalent of a sports team dashing through a tunnel behind their mascot. As they passed through, some of the mushers wanted to incite the crowds. One of these goofballs was the “Mortician” (when not running the Iditarod he runs a funeral home) who raised his hands asking for cheers. He was certainly enjoying the moment! Others were stoic and seemed to be thinking of the race ahead as they stared at the lead dogs. However, regardless of personality, if you were lucky enough to make eye contact with the driver and grin, every musher would surly give you a smile a nod back. If they heard your cheers of “Good Luck!”, they would reply with a grateful, “thank-you”. Mushers, it seems to me, are the salt of the land and are just generally good people.
The dogs are excited to run. Very, very excited! Their bays reverberated off the surround areas in gruff, whining, or rapid tone. This year’s Iditarod had 78 mushing teams. A team is composed of 16 dogs, meaning there are 1248 dogs minimum at the race! If all of the teams made it to Nome, the dogs would have accumulated 1,216,800 miles total over the 975 mile course. The Arctic Circle is 10,975 miles in circumference meaning in “dog miles” they would run around the whole Arctic Circle 110 times – such an incredible feat! One of the greatest focuses of the race is the celebration of the dogs as athletes. Although the endurance and mental fortitude of the racers is paramount, the ability for the dogs to get through the race is what determines if a musher makes it to Nome!
Observers get a great opportunity to see the excitement of the dogs as they are brought out by 10 – 12 handlers with leads clipped to the gang-line. There were several times that the dogs were able to topple the teams of handlers with their eager bursts forward, it was in those moment I realized just how POWERFUL a full team of dogs is!! If the dogs felt they had to chance to run they took it, and a 16 dog team is like a wrecking ball that has just been released. It is pretty hard to stop, and gains momentum fast! I can only imagine the thrill of taking off from the starting gate like a drag racer under the strain of a fresh team!
On the Atmosphere
The attendees of the Iditarod do it because they want to be there. They want to see the mushers, hear the excited dogs, and watch the amazing fur hats of people. Wait, “fur hats”, you’re thinking? Yes! The large and ornate fox, raccoon, seal, and wolverine hats and garments are a staple of any mushing event. Bobbing tails and swinging claws are held above the hairline and temples of many warm heads. The designs of these lavish head warmers will make you smile! Fur has a long history in the sport, any musher knows that a wolverine “ruff” is indispensable for keeping the frost from building up around your face during a long run.
Young, old, rookie, veteran, construction worker, nurse, well dressed, sweatpants : the start of the Iditarod is a conglomerations of diverse observers. There are many who made the trek to Fairbanks because they had never been there before. And I have no doubt that some of the attendees had seen nearly every start in 43 years. Everyone was enthusiastic, and after the countdown of “5!…4… 3!!…2…1!” rang out from hundreds of voices for every musher the crowd cheered as they rocketed away. With mushers coming down the shoot at exactly two minutes apart the enthusiasm of the crowd was evident when they were still cheering to the last one!
Throughout the day I did shot some video capturing the excitement of the dogs. This short 90 second montage brings you to the front-line of the Iditarod, and highlights cheering crowds and baying dogs.
The chance to see the start of the Iditarod was truly a lifetime experience! If you ever have the opportunity to see the first hand the out pouring of community support, love the sport, excitement of the dogs, and dedication of the mushers I suggest you jump at the opportunity.
We’ve finally come out of our ‘seasonably cold’ weather in Fairbanks. Looking back at the last months data, temperatures hovered around -20 most of time which is not good burbot fishing weather! The holes freeze up quickly both on the top and by filling in from the sides. However, temperatures this week hold the promise of our first 30 degree day all winter, and it was time get back onto the ice!
When we reached our destination, it was evident the cold snap had thickened the exoskeleton of the Tanana River. The first hole we drilled buried my normal auger bar, but that didn’t worry me! A few pins removed and added, and my 18″ extension was attached. With the entire auger now towering at six feet I was pretty confident I would get through to water. The newly lengthened auger took a some teamwork to make it efficient. For instance, starting a new hole and applying enough downward pressure required one guy on each handle and working at eye level until it had cut deep enough. However, we found water just a few more inches where the old auger hole had ended. We set our lines using the method from last season and walked away with anticipation for the next day.
Getting a tall auger started is a little harder and requires two people! Corey and I tag teamed this one.
Made it through about 4 feet of ice!
Have to get that auger back out of the hole too.
The setting crew – we kick butt!
The next day I returned with a slightly new crew. One of the things I have enjoyed most about burbot fishing is having a reason to go outside for a walk, gathering my own food through the winter, and introducing new people to the experience. Brian, Alison, and their 1-year old pup Rue were great additions on the Tanana. Rue in particular loved to dig the snow off the closed holes, steal bait, and watch as we scooped slush. A cute pup! To help out their experience, we pulled out a great looking, 30 inch burbot!
One of the things I have learned from people as I have talked about burbot fishing to them, is there is a lot of misconceptions on how to clean a burbot. When I was home in Minnesota this Christmas I was fishing for walleye on Ottertail lake, when we pulled a nice eelpout (burbot), through the hole. The guys I was with admitted they had never actually kept and cleaned one. I have had conversations with others who suggest to only remove the meat from along the back, but in fact there is a lot more meat on the fish than that! Contrary to these ideas, cleaning a burbot is not a whole lot different than cleaning any other fish. Here’s a couple of tips:
1) Fillet around the ribs rather than through them and remove the whole fillet from the side of the fish
2) There are some large rib bones that stick perpendicular to the side of the fish, once you are around those you’ll be able to keep all the belly meat
3) When removing the skin from the fillet, hold the knife parallel to the table and then angled slightly down. Rather than push the knife through the fillet, pull the fillet (starting wit the tail end) towards you leaving the knife in place. It will result in NO meat lost EVERY time!! If you try to push the knife through the fillet you will likely cut through the skin and that’s frustrating!
For your information, and entertainment, I’ve put together a 50 second video highlighting these tips, a poor accent, and a slightly dry sense of humor. Good luck getting those burbot!
Ice-up will be happening any day now in Fairbanks. The small ponds and marshes have been locked with ice thick enough to walk on since the end of September, but the rivers have resisted a solid state owing to a not-too-cold October to date. However, in the Interior it seems that 40 below could only be the next day away!
I took the opportunity to find a new aurora watching spot. My goal was to shoot over an open river. I headed to the Chena Lakes Recreation area and found my view at the Granite Tors campground. The North Fork of the Chena was running, snow-covered and beautiful! As I walked up it’s banks I was a bit on edge however. On a moonless night at 12:00 AM in Alaska, moose look the same as the inky blackness. Although they shouldn’t pose any real danger this time of year – they just want to get away – I was not looking to be scared tonight! However, in dramatic fashion a cannoning KAPLOOSH echoed up the river, and the source came from the river only ten feet away from me. A beaver, out for a midnight swim announced its presence and effectively scare me into nearly dropping a load! Lol, nights in Alaska.
The rev of the aurora engine was a bit slow right away, but a broad overhead band suggested that sometime during the night the show could be spectacular! At 12:45 AM the broad, undefined band erupted into curtains of pink and green (another example of Why The Aurora Flares Up). A hint of blue shimmer lit up far edges of the aurora in space. Overhead they danced and danced. The timelapse here captures the night. I have continued to develop new video editing techniques, and I think some of the motion introduced in this particular timelapse is pretty effective, but I would love to know what you think!
Just as a little fore-shadowing I spent yesterday putting up a friend’s Yurt. It was great, and I shot a fun timelapse of that. More on that soon! 🙂
Here’s a gallery of some images from the night. Be sure to click on them to expand. Thanks for checking in!
It’s been a busy couple of weeks, as I’ve been spending my last couple of weekends in Chena Hot Springs in pursuit of small mammals; specifically the water shrew. My work out there has been with Jonathan Fiely, who describes these small mammals as “the river otters” of the small mammal world. They are active hunters which snack on small minnows and invertebrates that they catch. Unfortunately, our success in nabbing one of these tiny, elusive creatures was zero; however, the nights we spent out doing it were well worth it. Last weekend was that big Full Moon. If you didn’t catch it that’s too bad! Although, there will be others ;). One of the fascinating facts about the moon is that it’s the same phase for everyone in the world. It connects us all. Although that may seem like common sense, with the quickly dying daylight hours here in Alaska, I’m happy to know that some of the celestial events are shared with my hometown Minnesotans and adopted Mainers. The moonlight off the tributary to the Chena River was a bright, ivory road. It was impossible not to stand there and just look at it – although I may have benefited from sunglasses it was so bright! Here you can see me standing in the river (not on the ice) looking at that big moon.
One of the big news events of the week for me was a large X1.7 and X2.0 Solar flare from the sun. These events are the triggers of the Aurora, and this was one was described by NASA as “A canyon of fire over 200,000 miles long”. Based on this information I was VERY excited to head up north for the weekend and get away from the light pollution of Fairbanks in hopes of getting some really good looks at the Aurora. After reviewing the Aurora forecast (http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast) it looked like there was going to be a decent chance of getting at least a ‘moderate’ display up north. So, I packed up my photography gear, gun, and camping stuff and headed up 85 miles north with Ross Dorendorf to the Twelvemile Summit on the Steese Highway. We could not have picked a better day to be up in interior Alaska. The day was actually very, very warm for the end of October, I think the high was probably near 35 degrees. We were in pursuit of Ptarmigan so we headed up the ridge tops, hiking for a few miles. Although the ptarmigan tracks printed in the snow were abundant is certain areas we never saw a single ptarmigan. We were lucky enough to see a large snowy owl on the slope below us. As soon as he realized he was spotted the owl took off from the ground and flew along the ridge top in front of us, about 300 yards away. He was very large! I would say the size of a large gull and flapped gracefully. Here are a series of pictures and a 360 degree video from the summit of the mountain. As you can see, it wasn’t a bad day out there!
We hiked down from the ridgetop and got back to the truck right as the sun was disappearing. The warm temperatures were also disappearing. What a sun driven system we have here! The sunset was indeed a beauty and the clouds to the south, which were likely covering Fairbanks, lent themselves perfectly to the orange and yellow bands in the sky.
Once we were done with the sunset it was time to get down to making camp. Now don’t get me wrong, camp on this trip was pretty straight forward. I was to sleep in the back of my truck and Ross was to sleep in his tent. We weren’t too interested in leaving some of the conveniences of car camping behind. So, Ross fired up his stove and soon had a warm, salty, cheesy and DELICIOUS batch of macaroni and cheese going. I had tasked myself with making a batch of monkey bread in the dutch oven. Monkey bread is also called pull bread and is a doughy, cinnamon sugar filled wonder. Its hot, sweetness is the perfect end to any day. Dutch oven cooking is a small camping hobby of mine. It involves a cast iron pot which is heated from the top and bottom with coals. You can bake an assortment of meals and desserts within it; if you can make it in a traditional oven at home, you can cook it within the dutch oven. The picture below illustrated the heat on top and bottom of the oven.
So, did we get a good product from the dutch oven? On this day the Dutch OVen was a massive success story, the monkey bread was done perfectly! I can’t claim success every time, so this was a sweet day! The video below “Twilight and Goodies” will give you a good look at my finished product 😀
As we sat and digested the food we had eaten the night got darker and darker. The twilight finally gave way into complete darkness and we were humbled and awe-struck by the stars above us and around us. The milky-way cut through the sky in a large creamy swath. I did my best to capture the milky way. The images you’ll see below have been enhanced in contrast to help bring out the color and feel of the multitude of stars and the grandeur of the milky-way. However, you’ll see in the first image an orange tint at the bottom of the image. What you are looking at is actually the light pollution from Fairbanks. Even 80 miles away, in the state of Alaska, light pollution is filling our skies. In some point in our history, there will never be a black sky ever again. This presents more than aesthetic, human problem; birds are known to navigate by light and become disorientated by the lights of cities and within the ocean. If you don’t think it’s a big deal, think about being a bird as you fly into your next airport at night.
The second image you see below has been modified to remove the light pollution.
While observing the cosmos we watched many shooting stars streak across the sky. One of them lasted for so long we contemplated going after it, as we were sure based on its trajectory that it had buried itself somewhere just outside of Barrow. Our backs and neck ached with the craning our heads to the stars above, but there was not stopping our watching.
You’ll notice the title of this entry is “In Pursuit of the Aurora”. On this night, even with the solar activity, the aurora evaded us. We stayed up until 1AM and at time the clouds started to roll in. Although I’m confident there was an Aurora this night, we were unable to see it. However, at about 12 AM one of the the most interesting phenomenon occurred. Simultaneously Ross and I looked to the horizon and came to the same conclusion: there was a fire and it looked to be big. The fire continued to grow and a minute later we realized our folly as a blood-orange, crescent moon rose quickly over the hillside. It illuminated the landscape around us in its light. The moon and the new cloud cover convinced us that sleep was more valuable than the aurora on this night.