By the time we reached Galbraith Lake, North Slope, Alaska, the low light of the solstice sun to the north was casting shadows on the peaks of the Brooks Range, which finally lay to the south of us after hours of driving. Although rain showers had passed through earlier in the day, the lingering clouds were just cotton in the sky, lit to the orange color of hot coils of a stove. Our trip was planned for three days, and our mantra was to have “nowhere to be, and all day to get there”! We observed, absorbed, and enjoyed the birds, flowers, and beauty of the Tundra during solstice. Due to the many photos from the trip, the results will be broken into two chapters, “Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy”, and “Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra”. I hope you enjoy this first installment!
During the day we drove the Haul Road to various hiking destinations. A creek bed, a bird sighting, or a nice pull-off were all excuses to hike around and check out a new region. Although the road was busy with traveling semi-trucks and tourists, as soon as you walked away from the road the solitude was immediate. Few others hike around on the tundra at this time of the year, and its vast expanse ensures that even if they do, you do not have to see them unless you choose to. Since creek beds offer a natural hiking corridor through and around ankle twisting tundra humps, tussocks, we used them often. The small, bubbling rivers bottoms flowed through rockfields created by spring melts, and were just a fraction of their size during the melt a few weeks prior. However, flow was higher than normal for the time of year, as a snow storm just 10 days earlier fed them from the mountains. I was drawn to the colors and sizes of rocks on the stream beds, and the mountains behind them which birthed the running waters.
At the end of each day we set up camp on the tundra, targeting soft patches of sphagnum moss for our sleeping pads. The mattress companies of the world should take note of the comfort of the tundra – it is unparalleled in soft-yet-supportive sleep. From our camp we took small hikes to check out the local flora and birds. The hikes always brought something new to see and experience. Near one of our camps we discovered this baby longspur (either a Smith’s or Lapland) on the tundra. It perched on the moss in the warm sun, and was likely waiting for food from its parent. Unable to escape, this baby bird’s instinct was to sit as still as possible. I snapped a few shots, and then stepped away so its parents could rejoin and feed it.
As we walked around each night I looked for settings to put up a solstice timelapse. The advantage of a timelapse over a single shot is to show the traveling path of the sun as it reaches the horizon and then curves back into the sky. Over the Brooks Range, being so far north, the sun stayed far above the horizon – it hadn’t dropped below the horizon there for over a month. This was in stark contrast to shooting at Finger Mountain about 15 miles south of the Arctic Circle where the sun just dipped below the curve of the earth. The resulting shots from each location have been fused together, and shown individually below. The lighting of the composite shots, in particular, I believe is very striking. Since each image is made of 8-10 shots over time, each plant has been lit from many angles. Because of this, extreme detail can be seen in each flower in the tundra foreground.
A trip to the Tundra will bring as much to experience as the eye can behold and the brain can perceive. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of birds and blossoms!
This post is a celebration of the beauty and invigoration fresh snow, and early winter days when a cold nose is not a drudgery. Instead, a rosy tip is acknowledged as punctuation to an exciting time as the season changes. During the early days of winter, fall has not quite relinquished its beauty. Animals and humans alike are fat-and-happy.
Setting the poetry and light thesis statement aside, to all who read this, beware! Winter is here in Alaska, and for my friends in the lower 48, it seems it will descend upon you in short order! On Thursday a friend and I left for the North Slope for some caribou hunting (Note : I can’t leave that story open ended. I was archery hunting, and was a mere 3 seconds from success on two occasions but did not have the chance to deliver the coup de gras on some keen caribou.) The trip over the Brooks Range was marred by sloppy roads and rain. My truck was caked in thick mud which was slippery to walk on, not to mention drive on. Fast forward 60 hours, and the trip south revealed 8 inches of snow 80 miles north of Fairbanks which had fallen in our absence. What a change, and so quickly! It is likely that winter is here to stay, temperatures are staying around freezing during the day and dipping to the lower teens at night.
The snow did bring some incredible beauty as only a first snow can. Rivers were still flowing, and the bending branches of snow-laden spruce leaned into river channels along the Dalton. On Wickersham Dome ghost-trees already heavy with their first layer of hoar frost for the year kept silent sentry.
I did observe a very novel phenomenon – I would love to hear if anyone has witnessed this before! Behold, the snowbow. On our drive home we were met by gray skies and the hills were wreathed in falling snow. However, at the end of the Dalton Highway the sun broke and the landscape was lit as far as the eye could see. A snow cloud hanging low to the north of us caught the rays and formed a snowbow. I have seen many sundogs, but had never seen a rainbow caused by snow crystals.
I will leave you with this northern hawk owl which was a great bird to see along the way. These birds are known for their boreal habits. They spend the days on spruces watching for rodents and can be hard to spot. This was my first time seeing this bird, although they do occur in Minnesota in the winters during owl irruptions (i.e. owls heading further south than their ‘normal’ range due to environmental or food conditions). The clip below is a short one of a hawk owl behavior, cleaning.
Summer is waning here in Alaska. In Fairbanks, tundra breeding birds are being seen in fields and overhead. Particularly the Sandhill Cranes make themselves known with their raucous and odd cries. Kassie and I wanted to experience the tundra and birds before they leave for the year.
In the recent style of my blogs, I’ll open up with the video of the trip. It captures the beauty of constant scenery, the curiosity of a fox, the detail of small birds, and the disparity of millions of mosquitoes. If you have questions about the ID of anything in the video keep reading, they’ll be discussed further below!
To get to the tundra we head north on the Dalton Highway. The Dalton Highway was completed in 1974 to service the Alaska Pipeline. The road traverses the Brooks Range via Atigun Pass at about 5000 feet – a large climb from about 400 feet in the flats of Fairbanks! It is the only complete corridor across the interior and is also called the ‘haul road’ due to the high semi-truck traffic hauling goods and supplies. On television it was made famous by the reality show Ice Road Truckers – which I experienced in a sense first hand last winter
On the topic of mosquitoes, I might as well put to rest any thoughts you have of “I’ve seen mosquitoes because I have lived in Maine or Minnesota”. I thought I was prepared for the bugs based on my living in those areas. Nothing could have prepared me for the swarms of bugs. They are tolerable in a breeze, but nearly impossible to deal with when the breeze disappears. Any knee high bush in the tundra contained hundreds of the small buzzards which well up in the eddies of the wind created by your body. The lee of your body allows mosquitoes and black flies to fly into your eyes, nose, ears and mouth. They are vicious and aim for your hairline, temples and hands.
North of the Brooks Range we happened across this Red Fox. Incredibly, it gave little notice to the two gaping humans in the truck and went about his business of marking his territory and hunting. The Red Fox and Arctic Fox overlap in range north of the Brooks Range. If they encounter each other the larger and stronger Red Fox will chase off or kill the Arctic Fox. Fox are able to hunt even in the snow and many film clips show them diving for prey (e.g. BBC’s “Life”). It’s possible that Red Fox can align themselves to the magnetic field before the pounce, and that it enables them to successfully hunt prey. I’m just the messenger on this one – I have no idea how that works!
Red Fox Dalton Highway
Four species of loons occur just north of the Brooks Range. They are the Pacific, Red-Throated, Arctic, and Yellow-billed Loons. These loons raise their chicks in the many pot-holes of the tundra before migrating to Russia, or further south on the coast. We were fortunate enough to see two of these species! The Pacific Loon swam towards us in a small pond along the Dalton. It called in a croaking voice – it seems to have a much different voice than the Common Loons we are used to. The Red-throated loon was much more nervous as it was protecting a chick.
As we drove south of Atigun Pass watching the climaxing sunset, Kassie scared me by suddenly exclaiming, “STOP! MOON!”. I looked up, and in the same motion pulled my vehicle to the shoulder of the road and dropped my jaw. The large super-moon which is bigger, brighter and ‘better’ than the ordinary moon because it is closer to the earth, emerged over the mountains. It was framed by the last pieces of the sunset and perched in the valley of the peaks. I declared an emergency photographic opportunity and set up my camera, snapping a few stills before timelapsing its quickly moving path. What an incredible experience!
Of course, there are lots of things to see along the Dalton Highway. The pictures below help capture the surrounding beauty and wildlife. I’ve included information in their captions, thanks for reading!
I just had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel with a BBC film crew to the North Slope of Alaska. Their goal is to film Arctic foxes in Prudhoe Bay, AK. This trip covered 500 miles along the Dalton/Hall road made most famous by the reality TV show “Ice Road Truckers”. Along the way we stopped for two days in Coldfoot, Alaska at the southern base of the Brooks Range (Google Map Point B) and filmed within Chandler Shelf/Atigun Pass (Google map point C) before finally making it to Prudhoe Bay (Google map point D)!!! The road-trip through the Alaskan tundra land was truly incredible, and I’m excited to tell you about it :).
I thought I would ‘open up’ with the footage I shot while driving the roads of the Dalton Highway. Because the footage is shot while driving there is only so much I could do, but I hope you enjoy the scenery! I patched it together in hopes of bringing the feel of the road to you. Description of some of the finer points of the drive can be found below. Both the video and text follow a day to day format which ties them together.
Just north of Fairbanks you are surrounded by pines heavily laden with snow. They resemble free-standing cotton candy. Their white juxtaposition against the blue sky is tremendous! Unfortunately, the wind had blown the snow off the trees for the rest of our trip, so this was our only opportunity for these snow-covered pines.
The road is never, ever short of vistas and views. Here you can see a long vista as I crossed over a ridge north of Fairbanks. I converted this shot to black and white to add contrast to the mountains in the background.
Crossing into the Arctic Circle is a big deal! We are officially in the land of the ‘midnight sun’. The last time I crossed into these realms can be read about here : THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN. From here on out the trees become short and stunted. And the winter days become long! Somewhere near this area we crossed the ‘farthest north spurce’. It’s a fairly arbitrary point, but represents the last tall tree between it and the Bering Sea.
The sunset just south of Coldfoot, AK. After driving through light blowing snow and cloudy conditions this eruption in the sky was truly incredible!! The blowing snow added depth to this picture which you cannot get on a clear day.
Day 2 started off with clouds and snow. The goal for the day was to film sequences for the ‘making of’ the documentary, as well as to head to Chandler shelf and Atigun pass for scenic photography. It was just matter of finding the ‘perfect’ scene which was just a little better than the last! Lets face it : there is incredible scenery everywhere!
I am not sure what this knife-edged mountain is named, but at one time I knew. If anyone reading this could tell me it would be much appreciated! I am standing on the Dietrich River for this picture – hopefully that can serve as a landmark.
We reached the top of Chandler shelf after competing with snow removal ‘blowers and blades’ on the way to the top. At the top cold, windy conditions buffeted us. A sun-dog stood sentry over the mountains as if to re-affirm the cold.
The goal of Day 3 was to make it to Prudhoe bay. We departed at about 7 AM. As we passed back through Chandler Shelf a beautiful sunrise greeted us, as did the blowing snow! It can be seen in this picture. I focused this shot in the foreground to capture the sailing ice crystals. These small daggers are rough on the skin and eyes.
Continuing snow and blowing conditions made Atigun Pass a bit dicey for the big rigs going through. They decided to go one-at-a-time to ensure they did not endanger anyone else if they went off the road. When it came to our turn to head up the pass we closely tailed an 18-wheeler who busted drift for us at the bottom. The road conditions improved as we reached the top of the pass, but big drifts cut by blades along the sides of the road were a reminder that were lucky to be coming through!
After clearing the pass, the conditions were still windy but the skies were clear. Here’s a nice little poser in front of the northern Brooks Range. The ski-goggles were my driving companions as well as protection from the outside wind!
One of the items that will show up in the video is the Alaskan Pipeline. While driving the Prudhoe it is an ever-present feature on the landscape. This pump station is responsible for pushing the oil over the Brooks Range, wow! The pump stations can also cut off the oil in case of an emergency anywhere in the pipeline reducing the threat of a spill. The pipeline was built from 1974 – 1977. Since that time it has shipped crude from the North Slope.
The tundra is really just a cold, white desert. This picture , which includes the hood of the trusty ‘Golden Colo’**. You can see the northern face of the Brooks range and not much else but snow in this picture!
** A note : Golden Colo was my radio name during the trip. The BBC suburban was a bit conflicted on which radio name they wanted. Fiely opted for ‘RubberDuck’, but the Brits, Toby and Tuppance, wanted ‘Broadsword’. This gave me a lot to work with. Throughout the trip they were interchangeably known as “RubberSword” and “BroadDuck”.
The view from north of Toolik Field Station was just as nice as any. Here a frosty sign warns truckers that a steep hill should be expected! You can see Toolik Field Station and Lake in the background. For more reading about when I visited Toolik for a couple days you can read here : TOOLIK.
Every foot I went past Toolik was officially the farthest north I have been!
Although it’s not reflected in Day 3, we made it to Prudhoe! Sorry if the suspense was killing you. Here’s a sunrise on a cold, windy day in Deadhorse, AK. On this morning the winds were sustained at 20mph and the temperatures hovered at about 30 below F. Even residents of Deadhorse admitted it was a ‘cold day’.
Our lodging at Deadhorse Camp. These ‘camps’ are the Deadhorse equivalent of a hotel. This one served good food, although there were some aspects of it which were less than desireable.
Drilling in the Arctic
Of course Prudhoe Bay is known for its drilling. In some cases drilling in the North Slope has become very controversial- I am sure you are familiar with some of those views. However, here’s some of the meat-and-bones of drilling in the Arctic that I learned.
Pictured below are the oil-derricks. They are far,far,far different than their western counterparts. I’m thinking of the ones that look like giant dinosaurs and move up and down on a cam. This is just a hunch, but I’m guessing these derricks are different due to the bitter cold. Metal becomes very brittle at cold temperatures, so moving parts are a liability! These small huts are likely more reliable.
There are several drilling rigs set up in Deadhorse. These drills puncture the Arctic and insert a casing. Believe it or not, this rig is actually mobile!! Once it it done drilling it is packed down, moved off and a derrick is created. The oil drilling rig can be wheeled or FLOWN to another location. Whoa!!
The Flight Home
All too soon it was time for the flight home. I hopped on this snazzy charter plane and headed south. The flight only takes 90 minutes to get to Fairbanks. A stark contrast to 20 hours of driving over the Brooks range!
The flight over the Brooks range was incredible. I stared out the window the whole time trying to observe what I could about the landscape. I did find some cool and unique things! Below this lake has a river that flows all the way through it. The river can be seen through the snow as it crossed through the lake. Interesting – it doesn’t follow a straight line even through the lake. You can also see the large delta it has created in the lake through the years and the trees growing on it.
I am very interested to know more about the circular bands perpendicular to the river. Any thoughts anyone? How could they have formed?
And finally, a look over the Brooks range as we passed on by. Breathtaking!
In summary, this trip was truly incredible. The only part was a lack of wildlife – although that’s not really unexpected in the winter. Possible animals could have included Musk-ox and Caribou and Arctic Fox. We did see moose and ptarmigan, but couldn’t stop for pictures of them. I wish I could have stayed on longer, but was pulled back to Fairbanks due to class, work and other commitments. You can only forget about the real world for so long. I can’t thank BBC and Jonathan enough for letting me tag along. Truly incredible! This Alaska premier will be showing on Animal Planet in about a year. I don’t have TV, so keep an eye out for me! 🙂
If you’ve made it this far through the post I figured I would include a gallery of images from the trip since this is a ‘picture heavy’ post.
I’m just back from an exceptional three days at the Toolik Field Station (http://goo.gl/NlH6e6). My travels up north are a fulfillment of a childhood dream. This field station is located over the Brooks Range, on the North Slope Tundra of Alaska. It’s a 10 hour trip up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to this very remote location. The area had just had its first snow of the year which was slowly melting off the Tundra, but in my opinion it was there to stay in the mountains. Apparently, it’s typical for snow to start to hang around by the middle of September! Temps were dropping down to the low 20s at night, and were only raising up to about 35 during the daytime. Late fall and winter are already setting in this far north, and should be headed towards the U.S. 48 any day! The trip up there was part of my graduate orientation. I was accompanied by 7 other new graduate students. Our goal was to enjoy the arctic, understand the Toolik field station and get to know everyone in the group.
Toolik is located above the arctic circle which is 66′ 33″. This arbitrary line is determined by the latitude where the sun can be seen at midnight during the summer solstice. Hence, once you cross in the arctic you are officially in the land of the “midnight sun”. The dark nights are famous in this area and are very difficult for some to cope with. However, without further ado I’m looking forward to taking you along the journey up the Dalton Highway and to the Toolik Field Station!
GEOLOGY and TUNDRA-ISTICS
One of the great pieces to this trip was the knowledge of the staff and personnel who were with us. I learned a lot about the geology of tundra features. One of the prominent features on the tundra were the Thermokarsts. These features are formed when permafrost (ie: ground that stays frozen) begins to thaw and collapse. Some thermokarsts are capable of sinking 10s of feet, while others may only drop several inches. The significance of this is that a large amount of carbon is released from the soil as it thaws and collapses. The released carbon can cause changes to the ecology, biology, and communities around the thermokarst. As much as 1/3 of the tundra across the world is made up of material that would collapse in a warming world. So, what do these thermokarsts look like? Here you go:
Each of the images that you are looking at are examples of a specific type of Thermokarst. They are “active detachment layers”. The active layer is the permafrost that thaws each year. In these spots the permfrost has thawed in the top layer and had begun to slide down the hillside. This landslide is occurring overtop of the still frozen soil below.
During a 6 mile hike up the Atigun Gorge we encountered another feature that were looking for. Geodes and fossils. The geodes found in the area ranged from golfball to watermelon sized. Once you cracked them open the crystals inside looked like many small diamonds! We also found an a shale area laden with fossils of shells from ages past. I have never seen a concentration of fossils like that!
PLANTS OF THE TUNDRA
Everything regarding plants happens slowly in the Tundra. Dwarf birch may stand 8 inches tall and be 50 years old! The trees in the tundra are limited by the growing season and nutrients in the soils. However, they still cover manyof the areas that you walk in. In the pictures here you can see the dwarf birch in the reds and yellows throughout the area. Hopefully it demonstrates the blanketing of these plants as well as the height. Notice the caribou antlers for Scale? These pictures were taken in Atigun Gorge, Finger Mountain and along the Dalton Highway.
Another common species of tree is the black spruce. It’s the iconic tree of the boreal forest and is VERY slow growing. Fully mature trees may be only 6 inches in diameter and over 100 years old! Here you can see the different sizes of spruce. The growth rings on the tree are so tiny that I couldn’t even count them. Scientists age these tress while alive by taking a core sample of the tree. The plug resembles a skinny pencil.
One of the common berries that we found were the low-bush cranberry. Some of you may be familiar with these berries from Minnesota in the bogs. These plants have a tart red berry which is loaded with vitamin C. I thought that the tundra berries didn’t have as much flavor as the ones that I found in bogs. Perhaps a research project in the making?? We also found cloud berry, blue berry, crow berry and bear berry. All of those berries are edible, but the cloud berries are by far the best! There is also several species of peas found in the tundra. I couldn’t find any with pods, but I guess they get them. The pea plants are found among rocky outcrops and are very low to the ground.
Cotton grass is aptly named for its cotton like heads. This grass is very common through the tundra, and during the right times of year will cause the tundra to look like a cloud with all of the fluffy white heads.
THE ALASKA PIPELINE
The Alaskan pipeline is HUGE. I’ll just start by saying that. It also is an engineering marvel. The pipeline is prevalent along the entire Dalton Highway and continues to to run north past Toolik another 120 miles up to Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline was built back between 1974 and 1977 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Alaska_Pipeline_System), it’s nearly 40 years old. It is earthquake resistant as well as cooled to avoid melting into the permafrost. Many of the poles have heat vents coupled with refrigerator coolent. These radiators keep the pipe from thawing the soil. The pipe is suspended on teflon pads, and the pipe can slide over the pads during an earthquake, which gives it a lot of security. In the case emergency a pump station can shut down the flow of the pipe in any given spot. However, spills are pretty uncommon, and the only one that anyone talked about was an incident involving a drunken man with a gun who managed to shoot a hole through the pipe. Most of the pipe is layed above ground, but there are certain sections that are underground. It’s also necessary for the pipe to cross many rivers, including the Mighty Yukon.
LIFE IN TOOLIK FIELD STATION
The scenery never truly stopped no matter where you looked throughout the station. The TFS houses up to 150 scientists in the summer, but tapers of to 10 – 15 throughout the winter. The remote setting ensures that only a skeleton crew is left to man the needs of the researchers and facilities. The TFS sits to the north of the Brooks range and offers unprecedented views of the mountains. Wildlife abound in the area and yellow-billed loons live on the lake. Wolves, caribou, wolverines, musk ox, ground squirrels and many other species of animal may be found in the area.
This research looked at the response of the tundra to fire. In 2004 and 2005 over 6 millions acres of Tundra burned which is an unheard of number! Black spruce, which may have been growing for 200 years were torched. The research found that the tundra actually recovered pretty fast, and that the amount of carbon released was the equivalent to the accumulation of about 30 years. So, overall it might have been worse. However, an increased fire regime is expected on the tundra due to the warming climate, so more fires like these 8 years ago may occur.
We were incredibly blessed when we got there. The sky had just cleared off after nearly a week of foggy, rainy, snowy weather. The first night the Aurora appeared about 12AM. It started as light green haze in the sky and continued to intensify until ribbons of pink and green floated for miles around us. Areas of the aurora would build and fade so quickly it was hard to take it all in. As my eyes dashed about the sky there was always something else to see. However, it was almost impossible to comprehend. In some regards it can be related to a Rainbow because as you stand and look at it it connects to the earth and you feel there is a source to the light. However, chasing it would never yield a starting location. I’ve throught a lot about the best ways to describe how I felt the first night that it boomed and loomed over my head. Here’s some of the inadequate descriptions that I thought of:
Undulating Jelly fish
On the night we had a bonfire which can be seen in many of the aurora photo. Again, it started in a light green haze that continued to grow and become saturated. The aurora the second night was so much different that the first! Rather than the organized bands it saturated everything and damped out the skies. You can see in the ground that the snow was green from the surreal light above! Again, words truly cannot describe how these lights effect your senses, your mood and your heart. Everything in in your person is drawn to them and you cannot help but watch.