It was negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks, Alaska as I stepped outside to engage in my photographic addiction : capturing the northern lights. I set off into the night, stomped a trail through knee-deep snow, and tripped on a hidden tree. The trip loosened up a signature item of the black spruce bog that I was walking in; a four foot Black Spruce tree encased in snow. Around me arranged in clumps and with varying snow loads were hundreds of Black Spruces. Each layer of snow deposited through the winter hung heavily on each tree. Some of them sustained the burden of winter and maintained their dignity by standing upright, however, many bowed over in graceful arcs waiting for the warmth of spring to set them free. The beautiful landscape I stood in was classic to the interior of Alaska in the boreal forest. On this night I was in luck, the aurora started up and with my camera and mind racing I began to take pictures that fused together two iconic elements of interior Alaska.
I began photographing the aurora borealis three years ago and since then have continued to morph my skills and technique. It is actually pretty amazing to consider the transition that my photography has gone through as I began to realize that although the northern lights are stunning they are only an accent to unique landscape. I began to focus less on tack-sharp stars and large vistas and more on the foreground elements. I no longer only seek tall “domes” (i.e., mountains, hills) to stake out my my tripod. Instead I often look for integral pieces of the landscape that epitomize it and place them close and directly in front of my camera. In order to capture landscapes like these I change my techniques. My camera and tripod are almost always at ‘snow level’ to take advantage of unique angles, and I set up only a few feet from the object in front of me. A bulbous, snow-covered black spruce only two feet away becomes the tack-sharp focus that the eye is pulled to. The dreamy and soft aurora and stars provide the lighting that help pull out the essence of the landscape. They are punctuation to the beauty which lies all around.
In the age of digital photography that makes capturing the northern lights “easy”, I offer this article as a challenge to photographers to think outside of the box when shooting the aurora. You may find that it provides inspiration to your work and a beautiful twist to an astounding phenomenon.
I do not know why the stark beauty of the Lake Superior coast surprised me so much; before, I had lived on its shores four years. In front of me, the grey sky mirrored the pale ice of the shoreline, and as I walked to the edge of Gitchigumi’s ice encased coast at Gooseberry State Park I was captivated. Short waves in the small cove which curled out in front of me lapped at the shoreline and imperceptibly built up icicles that hung from ice ledges. The icicles were shaped like alligator teeth and seemed to dangle from the frozen mouth of a gigantic beast. Every rock was encased in a sheet of ice built up one splash of water at a time. A careful cross-section of ice from on top of the rock would reveal that stone was at the core of an arctic onion.
The ice was inspiring to look at from a macro and micro scale. By getting close and touching my nose to the ice, I observed some the miniscule details contributing to the grand-scale beauty. On the rocks, a result of the layers of water was gray-and-white banded textures mimicking the agates Lake Superior is so famous for. They were polished to perfection. Colorful yellow lichens, tufted grasses, and rich green mosses were preserved on the rocks behind clear windows of curved ice. The magnifying effect of the curve threw pieces of the lichen out of proportion, and the the splashes of bright color they provided were in stark contrast to the granite. As I pressed my face close and looked, it was impossible to guess how some of the textures had formed. In some instances, it seemed that some of the small pebbles trapped in the ice had received just enough sun to melt and separate themselves. The small void they left above their surface was filled with alternating grains and patterns. Reflecting on it now, everything looks a bit different when you observe the essence of a landscape.
One of the greatest joys of the afternoon was when the sun dissolved through the flat gray skies as a radiant sunset. The grey ice ledges and icicles no longer blended into the background colors of the horizon but instead reflected and bounced the many colors of the sky. The Lake Superior coast was transformed. Translucent icicles absorbed and emitted the sunset’s light. Rays of sun illuminated the rock islands encased in ice. Blue skies and orange clouds floated overhead and were pushed by the wind. Throughout it all I counted my blessings and documented its beauty. As the sun finally set I returned to my car feeling like I had been at just the right place, at just the right time.
For the last year I have strapped my camera to my back, placed it in my backpack, or put it in the front seat of my truck to meet my goal of taking a picture a day for 365 days. My intent of the project was to simply take a picture each day to improve my photography skills. Looking at the results I am shocked by how the project changed my view of photography and my photography skillset.
30 days in the project I was already starting to feel that I was repeating the same shots days after day. The constant feeling of the need to do something different each day forced my growth as a photographer. It was critical I go out of my comfort zone of wildlife and landscapes by taking advantage nearly any shot that presented itself and finding an opportunity when there was an obvious one. The greatest lessons I learned was defining the difference between “taking a picture” and “creating an image”. I think creating an image captures the essence of the object or the moment and is ultimately at the heart of the what brings me joy in photography and continues to make it interesting. The difference seems subtle, but to illustrate it, standing parallel to the horizon and taking a picture of the sunset is different than making an image of that same sunset by adding in the reflection of the water through the trees. By creating an image, you can tell a story through photography. That became my goal as the days ticked on by.
A portable system is a huge benefit. First and foremost I really appreciated the portability of my Olympus OMD Micro 4/3 system. The small size enabled me to carry a full featured camera and an array of lenses everywhere that I went. That portable system helped me take advantage of the opportunity to capture this Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I was biking to the office when I encountered it and was able to snap a great moment.
2. Take an opportunity when you have it. I learned really quickly that if you intend to take a picture every single day, it is absolutely critical to capture an image regardless of the cost. Okay, I am definitely being a bit facetious, but this particular sunrise caused a five-minute tardiness on my way to class. It was just too beautiful to pass up, and I needed time to set up a tripod!
3. Be creative. I often mounted only a single lens to my camera, and then forced myself to capture an image with that lens. In line with taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2), it is was also necessary to look for opportunities. The particular image below was created because I had an f/1.0 50mm lens. I knew that depth of field would enable me to have tack-sharp pieces of an image, and a soft background which I think was effective in this skull image.
4. Diversify by taking advantage of all forms of photography. As I searched for shots, I extended into photography that is not my bread-and-butter wildlife or landscapes. Learning to set up food shots, portraits, and composites all helped build my photography skill set.
5. Light is everything. Photography is the “art of capturing light”, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska most of the year presented a significant challenge in the winter months. Short days ensured that if I was going to take advantage of an opportunity (see #2) in the daylight I had to be quick. I also had to get creative (see # 3) on cloudy days by either moving indoors or finding a shot that worked in flat light.
6. Make something out of nothing. There were a lot of cloudy, dark days where I never got the opportunity to take an image outside. If that was the case, it was time to be creative (see #3) by designing indoor scenes, capturing phenomena in the dark (aurora borealis, moon, or stars). I dug around in the kitchen and provided some side-lighting for this scene (see #4 on diversity). In these situations my goal was creatively create an image.
7. Have fun editing. As a wildlife photographer I often consider my work to be documentation, rather than art. I would point to a critical difference that documentation should represent the subject closely whereas art is the utilization of creative license. It was a new realm for me to experiment within Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate imagery and create art out of them. Often I used effects to emphasize the subject of the image.
8. Take advantage of your cameras settings. I pulled up to the train tracks right as the arms went down in front of me. I had not taken a picture yet (see #2) and was drawn to the stationary cross arm. Rather than “stop” the train, I slow down my shutter speed and stabilized my camera on the dash of my car. By taking advantage of my cameras settings I was able to capture an interesting shot showing motion.
9. You won’t always knock it out of the fence. It’s inescapable that poor lighting (see #5) and not taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2) will result in a less than optimal image. That’s OK!! I found the most important aspect of this challenge was to find an object and capture it in the most interesting way possible by taking advantage of interesting angles or the camera’s settings (see #8).
10. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are beyond the realm of “not knocking it out of the park” (see #9). Mistakes are fine unless you only have one image from the day. The image below is a mistake that was meant to be a starspin. However, I learned why the image did not work (see #8), so that I would not repeat it in the future.
In summary, this project provided incredible growth for me. A photography growth spurt if you will. The results created a photo journal of an entire year of my life and I hope that you can take away a few key points along with enjoying the imagery of my self-imposed assignment! Just in case you missed it, you can review the full gallery HERE!
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!
You never know what you will experience when you start into Denali National Park. I guess the beginner’s luck of my brother Sean and sister-in-law Jada, first time Park visitors, was what allowed us some of the magnificent views of Mount Denali. During my previous trips to the park I have never experienced the magnitude of the Mountain like we did. The first time we saw it from about 50-60 miles away the twin summits were fully exposed against blue bird skies, and it lay across a broad river valley. We crossed the valley and crested a rise which brought full views of the Mountain. The beauty and size of Denali simultaneously released endorphins and adrenaline which made me smile and babble about its incredible beauty. The significance of its name,the Great One, was evident!
As we sat and and soaked in the views of the Mountain from Wonder Lake Campground, I took advantage of the time by shooting a nice timelapse. It’s fascinating watching the clouds form over the peaks! Check it out here :
Our entire trip was marked with fun wildlife sightings and remarkable beauty. In particular, wildflowers were found on each slope accenting the mountain scenery. Mountain Avens, One Flower Cinquefoil, Moss Campion and many others. Rather than write, I’ll let the captions and pictures speak for themselves on this one!
This post starts from the first step up the bank of the the Porcupine River to Joe’s cabin. We were relieved to see the flood waters had not topped as far as the cabin, although plenty of water had still gone over bank-full height and flooded the lower terrace of his property. I hauled the gear from the boat as Joe set about opening the cabin.
Since there was no flood damage to be repaired, we started a leisurely existence at the cabin consisting of small projects (what Joe (and ironically my Dad) called “puttering”), eating, sleeping, and reading a book. Between sessions of tackling Alex Haley’s “Roots”, I went for birding walks around the cabin, and ventured into the local slough. As needed, we traveled a few miles upriver to a clear-water stream and filled five gallon pails full of water for filtering.
This peregrine falcon is a yearly nester in the cliff across from Joe’s cabin and through the years, the young chicks have learned to hunt from the treetops around the cabin.
This Chipping sparrow was a new bird for the cabin, and an unusual one for so far north.
The chipping sparrow sang its heart out and chased all other birds away from its perch.
A small pond behind the cabin was home to this green-wing teal
Beautiful and close looks at this green-wing teal were a treat!
American widgeon were very common along the river, their call of ‘”wee wee wee” was often heard just below the bank.
In Fort Yukon I was fortunate to capture this Northern Blue Butterfly perched on a Wild Sweet Pea
This cross fox is an unsual color phase! It’s actually just a red fox, but an incredible treat to see!
A shot of the cross fox checking me out.
White-crowned sparrows were a common bird. Every morning, all day, and all night a particularly vocal one would sing outside of the cabin.
A cliff nesting raven sits over it brood.
Blue bells are a common and beautiful flower in the region. Here they are also pictured with Jacob’s Ladder.
Yellow cedum on top of Wolf Point
One of the greatest lessons I learned on the trip came from Joe when he said “Just because you live in the Bush, doesn’t mean you have to do without”. Certainly over the years, through sweat, countless trips up the river and through the air, he and his wife had transformed the cabin into a home away from home. When living there permanently, the four garden plots just out the door provided fresh vegetables. A solar panel amply charged a battery pack in the cabin allowing for electric lights and a water pump for a shower. In fact, it was possible to take a steaming hot shower each day if one desired! A large kitchen, bedroom, eclectic and huge library, and centralized wood-stove made living there extremely comfortable!
The cabin was crafted by Joe and took four years to build. One year to cut the logs, strip the bark, and let the logs season. Another season to put up the walls and cut the lumber for the roof, and a couple more to finish the cabin entirely. All of the log-milling was completed with a chainsaw. For his first and last cabin, Joe did a perfect job. The cabin is in pristine condition, and I marveled at it a lot!
Aside from birding and reading, I enjoyed the views of the river. Life on the river changed constantly. After the first couple of days the water receded enough that a prominent gravel bar emerged for the first time since the flood. A flock of twelve long-tailed ducks repeatedly flew up river and drifted down. Each cloudless night the moon rose over the far banks, and the low light of a mid-night sun lit up the bluffs across the river in orange and gold. Life was good on the banks of the Porcupine.
I did my best to capture video of life around the cabin. Throughout the days at the cabin I captured some timelapse and clips of wildlife. The music is pretty relaxing – you can check out the video here:
Although not all experiences in the bush need to be plush and care-free like this trip, I certainly have a new viewpoint that such an existence is even possible. Just because you live in the bush doesn’t mean you have to do without!
I was excited to head far into the Alaskan bush by river to help a friend open his cabin for the season. Almost a week of packing led up to the Wednesday we were supposed to leave. However, when the middle day of the week arrived, high water reports from Fort Yukon and the Upper Porcupine River were ominous. Record snowfall in Old Crow, Yukon Territory, had swollen the giant river systems. They were far above travel-able levels, and over-flooded banks were pulling dangerous amounts of debris, ‘drift’, into the river. Our final destination was 220 river miles through the high water and drift of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, and the experienced judgement of Joe dictated that we would wait a few days before heading up to his cabin. Four days later the river had dropped to acceptable levels. It was go-time : the river was saying so!
Before I get into some of the stories of the trip. Come along on the trip with me by watching this video:
The notion of taking a boat far into the Alaskan bush is exciting! A long-time resident of the bush, Joe was anxious to open his cabin, and assess his estate because bears, humans, or weather can all impact an unoccupied cabin. The boat-trip up river started in Circle, Alaska on a cloudy day. As we headed downstream in the Yukon River, we quickly entered the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. This expansive refuge is critical, critical habitat for breeding waterfowl and birds. In fact, the refuge hosts 150 species of breeding birds from 11 countries, 8 Canadian provinces and 43 of the 50 states. That’s remarkable diversity!
The Yukon Flats is aptly named. As we cruised along in the boat, the shores were a steady patchwork of riparian habitat consisting of willows, birch, and spruces. There was no perceptable climb in elevation. The fast, high water of the river kept progress slow, and Captain Joe was constantly vigilant for pieces of drift. Three foot-long sticks and entire trees were coming down the river at the rate of several or more pieces per minute. Hitting a small branch may result in a dented prop, but a large stump could have ended the trip. By the time we reached Curtis Slough to stop for the night, the intense driving had drained Joe (and rightfully so!). Overall we made it about 135 river miles from Circle.
We pulled into a small log cabin along the banks Curtis Slough, hoping to spend the night. The traditional landing was underwater, but I jumped ashore with the bow rope and headed to tie off to a nearby tree. I glanced at the cabin, and immediately saw that the plywood door had been torn in half; peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. “Hey Joe”, I stated, “A bear broke into the cabin, by tearing the door off”. “Ok, does it look fresh?”, he questioned. I assessed the raw wood in the torn door from 25 feet away and responded, “yup, sure does!”. By that time Joe had climbed up with Delta, our dog companion. Delta moved towards the cabin and sniffed the door; her demeanor immediately told us that it was a very fresh break in, and then I heard a can rattle from inside. The bear was still in the cabin! In two flicks of a lamb’s tail we were in the boat and headed across river to camp on a more desirable (bear free) gravel bar. Joe, knowing the owner of the cabin, made a satellite phone call to inform them of the situation. Remarkably, this bear encounter was the only one of the whole trip!
The next morning we continued up the Porcupine River, and moved out of the Yukon Flats and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic NWR is the largest piece of land in the refuge system, and home of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. No longer in the flats, we saw a mountain on the horizon! More significantly, that mountain was the beginning of the rocky ramparts which would line the river for the rest of our trip. The tall and colorful ramparts and bluffs of the Porcupine Rive were a welcome contrast to the Yukon Flats! As we moved through the landscape, the smile of enjoyment could not have been erased from my face by the spray of a skunk. The area was absolutely stunning; on a small scale, I was reminded of the Grand Canyon. Red, orange, and black rock walls rose high above the water. The bluffs held countless caves and spires shaped by wind, ice, and snow. The refuge of the high cliffs provided important nesting habitat. As we passed we noticed nests of golden eagles, ravens, and a peregrine falcon protected on all sides by the vertical rock faces.
Two hundred and twenty-two miles upriver we passed the final bluff across from Joe’s cabin. The boat swung around towards the opposite bank and soon I tied it off onshore. Already I felt connected to this beautiful region, and was excited to spend the next five days exploring it. The next chapter of cabin life to come soon!
Oh, and as one last, unrelated note the blog turned two on May 28th. Thank-you ALL for your continuing support. Your feedback, comments, and enjoyment of the material here is much appreciated!
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!
Juneau, Alaska is one of the busiest places in the state due to its unsurpassed beauty, and accessibility by cruise ships. The town is surrounded in mountains which are often hidden in fog and rain, but grace the eyes when the sun comes out. Downtown is full of oddities which reflect the independent people renowned for living there. Due to the surrounding mountains, most of Downtown is accessed by an intricate boardwalk and staircase system which connects houses and properties perched on its steep slopes. Its amazing that houses could be built there at all! As I walked around Juneau and the greater surrounding area, I was struck but its uniqueness and setting. Here are 10 shots to help convey the beauty of the area.