Tag Archives: MFT

A Wood Frog, Blog

Visually and sonically the pond was alive. Golden light of a pre-evening sun poured over the pond, and where the light fell on the far bank the sound of spring in Alaska, a loud wood frog (Rana sylvatica) chorus, echoed in the birches. Wood frogs are the only species of amphibian found in Interior Alaska, because let’s face it : there are not many species that can withstand -40 degree temperatures! In the winter, wood frogs burrow into the soil under leaves or woody debris and concentrate glucose in their blood as anti-freeze. However, the glucose only provides some relief. In the cold months with little sun, their heart stops beating, eyes freeze, blood freezes, and brain activity stops. By almost any definition the frogs would be declared dead, but when spring temperatures arrive the frogs thaw out from the inside-out (instead of the outside-in, scientists have no idea how), resume life, and jump into local ponds for reproduction. It was that yearly event that I stood in the middle of with my camera.

I waded into the ~55 degree water, and through the old vegetation of the pond. Crossing the 60 foot wide pond to where the frogs called, resulted in water mid-way up my thighs and soaked my pants. I draped a camouflage cloth over me and waited like a giant, brown heron (or maybe the swamp monster) for the frogs to start singing. When they did it started as a single croak which seemed to say “all clear”. Within no time the life of breeding wood frogs unfolded all around me. Only a few feet away, each frog that called swelled up pockets of skin along their cheeks and side, and sent a rippling well of water out from its body. I think that communication occurs both by sound and by the small waves of water, although that is just an observation. Many of the male frogs chased females while rapidly swelling their air sacs, calling, and sprinting towards females. Often their approaches seemed to be rejected. I watched as many males swam up rapidly to a female and attempt to mount, but were thwarted by an elusive mate. Often in denser vegetation, groups of frogs boiled in the water as a constant struggle to maintain a female ensued. As I watched the frogs many mosquitoes fed on their exposed heads. After seeing that, I hypothesize that frogs are an important early food source for mosquitoes. I stood for 90 minutes while my legs turned into cold stumps, and finally decided that I couldn’t take the cold water much longer. However, my 90 minutes in the water was worth it! The short video below captures just some of this behavior. Be sure to watch them call in slow motion. Enjoy!

Frogs in the spring have long been a part of my life. Growing up, my open window in the warming days would let their songs in. In the Midwest, higher frog species diversity adds a wider range of tenors and bass to the chorus. The small, 200 foot diameter “frog pond” just inside the woodline is a consistent producer of leopard frogs (bass), spring peepers (tenors), wood frogs, tree frogs (several species), and likely others. The frog pond was an important stomping ground for my brother and my nature education. Although I never got to observe the frogs very often because they were pretty elusive, we often collected eggs and tadpoles for rearing. So, finally after all these years, the opportunity to see these frogs in Alaska up close was a real treat!

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A quick selfie of frog photography.

Want to learn more? Check out this video highlighting some ongoing University of Alaska Fairbanks research!

By a Team of Seven Into Heaven

It seemed like a good omen that the clouded skies cleared to bluebird conditions as we pulled into the parking lot of Wickersham Dome. The unexpected blue skies cheered us on as we went about threading our ganglines, clipping on snowhooks, and packing our sleds. Eager and expectant dogs watched our progress, and when we began to hook them up their tug lines, they fed upon each others energy. Leaping, pulling, and baying they waited for me to pull my snowhook and quickrelease. When I did, the sled lurched over the hardpack of the parking lot, banked left onto the main trail, and we were on our way to Crowberry Cabin, 30 miles into White Mountains.

Sled dogs have a plethora of personalities. Jeff (friend and owner of Black Spruce Dog Sledding) let me know that Sooner, one of my dogs in lead only pulled well for “people he liked”, and I was conscious of that trait as we made our first stop. I walked up to the front of the team and gave Sooner a good pat on the head. “Keep it up, bud”, I stated. I’m not sure if my initial approaches made a difference or not, but Sooner and Stoic, the lead along with him, pulled great the entire trip with their heads down, and always with some tension on the tuglines. Behind the leads, Simon, an old veteran pulled well too. As a veteran dog he knew his roll in the team and worked hard. Sniffing the tip of Simon’s tail was Beaver and Scorch. Finally, taking “wheel”, Grizz and George were responsible for pulling hard. George can be a great worker, and out of my entire team he is my favorite. He loves to check out what’s going on, and since his position was closest to the sled, every time I opened the sled bag he craned his neck to get a look inside. Together they were my team of 7, and I was happy to be pulled by them!

Crowberry cabin sat on a facing to the west, and the peaks of the White Mountains surrounded us. The wooden cabin looked iconic for the Alaskan Wilderness. Throughout the Whites, these public use cabins serve as refuge for those who venture far. Trappers, hunters, mushers, or snow machiners make use of them. The full log construction of this cabin was wonderful, and when once we built a fire and warmed the inside, it was a truly incredible getaway. The four bunkbeds, dinner table, and camps stove, and lantern made it into a 5 star Alaskan Suite. However, admiration of the cabin was actually secondary to the task at hand. I walked along the gangline of the staked out dogs and tossed out beef snacks. We layed down straw for each of the pairs to keep them off the snow, and started heating up water for their main course – kibbles and meat. Building a fire, we enjoyed the sunset and fed the dogs their final meal.

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This was Jeff’s dog, and a notorious chewer. To prevent any damage to the gangline or necklines, this dog got his own bed of straw and post at a tree.
Our lookout.
Our lookout.
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A moody landscape over the White Mountains.
Curved black spruces in the white mountains
Curved black spruces in the white mountains
Crowberry Cabin
Crowberry Cabin
The sunset over the white mountains illuminating the edge of the snow-carrying front.
The sunset over the white mountains illuminating the edge of the snow-carrying front.

The next morning an inch of powdery snow had fallen over the night. My team was wide awake as I stepped outside for the first time, and George gave me a happy tail wag. I dusted the snow off my sled, packed my gear, harnessed my team and hit the trail. The dogs were just as eager to set out on the trail as the day before. The intermittent, light snow shaded the hills and made our ride home far different. The sprawling vistas of the White Mountains were gone, replaced by a moody gray. The next 4 hours breezed by, and before I knew it the Wickersham Dome parking lot was back under foot, ending an incredible experience and trip!

The opportunity to experience dog sledding for an overnight trip is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I have literally wanted to drive my own team since reading about fictional characters “Lew and Charlie” in Fur Fish Game, stories by Jack London, or books like Jim Kjelgaard’s “Snow Dog”. Those stories have fueled my imagination and desire to visit open spaces since I was twelve. I have always been drawn to the mystery, adventure, and vastness of remote areas. The White Mountains are just one of the broad wilderness areas of Alaska, and the opportunity to experience it using the low-impact “Alaskan” method was truly a gift!

Jeff's team was a bit faster than mine, and I captured them here as we headed back home.
Lindsey’s team was a bit faster than mine, and I captured them here as we headed back home.
The crew. Jeff, KattiJo, and Lindsey. A great trip!
The crew. Jeff, KattiJo, and Lindsey. A great trip!

Into the Mouth of an Ice Beast

The receding glaciers in the Bays of Southeast Alaska are opening up barren landscapes and new lands for colonizing vegetation and birds like arctic terns. As we walked along Sitaantaagu (Tlingit : “The Glacier Behind the Town”), I felt connected to the misty, snow covered mountains, and rocky lake shore. It is renowned and spectacular country!

Mendenhall glacier is receding at up to 150 feet per year, and in 1900 the large quantities of melt water began forming Mendenhall Lake.  The lake is now home to salmon which have colonized glacial streams. Remarkably, it seems that colonization by salmon occurs in a decade or two. Much shorter that I ever suspected!  As we, a large group of wildlife biologists, walked along the shoreline of Mendenhall Lake and told stories of field seasons gone-by or hypothesized on natural processes, icebergs which had calved from the glacier drifted in the middle of the lake.Naturalist Bob Armstrong introduced me to a small, alpine wildflower called purple mountain saxifrage.  This early bloomer, he stated, is a critical resource of early emerging insects like the bumble bees.

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Purple saxifrage is one of the first spring flowers to bloom in the Juneau region.
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Purple saxifrage filled with the rains of Juneau.

The face of the Mendenhall Glacier got bigger, and bigger, and bigger as we approached. By the time I reached the front of the glacier it loomed in front of me for almost a half mile.  I walked up the river of melt-water in front of the glacier and  touched the edge of the the ice cave it had carved. I grinned a bit, threw myself over a three foot bolder guarding the cave and stepped inside into the mouth of the icebeast. I was awestruck. Curved, turquoise ice hung over my head like whipped meringue. The sound of the river reverberating in the small space was numbing, and was fed by each drop of water that fell from the ice into the river. Looking further up the cave, the color transitioned from turquoise to cerulean blue. As I walked further the surrounding area turned so blue, that I could have been scuba diving in an ocean.

The hardest part to capture in these pictures is the scale of the ice cave. It stretched back over 100 feet, and as I walked in the ceiling diminished from 7 feet, to 5 feet, and finally I was relegated to crawling on my hands and knees in the narrow space.

The way ‘out’ was graced by a set of rock ptarmigan. These birds, allowed me to get very close, and I framed up this shot with the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in the background. These ptarmigan won’t be white for much longer!

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A beautiful rock ptarmigan in front of Mendenhall Glacier
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A puffy rock ptarmigan!

Glacial recession in expansion in Alaska has occurred since the last glacial maximum. The Little Ice Age caused the expansion of Alaskan glaciers about 4,000 years ago, and recent recession has exposed what has been buried for nearly a millennium. These stumps were exposed by the receding Mendenhall glacier and were aged to nearly 1,500 years ago! “Deep time” can be hard to comprehend, and it amazing to think the Imperial Chinese Empire had been established for 800 years and that Medieval Europe was enforcing fiefdoms through rigid monarchies when these hemlock and sitka black spruce were buried!

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A large stump of a forest buried by ice ~1,500 years ago. It has been determined the forest was composed of hemlock and sitka black spruce.
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This stump field is degrading fast, but it’s likely more forests will be uncovered as the Mendenhall Glacier receeds even further.

The Sun-kissed Aurora

I’ve got some new aurora science and colors for you. On Saturday night the aurora turned a royal purple in a show like I have never seen before! I have often heard that the blues of the aurora are most often seen in spring or fall, but did not know until recently the scientific reason behind that observation. In step the science of the Sun-kissed aurora. Known as “Sun Aurora” or “Day Aurora” the blues seen in the photo below are a result of the sun’s rays reacting with the upper plasma of the aurora (webexhibit.org). The highest chance of that occurring is in the spring or fall when our nights are relatively short and the aurora begins in the twilight hours. On the warm March night when I observed the phenomenon, the purple started out as a single pillar which was fairly dim to the eye, but discernible against the black of the stars. From the pillar it spread smoothly across the sky like aurora jelly on its celestial toast. After only ten minutes the purple had faded away as the sun moved lower behind the planet.  

Be sure to check out a timelapse of the night:

Purple Aurora Comparison
Since I have seen other purple aurora shots before, and assumed they were photo-shopped, I have decided to show you what the original image looked like right out of the camera. I did not have to touch it up much!

During the night I got the opportunity to mix together two of my passions. Many know that I’m avid musician, and I enjoyed spicing up the shoot for the night with my trusty guitar. If only my skills were good enough to play Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It certainly has an appropriate title for the night! I hope you enjoy the aurora selfie and guitar in the foreground, I would love to know what you think of those shots!

Night Divine at the 2015 World Ice Art Competition

As you walk through the fairyland of ice art sculptures at the World Ice Art Competition, it feels like you may be in the trophy room of the White Witch From C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Perfectly carved features of animals and humans etched in ice blocks provide never ending visual splendor.

The show provides insight into cultural preferences and beliefs, as well as “what the artists finds interesting”. High diversity is not surprising considering 100 artists are competing from over 30 countries. Serpents, meditation, the superbowl, super heroes, mermaids, and sea life were just a fraction of the pieces and viewpoints presented by artists competing in abstract and realistic categories of the single-block and multi-block competitions. In many cases, the carvers are from regions not associated with ice; it would be interesting to talk to Brazilian or Middle-eastern carver to understand how they got started!

Single Block

Single block carvers are given a one 8x5x3′ block of ice and 60 hours. From the point the time starts, carvers work around the clock to finish their work in teams as large as four. The single block style demands that ice be used wisely. Economically it is in high demand with a limited supply! Artists often create sculptures over 10 feet  from the 8 foot block. It requires precise cutting of the ice which is then welded together. As the sculptures grow out and up, many of them seem to balance on their pedestals precariously, and with impossible precision. Some of the most impressive sculptures extend 4 feet in any direct around the base. If the sculpture were to tip the fragile fingers of lizards, noses of swordfish, and tails of tigers would be sheered off. However, these artists know that with high risk comes high reward. Taking first place in a competition such as this a source of pride and accomplishment when competing against some of the best in the world!

The diversity of carving techniques and attention to detail makes this competition special. A basilisk lizard feature below had skin which was textured using a method to make it bulge and pop three dimensionally. A purple lion fish had huge fin rays a mere inch thick etched with textures so real that if the fish had swam away you would not have been surprised, but would have simply stepped aside to let it pass.

The images below capture only some of single block competition sculptures. The event space allows 40 entrants to the competition. One of the hardest things to capture is the size of these sculptures. Keep in mind that most are 6 feet tall minimum, and may extend to 10 feet!

Multi-Block

Multi-block carvers are given ten 6x4x3′ blocks and 132 carving hours. The final creations glued together from multiple pieces of ice may tower 20 feet tall! A caveat of the competition is no equipment may be used to move the ice pieces, but you are allowed help from other teams. Sounds a bit like assembling the pyramids!

It is impossible to capture in an image the scale of these projects horizontally and vertically.  For instance the purple dragon featured below its dimensions are about 12’tall x 12′ long x 4′ wide. An absolutely stunning piece! The scence of the ship being taken down by the Kracken extends nearly 25 feet!

The experience of the World Ice Art competition is well worth the price of admission. By the time you have walked through all of the sites, your imagination will be popping neurons as you consider the creativity of the artists, and ponder the technical execution of these incredible pieces!

On the Frontline with the Aurora

As fast I could muster, my batteries, cards, camera, and tripod were quickly gathered for my unplanned trip. With my boots pulled on and winter clothes layered, I hurried to my truck, started the engine, and backed out out of my spot without even letting the engine warm. I justified that it was worth the wear and tear on the vehicle because it was imperative to hurry out of Fairbanks to see what I hoped would be a stunning aurora. My justifications ended up being correct, but I didn’t know I was in for my most memorable night of the aurora season. 

During the afternoon, snow had been falling heavily, and was forecasted to do so through the evening with strong winds in tow. Cloud cover was going to hide the effects of a G1 storm from solar winds emitting from a coronal hole. However, in opposition to the forecast, the skies opened up and revealed crimson red and shining green, and resulted in my rapid exodus from the house. Knowing that the aurora can disappear as quickly as it starts, I was anxious to reach my shooting spot on Old Murphy Dome Road.

The wind shook the truck as I parked, and snow laid down during the afternoon was transformed into biting crystals which targeted and stung any open skin; they were catalyzed by 30 mile per hour winds which gusted to 45. However, it was easy to forget the inconvenience of the wind, because my focus was on the aurora which stretched in front of me. Spanning across the sky it shimmered and danced, and patches of the heavens were lit in crimson red. Grabbing my camera, and stuffing some extra batteries into a chest pocket, I descended through thigh deep snow and set up my tripod. I simultaneously clicked my shutter and watched the sky. Aurora photography is a pretty active endeavor. I always make sure to address any “greener pastures”, so as the aurora constantly waxed and waned in front of me I fiddled constantly with camera settings and position.

As I sat and watched the aurora the most extraordinary thing happened : it went completely dark. I do not mean the aurora, I mean the whole landscape. I had not considered how bright the moon was until the clouds smothered its light. In fact, as I watched the dazzling light of the moon reappear, I realized I was on the edge of the weather and cloud front which appeared to be divided by the ridge line of Old Murphy Dome. Low clouds over the ridge line were pushed northeast by the howling winds like race cars, and applied a filter to the moon’s light as they moved past with a kaleidoscopic effect. The moon beams were composed of euphoria, or at least they must have been, because that is what I felt as I watched the soft moonlight dance across the snow like rays of the sun. Wave after wave of moonlight started to the south and passed over me. For ninety minutes I sat on the edge of the frontline, and the clouds provided opposing motion to the fluid dance of the aurora. It was amazing to consider that the solar winds which controlled the aurora, also created the wind on the ground which was still pushing up clouds of biting crystals.

I have never been in a more dynamic nightscape. The pushing wind, racing clouds, dancing aurora, and light of the moon were a pleasure to be a part of. The chance that I would sit along such a dynamic front may never happen again!

A timelapse of being on the “front line” during tonight’s aurora show. Note those moving clouds and the ground-storm:

Below is a gallery of the “snow storm” and the “aurora storm” from today. Be sure to click on images to enlarge them.

A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter

Big Sky Aurora

As they watched from the river valley on earth and were surrounded by looming spruces, it was impossible to appreciate the forces which lit the heavens and lead to the impression of the sky being wrenched apart before their eyes. Ever building and ever collapsing, green bands of streaming light were changed and morphed as they moved across the sky. Arches of lime-light on the horizon diminished before their eyes , but were re-built again, again, and again. Each new band of aurora was different than the last, and each was beautiful. Waxing and waning the aurora finally monopolized one hundred and eight degrees of view and commanded the absolute attention of those below. Orion’s belt to the south was covered in emerald, and those same lights which infected the southern sky extended to the northern horizon.It was to the north that the viewers watched. The knew that whatever lay in store for this evening would start there.

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“Looking Through” The black spruces bent with show creating arches to view a phenomenon
Aurora Big Swirl
A huge arching swirl of aurora
Sustainable Village Aurora Borealis Panorama
Aurora band over the Sustainable Village
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A brilliant band or aurora bisects a hunched black spruce

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The First Taste of Spring

Like a chick pecking its way out of a shell, one by one the patches of snow fell off the trees of the forest. As each ounce was shed from the trees, they raised up their still lifeless twigs up as if glorifying the sun, thanking it for removing the burden of many months. Throughout the forest cascades of snow starting from the tops of the highest branches tumbled and glinted like diamonds in the sun as the chunks were forced through the sifter of small branches by gravity. The warm rays of sun, an unknown entity through winter, warmed the dark branches. One by one they were free. 

The first time you taste spring after the winter is a moment of true joy. The resilience to cold developed through the winter makes you bold enough to walk in the 30 degree temps in a flannel. Moist air on your lips from evaporating snow, the heat of the sun on your face, and a touch of warm breeze on your face may make you bound for joy. Literally bound. It’s a bound that brings a smile to your face, and if others saw you, they would smile too. The feeling of spring is infectious.

Watching the bonds of spring being softened and eventually broken is a great thing! As the sun warmed my face this week the world was a visual wonder. Snow fell from the trees in smatterings and piles, sliding off from its own weight or from external catalysis. Busy chickadees feeding around the well-stocked feeder at my house perched on twigs, gleaned through the branches, soaked up the heat, and ensured all of the snow was sloughed away from the imprisoned trees before taking flight again. 

The first taste of spring is bittersweet. The knowledge that it ‘came too soon’ only pushes me to enjoy it more while I can. Winter certainly will try to take hold once again, and I will inwardly smile knowing that the next time it may be vanquished for good.

A few days ago the winter wonderland at the Sustainable Village was erased in an afternoon. I realized that the moment was happening so quickly that it could be captured on camera. Setting my up my camera I timelapsed the scene for the rest of the day. As you watch this video, focus on a spot and watch the change. I hope it gives you cheer and excitement for spring. Even if it is just a taste!

February 16th, 2015 : The “Coronal Hole” Red Aurora

Traditionally I think of the aurora being generated from a sun event. Often C-class flares, M-class flares, and X-class flares (the largest) hurtle plasma towards at the earth resulting in brilliant auroras. I have dug into the science of auroras during previous posts, and wrote about some of the science of the auroral colors and why the aurora can go from a nice show to a great show.  However, last nights aurora event was generated by a “Coronal Hole” in the sun. That term was new to me, and although it sounds like a headline from an end of days article, it’s really not that bad!

Coronal holes are a simple concept. The sun normally has a stable magnetic field that controls solar winds and energy from the sun. During a coronal hole event, magnetic field lines extend far away from the sun and allow high speed solar winds to escape. Solar wind speeds may exceed 10,000,000 km/hr! Translating that to terms I understand more, solar winds can travel at 500 miles/second. That’s a quick commute to work, or in this case the earth!  If the coronal hole is ‘geo-effective’ it means that those solar winds are headed towards our planet. These events can lead to a lot of high energy resulting in red and multicolored auroras even during times of low solar activity. (http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/what-is-a-coronal-hole, http://www.exploratorium.edu/spaceweather/holes.html)

Last night’s show was stopped at 10:30 due to clouds over Fairbanks. From 8:30 – 10:30 it remained subtle, but beautiful. The high energy from the coronal hole produced a quickly changing, but not well defined red aurora. I hope you enjoy!

Aurora Borealis Panoramas

Last night’s unexpected G1 (minor storm) came with high solar winds and a LOT of early promise. The data was looking good as I polished my lens and charged my batteries. By 9:30 the Aurora had flared up into great form with evidence of the high solar winds showing. The speed of the aurora was astounding – it rippled and flowed in one direction like a river of green light in the sky. However, in truly unpredictable fashion, the fat lady sang at 10:15 PM and it was over. That’s an early considering peak, average activity is at midnight.

I’m continuing to push the envelop of what I’m capable of for shooting the aurora.I took the opportunity last night to experiment with my first aurora panoramas. Often times a single image cannot capture the scope of the aurora, so the advantage is capturing the whole arc of the aurora in the sky. These images were stitched in Photoshop 6 and are comprised of 4 – 5 images each. I am happy with a first attempt!

Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity - pretty good! The 'break' you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity – pretty good! The ‘break’ you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in photoshop, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in Photoshop 6, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.

Beyond the panoramas I experimented with timelapse last night too. Incredibly, the timelapse here has shots taken down to 0.5 second exposures and at only 1 second apart. It gives the aurora incredible flow! I am getting closer and closer to it really feeling real which is my auroral goal. The speed of the technique differs from the past (2-4 second exposures and 2 seconds buffer) because of some high speed SD cards I got for Christmas which removed the need for much buffering/write time. It’s great!

There’s PLENTY of snow on the north side of Spinach Creek and it can make moving around a bit of a hassle. The snow itself is pure powder and easy to navigate, it is the grabbing stems of vengeful, cut black spruces which muddy the waters! You are often in the trap before you know it, and several times I was successfully taken down during my saunter. For scale I plopped down on the hillside and snapped an image – a good 3 feet or so!