Archive for March, 2010

Aerial magic in the Brooks Range

Friday, March 26th, 2010
Aerial magic in the Brooks Range

As part of my mission for my recent trip to Gates of the Arctic, I did a few sessions of aerial photography with a law enforcement ranger and pilot for the park service, Seth McMillan.  Our aircraft of choice was a Cessna 185 with skiis.  I find photographing in the Cessna 185 very convenient, as I can sit in the back of the plane just behind the pilot and shoot out both windows.  In addition, the windows are flat, unlike the forward windows that are concaved, with the bubble going out to allow the pilot and co-pilot to check above and below to the outside of the plane for obstructions or equipment issues.  While a fine safety feature the concanved windows may be, they tend to distort images seen through them. 

For our first flight after Seth stayed out at the base camp for a night, we headed out toward the Itkillik River watershed, photographing Mount Boreal and Mount Doonerak along the way.  After landing for some photographs in the Itkillik watershed, we headed back toward the “Gates” – Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags – via the headwaters for the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.  I was able to capture images of the Gates from both sides, as well as Zak and the dog team mushing up the North Fork.

In the evening, we headed up the North Fork to the Anaktuvik Pass area via Precipace Valley, then down the Hunt Fork of the John River and back to Bettles.  While I had flown over the Anaktuvik and John River headwaters before, that was during the summer.  Winter brings out so many details in the landscape that, when combined with the smooth and undisturbed silky snow in the lower, flat areas, creates an entirely different world.  I also saw for the first time several prominent peaks in the central area of the park, such as Dalimaloak, Nahtuk and Gunsight Mountains. 

For the final flight the next morning, we headed straight for the Arrigetch Peaks, just off the Alatna River.  Although we got started a little late, some low clouds on the horizon kept the first light from hitting the Peaks until we were arriving.  Again, while I had photgraphed the Arrigetch Peaks on two prior occasions, the impact of the snow and winter’s alpenglow made for a completely different experience.  When done there, we headed over so I could get some closer images of Dalimaloak and Nahtuk.  Then, we finished with the Alatna River so Seth could check for snowmachine trails on the river.

The challenges and joys of aerial photography sometimes can create a bit of an existential quandry.  When passing by a subject at a hundred miles an hour or so, you have to work so furiously and quickly to capture the image and – do so with a level horizon – that you don’t have the time to appreciate it as much as you would from the ground.  Composition and technical decisions like exposure and focal length have to be made very quickly.  But the reward comes from the success of the finished work and the ability to explore the unique perspective of such a vast land from the sky.  But it also, for those times when you have a moment to just explore the ground with your eyes, fosters a deep desire to be on the ground, exploring the interconnected valleys, ridges and drainages to see what small details of the land are missed when passing by on high.

Photos in the Arctic night

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
Photos in the Arctic night

During my recent trip out to Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I only had two nights actually out in the field.  This placed considerable limits on my photo plans, because it often requires several nights to actually capture what I wanted to: star trails, aurora, general night sky, lighted tents, etc.  Add that the moon was half full complicated the star trails and aurora photo plans, especially when combined with the fact that we are currently in a down-cycle of the solar activity that creates vivid aurora displays.

For my goal of capturing star trails, I used my Hassleblad 503CX, loaded with Fuji Velvia 220 film.  (I have yet to process the film, but when I do, I will post the image here.)  So, for the first night, I took three hours for the star trails photo, then captured some images of the tent and faint aurora display with my Nikon D300.  The next night, with the assistance of my camping companions, Zak Richter and Seth McMillan, I caputured some shots of the tent, some with headlamps illuminating the interior and another set with Christmas lights adorning the tent. 

To power the Christmas lights, I had taken a Powerbase battery along with an AC inverter.  However, even keeping the battery in the tent was not enough to keep it warm.  After stoking up the fire and keeping the battery really close to the heat, I was able to warm up the battery, but only enough to provide intermittent power.  The lights would only light briefly when plugged in.  So, I had Zak plug and unplug the lights repeatedly over the 30 second exposure in order to display the lights for the photo.  For the headlanp shots, I had both Zak and Seth move the lights around so as to disperse the illuminating glow, rather than produce a spotlight effect on the side of the tent.

One of the joys of photographing the night sky in the Arctic is the simple clarity of the sky and the abundance of stars it allows me to see.  There are simply hardly any places left in the United States where you can photograph the night sky free of light pollution.  Even when I was down in Badlands National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park last year, nighttime photography was affected by the nearby towns of Rapid City and Boulder, respectively. 

What I really would have liked to capture is a time lapse of the night sky, which would have been especially successful given the half full moon.  But, I obviously need to work out some power issues under the extreme cold for any future attempts.  I am thinking that perhaps Winter 2012 will be a good time to return, as the aurora should be kicking back up rather nicely by then.  And rather than two nights, perhaps two weeks would be a good amount of time.  Then I could photograph under the bright full moon as well as the darkness of a new moon.  That’s the problem with photographing in Gates of the Arctic … there are always more things that I want to capture on a future trip.

A mushing life

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
A mushing life

If all you have ever seen of dog mushing is the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, then you really have not seen mushing.  I can make this bold assertion because that used to be my only exposure to mushing.  After spending a few days in the Arctic backcountry of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve with a park ranger and his dog team, I now for the first time feel like I have an idea of what mushing is all about.  And I am afraid to say that it is rather addicting.

Most dog teams do not take off from their kennel and go out into the wilderness; they often have to be transported to the debarkation point.  In this case, the nine dogs in National Park Service Ranger Zak Richter’s team had to be loaded into a Cessna 185 for transport from Bettles to the base camp on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, about three miles downstream of the two mountains, Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags, that form the “Gates of the Arctic.”  It was not as challenging as you would expect.  The dogs were very mellow – several of them had done this before – and did not struggle as they were each individually strapped in to the plane.  Seth McMillan, a law enforcement ranger and pilot, flew Zak and the dogs out to the base camp, leaving me to wait until later in the day when winds calmed down enough again to fly.

When I arrived at camp that evening, I started my education on the world and life of mushing.  Zak has been mushing for 15 years, having worked at a summer glacier dog mushing operation near Juneau and trained with an Iditarod team.  While others may use dog teams to race or to conduct subsistence trapping and hunting, Zak uses his team to access the wilderness for winter backcountry travel, either mushing or skijoring.

Aside from the intenstve time required to develop a relationship with your dogs and dog team, as well as train them, mushing requires a time-intensive daily commitment when out in the field.  When in the wild, you simply cannot let the dogs run loose; they must be contained on a dog run, but clipped in place so that they can have their own space.  To minimize impact on the ground, you also need to rotate that line to different locations and fill back in the snow that the dogs dig up in order to bed down.  Since transporting hay into a wilderness area is problematic on several levels, they need to be dressed in little doggie coats at night to help keep them warm.

Then, there is feeding time.  We fed the dogs in the evening, and it was not quite as easy as reaching into the dog food bag and pulling out a scoop.  Rather, Zak had flown out several large cans of donated meat and fat chunks, mostly fat, as well as a large bag of kibble.  The dogs each got one pound of the meat/fat a day and one pound of kibble.  To prepare the food, we took the frozen meat/fat and put it in a cooler for mixing.  Then, we melted snow to create hot water, using methanol, for mixing with the frozen meat/fat, creating a sort of stew.  Each dog got a large dish of the stew, topped with a large ladle of kibble.  Any leftovers were frozen in the dishes to create meatcicles to give out as treats on the trail the next day.  All in all, it took about a half an hour from start to feed the dogs.

I learned a great deal over a few days of how a musher relies on his team and what are some of the characteristics that make a good lead dog.  It should come as no surprise, although it did to me, that a musher’s attitude toward his team will vary depending on the purpose behind the mushing, as well as the personality of the musher himself.  Zak mentioned that, despite other mushers, he does not train his team by reacting to what they do right, or what they do wrong.  Rather, he builds and trains his team by building a relationship with the dogs, generally fostering a positive and encouraging relationship, relying a great deal on the lead dog’s judgment, and being in tune to and aware of the overall health and state of mind for the team.  Quite often, the team’s performance will depend greatly on what is going on with their health and mental state, more so than the various dogs’ capability.  Zak said that, in creating a dog team, he created a partnership.  In exchange for hauling gear and taking him into the backcountry, he promised to take care of the health of his dogs, ensuring that they are happy and well fed.

Sometimes ensuring their happiness also meant sharing quarters.  While some mushers grant special treatment and privileges to their lead dogs, Zak believes in sharing the wealth among the team.  Each night, we had a couple of dogs sharing our Arctic Oven tent with us.  Mostly it was Chica and Solita, two of the lead dogs, but we did have other dogs in there with us as well, like Comatose, or Coma, Twilight and Mardel.  Unfortunately, one of those nights, Coma was having some bowel troubles.  On this particular night we had a full house: Zak, me, our pilot, Seth, and five dogs, all in an Arktika tent by Alaska Tent & Tarp.  I was up at around 1:30 in the morning, woken by the chill of a dying fire.  I spent a few minutes to add fuel to the fire and get it going again.  As I was drifting off to sleep, I started to smell the rather unpleasant smell of dog poo, followed by the sound of gas and liquid release.  That ended the short slide to sleep rather quickly.  I turned on my headlamp, with which I slept, and trained it toward the door to see poor Coma pacing among the various liquid fecal deposits he had just made in the only open space in the tent, near the door.  “Shit,” I said, and Zak was instantly awake; sort of.  “Whaaat,” he questioned sleepily.  “One of your dogs just shit all over the tent doorway,” I responded.  Amazingly, Seth slept through it all, despite the commotion that followed as Zak used snow and ice as scrubbing agents to clean up after the mess.  Even after we discovered that Seth’s flight suit had not escaped the mess, and Zak went outside to scrub it on the crusty snow, Seth kept sleeping on.  Surely enough, though, he found out about it in the morning.

I cannot say that anything I have ever done could prepare me for the experience of riding in a dog sled behind a nine-dog team into a winter wilderness backcountry.  As is often the case, our primary route was along and on top of a river, the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.  Navigating the river, and the ever-present hazard of overflow ice and related conditions, required the eyes and instinct of both the lead dog, Chica,  and the musher, Zak.  A good lead dog will often be able to read the river correctly, and you can tell they are looking for routes as the lead dog is frequently looking very intently ahead, turning the head occasionally to view routes and check alternatives.  When she is missing the right signals, the musher is there to call “ha” for a left turn or “gee” for a right turn.  Usually, the rest of the team just falls in line and goes along with the lead.  When we stopped to rest the dogs or give them a chance to poo (Zak told me that some mushers will make them work through the poo), it required a little more discipline to keep the team disentangled and looking ahead, down the trail.  Sometimes, I got out to break trail for the dogs.  Not that the snow was deep, but in some of the more complicated areas, it was easier to guide them upriver so long as there was a trail for them to follow.  There were a few disconcerting moments along the way.  One came when we were passing over some ice, and I could hear cracking building beneath us and following us upriver, like one of those movies where the heroes are running just ahead of the collapsing ice behind them.  The other came when we had stopped, and Zak was up ahead, untangling the dogs; then, without warning, he called the team into action and running again, with me sitting in the sled with no driver.  As the sled started to pass Zak, he grabbed the handles and jumped on behind in the driver position again.  A rather skillful maneuver, but disconcerting nonetheless.

Learning about the life of mushing on the fly out in the field can be a little overwhelming.  And there were certainly times when I was a little outside of my comfort zone, both literally as we rode over some rather sharp drops in the ice or snow drifts but figuratively, too, as I headed out into the wilderness without the usual level of control I am accustomed to.  But, as I told Zak, in order to be a better wilderness photographer, I am going to have to increasingly go outside of that comfort zone in order to reach out into the far places in the backcountry I know I want and need to go in order to be a better photographer.  And I certainly could not imagine a better way in the winter than with a dog team under the direction of someone like Zak.

Wild winter wonderland

Thursday, March 18th, 2010
Wild winter wonderland

I went on another aerial photo excursion yesterday, this time to Kenai Fjords National Park.  Originally, the goal had been to capture the signature fjord features of the park, but a weather front rolling in from the Gulf of Alaska covered the waters.  Instead, we spent most of our time circling around the Harding Ice Field.

Kenai Fjords National Park was created in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act (“ANILCA”).  If you saw Ken Burns’ “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” you saw the clips with interviews where the local townsfolk in Seward, Alaska were up in arms – burning President Carter in effigy and posting signs on businesses prohibiting park rangers from entering – with the creation of the park.  Like many people, they felt instantly threatened by the “locking up” of the lands, preventing development.  Later, they came to realize that having the park at their doorsteps created more longterm, sustainable economic benefit through tourism.  I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Seward now who does not want the dollars that comes with people visiting the park.

The Harding Ice Field is 700 square miles of one-mile-thick ice.   The ice and snow is so thick, the snow even buries whole mountain ridges, creating what is called a “nunatak.”  I had no idea how magical of a place it could be.  Usually, the joy of photographing glaciers from the air is being able to capture the blue razor-back ridges of endless crevasses, spreading out along the back of the glacier like armor.  But the smooth, silky, undisturbed (except for one spot where we saw that someone had landed a ski plane) snow, blowing around and creating luscious, creamy drifts around ridges and peaks, was simply delightful.  And even though we left before alpenglow set in – a weather front had covered half of the ice field while we were there – the light and shadows provided plenty of visual wonders.


The aurora borealis – myths, science and photography

Saturday, March 13th, 2010
The aurora borealis - myths, science and photography

I first saw the aurora borealis long before I contemplated the mystery of it.  I was working as a bartender at the Birch Terrace Lounge in Grand Marais during the winter between my two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  It was a Sunday night, and I was taking out the trash in preparation for closing.  I dropped the trash in the bin out back and lo0ked up into the crisp, cool November night to see dancing waves of green light in the sky.  I knew instantly that I was looking at the northern lights.  Why had I not really thought of these before?  How was I not spending every night out looking for them?  What wonderful, magical curtains of shimmering mystery they were, casting aside all thoughts of the dreariness of the tasks I had ahead yet that night.  When I was finished closing, I grabbed my camera, a Minolta X-700 and headed up the Gunflint Trail out of town to capture some images.

Unfortunately, I was not much of a nature photographer then.  And I certainly did not know much about nighttime or aurora photography.  I only had one other chance after that to capture the aurora when I was working and living in northern Minnesota that winter seventeen years ago, and the display was fairly faint.  During that time, though, I was watching Northern Exposure.  There was a memorable episode dedicated to the aurora and a particularly powerful display that occurred again and again over several nights.  During that time, it appeared that members of the town were swapping dreams, and some attributed it to the power of the aurora.  There I was introduced to the idea that people and cultures throughout the ages had attributed so many things to the aurora, and built strong mythologies around explaining its power and allure.   In the episode, “Mr. Sandman,” which aired in the fifth season, we find Marilyn, Dr. Fleischmann’s Tlingit assistant, telling a story about how her people believe that the northern lights were the spirts of people who had passed, and how you could make them dance by whistling to them. 

The Tlingit, along with the Kwakiutl and the Salteaus Indians believe that the aurora does represent the spirits of people, while the Yup’ik are said to believe that the northern lights were dancing animal spirits, particularly deer, seals, salmon and beluga whale.  The Yup’ik also believe that when Aurora is red, it indicates that “there will be war and blood shed” in the near future.  I also learned during a visit to Anaktuvuk Pass that the Nunamiut people believe that, if you are not wearing a hat, the aurora will chop your head off and play with it like a ball.  They also believe that you can manipulate the aurora by whistling at it.

The conventional wisdom has always been that the sun is on an eleven-year cycle, with the peak of that cycle creating the hyperactive sun spots that lead to the most brilliant auroral displays.  There are several websites that offer either the raw data you can interpret for yourself or the intrepreted data if you lack the faculty.  One of the more well-known raw data sites is Spaceweather.  On the Science-NASA site, there are some recent studies indicating the explanation behind the solar cycle may be changing (particularly with regard to why the low point of the cycle has been so low in activity).  One of the more well-known interpretive sites was created by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, the Aurora Forecast site.  You can also sign up for aurora alerts via email at the UAF site.  Spaceweather also has options for receiving text alerts for different levels of activity. 

With the proliferation of smart phones and various apps, I would be remiss if I did not mention some useful, free applications for Android or iPhone systems: Aurora Buddy and 3D Sun.  And, if you are on Twitter, make sure to follow @AuroraNotify (a network of Fairbanks, Alaska residents who provide real time information) and @Aurora_Alerts (automated and fairly accurate, provided by 

Having a passion for the mythos of the aurora and an understanding of the science will get you out at night, enduring those cold conditions waiting for long hours for the sky to produce the display of your dreams.  How disappointed you would be, though, if you ended up making a technical mistake that costs you the shot to share with others.  I learned some of those mistakes early on, when I was still shooting negative film before switching to slides, and ultimately digital. 

So, here is a comprehensive list of settings and other equipment issues you will need to know to take great aurora photos:

  1.  Lens selection.  You need a lens no slower than f/2.8 and as wide as 24mm.  Shooting at f/4.0 or slower will often produce too long of an exposure to get the brilliance you need for some of the less brilliant, but still lovely, displays, and it will create undesired star trails at exposures longer than 30 seconds, sometimes even 15 seconds depending on your focal length.  And having that wide focal length of 24mm or wider is key when you are trying to capture a phenomenon that encompasses the whole sky.  Disable your automatic focus and use manual focus, then set the focus point to infinity. 
  2. Filters.  Remove any and all filters from your lens.  We all like to put UV filters or some other neutral, clear filter on our lenses to protect them from damage.  But any filter of any kind on a lens will create a distortion, represented by concentric circles, in dead center of your image.  Somehow, the light of the aurora bounces back and forth between the lens elements and the filter during long exposures to create the undesired effect.
  3. Camera functioning.  The key to keeping your camera working is its batteries.  I always take at least three spare batteries with me when venturing out into the cold.  I keep them in a quart-sized Ziploc™ bag and tucked inside amidst the many layers I wear to keep myself warm.  As your battery power starts to wane, simply replace the cold battery with a warm one.  Also be mindful of condensation.  At extreme colds, your breath will fog up and frost the back of your camera, including the viewfinder and LCD display.  So, hold your breath when composing.  To prevent fogging and frosting of your lenses, either keep your camera and lens together in a camera bag when bringing back into your vehicle (and keep the bag away from a heat source), or simply remove your battery and leave everything outside.  If leaving your camera outside for extended periods of time, you may also want to cover your lens element to prevent frost buildup. One thing I will also do if I have my vehicle nearby is to run my camera directly on A/C power, running the power cable through an A/C inverter that is plugged into my “cigarette lighter” plug. 
  4. Settings.  With your aperture set at f/2.8 (or whatever is the widest opening on your lens), set your exposure mode to manual.  Then, set your exposure at 15 seconds and ISO at 400.  This is a good starting point, but, depending on the intensity of the aurora, you may need to slow things down or adjust your ISO up or down.  My most common setting is ISO 400 at 30 seconds.  If your exposures need to be longer than 30 seconds, then use a higher ISO before you set a longer exposure.  If your camera has the function, enable your High ISO Noise Reduction.  Also enable your Long Exposure Noise Reduction.  Set your white balance to Auto
  5. Tripod.   Of course, the basic rules of long-term image stability govern: tripod, cable release, and using the mirror lock up feature.  One of the more challenging aspects of composition for an aurora shot is ensuring that your horizon is level.  This can be accomplished by using (a) a bubble level for your hot shoe, (b) using the viewfinder grid in your camera (if you are lucky enough to have one; the Nikon D700 does), or (b) setting up your composition before it gets dark and waiting for the magic to happen.

The last thing I want to address is when you can photograph the aurora.  It is a common misconception that the aurora only “comes out” when it is cold.  It is always cold for the aurora, because it is in the vacuum of space.  In reality, the connection with cold comes from the fact that it is only visible when it is dark.  For northern latitudes where the aurora is most frequently observed, this means the winter months.  In Alaska, that means from mid-August to early April.  The farther north you go, like above the Arctic Circle, the later you have to wait before it is dark enough.  The first time I was in Gates of the Arctic was in mid-August.  It never got dark enough to see the aurora.  During my next backcountry trip the following early September on the Noatak River, it was dark every single night and I saw the aurora every single night.   And darkness inherently also includes periods where it is not cloudy, which in the wintertime also means cold, but clear skies.  Finally, it is best to photograph the aurora during a new moon than a full moon, because in these northern latitudes, a full moon puts out a lot of light pollution.