Archive for November, 2012

It’s “Denali” – just let it go

Friday, November 30th, 2012

At 20,320 feet, the highest peak in North America is located in the Alaska Range, bearing the official name of Mt. McKinley.  It is also has the highest rise above its base of any land-based mountain in the world, even higher than Everest.  Throughout time, it has bore many names, from большая гора (“big mountain”) by the Russians to various names by Alaska Native groups: Dghelay Ka’a (Dena’ina Athabascan), Traleika (Aleut), or Denali (Koyukon Athabascan).  But it is the name of “Denali” that has endured, earning common recognition as the name for the mountain by modern Alaska Natives, mountaineers, and most residents of Alaska.  Even Congress recognized this when it changed the name of the park that houses the mountain from “Mt. McKinley National Park” to “Denali National Park & Preserve” with passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.

It is also members of the Ohio Congressional delegation who have been primarily responsible for keeping the name of the mountain itself from officially changing to match that of the park and the name used by thousands of Alaskans.

Back in 1896, a man named William McKinely from the state of Ohio was running for President of the United States and had just received the Republican nomination.  Completely unknown to Mr. McKinley, a Seattleite prospector named William A. Dickey was looking for gold in the Susitna River valley of Alaska, and was irritated with local silver miners who promoted the Democratic candidate (who happened to be pushing for a silver standard in U.S. currency).  To retaliate, he threw his support behind McKinley by giving the name “Mt. McKinley” to the mountain known to the Koyukon Athabascans as Denali.  And unlike the prior English name of Densmore’s Peak, so named after a gold prospector, this one stuck.

But in 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of mountain to Denali. Then, at the request of Governor Jay Hammond, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features in the United States, change the name of the mountain from Mount McKinley to “Mount Denali.”

Unfortunately for Alaskans, there was a Congressman in Ohio, Ralph Regula, who took umbrage to this attempt by Alaskans to name their own geographic features.  Congressman Regula’s district encompassed Canton, where McKinley spent a great deal of his life.  Regula gathered signatures from other Ohio congressional delegates to put pressure on preventing the name change.  The passage of ANILCA seemed by some to be a compromise – by changing the name of the park to Denali while retaining the name of McKinley for the mountain – but Don Young, in perhaps the only good thing he has ever done for Alaskans in his 40 years of service in Congress, pressed again for the formal renaming of the mountain.  Congressman Regula would not stand for it, taking advantage of a Board of Geographic Names policy that prohibits changing names of geographic features while any bill about the feature is pending in Congress.  Congressman Regula started a biennial tradition of introducting a bill that prohibted the name change.

Even though Regula retired in 2009, two of his Ohio colleagues, Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan, continue to press bills preventing the name change.  Their latest effort is H.R. 229, “To provide for the retention of the name of Mount McKinley.”  In an astonishingly rare bout of simplicity in congressional decrees, it states, “Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley.”  The resolution was re-introduced in January 2011 as H.R. 247.  At this point, it has only been referred to committee; it has not yet been reported out of that committee.  In June 2012, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a bill to change the name from McKinley to Denali.

Long story short, some prospector who has no authority to name geographic locations wanted to make a political statement in opposition to his mining rivals – even naming it “McKinley” as little more than a joke – and a century later, Alaskans are stuck with the name because of a couple of Ohioans.

William McKinley has absolutely no personal connection to Alaska, but plenty to Ohio.  He was born there, served in the House of Representatives for 14 years (first being elected at 34), and served two terms as Governor of Ohio before being elected as President of the United States.  And yet, he never visited Alaska prior to his assassination in 1901.  Perhaps he has visited it since in his spare time in the afterlife, but there is no way to confirm that.

Representatives Sutton and Ryan claim that they fight to keep “The Mountain” (as Alaskans often refer to it) named McKinley as a matter of pride in William McKinley and his legacy.  If he is really that important to Ohioans, then they should rename a prominent geographic feature in Ohio after McKinley.  I understand that the geographic features in Ohio lack the grandeur of a 20,000+ tall mountain, but at least it would be within a state that McKinley ever visited.  Or perhaps, why not put a huge statue dedicated to him somewhere.  There is another “Hero of Canton” who got a larger-than-life statue dedicated to him (although it was only made of fired mud) for doing something much less than being President of the United States – all he did was screw up and drop a bunch of cash out of his spaceship when escaping the authorities after committing a robbery.  I know, different Canton, but it makes the point.

Thousands of Koyukon Athabascan people over thousands of years knew it by another name, Denali, “the high one” (or “the great one”).  Geographic features across the United States are being renamed from the colonialist name given to them by European conquerers back to their original Native names.  Respecting the cultures of America’s indigenous peoples is something that we as a country have been slow to do, but we have hopefully gotten better at it.  At the very least it is considered progressive to be sensitive to such things, and yet, both Ryan and Sutton are Democrats, apparently incapable of seeing the irony of how their recalcitrant position on renaming The Mountain to reflect its thousands-year Alaska Native heritage is so disrespectful of those Native peoples.

It’s also, quite frankly, extraordinarily disrespectful to 650,000+ Americans who have a lot more vested interest in the name of their tallest mountain than folks do in the Buckeye State.  I wonder how many homes and businesses in Ohio bear the visual represntation of The Mountain compared to Alaska.  I would bet that more actual numbers of people and businesses in Alaska have a picture or graphic rerpesentation of The Mountain than they do in Ohio.  Certainly more businesses in Alaska are named after it – and they use the name Denali!

Not that anyone from Alaska has ever served as President of the United States, but if they had, would Ohio appreciate Alaskans forcing them to name the most dominant geographic feature in the state after that person?  What if Sarah Palin had become Vice President, and in the future some businessman from Alaska was visiting Ohio and decided that Lake Erie should be renamed Lake Palin?  Granted, William McKinley by recent historians was a much better president than we could have expected from Sarah Palin as VP, but the point is the same.

Representatives Sutton and Ryan, it is time you got in line with history and help to put an end to the subjugation of America’s indigenous peoples through usurpation of tradtional names for important geographic locations.  It’s time you allowed Alaskans the opportunity to name their highest mountain.  Aside from the issue of respecting the Alaska Natives and the residents of Alaska, it certainly would make life easier for all of us.  I am tired of having to use both names when talking about The Mountain.  We Alaskans call it Denali and everyone else wrongfully thinks – thanks to your perpetration of William Dickey’s joke – that the mountain is called McKinley.  So I always have to use both names when talking about outsiders or else they have no idea what I am talking about.  But everyone knows the park as Denali National Park (& Preserve).  It is time you just let go and find something better to do with your time that will actually help your constituents.

NOTE: A principal source for this post is the USGS Geographic Name Information System.  However, that system is designed to prevent links to individual page results from outside sources.  Another principal source is an online excerpt from Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W.  Loewen.

Anatomy of an aurora hunt

Thursday, November 29th, 2012
Anatomy of an aurora hunt

Alaskans tend to take advantage of their long days by getting out and hiking, biking, camping, hunting, and fishing.  We savor the opportunity to have six hours of sunlight to enjoy on a weekday even after the work day is done.  Farther north, the sun never even goes down.  But as winter comes, the light goes down sooner and the nights grow longer.  Temperatures drop, chills set in.  And while some types of activities go away, they are simply replaced by others that can be pursued in the winter.  Nordic skiing, snow shoeing, trapping and snow machining take over as popular outdoor activities.  And then, there is a small but growing (thanks to the prevalence of digital cameras) sliver of the population that pursues another activity: aurora borealis chasing. 

There is a lot that goes into planning and preparing for a night out in the cold and dark seeking the perfect aurora photograph.  Some people head out more prepared than others.  I lean toward the prepared in order to not only be successful but to enjoy the experience. 

Most people who are experienced and prepared drivers have a winter survival kit in their car.  I have one of those.  But I also have an extra set of gear in the back of my car to aid in my aurora hunting.  I have a bag that contains a MSR Whisper-Lite stove, a MSR bottle of white gas fuel, a Ziploc with snack bars, instant Starbucks coffee, hot chocolate, and plastic eating utinsels.  There is a bag of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread and a container of creamy peanut butter to go with it.  I also have a small cook kit and a kettle for boiling water, and a travel mug for drinking hot liquids.  This bag, along with a few camping chairs and a -20 F sleeping bag, stay in my car at all times. 

In my office, I keep a camera bag fully-loaded and ready to go for running out after the northern lights. It contains my Nikon D800 and three lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8 AFS, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 AFS and the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 AFS VR.  I also stock an assortment of CF and SD cards, spare batters, lens cloths, Lee GND filters (in case there is a great aurora display over some artificial lighting, like the city or a cabin), battery charger, and AC inverter to plug into my car “cigarette lighter” outlet.  Sitting next to it is a one-gallon jug of water I take with so I will have something to boil to add to the coffee or hot chocolate packets. 

But that’s just the gear; there is more to being prepared for aurora photography – like knowing when the aurora is going to be on display.  There are several web tools that I consult in determining whether or not I will go out.  Top of the list of tools for me is, which provides real time information as welll as some forecasting information (you can also sign up for text alerts).  Two other real time sources are the NOAA POES Auroral Activity website and the SALMON Cam, which is a camera at the Poker FLats Research Range for the University of Alaska Fairbanks showing a still image that is refreshed every minute during nighttime.  I also follow the @AuroraMAX and @AuroraNotify Twitter feeds, which provide realtime updates. 

Then there are certain times of the year that are best for chasing the aurora; you can’t effectively go aurora chasing when it is not dark.  (You could go in the daylight if you are a sucker for quixotic pursuits.)  I know, it seems crazy to mention, but a lot of people ask me when the best time of year is to see the aurora, or they ask if it has to be cold in order for the aurora to come out.  So, my answer is, the best time is when it is dark and in Alaska, that more likely than not means cold.  Sure, it starts getting dark enough to see them in August, and you can still see them in April, but most of the time during those months in between, it is cold outside.  Also, the aurora is most active around the fall and spring equinoxes – no one knows why, that’s just the way it is. 

Before heading out, you need to make sure you are dressed for the long haul.  From head to toe, you will not see me wearing cotton.  It has to be either synthetic or wool, for the simple reason that cotton, when wet, takes longer to dry and does not retain heat as well.  For my head, I take a seal/beaver/otter handcrafted by an Inupiat Eskimo, a thin hood layer, and a mask.  I wear two layers under my jacket, and a pair of thermals under a pair of snow pants.  For my hands, I prefer a thin liner glove underneath a set of fingerless gloves with a mitten flap.  On my feet, a pair of wool socks and a set of Baffin polar industrial boots.  Sometimes I wear moose hide Steger Mukluks, depending on how cold it is or how much snow depth there is. 

Then, you need to decide where you are going to go for the evening.  I have scouted several locations within an hour to hour-and-a-half from Anchorage that have proven to be good locations – open sky, good foreground, and minimal city lights.  But whether the location will be good that evening depends on cloud cover.  Again, I look to the web for that information, consulting the most recent thermal satellite images on the NOAA Alaska Region website. 

 Now that you are suited up, geared up, have checked the latest data on what the geomagnetic activity is and know a good location with clear skies, it’s time to head out.  And wait.  And be patient.  And wait some more.  On a good activity night, you will not have to wait long, as the aurora can hit as early as 9:00 p.m., or earlier.  And if it is good and looks like it is going to remain busy all night, don’t stay in one location; move on to somewhere else to capture other images.  I like to diversify my shooting locations so that all of my aurora borealis photos do not all look the same.  Diversity is one way to make your aurora images stand out compared to others.  And just like any other landscape photography situation, it is key to vary compositions, lens focal lengths, and orientation (horizontal or vertical).  If you feel like you have captured “the shot” for the night, keep shooting and try new techniques and compositions.  When I can, I like to set up and capture images for creating a time lapse movie.  It’s best, though, to take along a second tripod and camera (or even a “rail” system) to capture the time lapse so you don’t have to worry about missing a good still capture. 

While you are out there for many hours, there are several challenges you face throughout the course of the night.  The primary of those challenges is the care of your camera gear.  In colder temperatures, frost build-up on the camera and lens is a constant issue of concern, regardless of your proximity to an open water source.  Power drain on the batteries is a concern.  Being able to see your viewfinder and LCD display are also an issue, as you typically tend to exhale while composing images, and that breath creates frost on the backside of the camea. There are a lot of ways to deal with these challenges.  I deal with power issues by keeping spare batteries warm in a pocket.  For frost build up, I will either cover the camera or lens element, or take the camera back inside the car, but inside a sealed camera bag in order to slow the temperature transition and prevent fogging.  As for breathing on the back of your camera, well, sometimes I just hold my breath, or consciously make an effort to breathe off to the side. 

A short night is typically about three hours.  On a recent Ocotber night with a particularly spectacular display, I was out for eight hours, and could have stayed out more.  I felt, though, that by 4:30 a.m. I had captured a lot of really good images and could go to bed satisfied.  But even having great aurora borealis images to show for a night out in the cold cannot truly capture the thrill of just being out there and witnessing this amazing phenomenon. 

For technical aspects of aurora photography, visit my instructional blog post on the subject.  Visit the Aurora Borealis gallery on my website to view and purchase some of my aurora images.

Star Trails, old and new ways

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012
Star Trails, old and new ways

On those clear starry nights when I am out searching for the aurora borealis, but no lights come out to play, I like to make sure that the effort of being out late and freezing my tuchus off is still worthwhile.  One way to do this is to highlight the magic of those starry skies through a star trails capture.

Up until about 2009, the only way I had ever considered capturing star trails was with a single, multi-hour exposure.  The technical aspects of capturing such a photo are fairly simple.  Set the ISO of your digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera to 100, white balance to auto, exposure to manual on the “bulb” setting, and the f-stop to f/2.8.  Turn off the auto focus on your camera and set the manual focus to Infinity.  Do not turn your focus ring all the way over to the end where the Infinity symbol is, that is not a true Infinity.  It will take a couple of test shots, zooming in on the stars following each capture, to determine where the true Infinity focus point is.  Finally, you will need a shutter cable release that allows you to lock the shutter open.  Once you have everything set up and have isolated the composition you desire, push the button on that shutter cable release and lock it in that position.  Then, go find something to do for a couple of hours.  With DSLR cameras, you will likely not want to set an exposure for longer than three hours or so, as the noise build-up in the image after such a long exposure will not be fixable.  This is one advantage film still has over digital – you can create a four-hour star trail photo with no image quality degradation.

The other critical element for capturing a single-image star trails exposure is the phase of the moon.  Anything brighter than a quarter moon will overexpose the landscape when exposed for two or more hours.  You cannot compensate by adjusting your f-stop to something higher, like f/8.0 or f/11, as that will take away the much needed exposure of the stars.  But, that is not to say that it is impossible to create a star trails image under a bright moon.  I have created star trails images on full or nearly-full moon nights before.

The key is to capture several images and then merge them into one using Photoshop.  You will need to have a camera with a built-in Intervalometer, like those available in Nikon cameras starting with the Nikon D300, or you will need to purchase one to attach to your camera.  The Intervalometer is what allows you to set your camera to take pictures at regular intervals, the key technical requirement of creating a star trails image using several images.

On a recent nearly-full moonlit night, I captured 1,000 images over a one-and-a-half hour period.  I set my exposure manually to 4 seconds and ISO to 1600 (applying all of the other settings mentioned previously), and set my Intervalometer to take a photo every 5 seconds for 999 photo captures.  It is key to make sure that there is as little gap as possible in between exposures in order to minimize or eliminate gaps in star trails that may occur as a result of star movement in between exposures.

Once you have captured your 1,000 or so images, now you need to bring them all together.  In order to make the files manageable in size, I typically will not shoot these files in RAW mode (with my Nikon D800, each RAW file is 25 megs – things add up after a while).  Place all of your star files in a folder that will be easy to locate and isolate.  Next, search the Internet to find a usable action that you can download and incorporate into Photoshop.  (Photoshop does not have any built-in feature that can do what needs to be done; you cannot simply stack the images in layers and easily merge them into a single layer.)  One action I used recently is the Star Circle Academy Stacker. I found the instructions relatively easy to follow and the Action is free – a teaser to sign up for some of their nighttime photography courses.  I used a similar action three years ago when creating a star trail photo during a full moon in Badlands National Park while spending time there as the park’s Artist-in-Residence.  In that case, I had set my camera to take photos all night in order to create a time lapse.  This presents another advantage of setting up a star trails photo using this method – the images captured can also have other applications.

Finally, there is actually a star trails feature built into Photoshop CS5.  I prefer not to use this method because it really is cheating.  It also requires you to separately capture a blank star field, with no landscape, and whatever foreground landscape you want to have in the image.  To create the star trails using this method, open up your RAW star field file in Adobe Bridge, adjusting the Clarity to bring out the whites of the stars.  Once the file is open, select your Actions feature in Photoshop CS5, then click the fly out menu on the upper right portion of the Actions tab.  Toward the bottom you will see “Star Trails Rotation.”  Select that and then hit the Play button on the bottom of the Actions window to see the rotations created.  You can repeat this function several times in order to lengthen the star trails.  You will note, however, that the more you do it, the more fake the image becomes.  Once you have created this star trails image, you can place it in the background of your foreground landscape.  Again, I do not use this method because it is not only cheating, but does not produce as visually stunning of a result as a single exposure or a thousand-image star trail photo.

The nighttime is a wonderful time to be out in the winter, especially on a cold, clear night.  Just because the aurora has not come out as you hoped does not mean you have to go home empty-handed.


And the universe goes on …

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012
And the universe goes on ...

I sat home on the evening of November 6, enjoying dinner with my wonderful wife, Michelle, watching the returns come back about the results in our 2012 national election.  I would take a few bites, then pick up the iPad and skim and for the latest results, while also flipping over to the tab open to  I was watching another set of numbers – the solar wind and the direction of the Bz in the magnetic field.  The winds weren’t as high as I would like – only 365 km/sec – but the Bz was 7.7 south; a good number.  I stayed long enough to see that President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term – an announcement that came surprisingly early – then gathered my gear and headed out.

On my way down the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, along the fjord-like Turnagain Arm, I listened to the National Public Radio coverage of the election returns, which included some content from our local NPR affiliate, KSKA, on local election returns.  Our polls had only just closed recently, so it was too early to tell for most races.  Representative Don Young, the “congressman for only the Alaskans who voted for him,” was celebrating yet another easy victory that will take him into his 21st (no, that’s not a typo) term in Congress.

I did not hear any reports on how the conservatives were reacting, but I suspected that every gun shop in the United States that was still open for business in the day got yet another rush on its doors from the perpetually paranoid and afraid.  I am sure that some people – in combination with the gay rights victories in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota – were ranting about the signs of the end times.  And I am confident that thousands of Americans were grumbling about how now this was really going to be a “socialist” country and the end of our society as we know it was near.

As I continued down, I did the best I could (while driving at 55 mph) to check the skies for cloud cover and any hints of the aurora borealis.  With the exception of what appeared to be a fog hanging over Girdwood and the Alyeska Ski Resort, the skies were clear.  When I turned from the Seward Highway onto the Portage Valley road in the Chugach National Forest, I pulled over to check the latest spaceweather updates on my smart phone.  The Bz had flipped to north (not good), but the “donut” was still looking like it had promise.

I checked three locations I had scouted a week before, visualizing what I would want to do if the aurora showed up.  I waited for a little while at each one, then had to drive almost out of the valley before I could get a strong enough signal to check the usual websites for updates.  The conditions were not promising, and getting worse.  So, I picked my favorite location, set up the camera and took a couple of test shots to make sure the stars were in focus.  I set my camera to ISO 100, f/2.8, manual exposure to “bulb” setting, and locked the shutter open.  Then, I took a nap for about two hours.  The end result was this image, with the starry sky swirling around the North Star.

When I posted the image on my Facebook page, a fan made a comment noting that while there was division in our land, I brought joy to her morning by sharing something beautiful.  Her point is one that should not be lost.  As a country, we just spent billions of dollars to keep our political landscape the same as it was prior to the election cycle (same President, Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans in control of the House).  There was a lot of acrimony generated with little or no mention of whether anyone would do anything to benefit the beautiful world we as a species call our home.  (Well, one of the candidates openly joked and mocked about the notion of the oceans rising, a few weeks before they rose in response to a super storm and swallowed New York and New Jersey.)

But fortunately, the Earth wasn’t paying attention to our elections.  It continued on as it has for billions of years.  It remained a place where beauty, life, solace and energy can be found for those who seek it.  The streams ran, the lakes and ponds continued to freeze up as winter continues to take hold of the land, the ptarmigan kept to the willows to protect themselves from predators, the wolves kept patrolling their territory for the next meal that would feed the pack, and all other sorts of natural events continued on while the humans of this continent went collectively crazy.  We are lucky to have such a place that can always be there for us, always provide the spiritual renewal we need to recover from the last crisis or cope with the next …or, perhaps, allow us to just remember what gives us life and how we can feel when we are in its presence.

Someday, though, this Earth will no longer be here.  We will likely forever change its surface because of our various manipulations of it, and then one day the Earth itself will be pulverized when our sun enters a Red Giant phase and expands its diameter out to the orbit of Jupiter.

But the same stars that gave me wonder this night will always be there, shining down on this space we currently call home, regardless of what happens on or to this world.