Wednesday, April 27, 2011

International Year of Forests

Spruce Grouse
(Click to view on Flickr)

I spotted this Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) while walking along the Denali park road, about a mile past the Teklanika river. There was a female with him, but she was at a bad angle through the trees, so no good shots of her.

Wikipedia says: "The Spruce Grouse has great confidence in its camouflage, and will often stay still even when approached within a metre (3 ft). It is this characteristic that has earned them the nickname "Fool Hens" or in Alaska, "Stupid Chicken"."

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Goose migration
(Click any photo to view on Flickr)

In my Denali post a few days ago, I mentioned that migration season was ramping up in the interior. The geese have certainly arrived in force:


Goose migration

Goose migration

Goose migration

Goose migration

Friday, April 22, 2011

International Year of Forests

You may or may not be aware that the UN has declared 2011 to be the International Year of Forests. Over at Flickr there is an International Year of Forests group dedicated to photography of forest ecology in its natural state. I'll be cross-posting my contributions there to here from time to time.

Red Squirrel
(Click for my Flickr)

This Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) lives just outside my cabin, along with a few others. This was actually shot through the picture window while sitting on my couch. Wildlife photography doesn't get much easier than that!
All the squirrels up here seem quite bold, and will stand chattering on tree limbs just out of reach. I encountered one on my first visit to Denali that I thought was going to jump right on me!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Denali in the distance
(Click any photo for my Flickr)

Denali National Park is roughly half the size of Switzerland, cut by a single, 90 mile long gravel road. For 6 months of the year, that road is under several feet of ice and snow. For the rest of the year, the first 15 miles only are open to private vehicles, and the remaining 75 miles to tour buses only. The are two exceptions to that: 1. The fall road lottery, which, if you win, allows you to buy a pass to drive your car however far weather allows. This is one weekend only. 2. The spring road opening, where private vehicles are allowed out to the Teklanika River (mile 30) from the time the road is plowed until tourist season starts. This past weekend, the road opened to Teklanika, so Lee, Kate, and I took advantage of the opportunity and paid a visit.

Before we even got inside, a wolf crossed the road in front of the car just outside the park, but neither Lee or I were quick enough to get a photo.

Once inside we made a quick stop at the winter visitor center inside the Murie Science building, then headed down the park road. The first 15 miles - the part open to public traffic all summer - are paved. After crossing the Savage River, the road turns gravel, and we were in 'never been here before' territory. We saw a group of caribou up on a ridge, but they were too far away for decent photos. A guy told us he saw a pack of wolves further back, we were disappointed to miss out on that. We had hoped to see some bears this trip, but no luck there. The crew plowing the road saw the first bear of the season that day, so maybe if we make a trip back in the coming weeks we'll get lucky. For this trip, we drove to the gate at the Tek and got out and walked a couple of miles further up the road. Mostly it was a day of just enjoying the weather and scenery. We stopped to take some pictures out on the frozen Tek, chunks of driftwood made decent foreground elements for the mountains in the distance, and I played a bit with depth of field there:

Teklanika River

I also toyed with wide angle vs. telephoto of the same scene. In the first, wide angle shot, the foreground element dominates, but in the telelphoto the background mountains dominate. Same scene, completely different effect:

Teklanika River Teklanika River

A lot of photography websites say this is because the telephoto lens 'compresses' the scene. I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, but it's wrong. It's just the relative sizes and distances of things. Walking 50 feet away from a stick right in front of you makes a much bigger difference than walking 50 feet away from a mountain 10 miles away. The only say the telephoto has in the equation is it lets you crop in tight on the stick after you walk away.

Anyway, most of the wildlife we saw were birds. The ubiquitous ravens, of course, but others as well. I saw my first Spruce Grouse, a male and female pair. They were tough to shoot through the trees, but I managed a good shot or two of the male:

Spruce Grouse

On the drive back out of the park, we spotted three Magpies - haven't seen any of those all winter:


It's migration season, and interior Alaska is about to become a bird haven.

And what Alaskan adventure would be complete without a moose encounter? This mother and calf were grazing a few feet off the road. I slipped the Prius into electric mode and we crept up right next to them and watched for a while, before a truck came and scared them off:

I've got my eye on you

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Denali National Park in early September:

Hikers in Denali Black Bear

And in mid April:

Spring in Denali Teklanika River

Every petal that falls reduces spring.
Every leaf that falls hurries the year's end towards us.
Having studied the world, I wonder at man:
How can he be so deaf to that roar,
That thunder of passing time?

- Songs 111, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Aurora over the cabin.
(Click for Flickr)

Aurora stream directly above the cabin, Thursday night.

"Isn't this enough?
Just... this... world?
Just this... beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable natural world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
that we have to diminish it with the invention
of cheap, manmade myths and monsters?
If you're so into Shakespeare
Lend me your ear:
'To gild refined gold
To paint the lily
To throw perfume on the violet
Is just fucking silly.'
Or something like that."

From Storm by Tim Minchin

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Castner Glacier Cave

Peeking out from under a glacier
(Click any photo to go to my Flickr)

Sunday I visited a place I've been meaning to visit since Decemberish - Castner Glacier Cave, about 40 miles south of Delta Junction on the Richardson Highway. Join me!

The parking spot is just a wide dirt shoulder on the side of the highway. I left the car there, strapped on the snowshoes, and headed up what was ostensibly a creek bed, though all I could see was deep snow.

Alaska Rock

After a while I saw, via some cracks in the snow, that the creek was about 3 feet below me, and still flowing. I was walking on it! The trail ahead got steep, signaling the face of the glacier (hidden under the snow), and this thing was at the bottom of the hill:

Castner Glacier Cave

Castner Glacier Cave! Let's take a peek inside:

Castner Glacier Cave Entrance

Shall we continue? Let's:

Castner Glacier Cave

One last look at the outside, before we go deeper:

Looking Out

As I was looking for a good way to frame the entrance, I noticed that when the sun was blocked but the adjacent clouds were visible, you could see some luminescence in the clouds. Neat!

Cave Entrance HDR

A little deeper into the cave:

Castner Glacier Cave

The left hand side of the cave (looking outward) has lots of dirt and rock under a few inches of clear, glassy ice:

Dirt and rock frozen in the glacial ice.

While the right hand side is black ice with milky streaks in it:

Glacier Cave Wall

And looking back, the icy ceiling dips lower until you have to stoop, then crouch, then I-don't-know-what because I didn't go that far.

Castner Glacier Cave

But that ice on the ceiling rewards closer inspection, as it's composed of these fantastically fragile little geometric shapes. These photos were taken at about 0.5x magnification - for a sense of scale, the 'cup' at the tip in this first picture is about half an inch across:

Ice Crystal Formations

Ice Crystal Formations Ice Crystal Formations

Ice Crystal Formations Ice Crystal Formations

The cave was basically a photographers candyland. Between the panoramas of the entrance and the macros of the ice crystals, I shot an entire 4Gb memory card - more than 300 photos - without leaving a 30 foot radius.

But it was time to leave, so I walked back to the car and headed towards home. On the flats just south of Delta Junction there were small herds of caribou standing in the road, so I slipped the Prius into silent-but-deadly mode and crept up. I think they were licking the road. If I had to guess, they were treating the road as a mineral lick. I don't think they salt the roads in the winter anywhere around here, but I guess there's enough residual minerals to be worth licking. Besides, what else are you gonna lick? Everything else is under snow.

The light was good, so I got a few pictures:


Caribou Caribou

Caribou on the Highway

Then, another great Alaskan sunset:

Richardson Highway Sunset

And that's the day. The end.