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Winters Bridge! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

There is something special about the north country in the depth of winter. Just a blush of color amidst the many shades of grey that grow deeper each day. Pale pink, yellow, and orange in the sky at sunrise. Deeper purple, burgundy and frozen blue at sunset. The muted green of the taiga and firs. Everywhere, the crystalline display of snow and ice. Brightness and clarity from the crisp, cold light. Colors and hues of the subarctic.

Boreal Sun! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

The northern sun in winter lies low in the southern sky, producing long shadows and tremendous depth of field. Never overhead, but off to the side, emphasizing the skyline, backlighting the trees, mountains, and rivers. And always, lending a subtle shading to the surrounding land. In that low-angled light, the sun takes longer to set and so twilight and sunsets seem to last forever. Cold, clean air, a strong jet stream, snow and clouds, low light, and color – the magic of winter in the north.

Stairway to Heaven! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast… love & hate, birth & death, right & wrong… everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of grey that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.”

– Ansel Adams

Alaska Range in Winter! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

I do love cold landscapes! And the subarctic regions, located in the northern hemisphere, have been a destination, a fantasy, and a motivation for many of my photography adventures. Trips to Alaska, the Yukon, British Columbia, Iceland. Dreams of visiting Scandinavia, Greenland, Northwest Territories, and someday the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. All home to the boreal forest (named for Boreas, the Greek God of the North Wind), and thick forests of spruce, pine and fir, called taiga (with the world’s largest taiga in Russia, stretching some 3,600 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Ural Mountains).

Birch & Fir! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

So, with the call of winter hard upon me, thinking of places I have been or want to visit, visons of winter colors, and the opportunity to (hopefully) experience the northern lights once again, all of this led me to travel back to Fairbanks, Alaska in late January. My wife Stephanie was up for the trip, but most of our other friends balked at visiting the coldest city in the United States.* I guess I can’t blame them, as the mean average temperature for Fairbanks is just under freezing at 27.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and its lowest recorded temperature was -66 degrees in January of 2012. The evening before we arrived it was -16, but it warmed up after that, with periods of sunshine, several days of snow, and eventually reaching a balmy +25 before we left.

Aurora 1. Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

In Fairbanks, both sunrises and sunsets are beautiful. But it is the night that rules with flickering lights from the aurora borealis, caused by electrical storms in space called substorms. I have been lucky to see the amazing radiance of the aurora before in both Whitehorse (Yukon) and in Fairbanks, where you have a ninety percent chance of seeing the northern lights if you are there three or more nights and are actively looking for them. Steph and I were there for five nights this time, but with clouds and snow the lights were only visible for about two hours on one evening. I had my camera settings set up well beforehand, but a technical glitch (combined with cold, dark, and a short aurora window) didn’t allow me to capture the shots I had hoped for. But I got some, which was better than a week in December in Iceland several years ago (where the solar storms were everywhere except Iceland).

Aurora 2. Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

It was sublimely beautiful standing in the winter night with colors both in the sky and reflected in the snow. Stars in the background, the moon shedding (mostly unwanted) light from behind, and whites and shades of grey everywhere.

Home in the Snow! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

During daylight hours, we spent our time wandering and looking elsewhere for winters soft light and color. Most of our time was spent traveling on the Chena Hot Springs Road. This fifty-six+ mile road is considered one of the best places in Alaska for viewing the northern lights and several years ago Steph and I were thrilled to see the lights by taking a tour out at Chena Hot Springs Resort. This trip, we stayed at the Alaska Grizzly Lodge, a good dark-sky location where you might see the aurora from its back porch, and where your hosts, Janet and Fred, will wake you up if the aurora is on display. If you are not interested in the usual resort experience, stay here. The breakfasts were great, the bed cozy, and we felt we were really in the woods in this Alaskan lodge.


How coldly burns our sun! One would say its rays of light are shards of snow, one imagines the sun lives upon a snow crested peak on this day. One would say she is a woman who wears a gown of winter frost that blinds the eyes.

- Roman Payne

Rough Road to the Sun! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

Cold landscapes, Alaska, subarctic, a different world for sure! But beautiful, wonderful, and amazing! I can’t wait to go back next year, and the year after. Currently the aurora is ramping up in solar activity, and will peak in 2024/2025 with the solar max, a regular period of greatest sun activity during the eleven-year solar cycle. I can’t wait to be in Alaska for that!


Endnotes:

· Yakutsk, the capital city of Russia’s Sakha Republic, maybe the world’s coldest city (?), plunged to -80.9 degrees Fahrenheit last week on January 18, 2023. The world record for low temperature (-128.6°F) was set at Vostok Station, Antarctica, on 21 July 1983 (NOT going there!).

· Aurora borealis was named in 1619 after the Roman Goddess of dawn, Aurora (sister of Helios, the sun god, and Selene, the moon goddess), and the Greek god Boreas, by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. The earliest suspected record of the northern lights is in a 30,000-year-old cave painting in France.

· Aurora Mysteries Unlocked With NASA’s THEMIS Mission

· Auroras Announce the Solar Cycle -- Solar Cycle 25 is underway, and that means more frequent opportunities to see auroras - more commonly known as the northern lights and southern lights. Solar cycles track the activity level of the Sun, our nearest star. A cycle is traditionally measured by the rise and fall in the number of sunspots, but it also coincides with increases in solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), radio emissions, and other forms of space weather. These bursts of magnetized plasma and energetic waves from the Sun’s atmosphere energize the gases and particles in Earth’s magnetosphere and send them plunging down in colorful light displays in the upper atmosphere.

· What Is the Solar Cycle? The Sun's magnetic field goes through a cycle, called the solar cycle. Every 11 years or so, the Sun's magnetic field completely flips. This means that the Sun's north and south poles switch places. Then it takes about another 11 years for the Sun’s north and south poles to flip back again. The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, such as sunspots, which are caused by the Sun's magnetic fields. As the magnetic fields change, so does the amount of activity on the Sun's surface.



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To the Moon! Swans in Skagit County. Washington State.

A few years ago, I was stuck in a bear jam along the Gardiner River in Yellowstone as a lone grizzly crossed the steep hill and contemplated crossing the road. He (or she) didn’t come down to the road, but literally hundreds of people stopped in anticipation. Behind me were two photographers from California and sitting in traffic we struck up a conversation and exchanged phone numbers. A few weeks ago, they called to say they were coming to Washington to photograph Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Mt. Baker to the Salish Sea, Washington State.

They were headed my way because, for the past ten years, the place to see bald eagles is definitely 0n the Nooksack River, home to some six-hundred individuals right here in Whatcom County. The best time is usually now, over the holidays in December and January, as they feast on returning chum salmon.

Confluence of Middle and Nork Fork Nooksack River. Washington State.

However, this year was different. The salmon were there, visible within the eddy lines and decomposing on the sandbanks, but the eagles were low in number, and usually seen afar roosting in the treetops. For whatever reason, climate change, river levels (very high this year) or something else, the eagles were not as numerous or as visible feeding at ground level. Maybe it is just timing, and they may show up in the next week? But the usual salmon spawning and feeding times are closing out.

Food! Nooksack River, Washington State.

Over the past few weeks, I got some good photos – but my friends were not as lucky on their trip. We got together for a day and photographed short-eared owls along the meadows and found that the eagles we expected along the river had moved back to the farmlands and tidal flats. I am sure they were not that disappointed -- they did get days of sun and warm weather, amazing sunrises, and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Stare Down! Nooksack River, Washington State.

A while back, before that Yellowstone trip, I spoke with a die-hard birder who was very disparaging of our local Bald Eagle population. Not sure of the exact quote, but something along the line of eagles “are like chickens,” suggesting you could see them everywhere and they are not that cool.


My first thought was that this person was definitely not from the east coast, mid-states, or any number of places where seeing a bald eagle is rare and a real treat. For many years I traveled the eastern coastal areas looking for eagles, down south in Florida, and then trips to Alaska just wishing to see an eagle (as were my friends from California). So I am absolutely thrilled to have eagles nearly everywhere locally, and I continue to be inspired as I watch them nest, feed, fly, and mate. There is a reason the bald eagle was chosen as our national emblem in 1972 and has been a spiritual symbol for native peoples for far longer).

Flight! Nooksack River, Washington State.

I must admit that they are usually proliferous around here. Depending on the season, you can easily find eagles hunting along the Salish Sea’s shores and coastal flats, soaring over farmlands, throughout the San Juan Islands, and roosting and fishing along nearby rivers and streams. It is estimated (2021) that over nine hundred breeding pairs of bald eagles reside here in Washington State, with another five-hundred-and-seventy breeding pairs in Oregon, and with over thirty-thousand living in Alaska.


Of course, it was not always that way. An estimated nine thousand bald eagle pairs lived in Washington State in the late 1700s. By the 1950s 400,000 of this species were eradicated across the United States except for small populations in Florida and Alaska (due to DDT, as well as identical reasons promoted today to allow killing of wolves and bears – as eagles were wrongly blamed for predation of young lambs and even children). In 1978 the bald eagle was put on the Endangered Species List except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, where it was designated as threatened. The recovery for Bald Eagles locally (and nationally) was impressive and they were removed from the list of protected species in Washington State in 2016. They remain protected today under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protections Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act.

Bald Eagle. Skagit Flats, Washington State.

Some of my favorite areas for viewing bald eagles include: my home river, the Nooksack, where these photos were taken; the Skagit River and the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center; further south along the Klamath River* on the Oregon/California border; across the BC border in Squamish and Brackendale (with a world record 3,769 eagles counted in 1994); and just outside of Haines, Alaska at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Reserve (good bear watching as well).


I am inspired by wildlife every day. Pumped to get out early, encountering the world as it first wakes up. Sitting beside the river, enjoying the early rays of sunrise, and even the cold, grey and misty mornings of the Northwest -- any time with my camera is quality time. And then, you watch two eagles doing cartwheels in the air, see a bear cub peak out around a tree, gaze at fox cubs tumbling outside their den, or observe the incredible journey of the salmon fighting to get back home – inspiration at every occurrence. Inspiration/magic/wonder – all attributes of our natural world.

Short-eared Owl. Skagit Flats, Washington State.

In addition to documenting nature, I hope my images help educate others about the wonders of nature and how fragile that nature can be. Photography is a great way to educate without preaching. Watching wildlife, observing nature, seeing this world’s amazing places, I hope my photography can take you there, take you beyond your usual experience, and connect you to all the wonder around us!


Endnotes:

· If you enjoy my images and blog, Braided Rivers is an nonprofit organization that believes photography can inspire people to protect wild places through images and stories that change perspectives. Check them out!

· When I retired from the Whatcom Land Trust, my board provided a week-long photography course in Yellowstone National Park. Covid shut that down, but the instructor for that class was Meg Summers out of Cody Wyoming. Meg just recently won Outdoor Magazine’s Annual Wildlife Photo Competition. Congratulations!

· I have talked about the ethics of photography before, and just recently the Raincoast Conservancy released An Ethical Approach to Wolf Photography. Needed due to the number of threats faced by this species, their curious nature, and the growth of wolf watching tourism.

· *I mentioned salmon and eagles on the Klamath River, where just recently (after decades of discussion and planning) the decision was made to remove four dams on the Lower Klamath River. This would be the largest dam removal ever, and would reopen access to more than four hundred miles of habitat for threatened coho and Chinook salmon, and steelhead (and eagles of course!). Prior to the dams being built, the Klamath was one of the nation’s most productive salmon rivers. Congratulations to the tribes, states, nonprofit river warriors (and past colleagues), and others who helped make this happen.

· Closer to home, Seattle City Light, in relicensing their Skagit River dams, has said it has spent about $100 million on environmental mitigation to purchase over 13,000 acres for salmon habitat and other conservation land, to support endangered fish species, and to create a new Skagit Habitat Enhancement Program.




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Short Eared Owl. Skagit County, Washington.


“Of course, owls have been associated with magic for a long time, and feature in many old illustrations of witches and wizards, second only to cats as Most Magical Creature.”

J.K. Rowling

Hard to believe that my family has now lived here in the Pacific Northwest for more than twenty years. When we first arrived, our vision of the region centered on forests and trees. Not the town of Bellingham, or Whatcom County, and not the shore and the close-by Salish Sea. We brought our ideas with us from the East Coast, and those centered on western old-growth forests, raging rivers fed by ice and snow, and towering mountains (the birthplace and headwaters for many of those rivers).

Short Eared Owl at Rest. Skagit County.

My daughter, who was eleven when we moved, thought more about earthquakes, erupting volcanoes and how we had ruined her life. Luckily, like her mom and dad, her heart was quickly won over by the beauty of this region, the ability to snowboard in waist deep snow, and to climb in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.


Dreams and images of forests definitely included those magical creatures like deer, coyotes, and owls (at least for us with east-coast, urban backgrounds). And we are blessed to have all of these in our woods. We listen to the hoot of barred owls and coyote howls almost every night. There are other things in our woods as well! Bears and cougars (maybe Sasquatch?), but we have never seen those. And while I might be thrilled to see any or all, my wife, dog, and neighbors probably do not share that anticipation.

On The Hunt! Skagit County.

“Have you ever Stared into the owl's eyes? They blink slow, then burn: Burn gold in the dark inner core of the snow-shrouded cedar.”

Robert Penn Warren


Owls are associated with a sense of mysticism, magic, knowledge, enlightenment, and even death. Their silence in flight has led many cultures to believe that they are spirit guides who come to remind us of our past lives and help us understand our future. Revered for their knowledge and intelligence, a keen sense of hearing, and an ability to see in the dark.

Protecting her Nest! Skagit County.

A few years after we arrived, we were treated to a rare appearance of snowy owls here in Washington State and just across the border in British Columbia. This was an irruption, or a sudden change in population densities usually triggered in northern wintering birds, including snowy and short eared owls, due to low food availability in the boreal arctic. Unfortunately, the specific conditions that brought them here have not happened since, and at that point my photography skills were not up to the task of getting good images. Snowy Owls remain very high on my “to-be-photographed” list.

Flight! Skagit County.

For more images of owls, including snowy owl photos that I couldn’t capture, see my friend Paul Brannick’s website. In addition to being an amazing photographer, he is a writer and an owl expert. His two most recent works are Snowy Owl: A visual Natural History and Great Grey Owl: A visual Natural History. Unlike me, Paul isn’t waiting for the snowy owls to return to nearby coastal areas, but actively pursues them with his camera up north.

Hidden In Plain Sight! Skagit County.

So, owls (more than 200 species worldwide) are something I want to photograph.


I know that short-eared owls (Asio Flammeus) are often seen along the Salish coastal areas, but while I spend a lot of time there, I have never seen one close enough to get its picture. So, a few weeks ago I drove out to find them. * It was well below zero, low light, but I hoisted my camera over my shoulder and hiked out across the grasslands. Two hours later, I had seen nothing with feathers!


Ok, not every day brings great photography, and I was fine with that. I got back into my truck and headed home. About a mile down the road, I saw an owl out the passenger side window, then another. I looked left and found another two owls on that side. From their erratic, low-to-earth flight path it could only be short-eared owls whose flight is often described as moth-like, and the rare owl species that nests on the ground and not in a forested habitat. There they were, with me, and with my camera. What a way to ring out 2022!

In Flight 2! Skagit County, WA.

Short eared owls are also diurnal, meaning they hunt mostly voles and other small rodents during the day (Snowy Owls are diurnal as well), which makes taking photos a bit easier. Short-eared owls live on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. These owls have elaborate courtship flights, and while I am not sure that was what was going on, I did enjoy their erratic and high-speed engagements in the air. No photos of that but it was great to watch!

Baby Barred Owl. British Columbia, 2022.

Short eared owls are fierce competitors with the Northern harrier, and are frequently seen hunting in the same areas. Harriers are also on my “to-be-photographed” list. I see them every time I am out but have never gotten a good photo.


I hope you enjoy my photos.

Confluence! Magical merging of the North and Middle Fork Nooksack River. Whatcom County, WA.

Muted Magic ! Nooksack River, Whatcom County, WA.

Endnotes:

· *It is interesting how you need to dedicate yourself to finding a specific species. While you may see diverse wildlife on trips, it helps to focus on what you most want to see. Especially if you want to find something that has eluded you for years. A year ago, I took a trip to find porcupines, something that I had only seen once or twice. We found them in southern Oregon. Then it was kingfishers, a constant companion on river trips over the years – but no photos. Finally found that along the coast in Blaine, Washington. Then it was foxes, a special trip with that as the agenda found me spending days watching kits and fox families frolicking and scampering about. A few weeks ago, owls. It helps to tune everything out, and concentrate on species’ specific location and habitat, flight, and movement, and looking for just that one thing!

· This past weekend, I helped to teach a bald eagle photography course on the Nooksack River. Again, location and habitat, flight, movement, and dealing with snow and ice and very cold conditions. Many taking the course had phone cameras, not ideal for wildlife or birds in flight, so we talked about continuing undaunted and relying on luck, a too-often necessity for any photography. And of course, on the ethics of all photography. Putting wildlife first before any photo, and not endangering (or annoying) any species, yourself, or others.


"At home, I love reaching out into that absolute silence, when you can hear the owl or the wind." Amanda Harlech





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