Lee Petersen

Nov 232014
The aurora looked like it might act up for a few minutes before settling back below the horizon. It was really windy out, hence all the motion blur in the trees. Ursa Major on the right.

“Aurora Breaks the Horizon” – Saturday November 21, 2014
See it in the gallery | Buy a print

This wasn’t the best aurora on Saturday night by far, but I felt it perfectly encapsulates the evening. I hiked out to Angel Rocks in the Chena River State Recreation Area. It was a new moon and it was DARK! I’ve done a lot of solo hiking, and my fair share of walking at night, but when I turned my headlamp off it was difficult to see 2 feet in front of me on the start of the trail. Throw in the howling wind with the creaking and cracking trees and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a little uneasy for a bit.

After about half a mile on the trail I came out of the woods and into an old burn area where the trees are sparse. The stars started to provide a bit of light. There was some diffuse aurora and the Milky Way spanned the sky. I hung out here for a bit to take some photos, and for a brief moment some rays of aurora started to break over the horizon. The wind was blowing the trees like mad, the forest was dark, the stars were bright – and it just felt so cool to be out there.

Here is the full gallery from this evening

Nikon D7000
Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8 lens
Focal Length:  13 mm
ISO:           1600
Aperture:      f/2.8
Shutter Speed: 20 sec

Nov 222014

Valdez is a quaint harbor town of 4000 bordered by the beautiful Prince William Sound, the majestic Chugach Mountains, and enormous glacier-fed waterfalls. In the summer it’s full of tourists, drunk fisherman from Washington, and little feral bunny rabbits (referred to by drunk fisherman as “little f**ng bunny rabbits”). Seriously, you have to watch where you step because there’s probably a little black bunny about to run under your foot.

The tiny harbor town is a popular destination for us interior folks both for the fishing and the change in scenery. Kate and I finally had family and friends visit from outside this summer that were not her or my parents. My brother and his wife came up from Vegas. They were followed a few days later by Jenn, an old co-worker and one of my best friends from New Hampshire. Since it was everyone’s first time to Alaska, a trip to the coast seemed like a necessity so we all drove down to Valdez from Fairbanks for a weekend.

Driving from Fairbanks to Valdez on the Richardson Highway is incredible. After passing through the taiga of the interior – sparse boreal forests and kettle ponds, you hit the Alaska Range just south of Delta Junction. The Delta sub-range is an awesome mountain playground filled with enormous glaciers. Then there are the lakes – Summit Lake and Paxson Lake are enormous, beautiful, alpine lakes with a backdrop of endless alaska forest. Seriously . . . endless.

And endless Alaska - viewed from the Richardson Highway

Paxson Lake and an endless Alaska from the Richardson Highway

Then, enter the Chugach . . .

Entering the Chugach Mountains, cascades through green hillsides fed by snowpack high up on the rocky mountains.

Entering the Chugach Mountains, cascades through green hillsides fed by snowpack high up on the rocky mountains.

Taken from the Richardson Highway outside Valdez.

The Worthington Glacier from the Richardson Highway

Kate standing at the edge of a kettle pond near the Worthington Glacier.

Kate standing at the edge of a kettle pond near the Worthington Glacier.

Looking down the Worthington Glacier in the Chugach Mountains along the edge of a lateral moraine. It's a little bit pretty here.

Looking down the Worthington Glacier in the Chugach Mountains along the edge of a lateral moraine. It’s a little bit pretty here.

Descending from Thompson Pass brings you through the Keystone Canyon. Back in January an enormous avalanche covered the highway and dammed the Lowe River, causing an enormous lake to form (check out the video below from YouTube user akiwiguy101 – VerticalSolutions video):

It was kind of crazy that 7 months later, in July we could still see the remnants of this.

This is what is left from a giant avalanche last winter in Keystone Canyon

This is what is left from the avalanche last winter in Keystone Canyon

Waterfall in Keystone Canyon along the Richardson Highway outside of Valdez.

Bridal Veil Falls in Keystone Canyon

It was nearly 10 pm when we finally arrived in Valdez (after a couple of stops for waterfalls in Keystone Canyon). I think our total travel and distraction time from Fairbanks was about 10 hours. We had a late dinner with a few drinks before heading to the motel and listened to a nice little drunken fisherman street brawl outside our window.

After our relaxing sleep we had the standard continental breakfast before heading over to the boat for our cruise. We went on the Stan Steven’s with Kate’s parents a few years ago and it was pretty fun, even for me, and I don’t typically enjoy “touristy” things.

Valdez and Fairbanks had apparently switched weather for this summer. While we had one of the rainiest seasons on record up in the interior, our (albeit short) stay in Valdez was under blue skies. This was an incredible day to go sit on a boat for 9 hours.

Mountain and waterfall scenery along Prince William Sound

Mountain and waterfall scenery along Prince William Sound

Chugach Mountains rise out of Prince William Sound.

The mountains rise abruptly out of the sound.

And many, many icebergs. Prince William Sound - Alaska.

The Columbia Glacier and icebergs

Icebergs from the Columbia Glacier floating in Prince William Sound. This one rolled, exposing the blue ice that was once under water. The Valdez area is stunningly beautiful.

Icebergs from the Columbia Glacier floating in Prince William Sound. This one rolled, exposing the blue ice that was once under water. It would be hard to find a better day

The scenery on the way out to the Columbia Glacier is astounding. The glacier front was calving and we spent a lot of time (in the cold) watching huge chunks of ice fall into the otherwise calm water. Wildlife was abundant on this too – lots of sea otters hanging out on icebergs, stellar sea lions on buoys, dall porpoises, and the highlight – a humpback whale.

Sea otters on an iceberg, Prince William Sound

Sea otters on an iceberg

humpback whale tale in Prince William Sound

Humpback whale tail

I have many more photos from the drive and from the cruise.

 22 November, 2014  photo-blog, travel alaska No Responses »
Nov 152014
The pastels turn fiery as the Sun nears the horizon.

“Peak Sunrise” – Wednesday November 12, 2014 – see it in the gallery / buy a print

This sunrise photo was taken on the mushers trails about a mile north of the Creamer’s Field farmhouse. I think what I love most about this photo isn’t the incredible color cast on the clouds, but the subtle arctic blues that appear in the sky behind them.

Technical Details

Equipment: Nikon D7000 with my Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM FLD Large Aperture Standard Zoom Lens mounted on tripod – no filters

To create this image I used multiple exposures to bring the sky and the foreground into a combined exposure that is realistic to how I viewed the scene with my eyes. Although the camera captures a dynamic range that is similar to the human eye – it doesn’t do what the brain does to piece together multiple parts of a scene as your eyes move around.

While the RAW image carries enough information that the shadows can simply be “brought up”, this often leaves the shadowed area quite noisy. The trees on the horizon served as a good midpoint to create a gradient mask – using a shorter exposure for the sky and a longer one for the foreground, and a third exposure in the middle which helped to average out noise further. Using this method, as opposed to “HDR+tonemapping” I’m able to capture the wide dynamic range of the scene while avoiding “halo” and “ghosting” artifacts.

Center Exposure: shutter speed 1/6"  | aperture f/8 | ISO 400
High Exposure  : shutter speed 1/3"  | aperture f/8 | ISO 400
Low Exposure   : shutter speed 1/13" | aperture f/8 | ISO 400

I used Darktable for the RAW edits of the 3 exposures and GIMP to combine them. There was enough subtle motion (I didn’t have my remote and pressing the shutter with the tripod in the soft snow-covered bushes caused the camera to move slightly) – so I aligned the photos using Hugin. More about these free and open source programs with download links here: FOSS Photography Quick Review.


This is my first “Photo-of-the-Week” post; my plan is to post one every Saturday night (Sunday morning) at midnight with my favorite photo taken that week with a quick caption or backstory. Ocassionally I’ll try to include some technical details in how I captured the image when it’s relevant.

Nov 152014

Well . . . last night was incredible. The aurora was out shortly after nightfall. Diffuse bands filled the sky between 8-11 pm. Shortly after 11 pm the sky exploded. I’ve never seen the aurora move so fast. It was an incredibly beautiful display. There were similar outbursts later in the night and into the morning, but none quite like the first.

Early in the night the sky was filled with wide, diffuse bands. This is fairly typical for aurora early in the evening.

Early in the night the sky was filled with wide, diffuse bands. lightbox / prints

The aurora moved so fast I couldn't keep up with it. The pinks were shimmering so fast that my 1.6 second exposures barely captured the color.

During the first outburst the aurora moved so fast I couldn’t keep up with it. The pinks were shimmering so fast that my 1.6 second exposures barely captured the color. lightbox / prints

The aurora isn't actually white like it looks in the middle of this band - it was just so bright that it oversaturated the camera sensor.

The aurora isn’t actually white like it looks in the middle of this band – it was just so bright that it oversaturated the camera sensor. lightbox / prints

The show lasted well into the next morning. I managed to stay awake until about 3 am (an incredible feat for me). Every time I went outside to pack up the camera something cool happened, like the moon rising right down the end of our street while the sky was filled with diffuse aurora, or strong bands condensing overhead again.

This was my view when I walked out my front door at 1:30 am.

Aurora moonrise – this was my view when I walked out my front door at 1:30 am. lighbox / prints

Right as I was about to pack up at 2:15 am. What a bummer.

Right as I was about to pack up at 2:15 am. What a bummer. lightbox / prints

This is a fairly typical early morning view.

Diffuse, aurora-filled sky – this is a fairly typical early morning view. lightbox / prints

The aurora and weather forecasts both look great for tonight too, so it’s time to charge some batteries . . . and maybe take a nap.

You can view many more photos from the day/evening/next morning: 2014-11-14 and 2014-11-15

Some will inevitably end up in my “Northern Lights Alaska” album.

 15 November, 2014  aurora borealis, photo-blog No Responses »
Oct 312014

On the Canwell Glacier where the edge of the southern moraine meets exposed ice. Channels typically form next to moraines like this and since this is very near the toe of the glacier it's had a long time to form this deep channel.

A water carved canyon along a lateral moraine on the Canwell Glacier – gallery | prints

Living as close as we do to enormous glaciers that could only exist on the highest peaks in the lower 48 offers us a unique hiking opportunity. This summer I wanted to take my friend, Jenn to one of these glaciers during her short visit to Alaska. Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative every time we tried to make a plan. It turns out that the summer of 2014 was one of the wettest summers on record in the interior. I don’t love being cold and wet, and typically that’s what you are when it rains on you on a glacier.

Finally, there was a day that looked like the weather would be good enough. A far cry from a great day, it appeared that the bulk of the rain was going to get hung up south of the Alaska Range giving us an opportunity to stay somewhat dry. Since this was going to be our last opportunity we drove down without much of a plan – we could hike out to the Castner, Canwell, or Gulkana glaciers fairly easily in a day so we’d just take the one that looked the driest. With dark clouds to the south and the Castner Valley totally sopped in, the Canwell was looking like the best shot.

We drove through Red Rock Canyon Road which is really the easiest way to access the glacier in the summer. It was raining lightly when I parked. A small, but cold ford starts the hike, followed by three miles of easy walking a rocky road. The scenery doesn’t change much other than the glacier’s ice tongue getting closer.

Then we came to a second stream. “You told me there would only be one stream crossing!” she said. This is a lesson in hiking with me. There’s always between a half-mile and a mile to go, there is only one more stream, one more ridge. I lie.

We successfully made it to another stream crossing! Jenn is not thrilled.

“You told me there would only be one stream crossing!” This is a lesson in hiking with me. There’s always only a half-mile to a mile to go, there is only one stream, one more ridge. I lie. – gallery

It turns out that the easiest descent to the glacier is just across the stream. Attempting to descend before the crossing looked to be a pretty easy way to die. So we spent a lot of time trying to find a way to cross without fording, wanting to keep our boots dry and not go through the hassle of changing into sandals again. Further uphill the glacier-fed creek breaks off into a few braids making it possible to cross with a little jumping after re-arranging some rocks.

We'll find somewhere else to cross - One more attempt to avoid having to stay dry put our sandals back on. The banks are steeper than they looked.

Searching for a good place to cross and stay relatively dry. gallery | prints

The descent is gradual at first, going through some nice camping terrain, before dropping on some steeper, yet stable terrain. There was a smooth transition from the valley sidewall to the glacial moraine. Another quarter mile of navigating through the up and down lateral moraine and we end up at a super awesome and deep channel separating the moraine from the ice tongue.

It looked like it might be difficult to cross from the trail above, but turned out to be quite easy. The stream was barely a trickle. The rain had stopped completely and the air was quite cold, so there was barely any melt water.

A short steep ascent on the ice gave way to flat terrain. I had to yell back at Jenn a few times to “walk normal” as she was strategically placing each foot as if walking on an ice rink. The glacier surface was actually quite well textured, but it does take some time and confidence to gain confidence in your footing.

Finally on ice after a long day of exploring and navigating the rocky moraine.

Finally on ice after a long day of exploring and navigating the rocky moraine. gallery

Since we had no destination we just walked up-glacier until it felt like it was time to turn back. Eventually we got hungry so stopped to eat. looking at my phone I saw that it was after 4 pm so it was probably time to head back. We could see the snow line ahead, and we weren’t carrying equipment to travel over snow where there could still be bridges over crevasses, so it wouldn’t be safe to go much further either. While we were eating it started to get windy and the temperature dropped considerably. My hands started to get cold even with gloves on – I’m fairly sure that it was below freezing. Definitely time to turn around. We walked back on the opposite side of a medial moraine for a change in scenery.

Looking back up the canyon that divides the southern moraine from the ice surface. Jenn is on the top left for scale.

Looking back up the canyon that divides the southern moraine from the ice surface. Jenn is on the top left for scale. gallery

On the way back we passed an impressive waterfall higher up in the ice canyon that we crossed earlier. It cut vertically into already steep ice, dropping 50 feet before joining the main stream. I kind of go into trance when I stare at waterfalls. Kind of like staring at the fire. It’s just one of those amazing, simple, beautiful things.

We made it back to the jeep road fairly fast despite the steep climb back up. Almost immediately the Sun came out. Figures. At least we got to see a bit of a sunset in the valley for the walk back to the car.

Cool light and better weather than we had for our hike - looking over the Canwell Glacier near sunset

Looking over the Canwell Glacier as the Sun comes out. gallery | prints

We finally crossed the last stream a little after 10 pm. The Sun was still setting – I love that about summers in Alaska.

Want more?
More photos from this trip
More photos from the Canwell Glacier

 31 October, 2014  hiking, outdoors, photo-blog No Responses »
Oct 302014
Some bands started to break away. The aurora was incredibly active, it's almost too bad it wasn't darker outside.

Aurora in twilight – gallery | prints

I love eating dinner, then walking out our door to sights like this. Any night I don’t have to stay up until 4 am to watch the northern lights is a good night (I am very much a morning person). Since the activity was looking great, after I took a few shots around the cabin I drove out to Smith Lake. After parking the car I saw a bright band with shimmering pinks on the underside. I ran. It was fading.

The trail to the lake was completely flooded; it never dried up after all the rain this summer. My boots leaked and my feet were soaked and socks saturated in minutes. By the time I finally made it to the lake the bright band had faded. The whole sky was filled with a diffuse green and a band on the horizon looked like it might act up again, so I waited with cold feet for an hour.

Northern lights over Smith Lake in Fairbanks, Alaska

Aurora borealis over Smith Lake – gallery | prints

It turns out that my feet didn’t get any warmer standing out there in the ice-covered water so I packed up and headed home. We definitely had some good shows in September!

Smith Lake - Fairbanks, Alaska

Aurora over Smith Lake in Fairbanks – gallery | prints

The full aurora borealis photo-set from the evening can be found here: http://www.lwpetersenphotography.com/Date/2014/September/2014-09-26/

Oct 212014

This summer I went hiking on the Thoro Ridge in Denali National Park with my wife, Kate, and Jenn, a friend in town from New Hampshire. The trail is accessed from the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 on the Park Road so we had to take the shuttle in. The mountain didn’t come out for us, but wildlife was abundant. We saw countless caribou on the ride in, so many that our bus driver stopped stopping for them. We also saw four grizzlies, a few sheep, and a glancing sight of a moose as it ran into the willows.

I’ve always felt the Eielson Visitor Center seems out of place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very nicely done and fits into the surrounding landscape beautifully, it’s just unexpected after a 4 hour drive away from civilization. There are a few rest stops on the way and an Alaska Geographic Bookstore in a fancy tent at the Toklat River, but not much else. The Eilson Visitor Center is a large, shiny, modern facility in a gorgeous location packed full of people during the tourist season. There are numerous short hiking trails surrounding it, including one steep trail heading straight up the hill to the north, the Alpine Trail. This was the start of our hike.

The Alpine Trail is a popular one. It’s steep, well maintained, and gains about 1,100 ft. of elevation above the Visitor Center. The views from the top are remarkable – both to the north and to the south. The top of the ridge is wide open, no bushes, no tussocks, incredibly easy walking. The Thoro Ridge, our intended route takes us west on a gradual descent full of ups and downs on rolling, rocky hills. And arctic ground squirrels. They are everywhere. It’s not long before we come across about 5 or 6 caribou; they are much cooler to watch up close than from the bus.

I’m amazed at how easy it is to lose the crowds in Denali National Park. With few established trails, most of the hiking is backcountry and off-trail. That’s intimidating for a lot of people, especially in a park the size of the state of Massachusetts with only a single road running 90 miles in. Any travel by foot requires at least some knowledge and experience with navigation and how to behave around wildlife.

Unlike the Alpine Trail, the Thoro Ridge is not an official, established, or maintained trail. It sort of meanders the ridge, slowly descending until you need to find a drainage that will take you back down to the road. While we saw many people on and at the top of the Alpine Trail, we shared the Ridge with only two (that we could see – walking the other way).

It wasn’t long into our descent into the narrow drainage when I noticed some brown blobs bumbling in front of us. It suddenly dawned on me why the other two hikers were headed in the other direction. A sow with two older cubs were digging up roots right in the middle of our route. I didn’t hang out for long since they were close. We slowly backed up the hill to a safe distance deciding it would be best to head back the way we came rather than wait them out since we had no idea how long they would be there. There was no other easy way to descend from where we were.

Grizzly along the Park Road in Denali National ParkAfter making our way back to the visitor center we put our names in at dispatch to catch an outgoing shuttle. Luckily we barely missed the next bus and were first to board an overflow shuttle – the views are almost always better to the south so it’s nice to be able to choose which side to sit on. We saw a few more caribou and had a very nice grizzly encounter for the ride back to finish off an already awesome day.

The trail description is in Denali National Park, Alaska: Guide to Hiking, Photography and Camping. I keep hearing rumors that there is a new edition coming out, which is why it seems to be out of print. Occasionally it’s hard to find a copy – but I really like it.

The full photo set is posted here: http://www.lwpetersenphotography.com/Date/2014/July/2014-07-21/

Oct 102014

My mother and father in law have been to Fairbanks four times, including two very cold winter visits. To our dismay, over twenty nights in Alaska they had yet to see the aurora. Statistically, tourists to the area have a one-in-three chance to see the lights on a clear night. Since the northern lights are often more prevalent around the equinox, they made a late summer trip to town in hopes of seeing them. Even I succumb to ecological fallacy – they must see them soon.

On September 9th a large (M4) class solar flare preceded a long Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). Events such as these send out fast streams of electromagnetic radiation along with protons and electrons that can, upon impacting the earth’s magnetic field spark fantastic auroral displays. The good news was that this one was partially directed toward earth. The weather forecast over the next few days looked like we might have some clear evening skies. The spaceweather and the weather were both looking good.

A couple of nights later we drove out to the White Mountains, the car loaded with blankets for potential late-night viewing. There’s an overlook on US Creek Road about 50 miles out on the Steese Highway that seemed like it would be a great place to watch. It was cloudier than we had hoped, but there was still sky visible.

Finally! After pulling over at the top of a ridge there was a green band stretching across the sky. It was nothing spectacular, but it was aurora, and they saw it. We stayed for a while, watching as the band oscillated in intensity, never really deterring from its path. A few times it was even bright enough to be seen against the moon. Even though it wasn’t the show I was hoping for, the interplay between the aurora and the moonlit clouds was breathtaking.

The display deteriorated around midnight and I don’t pull all-nighters anymore. It was time to drive home. We all packed back into the car and headed west. We didn’t get far though. We could see the display as it erupted across the sky. I pulled over just outside of Chatanika.

It fizzled again. The strong corona, diverging rays overhead, faded into a diffusely green sky. We tried to get home again, this time barely making it 10 miles before needing to make another stop near Cleary summit. This time there was a strong band that lasted about half an hour periodically breaking off into smaller bands. There were occasional short lived coronas and some diffuse pulsating aurora that wasn’t as easy to see.

Northern lights from the Steese Highway near Cleary Summit.

Northern lights from the Steese Highway near Cleary Summit.

We made it home shortly before 3 am. A wonderful night and a successful check on a bucket list.

I took quite a few more photos – here are the links to them on my photo page (the morning of the 12 is the better display):
Night of September 11, 2014

 10 October, 2014  aurora borealis No Responses »