One of my favorite hiking areas near Fairbanks is barely known to people outside. It’s not riddled with majestic peaks or glaciers, rarely do I spot bears, there are only a couple roads that pass by the outskirts, and not much for food or tourist activities. To really see the area, you need to hike, ski, bike, ATV, snowmachine, or dogsled, or boat. This is the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Mostly composed of rolling hills dotted with a few tors and peaks of limestone or granite and some smaller creeks or rivers.
This photo was taken along US Creek Road off the Steese Highway, providing access to Nome Creek, Ophir Creek, and Beaver Creek National Wild River. I often compare it to the better known White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. The two areas are roughly the same size, except Alaska’s version has no roads going through it, no tourist traps, and far, far fewer people. In winter, there are 250 miles of groomed ski trails and public use cabins. It’s gorgeous country to get away in.
I’ll soon be writing some hiking guides to some of these locations. I’m compiling an online guide to hiking and travel in the state of Alaska. As of this writing, I have 6.5 guides posted, 25 in draft, and about 50 planned. I hope to have most of these up by summer. I have some exciting plans to make browsing by location, type of activity, and difficulty once some more content is up. Please check out the page and let me know what you think!
For occasional updates and notification when guides are published. I promise not to inundate you with e-mails, or give out or sell e-mail addresses. I might send a couple per month and never more than once a week.
The aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights in the northern hemisphere, are the biggest draws for tourists in the winter here in Fairbanks. It’s understandable. Seeing the sky light up in a naturally produced “fireworks” show isn’t witnessed by much of the world. Even when I lived in Minnesota, I never saw the aurora take the forms we see almost nightly here. This photo is an example of a corona, a phenomenon that occurs when the aurora is directly overhead. You get diverging rays of light from a point above.
I haven’t spent much time photographing the aurora in the last few years. I’ll still go out and watch, but don’t habitually set up the cameras and tripods anymore. I’m not sure why. I used to almost every night in winter and spring. I used to love making time-lapses like the one below. My interest is peaking again. Of course, right in the middle of solar minimum. Last night was bust. I set up equipment, but the aurora never materialized. Hopefully, I’ll have some luck before the midnight sun takes over.
I took this featured photo during a three-day, two-night slog up the Granite Tors trail near Fairbanks. For two days, I waded through waist-deep sugar snow with absolutely no help from my snowshoes. Pulling a sled with 15 lbs. of extra camera equipment. It was so much fun; I can’t wait to do it again! And I have no clue if that statement was sarcasm or not. Check out the story below!
Caribou are the fourth largest mammal in Denali National Park, after moose and bears (brown and black). You can usually spot them out on the tundra in small herds. Unlike the famous Porcupine caribou that migrates over 1500 miles per year (2400 km), the Denali herd stays almost entirely within the park boundary. However, there are exceptions, like when the herd left the park after a snowstorm to travel 140 miles, just northeast of Fairbanks [Population Dynamics of the Denali Caribou Herd]. The Denali herd doesn’t tend to congregate in large numbers, either. I’ve personally seen herds of about 30 in the park, but never larger. Most often, I will see between two and ten in a given area.
Caribou typically shed their antlers in mid-winter. In this photo (early fall), the caribou’s antlers are bony, but when they are growing in the spring and summer, they are covered in a fleshy velvet. These cycles and others related to caribou have been used by Inuit to name months of the year. For the Igloolik Inuit in Canada, amiraijaut means “when velvet falls off caribou antlers”, and marks that time in the year in early fall (late August, early September) [Tuktu-Caribou].
A lone iceberg in Prince William Sound near Glacier Island and the Columbia Glacier. For the entire day, we had blue sky and Sun. Except here. This little spot at Glacier Island was completely inundated in fog and clouds. It was probably about four square miles of fog. We came across just a few icebergs adrift in the sound, but the ice-flow in Columbia Bay was incredible (photo below).
Back in 2012, a friend and I went out on Murphy Dome at night on skis. The temperature was -30 °F/-34 °C. For years since, I’ve told myself that 20-below was my cut-off for venturing off into the woods. Especially in the dark. I still do it, but at least I remember that I keep telling myself this. On this evening in early March, we spent hours photographing trees, rock outcroppings, and the gorgeous sky during blue hour. I dug a snow-pit to stay out of the wind while waiting for aurora.
Before the stars came out, two beacons, Jupiter and Venus, shined brightly to the west. I had some vague awareness that the conjunction was happening, but had gone out to watch for aurora. As it turns out, this ended up being my favorite photo from this evening. The northern lights didn’t materialize much, and I got some mild frostbite on my toes and fingers after about 3 hours in the cold wind.
The next Venus-Jupiter conjunction will occur on February 11, 2021.
There’s something insanely spooky about walking through the boreal forests here in the winter. All the hunched over ghosts of snow-covered, stunted spruce trees are motionless rising out of the white sea. And the air is so still. So little wind. It’s quiet. All you can hear is the crunching of the snow under your feet. The crunching is amplified by the quiet and the cold, cold air. A perfect place to get lost in thoughts.
Watching the northern lights before it’s dark is one of the most amazing experiences. The cobalt blue sky is already striking. The emerald and mint colors streaking across the sky will take your breath away. This display was from way back in 2012. I remember when this started I could barely even see any stars yet, but the sky was shimmering. It took some time to convince myself I was seeing the aurora, but it became obvious after the sky darkened a bit more. I’ve attached a few more photos below.
As a not totally unrelated side-note, I’m posting lots of old photos because I’m re-organizing the layout on my photography website. I keep finding photos that I never thought twice about at the time, but absolutely love and want prints of now. Turns out I take a lot of photos. Nearly 3 terabytes worth. Which reminds me, it’s time for a back-up. I’ll post when this update is done!
It has been a cold winter in Fairbanks this year. We haven’t had one in a few years. While I’m writing this, our outdoor thermometer is reading +30 °F! Our home is in the hills, though, and there’s a temperature inversion. The airport temp (15-minute drive) is +11 °F. We just exited a second cold snap that had us in weeks of -20 °F to -40°F for days. The earlier spell lasted a few weeks and was a bit colder.
I’m rambling. None of this has anything to do with Ballaine Lake except that while I sit here writing, wrapped in a blanket, I’m looking at summer photos. Like this one here, of Ballaine Lake. Located along Farmer’s Loop at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, it’s a sight I miss seeing on my daily commute. In the warm months, there are daily reflections of the beautiful spruce, boreal forest. Nightly too, since the Sun doesn’t set until well after midnight for much of the summer. In winter, it’s an access point for the cross-country ski trails on the University.
This photo was taken in June on the Black Rapids Glacier in the Alaska Range. We were camping at 4000 ft elevation right at the snow line. Water from these streams typically drains via moulins in the summer months. However, it was early enough in the season that there wasn’t any englacial drainage yet. So, hiking on the surface meant we had to cross a lot of streams. So much jumping.
Larger rocks like this one insulate the ice beneath as the ice around the boulder melts. Luckily for us, this one was located in the path of a waterway, and the pedestal divided the stream. It provided a perfect spot so step across and keep our feet dry.
It was a knee-pounding couple of weeks, hiking up to 18 miles a day. In the last couple of days, some moulins started draining providing places to walk around the bigger streams. Despite my knees and legs aching for a few weeks after this trip, I look forward to returning to this beautiful area. Hopefully this summer. Stay tuned!
The Arctic ground squirrel lives only in subarctic North America and eastern Asia. Spending 7 to 8 months of the year in hibernation, these little critter’s body temperature drops to below freezing (27 °F, -3 °C). Their metabolism drops to 2% of their normal rate. Yet, their organs survive, their blood doesn’t freeze, and their brains return to normal function when they wake. These outstanding characteristics have led scientists to study them for a number of things including organ protection, treatment of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, and treatment of Alzheimer’s.
Arctic ground squirrels are one of my favorite animals to watch. They build underground colonies and dart in and out of their holes on hillsides. Sometimes they can be quite bold and curious around people and not very shy. I see them all over hills and ridgelines in Denali National Park. If you’re ever in the area, check out the alpine trail at Eielson Visitor Center, Savage River Loop, or the Healy Overlook Trail, these little guys are running all over the place!
One afternoon I was camping at Riley Creek at the entrance to Denali National Park. I got to the park a half-day early before a planned trip to spend a few days in the park. Wanting to spot some wildlife before heading out on the bus the next day, I decided to try to hike up Mt. Margaret before dark. I walked out of the popular Savage River Loop, passing many people along the way. A gentlemen saw me with my cameras and stopped to chat. I asked him if he had seen any sheep (I see them fairly frequently in this valley). He said he saw no wildlife, but if I continue along the trail beyond the bridge, past the maintained trail, I will find a little waterfall. I thanked him for the information, despite being very familiar with the area and went on my way.
About one minute later, I spotted 9 Dall sheep on a hill. They were far away, just little white dots high up on Mt. Margaret. I headed out past the end of the trail and started my way up the steep, rocky side of Mt. Margaret. There’s not a trail, just a few open and rocky ridgelines to navigate to the high ridge. I’m watching the little white dots on the hill, not seeming to get any larger. Suddenly, this big guy walks out of the bushes a few yards in front of me.
Not knowing his intentions, I backed away slowly. Ducking around a large outcropping for a bit, he curiously walked around to keep me in his sight, so I backed down some more. Once I was far enough away that he no longer acknowledged my presence, I pulled out my long lens and took a few photos. Since he was pretty well blocking my path, I couldn’t make it up to the sheep, but at least I had a few wildlife shots I had hoped to get on this impromptu hike!
I took this photo along the Angel Rocks trail in the Chena River State Recreation Area. Here the aurora borealis is reflecting off of overflow on the Chena River. A friend and I snowshoed up the highpoint on the Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs trail in the dark to get better views. The clouds eventually overtook the sky, but we had nearly 4 hours of hiking under the northern lights.