CLOUDLAND CABIN JOURNAL - March 2014 (Part A - March 1st-17th)
Cloudland remote Cabin Cam, March 17 -Venus rising behind Hawksbill Crag at 5am this morning. 3-4" of snow here.
Journal updated March 17th - (including The Rest of Alaska)
Print Of The Week - The Northern Lights, Alaska
Engagement Calendar Print Of The Week special
03/01/14 Very froggy and warm this morning. And the fog hung around for a while instead of burning off quickly like it often does. The earth smells and looks so wonderful when it is damp - colors so much richer. Air goes deep into your lungs.
It is a big day at Cloudland, as we welcome back our cuz' Joseph who is going to stay with us at the cabin for a while this spring. He has been down in Texas for the past couple of months, and I wonder how he is going to like the nippy weather that is headed our way? He is tough, so will be fine with it I bet. Joseph helps out a lot around the cabin, but his main job is to look after the place when we are gone.
And my lovely bride and I are headed into town for a hot date tonight - YIPPIE! We don't get out much.
I had a date with another lady a couple of nights ago, but it was not too hot - in fact is was down to 16 degrees while Lucy and I were out! Pam was in Missouri with our daughter, so Lucy came with me for one of my all-night photo shoots. We hiked into a neat scenic area of tall bluffs and interesting, weather-sculpted sandstone formations. I wanted to arrive just before dark so that I would have enough time to look around a bit and figure out exactly what I wanted to take a picture of - sometimes it is a lot easier to do that in daylight.
But my target was also the north star, which of course was not visible in the daytime. I did know about where it would be, but we ended up sticking around until after dark when the north star appeared just to make sure I was pointing the camera the right direction. Turns out just a few inches one way or another and the north star would have been hidden behind either a rock or a tree, so I was glad I waited until dark. I did in fact have to move both cameras just a few inches.
I set up two cameras to shoot basically the same scene - a series of long exposures over 10-12 hours to capture the rotation of the stars. One camera was setup to shoot a time-lapse of the moving stars, while the other camera would capture a very long star trail, hopefully good enough for the new picture book that I'm working on.
Once I got all of that set up, Lucy and I hiked back to the van - she LOVES to run in the woods! I could hardly keep up - in fact I'm sure she had to stop and wait on me may times. When I left the cabin I did not think about packing any dinner for myself, although I did have some for Lucy. Turns out that Lucy's dinner was pretty good, so I ended up eating dog food for dinner! It actually was not too bad. Although I must explain. We have discovered that Lucy just LOVES popcorn chicken. She has always been nothing but skin and bones, and we have never been able to get her to each much, no matter what type or brand of dog food we try and feed her. But she will clean up a bowl of popcorn chicken with a big grin on her face. So since she is getting so old (over 100 in dog years), we try to cook her up a little big of popcorn chicken once a day.
I did have some garlic mashed spuds in the van pantry, so I cooked them up and borrowed a few bits of Lucy's popcorn chicken to go with them. We both were happy campers!
It was a wee bit chilly when we got up early the next morning and hiked back into the area where the cameras were. Both were still running and taking long-exposure pictures. I took control of one of the cameras and shot a series of images of the same scene using different exposure parameters until the sky started to lighten. Then I packed everything up and we headed back to the van. Shhhh, don't tell anyone, but here is one of the photos that Lucy and I took:
It was a beautiful, crisp, and clear, pre-dawn sky, and the temp was such that I had to lean into the hill and hike a little faster in order to keep warm, something I enjoy. Dawn was breaking, and the eastern horizon glowed bright orange, then turned to yellow just above, and that blended into a deep blue sky with just a few of the brightest stars still awake. A forest of a thousand trees were silhouetted in front of all that color, and their shapes moved endlessly with each step I took.
Hanging there right in the middle of all those bands of color behind the silhouetted trees, was a tiny sliver of a brilliant, silver crescent moon. It was a spectacular scene - oh my! Our little dog is deaf, but she can still see pretty well, and I do believe I even caught her stopped and gazing at the scene a time or two - dogs enjoy beautiful things too!
03/02/14 Our date went very well, and included a wonderful dinner (THANKS Luke and Mary). Then we ended up at a nice motel in Bentonville - our lights were out by 9pm - we are lightweights! When morning came we discovered our car was covered with a rapidly-thickening layer of ice - in fact I could not get the doors open! So we hopped on a shuttle bus and ended up at the airport watching the planes trying to take off.
Before we knew it, we were sitting inside one of the planes, and a man on a boom was coating our plane with a high-pressure wash of ORANGE de-icer. Pam was sitting by the window and waved at him, and he was so close that he waved back. It was bitter cold outside, with a 20mph wind and sleet and freezing rain. Once the plane had been turned orange, they started around the plane again and covered it with green slime - some pretty thick stuff. So there we sat on the runway in a silver - then orange - then green airplane. In the middle of a winter ice storm.
The man on the boom coating our plane with orange deicer slime - that's one of our engines on the right
We had originally been scheduled to fly to Dallas, but that flight was cancelled. So they put us on a plane headed for Chicago. As we sat there on the runway about to take off, and the plane shook violently in the wind, we wondered what sort of flight was ahead of us in our little plane. Well son of a gun, not only did it take us less time to fly from Bentonville to Chicago than it takes us to drive from our cabin to Fayetteville, it was one of the smoothest flights EVER - not a single bump or jiggle!
We walked around in the giant O'Hare airport in Chicago for several hours watching all the huge planes come and go. Then one plane pulled up with an giant Eskimo painted on its tail, and we decided to get on board that one. And that is where we are now, cruising in the darkness at 30,000 feet, headed for Seattle. This is the first airplane trip that my lovely bride and I have ever taken together - after 14 years it was about time. Pretty smooth flight so far. Both flights today were packed to the gills.
We just landed in Seattle, in a driving rainstorm. A seven-year old girl sat next to me, and when they turned on the wing lights that lit up the rain as we were on final approach, she asked her mom "Why is it raining so hard?" They were from Seattle and had been on a trip. In a classic Seattle resident comment, she said "Because we are home..."
03/03/14 We had a lazy morning in Seattle, mostly sitting at the airport watching a lot more giant and beautiful planes come and go, as the weather turned from rain to sunshine. Soon we boarded a second plane with an eskimo on the tail and headed north. We flew into Canada, then above Alaska, following the Inside Passage - it was a sparkling clear day and the views of snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and assorted tall peaks were classic Alaska. After a smooth flight we rented a car and headed to a hotel in Fairbanks, our home for the next several days.
After meeting up with some fellow friends and photographers, we headed out into the night in search of Northern Lights. It was clear, with a zillion stars out, but rather windy. I spent a good bit of time standing around on the top of a windswept ridge taking pictures of the night, practicing, making sure the techniques I had honed over the years were up to snuff to capture the amazing light that shines up north. I have seen the Northern Lights many times over the years, but never have I photographed them - this would be a first.
Several hours later we were treated to one of the most magical light shows I've ever witnessed. Others in our group danced and laughed - and cried - at the magnitude of the power and beauty that was before us. If you have been a part of the Aurora at its peak, you know what I'm talking about. If you have not, there is no way to really describe it. I got kind of zoned in on the photography side things, with my head inside the camera as I shot and shot and shot, and then shot some more. When I finally looked up, I was away from the group, and in fact the rest of them were out of sight!
At one point when the motion and brightness and color were at their very peak, I stopped and just stood there, a gasp and breathless, and listened to the silence of the night - and wondered - could I hear the lights moving? And I think that I could - at least in my mind, and in my heart.
Oh yes, I also got to run over and hug my lovely bride tight, and laid one very long and deep eskimo kiss on her nose!
But let me digress for a moment and describe a moment that I've heard will live on for infamy. After hours of waiting for light to happened on the frozen top of the ridge, most of the group decided it was time to head for warmer pastures, so we packed up and left the mountaintop. One of the other photographers stopped on the way down the other side of the mountain to get out and look at a viewpoint that he had found before. I was in the process of removing my winter clothing, and in fact had stripped down to my underwear and only had one boot on - when I noticed something odd in the sky. I jumped out of the car and hobbled across the frozen road - not to the viewpoint - but rather off to the side, where many tall trees reached up into the night. I looked really hard to find a bit of light, color, and hope in the night. And then there it was - the faintest glow that was not normal. I watched the sky, standing there in my underwear and one bare foot (the temp was 2 degrees below zero). And then I finally declared - "LIGHTS, WE HAVE NORTHERN LIGHTS!" I ran back to the car and started to get out and set up my tripod and camera when my bride reminded me that while it was indeed a special moment that had arrived, but it probably would be better if I put some clothes on - at the very least, my other boot!
03/05/14 We've had light snow falling most of today, with several inches covering the landscape and refreshing the scene. The air has been crisp and cool and oh so REFRESHING - I really do LOVE this stuff! Always have. I have fond memories of building an igloo of sorts and playing in deep snow in the woods near where I grew up.
I attended a photo workshop last night and early this morning with some professional aurora photographers. Skies did not cooperate, and we had blowing snow and mostly cloudy conditions, but around 2am-ish we did see some stars and Northern Lights, but nothing to write home about (I in fact did not even take any pictures). We did learn a great deal of the science of Auroras - where they come from, what they are, how to predict them, etc. I had no idea about most of this stuff. And we spent a lot of time driving around visiting locations that I might return to for future Aurora shooting.
Today was mostly a town day, with a nap or two thrown in. The new snow was beautiful and refreshing. And, unfortunately, I've had one or two too many hot chocolates and whipped creams today! So this afternoon I headed out for an hour power hike in the new powder, trying to work off a little bit of that whipped cream. Just like I do when I'm back home, I did not wear much outerwear, and had to kind of lean into the wind and keep my legs and body at top speed to keep myself warm - it felt GREAT!
And I had one of those moments that nearly brought me to tears (tears would probably not have been a good idea - I think the wind chill was way below zero). As I was mushing through the snow - actually working my way up a small frozen river - an old church steeple came into view. It rose through a forest of aspen and spruce, into a white sky filled with blowing snow. My eyes zoomed in and cropped out everything around it. (The church was built in 1904 on one side of the river, then drug across the frozen river several years later to its current location.) Just then a clock tower started to play a tune that nearly brought those tears. I can't quite put my finger on what the music was, but it stirred my heart and made my soul soar. It was a most patriotic tune, and also celebrated the great beauty all around us. I paused for a moment to take soak it all in. I am proud to be an American..
Tonight is a blank slate - supposed to be cloudy all night, yet we see some blue sky here and there. I have all my gear ready to make another run out in to the sub-zero temps to hunt for Miss Aurora. I'm ready darling - hope to see ya in a few hours! (below is a snapshot of my lovely bride and I today)
03/06/14 - 03/10/14 The rest of Alaska.
THURSDAY and night. It remained cloudy with snow all night last night, so I never got the chance to get out and take pictures. But things are looking up today, with clearing skies, and a changing landscape. We are going to head out to spend the rest of our trip at a place called Chena Hot Springs, which is located 60 miles out in the middle of no where at the end of the road. While this resort area is located in a valley, it is surrounded by mountains, so there are tons of places to be able to have clear views of the night sky - and pretty much ZERO light pollution. (On our drive from Fairbanks to Chena, we stopped and had a close look at the big oil pipeline - amazing that there is zero security along this most important structure - anyone could blow it up easily.
Our first night at Chena called for crystal clear skies and no wind, and we took their snow coach ride to the very top of one of the nearby mountains (a very rough ride of about three miles). We reached the top around 11pm, and found a beautiful snow-covered landscape dotted with spruce trees and ridges that ran on forever spread out before us, with a bright crescent moon lighting everything up. Quite SPECTACULAR!
This was a commercial setup owned by the resort and included a pair of 35' heated yurts ("heated" being a relative term - the temp in the yurt that was available to our group was probably below freezing, but certainly a lot warmer than it was outside) - PLUS there was a pair of outhouses - very important at 2 in the morning when you got to go. The snow coach drivers worked double duty inside the yurts and served hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and those little cups of Ramen noodles. There were several rows of folding chairs inside, where folks huddled while waiting for any Aurora to show up.
I mostly remained outside, where there were about a dozen other tripods setup scattered around among the trees and snowy landscape. We were up on the mountain a total of four or five hours, and during that time various people would come out of the yurt and walk around, a few took pictures, but most everyone ended up inside the yurts most of the night. Conditions were just perfect for the Aurora, but it never appeared - not even a single wink. 'Tis the nature of the beast - you don't just step outside after midnight and see them - you have to earn them sometimes (our first night in Alaska was a fluke!). There were two other photographers in our group, and they spent more time outside than anyone else - I guess we Arkansas hillbillies were the tough bunch!
The crescent moon lit up the landscape a little bit, but it was not too bright - just bright enough to see to walk around without using a flashlight. I found it quite humorous when people would come out and walk around - sometimes there may have been 20-25 folks out at a time. It was rather nippy - way down below zero - so folks did not stay out too long and eventually ended up back inside one of the yurts. Everyone was bundled up pretty well - meaning everything covered up except for a pair of eye holes - and walking around like robots due to all the heavy clothing on being so stiff. There was little chatter, other than between folks who knew each other, and you always had to lean in close for the other person to understand through the layers of insulation over your mouth. It was all kind of odd and surreal being around those other people who I never really saw - I had no idea even what they looked like due to all the clothing.
Sometime very late - or should I say very early (probably 2am-ish), my lovely bride emerged from the yurt with a cup of ramen. I can't eat hot food, even after holding onto the styrofoam cup for ten minutes. So I eventually set the cup down in the snow to "cure" for a little while as I continued to scan the sky for colored lights. But when I did reach down and pick up the cut, OH MY GOODNESS, that $.25 cent cup of noodles was one of the BEST things I'd ever put in my mouth!!! I think it was Rachael Ray who first put it into words for me that hot food is best after it has set a while as the juices and flavor "redistribute" - I've always done that, but never knew it was a real thing. WARM ramen noodles in my belly on a frigid night - YIPPIE COYOTE!!!
We made the equally rugged trip back down the mountain in the snow coaches and returned to our hotel rooms sometime after 3:30am - I never took even a single photo. But it was still a grand trip to the top of the mountain with all the other robots!
FRIDAY and night. I tried to sleep for a few hours after our trip to the top of the mountain, but by 9am I was wide awake and ready for breakfast. They had a restaurant at the resort (the nearest offsite one was 50-60 miles away), so we had all of our meals there - food was included in the package deal we had, which was great because otherwise I probably would have never eaten food that expensive. They have giant greenhouses and generate their own electricity at Chena, so the veggies were mostly fresh and quite good.
There were eight of us Arkies on this trip, including two other photographers and their wives, and Pam's parents. My one and only job on the trip was to get some Aurora pictures - that meant I was working nights, so I was right at home!
I was on my own this night - no snow coach, no photo workshop tour. I had come equipped to withstand the Alaska weather, and was willing to hike wherever I needed to for a good image - I just needed Miss Aurora to out and play. Sometime after 10pm I suited up, loaded up two different camera systems, and headed off into the night. I had scouted a little-used trail during the day that climbed nearly straight up from the resort area, and that is where I would spend the night - up there on the mountain somewhere.
At first, I took off at my normal quick hiking pace - even though I had a very heavy camera backpack, and two large tripods strapped to it. I knew better than to wear much in the way of warm clothing for the steep hike up, but I had to have on a snow suit for the rest of the night - you don't want to work up a sweat in frigid temps though. So I hiked very slow - sometimes just a couple of steps at a time, then stop and wait. Eventually I removed my hat and gloves, and had unzipped my suit down to bare flesh. It was about twenty degrees F. below ZERO! I went slow enough not to work up a sweat. Slow and easy.
Within an hour I came to an opening in the spruce forest that I had been hiking up through, and son of a gun, the Aurora appeared - YIPPIE! I quickly set up one of the cameras to shoot a timelapse sequence - one photo every 30 seconds. Then I dug out my other camera gear and started shooting different compositions as the mostly-green Aurora lights waved and danced and flowed above and beyond. The lights came and went quickly, then came back again.
After an hour or so of shooting the lights calmed down and disappeared. I packed up all my camera gear and got back on the trail and went higher and higher - no one had been on the trail up this high in a while. I had a very nice view out across several mountains and ridges, and the resort had disappeared below. I had a 180-degree view of the Alaskan wilderness, and not a single light or any light pollution in sight! I set up both camera systems again - one to record a timelapse, and the other that I used to move around to get different compositions as needed.
Miss Aurora came out again and put on a nice show, then went back to sleep, then came out again. The wind blew a little bit, and it was a lot colder than in previous nights. At one point I had sat down on my camera bag while there was a lull in the light show and sent a text to my lovely bride, who was up and out far below, watching for lights with other members of our group (they had a couple of enclosures at the resort where you could watch for lights, but they tended to get a little crowded, and the lower vantage point blocked a lot of the sky).
Turns out I was very well prepared for the frigid conditions - partly because I had been out here in Arkansas back in December and January when the temp was down to zero and below, and had worked with my cameras and my clothing. AND I figured out a way that I could also use the iPhone while being bundled up and wearing gloves (those "touch" liner gloves that you see EVERYWHERE don't really work too well). I discovered that I could use the tip of my nose to work everything on my phone - including typing! So there I was, out in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness in the middle of the night with the temp down at 20 below zero, and I was sending "nose" texts to my lovely bride!
The temp kept dropping, and eventually the lights died away for good, and I packed up all my camera gear and made my way back to our room around 3 or 4am. When I arrived I noticed the temp had fallen to 29 degrees below zero - a new record for me working outdoors with my camera gear! (previous record had been minus 22 degrees one winter in Colorado back in 1995).
SATURDAY and night. I napped for a few hours and then had to get up and go eat another great Alaskan breakfast - a huge omelet and pile of fried 'taters! Hey, it was OK that I was consuming all those calories - after all, I had to keep my body system heater operating all night! Actually that heater had to keep working most of the day too - the temps remained well below zero, and the wind started to blow pretty good, so the wind chill numbers were very low (think minus 30 below zero and colder - yikes!).
And then I had a "Cloudland" moment way up North. It was reported that there was this weird dude spotted climbing up a trail eating an ICE CREAM CONE! Yup, that was me, and I do believe it was the BEST ice cream I've ever consumed - EVER!!! It was really, really, cold, but somehow that ice cream tasted even better in the frigid temps. Ice cream at 30 below zero - that too was a record for me - and highly recommended!
We also went SWIMMING! Turns out they have an outdoor hot spring pool there, and while it seems just downright crazy, even Pam's parents went in swimming and agreed it was a wonderful experience. The only issue was your hair - or should I say your head for those who don't have any hair. It would pretty much freeze solid. You see, while your body was immersed in water that was about 104 degrees, the steam rising from that water being blown over your head would cause the steam to freeze. I'll post a picture of Pam and her dad with frozen hair so you will know what I'm talking about.
Another highlight for the day was when we went on a dogsled ride - oh my GOSH, those dogs are amazing! And extremely fast. It was great fun - and an education - to watch the musher ladies select and rig up each dog.
OK, our last night in Alaska, and my last chance to get some great Aurora photos. I once again packed up both camera systems and headed up the same steep trail in search of more colorful night lights. But this time the winds were howling 30-40mph with gusts even stronger. Once again, I inched my way on up the hillside, not wanting to work up a sweat. I went higher and higher this time, for an even better view of the wilderness. But when I set up my first tripod and camera setup, the howling winds picked the entire thing up and sent if flying! Wow, those were strong winds! And they were blowing directly into my face. One trick I learned was that when the winds are high and it is really cold, you simply need to turn away from the winds to stay warm. But since I had to be facing the winds this night, it was just too much. So I packed up my camera gear and looked for another spot.
I ended up finding a new scene right next to the trail - one direction looking across the valley to some large mountains beyond, another direction looking at a completely different part of the wilderness - Miss Aurora was about to show up in both places!
So I set up my camera gear and started the one camera shooting the timelapse. I discovered that these digital cameras are so sensitive that they are able to pick up and record far more color and activity than we can with the naked eye, so I have learned to go ahead and start shooting even if there is not a lot of activity. Then I set up the second camera pointing at the big mountain, and started to shoot a few photos that way. The lights were not especially terrific on this night, but it was my last night and I was going to be there for the duration - if I could survive the howling winds.
Speaking of those winds, they were so strong, and the actual temp so low, that I ended up digging myself into the hillside down about two or three feet, which gave me a place to get out of the worst part of the wind, yet still look around and see when I needed to take a picture. In fact I didn't even need to leave my little snow cave to shoot - I had a wireless remote in my pocket, so all I had to do was push the button, ha, ha!
During one lull in the light show, I spotted some motion far down the trail. From my position I could see probably 150 yards down the steep hill along the trail. It looked like a person, although they were moving kind of odd, and pretty slow. The person got closer, and closer. The moon was shining, and neither of us were using a flashlight, and I did not think the guy had seen me. I was about to have my first solo encounter in the Alaskan wilderness in the middle of the night. But then as the guy got within about 50 feet from me, he staggered a little bit, coughed loudly, and then keeled over into the snow! He was laid out flat and did not move a muscle. Holy crap!
At first I really was not sure what to do. Did this guy just have a heart attack right there on the mountain at 2am in front of me? Or was he just tired and wanted to stop and rest for a moment? The seconds ticked off while I strained to see any movement, but there was none. Finally I called out to him (I had to yell since the wind was howling so loud, and was not sure he would even hear me). "Are you OK?"
And then the body instantly sprang to life - I think I scared him to death! (He had no idea I was there.) He was indeed OK, and had stopped to lay down in the snow for a few minutes to cool down. He climbed on up to me and we started a conversation. Turns out he had been a camp counselor of Amber's one summer when she was at the Ozark Natural Science Center! (now living in another part of the country) What were the chances?
He said he wanted to see where the trail went, and he heard that there was a wild mountain goat up there somewhere (that would be me). I told him what I knew of the trail ahead, and sent him on his way. An hour later, I saw another figure coming up the steep trail - and it turned out to be the same guy! I had sent him off in one direction, yet he returned from below. He had gotten lost and ended up back down at the resort, so he was making another go at climbing higher. So this time I took him up higher on the mountain and showed him the path, and off he went into the night, no pack, no light - who was the wild mountain goat?
Another hour passed and the lights had pretty much stopped for the night, but I was a little hesitant to pack up and hike down because the hiker had never come back down and I was beginning to get a little worried about him. The temperature was 29 degrees below zero, and the wind continued to howl at speed of 30-40mph, with gusts even higher. I would discover later that the wind chill while I was on the mountain was at least 67 degrees below zero - wow!
It was after 3am when the guy finally appeared - this time coming down from above. It was 4am-something before I quietly snuck into our hotel room, trying not to wake my lovely bride. I got a couple of timelapses and a few other pictures, but mostly I was proud to have been able to stay up there that long (with NO ramen this time!) in such frigid conditions. AND all of my camera systems worked just like I had planned.
SUNDAY, and the trip back to Arkansas. I napped for a few hours, then it was time to get up and pack and leave the Alaskan wilderness. But before we left, Pam and her dad made one final trip to the hot springs - 29 degrees below zero with high winds and those kids still went swimming!
We had a relatively easy trip back to Arkansas - fly to Seattle, then to Dallas, then to Fayetteville in about 12 hours. We made all connections just fine, but then terror stuck in the skies between Seattle and Dallas at 1am-something. We were in a very large jet, which was packed to the gills like all our flights had been. Most everyone was asleep, as we were. We were awakened by a disturbance that was going on in the isle right behind us. At first I heard yelling and lots of noise, then looked over and saw what looked like a struggle going on in the isle. This was just two days after the big jet disappeared in Malaysia, so you can image what was going through everyone's minds when something like this happened. As they turned all the lights inside the plane on and everyone work up, we held our collective breaths and I think started to prepare for the worst.
I won't go into all the details, but will say that one of our dear friends who was on the trip with us had a medical emergency - the shouts were for help, and the struggle was by a military doctor who just happened to be across the isle who literally jumped in to help our friend. It was heartbreaking for us to be right there and not be able to do anything.
I will say that the staff of American Airlines did a terrific job of handling the situation. And certainly so did the military medical guy, and also our very own doctor that was also in the group with us. It was about 30 minutes later that our friend had been stabilized and made comfortable, and we landed in Dallas on time. Everything turned out OK thank goodness.
One funny one at the other end of all that, when we stepped out of the terminal in Arkansas the sun was shining, it was 60 degrees, and there were literally birds everywhere chirping! And I had to dug into my suitcase for a DOWN JACKET because I was cold!!!
A FEW RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT THE TRIP. First, the clothing. I've never experienced anything close the frigid temps we were expecting, and even though the actual temps were warmer than what I had planned for (I kept telling myself it was going to be 40 below zero every night), the high winds the last two nights pushed the temp far below that. I was totally prepared and never really had an issue with the cold. And I only really purchased one additional item of clothing for the trip - a down jacket that I got at the Pack Rat during their winter sale. All the other clothes that I used were left over from our winter trip to Yellowstone several years ago.
I did go through a wave of buying gloves this past winter though - both for Alaska and also since I'm working on a nighttime photo book right now so have to work in frigid Arkansas temps at night a lot. Guess what - after going through literally DOZENS of different types of gloves and mittens, I ended up using a single pair of LINER GLOVES in Alaska - nothing more, even at 67 degrees below zero! I simply kept my hands in my pockets most of the time and my hands were generally just fine. I did fill my pockets with chemical hand warmers, and that was the key - keeping those fingertips toasty while they were in my pockets. And I will tell you that the ONLY hand warmers I've used that work well are labeled "18 hour" Hot Hands. They are larger and a little more expensive, but darn well worth it.
I went though tons of different things to keep my feet warm too - including electric soles and electric socks - but nothing worked any better than simply wearing a single pair of socks and winter boots that I got for Yellowstone. The key to staying warm for any body parts is to be able to move that part - i.e., two pairs of heavy socks actually restricted blood blow and did not keep my feet as warm as a single sock.
I did have up to four layers of head/face covering on much of the time - that darn wind!!! There were a few funny times when my mustache froze solid and got a pretty heavy coating of ice on it - and the only way to clean it off was to cover with a layer and let it melt some, then brush all the ice out with my hand.
And twice my eyelids FROZE SHUT!!! Such a helpless experience, especially when I was high up on that windswept mountain in the wee hours of the morning, all by myself. The solution was simple - just cup my hand over that eye and wait for the warmth of my hand to melt the ice.
I admit there were a few times up on that mountain when I wondered what the heck I was doing there in such extreme conditions. This was not a paid job, but it was a job for me - just like everything that I do with a camera - I'm not paid a cent for doing it, only if I sell something later. But I'm in this nighttime photo mode right now, and shooting the Northern Lights in Alaska in the middle of Alaska is about as extreme as it gets for that. There were times sitting or standing there in the snow at a zillion degrees below zero when I thought back to the climber who froze to death on Everest, but got to talk to his wife and kids via satellite phone as he waited to die - my nose texting picked up a bit during those times.
Generally speaking, it was quite satisfying to me during those late nights all alone to be where I was, doing what I was doing, at this point in my life and career. Certainly there was no particular skill level nor competition required to win to do what I was doing - all you have to do is buy a plane ticket and go. But it just felt great to be there, and I was a happy camper! It was most rewarding too to be able to share all of this with my friends and colleges who came on this trip with us - AND ESPECIALLY to be with Pam's parents, and to hear her mom (who does NOT like the cold!) say that "Minus 2 degrees is not all THAT bad." (I will remind her of that from time to time.)
Camera equipment. I took both a Nikon d800e and a Canon 6d camera with me, along with three lenses - a 14-24mm, 14mm, and 15mm fisheye - all three lenses were Nikons, but I had an adapter to use any of them on the Canon (I only used the 14mm on the Canon, which is what I used for the timelapse photos). I carried a lot of memory cards (only used two of them, downloading each card to my computer and a backup external harddrive each day, then reused the memory cards). And a TON of camera batteries - cold weather really zaps batteries quickly. But I guess the new camera batteries these days don't know about such things - I never used more than 40% of any battery - even after shooting hundreds of photos in temps way below zero! Oh, and I also took two of my largest tripods with me - took them apart and put the legs in checked luggage, but kept the special geared heads with me on the plane - my carry-on camera bag weighed quite a bit - glad they never weighed it! One last note about the tripods - I made up a set of "snowshoes" for my tripods so they would set up on top of the deep snow, and those worked out just great! (Thanks to the great John Shaw for this tip.) Exposures were generally ISO 6400, f2.8, 2-4 seconds.
I did not come home with the world's greatest Aurora photos - it takes a LOT more work and time and effort than I put in to accomplish anything near that. But I was happy with the way all of my systems worked out - just another part of the learning curve I continue to go through. At some point I will put together one of those timelapses and figure out a way to post it here so you can see the lights dance. (Fellow photographers Ray Scott and Jay McDonald's pictures turned out a lot beter than mine!)
Food. I never eat fancy food - we simply can't afford it, and I probably would not even if we could. But while at the resort our food was included, so we got to sample some top-shelf items off the menu that we normally would never order. There were four items I ate on this trip that will stick out in my mind as some of the best I've ever eaten, ever (in no particular order). First, a salad that I had at the XNA airport before we ever took off from Arkansas - it was just incredible! (I LOVE salads, and it was perhaps the best I ever ate - funny, but in order to go back to that restaurant, I would have to buy a ticket somewhere since it is inside the secure area, ha, ha!). Then there was the ICE CREAM and RAMEN noodles that I have already talked about - if I never eat anything half as good I will be a happy camper! Ramen and ice cream as top picks - who would a thunk it! And finally, I had a lunch dish of smoked salmon and pasta at the resort that was one of the best past or fish dishes I've ever put into my mouth - and it was one of the cheaper items on the menu! Wow, it was so good!
Finally, if you have never seen the true Northern Lights (not the faint glow that we sometimes see in the lower 48), I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you schedule a trip to Alaska or Canada or Iceland or Norway next winter. These things go in cycles, and March 2014 was pretty much the peak of an 11-year cycle, but they will still be pretty darn nice next winter. All you need to do is get into an ice-cream-eating-at-30-below frame of mind and you will do fine!
3/10/14 I POST THIS PHOTO (below) IN MEMORY OF OUR GREAT FRIEND, JOHN BENISH, who today is now walking the trails in heaven, waving a magic wand of light so that all can see. John and his dear wife, Barbara, have been longtime great friends of ours, and to the Ozark Highlands Trail that he loved so much - He was a trail pioneer, an Elder of The Tribe (he also taught me how to cross-country ski many moons ago). John worked with wood and stone and earth to hand craft the trail, and now completed his Stairway To Heaven. You will be missed by my friend in so many ways. Generations will follow your footsteps to see and experience the great beauty the trail leads them to. Thank you sir for a splendid job, and for all that you have done...
03/11/14 note - We arrived home yesterday morning after a grueling allnight trip down from Alaska - amazing that we can be on the ground in Fairbanks at 5pm, and land in Arkansas by 9am the next morning! We spent most of yesterday just trying to get back to the cabin from town, unload the car, and sleep - we did a lot of that. Although not much work was done to catch up business-wise, we will work hard on that today and expect to ship out all orders that were placed while we were gone. It will take me a while to sit down and complete the narrative of our trip to post here, and to get the new Print Of The Week selected, processed, and posted, but I do plan to get all of that done later today or tomorrow. PLUS I hope to have an amazing timelapse video of the Aurora as it swirled and danced through the night - it will be later in the week before I'm able to figure out how to do that. Going from a low of about 65 degrees F below zero (wind chill, minus 29 actual temp) early Sunday to a high of near 80 degrees here this afternoon will be tough on our mental system!
03/15/14 My feet were so cold they were numb, and the rest of my legs were aching - I felt like a drunk stumbling around as I tried to walk. The funny part about this is the fact that I was not in Alaska at 30 below zero, but rather this happened just this morning as I was taking pictures in a swamp in southeast Arkansas! I had been out in the swamp in waist-deep water for a couple of hours, and the cold water got to me. I didn't have any insulated waders - nor any waders at all - in fact since I knew my jeans would be of no help, I was only wearing underwear - no wonder my feet went numb, ha, ha!
It was kind of creepy being out in the swamp at night, but I was focused on getting a good picture and now with the possibility of alligators harassing me so I didn't think about it too much. I was a little concerned about Lucy though, our little dog who was with me on this trip. I hated to lock her in the van, so I let her run free - knowing that since she is not fond of water that she would stay out of the swamp (where she would probably have been just a snack for an alligator). She was wearing her little vest with reflective tape stripes, and so everytime I looked over her direction with a flashlight I could see those stripes glowing in the dark. She sat around on the shore for a little while, then eventually worked her way back to the van, and then finally climbed up into the van and went to bed - I had left the door open and pointing my direction so I could even see her stripes when she was in her little bed. I was a couple hundred feet out in the swamp. Good dog.
After a couple of hours of shooting I was getting so cold that I decided to return to the van and make a cup of hot chocolate. While in Alaska I had asked my doctor friend what food I could eat while out in the cold to help warm myself up, and he said "Drink hot liquid!" I find that when I eat something like an energy bar while I'm cold, I get even colder as the blood heads to the stomach to start processing the food. HOT chocolate - that even sounds good - and it worked! I never did feel my feet again as I waded back out into the swamp to continue working, but mentally I sure felt a lot warmer.
Lucy and I spent a couple of hours last night in another part of the swamp at the Champion Cypress Tree. It was an easy mile hike to get there, and since I stayed put in one spot while shooting the tree, Lucy decided to just lay down and watch - and I was happy for her not to roam around too much - alligators you know. After I packed up and started to hike back to the van, I found the trail difficult to see and follow - the entire area was covered with leaves and there was no clear path. And since this area is flat, I didn't have any landmarks to follow. But I figured I could just follow Lucy - she is really good and running ahead on the trail. But I discovered early on that she wanted to wander off the path and play some games with me, and often I found myself a hundred feet or more from the trail! The nearly-full moon lit up the landscape really well, but didn't seem to help much. We eventually made it back to the van OK, then drove on over to the other part of the swamp where I soon got cold feet.
A couple of wildlife notes from the giant cypress tree. As soon as we arrived right after dark a group of geese struck up a conversation in a small lake nearby. It was easy to understand why they are called a "gaggle" of geese. As the night drew one the geese got louder and LOUDER! Then something must have startled them and they all went silent and I never heard a peep - or a honk - out of them again.
Just about that time I nearly jumped out of my shorts - a giant owl landed in the champion cypress tree just above me and started to HOOT. This beautiful music echoed throughout the swamp. The owl just sat there hooting and looking down at me. It was a beautiful night with the bright moon, lots of stars, miles and miles of big cypress trees all around me, and that big old owl. It was one of those moments when I felt a great connection with the landscape and the earth. I sat down next to Lucy in the leaves and soaked it all in for a while.
The largest living thing in Arkansas
We had arrived at the swamp about midnight the night before. I wandered around in the swamp for a while trying to find a composition to shoot a timelapse of. My timelapses are a series of individual photos taken one after another over a period of time - in my case I usually shoot between 900-1200 photos during the night, one every 31 seconds. Then I assemble them all together at something like 30 frames a seconds to show as a short video. I'm hopeful that I'll have several of these to include in my new book project slide program later this fall. Each timelapse should have a related photo in the book - in many cases the book photo will be ALL of the timelapse pictures stacked together.
I found a couple of different scenes that looked good, so set up two cameras, tripods, external batteries, and Intervalometers (what controls the camera the entire time), did a few test exposures, then hit the start button. It was about 1am when Lucy and I went to bed for a few hours of napping while the cameras did their thing. It was a crystal-clear night with a big, bright moon high overhead.
When I returned to turn off the cameras the next morning, I discovered that the moon moved directly through the frame of both camera setups - this was my very first time to do a moonset timelapse, and one of them turned out pretty well. I have not perfected my own way of showing you these timelapses online, but I suspect one of them will be in the program this fall - it is going to look pretty darn amazing up on that big screen!
Speaking of big screens, we are having a program at the Springfield, Missouri library on April 5th next month. they have a limited number of seats (170) in their auditorium, and I just heard that all the seats have already been taken during the first week they were announced. This program is part of their "Call Of The Wild" series, so I'm going to be showing my Yellowstone In Winter slide show that contains photos of the wolves from our winter trip there several years ago. I have not seen that program in several years, and look forward to digging back into the photos and soundtrack as I convert it to the new higher-resolution projection system that we now use.
AND THE NEXT DAY, on April 6th, we'll have our SPRING OPEN HOUSE here at our Canvas Prints Gallery. This will be the first one we've ever had on a Sunday. If you are the type who likes to get out into the grandest cathedral of all to worship on Sunday (the great outdoors!), stop by the gallery between 10am-4pm.
THE FOLLOWING WEEKEND, April 12th, begins our spring workshop schedule. We still have spaces open in all of our one-day workshops, so if you or anyone you know want to come out for a fun (and exhaustive!) day of learning, now is the time to sign up. ALL SKILL LEVELS are welcome, and there is no minimum camera equipment required.
Oh yes, back to the cold - I never did finish up my Alaska trip narrative - seems like every time I sit down to work on that something else comes up and I put it off, as I have done so again...
03/16/14 What is that MUSIC I hear early this morning? 'Tis the sound of RAIN - wonderful rain - YIPPIE COYOTE! The landscape here in the High Ozarks has gotten rather parched of late, and we really need moisture, and a lot of it. And right on cue we are supposed to get good amounts of rain much of the day today - did I mention that I just LOVE rain?! And then tonight it may turn to snow and pile up a bit - did I mention that I LOVE snow too?!!! March is when we typically get those deep, wet snows, and I only hope that it does happen and that the heavy winds quit so that the snow will stock to tree branches. The only issue with lots of rain/waterfalls and snowfall is that since I'm working on a nighttime photo book, I have to plan my photo adventures for nighttime scenes and composition, which are usually more difficult to come up with and execute (although if I stay up here in the Ozarks at least I won't have to worry about alligators!).
Already this morning I hear something quite odd - there is noise coming from Amber's room. She has not been home since Christmas break a couple of months ago. The poor girl not only is carrying a heavy load at school, but she also is working an almost-fulltime job as an intern at a CPA firm in Springfield, has been on the volleyball team, and several other active groups, and oh yes, also works on Saturdays! Her boss has already asked her to come work during spring break this week, so we may not have much time with her - you know, the call of money is loud and sweet. Each moment we get to spend with her is sweet though, so we are happy campers at Cloudland today!
If we do happen to get a lot of rainfall and rivers and waterfalls flood, PLEASE remember that high water can be extremely dangerous - so my advise, is to NOT cross any high water, and always view waterfalls from a distance. Spring will be upon us this week, and I believe we'll have a very spectacular spring season here - as they usually always are!
One note about spring - with all the crazy weather we've had in the High Ozarks, our little trout lily wildflower that is usually the very first flower to bloom here has NOT bloomed yet - a new late record for her! No doubt that will happen this week, and I suspect we'll begin to see millions of tiny wildflowers popping up all over the place in the forest.
Was there something else I needed to tell you? Oh yes, ALASKA! I will make a post on our Facebook page when I finally have the rest of that trip written up and posted here. In the mean time - come on rain and snow!!!
03/17/14 The temp was a cool 21 degrees when I headed out the door at 4am this morning - actually rather BALMY compared to our recent trip up north, and an even 50 degrees warmer in fact! We ended up getting 3-4 inches of snow yesterday, and it seemed like most of it was clinging to the low-hanging branches and in my face as I hiked down the slope to Hawksbill Crag. Funny though, this snow came down REALLY wet and soggy, yet all the snow this morning was quite dry - is it possible that the humidity dropped very low overnight and sucked moisture out of the snow?
The nearly-full moon was just beginning to break through the clouds as I hiked, and the snow-covered landscape was very bright. I set up a couple of cameras on tripods and spent the next hour shooting some scenes of the Crag. With the moonlight on it and the surrounding wilderness, and a few stars popping out in the sky behind, it was a beautiful and somewhat unreal scene. My photos looked just like daylight, if you didn't notice those stars. And then VENUS popped up on the horizon and began to rise into the scene - brighter than any star.
Soon all the clouds were gone and the sky above had a few more stars in the a sea of dark blue. With the bright moon though, there were not too many stars. I shot on a little while longer, with Venus becoming more and more a supporting actress to the Crag, and it seemed to balance nicely.
I was back at the cabin sipping a cup of hot cocoa by the time the sun arrived - looks like it's going to be a bright and warm day, so all the snow will melt off quickly. The lower elevations here did not have any snow stick - just up on the hills. But the creeks below are running wildly, and having a happy day! Yesterday things were flooded pretty bad, and waterfalls were muddy and kind of ugly. Today things will clear up quite a bit as the water levels begin to drop, although it is not a good waterfall photo day due to the bright sunshine. But it is Monday, my most favorite day of the week, so I am a happy camper - hope you have a good one!