Denali Road Lottery by Michael Johns

More than a century ago, the United States congress was persuaded to create Denali National Park, a now 6 million acre wildlife preserve named after the tallest mountain in North America. By design, the human footprint within the park remains minimal, with few facilities, no real hiking trails, and a single 92 mile-long dirt road. Private vehicles are restricted beyond the Savage River Campground, at mile 15 on the park road. From there, a fleet of buses services the remainder of the road, allowing visitors to hop on and off wherever they like. This enables the public to access the spectacular wildlife and scenery the park has to offer, without the headache and chaos of thousands of vehicles clogging up the road every time a brown bear crosses.

At the end of the summer tourist season in mid September, the buses are parked for the winter and the full length of the Denali park road opens to select group of lottery winners. Every year people can enter what is called the Denali Road Lottery, where up to 1600 private vehicles (400 per day over a 4-day period) are selected at random and allowed to drive the 92 mile stretch of wilderness road all the way to its terminus at Wonder Lake. Winners of this lottery have the freedom to drive at their leisure, stopping whenever and wherever scenic vistas and wild animals are encountered.

According to the National Parks Service website, roughly 11,400 applications were received in 2017, equating to a 1 and 7 odds of getting drawn. Casey was lucky enough to be drawn, which aligned perfectly with a visit from our good friend Amy. So on the final day of the road lottery, we got to experience the fall colors, sweeping views, and iconic Alaskan wildlife of Denali. Except the actual mountain itself, which was cloaked in low clouds and fog…

One of the big draws to visiting Denali National Park is the chance to get close looks at wildlife that is otherwise more elusive outside the park’s boundaries. Just minutes into the drive, we spotted a large flock of willow ptarmigan waddling along the gravel shoulder. Birds don’t stop up traffic in quite the same way as the large mammals like bears, moose, and caribou do. It was easy to tell when a grizzly had been sighted, where sometimes 20 or more cars would pull over with long expensive lenses sticking out of passenger windows, aiding newcomers by pointing out which direction to look for the bear. The following is our sightings list for the day:

Horned Grebe - 2
Greater Scaup - 12
American Widgeon - 8
Spruce Grouse - 1
Willow Ptarmigan - 27
Grey Jay - 5
Black-billed Magpie - 10

Brown Bear - 3
Moose - 3
Caribou - 8
Dall Sheep - 49
Red Fox - 1
Porcupine - 1
Arctic Ground Squirrel - 1

We were lucky to win the road lottery, but not so lucky with the weather. A very wet and rainy fall this year in interior Alaska meant that most of the towering mountains, including the biggest of them all, were obscured from view. Still, what we could see at ground level was more than enough to make the trip worth while. Perhaps next year we will win another day in the park and try our luck again.

Orange is the New Fairbanks by Michael Johns

For a brief moment in time, vegetative colors in the far north shift from the middle of the visible spectrum (green, where photosynthesis occurs), to the " far right" shades of amber and red. September in interior Alaska offers a narrow window for fall foliage, with reduced day-lengths and colder nightly temperatures signaling to the trees and shrubs a change in the season. The tundra is particularly breathtaking this time of year, as the grasses become fiery orange and the ground cover of blue and bear berries develops a rich red hue. Contrasting this warm color palette are patches of mint green lichen, wind swept grey granite, and the occasional stunted dark green spruce. The golden hour of sunset, still prolonged given the sun's path at such a high latitude, only serves to enhance the overwhelming golden look of the landscape. 

To take advantage of this narrow window of fall colors, we packed up the truck for a quick overnight camping trip with our friend Kyle, at his "secret" berry picking spot just over an hour's drive outside of town. Clear skies offered sweeping views of Minto Flats, a 500,000 acre wetland and state game refuge. As darkness fell, a complete absence of the moon allowed the Milky Way an it's billions of other worlds to shine. Later in the night, material flowing from our own star triggered a decent display of northern lights over our tents, with subtle pinks and purples not visible to the naked eye revealed with a long-exposure of the camera. Waking up to a frosty morning tundra and sundogs were a sobering reminder that winter is just around the corner. 

New Aurora Season by Michael Johns

The Kp index, a measure of the strength of geomagnetic storms from the sun, spiked last night; jumping from a mild 3 to a strong 7. It turns out the Earth had passed through the wake of a coronal mass ejection, where the sun essentially burps out a giant plasma cloud that travels outward from the source as solar wind. This wake weakened the magnetosphere of our planet, allowing solar wind to spill into the upper atmosphere and take on the form of bright green aurora. Space weather forecasters were not predicting this event, a surprise display of northern lights that kicked off the 2018-19 aurora season. 

Ken's Pond in Late Summer by Michael Johns

A brief visit from our good friend Laura prompted a much needed cabin retreat, this time a return trip to Ken's Pond. This public use cabin offers sweeping views of the snow-capped Alaska Range towering over a small beaver pond. Accessible by "highway vehicle" in the summer, we traversed the 5 mile rutted dirt road in my Tacoma to a pullout at the top of a ridge line, where we walked the remaining 800 yards down to the cabin. Highway vehicle is a bit generous for this road, as 4 wheel drive and a high clearance was necessary for navigating the deep mud puddles and trenches.   

As is typical for Ken's Pond, the wind was fierce. The high altitude wind shear, however, created some awesome lenticular clouds; stationary UFO-shaped features formed when a steady stream of moist air encounters an obstacle, in this case a mountain range.  

Highlights from our quick overnighter included circumnavigating the pond, a rousing game of scattergories categories, admiring Noosa, pond-chilled beer, finding coal, wind, and sightings of a beaver (Ken), caribou, and a bull moose. Another memorable visit to Ken's Pond.

Spring Snowfall by Michael Johns

During my brief break from the island, it snowed, in May. Winter is reluctant to release its icy grip on Fairbanks, which doesn't seem to bother our dog Noosa all that much. I won't be back up north until August, just before another long winter settles in. 

La Paz by Michael Johns

The Pacific Seabird Group puts on an annual conference to bring together scientists and students studying seabirds around the Pacific. Last year the conference was held in rainy Tacoma Washington. This year it was held in sunny La Paz, on the southern end of Baja California Mexico (see map below). I used the timing and location of this year's conference to give a talk on my double brooding work with Cassin's auklets, and take a much needed vacation from Fairbanks with Casey before I head out to the Farallones for another summer field season. Once the conference ended, we spent much of our time wading through the thigh-deep turquoise water of Balandra Beach, lounging in the sand, hiking among cacti, birding the Malecon, and drinking margaritas. 

The highlight of our trip was the chance to swim with the world's largest fish, the whale shark. These massive filter feeders can reach lengths of up to 40 feet, and are found in warm tropical waters throughout the world. According to a paper by Ramírez-Macías and colleagues published in 2012, La Paz is one of several sites in the Sea of Cortez where predominately juvenile whale sharks congregate to feed in shallow plankton-rich waters. The site is a short panga ride from La Paz, on the north side of a long sand spit called El Mogote. We spent roughly 40 minutes watching a small (20 foot?) male slowly strain tiny plankton from the surface waters, which during this time of year felt less tropical and more temperate. The photo below was taken in Bahia de los Angeles, another important juvenile staging area further north, during my first encounter with whale sharks in 2006. 

The images above, in order of appearance are: marbled godwits, magnificent frigatebird, tricolored heron, reddish egret, yellow-footed gull (eating a puffer fish), unknown mangrove crab, parade of brown nudibranchs found at low tide in the mangroves (presumably breeding). 

Map of Baja California created with ggplot2 in R. Colored regions indicate topography of land, grays indicate bathymetry of the sea, for those not familiar with the region. La Paz is tucked away on a shallow bay at the southern tip on the Sea of Cortez side. The color pallette for this plot was inspired by the local geology.

Solstice Fireworks by Michael Johns

Fireworks displays are not very effective on the 4th of July in Fairbanks, considering during that time there is essentially no night. Instead, organizers put on a brief "celebration of lights" display over the Chena River in downtown to welcome the winter solstice, for which there is plenty of night. 

Winter Solstice in Fairbanks by Michael Johns

It has been a long dark winter here in Fairbanks, and now that the winter solstice has passed, we can slowly watch the sun reappear from the south. The winter solstice, as we know, is the shortest day of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere. For those of use near the Arctic Circle, the total day length during the winter solstice maxes out at just over 3 hours and 40 minutes...not much sun to work with. Day is a relative term during this time in Fairbanks, as the sun barely peeks above the Alaska Range before dipping back down again, essentially 3 hours and 40 minutes of a merged sunrise and set. 

A Windy Ken's Pond by Michael Johns

Sustained 30 knots, gusting to 70, horizontal snow and possible white-out conditions ... why not go for hike? Casey and I had already cancelled our much needed overnight cabin trip last week, so we were determined to make the short five mile trek out to Ken's Pond this time despite the blowy weather. The occasional gust knocked us sideways over a few exposed stretches, but overall it was a fairly painless walk.

The wood stove was fired up immediately upon arrival. It was unseasonably warm for mid December at this latitude, in the high 30's, but our faces needed a bit of warming up from the wind chill. Trapped inside for most of our short stay given the howling wind outside, the cabin journal kept us entertained for a little while, as we caught up on all the Ken's Pond happenings since our last visit in March. 

Noosa was pretty wiped from the walk in. She normally sleeps all day. 

The northern lights appeared to be putting on a good show above a thin layer of clouds throughout the night, but no tripod could stand against those winds, so I didn't attempt to photograph it. A momentary pocket of clear sky, however, allowed the lights to shine an eerie green onto the Alaska Range to the west, and I did manage to get a few shots through a window framed by a warm fire. 

The winds remained strong in the morning, but gradually subsided on our hike back out. On the drive home to Fairbanks, we came upon a small herd of caribou just south of Delta Junction. It was a nice conclusion to our quick escape from Fairbanks.

Tern-niversary by Michael Johns

Today is the 5-year anniversary of the great microburst of 2012, a brief yet destructive meteorological phenomenon that effectively put an end to a remote long-term seabird monitoring camp on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals. This event also prematurely ended my scheduled six month deployment as a field tech on this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific. I wrote about my experience of the great storm back in 2012, and decided to repost the old blog here. The following is my account of that day, along with some grammatical fixes and updated photos.

Sunday December 9th, 4:30 AM:

I awoke as I always did around 4:30 in the morning to start the day. It was muggy and warm when I went to bed so I left my windows open to get some breeze. It had apparently rained throughout the night, slightly flooding my room. I normally got up this early to use the unlimited download time we were given for the internet (from midnight to 6am), but it had been down the night before, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother getting out of bed to test it. But the lightning outside was pretty cool, and a cup of coffee sounded really good, so I got up anyway. The lightning was indeed amazing; it was like storms I had seen visiting my brother in Alabama, the sky lit up like a dying light bulb blinking every few seconds. It kept going, never really producing any bolts, it just lit the clouds a brilliant purple hue. Although it was raining steadily, the direction the rain was falling kept the water off the porch, so I sat outside with my coffee in the warm morning air and photographed the lightning show. The wind was coming from the south, so I stayed relatively dry sitting in the lee of the building.

5:45 AM:

After watching the weather for a while, trying to catch the occasional lightning bolt, the wind abruptly swung from the south to the north, driving the rain straight onto the porch. At first it was tolerable, but then the rain grew heavier, getting me and my camera gear wet. I immediately took my tripod down and went back inside, and as I shut the front door to keep the rain out I noticed that the temperature had rapidly dropped at least ten degrees, like I was standing in front of an open freezer door. It got so cold I almost felt I could see my breath. I didn’t think much of it. I figured the cold front had just passed over us, explaining the shift in the wind and the sudden increase in rain.  Although this had never happened before, so I thought it noteworthy. In the meantime the lighting intensified, it was now producing proper bolts and very loud thunder, the storm was right on top of us. With nothing else to do I sat down at my computer in the radio room and gave the internet a shot. Amazingly, it worked enough for me to send an email out to Casey, bragging about how cool the lightning was and how monstrous the surf sounded.

Sometime around 6:00 AM:

I had just sent Casey an email, and was sitting at my computer thinking what I was going to write about the storm (I usually wrote up or edited a journal entry in the morning), when out of the blue the VHF radio on a shelf behind me started producing static, like the sound an analog TV makes when it’s not receiving a signal. I had never heard it do this before, I wasn't even aware the radio was on, so it startled me. With this and the extremely cold air minutes earlier, I began to worry that something was off. Then the sky just opened up and dumped the heaviest rain I had ever heard, as if the building was sitting beneath a massive waterfall. The radio kept chattering and the rest happened so fast it’s hard to describe. Like a shockwave the pressure in room grew so strong my ears started popping, and I began hearing a faint rumbling sound that swiftly grew louder. This was immediately followed by a swift blast of cold wind to the face, as if someone had just kicked open the emergency exit of a plane in mid flight. Books from the shelf behind me and pieces of debris started flying about the room, and I instinctively dove under the computer desk and covered my face. At this point the rumbling was all around me. It sounded like metal and wood were being run through a blender, lots of banging, cracking and screeching. It was the most violent sound I had ever heard. I had visions of the movie Twister playing in my head, dairy cows levitating and all, but I had no idea was going on and I thought for sure the whole building was falling down. I wondered if the Mayans had been right all along, the world was coming to an end (This was 2012 after all). I figured I was going to be buried in a pile of rubble when it was all over. The chaos lasted for about 5 seconds and then stopped. The rain, the wind, everything was calm again. I stayed under the desk, not knowing what was going on. Then I heard Morgan say from the hall, “where’s Mike?”, and at that point I got my first glimpse of the extent of the damage. Initially, I was shocked to see one of the interior walls and the door to the radio room had been knocked down, and the place was littered with soggy books and sheets of data.

Then I saw the common room. It was just after six now, still too early for the sun, and the whole building was dark. The lightning flashed and revealed all the walls were gone. It was such an eerie sight. Every time the lighting went off, where the entertainment center stood, the bookshelves, the chalkboard with our daily schedule, it was all just an open view of a tumultuous sea and a nasty sky. The wind was blowing salt spray and rain right through our dining area, chairs were strewn about the room, and the kitchen was covered with knives, pots and pans – it was a mess. The wind had been so strong it moved stoves in the kitchen, and blew a heavy freezer full of old video tapes clear through a wall and out the building. We had just rearranged the movie area, and set up the Christmas tree for the holidays, and it was now a massive pile of junk. Broken glass, bad novels, random debris had been blown out with the east walls, landing in a fan outside on top of albatrosses incubating eggs. The entire scene was a disaster.

Four rooms, including mine, had been completely blown out. It was a jungle of shattered drywall and mangled aluminum framing that had been ripped from their foundations. Fortunately I wasn’t in my room, and all other occupied rooms only received minor damage. The west end of the hallway was so mangled the last three rooms were inaccessible. One unused bed was buried under three different walls. If anyone had been sleeping there they would have been crushed. We really lucked out.

The damage was extensive. The boathouse looked like a bomb had gone off, the tractor shed had gaping holes in its concrete walls, there were many leaks in the plumbing, the solar panels were torn from the braces, radio antennas were stripped off the roof, six bedrooms, one office, two bathrooms, the laundry room, and all of the common room had their exterior walls blown out, and a few other structures including fuel storage units and a couple fiberglass boat hulls were scattered around the west portion of the island. We took a big hit, and it was all a major shock to witness.

Even more disturbing was searching for injured and buried birds. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for rescue workers on scene at the World Trade Centers or in Japan after the tsunami. It was very difficult seeing albatrosses, birds that I have been admiring for years, with broken wings and bloody necks stuck beneath sheets of wall panels. Some were killed instantly by projectiles, others were flattened on their nests, and many were simply limping around with mangled wings. Since the debris from our buildings had inflected the most damage to the wildlife, it was our responsibility to euthanize the suffering birds. Something I hope to never have to do again. The death count is as follows: 62 Brown Noddies, 97 Black Noddies, 10 White Terns, 17 Red-footed Boobies, 6 Great Frigatebirds, 1 Pacific Plover, 24 Laysan Albatross, and 22 Black-footed Albatross, for a total of 239 birds of which 79 were banded.

It’s amazing how selective these storms can be. You always hear stories about how tornados will completely disintegrate one home, and leave another only feet away untouched. The microburst we experienced only affected the west end of the island where all of our facilities stood. The east end of the island showed no signs of damage. It appeared every leaf and branch hadn’t even been rustled. The wind apparently stopped at the warehouse to the east, and was most intense near the boathouse to the west. As much as I can gather from Wikipedia, a microburst forms by the rapid evaporation of highly saturated air in a thunder head. As the mass of air evaporates, it cools. The sudden cooling forces the air mass to descend from the cloud, accelerating as it falls through the wet air below. When the air mass eventually collides with the ground it can reach speeds of 150 mph, leveling anything that stands in its way. At least that’s what I think happens. Either way the point is it gets very windy very fast, and causes intense localized destruction.

The storm carried on for three days. It was difficult to sleep the first night after the disaster. No longer did we trust the integrity of the building. We were convinced that the next big gust could blow the whole place down. The rooms in the north wing where we moved all of our valuables and beds were mostly intact, although the roofing had been compromised and new leaks had sprung open.  We were able to recover most of the archived data, although some had been saturated, and luckily all of our expensive computers and camera gear survived. My computer was covered in dirt and debris and had a desk lamp fall on the keyboard, but it still worked. We boarded up the kitchen and the exposed hallway, and somehow managed to recover the internet, although its functionality was limited. The solar panels were damaged, but remained intact enough to still charge the battery bank. Chad fixed the broken pipes in the plumbing and shunted all water to the north hall. We limped along for 10 days. In the meantime we piled all the wooden debris on the runway for a bonfire, and did what we could to secure all other lost items that might otherwise blow around and cause more injury to the birds.

Christmas Harvest by Michael Johns

Our 4th and final post Thanksgiving Christmas tree harvest in Fairbanks. Despite the cold temps we were committed to finding the best one, since this will be our last white Christmas in the far north. After shaking the snow off of several duds, we eventually stumbled upon the one while heading back to the truck. As usual, I spent the whole time documenting Casey's work. 

Gear by Michael Johns

My first digital SLR was a Canon Rebel, purchased with the money I had saved working as a deckhand on whale watching boats back in college. The motivation for this purchase was originally for photographing whales, in between vomit cleanup duty and selling hot chocolate to underdressed and hypothermic passengers. My interests in photography, and acquisition of new gear, slowly diversified over the years. Here is a sample of the gear I currently carry in my pack. 



Canon 6D - My first full frame sensor. I use this body to shoot landscapes and portraits. It handles low light situations requiring higher ISO very well, and has come in handy in particular for photographing the northern lights.
Canon 60D - I picked this up while working in Australia. The 60D body always has my long lens mounted on it, and is now solely used to photograph wildlife and action scenes. 


Canon 70-200mm f/4L - I couple this lens with a Canon 1.4 extender. The combination of the cropped sensor in the 60D and the extender gives me plenty of zoom for photographing the birds and beasts. This workhorse has been in use since 2006, and the only old age related issue I've had with it is a sticky focus wheel. 
Canon 85mm f/1.8 - I purchased this 85mm prime for portrait sessions, mostly of my dog Noosa. The large aperture creates some smooth bokeh, and it's super fast in low light. It doesn't have the elusive red ring of an L-series lens, but the images still come out sharp and crisp.
Canon 17-40mm f/4L - My everyday lens. This mid-range zoom is dedicated to the 6D, and is great for wide landscape photos. I occasionally pair this lens with a Canon 12mm extension tube for the rare macro shoot. 
Bower 8mm f/3.5 - My only non-Canon lens. This cool little fisheye was an impulse buy, but I've put it to good use over the years. The 180 degree field of view makes for some unique perspectives. Sadly, the domed objective element was badly scratched recently. The blemish is hardly noticeable in shots of the night sky, so I'm holding onto it until I find a replacement. 


No fancy external flashes yet, but they're on my wish list. I do, however, always carry a headlamp and handheld LED for light painting with long exposures, and for seeing my way around during long winter nights in Fairbanks. 


Intervalometer - This device, which trips the shutter on a preset time interval, was essential during my time lapse phase. I still occasionally use it for shooting aurora and short time lapse sequences in the field.
Canon RC-6 Wireless Remote - I picked this up to use as remote shutter release for a DIY photo booth that never happened at my wedding, and will be used going forward for putting myself in the frame. 
Spare Canon Battery - For obvious reasons. 
Gerber Pocket Knife - Protection from grizzlies when out in the bush. 
Paracord - Mainly to hang weights from the tripod when shooting a time lapse, or to fix items in the frame. 
Zippo Hand Warmer - A Christmas gift from my husband that has proven crucial for photographing the aurora when temps drop below zero. Keeps my fingers nice and toasty. 


More Snow Dog by Michael Johns

Noosa makes a great subject for photographing snowy scenes. 

Wedding Preview by Michael Johns

Like any amateur photographer, I've occasionally toyed with the idea of getting into shooting weddings. So just for fun, I've photographed some of the items that appeared in my own wedding in an art studio in Seattle that just wrapped up last night. Something to look back on while Casey and I wait in anticipation for the full suite of images from the photographers we hired. 

Spontaneous Camping Trip by Michael Johns


A massive coronal mass ejection aimed dead on Earth smashed into the magnetosphere last night. Geomagnetic storms were forecasted to be severe, with visible auroras possible from the poles down to the lower 48. It's hard to stay home when the data looks this good. So we didn't. Casey and I quickly pilled the camping gear into the truck and drove above the tree line to achieve sweeping views of the horizon. The auroras ended up being less than we expected, and will likely be best tonight, but we managed to see some displays before the chill of the wind whipping across the open tundra forced us to retreat back into the tent. 

Overnight Trip to the Arctic by Michael Johns

Casey and I decided to get a preview of fall by driving past the Arctic Circle to the Brooks Range. The 9 hour drive along the Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to Galbraith Lake where we camped for the night, slowly progressed into large expanses of fiery colors. As we approached the mountains to the north, the foothills of red and yellow transitioned into a snow-capped winter landscape. Below are some photos of our brief overnight getaway.