travel

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.

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. 

Ken's Pond and a Visit from Denise by Michael Johns

Spring break in Fairbanks means longer days, browner snow, and visitors from the south. This year we had my long-time friend Denise stay with us for a week to experience the best interior Alaska has to offer. Actually, showing her around town made us realize that Fairbanks isn't such a bad place to live after all, although we still have no intentions of staying beyond graduate school. Along with cocktails at Ursa Major, a brief lesson at the curling club, and the Museum of the North, the highlight of Denise's visit was an overnight trip to a public use cabin on Ken's Pond. Conditions were ideal for the five mile trek out, with sunny bluebird skies, a well packed trail, and sweeping views of the Alaska Range to the south. As a bonus on our way to the trailhead, we discovered where all the moose seem congregate during the winter, on a stretch of flat exposed land just south of Delta Junction used by the military as a landing strip. We counted at least 15 moose in one area, with 5 exhibiting herd-like behavior. 

The skies turned cloudy and full of fine snow as the night fell over the cabin, thwarting our plans of viewing the northern lights. Instead, we drank a bottle of champagne each and played Phase 10 in the warmth of a blazing wood-stove; a card game which I have no intentions of ever playing again. The clouds parted at sunrise, allowing for grand views of mountains steeped in a morning glow. The sun fully broke through by mid-morning, when we wrapped up our stay at the cabin with a celebratory sledding session across the frozen pond. 

Spring break always aligns with the timing of the World Ice Art Championships, where folks from all over the US and other countries travel to Fairbanks to create single and multi-block masterpieces. The impressive ice sculptures are accompanied by a playground of colorfully illuminated slides, rides, houses, and this year even a maze, all carved out of ice. 

After several nights with no luck, Denise finally got to see the aurora borealis on one of her last nights in Fairbanks. We drove up to Cleary Summit to get better views to the north, and managed to catch the lights before the rising of a nearly full moon. Not the most spectacular show, but enough to convince her of a second visit to the frozen north to try again. 

Bringing Reef Home by Michael Johns

Sunset scattering of Reefer dog at Soberanes Point, Big Sur. From left to right: Denise, Lydia, Renee, Rachel, Reef (in the box), Alex, Casey, Mike, Carl, Louie.

When our dog Reef died a year ago today, Casey and I decided it would be best to scatter his ashes in Big Sur, where he was born and where he spent many days during his younger years on hikes and walks on the beach. This past weekend, a group of my closest friends made the pilgrimage to Monterey Bay to celebrate the life of Reef and share stories of times past. At the edge of a cliff on Soberanes Point, just before the sun dipped below the sea, we toasted Reef with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, said a few words, cried a bit, and one by one tossed a handful of his ashes into a calm offshore breeze. It was the perfect farewell to a dog who was once a giant figure in all of our lives. 

While in town, we visited all the old sites of our college years; including surfing in Santa Cruz and Hotel Beach in Seaside, an early morning whale watch on the bay, sunset at Moss Landing and Marina State Beach, and walks along the rec trail on the Peninsula. Casey and I met five years ago while I was working for the whale watch and he was finishing his masters at Moss Landing Marine Labs, so the Monterey area is a special place for both of us. In the first few minutes of 2017, while dancing to a bluegrass band in the pub where we had our "first date", I asked Casey to marry me. He of course said yes. We had been talking about getting married for a while now, and the time just felt right. 

The four days we spent on the Monterey Bay were filled with sunny days, striking sunsets, familiar wildlife, and gorgeous scenery. Most importantly it was great to catch up with some of my favorite people, remember the past, and embrace the future. 

Return to Fielding Lake by Michael Johns

Casey and I set out on our first Alaska public use cabin trip on New Years Eve two years ago to a place called Fielding Lake, roughly three hours south of Fairbanks along the Richardson Highway. With a cheap Fred Meyer sled that buckled under the weight of excessive fire wood and gear, we walked the short two miles with our late dog Reef to a small cabin situated next to a calm stream within a snowcapped valley. To celebrate the end of a long semester, Casey and I decided to pay a second visit to the Fielding Lake cabin, this time with less weight, a beefier sled, and our new pup Noosa. 

Fair weather and warm temps (for the sub-Arctic) made for a pleasant walk out, with stunning views of the surrounding peaks and stark windswept landscape. A golden sunset mirrored over the unfrozen outlet of the lake, before dipping below the ridge line just after 2pm. Our visit happened to coincide with the winter solstice, with a day length of only three hours and forty minutes at this latitude. 

Our visit to the Fielding Lake cabin also happened to coincide with the arrival of a steady stream of solar wind spewing from a massive hole in the Sun's atmosphere. Space weather forecasters predicted Earth would enter this solar stream during the night of our stay, expected to cause intense displays of Aurora Borealis. The timing, it seems, was a bit off. After checking the sky between games of cribbage and chatting around the wood stove, only minor auroral displays were visible. Still, I managed to capture a few solid bands of green over the cabin before a haze of clouds moved in to coat the landscape with a fresh blanket of snow. 

The Dalton Highway by Michael Johns

Alaska is a vast place with a rich natural history. Such an expanse of land across different elevations and latitudes creates many different biomes to explore. For those who haven't taken an introductory ecology course, a biome is a community of distinct plant and animal species, characterized by a particular climate and typically dominated by a specific vegetative assemblage. Tropical rainforests, deserts, and open oceans are a few examples of different biomes. So far in Alaska, collectively Casey and I have visited the temperate rainforests of Southeast, the islands of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, the ice edge of the Chuckchi Sea, and of course the neverending boreal forest of the interior; but we have yet to spend much time in the tundra of the North Slope. The tundra is a unique circumpolar biome characterized by extremely cold temperatures, limited drainage, low biotic diversity, underlying permafrost, and a short growing season. Plants that do manage to take hold in such difficult conditions, namely bearberry, labrador tea, and caribou moss, exhibit a stunted growth pattern to avoid the harsh winds that whip across the flat landscape. Animals that use the tundra are often migratory, with only a few species that stick around and brave the winter elements after a brief arctic summer.  

Fortunately, for those who want to visit the tundra of Alaska, access to the North Slope is relatively easy. The James W. Dalton Highway was constructed in 1974 to support the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. It snakes its way north to Deadhorse from the junction of the Elliot Highway just outside of Fairbanks. Nicknamed the "Haul Road", this 414 mile stretch of a bumpy mixed gravel and pavement is mainly used by truckers to service the pipeline and the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. Due to its remoteness and hazardous driving conditions, the Dalton Highway is considered to be one of the most isolated and dangerous roads in the US.  Naturally, with an interest in natural history and exploring new places, Casey and I grabbed the dog, packed the truck, and took the drive this past Labor Day weekend. 

It took us about 9 hours to drive 350 miles from Fairbanks to just north of Atigun Pass on day one, where we set up camp at a primitive BLM site near Galbraith Lake. Throughout the drive the landscape changed from mixed stands of spruce and birch in fall colors, to high alpine tundra, back to more mixed forests in the Brooks Range, and eventually the tundra of the north. The Galbraith Lake site offered stunning views of the mountains to the south and endless tundra to the north. On day two, we continued north another 140 miles, following the pipeline to the end of the road at Deadhorse just 8 miles shy of the Beaufort Sea. Access to the Arctic Ocean is restricted to the public unless you take a private tour. We topped off the fuel tank in Deadhorse and returned south again for a second night a Galbraith Lake, a total of 10 hours of driving. On the final day, under cloudy skies and a thin blanket of fresh snow, we made our way back towards Fairbanks. 

Prior to our trip, an active region on the Sun opened up and began spewing solar wind in the direction of Earth. The lag time for solar particles to reach our atmosphere meant that the timing was perfect for G1 class storms across the arctic during out first night at Galbraith Lake. It also just so happened to the most beautifully clear skies possible, and just after sunset, Casey and I witnessed the most impressive aurora borealis we've seen yet. The sky was electric. Bright greens and pinks energetically swept over our campsite, arching and flowing from the horizon like a massive fluorescent river. Quite possibly the most incredible natural event either of us have ever experienced. Casey enjoyed this show in particular since he was able to comfortably watch the lights from the tent, snug within his zero degree sleeping bag. The word "WOW" was uttered many times. 

Along with spectacular scenery, gorgeous weather, and stunning aurora, our trip was rife with interesting wildlife sightings. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of Alaska's famous large mammals during our long drive north, particularly muskox, which range throughout the arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. The name muskox is a bit of a misnomer, since they are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than oxen. Their dense wool coat and thick layer of fat keep them insulated during the cold long winters of the far north. They graze on arctic vegetation in low lying wetlands in the summer, migrating into higher elevations during the winter to avoid deep snow. Historic populations of muskox in Alaska were completely wiped out by intense hunting pressure in the late 1920's. Alaska's current wild population of a few thousand individuals are the result of a successful relocation program. In the 1930's, a small herd captured from an intact population in Greenland was brought to Fairbanks and eventually transferred to Nunivak Island, where their numbers exploded. Some of these animals were finally released into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the 1970's, where the population is now considered to be stable. Other sightings included Dall sheep crossing the road at Atigun Pass and a large bull moose just within the Brooks Range. 

In the end, it was a trip worth the effort. A great send off to summer and a much needed getaway before the start of the fall semester. 

Great Alaskan Road Trip by Michael Johns

Recently spent 10 days on the road traveling with friends from Kachemak Bay in the south to Fairbanks in the north, with Denali Park sandwiched in the middle. Stayed several nights staging for the journey in Anchorage, followed by 3 nights on Kayak Beach across the bay from Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, then a quick night at Byers Lake cabin in Denali State Park, finishing the trip with a few nights of hot tubbing at a large rental in rainy Fairbanks. Selected photos follow. Enjoy. 

Misty Fjords National Monument by Michael Johns

Bound by the Arctic Ocean to the north, Bering Sea to the west, and North Pacific Ocean to the south, Alaska is almost completely encompassed by coastlines. Massive mountains and extensive tidal flats, however, make much of this boundary between land and sea impossible to access by vehicle. This is particularly true for the fjord-ridden patchwork of Southeast Alaska, where even the capital city of Juneau can only be reached by air or water. Thus, the best way to explore the coasts of Alaska is of course by boat.

Our course and anchorages around the island, with locations of a few sightings and fishing spots. 

With hopes of discovering the fabled Northwest Passage, captain George Vancouver did just that on a four-year expedition with the HMS Discovery and Chatham, charting much of North America’s west coast between 1771-1775. My partner and I embarked on an expedition of our own recently onboard his family's boat “Moondance”. After a long “milk run” flight from Fairbanks, with stops in Anchorage, Juneau, and Sitka, we eventually arrived in Ketchikan and met up with Moondance docked alongside giant cruise ships and noisy floatplanes. When the tourists are in, Ketchikan is a busy place. From there, we spent six days and five nights circumnavigating Revillagigedo Island at the extreme southern end of Alaska’s panhandle; a journey captain Vancouver made himself back in 1773.

The following is a photographic summary of our trip. Highlights included humpback and killer whales, a coastal brown bear mom with two cubs, many marbled murrelets, mountain goats on steep cliff faces, a delicious bounty of dungeness crab, spot prawns, and halibut, and sweeping views of dramatic glacial fjords. 

Summer Solstice by Michael Johns

Alaska has been described as a land of many extremes, particularly here in the interior of Alaska. Extreme mountains, extreme wildlife, extremely long cold winters, and an extremely horrifying population of mosquitos. The image above is a composite I put together recently of another extreme Alaskan experience, the midnight sun. Thanks to a 23.5° tilt of the Earth's axis along its orbital plane, the Northern Hemisphere leans towards the Sun this time each year, providing 24 hours of daylight at or above the Arctic Circle; which is currently defined as latitude 66°33′46.3″ north. The endless sunlight provides a brief but intense growing season for residents otherwise deprived of fresh produce the rest of the year. The veggies here can get huge. Really, you should see the size of our cabbages. Fairbanks is just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, so technically the sun does disappear for a few hours each "night", but just barely.

Last December I made an image of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, where here in Fairbanks the sun only manages to rise a few degrees above the Alaska Range. To complete the set, I Googled the best places around Fairbanks to watch and photograph the midnight sun, and concluded that Eagle Summit would work great for a quick overnighter. Again, I use the term "night" loosely. Eagle Summit is also just south of the Arctic Circle, but due to its high elevation, unobstructed views to the north, and some refractive properties of the Earth’s atmosphere, the sun appears to never set around the solstice; dipping low and flirting with the horizon before climbing back into the sky again. To map out when and where to shoot the exposures needed to show the progression of the sun across the sky, I created the figure below using data from THIS WEBSITE. It shows the Sun's compass bearing (Azimuth) and elevation (degrees from horizontal) every hour as viewed from Eagle Summit. And yes, I used R. This gave me an idea of when to arrive, when to set up, and where to point my camera. 

Of course, I arrived a little before schedule, so Noosa and I had some time to spare before the show began. Below are some photos from the waiting game.