Alaska Walkabouts

The adventures of an Alaska Wildlife and Nature Photographer.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ice Age

On March 2 of 2013, I made one of my better decisions and headed out of the town of Whittier for an extended photography trip to Harriman Fjord in Alaska's Prince William Sound. I had Bryn with me of course. As is often the case I had planned on leaving weeks earlier but the weather had been terrible. But it was a blessing in disguise for it was to be  mostly perfect weather for the next 20 days. By the time March is upon us, the back of winter has been broken. The sun has gained much power by then and our daylight is rapidly building to the tune of 1 hour every ten days. So on a flat-calm sunny spring day Bryn and I launched the boat and headed out.

The Whittier Harbor

Bryn found a sunny spot to sit

Perfect water for traveling!

Porpoise were all over Port Wells as we headed north to Pakenham Point

Our arrival at Pakenham Point a little over an hour after leaving the harbor

A quick selfie to remember the moment. The early-spring sunshine was so nice!
So we got to our destination and I hit the ground running. Aurora was certainly high on the list and after settling in and prowling around the area, I waited for darkness to come. It ended up clouding up that first night but it was still awesome to be there and I wish I was right now.

Arctic Explorer Bryn

The kind of landscapes I was looking for

The gravel spit at Pakenham Point 
 Pakenham Point has a long gravel spit that sticks way out into Port Wells. Lots of birds were there including seagulls and a big flock of very agreeable Rock Sandpipers. They kept me company on many a long cold night while I was waiting for the aurora to show. And the view of the surrounding area was to die for and as I was to find out more than two weeks later, it was the perfect location to capture a grand aurora display.

A flock of Rock Sandpipers

On the first night the clouds came in so no chance at aurora but I tried. I got this shot by leaving the camera on the tripod while I took poor freezing Bryn out to the boat. I caught myself trying to get back by headlamp and I got the light pollution from the town of Whittier. 

Bryn was ready for a day of exploring

Me and Bryn at Pakenham Point

Me at Pakenham Point

Bryn does what he does best; blustering at innocent sea otters

The sandpipers doing their thing

Two Rock Sandpipers have a chat about politics most likely

Another night hoping for aurora but only got this shot of moonrise

Here I am having a chat with Bryn about his attitude
The first few days were just magical and Bryn and I explored all over the place. One of my dreams was and still is to go visit Iceland. I found out that perhaps I had it right here. Maybe Greenland is my new dream....

An eagle soars in the sky with Mt. Gilbert behind.

My boat at Pakenham Point with the impressive 12,000 foot Mt. Gilbert-Lewis to the north.

Another night of no aurora but due to some odd atmospheric conditions, I was picking up some very far away towns. Whittier to the right was to be expected at only twenty mile away or so but with some triangulating and some map work I believe the faraway towns of Moose Pass and even Seward on the extreme lower left were picked up as well. Seward has to be at least 70 miles from here. On other nights I did not pick up the lights from any of these towns.

Ice started to pour out of College Fjord from the north. I think that much of College Fjord freezes during the winter so all the ice that continues to fall from the many tidewater glaciers up there piles up. Then with the warmer spring days all the ice is turned loose and wow did it ever pour into this area. But the ice was exactly what I wanted for photography. Instant ice age.

Icebergs and Mt. Gilbert

A macro of the melt patterns on the surface of an iceberg

Mr. Bryn watches for evil otters and seals

It just doesn't get any better than this!

I shoved my arm and camera under an iceberg to catch the blues

The blues in the crevice of an iceberg

The surface of an iceberg

The weather was forecast to turn bad for a couple days so I headed north up Barry Arm and into the protected Kelly's Cove for one night then moved on to my second primary destination of the trip which was the amazingly beautiful Serpentine Cove.

Odd snow caps up in Kelly's Cove

Bryn wanders through a seaweed patch

A sea otter eats his shellfish near kelly's Cove
Bryn and I wandered the shoreline near Kelly's Cove one day and I spotted a sea otter feeding near the beach. They are hard to get close to but this time I carefully advanced when he was underwater and stood still when he came to the surface. Somehow I got really close to the cute little guy and got some great shots before Mr. Bryn caught up to me and decided he needed to protect me from the evil creature.

How Bryn spent a lot of his time

This is how I spent time during bad weather. Reading up on my own state!

One afternoon as the wet snow came down we went on to find some water and Bryn smelled something coming out of the forest. He gave whatever it was a piece of his mind! I never did know what it was; river otter, mountain goat, it had to be something.

What is it Bryn?
Anchored at Serpentine Cove. And some of the only bad weather I had the entire trip.

The only sign of humans out there is this old mine.

Snowing hard at Serpentine Cove

The clouds cleared and some very weak aurora lit up Serpentine Cove

A perfect morning at Serpentine Cove. Life was good that morning! Cold, but good.

Our clear weather in this part of the world comes at price. North and west winds begin to blow. Although most of the time down at sea level it remained calm with maybe an occasional gust, the high peaks began to plume their snow.

Wandering around with Bryn

High winds strike the peaks above me

Anchored in paradise

 With the clear skies I got exactly what I wanted; night photography! It was always cold at night but I had good clothes, chemical heat packs in my mittens and pockets, and if I was desperate a boat with a heater anchored a short distance away.

 A long exposure of weak aurora and stars above the almost 10,000 foot high Mt. Gilbert in the Chugach  Range.

A long exposure of the head of Harriman Fjord. I remember sitting on a rock and just waiting for 15 minutes or so in the cold darkness. It may not seem like it but it was seriously dark with no moon or aurora at this moment. All of this is just starlight.

 One of my favorites from the trip was this one. I left the camera on the tripod, took Bryn out to the boat, had a snack, came back ashore, and this is what the camera picked up in about twenty minutes. The aurora was just beginning to build.

This ended up being the best aurora I got over Serpentine Cove although more than a week later I was to get an amazing display over Pakenham Point. The particular shot was taken about 4:am and then it rapidly faded away so I gave it up for the night. The next day, as my goal of getting at least some aurora over Serpentine Cove was complete, I made the decision to go back to Pakenham Point and try to get the aurora there. It was only a half hour away so not a big issue at all. In fact, I was to return to Serpentine Cove yet again during this trip.

So back to Pakenham Point we went and after a rare couple of cloudy days, almost welcome so I could catch up on sleep, the weather cleared again and wow did I ever get lucky.

A strange shot of me up an an ugly iceberg that went aground at Pakenham Point. Some weak aurora was glowing through some high clouds. I tried to stand as still as I could on top of the berg for five minutes but I was still just a ghost image. It's hard to stand still that long when it's cold! Funny how the camera did not pick me up climbing up or down.

Perfect weather at Pakenham Point

A rare but welcome fire that I built. There just wasn't much good firewood in that area.

A gorgeous iceberg lets the sunset through

Another display of very weak aurora. I was getting tired of the weak stuff. That was about to change!

An amazing and evil-looking iceberg

Lots of ice had stranded on the Pakenham Point spit which is exactly what I wanted for shooting any aurora

The evening that I took this much-used profile shot, yes I know I am not smiling, was just hours before the best aurora display that I have even seen or photographed. I had dinner, waited for darkness, and BAM!

That night I went ashore here and there was this powerful glow layer to the north. It was about 10 pm. All of the sudden the glow layer ignited and the show was on. I am deliberately trying not to post too many aurora shots but this will be the only blog about that night so I have to post some.

It was on!

The early part of the display. I was quite pleased!

A huge arc dwarfs the almost 10,000 foot high Mt. Gilbert

The early reds. Much more was to come later.

At this point it was still fairly early, about midnight, and the aurora was kicking butt. But the wind was about to get me. I remember hearing a roar to the south and soon the wind struck with some pretty good waves. The west winds that were screaming out of Passage Canal to the south had curved north up Port Wells and were coming my way. My little Zodiac was getting beaten on the shoreline and I got to thinking about Bryn back on the boat about half a mile away. I had to flee!! It was unthinkable to abandon what I had waited so long for but out there you do what you have to do to keep yourself and everything else safe. 

I got back to the boat and it was getting tossed about a bit and of course Bryn was in there looking a bit worried. But I thought to myself "What the heck we have been in much worse wind and waves than this so Ted just get your ass ashore and shoot!" So I did. I just went ashore on our nice beach next to the boat and even though I wasn't exactly where I wanted to be so what, the aurora went nuts and I was on my knees in awe. Stunned but franticly shooting!

The aurora was ramping up 

A huge curtain was unfolding out of the west


The boat and Bryn were out there getting tossed around a bit. It looks really calm in the photos because of the long shutter speed. 

No words


Right about here I noticed the wind had been dropping. Luck was with me and I got in my Zodiac and went back over to the spit where I shot this stuff until 4 am. Here are a few more from the spit:

What more can I say about all this? By 4 am I was exhausted, cold, and hungry. I should have taken a break and shot until dawn came. But I didn't and thinking that the next night might be a repeat, I headed once again for Serpentine Cove in an attempt to get some strong aurora there. But even though I was out for another week, there was only the slightest hint of aurora. The sun spent it's power on us the night of March 16 and that was pretty much it. After a few hours sleep I moved back to Serpentine Cove.

Serpentine Cove and the surrounding area was a photographers dream and for the next few days with nothing but sunshine and clear cold nights. I would usually just stay in bed until the first rays of the rising sun struck the boat around 9: am. Shortly after the frost that had built up in the night would begin to drip so I would get up and moving. Bryn and I would run all over the place in my small inflatable Zodiac looking for wildlife and other cool stuff. Otters on the ice were high on the list. 

Cormorants near Surprise Glacier

Approaching the powerful Surprise Glacier

Surprise Glacier doing what it does

A silly selfie of me and Bryn in front of Surprise Glacier. The camera made me look fat!

A big flock of Rock Sandpipers. I loved watching them fly.

A panorama of Surprise glacier and the snow blowing off the peaks. Lucky for me the wind mostly stayed up there. Mostly.

I spotted this sea otter from way down the shoreline as he was sleeping in the relatively warm sun. I snuck up on him, got the camera ready and focused, then talked to him quietly to wake him up. I expected him to stay put for a moment but instead he took off like a lightning bolt for the sea. I managed to get a couple shots off as he moved through the glacier ice that was beached by the falling tide. This was the best one I got. Do not underestimate the speed of a sea otter! Good thing they don't attack us :P

Bryn patiently follows me as I look for sea otters

A Sea otter on a floating iceberg

The sea otters that were hauled out on the floating icebergs were tough to get close to. I could only get upwind and up-sun then shut off the little motor on my Zodiac and let the wind push me toward them. Of course most of the time they would smell us or hear us and bail into the sea. Also, my Bryn would go a bit crazy and scare them off sometimes but having him along was worth it. Sometimes the otter would be fast asleep and totally unaware of us. I would drift so close that I could no longer focus my 400mm lens on it. Then I would have to fire the motor up and pull back which of course would wake up the otter and scare the heck out of it. So I learned that if I felt that was happening, I would talk to them and wake them up. Sometimes I would think they were dead which does happen.

An Otter bails on me

A warm place to sit in the sun for a few minutes

Finally the wind got us. Bryn and I had just gotten back to the boat after spending the day in the Zodiac when I noticed not only the usual peaks were getting hit but the peaks above Serpentine Cove began to plume as well. All of a sudden the wind struck and I decided to flee back to the protection of Pakenham Point. Harriman Fjord was quite rough as I left and the cold wind was freezing the spray on the boat. This was the last view I had of Harriman Fjord as I fled Serpentine Cove. Kind of scary!

So back to Pakenham Point I went and what a good decision it was. The winds that blew for the next few days largely escaped us there and I just continued on with the exploring and photography. Finally the good weather was forecast to come to an end with a blizzard warning so I decided it was time to go home. On the 20th day, with the clouds rolling in, we made it to Whittier and ended this most amazing and special trip.

Four Sitka Blacktail Deer run for cover.

The final night of the trip, and after many empty nights since the big display of March 16, this odd aurora beam came out. This is all it did for an hour. Then it slowly faded and the rest of the night was empty. The oddest aurora I have seen so far.

Clouds that were formed by high winds and stranded iceberg along Barry Arm where I hiked with Bryn on the final day.

I hope everyone enjoyed this blog entry. I plan on making this an annual trip. I can't wait until March 2014!