Sunday, January 29, 2012

“Beyond Fifty Below"

This weekends weather was the inspiration for a new You Tube series.  I know everyone has heard the old tale “if you spit in negative temperatures it will freeze before it hits the ground”.

Its not Myth Busters, its not Bill Nye the Science Guy, and its not Mr. Wizard.  But “Beyond Fifty Below” makes it worth heading outside to play as the temperatures get colder and colder.  Check out my episodes below, stay tuned for more episodes (if it gets cold enough).

The Pilot

Episode 2.0

Episode 3.0

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Weekend Favorites

As nearly everyone has heard several medium to large solar storms occurred in the last week.  The first occurring over Wednesday/Thursday peaked the Aurora Borealis activity Friday/Saturday/Sunday.  Then another large coronal mass ejection happened Sunday, elevating activity even more Monday/Tuesday.  The skies appeared quiet last night.  Thought clouds moved in around Tuesday and have remained, obscuring the skies.

These are a few of my favorites from the long weekend performances. 

"Midnight School Lights"

"God's Christmas Lights"

"Showering Light"

"Glowing Black Spruce"

"Arctic Nights"

Keep your eye out for my work.  I've submitted photos to National Geographic, Anchorage Daily News, and Spaceweather

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Arctic Midnight & The Morning After

After only four hours of sleep I awoke to a dog nose punching me in the shoulder.  I rolled slightly and felt a wet tongue licking my ear.  “Good morning to you to, Jack”. He didn’t seem to mind I was awake until 4am photographing the Aurora Borealis.  Because while I was outside working through the night, he was sound asleep, keeping my place in bed warm. 

I stumbled out of bed, walked to the window and wondered, did I really see all that color last night?  I was still trying to grapple for memories from the evening past.  Floating in a cloud of green.  Recollecting the ways the sky shifted and changed, from one pattern to the next.  I peeked outside the window.  Half expecting to see singed and smoldering metallic shrapnel lying on the ground.  I understand the science of the Aurora- but it still amazes me.  As if fireworks are exploding overhead, yet it all dissipates before reaching my camera- the only thing left is light, spectacular light.

The Geo-Physical Institute called Saturday night, EXTREME, giving it a 5 of 9 on the forecast scale.  As Scott Brucker joked, if this was extreme, an 8 must be DEATH according to their scale.   I’m amazed how each experience can be truly unique.  The Aurora is never boring, and tonight was just another example of that.  It totally changed location from the previous evenings.  Mostly filling the south eastern sky, then shooting directly over head, and turning to haze before even nearing the north western corner of the sky.  The show began a little later then usual, around 11pm I started peeking outside.  Not until after midnight did I don all my gear and head out.  The performance lasted beyond 3:30am.  I came inside only because I had two completely dead camera batteries.   
Once again, the photographs speak for themselves.  I made one real difference which I feel improved everything drastically.  I found switches for the new school, old school, and maintenance garage exterior lights- and shut them all off.  Not only did my eyes adjust quicker, but lights appear a little more vivid, and the ground cover is not washed out with yucky florescent light.

Rather then share a series of photos, I have compiled all the time lapse from the weekend into a short two minute movie.  The music is composed and performed by Quinn Mason, a student/family friend from Dallas, Texas.  Enjoy!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Last Night

Wednesday and Thursday a couple solar events occurred on the Sun.  The remnants of this event reached Earth this weekend.  Friday night was a 4 of 10 on the UAF Geo-Physical Institutes forecast.  Saturday night, tonight, will be a 5.

This is a preview of several segments of time lapse I've captured and begun working on.  I hope to compile a variety of aurora encounters into a mini-movie.  Here is about 30 minutes turned into 26 seconds of video.


Last night is near the top of the list for best sightings in my life.  The show began quietly around 11:30pm.  A few clouds were obscuring the view to the north, as seen in the video.  Over the course of the evening the clouds cleared, and the aurora grew and grew.  It shifted position slightly traversing the north western sky.  The conclusion of the show was nearly the entire sky illuminated in green.  
Then, around 3:30am, as quietly as it began, it started to fade.  My knees were sore from kneeling behind the tripod, my batteries nearly depleted, and my fingers getting chillier and chiller- it was time to head in. I found photographing the sky in 0F much more comfortable then -55F encountered the weekend before.
So, what's next?  I have two goals for tonight.  Shut off all the exterior lights on the school.  It is the largest building in the village with massive florescent flood lights.  I think a lot of the amber glows and odd looking illumination around the ground cover is from the school lights.  Then, I'm going to use a snow machine and create some trails up river from my house.  This will provide new vantage points overlooking a twinkling village and vast Arctic.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Tonights encore presentation of the aurora borealis was different then last.  There was no moon, which effected the lighting conditions greatly.  I also tried to take more controlled experiments with the camera. Last night I was just all over the place, changing settings, moving the tripod- totally over reacting in the excitement.  Tonight I was more precise about making incremental adjustments, in the long run that will be easier to learn from.

One big change tonight was shooting with "Long Exposure Noise Reduction" turned "ON".  This basically caused twice as long shutter speeds.  Once the timed shutter was complete, it required double the time to process.  The biggest difference I see from this is a lot more stars standing out.  The actual aurora doesn't seem any more or less vivid.  

My next step will be working harder to gaining critical focus.  I'm basically manually focused on infiniti. I read an interesting resource that recommended getting auto focus in the day time, then use athletic tape to secure the focus ring before putting it on manual.  Then set the lens aside and be careful not to bump it.  Since there was no moon, that would have been an ideal way to do it.  I tried to use the "Live View" feature of the D700, but the screen was just pitch dark and unhelpful.

At the peak of the storm my battery died.  Luckily I had the spare in my parka, but in those precious minutes the aurora peaked and dropped really low towards the river, as briefly seen in the photograph above.
I played a little with the ultra high ISO settings (Nikon H1.0 and H2.0), but I don't like how those images turned out.  I even tried playing with lower shutter speeds at those ISO's.  Right now I'm happiest with the ISO around 1600 and the shutter speed around 10" - 15" seconds.

I also learned to be a lot more careful with the tripod.  I accidentally bent one of the adjustment riser handles trying to force it.  The longer I stay in the cold the more brittle the metal, and harder it is to adjust the tripod.  Tonight it was around -53F.  I found rather then just using the handles, to carefully grab the entire camera and slowly make small adjustments, there is no smooth transition once the materials get that cold.  Even my parka fabric sounds different.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Friday Night Lights

What a night.  I finally got to photograph the Aurora Borealis with my new Nikon D700.  Just around 11:30pm I peeked outside to find some decent activity.  The UAF Geophysical Institute forecast gave tonight a 3 out of 10.

These photos were taken with a Nikon D700 and Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 wide angle lens.

Typically I had the camera set on manual priority and the aperture wide open.  Since it was my first time using this camera I did a lot of experimenting with shutter speeds and ISO settings.  I still have a lot to learn.  After about 50 minutes both my batteries died.  Despite rotating them through my warm parka, they quit on me.  My Nikon MC36 wired remote stopped working after about 30 minutes.  So I had to switch to timer delay at two seconds.  The air temperature was about -44F.  

Most of these shots are looking north by north-west from Arctic Village, across the Chandalar River.  The moon shots are looking east.

I was amazed how this camera captured the light, especially compared to my old D80.  I used to crank all the settings way up just to capture anything, that was partially my lenses, and partially the camera.  I'm still playing with some settings on the D700.  I feel like all the photos have a pretty visible vignette.  I might either need to turn the vignette control on high, or maybe play with my aperture, though in the dark I don't know what luck I'll have.
The moon coming up was just priceless.  I had ample time to play with no moonlight first, then as it creeped up, the northern lights dimmed a bit.  I snatched a few moon solo shots, then almost as if they rehearsed it together the moon and aurora started talking to one another, it was awesome.  As I'm still learning how to use this camera in the dark, I took a lot of wasted shots, and at times had to turn on my headlamp to make adjustments, ruining my night vision.

These two are my favorite.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Belize: Beaches & Cayes

Christmas vacation in Belize, it sure sounded like a good escape from the -50F temperatures home in Alaska.  When we were looking for places to travel over the holidays, Belize made the short list of warm tropical locales.  I think what drew me to Belize was a couple things: excellent SCUBA, close proximity to exotic jungles with Mayan ruins, a culturally diverse people, and less developed then most places in the Caribbean as far as tourism goes.  Belize is actually in Central America, while still having "one foot planted in the Caribbean”.  In fact Belize is the only English speaking country in Central & Southern America.  Its located just south of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, east of Guatemala, and north of Honduras.  Belize used to be called British Honduras, before gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1981.  
After four flights, one taxi, and one water taxi- we finally made it to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye.  

The air temperature was low 80’s during the day, and mid 70’s at night.  There was an almost constant gentle breeze coming off the sea that picked up in the afternoon.   This kept the mosquitos and other bugs away most of the time.  Nicknamed “the mosquito coast” apparently the month of July & August can be brutal.  The locals described Belize as having two seasons.  Hurricane season and not hurricane season.  The weather is fairly constant.  Fall time brings a few more rain showers.  This time of year it usually sprinkles just a little rain late in the evening or early in the morning before sunrise, otherwise it was clear and dry.

Our primary purpose for coming here was to SCUBA dive.  We arranged all our dives months in advance with the Ecological Divers, in San Pedro.  These guys are a first class outfit, and I would highly recommend them to anyone.  We found diving prices in Belize to be cheaper then other places in the Caribbean.  Two tanks was $70.

Belize is known for a couple things.  First and foremost is the Blue Hole.  Made famous by Jacques Coustou in 1971 when he first rediscovered this geologic anomoly and dove into its depths.  The blue hole drops over 400 feet deep.  Thousands of years ago, when the oceans were lower, the Blue Hole was a cave complex.  After the ice age the oceans raised, and its caves were under the ocean.  A sink hole occured and the ocean floor dropped out in an almost perfect circle.  Diving down to depths of 120-150 feet reveal massive stalactites, proof it was a cave, and proof the oceans were lower at one time.  Stalactites are formed by one thing, water dripping from the ceiling of a cave. We dove to 140 feet, this was the deepest I had ever been.  

The water turned about 3-4 degrees colder after passing through the thermocline around 40 feet.  We dropped over the lip of the hole and plunged into an abyss.  Below the water became darker and darker.  The group after us saw Hammerhead Sharks orbiting the hole in the distance.  After a few minutes at 140 feet I became very loopy.  I had never experienced nitrogen narcosis like this before.  It was a very “high" feeling.  My face felt tingly.  I imagined myself looking back at myself, eyeballs reflecting off mask at myself like a mirror.  I tried to focus and get my mind under control.  Were I not so scared, I would probably have started humming the Phish song “Bouncing Around The Room”.

I watched as Gretchen, our dive master, and a couple other divers in our party swam slalom around the stalactites.  I slowly followed behind, very timid by the way I was feeling.  I got Gretchen’s attention and told her I wanted to swim up about 10 feet, giving her the sign for my head is buzzing.  When you dive that deep you can’t dive very long.  A tank with 3500 psi will last at least 50 minutes in 40 feet of water, maybe longer if you breathe conservatively.  At 140 feet we could only stay for 8-10 minutes.  It takes a lot longer to decompress safely returning from those depths.  We had planned for at least 15 minutes coming back to shallower depths, then a 5 minute safety stop at 15 feet.  This may be a bit more conservative then dive charts recommend, but sport diving charters always stray on the safe side.  

Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world.  It is succeeded only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Here we found the quantity of sea life, and quality of the reef, to be superior to anywhere else we've dove.  Whether it was close dive sites minutes away by boat, or the three hour ride to Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef Atoll, they were awesome.  From nearly everywhere on the shore the barrier reef is visible on Ambergris Caye.  About 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile off shore, it runs the entire length of the island and beyond.  At various points they have created cuts through the reef for boats to get out.  Most of the popular dive sites are on the sea side of the reef.  Due to the off shore reef the water is very calm along the beaches.  Off shore, waves can be seen crashing on the shallow reef.  

We were both curious about how Christmas would feel in Belize.  Leaving behind snow, sweaters and egg nog- I was glad to be reminded of the reason for the season.  We worshipped Christmas Eve in a Catholic Church in San Pedro.  The 10pm mass featured a childrens Christmas Pagent.  The service was half in Spanish and half in English.  Our favorite part was the music.  The hymns played on a synthesizer to salsa tunes.  All the children seemed to be dressed as wise men and shepherds.  The baby Jesus was carried in a procession with wise men bringing fruit, plants, and a baby chicken in a cage. 

San Pedro is the largest of offshore beach communities.  It is a one hour boat ride from Belize City.  I should preface that by saying there are no high rise condos or massive resort complexes.  It is the biggest in Belize, but very small and modest compared to other beach hotspots in the United States and Caribbean.  Cruise ships occasionally visit Belize, but only briefly stop at a shopping village outside Belize City, they do not visit the Cayes.  I rarely find a place that makes me want to keep coming back, but Belize is it.  Not that I don’t enjoy every place I visit, but my restless spirit brings wonder about so many other countries.  I would return to Belize time and time again.  Not necessarily going to the same place, but exploring the variety of places it offers.  In Belize I felt safe.  The people were some of the friendliest in the world.

One of the most popular events in San Pedro is the weekly “Chicken Drop’. At a bar called Wahoos, people purchase lottery tickets for which number they think the chicken will shit on.

Its really quite stupid, but was fun to photograph.

Guessing the right number, could win you as much as $100 BZE.

San Pedro was teeming with quality restaurants and cheap bars.  The exchange rate is two BZE dollars for one USA dollar.  You can get a beer for $2-3 BZE.  A really nice dinner might cost you $40 BZE per person.  Its a great place for budget travelers to bum around, and vacationers to get the most for their money.

We statyed at the Ak’bol Yoga Resort.  I highly recommend checking this place out if you’re headed to Belize.  Owned by an American couple from Chicago, it is very well kept and very well run.  The resort is essentially divided by the main thorough fare a mile north of town.  On the sea side are 4-5 cottages, 2 yoga studios, and the beach bar/bistro.  On the marsh side is the 20+ room yoga barracks.  The yoga barracks has private rooms with a shared bath.  The rooms are very simple, yet elegant.

Each day yoga classes are conducted at the studio built into the end of the pier.  Some people come just for the yoga.  We enjoyed the peace and quite of this mature resort that attracted fun intellectual people.  Each morning before diving, or afternoon upon return- we sat at the bar, drinking a Belikin Beer, and socializing with visitors.
The owners pup, retired, but enjoying the company during a yoga session in the background

Belize: Jungles & Ruins

Traveling around Belize you have a variety of options.  All international flights land in Belize City, from there the options are endless to choose your own adventure.  Several local carriers fly to half a dozen small airports across the country.  For $100-200 you can hire a private shuttle to deliver you in exactly the right spot.  Or, for $5 bucks you can hop a bus and do it with the locals.  
After a week on the coast it was time to head inland.  With a few flashbacks to Delhi, India- we deflected bogus offers for help and alternative transportation modes offered, easily finding our bus.  Belize is compared in size to Vermont or New Hampshire.  Belize City on the eastern border is only about 4 hours by bus from the Guatemala border to the west.  
Our first week of travel was planned day by day.  We knew where we were staying, how to get there and when we were diving.  Our second week wasn’t planned at all.  I had a few ideas, and briefly spoke with people in San Pedro, but really wanted to figure it out along the way.  I knew there were several options inland, and we knew we wanted to visit some Mayan ruins.  So our destination became San Ignacio.  

3.5 hours by bus brought us to San Ignacio.  San Ignacio could be called the adventure capital of interior Belize.  The main street, Burns Avenue, is littered with guide services, advertising a variety of adventures.  Caving, tubing, canoeing, hiking, zip lining, and exploring Mayan ruins are all available in the local area.  I chose Pacz Tours for two days worth of adventure.  The guide book says “when National Geographic comes to Belize, they us Pacz”.  That sold it for me.  Our first night we signed up for a Tikal tour and ATM Cave tour.

A 30 minute walk from San Ignacio brings you to Cahal Pech, site of a pre-classic Mayan civilization.  After paying $10 BZE we were free to wander the ruins.  This is one of my favorite photographs from the trip.

The Iguana Rescue Project is associated with the San Ignacio Resort Hotel.  I didn’t realize Iguanas were such a delicacy.  Throughout Central and South America people capture and eat Iguanas.  In some areas they are becoming endangered due to poaching, deforestation, and local predators.  The goal of the Iguana Project is raising baby Iguanas to be released into the wild, while also educating tourists and Belizians about protecting this special reptile.  

Inside the Iguana habitat we were able to hold a couple of the adult Iguanas.

The Iguana in Gretchens arms, Roxy, is a pregnant female.  The Iguana on her shoulder is Gomez, the alpha male of the cage.

There were hundreds of bright green baby Iguanas in the adolescent cage.  Once they grow a little bigger they will be released locally into the wild.
We stayed at two different places in San Ignacio.  Arriving just before sunset the first day we opted for an easy stay in the Tropical Hotel.  It was surprisingly clean, but the mattress was painfully old.  So, our second day we looked around for alternatives.  We found Bella’s Backpacker Hostel.  A private bedroom shared bath hostel.  It was quaint and comfortable.  There were four private rooms and one dorm room with a loft.  The second floor had a very large patio with hammocks and couches for relaxing.  I would recommend this place.  It was only $20 US per night for both of us.

Our room even had a balcony overlooking the entrance courtyard.

We spent one day at the Mayan Ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.  It was about three hours by bus from San Ignacio.  Crossing the border into Guatemala everything changed.  People spoke spanish.  The country side became a littler drier and arid as we climbed into the mountains.  A lot of land was cleared for large cattle ranches.  Guatemala made Belize look nice.  We saw a lot more poverty in Guatemala.

One day was not long enough at Tikal.  I appreciated what we saw, but wished I had at least two to three days here.  Tikal is in a very remote location.  There are one or two resorts and campgrounds onsite.  Hundreds of people visit each day, not many stay.  With our guide we saw a portion of the main temples and plazas, with extra days we could have freely explored mile upon mile of trails.  Archeologists believe 93% of Tikal is still covered with Earth and jungle- its huge.

The weather changed from cloudy, to gray and overcast, to pouring rain as we climbed Temple IV.  Giving us a nice afternoon rainforest shower.

The ruins can be very photogenic, but it was hard to capture large scale images without people climbing and lingering on the buildings. Only one of the outer pyramids allows you to climb the natural steps.  Several of them have been closed, others have wooden scaffolding built partially up.

videoWhile hiking into ATM cave we encountered these leaf cutter ants.  They were amazing.  Scaling the tree from the ground to remove leaves from the canopy.  Then carrying them back down the tree and into their ant hill, somewhere off in the jungle.  The ants are actually following a chemical trail left behind by their leader.  

Exploring the ATM cave was loads of fun.  Check out the video in a previous post.

After riding the bus back to Belize City we had several hours to kill before heading to the airport.  The Museum of Belize has several nice exhibits.  It is located in the old Jail.