Arctic Blast

Day 2 of the 7 day Photo Challenge
Arctic Blast
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
A red fox braces against the wind during a Manitoba blizzard. The high winds kicked up a lot of snow and decreased the visibility. To make this photo, I stopped down the lens to increase the depth of field, in case an errantsnowflake threw the autofocus off and waited for a lull in the gusts for a clear shot. The intensity of the winds can be observed by the horizontal streaks cutting across the frame. The fox’s bushy tail behaved more like a sail, and would catch the wind, altering its trajectory, making it move kind of sideways across the tundra. Note the beautiful lichens growing on the exposed part of the rock.
Canon EOS 1DX, Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM, handheld
1/200s; f/10; 600mm; ISO1600

On my second day I nominate Meril Darees ofMnmwow – Wildlife Photography. Meril is a world class wildlife photographer and one of my closest friends. I have spent thousands of hours shooting with him in the field: Churchill, Yellowstone, Canadian Rockies, California, Svalbard, and 5+ trips to Alaska. Over all these trips I have learned a lot from him, and significantly improved as a photographer. Please check out his work and give his page a like!

I was nominated by Barrett Hedges of BearHead Photography
Day 1- Jack Cunningham

Lone Star Geyser Erupting

Lone Star Geyser Erupting with the sun poking through the clouds at 14:04 on Feb. 4, 2015, after a ski drop from near the continental divide. This is one explosive geyser. Its firehose nozzle shape forces the water from below with high pressure force. The fallout fell down in the form of a geyser shower, soaking me and my camera. You can see a droplet of the geyser’s spray on the front element of my lens on the left side of the image.


Yellowstone National Park.

April Snow Storm in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park, April 26, 2014

After a dreadfully warm and dry winter in Yosemite, that offered almost zero possibility of a winter snowscape image.  A mid-Spring visit proved to be the perfect opportunity for such a shot.  On Friday April 25, 2014, Yosemite’s weekend weather forecast was foreboding.  100% chance of rain mixed with snow, mostly cloudy, and temperatures in the low 30s.  But as is always been the case with the jewel of the Sierra Nevada, the terrible weather forecast didn’t ruin the weekend.  In fact, these weather conditions enhanced it.  I would rather visit Yosemite on a bad day, than a bluebird one.

Yosemite is frequently beautiful and sunny. And over the past year the beautiful and sunny days have greatly outweighed the cloudy ones.  And no, this is not a proclamation about the California drought and how we desperately need rain here. This post is purely about the aesthetics associated with changing weather.  The fact is (and yes, it is fact) Yosemite, like almost everywhere, is more interesting in a transition.  

Drive to Yosemite. Transitioning weather on CA-140 as the sunset. Note the rain drops on this image. Behind me was a dramatic full rainbow. 
Drive to Yosemite. Transitioning weather on CA-140 as the sunset. Note the rain drops on this image. Behind me was a dramatic full rainbow. 

And in case you were wondering, more “interesting” typically translates to more “beautiful”. 

Colors of Three Seasons in One
Colors of Three Seasons in One

A transition can be anything that is in flux, . Off the top of my head a few examples are changing meteorological conditions, such as weather (a clearing storm), changing seasonal/climate conditions (summer to fall), or changing astronomical conditions (sunrise/sunset, night/day).  The astronomical transitions occur daily and will continue to do so until we cease to revolve around the sun. This can be precisely tracked and mapped.  Sunrise and sunset is the baseline for all nature loving people.  A seasonal transition is something that can also be tracked, albeit with less precision.  But the seasons generally adhere to the defining characteristics of that location, governed by the position of the Earth. From the spring blossoms to autumn foliage, seasonal transitions are celebrated worldwide. 

The real wild card here are the short-term meteorological variations, or the weather.  Special weather conditions can create interesting (beautiful) conditions at anytime of day.  It can also washout the day (with rain or too much direct sunlight), leading to images that may be tepid and uninspired.   The weather is  The seasonal variations do have their 

Like a hand in poker, the weather remains unknown until the last moment. 

Each variety of transition mentioned above, is, in someway, related to one another, generally stemming back to the power of the sun. The astronomical aspects influences the length of day, which in turn influences the seasons, which in turn influences the weather, but it is simpler to break it down into three distinct transition categories. Astro. Seasonal. Weather.

If it is possible for all three transitions to simultaneously come together, you will be rewarded with something special. And this was the situation at sunrise Saturday morning, April 26, 2014, at Yosemite National Park. Here are some photos from that day in the park.

Yellowstone Winter 2014: Canid

Update May 2017

A few weeks ago, when I heard the death of the 12 year old Canyon Alpha female, I held hope her injuries had been natural, not due to man. My disappointment was palpable when I learned she had in fact been shot. The bullet didn’t immediately kill her. The shooter only managed to fatally wound her. She still clung to life but, after surviving 12 years in Yellowstone’s unforgiving wilds, she was euthanized due to the injuries. Nature is brutal and a comfortable death is not expected for a wild animal, but it is a shame how this iconic wolf met her demise.

As the first wild wolf I ever saw, alongside her longtime mate, the Canyon pack Alpha female held a special place in my heart.

See below for album that includes photos of the White she wolf of Canyon Pack.

Dogs of Yellowstone: Wolves and Coyotes

I had several first time wildlife encounters on this trip. At the top of that list were wolves. A wild wolf is not an easy animal to see in its natural habitat.  In fact, the primary goal of last year’s winter trip to Yellowstone was for wolf photography, and I didn’t see a single wolf on that trip.  It serves as a costly but useful reminder that in a wild place, the wildlife are in charge. And that you need to adjust your approach to increase the likelihood of success of finding a given animal.  Fortunately, this trip was different, not only did I see wolves, I saw lots of them.  A lot of that had to do with spending more time in the Lamar Valley, having a vehicle, making better connections, and weeks of research to prepare.

Not only are wolves difficult to spot, they are even more difficult to photograph.  As an intelligent and alert species, they are naturally wary of humans and keep their distance.  On top of that, the wolves weren’t particularly active when the light was abundant.  In fact, most of my sightings were in the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset.  In other words it was usually dark out when I saw them.  I was forced to shoot with my lens wide-open and push the ISO to 1600, 3200 and in some cases 6400.  The rest of the trip I was rarely above ISO 100. 

But the first wolf encounter is something that resonates deep inside the human animal. Before seeing them, you first hear their howls.   Long, deep cries that carry over long distances.  Echoing through the valleys and off the mountains in the dark and cold morning twilight. The sound is primitive and shivering to the spinal column. The cries are answered by other wolves, but its not clear where they are. You know the general direction in which the sound originated, but it is difficult  to pinpoint an approximate location.  All you see are trees, snow, and shadows, each which is fair game for the wolf. And then all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, and not in a location that I expected, a gray wolf is seen bounding through deep snow across the top of a ridge with another wolf following…. 

The day (my second in the park) was off to an exciting start!  Not only had I seen my first wolves, but the previous day was productive, yielding many usable photos of bison, elk, sheep, and coyote. Well it turns out that the highlight of Day 2 was seeing the wolves at sunrise.  The weather was windy and snowy for most of the afternoon, of all the animals in Yellowstone that day, it was the wildlife that seemed to have better judgement, by staying bedded down all day.  There were barely any bison to photograph.  Later in the day, we became aware of an injured bull elk on a cliff overlooking Soda Butte. It was reported that wolves overnight had ripped open his left rear leg and backed him into the cliff.  The mortally wounded elk managed to fight off his attackers through the night and remained on the cliff, alive, till the following afternoon. It is not clear why the wolves left their prize unattended. Likely the elk’s antlers behaved like a bayonet, and gave him the advantage in the cliff’s close quarters.  But the wolves, as is often the case, appeared to have a plan and weren’t gone for good. In fact, it was like they simply “put the elk in the fridge” and would return at a less risky time, after he had bleed out.

Later in the week, we got even closer to the Canyon pack between Mammoth Hot Spring and the high bridge heading out towards Lamar.  We tracked a lone gray wolf with a bloodied throat along a ridge by Blacktail Creek.  It was making its way back and forth across the road.  It was not clear if the blood was from feeding or its own.  Afterall, it was the start of mating season and this lone wolf may have been injured by the pack’s alpha male.  Lastly, on this day we were fortunate to see a pack of wolves, including two coupled alphas on the start of mating season.  This pack was seen over 2 miles away, and the photo of this included here was on 1200mm focal length on a 1.3x crop body, giving 1560mm of optical reach, furthermore I cropped it by 100%, which means the equivalent zoom on this photo is approximately 3120mm.  A lens of this size would be extremely difficult to handhold, as it would probably be 10 feet long and weigh up to 500 lbs. The wolves were far and it goes without saying this photo has minimal photographic merit.  I just thought it was interesting to have a single photo of 7 wolves.

Coyotes are quite prevalent in Yellowstone in winter, frequently misleading visitors into thinking they have spotted a wolf.  As you can see by two of these photos, some coyotes suffer severe cases of mange and have lost significant amounts of hair.  This an extremely uncomfortable and possibly deadly disorder for these animals when the temperatures drop to -56F like it did during our visit there.

Here is a huge dump of the various “dog” photos from Yellowstone….

Yellowstone Winter 2014

Part 1: The Park 

This winter’s trip to Yellowstone was a rewarding experience in terms of the abundance of wildlife, steamy landscapes and record breaking cold (lowest temperature was -56F)…

As the world’s first national park, a visit to Yellowstone in any season does not disappoint, but it is in the winter, when the temperatures typically drop to the lowest levels anywhere in the lower 48, that the park’s ecology and geology shine the brightest.  And this trip, from an overall, top to bottom perspective, has been my most productive expedition in the last year.

In terms of my all-time favorite subjects, bears are still tops.  But when I go on a bear-centric trip, it is such a demanding subject (physically and mentally), there is little room for much else…this was not the case in Yellowstone. This park does have its specialties, and I could have gone with a single focus, but, in my opinion, and at this point in my career/catalog, it is best enjoyed by thoroughly absorbing as much of the Yellowstone experience as possible. 

The park, renowned for its abundant wildlife and extensive geothermal features (most extensive in the world), has at times been faulted for lacking the iconic vistas that define some of the other US national parks, such as Yosemite or Glacier.  However, the ecological variety and ever-changing geothermal landscapes creates iconic scenes that may only last a moment.  The trick is to be at the right spot, at the right moment to witness it. 

Yellowstone is different, while it is true the famous views such as “Snake River Overlook“, “Gates of the Valley” or “Wild Goose Island” are not there, fleeting but profound images can be wrought from the Yellowstone landscape.  And it is because of the fleeting nature of these scenes that make the resulting image more profound; it serves as a reminder of the Earth’s transient nature. In the words of Paul C, our snowmobile guide, the only constant in Yellowstone is change.  On a geological scale, this is universally true everywhere, the earth’s surface is in constant flux.  But on a human scale we rarely have the opportunity to witness this geological ballet.  Yosemite Valley in California looks much the same now as it did when Ansel Adams first visited in 1916. Yellowstone on the other hand, with its massive magma chamber bubbling a scant 3 or 4 miles beneath the surface, changes noticeably on a daily basis. These types of geological changes to the earth are most apparent here than anywhere else in the world. 

More so than most of the other parks, Yellowstone exercises all of the human senses. A photographer, who attempts to use imagery to communicate the Yellowstone experience is limited to the visual cues presenting.  Many of the scenes contain stimuli that require a first hand encounter to understand and appreciate.  Therefore, I tried my best to capture visual scenes that offer connections to your other senses…this is easier said than achieved…  

What these photographs fail to capture and present to the viewer is the frigid air, the smells, the sounds, the rumbling, the vibrations, the mists, the howls, the grunts, and the silence that are uniquely available in Yellowstone, the most accessible of the snowbound American National Parks. While other of the snowy Parks have generally limited access during the winter, Yellowstone’s hundreds of miles of roads are almost fully accessible via snowmobile and snow coach while the northern section  (Mammoth Terraces and Lamar Valley) is plowed and open to cars.

Next up….

YNP P2: The Wildlife

YNP P3: The People

Klamath Basin + Crater Lake + Drought

1324 miles driven over the last 48 hours made for an epic weekend warrior trip.  This time, I drove north to explore what is (in my opinion) true Northern California. I left work at 15:30 on Friday and drove north for 8.5 hours (the Friday rush didn’t help my time). I didn’t leave California once during those 8+ hours.  I came as close as could to leaving the state, by skirting the Oregon border for the last 30 miles, but I didn’t actually cross over.  Northern California is big.  For a state that seems to define LA as being southern California, and SF being northern, I wonder if the first person that made this generalization ever consulted a map…anyway,  I finally reached my destination Tulelake at midnight and camped (if I dare to call sleeping in parking lot car at a wildlife overlook ‘camping’) near Lava Beds National Monument.  I was up before the sun Saturday morning, and I stayed in the Tulelake area the first half of the day, before finally crossing the Oregon border and headed up to Crater Lake. I found my way back into California later that night and “camped” in the middle of the Klamath Basin wildlife refuge and waited for the sunrise to come.  By mid-morning, I pointed my car south and made the long, but enjoyable drive back home, which took only a brief 7 hours in this direction and got me home in time to catch the start of the 49ers game.  So the question is why would I drive so far for such a short trip? And no, I don’t even get the 3-day MLK holiday weekend.   When it comes to my decision making process, it is unclear if there is logic or impulse driving it, and this trip was no different, but there were many other important compelling reasons to go on this adventure, but I will narrow it down to two:

(1) Bald Eagles

(2) Snow

(1) Bald Eagles – The Klamath Basin is considered to be the preeminent location in the lower 48 to view wintering bald eagles. They are funneled from their summer territories in Alaska and northern Canada down the Pacific Flyway to these wetlands along the California/Oregon border.  Here they amass in large numbers and feed on the snow geese that are also wintering over here.  Well, I don’t know what was wrong, but the results weren’t exactly “good” in terms of eagle activity.  I saw about 8-10 bald eagles, but only one in flight, and none fishing or feeding. There weren’t many waterfowl there either.  I don’t quite know what is going on, and plan to investigate this further to understand why, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has something to with the lack of reason (2)…

(2) Snow – California is in the midst of a god awful drought, and it is bad for everything here.  The Sierra’s don’t have any snow, which means the water supply won’t be replenished for both human and nonhuman organisms.  In fact, it is so serious I don’t even want to mention how this will impact the prospects of a California ski season (or photographing Horsetail Falls in February).  In the scheme of things, none of that seems particularly important. It is literally drying up and catching fire here. “Southern” California is burning up as we speak with a man-made fire. While not unusual for a state accustomed to wildfire, anyone could tell you that they typically don’t happen during the “wet season” of January. The drought’s impact was made crystal clear on this weekend’s drive.  There was no snow anywhere in the Klamath Basin, it was still cold (nighttime temps around 5 F), there just wasn’t any moisture.  Even Mount Shasta looked strange and uneven.  The north and eastern faces appeared to have a lot of snow, but the western face, as viewed from Weed, CA was barren and brown.  (I also want to investigate the exact reasons behind this too).  I did eventually find snow, when I drove north two hour to Crater Lake. But the news wasn’t great there either, while there was about 3-4 feet of snow covering the rim, this is only 24% of the average snow level for this date. 

The outcome of this trip was a bit different than expected (limited eagles), but overall it was far from disappointing.  I finally found a top-notch wildlife viewing location in California.  Natural beauty is easy to find in this state, almost anywhere you look is beautiful, but wildlife frolicking in those scenes tends to be rare.  And while the eagles weren’t performing (the nerve of those wild animals!), their cousins in the hawk, harrier, and falcon clans put on a great show. Plus I saw over 10 coyotes, several flocks of snow geese in formation passing by, California pheasants, black crowned night heron, mule deer, and in the two mornings there were two stunning Mount Shasta sunrises. That, combined with the prospect of grappling eagles, pronghorn, black-tailed deer, owls, and others the Klamath Basin is a highlight of California’s natural heritage that hasn’t yet been tagged and spoiled like many of the bears in Yosemite Valley.

After visiting Crater Lake for the second time in my life, the first was summer 2004, I left the park convinced it is at its best in winter.  As is the case for many other national parks, winter provides a more peaceful and beautiful natural experience.  Even though the park is limited to a tiny parking at Rim Village, and the road that circumnavigates the rim in summer is closed, I felt like there is more potential here during the snowy season than in the summer. The road closures and winter weather limits the amount of visitors, allowing plenty of space for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and winter camping, all while having a view of the lake.

And finally this weekend served a great dry run for my upcoming trip to Yellowstone in two weeks.  I worked on my wildlife tracking, practiced shooting in the cold, and figured out the last bit of gear I want/need to bring with me to Wyoming.

Plus there was a town that had the same name as my mom….with an extra “r” in the spelling…


The bear that traps you, is the one you didn’t see.” – Inuit Proverb

This trip was about the polar bears, followed by arctic foxes as the next objective, with a small hope of some auroral activity.  Though expectations for the Northern Lights were low given Churchill 98% November cloud coverage.  The trip produced good results for all three.

Getting there
All things considered, Churchill is moderately easy to reach, given its remote location and being the gateway to the Canadian arctic. It is not as easy to reach as a place like Yellowknife, but the connections from Winnipeg to Churchill on Calm Airlines are frequent, start early and end late.  These convenient timetables allow you to maximize your time there, if you are so inclined. For me, when I go on vacation I tend to squeeze as much as possible out of each PTO day.  The trip to Churchill was probably my most efficient trip to-date in terms of maximizing my efficiency.  I arrived at Winnipeg at midnight, got some sleep, was flying to Churchill first thing in the morning (06:30), and searching for polar bears by 09:00. The return mirrored my arrival in the sense that I left Churchill at 20:00, and had a 06:00 flight out of Winnipeg.

Driving Report on Trip

Rented a Jeep Patriot from Tamarack Rentals.  It gave a solid performance for the most part, but still left room for improvement in important several areas. The first complaint is we couldn’t lock the four-wheel drive differential, even when we disabled the ESP. Which seemly defeats the purpose of having 4-wheel drive.  The windows are small and there isn’t much vertical, which made it difficult to handle large lenses.

  • 1 flat tire, punctured by willow stalk.  We had to use a sledgehammer to dislodge the frozen wheel off the wheel studs.
  • 2 times stuck. The first time we were towed out by the town’s pastor who was passing by (thanks Doug!) and the next time we were well offroad (on a tundra buggy path) and had to dig ourselves out by hand.
  •  Approximately 60 Km road available to explore in this “road locked” region
  • $2.10/liter gas or ~$100 to fill up tank. (expensive for me, normal for Meril)
  • 2: number of 600mm lenses jockeying for space to shoot out the window
  • 6: nights sleeping outside in the car, instead of a hotel room (out of 8 nights total). The ice encrusted interior cabin (our frozen breath) was a pleasure scrap off each morning.

In terms of changing tires in polar bear country, we learned that the important thing to keep in mind when doing this type of activity, is to remain aware of your surroundings.  It is easy to become fixated on the task at hand. Specifically you focus your eyes downwards on the tires and underside of the vehicle.  You want to solve the problem and be on your way, as quickly as possible.  The problem with this approach is that you are often ignoring your surroundings.  In Churchill, this introduces an entirely new level of danger, the land of white bears on white land and white sky.  Constant awareness and guard must be taken to avoid a bear surprise. And they seemingly pop up out of nowhere….

This is why I repeated the following Inuit Proverb over and over in my head:

The bear that traps you, is the one you didn’t see.

Things for next year:
– avalanche shovel (digging out stuck vehicles)
– tow rope
– kitty litter
– radios
– scanner

Northern Lights

[see blog post about the Aurora]