Alaska Vignettes

~ little snippets from a big place ~

Alaska is a unique land with a correspondingly unique lifestyle that revolves around a northern climate. Each week, I’ll provide a brief synopsis on an Alaska topic that will include some links to photos from my archives.

Western Sandpiper Migration

Flocks of shorebirds, dominated by Western sandpipers flock to the shores of Hartney Bay, Copper River Delta, Prince William Sound, Alaska, to refuel during their migration to summer nesting grounds. (© Patrick J Endres /

Flocks of shorebirds, dominated by Western sandpipers gather along the shores of Hartney Bay, Copper River Delta, Prince William Sound, Alaska, to refuel during their migration to summer nesting grounds. (© Patrick J Endres /

The small community of Cordova, Alaska hosts a shorebird festival in early May to commemorate the epic bird migration through the Copper River Delta, situated on the eastern shores of Prince William Sound. The region serves as a major refueling stopover for many shorebirds, including the tiny Western Sandpiper, who are flying to their nesting grounds further north and west in Alaska. Watching flocks of shorebirds rise and fall like swarms of bees, moving along the muddy flats looking for food is a visual and audio experience. The muddy tidal flats are long at low tide, providing the birds’ access to a rich food source. Once the tide rises and water covers the intertidal zone, the birds congregate in tight groups to rest creating a carpeted pattern of beautiful feathers.

Alaska Glacier Ice Caves

 (© Patrick J Endres /

(Exploring a glacier ice cave in the Alaska Range mountains. Ice caves are formed as the meltwater from glaciers creates a stream or river that flows and shapes the ice under the glacier. (© Patrick J Endres /

Alaska has an abundance of glaciers, although most of them are receding at a rapid rate due to increasingly warmer temperatures. The melt runoff from these glaciers forms streams and rivers that flow under the giant mass of ice above. As the temperatures increases during the summer months, the underlying rivers rise with a gray silty water that sculpts the surface ice above. In the winter, when the water ceases to flow, the water-hollowed ice caves can be accessed relatively easy. The arched, icy ceiling is sculpted in scalloped cups, sometimes radiant blue, and often decorated with frosty ice crystals. Although organic pieces of nature’s art, they can have unstable areas under your feet and overhanging rock above so they should be approached and entered with caution.

Alaska’s Rustic Log Cabins

 (Patrick J Endres /

The aurora borealis arcs over my rustic log cabin in the boreal forest of the Alaska Range mountains in Interior, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres /

The rustic log cabins found throughout Alaska are a diverse demonstration of how many Alaskans still stay connected to a more “simple” life. Some log cabins have historic significance, dating back to the pioneer days of the gold rush era. Others are more contemporary and are utilized for recreational activity in both winter and summer seasons. Most are built with a simple style, without running water and a conventional septic system. The accompanying outhouses are a colorful commentary and have been the subjects of several books. I make frequent trips to my quaint little cabin in the Alaska Range mountains which serves as a tremendous gateway to explore, photograph, and play in the nearby mountains.

Sitka Sac Roe Herring Fishery

2006 Herring Sac Roe commercial fishing fleet during the second opener in Sitka Sound. (Patrick J. Endres /

In late March, fisherman travel to the waters of Sitka Sound in Southeast Alaska for the Sitka Sac Roe Herring Commercial Fishery.  (Patrick J. Endres /

Every March Pacific Herring migrate to their spawning grounds in the calm waters of Sitka Sound, off Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. This draws not only the whales, sea lions, and other marine mammals who feed on the fish, but also a fleet of fishermen. The Stika Sac Roe Herring Fishery is a commercial fishery consisting of a handful of opening periods over the span of a few days. The fishery is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and a quota is established based on current numbers. A fleet of purse seiner fishing vessels compete for the best fishing spot using the aid of small planes that supply aerial surveillance information on fish school locations to the vessels below.

Baby Muskox

A young muskox calf and adult on the tundra of Alaska's arctic north slope. (Patrick J. Endres /

An adult muskox cow and newly born calf rest on the spring tundra of Alaska’s Arctic North Slope. (Patrick J. Endres /

Muskox are one of the most prehistoric looking animals I’ve ever photographed. They populated Alaska during the close of the Pleistocene era but went extinct sometime in the mid-1800’s. Thanks to a reintroduction program, they now inhabit Alaska’s Arctic once again. Their underfur, also known as qiviut, is a dense wool-like fur that holds tremendous insulation value. Single muskox calves are born in the early spring, from April to June and they grow quite rapidly while feeding on the sedges, grasses, and plants of the tundra. In Alaska, Muskoxen can be photographed on the Arctic North Slope, in regions around Nome, and on Nunivak Island.

Alaska Sea Otters

Sea otters in Harriman fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres /

Sea otters in Harriman Fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres /

Sea otters inhabit Alaska’s southern waters from the eastern Inside Passage to the western Aleutian Islands. They are well loved because of their cute, furry bodies and dextrous little hands. They can often be seen grooming their fur (the densest fur in the animal kingdom) which insulates them from the chilly waters. The Russian fur trade nearly decimated the population in Alaska and waters further south in the early 1900s and they are still listed as Endangered on IUCN Red List due to declining populations. Sea otters eat shellfish, urchins and several other small marine species and can consume up to 25% of their body weight a day in food, and that is a lot for a 40-60 pound animal!

The Arctic Fox

Arctic fox in white winter coat rests in a snowdrift along a lake in Alaska's Arctic North Slope. (Patrick J. Endres /

An Arctic fox in its pure white winter coat licks its fur after waking up from a nap in a snowdrift along Colleen Lake in Alaska’s Arctic North Slope. (Patrick J. Endres /

The Arctic fox is a small animal that inhabits the northern coast and offshore icepack in Alaska. It has a cryptic coloring phase shared by other animals in the Arctic, (like the snowshoe hare, ptarmigan, and short-tailed weasel), in which their color changes to a pure white during the winter months. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the Arctic fox population decline in the region of the Arctic accessible by the James Dalton Highway, and scientists suggest this is in part due to resource competition from the larger and more dominant red fox that have used the road corridor opportunistically to extend their range.

Aurora Borealis Season

The colorful aurora arcs over the White Mountains National Recreation Area, Interior, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres /

The colorful aurora borealis arcs over the White Mountains National Recreation Area just 35 miles north of Fairbanks in Alaska’s Interior. Because of Fairbanks Alaska’s unique combination of a northern latitude and often clear skies, it is becoming the preferred destination for aurora viewing and photography. (Patrick J Endres /

March is not the only month of the aurora borealis season, but it is one of the year’s most geomagnetically active solar months. Combine this with Fairbanks, Alaska’s northern location, and often clear skies, and you have the beginning ingredients for successful aurora viewing. Fairbanks is gaining popularity as one of the best places to view and photograph the northern lights in the U.S., and some argue the world. Make sure you come prepared for cold weather, check the aurora forecasts, stay up between 10 pm and 2-3 am, bring a camera and tripod, and have fun hunting the night skies for some colorful curtains of light.

Festival of Native Arts

Festival of Native Arts, Aleutian Region School District Unangax Dancers, Native dance and art celebration in Fairbanks, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres /

Festival of Native Arts, Aleutian Region School District Unangax Dancers, Native dance and art celebration in Fairbanks, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres /

The Festival of Native Arts provides cultural education and sharing through traditional Native dance, music, and arts. The Festival continues the University of Alaska Fairbanks student-led tradition that began in 1973 of bringing together artists, performers, and performance groups in a celebration of Native cultures. The Festival of Native Arts unites the major Native culture groups of Alaska, as well as foreign groups of the continental United States and countries such as Japan, Russia, and Canada. Public attendance is welcome from March 1-3, 2018 at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Boreal Forest

Snow covered spruce trees in the boreal forest of Fairbanks, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres /

Snow covered spruce trees in the boreal forest of Fairbanks, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres /

The boreal forest or “northern forest” is the world’s largest land-based biome and represents approximately 30% of the world’s forest. In Alaska, the boreal forest or “taiga” exits between the northern Brooks Range down to the southern Coast Range mountains, covering most of Interior Alaska. It features a relatively low diversity of species, dominated by a few conifers and deciduous tree species. The white and black spruce along with the paper birch, balsam poplar and aspen trees are most common. It is intermingled with meadows, lakes, winding rivers, wetlands, and home to many species of birds and animals.