The Nature (Photography) Around Nome, Alaska
June is the height of light in the northern hemisphere. Previous years found me either home or making late spring trips to the Tetons and Yellowstone. June of 2023, however, found me on the road twenty-six of thirty days. First it was to open a gallery show in Las Vegas, then a trip to South Carolina for my NOLS Wilderness Advance First Aid course and certification - which I passed. From there I sent a few days in northern Georgia (the state) with my mom, hiking, firefly viewing, and exploring holler towns and folk crafts.
After those peaceful days where warm breezes and dark green foliage surrounded me, and there were still more than eight hours of darkness, it was time to head across the continent and north to a place just two degrees below the Arctic Circle - Nome, Alaska. Here my vacation from serious nature photography would end and I would be back to the work I love capturing new and exciting wildlife and landscapes.
Let me be clear, the adventure for this trek starts with the travel portion to be sure. From Atlanta, GA, my cross-country flight took me to a short overnight layover in Seattle, WA. Getting in late and departing only about five hours later, I decided to just avail myself on the USO to catch a couple hours of rest. Departing Seattle for Anchorage, AK, I arrived with multiple hours of layover again (somewhere in the vicinity of five to six hours) where I made myself comfortable with a good book and a window seat at the Silver Gulch airport restaurant. Oh, and a cup of their beer cheese soup with reindeer sausage (highly recommend).
It was here I met up with fellow award-winning wildlife photographer Dawn Wilson. Together we would be exploring Nome and the surrounding wilderness together. Dawn has long been a professional wildlife photographer, based out of Estes Park, CO, and has even been a past president of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). She also had been to Nome several other times, but neither of us had been at this time of year, thus this adventure.
Upon landing in Nome, we caught the local shuttle to our lodging at the Dredge 7 Inn, a comfortable lodge with two locations and well-appointed rooms. My first day in a new location, especially after multiple airports and long hours traveling, is usually reserved for recharging. For Nome this meant getting groceries, figuring out the Wi-Fi situation, and game planning the following days before turning in for some solid sleep. Once the fieldwork kicks off, I never expect to get too much sleep so a good night's rest first helps.
With only a few days before the actual summer solstice, there is enough light to photograph 24/7, making exploring the nature around Nome during this time of year so very tempting. Understanding that one simply cannot be up the entire time for days on end is key when working in these types of conditions. That said, on this trip we did not keep any real schedule and the three full days we had up there were filled with many field hours and a few short blocks of sleep, mostly mid-morning into early afternoon. The military gave me a particular set of skills and being able to operate on a random schedule with only pockets of sleep was one of them.
Photography tip: When working in regions that receive close to or an actual twenty-four hours of daylight during the summer, pace yourself. Consider switching to more of a "night shift" sleep schedule to allow yourself to take advantage of the extremely long golden hours and softer early morning light. Sleeping when the sun is at its zenith and the light is harsher helps sooth the mental thoughts that you might be missing some epic shot as the chances are slimmer during that time of day.*
(* - depending on the weather so judgement calls should be made based on current conditions.)
The three field days were intentional when we planned this trip. Nome has three main roads that lead out of town. Each is roughly about 75-80 miles long ending at even more remote villages populated by Alaskan Natives. Each road has a very distinct natural "flavor" about it as they run through different ecosystems providing a wide variety of species. Each day was scheduled to give us the opportunity to explore one of the roads as well as having a bit of time to explore the areas right in and around town.
Day one we explored what turned out to be my favorite road of the three and that was the Teller Road. This gravel "highway" heads northwest from Nome through rolling tundra meadows, across river valleys, and skirts along the western flank of the Kigluaik Mountains. With clear weather, the vistas along the road up glacially carved valleys are spectacular. It was these unexpected views that turned this trip from just a wildlife photography tour into a nature photography tour; for as much as the wildlife is amazing, there are so many other subjects, from the tiny flowers blooming across the tundra to the vast mountain scenes, that can be captured as well.
The wildlife along the Teller Road was some of the best of this trip. Musk ox, seen in several other areas as well, were found in multiple locations along this road and gave us some of the best viewing of the trip. From a few bachelors we named the Townies since they hung on the outskirts of town for several days, to larger herds with adult females, yearlings, and calves only a few weeks old.
This was the primary species I had come to see when planning my visit. The photography opportunities were different than I had imagined but, yet at the same time, my favorite image from the trip was of musk ox calves. Taken at about 03:30am in the morning, while on our way back into town on our last day, we came across a heard with several of the calves playing in the road. Slowly rolling closer, we had the window down and as we came abreast of them, the four little calves that had scampered off the road at our approach looked over the shoulder directly at us. It wasn't until they turned and broke apart that I realized I had been holding my breath while shooting. This is the final image and my favorite from this trip. Due to the low light situation my ISO was pretty high, so the image was developed with a pass through Topaz DeNoise software after edits in Lightroom.
Beyond the musk ox, the Teller Road provided a plethora of willow and rock ptarmigan photography as the males were frequently just standing on the edge of the road or on elevated knobs and rocks next to the gravel. They were so numerous on the Teller Road that we were frequently forced to break as they darted out in front of our vehicle. They are not the brightest birds, but their antics and vocalizations do make me laugh.
This was another species that wasn't limited to just the Teller Road but it was this route that seemed to have the most sightings.
Moose and red foxes were other species we saw on multiple occasions along the Teller Road. On one particular evening, at about one o'clock in the morning just as the sun was setting (trippy right?), we had the most amazing encounter with a red fox dog. As we were looking for musk ox and watching as a layer of fog was dropping like a blanket over the slopes, this fox comes trotting over the ridge, eyes half shut as if just getting off a long shift at work and heading home. He didn't care at all that we were there and proceeded to trot right by our SUV, us laying on the ground next to it.
The only real time he noticed us was when Dawn moved slightly to get a better angle as he continued by. In that instance I was able to capture this frame.
After a momentary pause, where neither of us moved, he went right back to it, making a halfhearted attempt at a ptarmigan before moving off the open tundra and into some thicker willows.
There were some surprise species as well. Long-tailed jaegers, a type of predatory seabird that only comes to land for the breeding and nesting season, were found throughout the low tundra-scape, frequently spotted by picking out their bright cream-colored throats against the darker vegetation or their angular silhouettes against the sky. These fast flyers were not overly skittish and provided us with many opportunities to photograph them in different regions over the course of our visit.
Another species that I had not thought to find were red-necked grebes. Not only did we find some, we found a mated pair who were in the nest building and courtship period. To add to the findings, they were located in a small pond just on the outskirts of town. An easy spot to swing by before heading further afield. We were thrilled to arrive when one of the pair had just returned and they both set to making a ruckus before facing off in choreographed courtship behavior.
Red-throated loons also were found nesting near town. In one location, we found a pair sitting on eggs and in a spot that received beautiful afternoon/evening light. Being close to town once again, made it easy for us to revisit them over the course of our trip to monitor for any early hatchlings or behavior other than nest brooding.
Day two we headed south on the Council Road. Here the drive hugged the coastline for almost thirty miles before turning inland. It is along this road that the famous Iditarod dog sled race has its final leg before crossing the finish line in Nome proper. This area was also under heavy reconstruction after a typhoon in September of 2022 battered the coastline and left buildings damaged and destroyed and washed-out large sections of the Council Road.
Because of the massive dirt hauling semi-trucks flying by at over 50mph in many cases, photography opportunities along the Council Road this season were limited. What wildlife we did see was primarily bird life, such as greater scaup.
Other species included common eiders, tundra swans, Lapland longspurs, and arctic loons. However, due to the excessive traffic many of these birds were very quick to flush along this route and gave us only a handful of quick photo ops. I did get a quick glimpse of an arctic ground squirrel here as well.
Several musk ox herds were seen off this road as well, but I preferred the backgrounds the Teller Road offered with the mountainous backdrops over just the low tundra and sky that surrounded the Council road in many places.
The third road out of Nome is referred to as the Kougarok road, though the official name is the Nome-Taylor Highway. As with the other roads, this road leads to the village of Taylor (thus the official name), however, the road actually stops just shy of Taylor, ending at the Kougarok River bridge which is 25 miles from the actual village. Beyond the bridge only ATVs and foot traffic can navigate the terrain. This why so many refer to it as the Kougarok road as that is much more transparent as to where the road leads.
Unlike the other two roads that run, at least roughly, along the coastline, the Kougarok heads inland, through the Kigluaik Range, crossing rivers and streams that flow through glacially carved valleys. It passes Salmon Lake which is the final spawning grounds for the most northern sockeye salmon run. It is also along this road that many birders come to look for the bristle-thighed curlew and the elusive bluethroat. For us, this road provided a much more mountainous habitat than we had passed through on the other roads. It was clear that spring was only just arriving in the interior of the Seward Peninsula as there were still large pockets of snow and little greenery as we drove towards Salmon Lake.
When we arrived at Salmon Lake, many of the trails were still covered in calf-to-knee deep snow in places. With the tundra being a very slow growing environment, we hesitated to stray too far off trail as we did not want to damage the delicate lichen and other vegetation. Where we could traverse via hard surfaces like rocks or barren spots and segments of trail, we found everything from beautiful tundra flowers to various species of birds.
The ptarmigan were here of course. Silly little tundra chickens. On the sunny side of a hill near the Salmon Lake campground, we watched as this male ptarmigan took a dirt bath amid the spring greenery and pink flowers. He was able to get good distance with some of the dirt!
Our other encounter at Salmon Lake was with a pair of nesting semipalmated plovers. These small shorebirds had found quite a picturesque nesting site there on a small hill overlooking the lake, giving them easy access to foraging while also being able to watch for approaching predators. Or inadvertent intruders such as we were in this situation. I'm not sure we would have seen them if the nest-sitting parent hadn't flushed off the nest as we passed by on the trail trying to get a better view of the lake.
Once we realized we were in such close proximity to their nest we made sure not to stay in the area very long. Even when photographing, we backed off as far as we could to lessen the stress of the bird. The parent who was nest-sitting at the time did return to the nest quickly once we made ourselves small by laying down and limiting our movements.
Photography tip: When working with birds, especially shorebirds, getting as low as you can will help them not be as nervous. This stands to reason when you consider that many of their predators come from above, either in the form of predatory birds or mammals that pounce. Using a long lens also helps put them at ease as you don't move for long periods of time or try to approach closer if you have the correct gear.
Overall, the trip was much more than I had hoped for both in terms of various species seen and the challenge this region presented in both access and nature photography. I'm already looking forward to next year's tour and have some ideas on how to further the photographic opportunities we will encounter.
Dawn and I heartily extend our invitation for you to join us in Nome to celebrate the midnight sun next year! Be sure to check out the tour details here if you are interested.
Additionally, if you want to see more images from this trip, check out the Nature of Nome Collection which includes a few more images that didn't quite make it into this article.