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Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Land of the Midnight Sun

Location: Fairbanks, Alaska
Population: 35,132

Here we are in Fairbanks, and this is as far north as we will make it on this trip into the Land of the Midnight Sun, as Alaska is so appropriately known (at least for half the year). Looking at a map it is amazing to see where we are, and I have been thinking about it in different ways as I try to fully absorb being in this place.

We are less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, the line where on the summer solstice the sun will not set at all.

In terms of latitude and longitude, we are at 65˚ N and 148˚ W (compared to 49˚ N and 123˚ W in the San Juan Islands). Every degree of latitude is always 69 miles, but as you approach the North Pole the distance between degrees of longitude is reduced – from more than 40 miles per degree in the San Juan Islands to less than 30 miles per degree here (think about how all the lines of longitude on a globe converge at the top and bottom at the poles). As a result, we are so far west that if we were to head due south we would run into the Hawaiian Islands. Isn’t that strange?? I was surprised to learn that.

Today, the sun will set at 12:20 AM and will rise at 3:17 AM. It basically hasn't gotten dark for more than a week now. We've seen swallows catching insects at 10:30 PM. We've heard robins singing after 11:00 PM. I wonder how and when animals decide to sleep when it is so light all the time? Perhaps, like me, they just sleep less this time of year, too tempted by the lure to be active during daylight. How about those animals that are normally nocturnal?

I wanted to post a picture taken at midnight to show how light it is, but that will have to wait for now since last night I fell asleep before then (those shorter nights catch up with you at some point!). So here is a picture I took at Marsh Lake in the Yukon after 10 at night on May 27th, with the sun still shining on the mountain peaks:

Our drive to Fairbanks was relatively uneventful, and since we had a good number of miles to cover from Valdez we didn’t make a lot of stops. The highlight was a stretch of highway where we saw four moose, including our first male with a growing pair of antlers.

The weather remained cloudy for our drive, and instead of seeing the tops of the mountains we saw the sides of the mountains and a low layer of clouds that hung ominously above. This photo shows the fog covering most of Rainbow Mountain, which is known for its slopes made up of various minerals giving it colors that range from red to black and from blue to yellow:

We had our first thunderstorm as we pulled into Fairbanks. It's amazing how after a couple of weeks of being in the remote areas of the north and visiting the smaller communities, 30,000 seems like A LOT of people. It's somewhat of a culture shock to see fast food restaurants, freeways, traffic lights!

The rain has stayed with us into today, for which the people here are thankful. They are talking about how much their gardens need the water, and how rain is better than the smoke that would accompany potential wildfires. We didn’t let the wet deter us from going out and doing some birding on our full day here. We saw a pair of sandhill cranes and a flock of Canada geese out in a field, with some cliff swallows flying overhead. American robins and yellow warblers were singing all over the place. We saw a few slate-colored dark-eyed juncos, a different race from the dark-eyed juncos we see most often in Oregon and Washington. Where are all the birds unique to the north? We got one, as courtesy of my dad’s iBird Pro application on his phone we were able to confirm the singing of several northern waterthrushes (year bird 194, NA life bird 326) – cool!

As we drove back from dinner tonight the weather finally started to clear and as we crested a hill we saw a mountain peak in the distance - Mt. McKinley! The tallest peak in North America looked big even from 120 miles away. It is only visible about a third of the time, so I was worried we might not even get to see it at all. Now I'm hoping we'll get a closer look, as tomorrow we head towards Denali National Park.


Lancs and Lakes Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

saw a tv show about Denali NP years and years ago and always wanted tosee it for myself...looking forward to your observations - wolves?


Julie said...

i was in fairbanks last year at summer solstice and in tierra del fuego (the bottom of the world) on their summer solstice (dec. 21) 6 months before! i can totally get into the "all day all the time thing" even though, at some point, you do need to sleep. i'm not sure i would like the winter though. sounds like you are really having the adventure of a lifetime!