Why I Love Winters in Alaska

January 24, 2021

I see on the news and social media a general hysteria about winter temperatures and conditions in the Lower 48, and I chuckle to myself a bit. We have more often than not had unusually warm winters in Alaska as of late. It's not uncommon to hear Alaskans complaining about 35 being too warm for January. We wish we hold those colder winters more frequently. Winter is the off season for tourism in Alaska, unless you include tourism related to the aurora borealis, dog mushing or skiing. And most out-of-state photographers do not bother to come here in the winter. It is fine with me that fewer people visit here, including photographers, in the wintertime. It helps me to enjoy this amazing season even more.

Reason No. 1 – Golden light all day long

Most photographers will prefer to photograph at the margins of the day – early in the morning and late in the evening. There is a good reason for this. No, it’s not because we like to punish ourselves by getting up early (sunrise in Anchorage in the summer is about 4:40 a.m.). The golden quality of light you can find at those times of day will make any landscape or wildlife subject sing – visually. The warm light helps to make the colors pop, provides texture on the landscape due to shadows created by the low light. But in the summer and fall, that golden light dissipates fairly soon after sunrise, and does not come until late in the evening. The higher the sun gets, the “cooler” the quality of the light, leading to less rich colors. But in wintertime in Alaska, in those parts where the sun does actually rise (Barrow experiences as many as 67 days of continuous darkness from November to January), the sun stays low on the horizon all day, leading to wonderful, golden light from sunup to sundown. And you don’t have to get up early or stay up late to enjoy it.

Reason No. 2 – the Aurora Borealis

Red and Green Corona
A large corona of an aurora borealis splits between red and green over a ridge in Portage Valley, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

A common misconception about the aurora borealis is that it only comes out when it is cold. The fact that it is cold is purely coincidental. It only gets dark enough to see the aurora in Alaska from about August through April, and that also happens to include the coldest months of the year. But even as far south as Anchorage, you could easily spend twelve hours of the day out photographing the aurora because the skies are dark enough to see them. Even though it is dark that long, the aurora is not visible during the entirety of darkness. The farther north you go, the earlier in the evening the aurora will be visible. In Fairbanks and farther north, you can see the aurora as early as 7:00 p.m., but around Anchorage, typically not before 9:00 p.m. That simply has to do with the shape of the aurora borealis as it moves its way across the globe. See more in my Aurora Borealis gallery.

Reason No. 3 – “I’m thinking, Pastels!” (Thank you, Regent Virini)

Pink Spotlight
A shaft of light from a setting sun spotlights a ridge in the Chugach Mountains along the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, Alaska.

When the sun is low and the mountains (and landscape) are covered in snow, a magical thing happens, called “alpenglow.” The result is a landscape aglow with a bold pink hue. The presence of ice and the Earth’s shadow on the horizon before sunrise and after sunset add blue hues to the landscape. The result is a luscious combination of pinks and blues that make for a wonderful tableau of color. And snow adds to the quality of what the light is doing. The white surface of the snow will reflect whatever colors are in the sky, turning shadows blue when the skies are blue, enhancing the glow of pink and gold colors when those colors dominate the sky.

Reason No. 4 – Hoar Frost

Cottonwoods and Frost
Late afternoon light sets aglow some hoar frost on cottonwood trees alongside a trail in Brown's Point Park.

Despite the extreme cold temperatures, there are many areas of Alaska that have open sources of water throughout the winter. From moving water where streams and rivers collide to coastal zones, these open waters add moisture to the air, creating low-lying fog that clings to branches and plants. This ice fog can sometimes persist for several days. The result is “hoar frost,” a thick, crystalline structure of delicate ice that turns any plant into a work of art. And it will coat anything, from trees to even ice. And as long as the temperatures do not warm up, or the winds do not increase beyond a slight breeze, that hoar frost can last for some time. But get out there and enjoy it while you can, for sometimes it can be gone before you know it.

Reason No. 5 – Ice and Moving Water

It’s always interesting to combine movement with a static object. In wintertime, you can have water be both the movement and the stable object. Throughout most of winter, there are plenty of opportunities to capture interesting compositions with movement. Some of the common ones I may explore include stream water flowing near ice-covered rocks or logs, outgoing or incoming tidal waters with chunks of ice floating in them, a bit of open water flowing in a mostly-frozen stream. But, this opportunity only presents itself in Alaska’s coastal areas, from the Southcentral area near Anchorage, to the Southeast in places like Juneau and Sitka.

Reason No. 6 – Bohemian Waxwings

Usually in December when the air takes its first dive into deep cold, they come in waves to Anchorage. Hundreds of feathered bodies swirling and moving together, Bohemian Waxwings move from tree to tree, usually picking at the frozen red berries of the mountain ash tree. Unlike most birds that head south for the winter, Bohemian Waxwings come north from their breeding and rearing grounds in coniferous forests of parts further south in North America. They are here for a couple of months, and then, like how they arrive, they simply disappear on mass, heading back toward their breeding grounds in February and March.

Reason No. 7 – Coastal Sunsets

Icy Coastal Sunset

I do not know what it is, but there is something very magical about sunsets in Alaska in the winter time. It’s probably a combination of the all-day low light as well as the length of time it takes the sun to set. But when you add in snow drifts, ice, alpenglow and all other variety of factors, winter sunsets, especially along the coastal areas, are simply awe-inspiring. And, unlike most places farther south, the sunsets in the wintertime in Alaska last a long time. Actually, our sunsets generally last longer at any time of the year.

Reason No. 8 – Dog Mushing

It’s the official state sport and it is a load of fun to watch and photograph – a team of high-energy dogs doing what they were born to do; pull a sled. There are a lot of opportunities to photograph dog mushing at various competition events throughout the year – Iditarod, Yukon Quest, Fur Rendezvous, and various regional races. Some people will simply mush for recreation, like can often be found in Anchorage’s Far North Bicentennial Park area, particularly at the Tozier Track. For others who live in the more remote parts of Alaska, mushing is a way of life that helps with gathering wood, hunting and trapping in the winter time. And with the magnificent Alaskan landscapes, dog mushing subjects allow any photographer to capture an iconic Alaskan image.

Reason No. 9 – Moonrises and Moonsets

The absolute best time to photograph a moonrise or moonset is when they correspond with sunsets or sunrises. Why? It is easier to get a balanced exposure – with detail in the landscape as well as the moon – when the moon is rising or setting while there is some light in the sky. And as it turns out, there are some periods during the winter months – January is my favorite – when the moon is rising or setting at that perfect time.

Reason No. 10 – Only the Dedicated are Out There

News flash – it gets cold in the winter in Alaska. The record cold temperature in the United States was registered at Prospect Creek Camp in Alaska in 1971. It was -80 degrees Fahrenheit. The Prospect Creek Camp is located along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range, way north of the Arctic Circle. While that temperature may be rare, certain parts of the Interior of Alaska will routinely see temperatures in the -50 to -60 degree range. In Anchorage, we sometimes will get temperatures down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold temperatures tend to thin the herd of photographers gathering at photo hot spots. That is just fine with me, because cold is not a deterrent; it is to be embraced. And fortunately, there are things like Arctic Oven tents that allow us to stay out in cold temperatures in the backcountry for days at a time. Photo magic happens in the cold, so long as I keep my spare batteries warm.

Alaska, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, North Fork Koyukuk River, camp, dog sled, landscape, national park, nighttime...