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It is officially called Ukpiagvik—”the place where we hunt snowy owls.” “Barrow,” Alaska, and its environs have been the ancestral home of a group of the indigenous Iñupiat people for more than 15,000 years. Ukpiagvik —320 miles north of the Arctic Circle—was/is an important nexus for the Inuit bowhead whale hunt and is still a productive area for the seals, caribou and edible wild plants that supplement the traditional whale catch. In lean years, the Iñupiat hunted the snowy owl for meat or collected the eggs. Today, many Iñupiat still practice traditional subsistence hunting—but, with federal and state protection, snowy owls are no longer on the menu. However, for wildlife photographers, the Barrow area truly provides a choice array of spectacular arctic birds to “shoot.”
Sabine’s GullIn a big “lemming year,” snowy owls can be plentiful. Also among Ukpiagvik’s great allure for nature photographers is the chance to create images of three stunning species of eiders—Steller’s, king and spectacled. The males sport their most vivid plumage in the early spring, using it to attract mates before abandoning the females at the start of egg-laying. Then, once incubation starts, the drakes are almost nowhere to be seen near Barrow! In June, at the time of our visit, shorebirds in breeding plumage are everywhere and in full courtship display. Common and easy to photograph species include dunlin, semipalmated and pectoral sandpipers, plus long-billed dowitchers and American golden-plovers. Breeding buff-breasted sandpipers are also a shooting possibility. Across the tundra, the cacophony of enigmatic calls, gyrating dances and the peculiar courtship flights of these sandpipers are a delight to witness and a joy to photograph. Loons, ducks and phalaropes frequent many of the tundra ponds, and dazzling red and red-necked phalaropes, long-tailed ducks and Pacific loons provide regular photo opportunities. Breeding-plumaged snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are common and photogenic tundra denizens. There is a chance to see a yellow-billed loon and photograph migrating Sabine’s gulls. Pomarine jaegers cruise the tundra in hope of snatching a lemming or any fledgling of inattentive parents!
The tundra around Ukpiagvik is a remarkably rich environment, with nesting birds seemingly every few hundred yards. It offers a wealth of opportunities for close-range photography—yet, to get the most from this trip, a 500mm lens (or larger) is a prerequisite piece of equipment. Light is usually good for photography from 5 AM to 10 AM and from 5 PM to 11 PM. During midday the light can be harsh and we reserve that time for meals and sleep. During the “night” (midnight to 4 AM) when the light is low, wildlife becomes quieter and harder to locate, giving us time for another short rest.
Lightweight chest waders, camouflage outerwear, camo long lens protectors and a camo bag blind are necessities on this photo shoot. Due to fickle springtime weather in the arctic, a variety of heavy and lightweight clothing layers are needed to stay comfortable throughout the shoot.
Though the land in this area is relatively flat and some birds will be close to the road, walking to distant ponds to shoot eiders, loons and other waterbirds over the soft tundra can be strenuous.
Join us on the edge of the Arctic Ocean in the northernmost city in the US. Here, the 24 hours of the midnight sun begin to warm this desolate, yet stunningly beautiful, high arctic landscape as lingering ice and snow melts away. The underlying tundra bursts forth with low-growing carpets of plants and with insects that attract the throngs of photogenic migrating birds coming north to breed. Now, flashing wings and songs of courtship travel on the wind and herald the short breeding season.
This is an active trip! People considering joining this trip should be able to walk off-trail a half mile or more in each direction—while carrying camera gear and a bag blind, and while wearing bulky “winter” clothing and chest waders. Assess your level of fitness before enrolling.
Day 1 (Jun 9)
Participants fly from Anchorage to Barrow/Ukpiagvik, Alaska. Alaska Airlines (Barrow/ Ukpiagvik’s only airline) flights typically arrive in the early evening. Check into our airport hotel. Depending on the flight schedule, we meet in the hotel lobby for a brief orientation. Participants should prepare their camera gear, waders and clothing for tomorrow’s early morning photo shoot. (Dinner is on your own tonight. We advise purchasing food in the Anchorage airport to eat on the flight to Barrow.)
Photography at a location with 24 hours of daylight requires some personal adjustment in sleeping schedules! Our typical shooting schedule—influenced by weather conditions and distance needed to drive to a shooting location—has us in the field between 5 AM and 11 AM. We return to town for an early lunch, break for a midday nap, and then eat an early dinner. We are again out in the field between 5 PM and 11 PM.
Because of the early shooting schedule, we are not in Ukpiagvik during typical breakfast hours. Breakfast items and snacks are not included in the trip fee, but can be purchased in town during the tour and carried into the field. (LD)
Day 8 (Jun 16)
Depending on weather and flight schedules, we may head out into the field this morning, returning to our hotel before check-out time. Flights to Anchorage are scheduled for late morning and early evening. Participants who need to connect with flights to the “lower 48” states should book the morning flight to Anchorage.
Eric Rock is a leading travel and nature photographer who discovered his passion for photography early in life. At the age of sixteen he purchased his first camera and began to explore the natural world. While studying wildlife biology at the University of Alaska, he used that passion to expand his skills while working as an assignment photographer and teaching assistant in the School of Journalism. Eric began his guiding career as the head naturalist at Kantishna Roadhouse in Alaska’s Denali National Park—a perfect location to explore nature with a camera. From there, his travels have taken him around the globe while utilizing his knowledge of nature and photography to enhance his clients’ experiences through focused and personalized instruction. Eric’s expertise as a photographer and his insights as a naturalist are invaluable for revealing precise moments for the ultimate image captures. He is also recognized the world over for his laugh! Eric lives in Bozeman, Montana.