The world of the midnight sun

Galbreath Lake   2011.6


One cannot imagine how different an area at latitude 70 is from the latitude where one lives. One can never really know until he or she actually stands at this higher latitude. So, in order to accomplish this, you must go outside and see the earth for yourself.

I crossed over into the Arctic Circle on June 24th. It took 16 hours from Fairbanks to get to the campground where I would stay. I have finally arrived only just now. This area is called the North Slope, which refers to the slope on the north side of the Brooks Mountain Range. During my adventure, I intend to focus on investigating the natural world this slope area encompasses, despite the slope being too wide to explore fully on foot.


The summer solstice has just passed by; during this time of the year, the sun doesn’t set for a period of 2 months at this high latitude. You never have to worry about daylight duration at this time of year; you can read a book and roam around outside 24 hours a day, without a stand light or a head light… this means I will have tons of time to conduct my research and take photos.


What a totally different world! This is something you too might say after passing your first day in the arctic. When you visit Alaska, you typically know beforehand that daytime is going to be comparatively much longer than what you experience in the lower 48. As it does throughout most of the world and in all the places I had previously visited in Alaska, the sun sets at night and rises in the morning at varying times. But here, the sun moves almost horizontally and never sets.


I leave my watch in the tent because in actuality I have another one: the sun itself. You find out soon after arriving in the arctic that you have a 360-degree view with no trees to impede your view. It is pretty interesting to me that you therefore have a highly accurate natural clock, just using the sun. To illustrate, let’s say you decide lunch time is when the sun is above the hill you see from your tent and you set this time as 12:00 pm; then the time is 12:00 am when this same hill turns 180 degrees away from this position, relative to the sun’s location in the sky. It’s like having this huge, 24 hour, natural clock.  Experiencing the tremendous scale of nature in this way may be possible only in the Land of the Midnight Sun.


Sitting on the unfettered tundra and viewing the circular horizon, I could only imagine in what direction lay the lands of Europe, Russia, and Greenland and maybe, where Japan is. Although the north pole is still 1500 miles north of this location, it feels like the earth is rotating around me.


Preparing dinner is also fun when camping. If you have had the experience of cooking outside in a remote area, you may know how much easier and therefore more enjoyable it is to cook dinner with sunlight rather than without it. You never have to deal with the impediment of darkness in the arctic summer. For dinner, I’m cooking rice and and will relate my steps for cooking rice with a camp stove. Rice is, by the way, very valuable and reasonable for outdoor meals, because it stays dry so well, is lightweight before cooking, and is pretty easy to cook; all one needs to do is add water. The time for boiling I mention below depends on how high in altitude you are: The higher you go up, the longer it takes to boil water.


1. Add one 1.5 cups of rice and the same amount of water to a 20 oz pot.

2. Keep the pot on the hottest part of your burner (DO NOT OPEN THE LID).

3. When it boils, turn down the flame for 10 min.

4. Turn off the flame and let it stand for 15 min.


The time now is about 8:00 pm. The sun is high above the horizon, and I still have the energy to go on a search for more interesting things in the natural world that surrounds me. I can always come back whenever I get tired. So I went out. Some parts of the tundra here have a sponge-like soil. With conditions of this kind, you usually see cotton grasses, which grow well on poorly drained areas. Cotton grass is beautifully photogenic to me, and is especially prevalent around the edges of lakes. Also, you can easily find Wooly Louseworts, Arctic Milk Vetch, Pen Brushes, Mountain Avens, etc., but if you neglect looking at the ground near your feet, you may pass up the chance to observe Arctic Starflowers, which are small tiny white flowers and therefore easy to miss.


The quality of light has now changed, 5 hours after having left camp. I didn’t notice this change until now because I had been continuously observing flowers, nests of small animals and footprints of big animals on the ground. The sky is the same, as clear as when I had left the camp,  but I feel there is still some sort of difference in the light despite not being able to figure out the reason for the difference.


There is a northward water flow from the Brooks mountains which is a continental divide. This river has gradually eroded this land year after year, perhaps since ancient times, and has formed a deep cliff in one area. The surface color of this cliff in front of me turns to brilliant orange as the midnight sun light hits it at a new angle. It seemed like perfect sun light to me. I move quickly and start taking pictures of this landscape. All of a sudden something swoops down toward me, screeching with a high pitched sound. I hear rustling of wings as it passes right in front of me and I see it is a Peregrine Falcon.


I know the nest of this bird should be pretty close by, but, I cannot decide which way to move in order to avoid its nest and keep away from this angry bird. Obviously the bird is very nervous, but I am also nervous because I have no idea what to do in this situation. From here, I can see something like a nest which has a few bundles of tiny tree branches which is likely the nest of the peregrine. I move slowly away from it so as to create more distance between me and the bird.


There are three chicks in the nest. I continue to observe the peregrine falcon family for 2 days (18 hours total). Both parents join in rearing the chicks and hunt small mammals in alternate shifts. For as long as I observe, they don’t seem to care what time they rest or sleep. They seem completely tireless. The only one who was tired was me, as I continued to watch. I think these birds have great energy efficiency. Don’t they need to sleep? Maybe not during chick-rearing season.


They must be growing tired while hunting lemmings but they hunt them continuously….Why?… Can one say they do that merely because of instinct?… Won’t they eventually exhaust themselves continually bringing food to the nest for their chicks?…Why don’t they just bring the chicks down near the stream where more food sources are available and let them get food by themselves? These were the thoughts I was thinking in the tent after I gave up watching the rearing activity of the birds and came back to the base camp. My perspective on these birds had changed. They work so hard without any outward sign of fatigue. I am also now somewhat regretful that I interrupted the mother bird and caused her to be angry and nervous.