The wildlife and landscapes of summer on the tundra in northwest Alaska


Tiny hunting cabins speckle the landscape as you drive down Kougarok Road, which skirts the Sawtooth Mountain range. I definitely wouldn't have minded making this little blue hut - or any number of the cabins, really - my summer home. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tiny hunting cabins speckle the landscape as you drive down Kougarok Road, which skirts the Sawtooth Mountain range. I definitely wouldn't have minded making this little blue hut - or any number of the cabins, really - my summer home. © Jaymi Heimbuch


After a long trip, it takes a few days to catch up on sleep and the emails, snail mail, laundry, unpacking and other chores waiting for me at home. It takes a few more days to sort through images, deleting the misfires and almost-hads and what-was-I-thinkings, and sorting the maybe-winners from the definitely-winners. It takes a few more days after that to think about what I have left, and what of those images that I truly love and work as a photograph.

By the time I'm ready to sit down and show some images, I'm weeks removed from the trip and the memories are fading. I go from remembering details across many hours of each day to remembering just the highlights of each day. Often, those highlights coincide with the favorite images. Favorites are more than just keeper photos. They nearly always have real memories attached to them.

In early June, a good friend of mine, Donald Quintana, and I visited Nome, Alaska. It was his second time there, but my first, and my first time witnessing the height of summer just south of the Arctic circle where days are so long you forget how to tell time. There's also birds in breeding plumage that you never see farther south. And baby musk oxen with their squee-inducing moments of cute. But the light, especially the hours of gold on each side of twilight, just might be the best gift of summertime this far north.

Gathered here are my favorite little moments from five days on the tundra next to the Bering Sea.

A large male musk ox still shedding his winter coat was the first mammal spotted on the trip, quietly grazing on a hillside in the golden light of late (very late) evening.  © Jaymi Heimbuch

A large male musk ox still shedding his winter coat was the first mammal spotted on the trip, quietly grazing on a hillside in the golden light of late (very late) evening.  © Jaymi Heimbuch

We were lucky in our timing of the trip, arriving with the full moon. The first evening we saw it rise over the bearing sea, and a few hours later watched it drop back down into the blue. Nome, Alaska and the Bering Sea just before sunrise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We were lucky in our timing of the trip, arriving with the full moon. The first evening we saw it rise over the bearing sea, and a few hours later watched it drop back down into the blue. Nome, Alaska and the Bering Sea just before sunrise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

While we had the full moon dropping down to the horizon on one side of us, we had the sun rising over the mountains on the other side. Pink woolly lousewart flowers (Pedicularis lanata) are backlit by the rising sun. © Jaymi Heimbuch

While we had the full moon dropping down to the horizon on one side of us, we had the sun rising over the mountains on the other side. Pink woolly lousewart flowers (Pedicularis lanata) are backlit by the rising sun. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Our jeep was a good friend to us on the trip. Always happy to handle bumpy roads without complaint! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Our jeep was a good friend to us on the trip. Always happy to handle bumpy roads without complaint! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though they are mostly a drab grey with a white neck during winter, red-necked grebes sport gorgeous deep copper necks during the breeding season. The glistening feathers are quite a sight in the setting sun. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though they are mostly a drab grey with a white neck during winter, red-necked grebes sport gorgeous deep copper necks during the breeding season. The glistening feathers are quite a sight in the setting sun. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Two red-necked grebes do a courtship call in a pond during mid-day. It was interesting to see birds paired up and staking out nesting sites on all the ponds in the area. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Two red-necked grebes do a courtship call in a pond during mid-day. It was interesting to see birds paired up and staking out nesting sites on all the ponds in the area. © Jaymi Heimbuch

An early morning catch of a muskrat made a great breakfast for this red fox. He didn't stay long to pose for us before trotting off proudly with it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

An early morning catch of a muskrat made a great breakfast for this red fox. He didn't stay long to pose for us before trotting off proudly with it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Speaking of muskrats... Here is a happy, healthy muskrat staying well clear of the foxes. They waffle between being adorably cute and a creepy-looking ROUS, depending on how they're watching you. But most of the time, they're pretty adorable. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Speaking of muskrats... Here is a happy, healthy muskrat staying well clear of the foxes. They waffle between being adorably cute and a creepy-looking ROUS, depending on how they're watching you. But most of the time, they're pretty adorable. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sometimes you get weirdly lucky. We were driving along a stretch of road when Don noted that just up the road was a snow patch was where he photographed an accommodating rock ptarmigan the year before. Sure enough the snow patch was still there, and as we neared it, Don exclaimed, "No way!" and pulled over. At the top of the very same patch of snow was a rock ptarmigan that, for all we know, is the very same bird. Because of the changes in plumage over the seasons, we can't know for sure. But this one was equally as accommodating for us, quietly hanging around while we got our fill of watching. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sometimes you get weirdly lucky. We were driving along a stretch of road when Don noted that just up the road was a snow patch was where he photographed an accommodating rock ptarmigan the year before. Sure enough the snow patch was still there, and as we neared it, Don exclaimed, "No way!" and pulled over. At the top of the very same patch of snow was a rock ptarmigan that, for all we know, is the very same bird. Because of the changes in plumage over the seasons, we can't know for sure. But this one was equally as accommodating for us, quietly hanging around while we got our fill of watching. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tundra swans were gathered on large ponds but most of the time they were quite far from us, and with their skittish nature were difficult to photograph. However, one evening a pair was paddling back and forth across a pond that was small enough for us to approach on the far side, and allow the swans enough distance to feel comfortable. There is really something just magical about the light of summer in the far north. Golden hours last for ages, and the soft glow it gave to these swans for the long minutes we watched them glide over the water was simply spectacular. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tundra swans were gathered on large ponds but most of the time they were quite far from us, and with their skittish nature were difficult to photograph. However, one evening a pair was paddling back and forth across a pond that was small enough for us to approach on the far side, and allow the swans enough distance to feel comfortable. There is really something just magical about the light of summer in the far north. Golden hours last for ages, and the soft glow it gave to these swans for the long minutes we watched them glide over the water was simply spectacular. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The long-tailed duck has gorgeous plumage in both summer and winter. It has a white head and neck in winter but it darkens to black with just a light grey patch around the eyes during the summer. This pair was looking for the perfect patch of reeds in the pond to build their nest. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The long-tailed duck has gorgeous plumage in both summer and winter. It has a white head and neck in winter but it darkens to black with just a light grey patch around the eyes during the summer. This pair was looking for the perfect patch of reeds in the pond to build their nest. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It seems as if no birds are lonely in the arctic summer. It is the season to devoting all your time to family. One of these two gulls was staked out on this bit of rusty dredge every time we passed by, and it was great to see a moment when the pair were there together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It seems as if no birds are lonely in the arctic summer. It is the season to devoting all your time to family. One of these two gulls was staked out on this bit of rusty dredge every time we passed by, and it was great to see a moment when the pair were there together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the most spectacular moments of the trip was the time spent with two short-eared owls. Especially this particular interaction with this particular short-eared owl. I have another blog post on the way talking more about this wonderful interaction with watching this owl hunt. It is not baited and not called in. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the most spectacular moments of the trip was the time spent with two short-eared owls. Especially this particular interaction with this particular short-eared owl. I have another blog post on the way talking more about this wonderful interaction with watching this owl hunt. It is not baited and not called in. © Jaymi Heimbuch

At the center of our attention, this short-eared owl was exciting to watch every time we spotted it. We we had seven sightings, most of which gave us an opportunity to photograph the gorgeous raptor. © Jaymi Heimbuch

At the center of our attention, this short-eared owl was exciting to watch every time we spotted it. We we had seven sightings, most of which gave us an opportunity to photograph the gorgeous raptor. © Jaymi Heimbuch

And at times, the sightings were a matter of yards away as it flew by, making passes back and forth along the tundra looking for squirrels, voles and other rodents. © Jaymi Heimbuch

And at times, the sightings were a matter of yards away as it flew by, making passes back and forth along the tundra looking for squirrels, voles and other rodents. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the big draws about Nome for wildlife photographers is the presence of muskoxen. However, a grizzly with cubs had been spotted in the area so there were very, very few around. Those that were brave enough to stay were kind enough to let us hang around. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the big draws about Nome for wildlife photographers is the presence of muskoxen. However, a grizzly with cubs had been spotted in the area so there were very, very few around. Those that were brave enough to stay were kind enough to let us hang around. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There were a couple large males in one of the herds but it was abundantly clear who was boss with just a glance around. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There were a couple large males in one of the herds but it was abundantly clear who was boss with just a glance around. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This is also the season when the calves are born, and watching them move around the herd was wonderful. The herd is protective of its calves, so approaching in a way where everyone could stay relaxed and go about their business gave us great opportunities to watch the herd dynamics. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This is also the season when the calves are born, and watching them move around the herd was wonderful. The herd is protective of its calves, so approaching in a way where everyone could stay relaxed and go about their business gave us great opportunities to watch the herd dynamics. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The red phalarope is probably my favorite bird species photographed on this trip (other than the owl, of course). They are feisty, confident and yet miniscule birds. This particular bird was my favorite, spending probably a good 20 minutes working the shoreline in front of me for little bugs and critters to snack on. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The red phalarope is probably my favorite bird species photographed on this trip (other than the owl, of course). They are feisty, confident and yet miniscule birds. This particular bird was my favorite, spending probably a good 20 minutes working the shoreline in front of me for little bugs and critters to snack on. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The mergansers were another story, living up to their reputation for skittishness. Still beautiful to witness when they'd let us. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The mergansers were another story, living up to their reputation for skittishness. Still beautiful to witness when they'd let us. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Gold mining is a significant part of the area's past and present. Dredges of all sizes are a common sight, however, the tundra is slowly reclaiming a good number of those that have been left abandoned. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Gold mining is a significant part of the area's past and present. Dredges of all sizes are a common sight, however, the tundra is slowly reclaiming a good number of those that have been left abandoned. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A large female walrus came ashore one evening. Walrus are having a difficult time in our warming climate, with less summer sea ice to use as resting places in between trips to sea for feeding. The marine mammals are forced to take longer journeys and haul out on shorelines in large groups instead of spreading out on sea ice. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A large female walrus came ashore one evening. Walrus are having a difficult time in our warming climate, with less summer sea ice to use as resting places in between trips to sea for feeding. The marine mammals are forced to take longer journeys and haul out on shorelines in large groups instead of spreading out on sea ice. © Jaymi Heimbuch

On the last day of our trip, we finally spotted a moose close enough to photograph. It was a large cow, and she wasn't alone... © Jaymi Heimbuch

On the last day of our trip, we finally spotted a moose close enough to photograph. It was a large cow, and she wasn't alone... © Jaymi Heimbuch

...After a few minutes, her two calves came out of the willows to explore. Both of them walked delicately on their stilt-like legs and mirrored each others movements. © Jaymi Heimbuch

...After a few minutes, her two calves came out of the willows to explore. Both of them walked delicately on their stilt-like legs and mirrored each others movements. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Willow ptarmigan are the state bird of Alaska, and they are one of the most fun to watch. There is always a slightly comical edge to their movements, and their call makes me laugh every time I hear it. They are in the grouse family, but you can't help but think of them as their nickname, the arctic chicken. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Willow ptarmigan are the state bird of Alaska, and they are one of the most fun to watch. There is always a slightly comical edge to their movements, and their call makes me laugh every time I hear it. They are in the grouse family, but you can't help but think of them as their nickname, the arctic chicken. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The variety of coat coloration in red foxes is amazing, and this beauty with his light ginger and cream shading sported one of the most elegant of all the foxes we saw. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The variety of coat coloration in red foxes is amazing, and this beauty with his light ginger and cream shading sported one of the most elegant of all the foxes we saw. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the things I loved the most about the entire area was the crystal clear streams of clean water. Born and raised in an area where water is scarce and river beds are usually dry, it was exciting and refreshing to see so many creeks and rivers filled to the brim with freshly melted water. It was definitely one of the great joys of visiting the area. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the things I loved the most about the entire area was the crystal clear streams of clean water. Born and raised in an area where water is scarce and river beds are usually dry, it was exciting and refreshing to see so many creeks and rivers filled to the brim with freshly melted water. It was definitely one of the great joys of visiting the area. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We often saw red foxes in pairs. What I love is watching them move along while always considering where their mate is. With this pair, the larger of the two crossed the road well ahead of its partner, then paused on the other side watching back to see where his or her partner would pop up. When the second fox still didn't appear, the first fox trotted back across the road to check on the other, who finally emerged from the shrubs and they trotted off together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We often saw red foxes in pairs. What I love is watching them move along while always considering where their mate is. With this pair, the larger of the two crossed the road well ahead of its partner, then paused on the other side watching back to see where his or her partner would pop up. When the second fox still didn't appear, the first fox trotted back across the road to check on the other, who finally emerged from the shrubs and they trotted off together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Salmon Lake in one of its many moods. The week was so warm that we witnessed the ice melting off the surface at a considerable rate. The difference in ice between the first day and the last day on our trip was surprising. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Salmon Lake in one of its many moods. The week was so warm that we witnessed the ice melting off the surface at a considerable rate. The difference in ice between the first day and the last day on our trip was surprising. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We checked out every pond, lake, creek and river to see what was around to photograph, whether it was flora, fauna or simply the gorgeous landscape. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We checked out every pond, lake, creek and river to see what was around to photograph, whether it was flora, fauna or simply the gorgeous landscape. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Reindeer herds are found in the game management areas. Reindeer are the domestic cousins to caribou and were introduced to the continent from Siberia in 1892 as a new source of food for native Alaskans when whaling started to decline. About two-thirds of the reindeer found in Alaska are found in the Seward Peninsula. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Reindeer herds are found in the game management areas. Reindeer are the domestic cousins to caribou and were introduced to the continent from Siberia in 1892 as a new source of food for native Alaskans when whaling started to decline. About two-thirds of the reindeer found in Alaska are found in the Seward Peninsula. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In one area particularly rich in blooming tundra flowers, a patch of Alaska cotton caught my eye. I clambered up the boggy hillside to it and was surprised when I caught a strong whiff of rosemary. It turns out that I'd walked through bog rosemary, a species I didn't know existed until that surprising fragrance hit me. The diversity of flora on the tundra is amazing. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In one area particularly rich in blooming tundra flowers, a patch of Alaska cotton caught my eye. I clambered up the boggy hillside to it and was surprised when I caught a strong whiff of rosemary. It turns out that I'd walked through bog rosemary, a species I didn't know existed until that surprising fragrance hit me. The diversity of flora on the tundra is amazing. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.