Chasing the Northern Lights on Minnesota’s North Shore

One of the most sought after experiences for visitors to the North Shore is to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights.  We have great, dark skies Up North and often see them through out the year.  My first experience with them was over 20 years ago, shortly after moving to Tofte Minnesota.  I’ll include some tips for viewing and photographing them as well as some photos to try to explain the differences between the photos you see and what your eyes may see without a camera.  I’ll keep it pretty simple as I am still learning about the science of it all myself.

Summer aurora at Isle Royale National Park

One of the comments I get a lot is “We saw the northern lights last night too, near where you were taking photos, and they sure didn’t look like your photos, what gives?”   The easy answer is that a camera has much, much better night vision than the human eye. Our eyes can see a wide range of colors in the light of day as the cones in our eyes do the work.  At night, the rods are doing the work and they tend to see fainter light in dull, muted shades, for the most part.  The powerful ISO’s in these cameras and longer exposures used for night photography really bring out the colors that are happening at the high altitudes that the lights are forming in.  Below I will post two photos from the recent aurora event.  The first will be what the camera captured and showed after I processed the RAW file in Adobe Lightroom.  The second one I processed in a way that is more consistant with what I was seeing with my eyes and what a tyical viewer would see.

Almost straight out of the camera. Northern lights “as the camera sees them”.
I processed this image to closer resemble what the naked eye was seeing.

Now, that’s not to say the naked eye can’t see color in an aurora display.  We can, and do.  I have been lucky enough, and out often enough to see some surreal, colorful, mindblowing displays.  Reds, purples, greens and even yellows, all with the naked eye.  It can greatly depend on the strength of the display and how dark your skies are.  One of the best, most dramatic displays I have seen was long before I was photographing them and they were multi colored and fantastic.  A group of friends and I were dining at the Gunflint Lodge one fall night in 1995 when the waiter came and asked if we’d like to finish our drinks out on the dock to watch the northern lights.  The whole restaurant cleared out and onto the shores of Gunflint Lake and we were all treated to one of the best diplays I have witnessed to date.
It’s very possible you have seen some faint northern lights without even knowing what you were seeing.  Often times they can appear as a greyish/white, dull glow in the sky.  The untrained may mistake them for clouds or a fog of some kind.

The wide variety of colors you see in photos and with the eye during a strong event is another area of the science that I am still learning.  In short, it depends on the electrical state of different atmospheric gasses.  Charged particles in the solar winds interact with the atmospheric gasses and these interactions create different wavelengths of light, and different colors.  Oxygen and nitrogen are the two main gasses and are resposible for different colors depending on their electrical state.  This is a very crude explanation as I am no expert!
Here are a few photos showing a range of colors possible.


Purples and reddish aurora with greenish yellow base.
Green and pinkish aurora on New Year’s Eve!
Greens, yellows and reds.

It is always fun to look at the back of the camera when photographing aurora to see what shows up that the naked eye isn’t seeing.

Another question I am getting a lot is “When, where and how often can we see the lights?”
I have seen northern lights during all four of our seasons.  Personally, I have no “best” season for viewing.  The winter months are great because the nights are so long and dark.  I have seen aurora displays at 5PM on winter nights all the way to the morning hours.  Summer is nice because it can be a lot more tolerable weather-wise to be out at night.  When I think of my top 4-5 displays I have seen, they span the four seasons.  Last fall and 1995 were a couple of the best I have seen.  A cold, winter night on Deeryard Lake in Lutsen, many years ago was another top display.  Last summer in June we had possibly the best I have witnessed.  There is an eleven year solar cycle which contains a “solar maximum” and “solar minimum” which has to do with sunspots and frequency of sun events that can cause northern lights.  I believe we hit the max a couple years ago and are on the downslope.  We are still getting and will still get displays though.  More science I need to read up on…
If you are not into the science of it yourself, you can increase your odds of seeing them by simply watching certain websites or by installing an app on your phone to notify you if there is activity expected.  I look at weekly and have an Aurora Notifier app on my phone.  I also peruse a couple websites and Facebook pages that have enthusiasts as members who can decipher all the data and predict the lights quite well.  The best rescource I have is a Facebook group called the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters.  If there is a sun event, you will hear about it there.  If there is a chance for aurora in the coming days, you will hear about it there.  If there are lights happening anywhere in our region, you will see real-time reports.
As far as North Shore locations for viewing the lights, here are a few tips.  I’ll base this on the typical viewer and not a photographer’s point of view.
Your best bet during a standard show would be to head inland, somewhere up over the Sawtooth Mountains.  I like to head to one of the many lakes in the area.  You can do a quick Google Map search for the area you may be vacationing in.  Find a lake or open area with a nice view to the North.  Boat landings are a good start.  The lights can be in all directions at times, but a smaller display may be best viewed looking north.  If you are on Lake Superior and can’t get inland, you’ll still want to find a nice point of land that sticks out a bit affording you a view north.  Some of the best places to go would be the Gunflint, Caribou and Sawbill trails for inland viewing.  On a good night, the Grand Marais harbor can give you a view in the right direction if you get out towards the breakwall.  As you go west/southwest on 61, the Sawtooth Range gets in the way a bit so you’ll have to find a point of shore that sticks out a bit and orients you northish.
Time of night is a tough call.  Not everyone can pull an “all nighter” and wait for it to happen.  Occasionally I have seen them go from sunset to sunrise, but that isn’t always the case.  I like to tell people to head out shortly after sunset when the skies first get dark.  Give it a chance and wait a couple hours if you aren’t seeing anything.  If you can’t stay out, set an alarm for after midnight and go take another look.  Things can change fast.

Summer aurora over the Temperance

I’ll leave you with a few more tips and a checklist for heading out to view the lights…

If you are able, plan your hunt around the moon cycle.  The less moon the better for viewing, although the above photo was taken in near full moonlight during an epic aurora event.  The darker the better, typically though.
Bring a group!  It’s always more fun and can fight the boredom of waiting if you are with friends.
Look for other night sky landmarks and phenomenon while out hunting.  Milky Way, meteors, International Space Station.  Our night skies are quite amazing.

Bug spray!!
Chairs and blankets
Telescope for star gazing
Headlamps and flashlights for getting around
Star chart for identifing constelations and stars
Full tank of gas
Hot chocolate, coffee or other beverage
And most of all – Patience!

I hope this helps you find and experience the amazing aurora borealis on your next trip North.  Feel free to send me any other questions you may have and I’ll do my best to answer.  Next blog post will be tips for finding another sought after north shore treasure, the moose!!  Stay tuned and Thank you!


Fall aurora in Schroeder, MN


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