I’ve got a ton of fall photos to share. It seemed like a long, vivid and memorable fall color season. Early September was showing nice reds and oranges in areas already, giving way to 3 weeks of bright yellow, orange and red autumn change along the Sawtooth Mountains and surrounding woods. October started just as colorful with the yellows along the shore filling in and the blazing yellow tamarack following back in the forest. The October 12-13 snowfall added to the mix and really capped of a great color season. Now, with the leaves all gone and the tamarack starting to fade, we move into the next phase of fall. Another season of change and beauty all it’s own. Below I will share a lot of fall photos I haven’t really posted anywhere. Thanks for taking a look.
I also have 2020 Calendars available for purchase now. I made two different calendars, all with different images. The Up North – Superior Country Calendar is all landscapes of Lake Superior, the surrounding woods and the BWCA. The Superior Wildlife Calendar is all wildlife from the woods of the Arrowhead region. You can take a look at a preview and order at the links or this link below. I appreciate your support. They would make great gifts. Print within 5 days of order and shipping info will be shown when you order. Plenty of time for holiday deliveries. http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ThomasSpence
And now some more fall color photos from the past month or so…
It’s been a fun summer for wildlife and landscapes in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. I have spent a lot of time working on the Gunflint Trail and the rest of my time exploring and photographing the rest of Cook County, mostly on the backroads and at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Here is a selection of photos that may or may not have been shared on my social media pages. We still have plenty summer left, so I’ll update and do another post a little closer to fall. Thanks for stopping to take a look. As always, you can browse more photos for viewing and for purchase at my Gallery Site by using this link. Photo Gallery
I have had numerous moose sightings this summer. I think I have already seen more moose this summer than I did all of last summer. This young bull ate in a swampy river area for 30 minutes one cool morning at sunrise as fog moved across the water.
Turtles have been abundant. Early summer, our painted and snapping turtles can be seen along roadsides near lakes, swamps and rivers as they lay their eggs. It is a time to use caution, but it is a great opportunity to see turtles somewhat close. Of course, do not disturb them as they are digging and laying eggs. Give them and all wildlife a respectable amount of space. Pictured here are a couple Snapping turtle shells and an odd, deformed painted turtle. The painted turtle has a condition known as kyphosis. Kyphosis is a condition that causes an abnormal, convex curvature of the spine. It happens in humans as well as turtles. I had never witnessed this condition in our painted turtles.
Working this summer in the mid Gunflint Trail area has provided a few fun wildlife sightings. The early morning commute was good for a handful of great, yet brief moose sightings. This red fox greeted us many mornings at our jobsite on a BWCA entry point lake. Some mornings, it would be sitting in the grass nearby when we arrived.
I have had numerous wolf sightings and encounters this summer as well. They are always pretty shy, but this one cooperated for photos
More moose! This healthy looking cow moose gave me a few minutes of photo opportunities. She looked pretty flighty at first, but she calmed down and allowed me to take a few photos and some video as she chewed on the grass and brush one morning near the edge of the BWCA wilderness.
And a few more summer photos from the past few weeks in the forest. Still plenty of summer left, so I will be back with more in a few weeks. In the meantime, keep following on Facebook and Instagram for more weekly photos from Minnesota’s wildest, most beautiful area. The woods and lakes and shores of Superior National Forest.
Hey friends, I have been asked a lot over the past few years if I make a calendar of my images. This is the first year I have tried my hand at it and they are available now. I have compiled 12 photos, recent and older, that I think capture the essence of the North Shore of Lake Superior, the BWCA and Superior National Forest. Here are just a few of the images in next year’s calendar. You can also click the link or any photo to take you to the ordering page which also will allow you to preview the entire calendar. Just click on “My Calendar” on the order page to get to the screen that allows full preview. http://www.lulu.com/shop/my-calendar/calendar/product-23866689.html
I don’t like to “spam” you all too often for print purchasing or product selling, but since these are time sensitive and once a year, I have been advertising a bit more than usual. I hope that’s OK 😉
These are some of my favorite images from the past year and previous years and I am happy with the selections. I think you all will enjoy them as well. The calendars are full color, gloss, wire spiral bound and 11 x 8.5 inches. They should make great gifts or nice additions to your home or office.
They can remind you of past trips to the North Shore, help you plan your next trip, or just plain make you long for the seasons and sights we hold dear here on The Lake and in the woods of the Arrowhead region. I just wish there were a few more months so I could add more photos for you! Oh well, there’s always next year! You can even cut the calendars up and frame the monthly photos for your home after each month expires.
Thank you all for the orders so far, and thanks in advance for anyone else who orders. This support helps me keep going and helps ensure I’ll be able to keep providing you with weekly photos from the North Shore woods and waters.
Here is the ordering information and a schedule for holiday delivery information. http://www.lulu.com/shop/my-calendar/calendar/product-23866689.html
Calendars are $22.00 plus shipping charges.
Calendars ship within 3 to 5 days of order.
Order by – For Holiday delivery…
The most frequently asked question I get as a photographer is “Where do you find all the moose?” I probably get asked this question at least once a week online and in person. If you have been following me for a while, you know I am pretty guarded and vague about where I find moose in Cook County. It’s not that I don’t want you to find a moose. I do! I just don’t believe it is good for the moose to announce their exact location on the internet to potentially thousands of people. The moose are already in trouble here in Minnesota and the extra pressure and anxiety it could cause them is probably not worth it. The moose population here in Minnesota has been in decline since the mid to late 2000s. In 2006 there was an estimated 8840 moose counted during the winter count. In 2018, 3000 moose.
Parasites like winter ticks and brainworm are two major factors in the decline of the population. Researchers have also seen a lot of wolf killed moose, though many of those moose already had underlying health issues which likely weakened the moose making them an easier target. They say the decline has plateaued, which would be good news, but only time will tell if these magnificent mammals will survive in the woods of Minnesota.
For many years I took for granted that the moose will always roam the woods of Cook County and Superior National Forest. Since news of their decline, I have tried to photograph and observe moose every chance I get. Over the years I have had countless sightings. Some last only seconds, but sometimes I am fortunate to watch the moose for as long as two hours before they move on.
Now, to share with you the information you kept reading for. Where exactly do I see moose in Cook County? The Bay in Tofte
I’ll start with a sighting from way back in the mid 90’s. I used to tend bar at The Bridge, the old upstairs bar at Bluefin Bay in Tofte. One football Sunday, as a packed bar watched the Vikings game on the TV, a customer shouted “There’s a moose out in the bay!!” We all looked in amazement as a bull moose swam across the bay in front of Bluefin. The whole bar emptied as everyone went out by the lake to get a view of the swimming moose. It tried to exit the lake from the bay, but all the onlookers must have scared it off and it continued swimming up the shore. We heard later that the DNR saw the moose exit the lake up shore a ways. That is the only time I have seen a moose in Lake Superior other than at Isle Royale. A pretty unforgettable encounter.
The Highest Moose in Cook County
Encounter two was one of the most memorable. My friend Troy and I decided to take a fall grouse hike up to Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point, back in the late 90’s. The hike is in the BWCA and passes through some very moosey country on the way to the top. We saw a few grouse on the way, but no moose to speak of on our hike through the woods. Once we got up the final steep climb to the top, we decided to walk over to the plaque which designates the highest point in Minnesota. As we rounded a corner, standing RIGHT THERE in front of the plaque was a beautiful bull moose. We were both frozen in our steps as the moose glanced at us then ran off into the woods. This was long before I had a camera on me at all times, and long before the handy dandy camera-phone, so I have no photos of what was likely a once in a lifetime sighting of the highest moose in Minnesota.
Moose Birth Island – BWCA
Another very memorable moose sighting took place on a spring trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with my friends Jeff and Korey. We had been on a long canoe route through many lakes and portages and were camped on Makwa Lake, deep in the BWCA. As we paddled around fishing, we trolled around a small island on the lake. We rounded the island and saw a cow moose standing alone on the tiny island. She looked agitated and her hair was standing up straight. A few seconds later, a brand new baby moose shakily got up from the ground and stood on its feet. This calf was just born and we were likely witnessing its first steps if not its first time standing. We were lucky to have a camera with and we got a few photos before backing off and leaving them alone. The cow moose will often times swim out to an island to give birth to lessen the chances of predators like bear and wolves getting to their newborn calves. I have since seen two other baby moose take what were likely their first steps. Always give a cow with calf plenty of space. The cow and calf combo can be one of the most dangerous wildlife situations you’ll encounter in our forest. Respect their size and never underestimate their speed and instinct to protect their young.
Fore!! – Or one at least
Another 90’s encounter happened on Superior National Golf Course and was another time that I had no camera. The golf course in Lutsen has historically had numerous moose sightings. The proximity of the golf course to Superior National Forest lends itself to many wildlife sightings, though maybe not as many as in the past with all the new development. That being said, I heard of at least one moose sighting at Superior National as recent as this past spring. A real hole in one if you are there at the right time!
County Line Moose
Seeing moose on Highway 61 used to be pretty commonplace. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have seen the massive beasts on the highway. Those instances are getting more and more rare as their population declines in Minnesota. That being said, I still see about one per year on highway 61. In the early 2000s, I encountered one standing directly on the County line down near Caribou River. Had I been carrying a camera at the time, I could have gotten a photo of the moose and the Cook County sign. Another reason to always have a camera ready to go!!
City Moose in Grand Marais
In 2009 I was on a curling team in Grand Marais. It’s a fun way to keep active and somewhat warm during our long winter months. Upon leaving the curling club one January night, I saw a large, dark shadow moving down one of the residential streets. My first though was that it was a large deer. It seemed to be huge so I drove down the street I saw it on. As I rounded a corner to try to find out where it went, a HUGE dark spot in someones front yard caught my attention. To my surprise and amazement, it was a moose! This was the first and only moose I have seen in the Grand Marais city limits, though I am told it was not that uncommon “back in the day”. These days, the Grand Marais water tower or Murray are likely the only moose you’ll see in town.
The last location, and a fun one for sure, was just this past spring. You can even pinpoint the EXACT location by the photos if you know the area 🙂 One morning this spring I was alerted by a friend that there were two moose in the Tofte Town Park. I grabbed my camera and headed to the park hoping to catch a glimpse. I hung around the park area for half hour before deciding I had missed them. I figured they had moved on across the highway and back into the woods. As I waited to turn onto Highway 61 from the Tofte Park Road, I saw them appear out of the small patch of woods between the park and the highway. There was a fair amount of traffic, and everyone stopped to watch the two moose as they cautiously crossed the busy highway. Pretty fun to see them in town, especially after spending hours deep in the forest hoping to see one. This was a fun encounter.
So, as promised, I have given you plenty of information to find a moose on your next Cook County/North Shore adventure. The map below will be your key. Take a pen and trace on the map from point to point to point until you have all the locations connected. It doesn’t matter which point you start or end with. Once the points are all connected, you will have an outline or a crisscross pattern of lines. If you have an oblong outline, you should be looking anywhere inside the outlined area. If you have a crisscrossed pattern of lines, you should be searching anywhere along those lines. I hope this was helpful in your search 🙂 I don’t often give out this valuable information. If I have any notable sightings, I may add them to the map. Let me know how your fall moose safari turns out and keep following my photo pages for the latest Minnesota moose sightings!
I hope you aren’t too disappointed as this was a pretty tongue in cheek post with pretty rare sighting locations. But keep in mind, a moose can happen just about anywhere in Cook County. Be ready!
May 2018 – in a few photos…
In May we saw a lot of changes and it seemed like we had all four seasons crammed into the month. Ice went off local lakes during the first week of May. It’s been great to back on the water in the canoe and boat. The open water brought loons, loons, loons! I am seeing a lot of loons including a nesting pair. Hoping to encounter babies soon. We also had some very warm weather for May. some mid 80s and a lot of 70 degree days. The Spring green-up has also been a welcome sight. The woods have come alive with buds, birds and flowers in the forest. We had some nice northern lights last month, too. Always a pleasure to be outside at night under our dark night skies in just a sweatshirt again. I saw a handful of moose in May, but not a lot of photo opportunities. June has already been better for moose 🙂 I am seeing a ton of tracks and occasional moose now. Cow moose had their babies at the end of May and are being seen in the woods of Superior National Forest. I hope to have some calf photos for next months post! So here are some photos from May, one of my favorite months on The North Shore.
May is an incredible month with the changes we see in the North. I always hate to see it go. Now, we move into the busy and buggy season! The black flies and mosquitoes are now here, waiting if you dare. The fishing is heating up a bit and the wildlife sightings are more frequent now so look for more wildlife in next months post. I have a few little local trips planned so I hope to have some nice photos to share. As always, thanks for following. If you are interested in prints or more photos, please check these links. Summer officially begins in two weeks! See you soon. https://thomasjspenceimages.smugmug.com/ https://www.facebook.com/ThomasjSpenceImages/ https://www.instagram.com/toftetom/
From Crazy to Calm – Lake Superior April weather really covered all the bases this year. We had snow, cold, warm, rain, wind and gorgeous. The big April Gale on the 14th and 15th was a highlight for sure. The northeast winds brought massive waves crashing along the shore. some of the best places to watch a northeast gale are in the Split Rock and Tettegouche areas. The cliffs in the area can make for dramatic scenes from the waves crashing and rebounding off the cliff faces. Even a smaller gale can be impressive against these walls. This particular gale wasn’t accompanied by much precipitation which made for a fun day of photographing the waves. Often times, these gales come with heavy rain or snow which can hinder photographing them a bit.
The calm clear views from Tettegouche State Park and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park one week after the gales…
Earth Day was a picture perfect day to be outside in our State Parks. I made it a point to hit three in my travels that day. The calm, clear day was a huge contrast to the chaos of the previous week. Keep a circular polarizing filter in your camera bag. They are great for days like these. They can help you see into the water even more by removing some glare. They will also help create more contrast between blue sky and white clouds. A valuable tool to use in many photography conditions.
April Northern Lights – An All Nighter
The night and morning hours on April 19th and 20th produced a rather remarkable northern lights display. What started out as a faint glow for almost two hours, erupted into shimmering sheets and dancing waves of aurora which lasted until morning light. I put in a 4 1/2 hour shift of sky watching and photographing the lights. The slideshow shows you the progression, in a way, from around 10:00 PM CST on April 19th until around 1:00AM on April 20th. When the lights are strong, I have a pretty good view of the dark, northern skies from home. I spent another hour or two watching from the deck and even out the windows.
While there is no way to truely predict a good aurora display, you can do a few things to help alert you. Space Weather dot com is a great resource which can alert you via email when solar activity may cause aurora. They have a great photo gallery and information on all things space and sky related. Another resource are regional aurora “hunter” groups. These groups are full of entusiasts who will report in real time when the aurora are visible in your area. Great Lakes Aurora Hunters is a good one for my area. As far as viewing in Cook County, one needs to know that viewing with the naked eye and photographing the aurora can be two entirely different experiences. I won’t go into detail in this post, but our cameras see in the dark much, much better than we do, to make it short. So for viewing, you’ll want to get over the hills and into the darkest areas, away from towns, resorts, cabin lights. The overlook just past the Britton Peak parking area on the Sawbill Trail, just a few miles off highway 61 is a fantastic place to watch from a car or lawn chair. It has the best, widest northern view you can drive to that I know of. If you aren’t in Tofte, go up one of the “trails”, Gunflint, Caribou, Arrowhead, Cramer Road, and find a north facing lake, boat landing or hillside. Our dark skies won’t disappoint during a northern lights storm. For photography, I like to find a river, lake, or other point of interest for foreground attention and a sense of place or location. The scene becomes more important to convey the feeling, maybe, moreso than seeing the entire sky and display. If you have never seen the northern lights, and are not interested in taking photos, you’ll want to just stay put once you find a big, wide northern view. Hope this helps you see the aurora someday on the North Shore!
It was a good month in the woods for wildlife. From grouse to lynx to moose and loons!
Spruce grouse could be found most mornings pecking for roadside gravel. I have heard some drumming this spring, but not much. Moose sightings were few. I did manage to snap a few recent photos though. Two very healthy looking moose together at the end of the month.
Last year at this time we had already been on the lakes for almost two weeks. Now, we are still waiting for the thaw. The lakes still have a foot or more of ice on them in some areas. Recent warmer weather is helping to speed things along and I think we will see open lakes in the coming days. Fishing opener is near and I hope you’ll tune in again for all things May in my next post. Please subscribe so you’ll be notified when I post again.
I hadn’t had a good moose sighting in quite some time. A couple quick, blurred flashes of black in the distance, but nothing identifiable or photographable. Late February was better though! Here are some photos of a nice, healthy looking yearling bull moose. He and I had a nice standoff and photoshoot before he took off into the newly fallen snow, deeper into the woods. The bull moose will shed their antlers anytime between November and March. Larger, older male moose have likely lost their antlers by early and mid winter, but the youngest moose can hold them into February and March. This was the latest I had personally seen a moose with headgear. February 23rd, 2018. At first, I thought the rack was bigger but it turned out to be it’s ear I was seeing! This is a yearling bull moose and I hope to run into him when he’s older.
Yearling bull holding antlers in late February – Minnesota
Then there was the cow moose… When I saw her, she was standing still with hair raised. She did not stick around long and I was pretty far off in the distance. She ran within seconds of me stopping, running through the deep, new snow. First tracks. I thought she would reappear on the other side of the clearing, so I waited. She looked to be pregnant, and hopefully with twins! She would be about five of eight months along right now. Usually they give birth in May to one, two, and even three!!! calves at times. About 15 minutes passed when I saw motion in the woods near where the cow went in. She had company, and who knows how long they were on here tail. Hope she is still out there fighting the good fight. Here are a few photos I got right at sunset. night was falling and the wolves didn’t look like they were in a big hurry. Mama was healthy looking.
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We don’t often see the Canada lynx in our woods, so we tend to cherish the brief glimpses we get. I’ll share a few of those brief glimpses I have had in recent months and a full set of photos from a recent, unbelievable lynx encounter with a family of five. I’ll also add a few comments that could help you prolong and enrich your photo excursions into the woods if you encounter wildlife from your vehicle.
The population of lynx in our forest tends to fluctuate with the population of the snowshoe hare, the primary food source for the lynx. Hare seem to be plentiful in the woods this winter. Lynx will also dine on grouse and other small critters like mice and squirrel. I have been seeing a lot of grouse and hare in recent months and my lynx sightings have increased this winter for sure. I have had many fun grouse photos this year. The hare photos below are from last year.
Ruffed Grouse all puffed up on a cold afternoon.
Spruce Grouse in January
Snowshoe hare – Look at those shoes!
Hare in the snow
You really never know when a great wildlife sighting will occur. This past summer I had a very close, brief encounter with a lynx at a boat landing. I had just finished canoeing on a remote, inland lake and was tying the canoe onto the truck. I came around the back to sit on the tailgate for a minute and as I rounded the back of the truck, a Canada lynx walked right by the back of the truck and past me. It was within 10 feet of the truck. It walked slowly by and looked at me like I wasn’t even there. I rushed to grab a camera and was able to snap a couple quick shots before it disappeared into the woods. Although my camera was in the truck, it was ready to go with a long lens for wildlife and settings for the light of day. I always keep the long lens on my camera when I am driving hiking, canoeing. If I want to shoot landscapes, and wide angle, I can always switch lenses for that. You won’t have the time to change to your long lens if a moose or a lynx walks out of the woods, most of the time.
I don’t know a lot about the lynx, as I just don’t see them a lot and they aren’t always on my radar. I am learning more this winter and with this recent experience, though. I have had a couple encounters this winter just prior to the family group. Below is a recent lynx photo shot from waaaaaaayyyy down the road. I could have tried driving up closer to take shots, but that rarely works out with wildlife. Slowly pull over and shut off your vehicle whenever possible. I tend to assess the situation quickly to determine if my subject is about to run, or if they are going to be comfortable enough for a photo shoot. Sometimes you get close, and sometimes you just have to take the long, landscape type shot.
Often times, if you are lucky enough to see one cross a road in a flash, they will lurk in the woods not too far off the road and offer you a quick glimpse through the trees. While they avoid us when they can, they seem to be curious like any cat and not necessarily threatened by us. Another step you can take to prolong a wildlife experience is to stay still and don’t wander too far from your vehicle. The animal may already be nervous about the car, now with a couple people out milling about in the road you tend to look like a pack of predators. Sometimes the wildlife won’t seem to mind our presence, but more often than not, they do.
On the morning of February 3rd, a very cold, sub-zero morning, I headed out to look for grouse and a possible moose to photograph. I had been seeing moose tracks in a few different areas in recent days and weeks. I had an uneventful morning and was retracing my drive after turning around and heading back home. As I rounded a corner I had just driven by minutes ago, I saw a solitary wildcat in the middle of the road.
I was able to pull off and shut the truck off without scaring the cat off. I was amazed. It was immediately evident that it wasn’t put out by my presence. It was locked on the woods and sat down in the middle of the road as I planted myself in a snowbank just in front of my truck. I was certain this forest feline was honed in on a hare. I waited for the action. To my surprise and amazement, a second cat came over the snowbank and onto the road to join the other lynx.
The two lynx interacted for a bit. It was obvious that there was a size difference and there was a difference in attitude in the two as well. The second was more playful, curious and energetic, it seemed. The larger cat still seemed intent on the woods. Never really moving much and paying me little attention. The smaller cat was a bit unsure of me at times.
I knew the opportunity could end any second, and I didn’t have a lot of light to work with, but the subjects were cooperating so well! I couldn’t believe it! I boosted the ISO a little and tried to remain still while I took pictures. The two at one point locked on to something in the woods and stared for a few seconds. I thought about switching to video, but the tripod was in the truck and I knew with the long lens it would be shaky at best. My cell phone was in the truck charging or it would have made great video.
With the camera to my eye, aimed at the pair, I notice movement and realize there are more cats entering the road from the woods. I took a few photos and lowered the camera and watched, amazed.
Right away I noticed the difference in size between the first lynx and the three who joined. The three were smaller than the first and similar in size to each other. The four cats nuzzled, cuddled and circled with the larger cat. At this point i’m thinking it’s a family unit, but know so little about them. They seemed to check in with and not stray far from the larger, adult cat when in the road. They stayed in a tight group together.
The four cats milled about, circled, checked me out a bit. It seems like they were curious, but also attentive to all directions around them. When they grouped up in the road, in the open, they got in a pile and were all looking in different directions it seemed. 360 view. Maybe I am imagining that, but when I look at the photos it looks like that is what they were doing. Maybe the fact that they were in an open clearing(roadway) and my presence triggered an instinct they have as a family unit? Huddle together to look larger and watch in all directions while we are exposed in the open. Anyway, that’s what I observed.
As I was photographing and watching the group of four another animal appears!! Number 5 enters the scene and explains what the others were still looking at in the woods. Looking for their other sibling. It’s now fairly certain this is a mother and 4 kittens nearing a year old. I have since learned that this is the time of year that the lynx will mate. At that time, almost year old kittens will go out on their own, away from mother. It’s known that a mother lynx will have up to 6 or so kittens and will teach them to hunt and nurture them for their first 9 months or so. It’s great to see that 4 healthy looking lynx have made it almost through their first winter and are strong and smart enough to be on their own. Here are some of the shots of the group of 5 Canada lynx.
Whenever I can I get out of the vehicle for roadside wildlife photography, especially in winter. The heat from the truck can cause blurry waves as it hits the cold outside air and can make photos difficult. Also any vibrations can cause problems. If you have to shoot from a vehicle in winter, try to keep the heat down and open other windows to balance the temperature when shooting. That will reduce heat blur. Some will use a beanbag type setup on their window or door for comfort and balance. I find it too constricting and tough to make a good composition from a car, so I avoid it at all costs. I’m not sure I could have captured this encounter as thoroughly from the truck window. It always just feels better to be out there, too. I often snowshoe or hike to look for wildlife in winter, but some 20 below mornings are better suited for a drive 😉
When the group of lynx had enough of my gawking, they all got up at once, in unison, and headed up the road together in a little pack. Their movements in that group, and as they stood up, and as they marched down the road looked like a polished, practiced routine they have played out many times. This looked to be a strong, healthy, and I like to think happy family group. I hope you’ve enjoyed this encounter and maybe learned a thing or two. I am using this experience to learn more about this mysterious mammal we have roaming, and I like to think playing, in the woods of Minnesota.
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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.
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.
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.
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 Spaceweather.com 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.
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.
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!