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


The Emergence of Spring

More and more signs of spring are appearing daily in the northwoods.  We have had some great spring weather and the rivers are free from winters icy grip and flowing free to Lake Superior.  The inland lakes are still melting and we have had recent rain.  The waterfalls are fantastic right now for spring viewing!  The woods are almost free of snow in our area, though some pockets of good snow cover still exist in some areas.  Just over a week ago I saw minus 17 one morning…  The coming of spring has brought out the wildlife in force, too.  In the past month I have seen many grouse, both roughed and spruce.  Pine marten and fisher, a few of both.  The robins, flickers, geese and ducks are all back on the roadways and open waters.  Signs of wolves on the roads have also been observed.  I had one brief sighting and i’ll include a photo below.  And the moose!  The moose seem to have reappeared after being fairly scarce the past few winter months.  Nice to see things coming “alive” in the forest.
Things will be greening up soon, flowers blooming, boats on the lakes, fish on the stringer and before we know it, we’ll be cooling our way into fall, wondering where spring and summer went.  Get out often and enjoy the seasons as they come and go.
Here are photos from the past few weeks as winter let go…

Bull moose skirting a creek edge in Superior National Forest. I’ve noticed a lot of moose activity in the form of tracks, scat and a couple sightings!
One of many spruce grouse finding gravel on the roadway… Superior National Forest


One of many spruce grouse finding gravel on the roadway… Superior National Forest


Just a small poke of antler coming up on this bull moose this week.
Like I said, the waterfalls right now… Caribou Falls on the Caribou river. I have a previous blog post about this river.


Canadian geese – Spring arrivals at Grand Marais harbor.


Bald Eagle at the Baker Lake entry point to the BWCA last weekend. Some open water and waterfoul had his attention…
Just after ice-out on this little beaver pond.  Already out and working on the lodge…
Another look at a beauty moose this week in Superior National Forest.


Thank you all for taking a look at some spring scenes from the past couple weeks.  I’ll update y’all next month.  In the meantime, you can find weekly photos on Facebook and prints and other photos to view HERE.  Take care, and Happy Spring!

Happy New Year – 2016

Happy New Year, friends!  I thought I’d share some recent photos from the past week or so.  Winter has been slowly trying to arrive in the Northland.  Inland there is plenty of snow for skiing and some snowmobiling and the ski hill at Lutsen is open with a brand new gondola servicing Moose Mountain.  The lakes are frozen, though not where they should be for this time of year.  It was 33 degrees this morning by the shore and rain/snow mix all day.  It does not feel like January!  I have had some oportunity to capture some fun scenes and photos that I haven’t shared on Facebook so here are some recent ones.  Hope everyone is having a great start to the New Year.

These first photos were taken on New Year’s Eve Day at a jobsite I have been working at.  The shore was coated with spray from big waves when the temps were colder and the winds were right.  Amazing ice…

Ice coated cedar on The Shore…
Ice curtains…
Natural ice sculptures…
12/31/2015 – Croftville Ice

New Year’s Eve was pretty great too.  After an early NYE party with family, I planned to go see the fireworks at Lutsen Mountains.  On my way up Highway 61 I noticed some great northern lights through a hole in the clouds.  I knew we had mostly thick clouds forecast, so I hadn’t planned on aurora.  I was able to get the camera and get to a spot for about five photos before the clouds closed up and the sky went dark with clouds.  The skies started clearing later and the lights were very faintly visible over the course of the evening.  I never made it out to the fireworks!  Here are a couple of the northern lights over the Temperance River along the Sawbill Trail near Tofte…

New Year’s Eve Aurora!!!! 12/31/2015
Temperance River and the northern lights – New Year’s Eve 2015

These last few are random photos from the past week or so.  Nice waves in Grand Marais, MN and some friends that hang out in my trees.

Southwest winds and big rollers crashing into the breakwall at Grand Marais, MN this week.
Chattering squirrel in my tree…
Chickadee catching a snowflake? 🙂
One of the many that regularly drop in for a bite to eat…
Blue jay jumping

Thanks for taking the time to check out this post.  I appreciate all the support, print purchases, new followers and feedback on Facebook and here.  Check back for updates and Photos Of The Week(link on the sidebar)  Stay warm, friends.

Fall 2015 – Leaves, Aurora and Moose, Oh My!

Fall is a great time in the Northwoods. This has been a busy and rewarding season for photography and exploring the woods.  Most of my explorations and photography have shifted inland this year.  I have not been visiting The Lake for sunrise as often as I am most often into the woods by sunrise time.  This has been great for fall colors and moose alike.  Don’t worry Lake Lovers!  I will likely return more often now to Lake Superior as winter approaches and takes hold.  Lake Superior photographs well in winter 🙂 This will be a three-part post highlighting my three favorite things to photograph, all of which happened to happen in the past few months.  Fall colors, the northern lights, and the majestic, Minnesota moose.

This year it seems that our fall color season was long, but not as “spectacular” as past years.  In my observation, color started early in some spots and finished late in others.  This never gave us a really great “peak color” time as the forest was changing at different rates, often in pockets.  I still had some great photography days chasing fall color…

Early color along the Honeymoon Trail. Sept. 23, 2015
Foggy, misty morning along the Honeymoon Trail. Sept. 2015
Six Hundred Road looking beautiful every fall. A fall favorite and fall classic back road drive.
Forest Scene near Tofte, MN.
October and nearly the end of fall color. This was a great scene as the leaves were floating on 8-10 feet of crystal clear Lake Superior water.

If you are an aurora chaser, or one whom enjoys pursuing the northern lights in the night sky, this has been a good fall.  The Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Gathering also took place in October.  We are on the downslope of the peak of a “solar maximum”.  Much like our seasons, the Sun has cycles.  The Sun goes in 11 year cycles with a minimum and maximum.  At solar maximum, sun spots and solar flares are more prevalent.  This means better chances for better aurora, more or less.  The whole year has been good for northern lights, in my opinion.  Things have slowed down here in late October, but early fall was great for night sky fun…

One of the best, although brief, displays of the northern lights that I have witnessed. This was early September and it was a wild sight for about 25 minutes. One to remember. 9/8/2015 near Schroeder, MN
The Schroeder dock and Lake Superior – September 2015.
October lights along the Temperance River outside Tofte, MN.
Another view of the Temperance River reflecting a light aurora glow from above. October, 2015
October was also the annual Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Gathering in Two Harbors, MN. 200 people from 10 states and two countries got together for three days of fun. Fantastic speakers and meals all weekend. The northern lights were not cooperating, so steel wool spinning was the evening’s activity at Gooseberry State Park. This is Jamie Rabold of Willowmaker Images spinning steel wool.
Matt Rohlader spinning steel wool at the annual Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Gathering.
Double spin…
Happy Halloween! Carved up the pumpkin from my mother on a nice, starry, aurora filled night. October, 2015
The International Space Station often becomes visible in the night sky for a few days in a row. I use this site to predict the times. It is always spot on! ISS and northern lights – October, 2015

And let me tell you about the moose! 🙂 It’s been an exciting couple months when it comes to moosing.  Fall brings all kinds of wildlife activity to Superior National Forest and surrounding woods.  Everyone is preparing for the coming winter in various ways and it seems that the chances of fun, unique wildlife encounters are more common.  In addition to many moose encounters I have seen pine marten, spruce and ruffed grouse, ducks of all kinds, deer, eagles, a northern shrike out hunting in a field, and many more thrilling sightings.  The moose have been my main quarry this fall.  I have run into 8-10 different bull moose, likely 4 different cows and a couple with calves.  There is a cow with a GPS collar that I have not been able to photograph but have seen a couple of times.  The moose numbers are declining in NE Minnesota and there are some “research moose” in the area. (I pictured one below that I saw in Grand Portage)  These collared moose have GPS units that can track the animals habits throughout the seasons.  Important data is collected about seasonal habits and movements and the animals range.  They can also alert researchers if an animal dies.  This can be important so the researchers can get to the body asap to determine the cause of death.  It will be interesting to see the next count.  A January 2015 count showed the population at 3450 animals.  In 2011 the survey showed around 4900 moose and back in 2006 the count showed nearly 9000 animals. I have heard many theory on the subject and have not formulated my own conclusion but am following closely.

Collared moose – Grand Portage, MN

I have had the good fortune of following another big group of moose this fall.  It is rivaling last fall for quality encounters.  I have filmed a lot of video over the past two months and I am working on a project to compile video clips and still images into a nice, short video featuring these moose.  I will keep you posted on that.
Here is a sample of the massive moose I have seen starting with a unique looking bull from Labor Day weekend and taking us through November 1st…

BWCA Bull Moose I spent the better part of a HOT Labor Day Sunday out in a canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The fishing was slow that day but this big bull moose swimming in the lake made up for it.
Nothing like a dip in the lake on a hot afternoon. Labor Day Weekend – BWCA Bull Moose
One of the younger moose. He makes up for it in spirit and spunk. This one was prodding the larger bull on another occasion.
A frosty little beauty…
Cow moose. She had a bull off to the left that I could see. I did not know she also had a calf at her feet. It would later stand up, revealing itself when I got home and saw the photos on screen.
Bull, cow and calf. The calf is well hidden even after standing up. Can you see it? These three were together on multiple mornings.
Field of Cows – Two cow moose snacking in the late afternoon sun. October 2015
Another scene from an early morning wildlife cruise. Two eagles sparring over the high tree. There was a nearby bear carcass the two were feeding on.
I call this one Number Two. While a massive animal, he is a bit smaller than Hoss. He also seems to know his place around the bigger one. Smart animals in this post-rut group. We watched the sunrise together a few times this fall…
One of the smaller bull moose scenting, or just amazed that he can see his breath on this cold October morning…
Bully and Number Two Bully is the scrappy, smaller guy. Never afraid to test the limits of his elders…
Number Two likes to bask his face in the morning sun on these frosty mornings. I have watched him and the bigger bull do this a couple of mornings. Once, the group of four had their backs to me as they all raised their heads to the morning sun coming up over the trees.
Number Two watching over a cow. Her calf is nearby, too.
Four Bull Morning – the group on a frosty October morning.  I was able to watch this gang interact for almost two hours.  Once they ambled off out of range, I left them.  I try not to spook the moose.  If possible, I photograph them and leave them calm, grazing, like I found them.  I hate to see them running or in a panic because of me and that rarely happens.  Watching your step and walking slowly around them is key.
Mother and Child – Cow and calf with frost at first light.
Big Hoss. I have been fortunate with this moose. I have been running into him a lot and have logged a few hours watching him. Lots of video and photos of him with the group and alone. He is a sight to behold, especially in the near dark, early morning hours. I have caught him in photographable light, too.
Hoss watching over a cow and calf.
Another one of the locals. I don’t see this one as often but he sure is a beauty. He had a cow and calf with him for a couple of mornings, but now seems to be gone. I wonder if Big Hoss pushed him out and took over the cow and calf?? The bulls can be solitary animals, so they may be breaking up for winter already. They will often stay grouped up into winter, though.
These next photos are from yet another encounter with Big Hoss. November 1st in the light rain.
Outstanding in his field… 😉
He’s even outstanding in his swamp!
Great Profile – Great Rack
Hold it right there… November Bull

We may have a month or more of fall left here on The Shore, but there have been days that feel like we are turning the corner towards winter.  Before long, the tracks I see will be in the snow, not mud.  The animals will be stark against a white backdrop, if they aren’t hibernating or burrowed in.  The woods will be quiet except for the wind in the pines.  unless they are muffled by a fresh blanket of snow…  The ever changing seasons in The North.  Winter is coming.  11/2/2015 *edited 11/5


Winter is in full swing and the thermometer has really shown it in recent weeks.  Sounds like we are in for a reprieve from the sub-zero and windy conditions for a spell, though!  The recent cold has been fantastic for winter photography along the lake and in the woods.  Here are a few favorites that you may or may not have seen from recent hikes, drives and trips to The Lake.
You can see weekly posts on Facebook, too –

The High Falls on the Pigeon River in Grand Portage State Park. A MUST see in any season, though I prefer the winter ice that forms and the contrast of the snow on the cliff faces. Although, spring melt is a fantastic time to be there… and after a summer rain…
A winter hike up to Palisade Head.  Some bilion years ago, rhyolitic lava flows formed these impressive formations along Lake Superior.
A winter hike up to Palisade Head near Silver Bay, MN.  Some billion years ago, rhyolitic lava flows formed these impressive formations along Lake Superior.
The freighter Walter J McCarthy Jr. passes Schroeder, MN.  The ships have been a regular site as the season comes to a close and the final loads are delivered around the Great Lakes.  The locks will be closed in just a few days until the ice lets up in March.
The freighter Walter J McCarthy Jr. passes Schroeder, MN. The ships have been a regular site as the season comes to a close and the final loads are delivered around the Great Lakes. The locks will be closed in just a few days until the ice lets up in March.


I came across a the remnants of an otter party!  These playful critters love to run and slide in the snow and on the ice.  They had made a hole near a spring and appeared to have had a great time sliding and slipping!
I came across a the remnants of an otter party! These playful critters love to run and slide in the snow and on the ice. They had made a hole near a spring and appeared to have had a great time sliding and slipping!
And finally, the winter moose.  I have been happy to catch up with a group of moose quite often over the past few months.  Glad to report that I am still seeing a few of them out and about.  I hope you get to see one of these fantastic animals on your next visit to the North Shore.
Winter moose!!!! I have been happy to catch up with a group of moose quite often over the past few months. Glad to report that I am still seeing a few of them out and about. I hope you get to see one of these fantastic animals on your next visit to the North Shore.
The Full Wolf Moon rising through the sea smoke on a VERY frigid January evening.  Put a Lake Superior moon rise on your bucket list!
And finally, the Full Wolf Moon rising through the sea smoke on a VERY frigid January evening. Put a Lake Superior moon rise on your bucket list!  I try not to miss one when I am around The Lake at the right time.  There is a great moon/sun app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris that I would highly recommend to any sky-watcher.    

This year I will keep you updated on the changing seasons and the changing light with frequent posts, so stay tuned! 🙂

Thanks for the visit –

Caribou Falls on a July morning – 7/19/2014

The hike to Caribou Falls on the Caribou River is a fairly short and easy walk in the woods.  The stairs may be the only area that may deter some, but without them the climb down to the base of the falls would be dicey.  This is an awesome hike any time of year, but winter may be my favorite.  In the winter months we walk right up the frozen river on snowshoes or Sorels.  Find the time to do this short, rewarding hike on your next trip to the North Shore.
Until next time…  Tom

The half mile(one way) trail starts along the river just off Highway 61 at the parking area near the county line between Silver Bay and Schroeder.
The Caribou River and the unique color of the river bottom…
A solid, long staircase takes you from the ridge down to the base of Caribou Falls.
Playing with a new camera (nikon AW120) that I can take underwater 🙂
The falls and river – great area for a little picnic….
Another fine falls view at Caribou Falls.
This old cedar tree is pretty amazing the way it clings to the riverbank and weathers through the rise and fall of the river…

Aurora and Rainbows

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We’ve had some great skies in the past week.  Northern Lights last weekend, and rainbows and Lightning this week.  I was able to catch some Rainbow action and about 4 hours with the northern lights along the Sawbill Trail here in Tofte, MN.

I traded in my dial-up internet connection for high-speed broadband, thanks to a county wide initiative to bring broadband to Cook County.  It’s a treat, and I have a lot to learn and catch up on.  Bookmark this page, and I’ll try to keep you updated with photos and notes about my experiences along The Shore.