When classifying water bodies, there seems to be something of a taxonomic gap. The three largest (lakes, seas, and oceans) are categorized by (among other things) what surrounds them: a lake is surrounded completely by land, a sea is surrounded by land as well but may connect to another body of water, and an ocean is effectively "without boundaries." It all makes sense.
That is of course until you stand along the shore of Lake Superior. That's when you feel like the classification system missed something, A water body after all, that has a surface area greater then Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire combined, that can swallow 700-foot ships, and that can create its own weather system shouldn't share space on the same list as Madison's Lake Monona. I suppose that's where the term "Great Lakes" comes in, but anyone who has spent time on or along her knows this particular water body is something special- something unique.
Last week, when the moon's phase, the weather, the Milky Way's location and my family's schedule all somehow managed to cooperate, I made the run north to the Canadian border at Grand Portage, Minnesota. I've been interested in creating a Lake Superior Collection for a while now, adding to some of my previous images of the lakeshore. There were several things I wanted to photograph, but above all I wanted to capture the Milky Way behind a small, offshore rock islet named Hollow Rock. I arrived at Grand Portage around 4:00 pm and with another seven hours until I could try for the Milky Way, I refilled my coffee mug and set off to my first location: The Pigeon River's High Falls.
The falls are located in Grand Portage State Park. True to every Minnesota state park I've visited, it's superbly maintained and getting to the falls was easily done by following a paved trail and climbing a wooden staircase to an observation deck. The problem as a photographer however is that anyplace that's easy for you to get to is easy for everyone to get to. I waited patiently (outwardly anyway) as park visitors jockeyed for selfie positions on the deck. With a dark filter covering my lens, I needed between 7 and 10 seconds to expose the shot. This requires using a tripod that has to remain absolutely still...a feat not easily accomplished with a crowd bouncing around. I finally got a break and took this shot, pleased that my angle showcased the bright rainbow in the river water's mist. By 7:00 I'd made it to my small cabin at Hollow Rock, gotten more coffee and began scouting a location to set up for the night's shooting.
According to all of my planning tools (which these days are all on my iPhone and include apps for moon phases, direction and time of sunsets, Milky Way locations, etc.) the Milky Way would be visible in the southern sky and work its way west. I set up facing roughly south so I could capture Hollow Rock in the foreground. Because I wanted to be able to see the islet and not just its silhouette, I would need to "light paint" it, that is to say add light for a short time during the long exposures I'd need to bring out the Milky Way. Because exposing stars and the Milky Way requires setting your camera and lens to be very sensitive to light, I knew light painting would be tricky and overexposing the island, smearing light onto the water, and getting bright "hot spots" would all be likely. To combat this, I put together a very unattractive but highly effective light paintbrush built onsite from an Ikelite underwater flashlight, a Fong strobe diffuser, and a piece of cardboard I'd scrounged from the garbage to deflect the light away from the water's surface...all bound by duct tape.
By 10:00 I'd set up along the rocky shore and by 10:45 the Milky Way was traveling across the sky, just as promised. By opening my 24mm lens all the way up to f/1.4 and exposing for around 15 seconds, I could clearly see the Milky Way in my view screen. With my shutter trigger in my mouth, I began painting the island with my makeshift light paintbrush. It took a couple tries but I finally got it and even in my camera's screen I knew I'd done it right. It's rare (for me anyway) to have a picture I took so closely match the image I'd imagined prior to shooting it but that's exactly what happened last week. Planning, patience, and a roll of duct tape paid off beautifully.
I couldn't sleep Monday night. I was exhausted but couldn't get my brain to quiet down. I had a short time to shoot (three days total which included travel time) and I wanted to process the images I'd just taken--something I won't do until I'm at my desktop computer. I also knew that once beyond 10:00 am or so the next morning, the light would be too hard to capture all the scenes I'd have liked to. I found myself in a place I'd been countless times before: The first day of a shooting trip and already frantic for more time. I looked through images, pored through maps to figure out my next location and finally fell asleep about an hour before the alarm woke me at 4:45. I groggily crawled out of bed, grabbed my camera and got some early morning images of Hollow Rock, then headed out in search of more subjects.
Clear skies and bright sun can be a photographer's worst enemy. The light is hard...too much contrast, too many shadows, and skies that are far from compelling. Rather than wasting time shooting scenes better attempted in the dawn or dusk hours, I decided to take to the sky with my drone and get some shoreline footage. I spent several hours flying through rock lined bays and thoroughly enjoying myself. I've yet to sort through the footage but will do so soon and post it when I do.
I hoped to find someplace shaded to shoot and came across yet another Minnesota State Park that looked promising: Cascade River. I hadn't really driven this far to photograph waterfalls, but I had some time to kill before the storm front (and hopefully some interesting clouds) made its way to the area. This time I shot from a bridge and faced none of the crowds I had at High Falls. I set up, grabbed a few images and continued on.
I photographed a couple more waterfalls and tried to figure if there was a safe, legal way to launch my drone and shoot the Split Rock Lighthouse from the air but there wasn't. I was beginning to get a bit discouraged (and more than a little fatigued), when the clouds started rolling in from the west. I was close to Split Rock River and a set of old pilings I'd wanted to photograph so I hit the trail again for the short walk to the water, now diffused by cloud cover.
By around 5:00 I'd run out of steam and needed to get to Duluth for the evening so I packed up my gear and started the drive. Along the way, I drove past Two Harbors, where a few years back I got an image that will find its way into this collection, taken at sunrise off a rocky ledge behind the Superior Shores resort.
After oversleeping the next morning (and by oversleeping I mean I crawled out of bed at 5:30) I found myself at a bit of a loss as to where to go. I needed to be home that evening and had just missed a spectacular sunrise (which, when you only have three days to shoot and you're along the lake shore is almost unbearable). I decided to make the short drive to one of my favorite places in the world: Bayfield, Wisconsin and the Apostle Islands. I knew by the time I got there the light wouldn't be very good, but there would be a hot breakfast waiting at the Egg Toss Cafe, and I could wander around the docks a bit.
Like Two Harbors, Bayfield (and the neighboring Red Cliff) are places that I've gotten images that will be included in the Lake Superior Collection. Two of my favorites follow: The first is Bayfield Marina at sunrise, the second is Little Sand Bay at dusk. I've had the pleasure of hanging both of these images on people's walls and hope to do so again.
Provided you have the time and a little luck, there are virtually endless scenes to photograph along Lake Superior's shorelines and islands. I've barely scratched the surface. If anyone has ideas for me, please leave me a comment or contact me directly. Fine art prints on a variety of mediums are available here.