How to Chase the Northern Lights – A Short Story

Article writing can be a process for me. I usually have five or six partial articles in the queue and sometimes take long breaks from one before coming back to it again. Sometimes there are complicated graphics or illustrations to put together or lots of research to be done. Very rarely is an article reactionary or spur-of-the-moment. That said, this article is in response to a very special event that happened at the tail end of last week. Last Friday was an incredible experience shared by people all over the north as the sky erupted in one of the boldest displays of the northern lights in recent memory. It’s fun to see other people’s enthusiasm and how different a “big” display of the northern lights is for turnout than the average night out driving the backroads of Ely in search of star photos. Photography and writing are my side hobbies, creative outlets through which I can share my wilderness experiences and varied adventures. Whether it’s on weekend trips into the BWCA or on drives out in my spare time in search of wildlife, I usually have a camera along. And for me, photography and writing are my opportunity to tell a story, not just about me and my experiences, but about the people and places around me. As part of my photography hobby, I love keeping tabs on the northern lights. I have always really enjoyed star photography for so many reasons. It requires a more elevated understanding of the equipment and camera settings. It’s unpredictable in much the same way wildlife is: just because it was there yesterday does not mean it will be there tonight. And beyond that, the raw beauty of not just the photo, but the experiences around the photo, is incomparable.  Northern lights encapsulate all of these things from the challenge, the rarity, the adventure, and the incomprehensible beauty, wrapping it all into one unforgettable night. Even the slightest peek at social media or word from the news and one will see photos from last Thursday-Friday’s light show. This is the story of my evening chasing the lights, how I prepare for making the most photographically of a one-of-a-kind night, and how you can make the most of northern lights whenever they grace our skies again.

I had been keeping my eye on the northern lights forecast through the week hoping it wouldn’t show up on Saturday when I wouldn’t be home in Ely. I keep one of the northern lights forecasting apps on my phone which is really helpful in not only following when the lights will be out, but also for tracking things like moonrise and moonset times which impact the experience. As the forecast began to solidify, it looked like a better and better chance that I would get to enjoy them midweek. I wasn’t as adequately prepared as I would have liked (what else is new) but, as the predicted big day arrived, I was excited for the evening ahead.

8:00 – My girlfriend and I gear up to head out. I note that, though the sky isn’t even all the way dark yet, the lights are already dancing. For people trying to get into northern lights photography for the first time, we have now arrived at a crucial first question: where do we go to see the lights? Of course, dark sky is best with as few artificial lights nearby or north of you as possible. In Ely, artificial light is pretty easy to avoid. Personally, my philosophy is to go to boat landings that may not specifically be facing north when I’m heading out in the winter. Good photography to me is taking pictures that are unique from the hundreds of other photographers out there and the first step is the context. I try to avoid taking pictures of instantly recognizable places or, if I am at a recognizable place, finding ways to gain a unique perspective either through the style of photography, the season, or the story surrounding the photo. I save the landings with nice northern exposures for open water season when I need a quick photo outing. In the winter, one can gain a northern view simply by walking a short way out onto any frozen lake. To start our night Thursday, we were breaking this philosophy. We both knew that my girlfriend had a couple of hours of lights time before sleep and I would likely head back out for more. So we headed to a predictable spot on Fall Lake.

9:00 -As mentioned earlier, it’s amusing the fanfare that surrounds the big northern lights nights. We arrive at Fall Lake to what can only be described as a carnival. Cars are parked every which way in the road, in the parking spots, and sideways in parking spots as people are frantically making their way towards the water. There’s already a bulwark of tripods and cameras barricading the end of the boat landing and plenty of smart phones out too. For those following along, this is exactly what I try to avoid in photography! As much as the social aspect can be amusing, when long exposure times and steady cameras are essential (ie: all low-light photography), varying levels of consideration and awareness found in a crowd of photographers and want-to-be-photographers is a recipe for frustration. As the yelling and laughing escalates, we head further and further out into the lake away from the brouhaha.

Northern lights reaching into the southern horizon with the lights of Ely and the Moon visible.

9:30 – Northern lights are well overhead as the moon begins to set. It’s already an incredibly special night as a great band of light reaches from eastern to western horizon. We move out to a spot along Mile Island and wait for the show.

10:00 – Just before 10, the lights on the eastern horizon begin to intensify dramatically. The lights directly overhead began to pulse in a rapid beat. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the sky erupts in color as the entire sky becomes lights moving, shifting, pulsing towards the center above us. Moments like this are incredibly challenging for the photographer to capture. It’s easy to frame northern lights when they stay north. When they begin to fill the rest of the sky, they tend to supersede the scope of a lens. The settings also become difficult as the increase of light and the motion of the lights negates normal star photo settings which usually make for a blurry and overly bright northern lights photo. The best of the show lasts for close to thirty minutes before fading in intensity, though plenty of movement is still seen.

Big lights on Fall Lake

11:00 – After the main show, my girlfriend calls it a night. We head back, say goodnight, and I swap over to my car. I head back out solo for as long as the lights are worth photographing, but now I’m in search for quieter locations. I start up the Echo to see what I can find. The Bass Lake parking lot, so often a mecca of activity during the day, is empty. I guess a lot of tonight’s crowd are content to not hike too far from the vehicle! I grab my camera and start for the trail to the lake. The lights are still visibly pulsing though they are nowhere near as intense as they had been an hour before. I reach the lake just before 11:45.

11:45 – It’s surreal to have Bass this quiet with the sound of Dry Falls echoing in the stillness of a winter’s evening. There’s lots of slush on top of the ice on Bass and, despite staying in the snowmobile track, the mukluks begin to take on some water. I start taking photos as the lights still stretch all the way across the sky, nicely framed by the steep topography around Bass Lake. I spent about twenty minutes on Bass and decide to head for the car as the lights head into a lull. On a night like tonight with so much variety of the lights, I like to make the most of the experience by taking photos in lots of different locations. Not but 10 steps into the trail, a chill goes down my spine as a single wolf begins to howl between me and the parking lot. It’s still a good distance out, but close enough. I am a wolf lover and believe they have been and continue to be wrongfully villainized more than just about any other species. Even still, somewhere in the primeval recesses of my psyche, walking towards a wolf in the dark solo is enough to put me just a little on edge. That one wolf would only howl for about twenty seconds total and wouldn’t be heard again. After it was done, a large pack began howling from one of the ridges on Bass as their calls echoed down the valley. I hurried up my steps all the same and made it back to my car. On to the next spot.

12:20 – I drove north and stopped briefly at Minister Lake before pushing further on to the North Arm of Burntside. I could see through my car window that the lights were still pulsing and there was still a consistent band across the sky.

12:45 – I parked my car close to the turnoff to Slim and walked down to the public landing. There was a slender finger of light sticking up from the northeast and widening as it reached towards the southwest. I started hiking down the shoreline mostly for warmth’s sake. It’s important to remember that a lot of northern light photography time is spent waiting, and in that way it’s important to dress like a spectator to a sporting event. Dress warmer than you think you ought! I certainly was not dressed warmly enough this day and the temperature was dropping noticeably. Must keep moving!

1:00 – Similarly to the first explosion of light, this next burst came on quickly. The thin ribbon of light across the sky began to widen and then it began to fray with little offshoots pulsating across the sky. Suddenly, the western horizon turned purple and the sky was full of light again. This is where the northern lights can be a guessing game. In this moment, I was incredibly grateful that I had stayed out or I would have missed this major surge, but just because I waited didn’t mean there was going to be more! Sometimes the lights just sit in place and never improve. Sometimes they vanish altogether. But this was a particularly volatile night and, just as fast as the lights can sometimes disappear, this night they would suddenly surge into an incredible show.

1:30 – The lights were still putting on quite the spectacle with fingers of pulsing light reaching further and further south and again seeming to move towards a middle spot in the sky. I had worked my way south towards the first island in the North Arm of Burntside. Suddenly I felt my foot sink. Those who’ve walked on lakes long enough know the feeling of slush instantly grabbing hold of one’s foot. Soon enough, both feet had found their treatment and began to freeze. Over the previous twenty minutes, a dense fog had settled in casting an eerie tone on the light show. At one point, it had become thick enough to nearly obscure the shoreline. Then the oddest thing happened: it vanished. In less than a minute’s time, the fog lifted and the lake was clear again. How strange!

2:00 – The light show finally faded back to its gentle, rhythmic movements and pale shades of green. I was nearly back to my car, taking pictures along the way, when my first camera battery ran out. Long-exposure photos, especially in cold weather, can really eat battery life! Thankfully, I finally came prepared and had three extras along. I jumped in the car to get the ice-block-mukluks thawed. Next stop would be town for some gas and then back out.

2:45 – I had made it down the Echo,  filled up the tank, eaten a snack, and made it back out in search of more lights photography. My next stop would be the two Kawishiwi crossings of Highway 1 in search of open water for northern lights reflections. This was also a change in photography style for me as I made the switch from hiking in and around in search of spots to more drive-between a bunch of unique stops. This would allow me to quickly rack up a good variety of scenery and, with it now well after two, most folks had called it a night. I stopped at both of the Kawishiwi crossings at 3:00 and 3:05 respectively. The lights were still out but were in a bit of a lull.

3:22 – I had driven past the airport and was amazed how bright the northern lights were that I could see them even behind the spotlight. I made a stop at the Blueberry Creek as the northern lights grew brighter again.

3:30 – After a quick stop at the Bear Island River, I pulled into the public landing for One Pine Lake. By now the lights were really bright again and were forming this really unique halo in the sky. I snapped what pictures I could and took some moments to enjoy it all.

3:45 – I moved over to Johnson Lake whose public access road was not plowed like Blueberry or One Pine had been, but a few trucks had blazed the trail previously. The lights were creating a graceful sweeping pattern across the sky. It was clear by this point that the best of the lights were done, but what remained was still better than many of the light shows we have had this winter. I pushed on to keep working my way public landing to public landing and creek to creek as I took the scenic route home.

3:55 – I pulled over alongside the very scenic Johnson Creek. There was open water in the creek which provided some reflections as the lights continued to dance across the sky. This is also where two different cars passed by, the first I had seen in some hours. I wondered if either of them were out for the lights.

4:05 – I made one last quick stop at the other crossing of Johnson Creek as my final photo of the evening before working my way home. My driveway full of snow demanded my attention, so some middle-of-the-night shoveling helped me wind down from the excitement of the evening as lights still danced in the heavens above me. This was a special night I’ll always remember and the extent to which I was able to enjoy them help remind me how lucky I am to live in this special place on the edge of wild spaces. By about 5:00, I was happily in bed, trying my best to fall asleep with the knowledge that work was a mere four hours away. For now, I can enjoy the pictures and wait in eager anticipation for the next time that the northern lights appear and fill the star-speckled skies with radiant color as their atmospheric waltz inspires and fills with wonder.


Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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