Gathering on the Great Lakes

Sparks spin into the air on the rocks at Gooseberry Falls State Park in Minnesota. Photo by Melissa F. Kaelin.
Sparks spin into the air on the rocks at Gooseberry Falls State Park in Minnesota. Photo by Melissa (Kaelin) Priebe.

Nature. Photography. The Aurora Borealis.

More than 40 people from six states gathered in Two Harbors, Minnesota, in November to celebrate these three subjects. I was privileged to be among them, and it has been the highlight of my year.

Many of us strangers, we made our way to Minnesota’s North Shore from Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota and many areas of Minnesota. It was a gathering of the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters, an online group founded by Scott Canfield.

The group met in a frenzy on Friday, checking in to a Two Harbors hotel and storming the local pizza place. Then we set off on a weekend full of adventure!

Rising water, falling fire

On Friday night, everyone gathered in the lobby in cold weather garb and heavy camera gear, and divided up into a dozen cars. A train of vehicles formed in the parking lot and I took up the middle, leading the back half to Gooseberry Falls State Park. We parked in a well-lit lot then walked down the paved trail in the dark, led by the glow of headlamps and mini Maglites.

Our group heard the waterfall before we saw it — it was gushing at twice the power it had the month before. As for me, I first felt the water by chance. Standing water nabbed my tennis shoes on the boardwalk, soaking me up to the ankles. Cold feet and all, I stepped down onto the rocks. Then I saw Gooseberry Falls in the dark for the first time.

Gooseberry looked different by night, as did the faces of our comrades. The falls took on a subtle blue quality. Rock slabs that were perfectly navigable by day became daring obstacles by night. I looked around at all the aurora chasers there, and I felt like we were involved in an intimate experiment. Black silhouettes of human legs stood akin to the black clusters of camera tripods. People whose bright faces I had met moments before were now mysteries in the cloudy night.

The Northern Lights were not active, but we had a backup plan: Spinning and Light Painting.

Without an SLR camera, I expected to capture very little in photos. So I pocketed my point-and-shoot, a little Cannon Powershot S100. Instead I borrowed EL Wire and light toys and braved the first stand of rocks, walking up to the falls with several others. I set the scene for the first photos, swinging these gadgets through the air in circles for the photographers — only the preview of coming attractions. I had no clue what I was doing, having never done it before!

Fire fell when I traded the floor to some fellow photographers. In several rounds of Spinning, these guys launched sparks into the air. The technique involves tucking steel wool into whisks, lighting it on fire and swinging the whisk with a chain, in order to create gleaming patterns on camera. While the guys worked in the clearing below the falls, the rest of us took photos, capturing the sparks as they arched into the air and fizzled on the rocks below. We also took turns Light Painting, or shining white light onto water and trees, in order to portray the falls at night.

It was exciting watching everyone work, though they saved the best for last. Late in the evening, the camera crew from Duluth FOX 21 News joined us on the rocks. They filmed the group in action, and then one of them gave the sparks a spin, trying it out for himself. By this time, I had already begun my walk back up the path, but this guy was spinning the sparks so high that I could see them from the trail, above the horizon!

For me, the night was so glorious, I couldn’t even begin to think about sleeping. So I stayed up, chatting with aurora enthusiasts in the hotel lobby until the break of day.

Beams over blue

At 5am, the few of us who were awake decided it was too late to sleep, especially if we wanted to catch the sunrise. Knowing the beauty of sunrise on Lake Superior, I pushed through to morning. With a party of three, I followed a smaller line of cars out to Stoney Point, where we set up just in time to welcome the sun.

The sky was saturated with a deep blue cloud cover, but as photographers positioned themselves on the milky rocks, it split open, allowing sunlight to filter through. What followed was an understated sunrise, beautiful still for its simple color palette and one long cloud centered on the horizon. It was here that the sun broke through, shining first in finely defined rays, then bursting out in blinding light.

After I photographed several angles on the rocks, I stood on the pebbles low to the water. I listened to waves as they lashed the shore, and I stared straight ahead into the sun beams.

I can’t explain it, but that moment was the one that moved me the most. As a young woman who has suffered from debilitating grief, I often look to the sun for encouragement. When it breaks through the dark in this way, in dramatic beams of light, I feel as if I could fall to my knees, overwhelmed by its enduring beauty.

I felt the presence of my twin brothers then, as I often do. Those brilliant boys died at the age of 13 more than two years ago, and my parents with them. But the sun’s light gives me hope, every time I see its rays.

With great companions, I returned to the hotel and immediately crashed, sleeping into the afternoon. I woke up in just enough time to get lunch and a latte and join an info session on photography settings.

Matthew E. Moses gave a session on photographing the Aurora and another team gave a session on forecasting the Aurora, in order to master the chase. Both were equally informative, and I walked away inspired!

A true dark and a new light

The best part of the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Gathering was the people — nature-lovers, night sky photographers and people who had a personal connection to the Northern Lights. As the third shift staff at the hotel commented, we never ran out of things to talk about! I’ll save the stories for another day, but don’t think I wasn’t moved by them. I was, deeply.

We all shared dinner at a great local joint, dining in warm light with bicycles mounted on the walls. Excitement was brewing, as the Aurora Borealis made our gadgets blip and beep, indicating we might get a show. Then after dinner, we met for another excursion — a journey inland to a lake surrounded by towering evergreens.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. The line of cars and SUVs was long, maybe more so than before, as several guests arrived that day. Only a few of our fearless leaders knew where we were going, but we had to be sure not to lose anyone in the woods!

We weaved uphill, into the boreal forest, until we came to a winding dirt road with divots throughout. It was so dark, the only sight was a stream of red brake lights parading west. Constrained to two-wheel drive, I wasn’t sure my sedan was going to cut it!

The drive was well worth it. As we unloaded our gear, we were greeted by a true Dark Sky, or as near as possible just north of Duluth. Stars were everywhere we looked, and they were so bright we could see the stars reflected in Little Stone Lake. Jupiter was shining particularly strong. Jupiter’s reflection in the water consisted of a bright tip — the planet reflected — that formed a thin triangle extending all the way to the northern shore.

The Milky Way stretched out overhead and shooting stars launched from all angles. I moved up and down a long line of photographers, as they worked the cameras on top of their tripods. They made panoramic photos, star trails and time lapses, selflessly sharing tips to help everyone get a great shot. Unfortunately, my camera just wasn’t strong enough to capture the scene.

We were sharing touching stories of our first Aurora encounters, when we heard someone yell “We got Lights!” And sure enough, as timid as a young child, there they were, subtly glowing on the northern horizon. The Northern Lights weren’t visible to the naked eye on Nov. 2, 2013, at least not at this latitude. But with the help of Cannons and Nikons, we witnessed their beauty that night.

Glowing success

I slept through sunrise the next day, desperately in need of sleep. But one photographer described that as the best sunrise he had ever witnessed on Superior’s shore, and the photos were solid proof of that.

As evidence of a good time, it took the group hours to say our goodbyes, and we are still beside ourselves with excitement — and exhaustion!

No matter how you look at it — the serene setting, the knowledge sharing, sheer numbers — the first-ever gathering of the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters was a huge success! From Michigan to North Dakota, we are grateful for the people who coordinated the event.

I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say
this was a weekend I will never forget!


People with Passion, November 2013

Aurora Chasing, June 2013

Columns of Light, October 2013

Study of Northern Lights,


6 thoughts on “Gathering on the Great Lakes

  1. Great time in Two Harbors! It is possible to do some pretty good night time photography using Canon point and shoot cameras if one also installs CHDK. Please check out my own blog, or contact me for more information. The investment to enter the world of night time photography can be less than $400 rather than the much higher amount required for a DSLR and lenses. Here is my link about CHDK.

    1. Thanks, Richard! These are great tips. I am still deciding whether I want to spend the money on an SLR or go another route. But I will always have my writing to capture these events too!

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