Lake Superior Winter Workshop (part 1)

When I told some folks I was heading to the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota in February, they looked at me like I grew another head. What kind of nutter would go there during the coldest month of the year? I guess you have to be from pretty far up north to find it appealing, but I was looking forward to rough seas and lots of ice.

The joke was on me. Yeah, look at all those huge waves.

Shovel point


And all that ice!

Watcher of the far horizon


Oh wait, there’s some –

Flash that wicked grin


But the lack of ice forced me to “see” differently and to try to express The Story of the Place more broadly. I have a feeling that if there was a lot of ice or waves, I’d have concentrated on those instead of seeing more fully. Am I just trying to make the best of what turned out to be less than desirable conditions? Maybe. Leading up to it I watched the weather and knew the lake wouldn’t be frozen so thought about cancelling. I told myself that ice sheets and broken shelves of it on the shoreline was the major draw and what else could I find or do with such a location if those things weren’t present. Cliffs. Rocks. Water. Zzz. Right?

Well not really. I just needed to push my vision to include more – to see grandly and minutely and tell The Story of the Place. Take these tiny asters for example –



They aren’t spectacular or specific to this location. Heck, they aren’t even different for my catalog of photos, but the light was soft and I had the macro lens and why not? Life is intricate and even the smallest and seemingly unimportant pieces are part of the whole that makes it work.

These next photos are more distinctive to the shores of big lakes – frozen rocks! Ice eggs I think they’re also called. But secreted from what? (Yeah, I went there, hope you spotted it.)


And while I was trying not to fall on my butt on all the rocks or break an ankle stepping between them, I spotted this unusual specimen while looking down at my footing –


I have no idea what caused that abrupt and precise change in the surface, but it’s so cool. Roughly the size of a football and luckily not covered in ice, it reminds me of potters who glaze only part of their finished product, leaving some areas with bare, or nearly bare, clay. I wonder what interesting variations were covered up. I guess I’d have to go back in summer to find out.

Slightly less interesting is this icon of Lake Superior; Split Rock Lighthouse –

Split rock lighthouse


There have been eleventy billion photos of this, now non-working, lighthouse over the years and you can practically see the tripod holes on the rocky beach. If we’d had a lot of ice covering everything, I might not have chosen this odd view of it, but because it was patchy and I wasn’t going to be adding to the creative images of this scene by standing where everyone else did, I got closer, included a lot of rock and made some triangles. I’d planned to stay put for sunset, but it wasn’t meant to be. The trees and land behind me threw big shadows at the foreground and made the dynamic range really hard to deal with, even with all the power of modern editing software. So I’m only presenting the before sunset image even if it doesn’t have the best light ever.

That came a little later and on the other side of the harbor where there is an island –

Blue mirror


It’s kind of hard to tell that it’s an island from this angle, but another photographer who was familiar with the area had already staked out the best view of it isolated from the cliff and with something interesting in the foreground. I tried a few long exposures over there after taking this, but they don’t work. This one does and I’m pretty happy with it. One of the workshop leaders is a bit long exposure fan and I’m grateful for his suggestion since it makes this shot work. I have a few with normal shutter speeds and they’re nothing special. By using a 6-stop neutral density filter I got to 13 seconds at f/14 and wow. Drama! Even if there hadn’t been ice on the rocks it would have worked, but the ice is so great and I like how the small “islands” mimic the far one and reflect the still blue sky. We even got a couple of low clouds for good measure.

With long exposure on the brain, I used it again with this scene at Crystal Harbor –

Crystal harbor cliffs


It’s the typical way this and a lot of the shoreline cliffs are shot. Scroll back up to see how difficult it is to find more expressive or unusual compositions. There is nothing to make a leading line out of other than the beach which I did above, but it’s so dull and overdone. Yeah I used a long exposure to emphasize the textures in the rock, but that’s about all there is. Not so for this one –

Restless still


At least I think so. I was a little rude and selfish workshop attendee by marching right up to the base of the cliff and planting myself in everyone else’s shot. Of course I didn’t stay there, but I really needed to get up very tight on those ice formations and make the shot about that and the imposing cliff wall than to make another boring photo. After I vacated my spot, others filled my tripod holes and I had a laugh about that. I have a few slight variations on this theme, but I liked this arrangement best with the small wavelet coming in. It helps give some definition to where water and land meet. The rock is so iron-rich that it’s red and veined through with other minerals. Without the ice that would be more obvious, but I had to take the ice where I found it!

Of course I found it where I didn’t want it. Like here on the river at Cascades River State Park.

Down and down


We were really hoping the crazy warm temperatures would have made more of the water visible, but we hadn’t counted on the gorge walls themselves keeping things so much colder. We stomped around in each other’s tripod holes here because frankly, there wasn’t any other way to shoot it. I have a few other views that don’t work because they don’t convey they three-dimensionality of the space and there’s no natural landing for your eyes or progression through the scene. This is as close as I could come; a 2-second exposure at f/14.

So that’s part one. Hope you like the story so far and have a bit more rounded idea of what it’s like to be on Lake Superior in winter. A mild winter, sure, but still winter. I’ll have the sunset for this day and the sunrise for the next which was the last. It’s a good one though so you won’t be disappointed. At least I hope not.

If the link to Part 2 doesn’t show up below Click Here.


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