“The Blowdown,” 20 Years Later

blowdown trees on brown suburban

“The Blowdown.”  July 4, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of this famous BWCA weather event; at Bearskin, we still get asked about it constantly.  While the signs of the blowdown are no longer as obvious as they once were, our landscape in the Mid-Gunflint Trail area was indelibly marked by this storm. For anyone who was in the area at the time, or for anyone who came up later to help with the massive clean-up, the blowdown will never be forgotten.

The blowdown was actually a derecho, a type of straight-line wind storm. It knocked down about 20 million trees in the BWCA, cutting a swath about 10 miles wide and 30 miles long. Most of Bearskin’s immense white pines survived the storm. They are 200 – 300 years old and perhaps withstood even worse weather events through the centuries. But aspens, birches, jack pines, cedars, and balsams broke off as if a giant had come through swinging a scythe 15 feet above the ground.

Every Bearskin guest from that era has their own unique story, depending on where they were and what they were doing at the moment.  The common thread seems to be the muggy, unpleasantly hot day and a very dark, green sky. Almost everyone recalls their sense of wariness resulting from the unusual sky color, and how frightening it was when the weather changed suddenly and how rapidly the trees began snapping off  all around them. Some guests were stranded on the Gunflint Trail, their vehicles surrounded by trees that fell on the trail like matchsticks in a line. Other guests were in cabins, listening to trees crashing around them and wondering how they would ever get out again. Cars did not fare well, but a few bicycles survived. Luckily, Bearskin suffered primarily injuries to things, not to people.

It was over quickly, and then the truly hard moments began. Guests stranded on the Gunflint Trail left their cars and began painstakingly making their way over an endless line of downed trees. Guests in cabins struggled to get out.  Their vacations were ruined, their cars were flattened, they no longer had water or electricity, and because of the chaos on the trail, leaving was not an option. Most guests stayed to help with the clean-up, because after all, what else could they do? Everyone who was here loves to recount their own story. Once people realized that they had somehow survived it, their natural instinct was to pitch in and help. When the roads were cleared, other guests drove up to assist with the tough job of putting Bearskin back together.

Realistically, clean-up from this storm went on for years and twenty years later, our woods is still full of fallen trees from the blowdown. For a long time we had a higher risk of fire danger from all the downed wood in the forest, “fuel” for future fires. At this point most blowdown debris has rotted enough that fire danger is not as significant as it once was. The forest has regenerated, although with a different mix of trees than it had before the storm. Foresters say there are fewer conifers now and more aspen and birch. Jack Pines, in particular, did not regenerate because they require fire, not wind, to reseed themselves.

We’re sharing some of the many pictures from the days after the blowdown at Bearskin.  In a few photos, it’s tough to even see that under all those branches there is a cabin hiding.  Dave and Barb Tuttle, who owned Bearskin from when they were in their young 20’s in the 1970s until 2001, faced an almost insurmountable clean-up job after the storm. They’ve often said that the blowdown was the toughest challenge they faced in all those years.

Would you like to learn more about this weather event? Here is one of the best articles about it we’ve read. 

Another great blog was written by Ted Young, from Boundary Country Trekking, back in 2016. He recounted some legendary stories and then also assessed the long-term community impact of the blowdown.

So what’s  your blowdown story? Share in the comments below, or add to the blowdown post on Facebook.  We’d love to hear your experience.


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4.13.2019 Guess the ice-out date for the endless winter of 2019

It’s “ice-out” time already, so once again we’ll be taking guesses on the date that you think the ice will be gone from East Bearskin Lake.  The 12th annual East Bearskin Lake ice-out guessing game begins now.

We always like to help you make an educated guess because that’s much more fun than just randomly picking a date; so here’s all the data you need to win a Bearskin T-shirt or a complimentary canoe rental from Bearskin Wilderness Outfitters.

If you’ve done your research and you’re ready to guess, add a comment on this blog or go to the Bearskin Facebook page and add your answer there. (It’s easier to scope out what others have guessed on Facebook!)  You’ll need the date, and as a tie-breaker, your estimated time.

First important piece of information: forget those balmy temps you probably have been experiencing at home. It is 100% still winter on the Gunflint Trail, and it has been since the first week of November. Are we tired of snow and ice yet? Yes, indeed, very much so.  Here’s the Lodge today.  This is not just the new snow of the recent snowstorm, it’s snow that has been on the ground since November 7th:

lodge 4.13.2019

Your next clue, the webcam today. There’s not even a hint of clear ice yet:

4.13.2019 webcam

Clue #3 is the ice depth at this point in the season.  Landen went out to drill some holes and reported that there is about 8 inches of crumbling ice on top of at least 8 more inches of rock solid ice.  All of it is covered by a great deal of snow.  There is a theory on the Gunflint Trail that because snow fell early on the newly forming ice that perhaps the ice was insulated and as a result, not as much ice formed. Maybe, but that might be more true on the bigger lakes that freeze later.  You can toss the idea into your calculations.

Your last clue to consider is the upcoming forecast.  Don’t expect many balmy days to speed this process along.  Rain and wind, though, can sometimes have an impact.

forecast april 2019

So when does the ice usually go out?  Once it went out in March. That ship has sailed for 2019. April ice-out has happened, but only an extreme optimist would have high hopes for that this year. May 6th – 8th are common dates, but we have also had several years recently when the ice was not out for the fishing opener. The latest ice-out date in our experience was May 16, although we’ve heard stories about Memorial Weekend dates. We invariably have a few people who guess July or August ice-out dates, and we’re happy to report that they’ve never been right. So far.

Here is a video of the ice going out last year on May 7th:


If you’re serious about your research, check out past ice-out blog posts.  Here is the post from last year, including a good summary and picture from past blogs:

And here are many others ice-out blogs from the past decade. Lots of info here:

HOW TO ENTER:  If you’ve done your research and you’re ready to guess, add a comment on this blog or go to the Bearskin Facebook page and add your answer there. (It’s easier to scope out what others have guessed on Facebook!)  You’ll need the date, and as a tie-breaker, your estimated time.  Winner receives a Bearskin T-shirt or a complimentary canoe rental for a day (this canoe be used as one of several days if you’re renting canoes for a BWCA trip.) Good luck! Watch the ice go out on the webcam here.

Welcome to the 11th annual ice-out contest: win a canoe rental or a T-shirt if your guess is the best

Today is April 19. The front of the lodge looks like this:

Here is the view from the webcam this afternoon. You can see the faintest hint of the dock reappearing. Boats definitely will not be parked at this dock in the near future. We still have 24 inches of ice on our bay, plus ample snow cover. We’ve heard reports of 40 inches on Gunflint Lake, and 25 – 35 inches on Ely lakes.

Bearskin has been buried in deep snow since a snowstorm on October 26, 2017.  We are exceedingly ready to launch spring. So in hopes of kick-starting a fresh, new season, it’s time to start the 11th Annual East Bearskin Lake Ice-out Guessing Game for 2018. 

The winner gets a T-shirt, mug, or (new this year!) if you’re outfitting or staying with us you can win one free day of a canoe rental. Post your answer in the blog comments below, on the Facebook page, or e-mail your answer to stay@bearskin.com.  Give us a both a predicted date and a time. The time helps us choose a winner if there are multiple answers for the same date.

Of course, your answer will be very well-researched. Here’s all the info you need to make a fact-based, educated guess. What’s a normal ice-out date? May 6th – 8th would be a typical date. Late March, late April and yes, late May have all occurred.  East Bearskin tends to be one of the earlier lakes to go out on this side of the BWCAW; the long, somewhat narrow configuration of this lake speeds up the melting process.

Our upcoming weather forecast finally looks like spring:

Rain helps. Wind helps. A day of snow does not help. So far, there’s no new snow in this forecast, but there have been years when 2 feet of new snow appeared in late April. Behold late April, 2013.

This year the Minnesota fishing opener will be May 12.  Some years ice fishing seems far more appropriate on our fishing opener, such as on the first day of fishing in 2014. The technique pictured is not a “best practice.”

If you want to do more thorough research, follow these links to learn about the history of the ice-out on East Bearskin Lake over the past 11 years.

May is moose-viewing season: how to find and photograph wildlife in the spring

moose kissing slice katie mumm

Here is a conversation we have in our lodge many times a week, winter and summer.

The discouraged visitor says, “I’ve been coming to the Gunflint Trail for 10/20/30 years, and I’ve never seen a moose.” Or bear. Or wolf. Or whatever animal it is that they most wish to see. Often they have a beautiful camera strung around their neck and the dream is to capture that perfect memorable Gunflint Trail wildlife picture.

We say, “So, when are you usually here looking for wildlife?”  The answer is generally some version of July or August. We encourage them to keep looking and offer suggestions for likely viewing spots. But what we’re really thinking is that they’ll probably continue to get skunked. The truth is, you might have great luck searching for your perfect moose photograph in late summer, but there are much better times to be here if your goal is to see animals. Come to Bearskin in May and very early June and you’ll get your picture.

moose in parking lot cropSpring is moose-viewing season. It is not uncommon for Bearskin to have moose right on the Main Lodge grounds during May and early June, often cows and newborn babies. Our hypothesis is that since we are a dog-free lodge with very few canine smells, and because wolves don’t often venture into the resort, perhaps this area feels like a safe zone for pregnant cows and mothers with calves. Our nearby Summer Home Road and other quiet gravel roads are also excellent places to find moose in the spring – just look for their big footprints in the mud.

Bears are also easy to find and photograph in spring. The secret? Dandelions. Those pesky yellow flowers may be an invasive species that nobody wants growing on our waysides, but don’t tell that to the bears. They love munching on dandelion heads found along wide mowed shoulders of some parts of the Gunflint in the spring.

We asked a group of our favorite photographers to share their suggestions for finding animals to photograph in May and June. We encourage you to look at their photography websites, or follow their Facebook pages to see the photos of all the animals they are sure to find this spring.

Katie Mumm

3 bears slice katie mumm watermark

Katie Mumm is our Bearskin staff photographer. Katie drives along the Gunflint between Swamper Lake and Loon Lake nightly in the spring after work, camera ready in her car. “Every evening I jump in my car, armed with my camera and take off in search of moose!” she says. “My travels take me in different directions on the Trail but I always visit my ‘usual’ places where I commonly see moose. Sometimes I drive to the end of the Trail and other times I take a gravel road here and there in search of new spots and sightings. You never know who/what might appear. When I’m lucky enough to find moose, I always keep a safe distance from the animal, for my safety as well as theirs. I don’t want to frighten them, so I prefer to shoot from a distance.”

She adds, “Persistence is the key in photographing wildlife. There are many nights when I come down the Bearskin Road with nothing to show for my time. But other nights, it’s a gold mine! You just have to keep trying, keep travelling, and keep shooting.” You’ll frequently find Katie working at the front desk at Bearskin, so if you’re staying here in search of wildlife, ask her for advice on her current “hot spots.”

Katie’s pictures can be purchased at Bearskin. See her latest pictures on her Facebook photography site here.

Thomas J. Spence

fox picture thomas spence for blog

Tom Spence’s superb lynx pictures made the news all around Minnesota during the winter of 2018, but regular followers of the Bearskin Facebook page have been seeing shared wildlife, northern lights, and Lake Superior photos from Tom for several years.  According to Tom, it helps to be an early riser if you want to get great wildlife pictures. “I like to get out early to find the critters,” he says. “The earlier the better. I’ll often head into the woods before sunrise to put myself in a location at first light. I’m usually focusing on water areas such as swamps, rivers and inland lakes in and around the BWCA.”

“Spring,” he continues, “is a very active time in the woods so you are bound to see some kind of activity just about every trip out. Of course, any time is good to be out, but the morning light and activity are the best in spring, in my opinion.”  You can check out more of Tom’s pictures on his Facebook page or browse and buy photos you like on Tom’s SmugMug website.

David R. Johnson

david JOhnson Lynx

Grand Marais photographer David Johnson is a fan favorite on the Bearskin Facebook page, where we often feature his wildlife, northern lights, and Grand Marais pictures. “I put on many thousands of miles and hundreds of hours looking for wildlife,” David says. “My cameras are dialed in for conditions for the day I am out, so I can shoot at a moment’s notice. You have to be fast to get some shots most of the time.”  

“As far as finding wildlife, you go to where the food is. Lynx’s main diet is the snowshoe hare, so I look where there are large populations of them. I look for tracks.”  David also watches for road-kill, especially along Highway 61, and occasionally spots wolves, foxes, and eagles nearby.  Finding moose, he says, can be “hit or miss.” In spring and early summer moose are looking for fresh greens, aquatic plants, and new tree leaves.  “Willow are hot,” he says. “All waterways are good to check: beaver ponds, swamps, and lakes.”

David’s photos can be viewed and purchased on his Zenfolio site.

Nace Hagemann

nace hagemann two moose for blog

We frequently share wildlife and northern lights photos from Nace Hagemann, and for several years carried his cards in our gift shop. Nace has a reputation for getting great moose pictures, although he feels he has seen fewer moose on the Gunflint Trail during the last few years, perhaps resulting from the tribal hunting season that has been held during the last two autumns. Nace has learned that “Moose are looking for the fresh growth of aquatic plants in the spring and are often in and around water. I often see other animals by driving.”  Nace owns a construction company and works all over Cook County, so he also spots animals near the road while driving to his jobs very early in the morning. Nace’s pictures can be seen on his Facebook site and can also be purchased here.

Crystal and Chris Clemons

young moose original eyes fixed crystal name

For several years the number-one ranked moose photo on Google was this photo of a gangly, long-legged young moose, taken by Crystal Clemons on nearby Clearwater Road. Crystal is not a professional photographer, but she is a very successful amateur photographer whose tenaciousness in searching for animals each spring results in many cool wildlife sightings. Crystal and her husband Chris regularly drive hundreds of miles down quiet Cook County side roads, searching for wildlife. Persistence is their strong point, plus a willingness to return even when they didn’t have good luck the last time.

Crystal says, “In the early morning when the sun is coming up or in the evening when the sun is going down, we drive down the Lima Grade, South Bruhl Road, Lima Mountain Road, and Greenwood Road. And of course the famous area, Swamper.”  They watch the road for fresh tracks as they drive, the possible sign of an animal being nearby.

Chris and Crystal especially recommend looking for fox dens at the end of April and early May, when fox kits are born. Bearskin can give you some directions for finding these dens when you’re staying here.

Crystal and Chris also have a great deal of luck getting pileated woodpecker pictures, often on Clearwater Road. They have a favorite spot where they’ve taken many pictures of pileated woodpeckers poking their big red heads out of nest holes. Ask at the front desk for more specific directions for finding these remarkable big birds.

Crystal also suggests, “Here is a good spring idea for anyone, moose antler hunting in late April and early May (depending on the snow depth). We have good luck every year. The trick to that is go to one or two year-old logging cuts, walk around in them, look for little trees that have been rubbed on (trying to shed antlers), then just walk around and look. Finding antlers is like a treasure hunt and it’s an awesome feeling when you find them. We have yet to find a set. It gets the family outdoors.”

So when is the perfect time to find and photograph our Gunflint Trail wildlife?

May and early June have undeservedly become very quiet seasons on the Gunflint Trail, for three reasons: our erratic, sometimes long-lasting winter season; spring’s frequent rainy May days; and springtime bugs. For those of us who live up here, spring is high on the list of favorite seasons, but making the most of spring as a visitor requires planning and realistic expectations. There will be amazingly perfect spring days and yes, there may be some rainy days.

First, it helps to pay attention to when the snow and the ice melts. Even if it’s warm in the Twin Cities, like it has been in recent years, weather on the Gunflint won’t be on the same schedule. Snow and ice can occasionally disappear here in April, but it’s more likely to be gone in early May. Watch our web cam to keep track of how the weather is changing on the Gunflint. Our usual ice-out day is around May 6th, but it’s happened 5 weeks earlier or 2 weeks later. If anything, ice-out has been edging towards earlier dates in the past few years.

Secondly, come prepared for some rainy or misty days. Bring rain gear and mud shoes. We love May for taking long, springy 50-degree walks on the trails and gravel roads, but if you don’t happen to get that weather, be ready to head out in spring showers. The animals don’t mind a little rain, so your hunt for the perfect moose moment can still succeed even if we’re experiencing May precipitation.

Lastly, what about those bugs?  The trade-off for being here when the wildlife abounds is that there are more bugs than in late July and August. Come prepared to deal with them and with luck, they may not even be an issue. The days between snow-melt and the last week of May tend to be close to bug-free. Eventually the notorious black flies, those little annoying ear-biting gnats, appear around Memorial Day. That’s when a head net and the screen porch on your Bearskin cabin are appreciated. Mosquitoes also start to appear about that time, depending on how much standing water there is in the woods. Some years are better than others. May is also the month for ticks. Our area has very few occurrences of Lyme disease (we just don’t have many deer on the Gunflint), but regular old ticks are out in force right away during the spring.  Dress appropriately and take the standard tick precautions, and you should be fine. We sell a tick spray you can use as extra protection.

What if May/early June doesn’t work for me? Will I ever see a moose?

Honestly, you’ll only see a moose if you’re super lucky or incredibly persistent in July or August. It happens, especially on canoe trips into the BWCAW, but late summer moose sightings aren’t a daily occurrence like they are in the spring.

Your next best bet for wildlife pictures is to visit in the fall. As the temperatures cool off and the Gunflint Trail gets less busy, we start to see more moose action in September and especially October and November. Moose mate in the fall, so they move around in search of true love during that time. David Johnson noted that, “In fall moose are getting into rut. The bulls are on the move and can be found where you see the cows; they won’t be far away.”  There is, of course, a downside to chasing moose while they are in rut. (Remember the infamous Andy story?) But let good sense prevail, and you can successfully see wildlife, including moose, in autumn.

Wildlife sightings are much better in the fall than in late summer, but no season compares to spring for finding and photographing a wide variety of animals and birds around Bearskin Lodge and the Gunflint Trail. Visit us!

Moose-viewing season spring rates at Bearskin

We’ve lowered the prices for most of May. “Value season,” the least expensive time of year to stay at Bearskin Lodge, now extends until just before Memorial Day. Pack your camera and a “just in case” rain coat and head up to the Gunflint Trail to capture that perfect picture or memory at a great price.

crystal picture collage for blog

Moose Rescue!

Rescues are a big part of our life. Bob and Quinn are members of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department and Search & Rescue, so no matter what type of incident happens up here, we get the call. They’ve rescued lots of lost hikers, and more than a few BWCA trippers. If you read about any incident in the Eastern BWCA, good or bad, Bob and Quinn usually were out there.

But they’ve never quite been out on a rescue like the one this morning. Today the GTVFD rescued a moose who went through the ice.  Bob was there.

Barb and John Bottger were enjoying their morning tea, looking out their large picture windows at Hungry Jack Lake, when they saw the moose.  Who you gonna call?  GTVFD, of course.

Bob, Fire Chief Jim Morrison, and Hungry Jack outfitter Dave Seaton ventured carefully out on the ice, dragging canoes in case they went through the ice. The moose was clearly exhausted.  There wasn’t much time left. The moose was calm enough that they could wrap straps around her neck. With a great deal of dragging, they got the moose’s feet up on the ice. Bob and Jim anchored themselves on the ice with an ice ax (Dave was smart enough to wear Yak Trax), so the three of them could start the long process of pulling and sliding the moose out of the hole.  With a lot of trouble, muscle, and finagling, eventually the moose was dragged out on her side. She laid there for awhile, and eventually struggled back to a standing position.   If only that were the end of it.

There is no protocol for this in the search and rescue manual. Dave Seaton and Jim Morrison, making it up as they go.

Moose must get hypothermia, just like people do.  The moose stood there in a daze, and wouldn’t move. Occasionally she would shake water out of her fur, but she didn’t seem to be planning to take off.  Ever. The rescuers stayed by her, encouraging her to move forward. The last thing in the world they wanted was for the moose to go backwards and fall back in the hole. One moose rescue was enough.

Dave Seaton attempts to be the moose whisperer, to lure it on shore. You can see the group of people in the distance that may have been worrisome for the moose.
A cold, icy moose shakes water off its head.

This went on for a very long time. The moose started moving a little more, appearing to be less dazed and fatigued, and began eyeing the shore as if she wanted to make a break for it. Perhaps she was frightened of the crowd of onlookers on shore. The group moved back and hid themselves out of sight, but still the moose wouldn’t leave.

At last, a moose on the move!

Finally, Bob and Jim thought they’d start walking back towards shore and see what would happen.  The moose followed them! Slowly, slowly they made their way towards the north shore until (wait for it) … the moose fell through again. A low point in the morning.

Almost made it! But look at that dark ice ahead.
And then this happened. So close, so very, very close.

After much discussion, the group decided that the situation was different in this location. The moose could touch bottom, the ice was thinner and more crumbly, and if left alone perhaps she would make her way to shore. They decided to watch and wait. Indeed, she eventually did get  out and headed off into the woods where a moose belongs. This moose has a story to tell if any moose friends will listen.

This doesn’t always turn out so well for animals who fall through the ice. The Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department is not usually there to save the day.  When Kaitlin and Quinn were little, we were canoeing on Fall Lake when we spotted the bones of an animal underwater, a deer or a moose, I can’t recall.  It must have been the same situation, the animal had fallen through the ice not far from shore but nobody was there to perform a rescue.  The animal drowned and the bones laid on the bottom exactly in an animal shape. The kids gathered up the bones, and brought them home.  Every so often they would reconstruct the beast on the garage floor.  It always made us sad.

But this is the moose who got away!  We hope it lives a long moosey life, and stays off thin ice.

Chasing the Northern Lights at Bearskin Lodge

Northern lights over Bearskin Lodge 8.2.2016v2
Northern lights over Bearskin Lodge, morning of August 3, 2016

When you’re visiting Bearskin Lodge, you are almost as far north as you can go and still be in the US.  You are also in one of the few remaining “dark skies” areas of the country, which means we have the lowest possible level of light pollution.  Your chance of seeing astronomical events at Bearskin can be very good if you devote some time to looking up at the night skies.

Seeing the aurora borealis up here is a dream for many people, so it’s always a heart-breaker when guests discover that a magnificent display of lights occurred right over their cabin — but they never saw it.  Here are a few hints for chasing the lights during your Bearskin visit.

What does the aurora look like?

Think back to all those stunning photos you’ve seen of spectacular green, purple or even aqua northern lights, swirling overhead.  Then erase that imagery, because that’s probably not what you’re going to see with the naked eye. Although the northern lights can contain a full spectrum of colors, our night vision color receptors do not pick up very many of the colors.  The colors are there, just not so you can see all of them.  It’s a lot like green grass – at night it’s still green, but it doesn’t look green to your eyes. (Thank you, Debbie Center, for that analogy.)


how the lights looked to meS
This is how a good aurora might look to you with the naked eye.

Unless you are seeing the aurora through a camera, which has many more sensitive color sensors at night than your eyes have, in far northeast Minnesota you are mostly going to see a white shimmering glow. If you’re one of the lucky ones with more sensitive color receptors in your eyes (or if it’s an exceptionally bright display), there may be rays and swirls of green, aqua, and purple, depending on the degree of darkness.  If you have typical eyes, the aurora will look more like oddly moving white clouds in the sky – except that it’s dark, and you won’t normally see moving clouds then.

how the lights looked to me
This is how the lights looked in the back of the camera

When should we look?

Once you realize that you’re not looking for a colorful neon light show, seeing the lights is simply a matter of knowing when and where to look.  The aurora can show up at any time of year. There is no such thing as “northern lights season,” because lights are geomagnetic disturbances caused by storms on the sun. They have nothing to do with seasonal occurrences here on earth. Winter is sometimes advertised as “northern lights season,” but only because it’s darker for a longer time. You might not need to stay up quite so late to chase the lights in February.

It’s also easier to see the aurora when there isn’t a bright moon.  A very dark night with clear skies and  minimal moonlight is ideal for seeing northern lights.

There are many phone apps and computer web sites that can help you predict the best nights for great aurora viewing  but they can’t forecast very far ahead, nor are they completely accurate. Predictions are a guess based on current sun activity.  A common question we get  is, “When should we come to Bearskin next (month/year/week) to see the aurora?” We truly have NO idea. Visit us when you are going to have a fabulous time anyway and then if the northern lights appear, it will just be one more unforgettable memory.

Where should we look?
This may seem obvious, but to see the northern lights you need to look north.  That can be tough at Bearskin because our cabins are along the lake’s north shore.  You need to get out on your dock, or out in a boat, or out on the lake ski trail in the winter, to be able to see a northern view.  If the lights get going nicely, then there will be an arc of lights across the resort from the NW (staff housing direction) to the NE (the BWCA end of the lake). Occasionally the lights form an umbrella of light over the entire lake, but don’t expect that.  It’s a rarity.

the first sign of lights LR CL
Here is the white glow on the horizon through the trees before the light show started on August 3.

If you see an odd glow on the north horizon an hour or more after sunset, start hoping for lights.  People often assume they are seeing the lights from a city (nope), or  the dim last light from the sunset (nope, the sun never sets in the north). Then give yourself at least 10 minutes for your eyes to adjust; it takes time in the dark for your eyes to start to see the aurora.  Bearskin sells headlamps that include a red light; these allow you to see outside without disturbing your night vision.  Once you spot the lights, we promise you will be mesmerized. You might see pillars, arcs, curtains, pulsation, shooting rays, soft clouds, or even hear auroral noises.

Photographing the northern lights

If you wish to “see” the aurora through the lens of a camera, it will require a little pre-planning and a slightly better camera than a typical “point and shoot.”  Your cell phone camera might work, especially if you can download one of the many apps that allow you to have more manual control over the phone camera settings.  The best results are achieved with a DSLR camera, or a high quality “point and shoot” with advanced manual settings.

Camera settings:

  1. You need to be able set the ISO on your camera to a high number, probably 800 or considerably higher. The bigger the number, the more “noise” your pictures might have – but sometimes that’s a trade-off you make to get aurora photos with your camera.
  2. You will need to set the shutter speed on the camera, probably somewhere between 10 – 30 seconds, so it stays open quite a while. That’s how the camera gathers the colors. Experiment with increasing the shutter speed, until you see a picture that works. If you are shooting the lights with a simple camera or phone, maybe a setting for night photos will give you a longer exposure.
  3. Because the lens needs to stay open a long time, a tripod or support is essential. If you didn’t bring a tripod, find a way to set the camera on a firm surface. You can’t hold the camera still long enough to let in adequate light  without assistance.
  4. The focus on your camera should be set to infinity, or whatever setting focuses very far away. If you can turn off automatic focusing, get rid of it.
  5. You will also need to look for the f-stop setting on your camera; it needs to be at the smallest number that your camera will permit. If you have lens choices, a wide angle lens captures more of the aurora, but it isn’t essential.
  6. Pressing the shutter sometimes wiggles the camera too much. A remote shutter control is ideal. (Amazon sells them for many cameras for around $7, not a big investment).  A work-around is to take pictures with your camera’s timer. Many cameras have a 2-3 second delay option; most have a 10 second option, which seems interminable when you’re waiting for your camera to go off under the aurora.  You have to work with what your own camera will do.

There are so many other camera settings that the experts use to photograph the lights, but these will get you started. If your camera has good “live view,” you may be able to watch the lights right in the back of the camera.  Otherwise, just take dozens of photos, look at them, adjust as you go, and sooner or later you may see colors.

How can you bring out all the colors of the aurora in your pictures?

Almost all of the photos of the northern lights that you see online and in books have been put through an editing program to bring out more of the colors.  Search “aurora post processing” for hundreds of articles on how to do this.  Adobe Lightroom is the most popular, but any photo editing program will be fun for you to try.  Even simple phone apps like Aviary will let you play with your pictures.

Many of the aurora photos that you see are art, not reality.  I think the goal should be to make it look somewhat similar to what you saw that night, or at least reflect the real experience.  Other photographers, though, enjoy bringing out as many stunning colors in photos as possible, often cranking up the colors so the lights look turquoise, yellow, magenta, and orange.  If you look at northern lights photos often, you’ll eventually decide on a color range you like. The point is to experience the lights and then, if you get some photos, to extend your enjoyment of the experience by recreating your vision of the aurora, however simple or wild that may be!



  • Facebook group: Become a member of Great Lakes Aurora Hunters.  All your questions will be answered there sooner or later.  Wondering if the aurora is out? Just look at GLAH; if the lights are dancing, somebody on GLAH will say so. Every foolish or insightful question about photographing the lights has been asked on this Facebook site, often repeatedly.  You can learn a great deal from this group. Check the section called “notes” on the page.  It leads to countless useful articles.
  • Do a web search of “photographing northern lights:” You will get dozens of informative articles about viewing the lights and photographing them.
  • Space Weather Prediction Center: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/  So much info here, but for the northern lights you want to click on the box at the lower right that shows the Ovation aurora model, which predicts auroral activity. If there’s any sign of that bright green or better yet, mutli-colored oval being close to the tip of Minnesota, there’s hope for lights.  This section of the website shows a 3 day prediction:  http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-3-day-forecast
  • softservenews.com: Yes, it sounds like a website about ice cream, but for some reason it’s about the northern lights. This might not be the most reliable aurora predictor, but it certainly is the one of the easiest.
  • Aurora Forecast/Geophysical institute: From Alaska, but fairly useful for us

Useful Apps:

  • Using an iPhone? “Northern Lights Photo Taker,” (they didn’t expend any energy coming up with a flashy name) is an app for iPhone that automatically adjusts your phone correctly for aurora pictures.  It’s easily downloaded and works pretty well. You still need a tripod or stabilization.
  • Forecasting the northern lights:  There are many apps that will let you know when the lights are likely to appear.  We use “My Aurora Forecast.”  We really like this one, but there are others that are equally well-reviewed.

Remembering a burning forest, 9 years later

ham lake fire
Picture from MN Firewise

Nine years ago today the eastern section of the Boundary Waters canoe area was raging with fire. 75,000 acres of pristine land was burning wildly out of control. Houses were lost. Lives were risked. Smoke filled the air all the way down to the Twin Cities.

And that is when Sue and Bob McCloughan signed the purchase agreement to buy Bearskin Lodge, in the midst of a fire that threatened to burn down the business.

We spent our days at school with one eye on our students and the other glued to the internet news about the fire. Eventually I just gave up and said “Kids, let’s go off topic and learn something really interesting about fire, that will also explain why your eyes are watering now.” We all watched the changing fire maps and ravaged pictures.

firet trucks ham lake fire
Photo courtesy Gunflint Trail Fire Department

As the fire came closer to Bearskin, Bob & I tried to ascertain what precautions were being taken by Bearskin. The owner wanted the lodge sale to remain a secret from his employees, yet from afar we were wildly concerned that “our” property would burn down and wished we could dare ask the employees what was happening. We called the owner, who said everything is fine, the sprinklers are going, and it’s so little to worry about that we’re flying to the tulip show in Iowa.

We already had enough history with him to think perhaps a second call was in order.  I called Bearskin and got Dee, who would later turn out to be a dear friend. I said I was concerned about the Lodge and wondering what they were doing.  Dee assumed she was speaking to another one of the many worried members of the Bearskin fan club, and explained the preparations to leave. “Are the sprinklers on?” I asked.  It was evident that homes and businesses with the fire suppression sprinklers were surviving.  “Um, no, we, um, won’t be using the sprinklers,” she said. “We don’t think we need them.” She was respectful enough of her current boss that she didn’t say, “No, we won’t be using the sprinklers because the FEMA sprinkler system was never maintained and is now in a thousand broken pieces, and actually we all think our boss believes it is in the best interest of the resort to burn down if there is a fire nearby.”  (She saved those truths for later, in the many re-tellings of the story.)

We weren’t there, so we don’t know precisely what happened next. Over the years we’ve heard many variations of this story and each individual has their own take on what happened; the stories differ greatly, as is always the case during a traumatic event involving many people. In Dee’s version of the story the owners were flying to Pella, Iowa. (Although we later heard they did show up at the lodge at some point, so good.) Most Bearskin employees were evacuated to shelters in Grand Marais under very stressful conditions. They left everything they owned behind, ostensibly to burn down.

airplane minnesota incident command
Picture courtesy Mn IncidentCommand

It was quite disturbing for some of the staff. One of them had a seizure outside the shelter, changing his life for a long time to come. Another just cried and cried. The youngest employee, Adde, rose to the occasion and figured out how to be the adult in the group, a skill she can still muster up regularly in her real life today.

We only heard the stories after the fact. All we knew was that we just put a lot of money down and signed a pile of papers to buy a resort where no preparations were being made to keep the resort from burning down momentarily.

And luckily, it didn’t. A tongue of the fire made its way towards our area, but was kept under control. The physical beauty of our area remained untouched by fire and the cabins and resorts around us continued to be safe. This time. There’s a long history of fires in these big woods and we understand that our turn could come. We hope it’s not soon.

The Ham Lake fires probably started because of one camper. Conditions were right to spread a fire very quickly – as they are while I write this.  The individual who accidentally started the fire was identified, demonized, persecuted, prosecuted, and basically dragged through hell until he eventually took his own life.  There’s a fascinating recounting of his unfortunate story here.

ham_lake_fire_wcredit lee johnson
Photo by Sue Prom

The lesson is please, please, please be careful with fires up here. It’s dry and windy today. There are thousands of branches down on the ground from this winter’s bend-down. Keep fires small.  Some of you folks who like your  pile of wood to be in a 5-foot tall tipi shape when it gets lit are just asking for trouble with those giant fires in this environment. Small, under control, and always watched is the way the pros make a fire. Above all, don’t walk away from the fire. We see this all the time in the campground: raging fire in the pit, nobody around for miles—or even worse, obviously tents full of sleeping people. You can do better than that.

We will have fire on the Gunflint Trail again. We are all a little more prepared for it now, after lessons learned from Ham Lake. Bearskin has invested in an outstanding all – encompassing FEMA  fire suppression sprinkler system. We test it  regularly, keeping it in excellent shape each year. Bob and Quinn are fire department members, who have been well-trained to assist in a fire or a rescue and best of all, they have ARMER fire department radios to be in quick contact in an emergency. And needless to say, if something bad happens Bob & Sue, Quinn & Kate will be here to make sure, first of all, that our sweet staff is safe and un-traumatized and secondly, to do what we must to preserve all your Bearskin memories here.

But let’s avoid another Gunflint Trail fire if we can.  Do your part!

HamLakeFire lee johnson
Photo by Lee Johnson