Every year I’ve lived in Minnesota, I’ve made an effort to explore winter through photography. This year I planned a trip up north to Ely to photograph a different kind of winterscape than years past (past few have focused on Lake Superior north of Duluth). A group of us, photo-enthusiasts, rented a cabin on a frozen lake just south of Ely for a nice 3 day winter photo adventure.
As I had learned in years passed, a winter photo trip is only as successful as you plan for. You want a warm jacket with tons of pockets but not overly bulky or heavy. You’ll have to dress in layers that can easily adapt to changing conditions depending on what you are doing or weather changing. If you are hiking for a long period of time, you might work up a sweat that can turn frigid once you stop for a while photograph. Something I specifically struggle with is warm headwear that doesn’t cut off my field of vision too much. I also recommend some type of double glove…. a thin tight fitting glove that can provide plenty of dexterity when fumbling with your camera but cut the wind from directly touching your skin, and a nice warm outer glove that your inner glove can slide into for protection when you are walking or using your hands to interact with snow. Lastly you need proper footwear to keep your toes warm and waterproof. I use insertable hand and foot warmers to provide added warmth, but if you don’t prevent snow and wind from getting inside your shoes, it wont do much to help you long term. This year I added snowshoes and snowpoles to help walking in the snow or testing the depth of snow.
We Stayed at Bear Island Resort overlooking Bear Island Lake just 15 mins south of Ely. One of the wonders of winter in Minnesota is that lakes freeze over solid in most places so that you can walk, or even drive on them. Its still unnerving for me to walk on a frozen lake, but I get more accustomed to it every winter. The first day we woke up early and set off walking across the lake towards Bear Island to watch sunrise and investigate what there was to photograph on the islands in the middle of a frozen lake.
We never made it to Bear Island itself, but we took full advantage of being on a frozen lake to capture a beautiful sunrise. We stopped off on some mini islands along the way, but mostly they were inaccessible because of the snowshoes and steep rocky boulders. Overall tho, I felt that this excursion was the highlight of the trip for me. I thoroughly enjoyed shooting panoramics and soaking in the quietness of the early morning.
The next day we ventured to an old growth pine forest management area. While it was interesting to see all the trees planted at the turn of the last century lined up in rows, the repetition made for a lot of similar photographs. I got a few I liked, but for some reason I just wasn’t feeling in tuned with the landscape like the day before. We ventured on to an area north of Ely that had falls below a Dam. I again struggled to get any compositions that i was pleased with, but I still enjoyed the adventure of exploring the area in the deep snow.
One highlight tho was when I decided to venture off on my own above the Dam to explore the frozen lake….. (We each had a walkie Talkie just in case we got into trouble). I stumbled upon a wolf tearing apart an deer out in the middle of the frozen lake. (the lake was about a quarter mile across, and I had just stepped out of the woods onto the lake) My heart stopped, I stood still, The wolf stopped eating and we stared at each other for a brief moment. I’m not very brave, but I AM stupid…. I slowly tried to reach for my camera, but the wolf decided my fate and ran off towards the opposite shoreline and into the forest. Why I didn’t reach for the walkie talkie first is a mystery to me, but I did the exact same thing with a brown bear 15 years earlier in the mountains of northern New Mexico…. And a rattle snake in South Dakota. All I can say is that holding a camera brings down your IQ in dangerous situations.
I don’t think I took a breath for 3 minutes, all I could hear was my heartbeat as I strained my eyes to find if it was still watching me from across the lake. Nothing but pure winter silence…… no movement, no sound, no wolf….. and then I exhaled. I snapped off a few shots of the dead carcass with my zoom lens and came back to my senses. I radioed to my buddies to tell them what happened and where I was. I still didn’t move for at least 10 minutes until a buddy found me. We walked back to where we had parked and called it a day. No real great shots came from that little encounter, but the intensity of that brief moment seared an image of winter into my imagination. I will say, wolves are much larger than you expect. It was defiantly not a dog.
The moral of the story is, you’re never prepared for everything.