Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy life to check out these images! To capture these photos, I have put in hours of research, pre-production, field work, and post-production. Each image was carefully taken to try and capture the story and beauty of the North Woods.
North Woods Collection
This is a place to tell you a bit of my personal story that lives behind these images. Many of the thoughts were recorded the day of the shoot with a field journal.
The first time I ever ventured into the North Woods I believe I was all of 4 years old. And I would be lying if I told you I remembered it perfectly. But, I do recall going when I was about 6 or 7, and I genuinely believed it to be the most beautiful place on earth. I was drawn. Being the first grader I was, I thought it was just the coolest thing to be in a place that had bears. The scariest thing I had around me growing up was a bad crop year. Which, by all means is a terrible thing, but in terms of fear factor, not quite what I had in mind.
Over years, Ely, Minnesota has served as a family vacation location. Every other year, myself, my parents and brother, my grandparents, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins, would all head up there for a week. We would spend the whole time fishing for bass - our favorite, smallmouth. The memories that I have with this place are never ending: catching my personal best largemouth, my uncle obliterating his prop on a rock while trying to scare me, and the magnificent taste of Pringles. I’m not sure what it is about the Pringles, but every camping trip we go on, we’ve got to have them. Another classic memory is getting ice cream at Northern Expressions. My, oh my. I will stand by my belief that they have the BEST ice cream in the country. My go to - Superman. Another one of my favorite memories is catching Crawdads. Now, sometimes we would go in and grab them with our hands, but, some were so big, I took artificial Bluegill bait, put it in the water, then the Crawdads would latch onto it with their pinches, and I would bring them up! We had to have caught hundreds. As I said before, the memories are endless. Those memories and this secluded place in the woods helped make me who I am today. It’s when I first truly fell in love with the outdoors.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling of Ely. It feels like those year-round Christmas stores. You know, the ones where it just brings you straight back to waking up on Christmas Day as a kid just by walking through the door. That’s what Ely is, only with summer and nature.
Going up there again, after 8 years, was just an incredible experience. Although, at the beginning, I was pretty frustrated. Our favorite lake to fish was just not as good as it used to be. To me, it felt like those memories were fading, being tainted by something we couldn’t control. It took a bit to get over, but we still caught some nice fish, then moved on to the beautiful Burntside Lake nearby. We did our best to recreate what it was like before COVID-19 - mainly, making sure we got Northern Expressions ice cream.
As I returned this time, although my main focus was rippin’ lips, I spent a ton of time with photography. I had two shots I really wanted to get - a Black Bear and an Eagle. I was so incredibly lucky to get shots of both; however the Eagle was too distant to make anything of it, and I barely salvaged the Bear pictures.
This was the first time I was really giving Wildlife photography a try. I have done tons of landscapes, portraits, and culture, but never wildlife. My grandparents were generous enough to let me borrow their 140-600mm lens to at least give me a chance at capturing some wildlife. Being a landscape and portrait photographer until now, I didn’t have the right equipment.
It was the morning of the second day. My dad and I were fishing on Eagles Nest Lake Number 2 and had not been having a ton of luck. It was about 7:30-8am and I heard my dad whisper “Bear”. Now, keep in mind, for the past several days I had been mentioning trying to get a picture of one every second I talked. The odds of seeing one, though, in an adequate environment, were very slim. My heart dropped. I turned around. Sure enough, the largest Black Bear I had ever seen was not 20 feet away from the boat. Before going out on the water, I checked all my settings to make sure I was ready in the moment. So, after seeing it, I very “stealthily” (the quotation marks indicate sarcasm) went to get the camera out of my backpack. I opened it up and the lens cap just popped off. I believe my remark was “well that’s convenient”. One of the rules of photography I have been taught is that once your settings are right, just point and shoot. Don’t look at your LCD screen and check everything, just go. The bear was in the perfect environment. It was in the wild, no human traces, the light was spotlighting him, it was perfect. Well, when I took my camera out (it’s not the camera I typically use, but it’s what the lens worked with) I bumped my shutter speed to some astronomic number. Every single picture was severely underexposed. Luckily I was able to salvage some, but I was very frustrated. The best shots were ruined because of my inexperience. I was given the opportunity and I blew it. But, that’s wildlife photography. I can promise you I won’t forget to double check my settings any time soon.
This trip was just great. It brought me back to my roots and reminded me why I love the outdoors so much. It also provided me with stepping stones to a new type of photography I’m going to be chasing for the rest of my life.
The Midwest's Last Frontier
There are very few places in the United States that offer a true wilderness experience. One of those places - Ely, Minnesota.
The Hallmark Movie North Woods town lies within Superior National Forest, as well as the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area. However, the history of the incredible place dates back long before the national forest and canoe area were created - approximately 2.7 billion years ago.
Greenstone (a descriptive word for unique igneous rock) still can be seen throughout the city limits. This geological time capsule has served as a key player in helping biologists and geologists discover the natural creation of the land. The area sits on the Canadian Shield. This is an exposed region of Precambrian (the first geological time period of Earth) igneous and metamorphic rock. It’s one of the few places the actual geological core of North America can be seen. In other words, everything there is super, super, super old. And atop the Canadian Shield, glaciers. That is until about 17,000 years ago when the last glacial retreat occurred in the Northern Minnesotan Region. These glaciers were instrumental players in creating the thousands of lakes in the area.
Now, fast forward several thousand years. Some of the first natives to occupy the land were the Chippewa. The Chippewas were roaming across parts of the Northern United States and Southern Canada in hopes to find an area with an abundance of food. Lucky for them, the blueberries in Ely provided more than enough nutrition for their liking. The people then settled in the area. Still to this day, the annual Blueberry Festival serves as a reminder that the first peoples to inhabit this land, did so because of the blueberry.
After many years of native civilization, trappers and voyagers made their way into the area in search of furs. This prompted, of course, the first interaction between natives and Europeans recorded in the area. As time progressed, the Chippewas began to move out of the land, though many still stayed.
Then, everything shifted again in 1865 when the first piece of gold was found in Lake Vermilion. Similarly to the notorious California Gold Rush, this drew countless individuals to the region. But to the disappointment of many, the gold was so scarce that the rush ended just a year later. However, with mining infrastructure in place, and the knowledge that iron ore was discovered in 1883, the mining industry shifted focus from gold, to iron. Ely lies on another geological wonder called the Vermillion Range. This range helped boost the local economy. And although it wasn’t gold, many came from far to mine the iron ore. The range was originally shallow enough for open-pit mining. In the years to come, after intense mining, this changed. The companies had to now build deep shaft mines in order to reach the iron. Naturally, this led to safety concerns surrounding mine collapses. In order to protect the workers, companies began logging and milling to prevent collapses, thus kickstarting the logging industry in the area.
With a population boom due to the Vermillion Gold Rush, individuals began to form a community. The name - Florence, not Ely. In the time of the Florence community, the first house was built in 1887, and the first school was built in 1889. It may seem like Florence was way behind in terms of architecture and education, and that would be correct. The first recorded frame house to be built in the “New World” was 1640, and the first school - 1635. Granted, it wasn’t until decades later explorers moved into the area. However, for over a hundred years, the people in the land lived almost completely in and alongside the wilderness.
After settlers began to travel about Minnesota, they discovered the name Florence had already been taken. This led to the name being changed to Ely, after Samuel B. Ely, a Michigan mining executive who never set foot in his namesake town. It was after the town’s name change that slowly, but surely, conservation efforts were put in place, leading to Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
In 1902, the state of Minnesota reserved 500,000 acres of land, followed by another 141,000 acres after officials visited. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into creation Superior National Forest which consisted of the 640,000 acres reserved by the state. The year of 1926 also was a great year for the area. Another 640,000 acres of land were reserved as a part of Superior National Forest. Several years later, the Great Depression swept across the country. The devastating economic situation prompted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the help of Congress, to create the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Civilian Conservation Corps. These programs were both put into place to employ Americans and protect our national lands. It was because of this, many cabins, sites, and amenities were constructed across Superior National Forest. After push from conservationists, President Truman gave an executive order which prohibited the flying of aircraft below 4,000 feet over the last installment of 640,000 acres. This parcel of land was officially named the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 1958, and the current regulations regarding the protected land were signed into affect through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978. Since then, the land has continued to grow in size, now spanning more than 1,090,000 acres.
For 20 years Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area grew and thrived. However on July 4th, 1999, a devastating storm identified as a “Derecho”hit the area. A Derecho is a massive, long-lived, and straight-lined wind storm that can bring crushing effects. The tornado force winds destroyed 370,000 acres of land. At the time, many thought that this storm was finished. Unfortunately, that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Because of that storm causing downed timber, which then became dried and highly-flammable, a series of wildfires would break out in the area over the next 12 years: 2005 - 1,335 acres burned, 2006 - 30,000 acres burned, 2007 - 76,000 acres burned, 2011 - 92,000 acres burned. The last wildfire was so large, the smoke was tracked moving westward from the Ely area, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to Chicago, to Ontario, To Poland, then to the Ukraine, and finally, all the way to Russia. Parts of the region are still recovering from the over 569,000 acres that were destroyed in a 12 year period. Since these disasters, more and more fire suppression practices have been put in place.
Billions of years have shaped the Ely area to be what it is today - one of the last true wildernesses in the United States. From Precambrian rock, to some of the most devastating wildfires in United States history, this region has captured generations of families and outdoor enthusiasts by taking them back in time. When in the North Woods, people are not connected to the outside world, they are one with nature - exploring, surviving, and canoeing.