I should like to start by giving you a piece of advice. A piece of advice that I might now also give myself. This advice came to me by doing exactly what you should NOT be doing. My advice is simply this:
Stay off staircases encapsulated in snow and ice.– Me
ESPECIALLY…if that staircase has 174 (possibly 175) steps.
That’s exactly what I did not do however. Let me tell you why.
As a landscape and travel photographer, I am still very new to the concept of shooting intentionally. It is my belief that one of the first things you do to level up your imagery game, is to visit the same places repeatedly, during different seasons, and in different lighting scenarios.
Some of the best times consistently for the latter, is during sunrise/sunset. Unfortunately, they happen only twice a day and if you don’t live in the area or are on a shorter trip, well, you either make it or you don’t.
On this frigid day in January, I awoke in my vehicle not far from Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. It was dark as I poked my head out from my den of sleeping bags and blankets. There were two valid reasons for such a great darkness. One, was the fact that it was still predawn and all ambient light was low. The second, was that my car was covered with a thick layer of snow.
It took snoozing all three alarms and finally realizing I would miss sunrise if I did not run, to force me awake. The action then came fast and furious. I scraped the inside of the windows off with my AAA membership card. Frosty ice shavings rained down upon me. I threw pants on pants on pants, tugged on tight boots over double layered socks, and pushed snow off the vehicle. My little Mazda 3 continued to impress by plowing her way as the first vehicle out of the lot and off to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
A path through the parking lot here had been opened but not parking spots. I chose the most out of the way place I could find, and wandered into the woods looking for a way down to the lake. I thought I knew where it was but in my early morning rush and inability to read signs, I waffled a bit. The rush to chase the sun was on, even just a couple minutes more and I would miss any chance at sunlight peaking over horizon.
My friends, that, is exactly why I took the stairs.
I had missed sunrise here this fall because of this exact scenario, minus the snow part. Cold, tired, sick, I took the path down and simply ran into a photographer going the other way who had to jab, “Just missed it.” Thanks dude, I wasn’t aware.
Not today. The never-ending staircase had a sign at the top that said it was closed. As it needed to be.
Delicately I stepped over the chain and sign, and made an attempt at a first step. No other steps were needed.
My foot went out from underneath me as I had accounted for, and with padded butt I slid down the stair case.
Normally this is a short lived scenario, but it became apparent quickly it was different here. This was a long staircase between flat platforms, and your rate of speed increased quickly. A wrong foot brake or catching the side of the railings could turn and spin you around fast. With one hand dedicated to a large tripod, there was little I could do to steer and nothing I could do to stop.
In seconds I was at the bottom, scanning for signs of sunrise.
It never showed.
These are the risks we take. I probably shouldn’t speak for anyone else, these are the risks I take. Calculated but still risky.
The rocks under my feet were covered in ice, and the fresh snow did not add much purchase for them or padding for my falls. Using the tripod as a walking stick, I made my way out onto a rock with crashing waves. And I just stood.
It seems a bit ironic. To be looking at one of Minnesota’s most photographed spots, without really knowing it at all. What I mean is that, to photograph this site, your best image comes from showing the lighthouse and its surroundings. What you don’t do, is actually go up and visit the lighthouse itself.
At least, I never really have. This place had been a mystery to me until 2013, when a friend and I quickly pulled in on our way home from a northern winter wedding. Everything seemed to be shut down, so we walked around and checked it out. It wasn’t until years later when I hiked up to it while trekking the Superior Hiking Trail that I found out it was an extra part of the park you had to pay for. At the time I took a pass and hiked trails instead, content to see it from the water’s edge.
Perhaps there is a lesson we can take from the Split Rock Lighthouse. From day to day, year to year, we see each other from a distance. From all different angles even. At work one day or a party some other weekend. Our understanding of one another is shaped by the visions we get from curated imagery, superficial small talk, and quick hugs between destinations. The option to go deeper is there. But it requires an investment. Not necessarily a large one. Just think about what we might gain from paying the entrance fee.
The trail was the best option to return to the parking lot. I thought of how fun it would be for snowshoes or a fat tire bike to get out on some of the park’s other trails. Each park has so much to offer during every season it felt a shame to rush away so quickly. But having experienced and loved much of this park on other trips, I would instead make my move to a new location just down the road in Silver Bay.
You wouldn’t think of a frozen beach to be a winter hot-spot but that is exactly what Black Beach was for me. My attempt to visit the previous fall ended with a closed road. This time only the parking lot was unplowed so I parked on the road. I silently congratulated myself on my boot choice, the calf high snow never stood a chance.
Unlike at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, one person had been here today. A lone pair of tracks marked their entrance and exit of the beach.
For a moment I had a flashback. I saw Iceland, and wondered if I had been transported perhaps? The snow, the black sand, the rock island before me was a disparate scene I could only compare to that of the tiny volcanic island in the Atlantic. But no, I truly was still at home on the shores of Lake Superior.
There was much to see on this unique Superior shore. While Iceland’s beaches are black from volcanic activity, ours was shaded by the dumping of tons and tons of taconite tailings from inland mining. I found icicles that wowed me, and my first frozen lake tree. This took my attention for quite some time, and I forgot about the colorless skies and chilly air.
Word of warning, the next paragraph may make some a bit squeamish.
On the way back to the car I found the footprints of a canine and wondered if it was what I wanted it to be. Could it have been a wolf? The footprints were large and as I followed them they lead me directly to a deer kill on the beach. This had turned into almost a festival for the wildlife. Half covered in snow, tufts of fur and bone had been exposed by the dancing and tearing of birds. A small distance away were larger chunks, likely taken by predators to separate themselves from the main food source. The tracks of the canine came from, and returned to the woods.
Returning to my vehicle, I thought about the sustaining properties of the deer on the beach. It no longer walks in the woods but a great many creatures will now live to see another day thanks to its unintentional sacrifice. If ever there was a silver lining, I suppose that must be it.
Adventure was not done for the day, as I would try my hand at nordic skiing in Tettegouche State Park that afternoon. After a long day of frigid exposure and handfuls of almonds, first, I needed lunch.
Address – 3755 Split Rock Lighthouse Road
Two Harbors, MN 55616
Hours Open – Daily from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Phone – 218-595-ROCK (7625)
Established – 1945
Yearly Visitors – 400,922
Trail Miles – Unsure
Hiking Club – Completed, one of the longer ones and I thought I’d missed the password but it’s definitely there!
Highlights – Split Rock Lighthouse, Gitchi-Gami State Trail, Pebble Beach, shipwreck history
Camping – Tent Camping, Cart-In/Backpacking & Two Kayak, showers early May – early October
Costs – Camping
Activities – Hiking, Snowshoeing, Fat Biking,
Event Calendar – Here