How to Catch a Great Michigan Sunset

One of the questions I get asked the most—next to “what is it you do exactly?”—is “how do I get a good sunset picture?” Luckily, I have a few tips for catching a good sunset, and most of them are pretty easy! Here are a few things to keep in mind:

The Sun Sets in the West

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Okay, so this one seems obvious, but there have been times when I have completely envisioned watching the sunset over a lake only to realize the lake/beach in question does not at all face west. Moreover, the sun sets more to the North or more to the South depending on the time of year, so be sure to keep in mind exactly where the sun is setting.

Sun Set Time

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Sunset time is usually available online, but keep in mind that the 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after can also have some pretty dramatic clouds.

Watch the Weather

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Speaking of clouds, partly cloudy days tend to yield the coolest sunsets—storms can also lead to a pretty dramatic show, but can be a little more unpredictable. In general, clear cloudless days won’t lead to a crazy sky, and on completely cloudy days you might not catch the sunset at all.

Clearings and Elevation

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If you can get up high or somewhere clear, you get less of the sky blocked by trees and more foreground. This is good especially for photography, because a strong foreground makes an image a lot more interesting.

Find Water

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Reflections of sunsets are often almost as good as the sunsets themselves, and lakes, rivers and ponds are the ideal spots for this. Different water holds light differently, so there is something new to appreciate every time.

 

So where do I like to catch a sunset from?

Overlook No. 9

In the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Overlook No. 9 puts you 450 feet above Lake Michigan looking out to the West. 

Alden, Michigan

Torch Lake’s waters range from glassy Caribbean blue to stormy, but either way the small town of Alden is a beautiful place to take a dip and watch the sunset from the marina.

From a Kayak

Don't know about you, but I am so ready for a lake day this weekend 😊

A post shared by Maddy Marquardt (@maddymarq) on

There’s nothing like a sunset from the water, particularly when there’s no one but otter and eagles for miles around. This sunset picture was taken at the Big Island Lakes Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula, but watching the sunset from a boat anywhere can be phenomenal.

The Coves

Hidden in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this area off the North Country Trail has some of the best swimming in Michigan as well as the best sunsets if you are willing to brave the Lake Superior cold.

The Side of the Road Somewhere

The best sunsets I have ever seen I’ve caught pulled over on the side of the road or driving somewhere—like this sunset off the side of a road near Grayling, MI.

What great sunset spots did I miss? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know or reach out to me through Instagram!

 

Sleeping Bear Moods: A Photo Essay

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s got clear blue water, rivers and forests, some of the best beaches in the world, and of course, the dunes themselves.

In the summer, the water is warm enough to swim and the beaches fill up. Fall sees the leaves change color, and by winter most tourists have filtered out, and the park becomes a snowshoe and cross country ski play ground.

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Sunset from over Lake Michigan from Overlook 9 in July, looking like something out from Planet Earth.

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The same overlook in the winter, with South Manitou Island obscured by snow and fog, small human for scale.

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Overlook 9, basking in that post sunset purple glow.

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Looking down into the water from the tops of the Empire Bluffs Trail in August, Lake Michigan looks practically tropical!

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The Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point, a short mile hike up to a bluff over Lake Michigan.

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Otter Creek flows into Esch Road beach on a still, cloudy day in October. In the summer, this beach is teeming with people, but as soon as September hits the crowds filter out.

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The flowers in early June at the top of the Empire Bluffs Trail on a cloudy day.

 

The North Bar Lake Overlook in fall, winter, and summer– in the fall, spring, and summer you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive out to this overlook, but in the winter you have to cross country ski or snowshoe.

 

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At Point Betsie, the wind kicks up turquoise waves.

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Colors change out over the D.H. Day Farm, looking out from the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

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Winter and windy vibes out over Lake Michigan.

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Empire Bluffs looking bright and hot in late August.

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Up close and personal with fall leaves.

2017’s Greatest Misadventures: On the Water, Trail, and Road

2017 has been an eventful year for me. I had the opportunity to experience some really amazing things, from interning at the Kellogg Biological Station to playing around in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Glacier National Park. Social media tends to give the impression that all things—travel, our personal lives, camping—are always fun and easy, not ever super embarrassing.

I assure you this is false. For every awesome experience I had, a tent leaked, or I ended up leading a group friends down the wrong trail, or I made myself look like an idiot. (Okay, the last one happens more often than not.)

So, in order to fully appreciate 2017 in all her beauty and grace, I have complied a list of my most ridiculous, humiliating, and funny travel/outdoor stories and misadventures from 2017.

The time we ran for a flight

On the way back from a family trip to Whitefish, Montana, my dad, two younger sisters, younger brother and I all found ourselves running through the Salt Lake City airport to try and catch a flight back to Detroit.

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Me, my three younger siblings, and our dad shortly before our airport run (photo by mom)

Our previous flight out of Portland had been delayed, and we had about five minutes to make it across the airport once the plane landed to catch our next flight. We looked ridiculous (but like, relatable) running through the airport, and even more ridiculous when we ended up making the flight and all high fiving each other, but I don’t think I have ever been happier to be anywhere in my life than I was to be on that plane.

The time we could not find the trailhead, so we got lunch instead

In early January 2017, my sister Claire and I went out to go find and snowshoe the Brown Bridge Quiet Area near Traverse City, Michigan, but for the life of us we could not find the trailhead. Both Apple and Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t figure it out from the map I had saved to my phone.

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Brown Bridge Quiet Area

Eventually, we found a trailhead that we thought (incorrectly) was the trail we were looking for, and snowshoed there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cold and we were lost. We packed up, and rather than workout, we opted for sandwiches.

The time I forgot my stupid camera battery

I think I reached peak self-loathing when I screwed my camera into my tripod at Torch Lake for sunset, went to turn it on and nothing happened. Because I had forgot my camera battery. On the table. Three hours south. For better or worse, I went without a camera for the remainder of that trip.

I missed out on a lot of photos by not having my DSLR, tripod, and telephoto lens, but I did pick up quite a few things about how to get the most out of a phone camera, and I got to hike a lot lighter had way more room in my pack for extra food.

The time some fisherman thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a bass and bluegill  

This one is my favorite.

I was out paddle boarding alone on a small lake near Bellaire, Michigan when I stopped to make small talk with some guys who were fishing. They were probably in their late 20s, and seemed nice enough.

I told them that if you go around the next bend, and then stick to the West side of the lake until it narrows, it’ll open up into a smaller cove that has lots of fish; not many people fish there, because it’s harder to find.

One of the men narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Were the fish long and fat or short and small?”

I frowned for a second, not really sure what he was asking, until I realized he literally was asking if I knew that they weren’t fishing for bluegill. I tried not to laugh.

 Unreal, I thought to myself.

“There are large and smallmouth bass, and there should be some trout too. The DNR stocks the lake.”

The time I ate a fistful of Lake Michigan pebbles

I knew this one was going to be embarrassing long before I got anywhere near the water. My friend Kasidy and I had decided to try out Lake Michigan surfing through Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.

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The sort of pebbles I would be eating

I took one look at the nine foot boards, the two-foot surf, and the line of rocks just beneath where the waves were breaking, and could see exactly where this was going. We had a great day— both of us ended up getting up for more than five seconds at a time, and I took some of the least graceful falls of my life.

The best part of this was when I was sitting out in the water, straddling the board, I turned into a small—and I do mean small—wave. The wave pushed the board up under me and smacked me clean in the nose, cutting me off mid-sentence. Real cute.

Doing that stupid Dune Climb again

There is no hike in the world I have as deep a resentment for as the Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb. It’s only about four miles out to the Lake and back, and it’s a sort of inaugural, very “Michigan” hike, but four miles up and down over hot sand is kind of the worst.

This spring, early enough that we thought maybe it would still be cool out (wrong), my good friend/roommate Hannah and I went out to tackle the hike and “initiate” her to Michigan. Han is an Illinois native, but she’s spent the last four years living in the good old mitten state.

Nothing super eventful or particularly embarrassing happened, I just included this because I want you all to know how much I hate that hike.

The time we couldn’t find parking in Glacier

There’s a pretty clear lesson here, and it’s two-fold. The first part is that you’re better off visiting national parks in the off-season; the second is do your research. When visiting Glacier National Park, my family spent almost two hours aimlessly driving the crowded Going-to-the-sun Road after trailhead parking in the Avalanche Lake area was too full—we got up earlier then next day, getting into the park at 7am instead of 11am, and had no trouble at all and the park nearly to ourselves.

The times we didn’t see stars at dark sky park

This was a regularly occurrence for my friends and I in 2016 as well as 2017. There have been several occasions where we have trekked out to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and had clouds and no sky at all.

Clearly, we haven’t really learned any lesson here, because we keep doing it, but we always have a good time up on the beach.

The time we almost literally died

(This is an overstatement.)

This August, when on an early hike through Glacier National Park, my father, sister and I spotted a grizzly across the Lake from us. There were a few other people at the lake, and the bear was probably a hundred yards away, which was really too close.

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The freaking bear through a telephoto lens, before we realized it was a grizzly

We booked it out of there pretty darn quick. The bear probably wasn’t interested in us, and bears don’t really seek out humans, but grizzlies are fast, huge, and not something to mess with.

The time I sunburned exactly one shoulder

 I love kayaking, and being on the water period, and because of that I always end up staying out longer than I really planned to. On this particular occasion, my dad and I were out on Torch Lake one morning, and decided to paddle South to the mouth of the Torch River—about a 6 mile trip.

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Torch Lake and the tip of my kayak

I realized about halfway back that not only did I forget sunscreen, but because we headed back around noon, the left side of my body had been facing the sun the entire trip. I’ll leave the burn lines to your imagination.

The time we got followed

This misadventure is less fun, but still important.

Last March, my friend and I were hiking at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, when some men, probably not much older than us, caught up to us at an overlook started whispering to each other and looking at us. We didn’t think much of it at first, and quickly moved onto the next overlook to give them some space, thinking that they were waiting for us to leave. Rather than stay at the overlook a normal amount of time, they immediately followed us, continuing to whisper and look our way.

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Not pictured: creeps about to follow us back up here

Maybe they weren’t talking about us, and maybe they didn’t mean to follow us, but sometimes you just get a bad vibe, and better safe than sorry.

I pointed out their behavior to Estee and we turned and went back to the previous overlook. They followed again. At this point, we turned and walked quickly back to the car, the two men following us the entire way. The parking lot itself was crowded with other hikers and tourists, and they went to their own car. We hung out there for a while, waiting for them to drive off first.

There’s a lesson here, and it isn’t about us being paranoid, or about how women shouldn’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you are a male, and you are interested in a female in any setting, be aware that while you may think behavior you exhibit is harmless, it can still seem threatening. This is not an attack. I’m telling you this because if you are actually interested in someone, you should respect them enough to not want them to feel threatened and behave accordingly.

As a general rule, talking to someone is 100% less threatening and creepy than following them.

The time I let the 15-year-old drive

On our way up to camp at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, my brother reminded me that I promised he could practice driving once we got off the highway. He had had his learner’s permit for a while, and was objectively already a pretty good driver.

I handed him the wheel, and started going through our trail plans for later in the day.

“Hey when do I turn?” Joe asked.

“Um, it should be a right at the next intersection.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, totally,” I lied.

So while I was deep in a trail guide, Joe made a right onto some small, flooded seasonal road. We hit a pothole and I looked up.

“Are you sure this is right?” he asked.

“Let me see the map.” It sure looked like this road got us where we wanted to go, and I was fairly confident my car could handle it.

We drove down the sketchy seasonal road for about five more minutes before it narrowed and I had Joe turn around and head back to the highway. After that, we abandoned iPhone directions and stuck to the Michigan road map.

The time I almost got frostbite

 The original misadventure, and the first post I wrote,  was probably the dumbest thing I did all year.

Rather than drive to the shoreline at the Headlands Dark Sky Park, Estee and I opted to walk a mile in. We had been out in the cold hiking all day, and weren’t too worried about the temperature. Nevertheless, we piled on a few blankets and extra layers.

Lake Michigan was frozen and beautiful, and the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen. My mistake was forgetting that once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quite a bit. That, and letting snow melt into my boots, soaking my socks. (I had a spare pair. Soaked those too.)

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Sunset at Headlands Dark Sky park, not featuring my frozen feet

I didn’t realize I couldn’t feel my feet until I stood up and we started to pack up for the walk back. Then my feet started to burn—not just tingle, and not even feel cold. My feet felt burnt, like I had accidently stepped in the campfire. Burnt and bruised—It hurt to walk, and we had a good mile to walk back to the car.

Lucky for me and very lucky for my toes, we ran into a nice couple who offered to drive us back to my car. I was in pretty bad shape; Estee had taken both my bag and hers, and was helping me walk; we were happy for the ride.

In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story, though at the time I was mostly just embarrassed that I hadn’t planned better.

Since then, I’ve been more careful about the cold, but even more so about the wet; it’s one thing to be cold, but being wet can lead to hypothermia and frostbite a whole lot faster.

 

Got any misadventures, or just adventures from this year? I’d love to hear them! Write in the comments below or shoot me a message. Wishing everyone a safe end to 2017, and a great start to 2018! May you avoid all frostbite.

 

 

Six Ways to Make the Most of Your Phone Camera

A little over a year ago I invested in a DSLR camera as I got more into photography. I poured myself into online blogs, Outdoor Photographer magazine, and outdoor Instagram accounts to figure out how to make the most of said camera and how to become a “photographer”.

And I learned a lot— I learned about ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure. What I learned more than all of the technicalities is that a lot of photography, rather most of photography, is not about the camera. It’s more about the light, the rule of thirds, angles, editing, and luck.

A nice camera like a DSLR will give you a higher quality image, more creative freedom, and the ability to shoot in low light, but that doesn’t mean that your smartphone can’t crank out good images. They say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and I tend to agree.

I have used my phone to take pictures when I didn’t have access to my camera (the time I forgot my camera battery), or brought the wrong lens, or didn’t have time to pull my camera out of my bag.

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This photo was taken early in the morning on my phone when I realized I brought a telephoto lens that wouldn’t fit the canoe in the image. Oops.

Learn the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the idea of dividing a photo, or any art, into thirds in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing. This applies in a few ways. It can apply to the placement of the horizon line—you could have 2/3 of a photo be sky, or 1/3. It can apply to foreground as well in the same way. The rule of thirds also applies to photo subjects as well— you can shoot to have a subject take up about a third of a photo, or sit at a certain third. Usually, I tend to go either for dead center or off to one side.

In the photo above, shot on an iPhone 5s, I placed the horizon line in the top third of the photo, and centered the canoe, with roughly one third of the image on either side of the canoe.

 

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Taken in the backcountry of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, iPhone 5s

Look for Light

Lighting is one of the best things about photography and I will stand by that statement—any subject can be interesting in the right light. I took this photo on the aforementioned old iPhone, with a cracked screen, but it did the trick.

About an hour before sunset, the “golden hour” rays light up the conifers, the water, and the rocks and made for a good photo despite the lack of DSLR.

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Straighten Your Horizon Line

See that line, where the sky meets the sea? STRAIGHTEN IT. This is my single biggest photo pet peeve—lopsided horizon lines. This photo doesn’t have nearly the same effect with the horizon line askew.

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Trinity College Dublin, after a rainstorm, taken before I knew what DSLR meant

Learn What Editing Can Do for You

This one is an old photo, from well before I got a “real” camera and knew anything about photography. Through Adobe Lightroom, my editing tool of choice, I was able to make this photo more striking than before.

On this particular photo I…

  • Decreased the luminance of the blue in the sky, which intensifies the blue
  • Used the “sharpen” tool to increase pixel definition. The sharpen tool is can sort of “fake” a higher quality when it comes to smartphone photos
  • Decreased the “lights” and increased the “darks”. This takes parts of the photo that are overexposed and darkens them, while lightening up parts that were in shadows
  • Straightened the horizon line (see previous)

In hindsight, I think that the red jacket is a little too bright, and the buildings have a blue cast, which I could remove in Lightroom by selectively decreasing the saturation of the color blue or purple.

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Taken near Stonehenge, England, back when I thought filters were super cool

Go Easy on the Filters

On the subject of lackluster editing, check out the number I did on this circa 2015 photo of a field of poppies. Crooked horizon line (ew I hate it), the red is a little intense, and the blue of the sky is obviously the Instagram filter “clarendon”.

As a rule now, I try and keep my edits minimal. If I am going to increase vibrance or put a certain cast on a photo, I only do so about approximately 10-15%. Any more than this and generally a photo will look hyper-edited.

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Out a plane window this summer, camera stowed in a carry on

Be Flexible

For this photo out a plane window near Salt Lake City, I leaned over my youngest sister and took exactly one photo. It could’ve turned out better, and I would’ve like to have taken multiple shots, but sometimes you just play with the cards you’ve been dealt.

 

Overall, none of these are steadfast rules, just suggestions based on my limited experience. If hyper-edited is your style, go for it! Experiment some. Some people are purists, who don’t edit photos at all—more power to them! Some people like wild horizon lines, and the rule of thirds isn’t really a rule at all. Plus, at the end of the day, I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Further resources: