Posted by: Stefan Anderson | September 2, 2014

Smithsonian Exhibit includes work by Jeff Rennicke

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

Tomorrow marks the opening of the photographic exhibit “Wilderness Forever: 50 Years of Protecting America’s Wild Places” at the Smithsonian in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. On its website the Wilderness Institute describes the exhibit:

September 2014 will mark 50 years since the passage of the Wilderness Act-one of America’s most successful and enduring pieces of conservation legislation. To celebrate this milestone, Wilderness50, Nature’s Best Photography, and the Smithsonian Institution will showcase an exhibit of juried photography highlighting the beauty, diversity, and longevity of America’s wilderness. The exhibit, titled “Wilderness Forever: 50 Years of Protecting America’s Wild Places” will open on September 3, 2014 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Conserve School is proud to announce that Jeff Rennicke’s photograph, Northern Lights, has been selected as one of 64 photographs from 5,500 entries to be part of this prestigious exhibit. Here is Jeff’s description of how he caught this amazing moment on film.

It is a picture of Honeymoon Rock at the north end of Basswood Island in the Apostle Islands off the shore of Bayfield, WI where I’ve had a home since 1989. For years I dreamed of doing a shot of the stars over Honeymoon Rock. But it is 3 miles out from Bayfield and I’d have to get there in the dark. I also knew I’d have to stand chest deep in the cold water of Lake Superior to get it and the lake would need to be dead still (which rarely happens) so that I could have my tripod actually IN the lake with my camera just a few inches above the water line. If it were wavy, my camera would get ruined or move during the 30 second exposure. A lot of things – clear skies, calm seas, warm temperatures, the ability to go 3 miles out on to dangerous Lake Superior in the dark – would all have to come together if the shot was going to work.

One summer night two years ago, things seemed to be lining up. I asked my friend Mike Radtke who is the captain of the Madeline Island Ferry Line and knows the waters around Bayfield as well as anyone, if he’d be willing to take me out on to the lake in his private boat around midnight. He said “sure.” As it turned out, I also had two former students, alumni of Conserve School who happened to be visiting me that night in Bayfield and they too wanted to come along.

Around midnight, we loaded his small boat and took off in the pitch black into the Apostle Islands. Again, not something I recommend but Mike Radtke knows these islands well. We got near where Honeymoon Rock should be but it was SO pitch black we could not see anything and had to inch our way along, peering into the blackness, by starlight. Suddenly, the northern lights came out, lit up the night, and we could see we were just a few yards from the Rock. I had my cameras ready and without hesitation stepped off the boat into the dark water. Luckily, because I had been there so often, I knew the water was only chest deep at this spot. I quickly set up my camera on a tripod just inches above the water. I had preset the camera to the setting I thought I’d need for a 30-second exposure and prefocused because I knew I’d have to do it fast, and clicked the shutter. With my free hand, I held a handheld flash and gave the Rock one quick flash of light during the 30 second exposure.

It was like waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. I could see the northern lights blazing overhead, stars peeking through. The lake was calmer than I’d ever seen it. Then, as the exposure ended, standing chest deep in the water, I saw this image appear.

It was like a dream come true. I hope the photograph depicts the beauty of the Apostle Islands, the wonder of the night sky, the reason we need wild places free from the lights of cities so that we can all stand with our heads bowed back to the heavens, mouth open, and wonder. And as difficult as it was to get this shot, I hope no one thinks a moment about what it took to create because they are only seeing the beauty.

You can find more of Jeff Rennicke’s photography on his website: Included below are a few more pictures of the Northern Lights that Jeff has taken at Conserve School over the past few years. It is our hope that the students of Conserve School semester 9 will be treated to the northern lights during their time with us this fall.


Stefan Anderson
Head of School


  1. breathtaking!

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