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Photo story: The saga of one sunrise in Duluth, and a magical moment nearly missed

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Sunrise over Lake Superior in Duluth
The sun rises above Lake Superior and the North Pier lighthouse in Duluth on July 31, 2019.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

I love watching sunrises. I love being in Duluth. And I really, really love being in Duluth to watch a sunrise over Lake Superior.

But in summer, it still can be difficult to force yourself out of bed in the predawn darkness on a day off to catch the break of day over the big lake. 

You don't want to get to a viewpoint right as the sun pokes above the horizon; you need to get there 30, 45, even 60 minutes ahead of time, to be assured of catching the most vivid color in the sky, and the full range of color as twilight gives way to the new day.

On July 31, sunrise in Duluth was at 5:47 a.m. — that meant getting up before 4:30 a.m. to get into position along the Lake Superior shore.

And so I did, making the drive down the hill on Lake Avenue and across Interstate 35 into Canal Park.

On that morning, an added bonus: A big freighter was motoring across the calm waters of Lake Superior toward the Aerial Lift Bridge.

After the Paul R. Tregurtha glided through the ship canal — it can be startling, how quietly those massive ships move when the lake is calm — the sky started to fill with color.

In search of a different perspective for photos, I ventured out onto the Lift Bridge, looking toward the North Pier lighthouse. Thinking back, I was very focused on that lighthouse — timing my photos to make sure the flashing red light was showing, hoping it wouldn't shut off (it goes dark during the day, with the shutoff happening right around sunrise).

I kept snapping photos and didn't notice the tiny figure moving in from the right, way out at the end of the canal…

Colorful clouds fill the sky above Lake Superior
Colorful clouds fill the sky above Lake Superior and the North Pier lighthouse in Duluth on July 31, 2019, as a lone paddleboarder makes their way into the ship canal from the right.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Convinced I had exhausted the possibilities from that spot (and not wanting to get scolded by the bridge operator for loitering), I walked back down off the bridge. I was heading to another spot when I glanced over at the canal and finally, finally noticed that lone paddleboarder out on the orange-hued, still water. In an instant I knew — that was going to be a great photo, and I needed to hustle back out on the bridge to get it.

I rushed to the center of the span as the paddleboarder tracked down the middle of the canal, and this was the shot...

Credit to Mother Nature and the paddleboarder for this photo; I was just there as an observer.

And it should be noted — all of this took place before the sun ever made its appearance above the horizon. That came a few minutes later, as seen in the photo atop this piece. 

Over the years I've learned it time and time again: When dawn breaks over Lake Superior in Duluth, before the summer crowds fill Canal Park, it's a good bet that you'll get to witness a magical moment. You just have to make sure you're paying attention.

Andrew Krueger is weekend editor for MPR News; find more of his photography on Twitter, @akpix.

Are you the paddleboarder in the photo? Do you know who it might be? If so, send a note to akrueger@mpr.org.