Last fall I was staying in Red Wing when I got up early to go for a run on the iconic Barn Bluff towering over the river city. The hill wasn’t far from our hotel and seemed like a good place to watch the sun come up.
When I got to the top, the light was still dim, but I was surprised to find a woman there, silhouetted against the morning sky at the eastern overlook. She had a tripod and a camera pointed at the horizon.
Her name was Ellen Lentsch, a 44-year-old aspiring photographer, and it was her 274th consecutive sunrise on the bluff. She had 93 more before she would accomplish her goal: To photograph the sunrise from that same point every day for a year. Her idea was to put them together to be able to see the sun moving across the sky and back again. She also wanted to capture the moment in all its colors and moods and to cast a familiar sight in a new light.
“The world around us,” she says, “we take it for granted. But if we pause a moment and look around, there’s so much beauty right in our own backyard. I want people to see that. I want people to realize this is not an ugly world.”
Lentsch had only been taking pictures for a few years. She started after she and her husband, Jerry, joined a travel club in 2012, going for the first time to places like Costa Rica, Mexico and Hawaii, and opening her own eyes to beautiful places beyond her backyard. As a child, she had moved around according to where her father (a programmer for computer-maker Sperry Univac) was posted: California, Arizona or Canada. But as an adult, she’d lived most of her life in the Twin Cities and Cannon Falls area, working a variety of jobs at factories and other places.
Once Lentsch started traveling, however, she became interested in travel writing and photography. She bought a good camera, took it off auto and started learning how to use it. Soon she realized she needed a big project to help focus her work. On social media, she saw a time-lapse of the sun tracing a figure eight through the sky. That was something she’d never seen before, and it made the daily path of the sun seem strange and new. She wanted to create something like that, and she knew it had to do with sunrises. A friend suggested Barn Bluff (now officially also known by its Mdewakanton Dakota name He Mni Can). Lentsch had watched fireworks and gone on wildflower walks there, and she knew that was the place.
In 2015, she made several attempts, but overslept, or had to leave town, or was interrupted by some kind of distraction. Then on the last night in December 2015, she set out everything she would need to start the next day. In the morning she got up at 4 a.m. but still found herself scrambling, running around, wondering what she’d forgotten. Finally she got to her car, drove 17 miles to the bluff and humped all her gear up the hill, which took her 40 minutes in the snow. She made it, took her shots, and came back down.
The next day, she went back, climbed the hill in the dark, then climbed back down, nearly a mile each way. Again the next day. And the next. Every day, the shoot took a full three hours. Lentsch worked second shift at a company that engraved metal plaques. Sometimes she would get home at 2 a.m., sleep an hour, then hurry off to the hill.
“I thought it was quite ambitious,” said David Anderson, president of Friends of the Bluff, who met Lentsch a handful of times on his own sunrise hikes. “To go up there every day for a year, almost two miles, is not easy.”
And every day, the stakes rose: If she missed a day, the year would be over. One day, lightning flashed directly overhead and she threw herself on the ground. Another time, it rained so hard she had to hold the handrails to keep from being washed away. On days when it was well below zero, she hoped her batteries would work.
Yet for every one of those days, there was a day where she saw a red rainbow over Red Wing, or where the sky was so bright you’d swear it had been painted, or where the sunlight shone through the dew on a hundred spider webs. Lentsch came to know the foxes, the wildflowers and raptors circling overhead. She watched the sudden change from winter to spring, the long slide into summer and then fall, and the hard turn back to winter, as temperatures dropped and the winds rose.
On Jan. 1, 2017, Lentsch climbed the hill, took her last photos, then went home and went to bed. Over the next few days, she slept in. But as nice as that was, she soon began to feel like something wasn’t quite right.
“I missed it,” she said. “I still miss those sunrise walks. I miss the hill. I miss the critters and the flowers and that special moment every morning, where it was just me and the bluffs and the sunrise.”
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.