Of sun dogs and sunlit winter mornings in the Apostle Islands

Sundog at the harbor

Peppermint. On mornings this cold – minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill dipping even lower – each breath tingles against your teeth like peppermint. Each step in the new snow squeaks beneath my boots. In cold like this, it takes a strength of will to get out so early but there are rewards too, like what lies in the sky just ahead.

For many of us, the Apostle Islands are a picture-perfect summer postcard kind of place – the “singing sands” beneath your feet in Julian Bay, the sky-blue waves on the horizons, the echo of water dripping like notes played on a harp deep in the sea caves. But winter has beauties all its own and this morning, in this cold, one of those beauties is shimmering in the sky: a sun dog.

Sun dogs over Lake Superior – Jeff Rennicke photos

Meteorologists call them a “mock sun” or a “parhelion” – two arcs of rainbow-like colored light, one on each side of the rising sun. Unlike a rainbow, which is seen by looking at the horizon opposite the sun and is caused by light refracting in water droplets, a sun dog is caused by the refraction of the low-angled sunlight through hexagon-shaped ice crystals drifting in the atmosphere on cold mornings and is seen looking directly into the sun. A sun dog consists of bright spots, often on both sides of the sun, to the left and right, at about a 22-degree angle and situated at the same altitude above the horizon line. They usually have a more subtle coloring than a rainbow and are shaded red at the side nearest the sun with the colors moving further out shading through oranges to a soft blue. Unlike the distinct colors of the rainbow, a sun dog’s colors are usually muted and less distinct.

There is a place for scientific explanations, but on mornings like this with the bright sun shimmering over the sea smoke rising over Lake Superior, it is not science that I think of. I think of wonder, the shining beauty of moments suspended in this cold, and of the awe, even fear, that the sight of sun dogs has instilled in humans throughout the cold mornings of history. Seen as an augury of storms, a sign of treasure gleaming just over the horizon, an omen of victory in battle, sun dogs have appeared not only in the sky but also in the journals of explorers and the paintings of artists for generations reaching as far back as Aristotle. In Greek mythology, they are explained as the dogs of the god Zeus accompanying him on a walk through the sky. 

Whatever their cause or history, sun dogs on a morning after a two-day blizzard, make the sky seem to shimmer, a reason to raise your eyes from the cocoon-like warmth of your parka and turn your eyes to the sky. They are as brief as the morning sun but are also a sight that reminds us that the beauty of a place like the Apostle Islands is not found only in summer, not only in postcards. Sometimes, it is found in a morning wrapped in ribbons of light and color and cold. 


Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.