Paul Sundberg was torn. Skilsaw in hand, he headed for his garage to work on a project one fall morning a few years ago.
But the Grand Marais photographer had heard about some moose hanging out near the end of the Gunflint Trail. He thought maybe he should drive up there and look for them.
“Four times, I resisted the urge,” Sundberg said. “Finally, I put the Skilsaw down.”
He drove nearly 60 miles to the end of the Gunflint Trail. He found the moose and made one of his most memorable wildlife images—a bull, a cow and a calf moose all together.
That kind of persistence has allowed Sundberg to capture remarkable images of northwoods wildlife, along with dramatic landscape and big-wave photos along Minnesota’s North Shore.
Over the years, the former park manager at Gooseberry Falls State Park has developed a faithful following for his work in addition to commercial success.
Every Monday, he posts a “Photo of the Week” gallery on his website and shares it with more than 500 who follow his work through email notifications. Last year, his website had 3.1 million photo views. His photos of a North Shore storm pounding waves on the rocks tallied 60,000 hits in a single day.
In addition, Sundberg teaches photography workshops at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais and with fourth-graders at William Kelley Elementary School in Silver Bay, Minn.
“He’s phenomenal,” said Linda Kratt with Visit Cook County, the tourism bureau with which Sundberg has shared much of his work. Some of his photos helped garner Grand Marais the title of “America’s Coolest Small Town 2015” from Budget Travel magazine.
Sundberg, 66, retired in 2010 after a 40-year career with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the last 28 as manager of Gooseberry Falls State Park. While with the DNR, he shared many of his photos with the agency’s Parks and Trails Division. In 2007, Sundberg was presented the DNR’s Mission Award for his generous contribution of photos to promote state parks.
An affable guy who cackles when he laughs, Sundberg sold his first photo—a loon with two chicks on its back—in 1976.
“After that, I thought, ‘I guess I can sell pictures,’ ” he said. “I could never have made a living at it, but I did make money, so I could do traveling.”
Spending a lot of time outdoors, he understands the cycles of life in the north woods. He knows when the loon chicks will be hatching and where he’s likely to come across migrating waterfowl. He monitors weather forecasts so he can anticipate the days when big winds will drive waves into cliffs along the North Shore. Friends and neighbors often tip him off to locations of fox dens and other wildlife.
Mostly, he’s out there himself, on the look for dramatic images.
“I do try to take photos every day while I’m home,” Sundberg said. “The fact that we live next to (Boundary Waters) wilderness helps, and there’s a pond behind the house where ducks come in the spring.”
Sundberg’s images are used regularly by Lake Superior Magazine, the Boundary Waters Journal and in North Shore tourism promotions. In five recent years, Sundberg’s photos have been selected to illustrate Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center’s fundraising calendars.
“We love his work,” said Peter Smerud, executive director of the center. “The images create a feeling for the North Shore and north woods that support our mission of education with children.”
“A good portion of great photography is not your equipment,” said Lake Superior Magazine editor Konnie LeMay. “It’s being where you need to be at exactly the right time and being able to take advantage of the moment. Paul sets himself up to be in the right place, and he has the skills to deliver.”
Every Monday morning
Sundberg’s “Photo of the Week” on his website is typically a collection, not a single photo.
“A lot of people say it’s the first email they want to open on Monday morning,” Sundberg said.
They might find images of ice-entombed North Shore vegetation, northern lights swirling in reflection on a backcountry lake or a bald eagle on its nest—with an ore boat behind it on Lake Superior.
If Sundberg and his wife, Karla, have been on the road, Monday’s gallery might include a sinuous highway winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains near Great Smoky Mountains National Park or sun-drenched arches in the Southwest’s canyon country.
Sundberg first began sharing photos in his Photo of the Week in 2003 or 2004, at the request of a friend. His email list quickly grew.
The most popular images? Lake Superior storm photos top that list—big waves, lighthouses. Close behind are Lake Superior sunrises and sunsets, wildlife, northern lights and canoe-country images.
Richard Fortunato, a former Grand Marais resident who’s now with the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington, subscribes to Sundberg’s “Photo of the Week.”
“The majority of the country, when they hear about Minnesota, they hear about International Falls being the coldest place on the planet,” Fortunato said. “I enjoy seeing (Sundberg’s photos). It gives me the opportunity to show other people that Minnesota is not all cold and freezing.”
Persistence pays off
The best images don’t come easily, Sundberg said.
“You have to go back with any nesting wildlife,” he said. “I never get the pictures I want the first time.”
He once went back to a cooperative loon’s nest day after day, waiting for its two eggs to hatch.
“The day it happened, I probably sat in front of her nest for six hours,” Sundberg said. “This was like the eighth day I went back. That morning, I knew they were getting close to hatching out.”
When he made an image of a freshly hatched chick peering out from under its mama’s wing, the chick wasn’t 2 hours old, he said. The next morning he was back to capture the two chicks’ first ride on their mother’s back.
Sundberg several years ago learned to call moose so he could attract lovestruck bulls during mating season. He has gotten some amazing shots, occasionally under dicey circumstances. A bull moose is an imposing—and sometimes unpredictable—creature with mating on his mind.
“He starts coming, and you wonder if this is a good idea,” Sundberg said with his characteristic laugh. “Moose-calling for photography is definitely the most adrenaline-producing thing I’ve been through. … You can’t outrun a moose.”
Passing it on
Sundberg enjoys sharing his love of photography and is free with tips for aspiring photographers. A 10-year-old named Sophie saw his photos of wood ducks in spring plumage and wanted to go with Sundberg to his blind. One spring evening, they went.
“We got into the blind just before sunset, and shortly, the ducks started to fly in,” Sundberg said. “Seeing all those beautifully colored male wood ducks at one time really made a huge impression on her. Her eyes were filled with wonder.”
When they were through, Sophie told Sundberg the experience had been the “best day of my life.”
Sundberg takes part of his personal philosophy from an older gentleman he once knew, he said.
“He told me the three things you need in life to be happy,” Sundberg said. “Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.”
He has all three, he said.
“Your family is there to love,” Sundberg said, “and there’s always going to be something to do. Mine is photography. And when you do something like that, there’s always something to look forward to.”
For more photos
To see more of Paul Sundberg’s photos, go to paulsundbergphotography.com. To sign up for Sundberg’s “Photo of the Week,” contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.