Opening Letters

Morning Glory

in a Wisconsin spring, the early bird gets the best show

Justin Patchin, photos by Justin Patchin |

I looked up from my breakfast bowl, which was filled to the brim with milk-soaked Frosted Mini-Wheats, and noticed through the sliding glass door which faces east from our house, through the decades-old white pines a sky so bright red that it gave the impression that the needles had been set aflame. The vibrancy of this pre-dawn color was jolting, especially against the backdrop of early spring drabness.

Every sunrise is different. Some are so vivid with color that they seem as though The Creator went a little overboard with the saturation slider in Photoshop. Others are more muted, but nonetheless special in their own way.

I dropped the spoon atop the miniature bales in the bowl, jumped up from my chair and sprinted for my camera. I paused just briefly to set my dish on the kitchen counter, but continued quickly, determined to record the apparent fire in the sky. I slipped my bare feet into camo rubber boots and grabbed the closest coat that I could find before darting out the door.

It was 6:30am, and the temperature outside was cold enough to complete the already expedited awakening process.

I ran through the back of our yard, down a dozen steps or so to the bank of the Eau Claire River, which abuts the rear of our property. Without hesitation, I continued onto the river. Or at least where the river had previously flowed. Due to the drawdown of Lake Altoona over the winter, the majority of the width of the riverbed had been reduced to sand.

I looked over the landscape, trying to find the best place from which to compose my shot. But I could tell that the show in the sky was already past its prime. It wasn’t nearly as bright as it had been just a few moments earlier. “This will have to do,” I thought to myself and hurriedly jammed the tripod legs into the partially frozen sand. I aimed the aperture of the camera toward the color, above the alders and in an opening between the towering, leafless red oaks lining the river, and I started snapping.

After a couple of shots, I stopped to catch my breath and assess the situation. It was only then that I more carefully checked the camera settings, whereupon I realized that I had forgotten to focus the frame. I fixed that and took a few more shots, but it was over. The opportunity to immortalize Mother Nature’s spectacular ephemeral splendor was gone. At least on this morning.

I love sunrises. Sunsets are great too, don’t get me wrong, but there is something exhilarating about starting the day with unpredictable, impromptu beauty. Every one is different. Some are so vivid with color that they seem as though The Creator went a little overboard with the saturation slider in Photoshop. Others are more muted, but nonetheless special in their own way.

The varied manifestations of morning always inspires me to rise prior to the crack of dawn. The best of it usually occurs while the sun is still well below the horizon. Also, a perfectly clear sky doesn’t normally produce much. What’s needed is just the right concoction of clouds to create a canvas upon which the colors can be cast.

Legend has it that the state of a sunrise can foreshadow what’s in store for the day, at least weather-wise: Should sailors take the proverbial warning? Whether true or not, an amazing sunrise (even – maybe especially – if it includes the mariners’ color of concern) can help to set me on a trajectory whereupon I feel like I can tackle anything the full light of day might throw at me. And many lessons have been learned while out there exposed to the environment. Like how it is important to stop for a second to focus on what you are doing.

The truth is, the first thing I do upon awakening most mornings is look to the sky. On this particular day, I stared out the window, shrugged my shoulders and thought, “There could be something brewing.” And there was. But I went for the cereal instead. As a result, I was late to the party. No worries: Like the bad comic at the Las Vegas club, there’ll be another show tomorrow. Maybe it’ll be great, maybe it won’t. Fortunately, this time of year the sun rises (and sets) at a respectable hour. I encourage you to get out there and start your day with an eye to the sky.