The darkness of night is shrouded in mystery. Fear of the dark is a common phobia, causing our imaginations to run wild, always wondering what could be hiding in the shadows. We envy animals that can see things at night in ways we cannot—at least not without a little help.
Enter Rory Island, owner of Low Light Experiences LLC. Island is your guide to the night, offering hiking and stargazing trips using highly sensitive night vision technology in the Grand Marais area.
“One of my greatest joys is hearing people gasp when they finally get their first look,” Island says of the experience. “Calling (night vision) a superpower is not an overstatement.”
Northeastern Minnesota boasts some of the darkest skies in the world, making it the perfect place to enjoy this unique activity. Originally from the western side of Minnesota, Island moved to the North Shore as a paramedic in 2021. “When I hear people say that Grand Marais is full of ‘lost souls’ who just kind of ended up there, I really relate to that.”
Soon Island developed an interest in night vision. At first, they experimented with DIY equipment using a 3D printer. “I was successful, and they were awful!” Island laughs. Then they decided to take the plunge, and purchased an expensive high-quality unit. “Using it for the first time is something I’ll never forget,” they said, likening it to magic. When an injury kept them out of their usual work, they took their passion to the next level and started their own business. “The stresses of healthcare vs self-employment are very different,” they said, noting it has been an adjustment, and adds, “It’s very rewarding to be able to work for yourself.”
Night vision hiking makes the forest come alive in a new way. Animals are revealed, often snowshoe hares and occasionally deer. In the summertime Island says fireflies look “super cool,” and moths are common. So far, they have yet to see anything more dangerous than a deer. Safety is a priority—a ham radio and first aid kit are brought along every excursion, and Island requires adventurers wear good hiking shoes.
Stargazing with night vision is awe inspiring, as the equipment reveals millions more stars that are otherwise hidden to the naked eye. Island brings a laser on stargazing outings to point out constellations and celestial bodies. Throughout the year, meteor showers and other astronomical events provide unique viewing opportunities, including the northern lights. “They’re so awesome!” Island exclaims. The view is monochromatic so you don’t see a variety of colors, but you can see the dancing display. “Night vision especially shines when the aurora isn’t visible, or is barely visible,” Island says. “There’s been multiple times I could see waves shooting across the sky with night vision but not my eyes, or even my cellphone camera.”
A night vision unit is essentially a “light magnifying device,” Island explains. An image intensifier tube takes photons we can see and converts them to electrons with a photogathode, then that energy is multiplied with a microchannel plate, before eventually being converted back to light via a phosphor screen we can view. Night vision allows us to see all visible light frequencies, including infrared. The technology is so powerful, Island says, “you could see a person illuminated by only their glowing cigarette from hundreds of yards away.” Whether the image is white or green depends on the kind of phosphor used, and each has benefits and drawbacks. You can try both on an excursion with Island and decide which you prefer.
Due to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Low Light Experiences are only available to U.S. citizens at this time. Generation 3 night vision technology was developed by the U.S. military and subject to certain rules, though all U.S. citizens can purchase and own night vision equipment.
Island can take a group of up to three people (age 16+) stargazing, while hiking is currently limited to one person at a time. Experiences are two hours long and tailored to what you’d like to see and do, including any combination of stargazing, hiking, visiting the beach, or even walking through town. Snowshoeing will likely be an option this winter.
There’s still time to join Island for a special stargazing party event during the Dark Sky Festival Dec. 8-9. Visit lowlightex.com for booking and more information, see more photos at lowlightexperiences on Instagram, and enjoy exploring the North Shore like you’ve never seen it before.