These wild, majestic lakescapes were selected as a finalist in the Open category of the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlight award winners.

I chose to focus on Lake Erie at a time of year when the Great Lakes often act more like oceans than lakes. With the warm, sunny, beach days of summer behind us, it is during autumn’s darkest, coldest and windiest days that the Great Lakes are transformed into wickedly wild and treacherous bodies of water.

Masses of cold, arctic air push southward and collide with the warmer air above the lakes. This creates the perfect conditions for massive wind storms. These conditions are often referred to as “The Gales of November” or ”The Witch of November.”

The waves at this time of year can be an amazing display of Mother Nature’s power and a photographer’s dream to capture. I can best describe the scene like a giant washing machine. There is no pattern to the waves: they move and explode in unpredictable ways, often colliding into one another and creating spectacular explosions of water. With winds reaching speeds of 70 mph (Category 1 on the hurricane scale), these powerful winds generate waves that reach heights of 20’-30’.

These movements of water are large and powerful enough to send ocean freighters to a watery grave at the bottom of the lakes.

It is often a challenge to capture these brief moments in time—but a welcome challenge. I have to anticipate; if I try to react, the moment is already gone. With water temperatures just above freezing point and air temperature not much higher, the conditions are not easy. Sand rips through the air like a giant-sized sand blaster pointed right at me. Waves come from any direction and without warning.

I not only have to outfit myself with the proper gear, I also must be mentally prepared for the battle at hand. Leaving home at 4:30 AM and returning 8-10 hours later, I am exposed to the elements all day long. But mind over matter is a major component in dealing with it all. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, the elements can beat me down.

Still, by working hard, I have come away with some very unique captures of the waves. The final results make every bone-chilling moment worth the effort.

—Dave Sandford