The Great Marsh

The Wetlands 
There is plenty more to the Indiana Dunes National Park than dunes and Lake Michigan. The largest interdunal watershed in the Lake Michigan area is located here. Called the Great Marsh, this area was once drained to make way for homes and agriculture. In 1998, this area was restored by the park service back to it's original state of a wetland. 

 Visiting the park for many years, I have noticed the trees in the marsh have all but disappeared. Not knowing the story of the area, I figured the wetlands were drained many years ago, and more recently, the area was left to come back to being a marsh. The area flooded again, and the trees that were once growing in dry soil, have since died and are slowly decaying into the swampy area.
  The Great Marsh From The Dunes 
 From the dune ridge trail at Kemil Beach, a portion of the marsh can be seen. I've hiked this trail numerous time and always wanted to walk through the marsh below. For some reason, I failed to realize that the closed portion of Beverly Drive passed through this exact area - it was not easily seen from above. When I realized this, I immediately walked down to the road and followed it through the wetland. 

The road has been closed for at least five years, and in that time nature has begun to reclaim the surface. It makes a great trail for people walking, running, and biking, even though it's not a natural trail. There are a few small channels under the road that connect the two sides of the interdunal wetland, and small wood bridges spanning them to make them passable.
  Taking Back the Wetland 
 I'm not certain what will become of this road - will the park make it a designated trail, or attempt to keep people away from it? For now, it seems to be a popular trail for locals who know the area, and the in's and out's of the old road system.

Developing Storms

Storm to the South While kayaking at sunset, we watched two storms develop in the distance. The first was to the south, and the whispy clouds caught our attention at first. They soon developed into billowing clouds highlighted by the setting sun. After the sun sank below the horizon, the lake and trees darkened, but the storm clouds remained vibrant for quite some time. Lightning could be seen between the clouds, but the storm never came any closer to us. This image was made with four individual photos stitched together side by side. I only had a 100mm lens with me, so a panoramic image was necessary to capture the entire cloud. Beginning of a Storm At the very same time, to the east was an even larger storm developing. Again it was highlighted by the setting sun and never approached us, we remained dry the entire weekend. This panoramic image was created with eight separate images taken with a 100mm lens while sitting in a kayak on the lake. Paddling any time during the day is great, but paddling at sunset and after dark is especially interesting. Our 11pm trips are always inspiring.

Superior Mirage

Superior Mirage 
 While hiking on some dunes near the shore of Lake Michigan, I captured the Michigan City East Pierhead lighthouse from the Central Beach area, a bit more than 2 miles away. The land on the horizon to the left of the lighthouse is over 30 miles in the distance, and generally cannot be seen from this vantage point. Thanks to Google Earth, I determined the land in the center of the image is actually north of Bridgeman, Michigan!

When conditions are perfect, a superior mirage forms, making the land past the curvature of the earth visible, but upside-down. While this mirage was not as perfect as I've seen them, a portion of the land closest to the water is upside-down. In the past, I've seen the entire object in the distance upside-down - including all of the buildings in the Chicago skyline. 

 Because of the optics of a superior mirage, objects that are normally past our view can be seen hovering over the water, forcing plenty of double-takes by visitors to the beach.

Fiddleheads

Backlit Fiddlehead 
 Each Spring, I look forward to visiting the woods, the prairie, and the wetlands to watch life "wake up." One of the more interesting things for me to find are fern fiddleheads. Late April and early May are the best time to view them as they are all opening up at the same time, and they often fill the shaded areas of the wetlands. 

Generally, Cowles Bog is a great spot to find ferns, right at the end of the boardwalk through the wetland. This is the spot I generally pick in the early spring. This year, I decided to check out the dune ridge trail, near Kemil Beach. I remember plenty of skunk cabbage and ferns located in a small area next to the trail adjacent to the wetland. Sure enough, there were plenty of ferns emerging.
  Fiddlehead 
 The evening sunlight filtered through the budding trees and illuminated the fiddleheads at a low angle, and sometimes from behind. There are so many stages of unrolling, from a disk of white hairs to seeing the first small fronds curled up inside the tightly wrapped spiral. They're always facinating to me. Soon, these fiddleheads will become 18 inch long fern fronds that cover the wetland floor.

The Waxing Crescent

Crescent Moon

While aligning a star tracker for some long exposure star photos, I couldn't resist capturing an image of the moon. It's a waxing crescent, meaning it's getting larger each day until it reaches a full moon in a week or so. The larger the moon, the brighter the sky, and the more difficult it is to capture good night sky images, especially deep space objects such as nebula. 

 I'm working out all of the alignments and adjustments on the tracker now, so when the new moon arrives in a few weeks, I will be all set for some deep space photos. So far, using a 100mm lens, I've been successful in capturing clear star images up to three minutes in length. These longer exposures really help capture the dim light on the stars and nebula with very low noise or grain, so I can't wait for clear, dark summer nights. 

 For the moon image, I used an 35mm film equivalent of a 1800mm lens and managed this capture hand-held - the moon is actually very bright in the night sky.

Colorful Lake Michigan

Colorful Waters Certain mornings play with Lake Michigan's colors, and this was certainly one of those mornings. As we approached the end of the trail, which was once a road leading to homes and a beach access, we stood at the edge of the dune that overlooked the beach below. The dune is around 100 feet tall here, but with no people on the beach for reference, it looks as if I am standing on the beach itself. The clouds cast shadows on the water, changing the color of the waters, and in addition, the sand is kicked up and circulated in the water, creating some deeper brown colors along the shore. While this coloration is not really unusual, it changes from moment to moment and often can't be seen from the beach itself. High Above the Beach Following what was once California Avenue, we found the end of the road - which led right off the dune to the beach below. I remember walking this road and Valley Drive when there were still homes on them. And often, after the homes were razed, we would follow a path along the top of the dunes right at the lakefront. This path has since been washed into Lake Michigan - but not because people walked on it as the park service would seem to want you to believe. People do much less damage to the dunes when they follow a path or trail than they do if you block off the traditonal paths. Some will simply walk around the sign or barricade, creating more damage as they walk around. Lake Michigan eroded the dunes here, not people walking on the dunes.

Last Sunset of Winter

Last Sunset of Winter 
 Generally, we visit the beach in the mornings and view the rising or low morning sun, but on the last day of winter, we stopped off in the evening. What's most unusual is the lighting, it's coming from the opposite direction; we're used to seeing it on the other side of the dunes! 

The last day of winter 2021 was relatively warm, and followed a couple of days of high winds. A little beach erosion was evident as we hiked to Kintzele Ditch, some full sized trees have fallen to the beach from the top of the dunes as they were undermined by waves. In the background, you can see the large pile of sand that was delivered to the beach last Fall, it is slowly breaking down as well. The intent for that is to be spread a bit along the shore this Spring, so the waves are helping with that. 

 It was nice to see people enjoying the beach again, although there were only a few, with the sun and the warmer temperatures, things are certainly looking up. Not only does it feel like Spring, now it is Spring!

The Dormant Dunes

The Lake and the Woods Below 
 In late winter, the plant life on the dunes is still dormant and brown, waiting for a few more days of warm weather and rain to kickstart the spring green-up. Even in this dormant state, the woods and grasses are inviting, and from this elevation, they seem to go on forever. I can imagine hiking down these dunes through the woods and clearings, and walking for miles. Unfortunately, that's not allowed here, and much of the wooded areas around the park are private property. 

 It's amazing how calm and peaceful it is when you stop and look around. A large city is just up the shore, and other smaller residential areas surround the dunes on three sides, but aside from the occasional train horn and air plane, nature is all you hear. When Lake Michigan is churning, only the waves can be heard, but on this morning, it was only birds and the squeaking of the sand beneath our feet.
  The Dormant Dunes 
 Turning and looking in the opposite direction, more dunes and woods can be taken in. The views from this dune are quite expansive, and seem to go on and on. Tucked away between the dense bare trees are some homes in the distance, those of nearby towns such as Pines, Dune Acres, and Beverly Shores. They're all within walking distance of Lake Michigan and in such a picturesque, rolling dune setting. So close to the National Park, and also so close to the once booming steel industry of Northern Indiana. That industry is waning, and what remains is mostly hidden from the view of the homes by the dunes and the woods.

Morning on Top of the Dune

Top of the Dune 
It's almost spring - and it certainly felt like it at the lakefront. Weather forecasts were calling for high temperatures in the low 40s, but even early in the day, the warmth from the sun drove temps into the 50s. Couple that with a rather strenuous hike up the sandy dunes, and jackets are optional. The bright sunlight illuminated the dunes, and made the short layer of fog in the distance blend in with the horizon. 
Looking at the horizon, a superior mirage was evident in a few spots over Lake Michigan. This type of mirage stretches the objects on the horizon vertically, and sometimes turns them upside down! Objects normally not seen because of the curvature of the earth can be seen hovering above the water upside down. On this day, we didn't see anything so dramatic, but some areas of sand in the distance were stretched into what appeared to be buildings on the horizon.
  Bright Morning 
 It's interesting to see just how fast the sand dunes warm up in March. The sand is very warm to the touch just two weeks after being frozen solid. We looked around and found a few small footprints in the sand, most likely from some type of insect. We also encountered a snake warming itself in the sun. Life is once again beginning to return to the dunes - and that includes people, we ran into quite a few along the beach.

The Thawing Ice Falls

Thawing Ice Fall 
 On what we knew would be our last visit to the frozen waterfalls of Matthiessen State Park, we were lucky enough to find the two waterfalls in this canyon still frozen. The other more popular and easier to access waterfalls were no longer frozen, so these were exciting to find still somewhat frozen. While not quite complete, and missing the intricate ice patterns that form when the weather is very cold, they remained interesting to explore. 

 Generally, we could climb behind the ice and enter the caves formed by the ice, but with the warm temperatures and melting ice, it was very wet, and a little hazardous if a huge chunk of ice decided to break loose and fall. While the ice looks a bit undefined and dirty as it melts, the running water provides a fun challenge to capture - especially when you leave your tripod behind and need to attempt a slow shutter photograph holding the camera.
  Break Up 
 This waterfall is one where we usually explore the cavity behind the ice, and it's tall enough to stand up inside, and about 12 feet tall to the first major cascade on the rockface. We did head inside but were immediately soaked with water dripping from above. We were already soaked to the knees from crossing the swollen stream at the head of the canyon, we didn't need to get our gear wet as well.
  The Icy Path 
 After crossing the stream, we had a narrow strip of ice to walk along to reach the waterfalls. This is often a shallow creek in the warm months, so generally only about 3 inches of our boots get wet, and in this area, only the soles. Mud is usually the normal in this section, so the remaining ice was a welcome sight, almost like a white carpet leading us to the frozen falls.

Approaching the Dual Waterfalls

Double Waterfalls

We hoped to see at least one frozen waterfall on our trip to Matthiessen State Park, in northern Illinois. Unseasonably high temperatures would surely melt the icefalls, and as we hiked past the lower dell overlook, we could hear a lot of water flowing over Cascade Falls below us. Certain all of the waterfalls were gone, we made the hike across the swollen stream to the small canyon past Cedar Point. This canyon typically has two waterfalls, and in winter, they freeze to form ice caves. 

 As we made the first turn in the canyon, we could see the first fall was indeed still frozen. With some melt occurring, some of the intricate details were missing from the ice formations, and a lot of leaf debris could be seen in the ice and the snow on the canyon floor.
  Approaching the Waterfall 
 The meltwater from the snow in the park was flowing over the icefalls, making it a bit difficult to access the falls, but more difficult to get behind them and into the ice caves. Careful not to walk under any of the hanging ice - for fear it would fall and crush us - we did manage to get inside the ice caves which were pouring with water. 

 Because we had to walk through knee-deep water in the stream to access these waterfalls, we shared the canyon with only one other visitor. Surprisingly, walking through the cold water wasn't so bad, the water in your boots warms up a bit after a few minutes.

Lake Falls

Upper Dells Waterfalls 
A full wall of ice just days earlier, Lake Falls is flowing once again thanks to the large amount of meltwater flowing into the lake above the falls. Hiking through Illinois' Matthiessen State Park during winter yields quite a few frozen waterfalls -at least six. On this visit, they were in various stages of melting, some completely gone, and others, half way thawed. The melting increased the amount of water in the upper and lower dells, which in turn, destroyed more of the icefalls.

Not only is the ice melting, but to get to the frozen waterfalls is much more difficult if you wish to stay warm and dry. The paths for at least two of these falls were under at least a foot of flowing water. We decided to visit them anyway, and walked through the cold water; our feet were cold for about 10 minutes as the 35 degree water flooded our boots. But after that, they remained a rather comfortable temperature as our body heat warmed up the water in our boots. Even if our feet stayed cold, it was worth the effort to see these falls once again.

  Lake Falls After the Thaw

Generally Lake Falls is a bit more accessible, and flows a bit more gentle, but this time we couldn't get too close to the falls without getting ourselves and our gear sprayed with water. Many of the interesting logs that fell into the canyon have disappeared over the years; these were often covered in intricate ice formations, but no longer. The stream is filled with small cascades of water most only a foot tall like the one in the foreground of the top image. These provide great elements in the landscape, and give so many possible compositions. 

 I hiked this time without my tripod, so these images, which were taken with a slow shutter of 1/6th of a second, were taken handheld with no support. Without a tripod, it gets a bit tricky to get sharp images at that speed.

Frozen French Canyon

Navigating French Canyon

Following a week of warm weather, we decided to visit Starved Rock State Park once again, before all of the frozen waterfalls were melted. On our last trip in the very cold weather, we visited the waterfalls that generally have the most intricate ice formations - knowing they would soon be gone. On this hike, we saw the melting icefalls that we figured would still be somewhat frozen, and we were right.

These waterfalls tend to stay frozen for a bit longer than the fragile falls in LaSalle Canyon because they're thicker and in more shaded canyons. French Canyon is one of those very shady locations and generally doesn't have a huge amount of water flowing into the canyon. A heavy flow of water quickly melts the ice formations, while a more gentle one cascades over, under, or around the ice.
 
This canyon is generally a bit tricky to access when the stream is flowing (if you don't want wet feet), but in winter, it's extremely slippery and difficult to access. Park staff at the visitor's center have told us time and time again that it's not worth even trying to get into French Canyon in the winter - it's too dangerous. The stream flows directly on the portion of the canyon floor that is used for walking, so plenty of ice forms in this area. Without ice cleats on your boots, it's next to impossible to safely walk up into this canyon. Because we've been here many times before, we had our cleats with us.
 
The Icy Trail to French Canyon 
 In the photo above, you can see just how frozen the canyon floor was. No place to hold on to, so you absolutely need ice cleats, and even then, if there is snow on top of the ice, or if the cleats hit rock, you will still slide. I would hate to fall here, not only would you get wet, but you would probably continue sliding 30 or 40 feet down into the pool of water at the entrance to the canyon. I don't know how deep that water is, but you would certainly have a difficult time climbing out, and a very cold walk back to the car. 

 The recent high temperatures has created quite a bit of melt water, in fact, it flooded the canyon and kept us from walking too far in. We were already wet to the knees from walking through the stream at Matthiessen Park, but we weren't too certain how deep this water was, so it was best to keep out of the flooded canyon.
  French Canyon Icefall 
The melt water did allow for some very interesting colors and a nice reflection of the 40 foot tall frozen waterfall. This waterfall doesn't freefall into the canyon, it cascades over the stepped rock formations, so I think it's one of the more interesting waterfalls of the park.

Every day the warm weather eats away at the ice in all 18 canyons of Starved Rock, so if you hope to see some frozen waterfalls, it's best to visit very soon, or you will need to wait until next winter. Bring ice cleats even if you think the trails are clear - you will need them - sometimes into April.

The Thawing Shelf Ice

Thawing Shelf Ice 
 Just a few days earlier, Lake Michigan was filled with ice as far as the eye could see. Last week, we hiked through thigh-deep snow in this same spot to view the ice mounds on the beach, this week, they're almost gone. Only a couple of days of 40 degree weather and the floe ice melts quickly, and soon, all of this ice will be gone as well - it's meteorological spring already. 

 While our goal was to hike to Kintzele Ditch last week and this week, we approached from a different access this time - Central Beach. Closed for quite some time because of erosion and well water problems with the remodeled washrooms, it's a nice change to access the beach quickly via our old standby trails.
  The Ice From Central Beach 
 The remnant ice took on the look of the arctic, like small icebergs floating just off shore. But these mounds stood at the bottom of the lake and rose up a few feet above the water. 

Some years, these ice mounds can rise 15 feet above the water - as high as the waves can throw the ice chunks when they pound the shore. This year didn't produce the usual number of mounds or ice volcanoes, but it was pretty none-the-less.
  Icy Cove 
 Just as it does when the ice forms, when it melts, it creates interesting structures on the beach. This cove is being enlarged little by little as the waves move floe ice into and out of the ice shelf. The beach was lined with similar structures as we hiked the shore to Kintzele Ditch, each unique in size and shape. 
My only regret was not having our kayaks- it would be amazing paddling in and out of these small coves near the ice mounds. Maybe next year.

The Snow Covered Trail

Down the Trail

Following our walk along the beach, we headed up to an old trail that led to the top of one of the dunes near Kintzele Ditch. An old road leads to the trail, and while the walk is generally easy, our trip this time was a bit more difficult due to the knee-deep snow we needed to move through. Not terribly bad on the flat areas, but up the dune was more strenuous, especially near the top where the snow piled up in tall drifts.

  Deep Snow 

We couldn't imagine not working our way through the snow when we came so far already. Putting out quite a bit of effort in the sunny, 15 degree Fahrenheit weather actually made us sweat. Jackets open, hats and gloves off and we were ready to take on the snowy dune for what I imagined would be a great, winter view of Lake Michigan. We were not disappointed.

Still, even if we didn't make it to the top, just being in the woods after a heavy snowfall was good enough for us. 

Hidden Creek

Small Valley 
 One of our favorite short hikes at the Indiana Dunes National Park is a hike to a small creek between Central Beach and Mt. Baldy. Kintzele Ditch runs between two dunes and empties into Lake Michigan. Its ever-changing path from the foredunes to the lake makes this area a bit hazardous in the winter - one really doesn't know where the creek is, so you can fall through the thin ice into the water. Of course, this creek isn't too deep, so you would only get wet to the knees or so. 

Wandering a bit upstream - even with the dunes - can result in a fall into chest-deep water. With the snowfall we received this February, the creek is mostly hidden under ice and snow. Standing nearby, you can still hear the water flowing by. This year's shelf ice lacks the tall mounds and "ice volcanoes" so the creek doesn't wind through these formations.
  Hidden Creek 
 Looking toward the woods, it seems as if it would be an easy hike down the center of this valley, but again, we don't trust the ice here. Walking back this way, we would encounter a road not too far away, making the walk back much easier. Instead, we chose to take the more difficult path to enjoy the snowfall one last time before the thaw.

Frozen Kintzele Ditch From the Ground

 Kintzele Frozen 

 The heavy snowfall covered the beach and much of the ice covered Kintzele Ditch as it winds through the sand and empties in to Lake Michigan. The view from above couldn't show the depth of the snow and the snow drifts, but the view from the sand shows the snow a bit better. 

The creek cuts through the sand and creates a three foot deep cut in the sand, the snow drifted over the ice and cuts, hiding the deeper areas. If one would keep walking, they most likely would end up in snow above their waist! This particular area changes daily sometimes - especially in summer where the waves move the sand and change the direction of the creek. The ice and snow in winter protect the shore from these changes, so for now, Kintzele Ditch will maintain its current flow to Lake Michigan.

Heavy Snowfall on the Lakefront

Kintzele Under Heavy Snow

Two rather large snow storms hit the area along with extremely cold temperatures, turning Lake Michigan into a scene from the arctic.
 
Our hike began about 1/2 mile away, and once down the slippery dune to the beach, we realized just how much snow actually fell over the past couple of weeks. On average, the snow was past our knees as we made our way toward Kintzele Ditch, in a few places it was shallower, but in others, well past our knees. With all the snow, it was difficult to see exactly where the shore was, so we were careful not to walk out onto the shelf ice. Knowing the area very well, we could estimate and stay safe.

When we reached Kintzele Ditch, it too was iced over and covered in snow. The path of the creek can change daily, so we needed to walk where we knew solid ground was beneath us. If you look closely, you will see our footprints in the snow, walking up to the creek then turning toward the dune. We were able to get to the trail up the dune a bit later. It's an old road that has been abandoned for years, and the snow here was even deeper in spots - up to our pants pockets. That made the walk up pretty difficult and slow, and we questioned if we should try to walk up, but once at the top, we were treated to the scene pictured above. Ice and snow as far as the eye can see on frozen Lake Michigan, and drifted snow all across the dunes and beach. The image is a panoramic image made from three images stitched together.

 For a day that started out at zero degrees, it was rather comfortable hiking. No wind at all, full sun, and a lot of strenuous hiking kept us warm enough to open our coats. Temperatures are now climbing up, and soon, quite a bit of this snow will melt; I'm happy we made the attempt before the melt.

Kaskaskia Canyon Icefalls

 From Inside the Cave

The last canyon on our trip was Kaskaskia. This canyon is very close to Ottawa Canyon, only about a five minute walk away, so it had quite a few people visiting while we were there. Again, people give these icefalls some scale - some falls seem so small until you view them with a person standing nearby.

T This waterfall isn't very tall, but the two logs that were washed down the canyon during some past flood add a lot of interest to the image. Behind the fall is a cave that we usually don't venture into because of the story I heard from a friend who fell through the ice here into the water below that was up past his waist. On this visit, we noticed several other people walking around that area, and with the two weeks of very cold temperatures, we knew the ice was thick enough to support us.
  Kaskaskia Falls

While typically not a canyon for ice climbing, I have seen a few people climbing this icefall in the past, and this year, a family with climbing gear and helmets were approaching was we were leaving. I would think this is a good fall to climb for beginners, and also for experienced climbers who don't have the ability to fasten lines to the trees above. This fall would be challenging enough, and if you did slip, you wouldn't fall 80 feet to the canyon floor.

On To Icy Ottawa Canyon

Ottawa Canyon in Winter

One of the more accessible canyons in Starved Rock State Park, Ottawa Canyon is less than a half mile hike from the parking area. It's also an easy hike very few hills and only a few stairs, so one can expect a lot more visitors - especially on a day as cold as this (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Usually I'm alone in the canyons when it's so cold, except for an ice climber here and there. As we expected, the waterfall in the canyon was a complete column of ice, towering about 50 feet high to the creek above the canyon.
 
Ottawa Canyon Ice 
 The canyon is undercut, just like it's sister canyon the Council Overhang just a few hundred meters away. This not only allows hiking behind the falls, but creates a very interesting surround of multicolored rock. Unlike quite a few waterfalls in the park where you need to bend down to get behind the falls, this overhang is very tall, giving a feeling of grandeur to the icefall.

Climbing The Ottawa Icefall

As we entered the canyon, we could see an ice climber near the top of the frozen waterfall. Ice climbing is allowed in a few of the canyons, by permit only. It seems to be a growing sport here at Starved Rock - at least anecdotally; I see more and more ice climbers every year. They're interesting to watch, but can often break off the intricate detailed ice that make the icefalls so pretty. I've been lucky over the years, to capture the icefalls before they're damaged. But give the waterfalls a day or two and they often form new intricate patterns on the face of the icefalls.