Abominable Snow Man


An early cold spell turned the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse into a 35 foot tall Abominable Snow Man - well, actually an Abominable Ice Man.  I you look closely at the ice formation, you can see two shoulders, arms, a head full of disheveled hair, and a long beard hanging down.

Each time this light ices up, the details are different.  The ice twists and turns as the wind blows the water sprayed onto the lighthouse, then freezes in the direction of the wind.

Making the trek out to the outer lighthouse was made easy by a local man who chopped through the ice build up on the railings of the pier.  The deck of the pier was mostly wet, not frozen, as the slightly above freezing temperature waters from Lake Michigan were still washing over, keeping the ice from building up.  The only icy place on the pier seemed to be right where I was standing to capture this image, but as the sun made its way around the lighthouse and the ice came out of the shadow of the tower, the ice melted enough for me to safely walk on.

Warm weather later in the day, and for the next two days, melted all of the ice - at least until the next cold, windy day on Lake Michigan.

Reaching the End of the Pier

The First Look at the Light

Once the ice was chopped away from the railing, allowing us to climb over safely - more importantly to climb back over to safety, I was greeted by the sun-bathed ice against a deep blue sky. The lighthouse tower is 35 feet tall, and the catwalk was built to protect lighthouse keepers and workers from the dangerous waves of Lake Michigan.  It's easy to see by the ice formations, that the catwalk would do little to prevent workers from getting soaked by the spray, and possibly washed over the rail.

Outer Light Northeast

A freeze like this so early in the season is unusual, and welcomed.  The deck of the pier is only wet, as the waves of Lake Michigan pour over it. The water is just above freezing, so it kept the ice from forming on the deck, allowing safe passage without the worry of slipping into the cold water. In a few more weeks, the water will freeze almost instantly on the deck, creating very dangerous conditions for visitors.

Frozen Before Thanksgiving

Checking Out the Ice

A recent arctic weather pattern turned the Midwest very cold and windy - the perfect ingredients for iced lighthouses!  This is the earliest I can remember, where the 35 foot tall outer lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan was completely covered in ice. As a rule, mid to late December was the typical time for icing -cold, windy, and the lake is still liquid.  Any later, and Lake Michigan tends to freeze over, and the splashing and spray are suppressed, and the lighthouses don't ice up.

Beating the forecast for warm weather and rain, I headed out to photograph the lighthouse before the ice melted, and before the skies turned to rain. Following an hour or two capturing images from shore, I headed out on the iced pier only to find the railings completely ice covered.  While this is nothing new, the ice also covered the only space between the rails allowing me to walk to the inner and outer lights. I considered climbing over, but the return was certainly not as easy, and not safe.


After a time photographing the pier and inner light, a familiar face came walking down the pier.  It was Tim, a local man who regularly studies bird migrations from the pier. I've run into Tim for the last six or seven years here, no matter what day I venture out to photograph the lighthouse from the end of the icy pier.  Today, he was armed with an axe, and ready to chop the ice away from a portion of the railing so he could get out to the outer light.


He worked at chopping the ice for almost an hour, as I watched along with two fishermen and a few photographers. He finally made enough progress to safely climb over the rail. Tim held my camera gear as I climbed over to fasten a rope to the first catwalk upright, then back to the rail for a handhold in case we needed it on the return trip. Once over, I assisted a fellow photographer over the rail, and we made our way out past the inner lighthouse, to the outer light.  We were the first people this season to access the frozen outer light, and also to photograph it from the pier.

Windward Side of the Outer Light

I remained on the pier for quite a while afterward, photographing the light, and conversing with Tim as he set up his gear. We were joined soon after by another photographer. It was a great opportunity to meet some photographers and talk about our love for this lighthouse, especially in winter.

Sandhill Crane Migration

Sandhill Crane Migration

Each year, thousands of sandhill cranes migrate from the northern United States to their winter habitat in Florida. One stop along the way is in north central Indiana, at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.  At times, over 10,000 birds stop for a rest on their long migration.  This week, officials estimated the number around 8,000.

Watching the Sandhill Cranes

The birds stand over three feet tall, with a wing span of seven feet, and are quite vocal as they "kite" down to the marsh to feed and mingle. They arrive around an hour before sunset, from late September through mid December, but peak numbers are usually in mid November. Just before sunset, groups of three to twenty fly in from every direction, in formation, one after another, until the marsh takes on the blue color of their feathers.

Sandhill Gathering

Keeping just far enough away from the human spectators, they congregate until morning - the second best time to see them, as they take off to find food in the nearby farm fields.

People from all around visit the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area just to see the birds.  There is a raised platform with spotting scopes available to visitors, as well as ample parking.  This weekend, was cold, yet moderately crowded, as birdwatchers and photographers attempted to get their best look at the cranes.  During the morning hours, just after sunrise, the few dozen remaining sandhill cranes were only a hundred feet away from the viewing stand, allowing photographers to snap away.

On our return that evening, we parked amid the cars and buses - yes, tour buses of people wishing to view the cranes. Unfortunately, this evening, the birds were far in the distance, and not easily seen. Even though they were too far away to photograph, it was still exciting to see thousands of birds landing in the distance, flying in from every direction, almost constantly.  In the cold evening air, friendly park employees heated water on a propane stove, and offered hot chocolate and cookies to the visitors - an unexpected and welcome treat.

Autumn Yard Work

Autumn Yard Work There's nothing like the smell of burning leaves in the Fall. Even more than the colors that dot the landscape, the aroma of burning leaves confirms the season. Growing up in Chicago, we didn't get to experience the Autumn tradition of burning leaves, in fact, it was illegal. Besides, we probably only had 200 leaves to rake up and throw in the trash - or bury in the garden. Now my sons help my dad rake and burn the leaves before they are buried by the early snowfall.

It's great to get out to the country where burning is legal and experience the smell of burning leaves in the cool, Fall air. It just wouldn't seem like Fall without it.  Plus, the ashes are great for the garden.

Resting Kayaks

Resting Kayaks

On our return trip, we stopped at the beach - it's dark so early now, we figured we could enjoy gazing at the stars between the clouds.  It was very windy, so the clouds appeared as white smears across the sky, but it seemed to add some interest to the images I was able to capture.

The lights from the city of Chicago generally wash out most of the stars from this vantage point, however, the low cloud cover over the lake seemed to block some of that light from reaching these stars.  The light did, however, create some interesting viewing over the lake (see Saturday's post), making the image appear to have been taken over many hours, yet it was a single 20 second exposure.

Our viewing lasted only a few minutes before the low clouds arrived from Chicago, completely blocking out the stars all around us. Camera put away, we explored the beach in the darkness - a totally different experience for the senses.

Day into Night

Day into Night

The night sky on the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan is polluted by light from the city of Chicago.  The city is 50 miles across the lake at this point, yet the light completely washes out the stars over the city.

On this evening, the city light not only washed out the stars, but it illuminated the low clouds, making the horizon appear like sunset, yet sunset was two hours prior. High winds prevented my from taking very long exposures (the camera kept moving slightly when gusts hit), but the exposure did bring out the movement of the clouds and the waves.

This image appears to be a composite of sunset and the night sky, however, it is a single exposure, and image. The light pollution from Chicago is responsible for the yellow on the horizon.  If you look closely, you'll notice some lights from the buildings themselves.

Prepare to Get Your Feet Wet

Prepare to Get Your Feet Wet

A small wave washes over the pier at the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse. Things began to calm down following some extremely windy conditions on Lake Michigan. These small waves would only get your feet wet - maybe wet to your knees, nothing like the waves that crashed into the pier a day earlier.  Those waves would wash you into the lake with little effort.

The catwalk would protect the lighthouse keepers from such waves, but during certain storms, they wouldn't stay dry. The waves would almost reach the catwalk, and the spray would certainly tower over them, getting the keepers soaked with freezing water.

St Joseph Range Lights

St. Joseph Range Lights

A beautiful, sunny morning on Tiscornia Beach.  The sun illuminates the two lighthouses that comprise the St. Joseph range lights.

Range lights - also known as leading lights- help ships find the harbor entrance from a distance, especially at night.  In this case, the two lighthouses are set in line, a few hundred feet apart on a single pier.  The inner lighthouse is taller, so it can be seen over the outer lighthouse.  As ships approach the harbor, they steer so the two range lights are vertically in line, the inner light directly above the outer light.  Keeping these lights in vertical alignment, the helmsman is able to head directly toward them, and into the harbor in times of low visibility.

Range lights also assist ships in determining their position, even if they're not heading to port. Finding a bow or beam bearing may prove difficult using only one distant light or object, since the ship needs to be at an exact angle to take a sucessful bearing.  By lining up the two range lights, the navigator knows the ship is in line with the marker, and the bearing is accurate.

Even in these days of modern navigation systems, it's reassuring to see these sister lighthouses on the horizon, guiding ships to safe harbor.

High and Dry

High and Dry

While not as intense as a day previous, the waves at the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse were high enough to crash onto the pier, keeping visitors off - well, most of them.

Racing the Waves

Not to pass up an opportunity for fun, we walked out to the end of the railed off section of the pier - this is quite a bit safer than the rest of the pier. Although, on this day, if I were alone, I probably would have ventured out to the lighthouses, keeping my eye on the approaching waves, and clinging to the catwalk supports if the waves crashed.  The waves weren't high enough to wash me into the lake, and it's only water, and not cold enough to keep me away.

The boys managed to jump onto the supports as the pier filled with water, making a game out of it. The only danger they faced was the possibility of wet shoes.

Avoiding the Splash

Soon, cold temperatures will bring ice, and walking on the pier could be treacherous, and games such as these will be off limits.

All Washed Up

All Washed Up

"The gales of November came early" - a day early, on Halloween, and caused quite a mess on area beaches.  This pile of debris was pushed ashore on West Beach, part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and pushed up quite a distance from the usual waterline.  The debris included kayaks, sailboat pieces, logs (some 30 inches in diameter), surfboards, and all of the items generally found aboard small vessels.

Not only did beaches receive piles of debris, they also lost plenty of sand.  Many of the dunes close to the beaches were undercut, and partially collapsed into the lake. A natural process that deposits sand down the beach, but alarming to some because the dune appears damaged.

And so it goes, Fall, on the shore of Lake Michigan.