Reaching the Lighthouses

The Walk Back

The reason the lighthouses are difficult and dangerous to reach during the winter, is the same reason they are relatively safe to access.  Sounds like a bit of a paradox, but ice is the cause and solution to safely accessing the piers on Lake Michigan.  Of course, the ice is what draws hundreds of people to the lighthouses each day. This can be deadly when a smooth layer forms on the concrete surfaces of piers and seawalls. But when the ice is rolled into boulders by heavy wave action, and piled up onto the pier by the waves, a deep, textured surface is created, allowing your feet to plant themselves in the small valleys between the boulders, preventing slipping.

Grand Haven Boulders

The walk is a bit more difficult, as one needs to tread on uneven, hilly surfaces, but the danger of slipping, falling, and continuing to slide into the freezing water is all but eliminated.

Of course, care must also be taken in this situation, a trip on an ice boulder can send you falling into Lake Michigan.  Plus, it's often difficult to discern the shelf ice from the ice on the concrete pier, and a person can easily continue walking onto frozen Lake Michigan - a dangerous mistake.

Amidst the Ice Boulders

Above, a photographer is dwarfed by the piles of ice on the pier.
The mounds of ice provide a great opportunity to get up almost as high as the keeper's catwalk. These catwalks were constructed about 10 feet above the pier, to keep the workers away from high waves that could wash them into the lake. Thanks to the ice, were able to see the catwalk close up.

Standing Tall
But once on the pier, the view unfolds.  One cannot truly experience the extent of the ice until it's within their reach  Dwarfed by the piles of ice boulders and the ice formations created by Lake Michigan's waves, you get a real sense of the power of the Great Lakes - frozen in place for close examination.
Boulders on Pier

Dauntless Prow

Iced Prow

Looking more like a ship's prow plowing through the ice, the Grand Haven, Michigan fog signal building endures another winter on Lake Michigan.  Enveloped in ice formed by waves and spray during a winter storm, the fog building is also the outer lighthouse in a set of range lights standing guard at the mouth of the Grand River.  The longest river in Michigan, the Grand empties into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven, the pier and lighthouses mark the entrance to the Grand Haven port.

At a height of 35 feet, the lighthouse on top of the fog signal building was built with a sixth order Fresnel lens. The building was moved to the end of the pier in 1907, and the concrete "prow" was added in the 1920's to help divert Lake Michigan's waves away from the building.

Plenty of visitors walked along the pier to view the ice on this relatively warm, winter afternoon.  A few ventured out around the fog signal building to experience the icy view firsthand. Never wanting to walk on the drift ice or shelf ice, I was assured by local residents that the concrete pier extended nearly six feet from the building, thus allowing us to walk around without fear of falling through the ice.

Dozens of other visitors ignored warnings and walked out hundreds of feet onto the shelf ice, some with children in their arms. According to a Grand Haven police officer, 911 was automatically dialed three times over the weekend, when visitors accidentally pulled the safety cord on one of the life rings along the pier.  The response time for the Coast Guard, according to the officer, could be as long as two hours, because the port was frozen in, and rescue swimmers would need to be dispatched from another station.

Early Morning at the Outer Light

Morning at the Outer Light

Our day began before sunrise at the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse, where we made our way out on the ice covered pier to the outer lighthouse.  The sun hadn't risen yet, and the blue light of early morning bathed the ice.  We were surprised to find three other people already on the pier.  It was their first time visiting a frozen lighthouse - they were thrilled.  Many new people are making their way out to the lighthouses in winter, in fact, it's getting crowded!

The high waves tossed chunks of ice onto the pier, where they froze into piles several feet tall in places. This made hiking the pier a bit difficult, but the texture created by the chunks actually prevent your feet from slipping too much, so the danger of falling into the lake is lessened somewhat, but extreme care should always be taken.

On this visit, I decided to go up to the catwalk for a different view. Jumping to grab the catwalk bars 8 feet above the deck, I pulled myself up and stood on the catwalk and captured several images from the vantage point of a lighthouse keeper.  Judging by the ice on the catwalk surface, the high walkway did little to protect the keeper from the elements.

From the Lighthouse Keeper's Catwalk

My son Chris took this photo of me on the catwalk

Spending about three hours on the pier, we captured hundreds of images, and as always, every freeze is a unique experience.

Winter at the South Haven Lighthouse

South Haven in Winter

We were on the Indiana roads by 5am, on our way north to photograph several Michigan lighthouses in winter. Often, these lighthouses are covered in ice from early winter storms.  The lake needs to be liquid in order for the winds to create waves high enough to splash onto the lighthouses and piers; once the water freezes, the icing cannot continue.

One of our stops was the lighthouse at South Haven, Michigan.  A favorite of locals a visitors alike, this lighthouse sees crowds of people in most every season, including winter. A short walk from the quaint downtown area, and right along a popular beach, the lighthouse serves as the backdrop to every occasion - from weddings to walking the dog.

In winter, this deep red beacon stands out against the ice on Lake Michigan, and the ice clinging to the lakeside of the light.  We carefully made our way onto the pier, making sure the ice was not flat and leading into the lake.  Once slip and we would slide into the freezing water.  On this day, the ice on the pier was layed down in chunks- formed by turbulant water, and tossed up on the pier in piles.

Ice Boulders at South Haven

These uneven ice boulders create a deep textured surface, and the spaces between the boulders serve as perfect places to set your feet as you walk.  If a foot slips, it will slide into one of the depressions and stop before sliding sideways into the lake.  Add a layer of snow, and the traction gets surprisingly better.

The unusually warm day and sunshine began melting the ice from the iron lighthouse and catwalk, dripping on us and our gear as we photographed the formations. Another day or two of this weather, and the ice will retreat quickly, but winter is not finished with the Great Lakes, cold weather to come will certainly preserve the ice for weeks to come.