Above the Beach

Above the Beach

With so many unusual stretches of warm weather this winter, the shelf ice on Lake Michigan never developed as vast as usual.  However, some did form, and with the recent days of temperatures reaching 60 degrees, it's disappearing fast.  The break up of the ice is interesting to watch, as each waves batters the mounds of ice until one breaks. This allows the waves to reach the flat ice between the mounds, and they begin to crack and tear apart. These pieces of ice bump into one another constantly, and eventually become round in shape; these formations are called pancake ice.

Pancake IceOur hike brought us to a high elevation on private land, where we could view the lakefront and the ice from above. The extent of the shelf ice, while not as large as most years, is better seen from above. In addition, many textures and patterns are evident from this height, but not from the beach. With no other people around, there is little on the beach to give the images scale, but the mounds of ice were between 15 and 20 feet off of the water.

As we walked on our return trip, the ice was breaking up even faster than before, and more and more pancake ice was forming along the shore, perhaps to become incorporated in the next round of shelf ice should the weather turn cold again.

Remnants of Winter

Remnants of Winter

With many of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore beach access points closed due to "Emergency Conditions" as they put it, the areas which traditionally have the best looking shelf ice are difficult to view.  Determined to see the ice before it completely melted, we hiked along the waters edge from Lakeview Beach to Kintzele Ditch - a 3.5 mile hike each way. Even though beach access is closed, the water's edge is part of the public trust zone, hence the public cannot be denied access. For the same reason, property owners along the beach cannot chase away the public from the water's edge.

The 57 degree temperatures and bright sun made this February hike enjoyable. There was plenty of shelf ice left, and many pieces were isolated in the water like islands, no longer attached to the shore by ice.  The waves moved in and removed the smaller, floating pieces of ice, leaving the huge mounds to withstand the pounding waves.

Looking more like a scene from the arctic, the Lake Michigan shore was once again transforming before our eyes.

Exploring Kaskaskia Canyon

Exploring Kaskaskia Falls

As we approached the end of Kaskasia Canyon, we heard voices of some other visitors along with the sound of falling water.  Not surprising, since Kaskaskia Canyon is home to two waterfalls, one substantial and one generally just a trickle. The waterfall was completely frozen over, yet the water ran inside a naturally occuring ice "pipe," created by the falling water and freezing temperatures.

Hearing water inside a frozen waterfall is very common where the flow of water is substantial, but most of the time the water is flowing between the rock wall and the surface ice.  This time, the falling water was encased in ice all the way to the canyon floor.

Frozen Kaskaskia Falls

The two logs that lay in the canyon probably assisted in creating the ice "pipe" as the water followed the logs for a bit, before freezing as it fell to the ground. The logs and ice blocked off most of the canyon overhang, creating a small cave.  Unfortunately, the falling water was not flowing down the canyon, but puddling about 8 inches deep inside the cave, making exploration wet and uncomfortable.  Not to mention the fact that we didn't know the depth of the water under the ice, so venturing inside could have resulted in a fall through the ice into relatively deep water at the foot of a waterfall.

Ice Climbers

The voices we heard in the canyon belonged to two adventurers, climbing the taller of the two waterfalls. Armed with climbing gear, crampons, and ice axes, the climber made his way up the icy waterfall, resting periodically as necessary.

The cold plays a role in tiring out ice climbers.  Keeping one's hands overhead for such a long time can be difficult while climbing, but add to that the fact that warm blood cannot replenish the arms as easily when they're overhead, so the hands become numb and difficult to use.

Ice Climbing

Disappointed I didn't have my own ice climbing gear, I left the canyon in search of more frozen waterfalls.

Frozen Ottawa Canyon

Ottawa Canyon From Above

Our search for frozen waterfalls brought us to another of Starved Rock State Park's canyons, Ottawa Canyon.  Located just past the Council Overhang, Ottawa Canyon is a blind canyon with a generally low flowing waterfall of approximately 50 feet in height.  The low flow portion of this waterfall is evident in the giant icicle pictured below.  The ice formation is at least 40 feet long.

Almost Touching the Ground

It stretches from the rim of the canyon to a point 4 inches short of the floor (by now it might have reached the floor).  If the water was more plentiful, the ice would have built up from the bottom as well, because the water would fall, freeze, and pile upward.  We see this in most every other waterfall in these canyons.

Walking Behind the Frozen Falls

The main portion of the icefall in Ottawa Canyon is more typically formed. Ice hanging from the rim, and ice building from the floor until the two meet. This canyon is such that visitors can easily walk around the icefall, and see the formation from all angles. The size of the column of ice is impressive.

Ottawa Canyon Waterfall

Other interesting features of this canyon include the horizontal bands of color in the rock.  This provides a great contrast to the vertical ice formations. When sunlit, the dark bands take on a warm hue against the bands of cooler colored rock.

Ottawa Canyon Falls

The difference between the two types of ice formations can be easily compared in the photo above. One built from the top down and bottom up, the other, built only from above. We made certain we stayed far away from the hanging formation- figuring it was much more unstable than the others, and could prove fatal if it crumbled onto us.

Backlit Falls

Photographing the Back of the Falls

We were rewarded by some great frozen waterfalls on our return hike to LaSalle Canyon following a week of cold weather. What melted away a week ago, has returned even better than before. The ice growing from the top of the overhang has connected to the ice building up from the canyon floor to create a curtain of ice.

The daylight shines through the ice curtain, illuminating the canyon walls with colors from the sky, rock walls, and minerals suspended in the ice. Ever changing, these curtains continue to grow until the weather warms, and freeze again once the temperatures drop. The intricate patterns on the columns of ice and the canyon floor also grow and change, and get more intricate every day with the addition of more and more ice.

Backlit Falls

Aside from the light filtering through, one of the most interesting things about the ice is the scale of the frozen waterfalls.  Even the small frozen falls are impressive, but when the ice grows to 40, 60, or even 80 feet to the canyon floor below, it's difficult to imagine the size unless you visit the canyon for yourself.

As the water falls from above, it collects on the canyon floor and begins to grow upward, in an ice mound.  The hanging ice eventually touches the growing mound to produce a solid column. The width of these columns can be over 20 feet in diameter, making the impressive icefall desirable for ice climbing.

Dune Shadows

Outrunning a Shadow

To me, one of the most interesting parts of hiking is finding the unexpected.  Whether it's an unexpected view, location, flower, or old piece of machinery, I find it very satisfying to discover something new.

The unexpected can often be something like a cloud, the color in the sky, a shape, or a shadow.  On my latest hike in Warren Dunes State Park, the shadows of objects on the dunes interested me quite a bit.

The shadow of the runner in the image above was stretched by the slope of the sand dune, and distorted to over twice the height of the figure.  As the shadow moved across the dune, it changed size and shape as it encountered the different hills and valleys of the dune.

The Ghost Forest

Another spot creating interesting shadows was at the top of Tower Hill, the tallest dune in the park.  The shifting sand buries trees over time, suffocating them over time until they die.  Their remains cast eerie shadows on the patterned sand.

Above the Treetops

Here, walking above the forest, we can see the process in action. The dune is slowly burying the forest below. In a few hundred years, this living dune will eventually pass over the forest, and the trees will once again become visible, but only as dried remnants of a long time past- when we visited.

Hiking the Ridge

Hiking the Ridge

Continuing our hike through the dunes and blowouts of Warren Dunes State Park in Southwest Michigan, we headed toward Lake Michigan from the big blowout dune. Following trails created by previous visitors (so we did not damage the Marram Grass, or cause unnecessary erosion) we walked on a narrow ridge of the interconnected dunes.

Narrow Ridge

This relatively low ridge sat in the valley between two of the taller dunes in the area, but still provided a great view of the unusual landscape created by Lake Michigan and Midwestern winds.

Toward the Lake

On such an unusually warm day for February, the park had its share of visitors. Walking through the great expanse of these dunes, it's difficult to imagine this park feeling crowded - perhaps just the beach in the summer. We came upon visitors now and then, but still felt as though we were relatively alone.

Living Dunes

On our way, we hiked past a pair of bald, living dunes.  A living dune is a sand dune that continues to move inland.  Generally, they are devoid of vegetation, so the roots don't keep the sand from moving. The winds off of Lake Michigan blow the sand up and over the dune, where it falls on the other side, effectively moving the dune inland, one grain at a time. The photograph above shows some of the sand that was blown over the top of the dune is slowly falling to the leeward side.  It will eventually fall to the bottom, adding a bit more sand to that side of the dune, and burying anything in it's path.

The Dune Valley

Dune Valley

Following our 200 foot climb to the top of the dune, we followed a trail leading into the woods, and off to the ridge of a distant dune. As we arrived, the woods opened up to a grand view of the valley between several dunes and blowouts. What appeared to be a short distance was indeed, much farther than we thought.

The climb down the dune to the valley floor was quite steep - 30 degrees or so is typical of a sand dune; gravity won't generally allow the sand to pile up any steeper. But, the moisture in the sand was still frozen on this shady side, holding the sand together, and not allowing feet to sink into the sand.  So, in places, we slid down, almost like skiing.

On the Valley Floor

Once down on the floor of the valley, we came upon some concrete piers that seemed to be the foundation of a tower - perhaps a power line or antennae, After a few more minutes of hiking, we came upon a rusting piece of machinery with pulleys on it.  Perhaps this was part of the tower? It seemed possible that if the tower was toppled, this could have landed in this spot.  Was it part of a lift, or sky ride?  A bit more research should yield the answer.

From the Blowout

As we reached the distant dune blowout, again we underestimated the size and height.  The climb, however, was well worth the effort, as we were granted a 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside, some 200 feet below. If you look very carefully at the photo above, two people are standing on top of the distant, bald dune, to the left of Lake Michigan. Their size will give you an idea of the distance between me and that dune.

View From the Top

Expansive Dunes

Expansive Dunes

Unusually warm weather melted most of the snow and ice around the area, and the bright sun encouraged us to spend most of the day exploring Warren Dunes State Park in southwest Michigan. Atop the 200 foot tall dune, we could see for miles. What appears to be a small area in the photo above, is in fact many acres across - the bare branches on the top right are full grown trees.

Able to climb the sand dunes from the beach, and hike into the wooded sections of the dunes was a treat for us, since the Indiana Dunes have all but closed access to these types of areas, and the ones which are open, are not as expansive or accessible.

Over the dunes, into blowouts, back up more dunes, over and over again; not an easy hike in the loose sand, or the still frozen portions where downhill was almost like skiing. Certainly worth every step.

Frozen Wildcat Canyon

Wildcat Canyon>

The 80 foot tall waterfall in Wildcat Canyon has once again frozen solid.  Wildcat is one of Starved Rock State Park's many canyons, but one of the few where one can view the canyon from almost every direction, top to bottom.  Many of the canyons are accessible from the floor only, but Wildcat gives visitors the ability to view into the canyon, from high above.

I've often seen ice climbers at this frozen waterfall, testing their skills with melt water pouring down on them as they climb. At 80 feet, this is quite a challenging climb.

Under Wildcat Falls

With a bit of determination, I managed to climb up the icy rock onto the canyon shelf behind the icefall, for a unique look up at the falls and the canyon ceiling.

Wildcat Ice Patterns

Up close, the intricate patterns of ice come into view.  With every drop of water from above, tiny icicles form on top of each other, from the overhang, and from the ground, until the lacy ice interlocks and forms the giant icefall.

Wildcat Canyon Icefall

Wildcat Canyon is one of the easiest canyons to reach at Starved Rock State Park.  It's rather close to the visitor center, and the trail from the lodge is fairly flat and easy.  Be prepared for plenty of stairs if you plan on heading down to the floor of the canyon.