The Shelf Ice Begins to Form

 The Shelf Ice Begins

After quite some time, Lake Michigan has finally gotten cold enough for shelf ice to begin forming on the Indiana shore. Just a few miles north of this beach, there was no ice to be seen, but here, on the southern edge of the lake, it has begun. It's possible that the winds push any thin ice floes toward the southern shore, and it gathers here first.

Here as the ice begins to form, you can see shelf ice (the ice that attaches to the shoreline that can build tall mounds over time), floe ice (the ice pieces floating in the water), and pancake ice (round formations of floating ice that are created by the constant bumping around of the chunks of ice). This is a great time to see just how these formations are created, and it's still safe to go near the shore. While it's never safe to venture out onto the shelf ice, here, the shelf ice is still mainly only hills of ice on the sand that touch the water. However, the ice that is in the water - even if it seems to be sitting on the bottom of the lake - can be very dangerous to walk on. Stay off!
Ice Formations

Even though the ice is just forming, there are still large chunks of ice out in the lake, and many of them are beautiful on their own. It will be interesting to watch these formations grow and change over the next few weeks. If the temperatures remain below freezing, and the winds keep pushing the waves and ice toward the shore, the shelf ice can grow relatively fast. High waves will pile the ice up to 10 or 15 feet in hight, creating ice volcanoes, cone-shaped mounds where the center is hollow and water is able to push ice to the surface where it piles up - similar physics as a volcano mound. After a few weeks, these ice fields can extend hundreds of feet into Lake Michigan. Coupled with floe ice and more storms, they can reach as far as the eye can see, making a beautiful arctic scene right here in the Midwest.

Dimple Dune


From Dimple Dune
At the very end of Central Beach, a relatively tall dune stands guard over Lake Michigan. Dimple Dune offers one of the best views of the entire beach, mostly because of its location. Most of the dunes in the park are closed to hiking, and the paths are well marked "keep off," but this dune has an old road system behind it, making it relatively easy to access without damaging any plants or dunes. Climbing on the loose sand of a blowout (portion of a dune with no vegetation that has eroded away) can accelerate the erotion process, so we always stay clear of such areas. Even when hiking a marked trail, we make sure not to step on any plants - marram grass does not tolerate trampling.
From Dimple Dune, one can see many miles across Lake Michigan, including the Chicago skyline, and even into Michigan. Looking behind the dune, the vast areas of LaPorte and Porter Counties can be seen high above the treetops. Several old homes used to stand in this area, along with a few streets that are still evident today. The homes were razed just a few years back; I can only imagine being lucky enough to live right on these dunes.
The Cove at the End of the Beach
Looking down onto the beach, we can see where we stood just moments prior, on the frozen shore of the small cove filled with logs, boulders, and ice. It appears rather small from this height, but those trees are full size, some over 40 feet in height. Looking at the top photo on this post, for a sense of scale, look along the beach in the shadow of the dune toward the top of the photo, you will see two people walking on the beach. Their size should give you an idea of the size of the sand dunes along this shore of Lake Michigan.

Cold Morning

Icy Cove

Medium sized waves crashing to the beach, combined with the cold temperatures, have created lots of ice along the shoreline. Not only on the sand, but on everything that washes up on the sand. At the very end of Central Beach, there is an area where the beach ends and the erosion control boulders begin. A sort of cove has been formed by the waves, and a lot of logs and trees are deposited here. The wave action has begun to cover these items with ice, making them a bit slick to walk on, but very pretty to look at. 

Icicles of all sizes, shapes, and textures form here, constantly change, and break away. Exploring this area is quite a lot of fun all year long, but in the cold weather, the ice adds even more interest. 

Cold Morning

The morning sun illuminates portions of the dunes in the background, enticing visitors to climb to the top and expore the landscape.


Frozen Sand
The cold weather finally arrived in Northwestern Indiana, cold enough to begin the process of freezing the beaches. This ice on the shore of Lake Michigan is the first step in creating what often becomes mountains of ice that extends hundreds of feet into the lake. It all starts with the wet sand freezing in place, then each additional wave brings more water up to freeze. This is a very slow process at first, but once the weather gets cold enough to create ice on Lake Michigan, the waves push that ice onto shore where it quickly builds into 10 to 15 foot tall mounds. Right now, the sand appears wet, but it's actually frozen, and in some places very slippery, so walking where the waves are still active is usually the best bet right now. The water is preventing ice from forming right at the shore, so it's easier to walk here. Even the parts of the beach and dunes that are usually soft sand are frozen; walking up the hill of sand to the Central Beach access is quite difficult because your feet don't sink into the sand, the just slide off.
Icy Sand
At least the frozen sand protects the beach a bit from erosion, erosion that has collapsed so many of the dunes in this new National Park. The shelf ice and mounds that will most likely form soon, will protect it even more, and offer a unique opportunity for people to view these natural ice sculptures. As long as they staff off and away from these mounds - they are unsafe and can be deadly.

The White Beach

A Gaze to the Horizon The Lake Michigan shore is fast eroding. If you think about it, it's a natural process - who says the beaches and dunes should never change? They would be wrong. The very reason the Indiana Dunes National Park exists is due to the natural processes of erosion and the winds depositing sand into piles along the shore. It's an ever-changing process, there is no "perfect state" where everything will become static and never change again. I think it's important for people to realize this - the beach and the dunes are changing, and that's okay. What needs to be stopped is change due to an unnatural cause. The pier in Michigan City was built to guide boats into Trail Creek. This pier has prevented sands from moving naturally along the shoreline past the creek. Therefore, the beaches to the west are "starving" sand is no longer naturally replentished so the dunes are collapsing at a fast rate. It's not erosion caused by someone walking on the dunes - contrary to what the Park Service wants you to believe. I know this because all of the dune ridge trails I used to walk along are long gone - part of the bottom of Lake Michigan. I didn't do that! The other visitors who have been packing down that sand for decades didn't do that! The waves did, and no amount of keeping people off the dunes would have ever prevented that. Our footprints are long gone. Beach Replentishment From time to time, the park has replentished the sand along these starving beaches to keep the waters from further eroding the dunes. They've piled boulders along the shore where there are roads or houses - to save property. The latest attempt at Central Beach is underway. From the beach we noticed a very tall pile of sand extending from the Central Beach access point. It's about 25 or 30 feet tall, and sticks out toward the water. My hope is this pile of sand is just the beginning, and they don't intend to leave it this way, because it looks terrible. My second hope is that this sand was collected locally, and not shipped in from somewhere far away, bringing with it stones and fossils from another area that don't belong here. White Beach The view from this area is always quite beautiful, in any weather, even in the snowfall of this cold morning. Once Central Beach reopens, we should once again see the views from this dune.

The Stream From Above the Beach

Approaching the Lake Our morning hike began with a beautiful snowfall, as we made our way from Mt. Baldy along the shore to Kintzle Ditch. Narrow enough to jump across, we took running starts and jumped the 10 foot wide portion of the channel. Any wider and we would have landed in the water. We headed toward Central Beach exploring the wintery landscape safely, away from the lake, and the eroding dunes. Our return trip, we walked to the end of Central Beach, then up the small streets to Beverly Avenue, and hiked the road back to take in the views of the woods and wetlands. Some of the older streets still exist where homes once stood atop the dunes. Some local residents told us of a trail that is rarely used, but leads directly to the top of a tall dune near Kintzle Ditch, a stream winding through the dunes. As long as we stay on the trail and don't wander off, we wouldn't harm any of the plantlife or further erode the dunes. High Above the Stream As we approached the top of the dune, the wind suddenly increased to around 30 miles per hour (earlier on the beach there was barely a breeze). Snow could be seen over Lake Michigan, and it was advancing quickly. In a matter of moments, it was snowing at our location, and the winds were relentless. Not dressed for such conditions, we quickly headed back to the road, and made our way to the trail head. On our way back, the snow turned to rain, but at least on this side of the dunes, we were protected from the strong winds.

Snowy Shoreline

Winter Walk

Some lake effect snow squalls created a postcard worthy lake shore on the Indiana side of Lake Michigan. What was all sand a week prior, was now dusted with snow and frost. The winds were almost nonexistent when we arrived, and periodically, snow would fall, sometimes heavy, but never accumulating very much.

Unusually, we encountered quite a few people on our hike, but not too many after we jumped over Kintzle Ditch, a stream running through the dunes to the lake. This weekend, at its narrowest point on the beach, it was about 10 feet wide, so we were able to jump across without getting wet.  If we missed our mark, we would only end up in about a foot of cold water, not the end of the world. We just needed to make sure we didn't fall while jumping - landing on our backs in a foot of cold water would put an end to the hike, and make for a very cold half mile walk back to the car.

Snowy ShorelineOn our return trip, the snow turned to rain, and the winds picked up dramatically. Putting up with the wind-blown rain was one thing, but seeing the frost and snow disappear from the tree branches was the worst part. Now the shore was looking drab and brown once again, but probably not for long, as the forecast called for snow off and on all weekend.

Winding Kintzle Ditch

Sunburst The sun was a welcome site after a long period of cloudy days, and it was just enough to warm us up as we hiked along the shore of Lake Michigan. With the sunshine, we didn't even notice the temperatures were in the upper 20's, we had to open our coats on the two mile hike. A midpoint of the hike was the ever-changing Kintzle Ditch, a small stream that cuts through the tall dunes and meanders into Lake Michigan. The constant wave action pushes the sand back and forth at the mouth of the creek, changing how it empties into the lake. Sometimes it's straight into the lake, other times it makes a sharp turn right or left and runs parallel to the shore for over a hundred feet. It's different every time I visit. Winding Toward the Lake Colder temperatures are expected next week, so I expect some interesting winter scenes to play out here and all around the lakeshore. Of course I will be out there to experience it first hand.

Surf Shadows

Surf Shadows Finally seeing the sun for the first time in days, maybe even weeks, we ventured to the Lake Michigan shore. Sunshine and beaches go hand in hand- right? Morning temperatures were in the mid twenties, but the sun and lack of wind made the trip very comfortable. Chicago was still under a ceiling of clouds, so this morning was even more special. As we approached the top of the dune, we could see the shadows of the trees down on the surface of Lake Michigan. If you look closely, you can see our shadows too, as we stand some 50 feet above the water. What you need to realize is that the trees laying in the foreground are full sized trees uprooted from the top of the dune. We are standing on the top of the dune, not on the beach. Freezing Beach Once down on the beach, we encountered a very interesting thing. The sand looks wet, but it's actually frozen. Not enough to see a glaze on the top, but enough to feel as hard as concrete and make it quite slippery in places. This is a time when you need to watch yourself (and especially children) as they walk along the beach. The water's edge is slanted toward the lake and this frozen sand can be so slippery, one can take a step and simply slide into the waves. I imagine the sand at the bottom of the lake is not frozen, so you would stop before getting too far into the water, but you would most certainly get pretty wet and very cold. It's a long walk to the parking area - especially when you're wet! Some ice formations are beginning to form along the shore, but nothing compared to the shelf ice that will most likely form in a few weeks.

Winter Walk

Cold Prairie

We had no more than a dusting of snow for Christmas, but just after New Years, a bit of snow fell around us.  The storm began with rain, then turned to snow, the perfect recipe for the snow to stick to each and every branch of the trees and shrubs, creating a winter wonderland of sorts.

At the Orland Grasslands - a 750 acre restored prairie in south suburban Chicago - there are more than 13 miles of paved and grass trails winding through the land.  We encountered only two other people on this short trip. The prairie is an interesting place in all seasons, but there's something more exciting about this unforgiving land in the grips of winter. Winter Woods
Unlike the grasslands, the trails at Swallow Cliffs were filled with families enjoying the snowfall. This is no small endeavor, because you must climb 125 limestone stairs to reach the top where the trails begin. People often use these stairs in the warmer months for exercise, but they're much more challenging in winter. The trails lie just to the south of the 100 foot bluff created by the glaciers and their meltwaters.