The Ice Curtain

The Ice Curtain 
A smaller state park than Starved Rock, Matthiessen offers several frozen waterfalls to explore. One of my favorites is in a blind canyon just past Cedar Point. Visitors need to cross a creek to see this canyon, but in winter, it's usually frozen over, so it's easy. Last year it wasn't so easy. The creek was running high from melting snow and it wasn't frozen over, so we had to walk through knee-deep water in February. Funny how it was very cold at first, but after a half hour or so, we got used to the wet boots and it wasn't bad at all - until the last trail about 3 hours later when the cold began to reach our bones. 

 I mention this is one of my favorites because it's usually possible to venture behind the icefall. On this visit, the ice was almost blocking the path from right to left, but adventurous visitors could climb through the 16 inch opening to get into the cave. It's a bit difficult to do with camera gear!
  Into the Ice Cave 
There is one other icefall that's much easier to get into, but it's very small and the ice is quite thick, so the light does not penetrate through the ice quite so much. This ice curtain is approximately 25 feet wide, offering some fun exploration inside. 

The entrance to the ice cave is usually quite slippery, more so on the way down, and it's advisable to simply jump down the two or three feet to the canyon floor. Attempting to ease down seems to result in a slide down the rockface, or worse yet, a tumble onto the wet ice. This visitor found her way down the easy way.

The Slippery Canyon 
Nothing hurt but pride, the visitors kept on hiking to see the other waterfall in the canyon, and probably the other four spread out in the park as well.

The Frozen Waterfall of Ottawa Canyon

Visiting Ottawa Canyon 
 It's officially winter once the waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park freeze. We've had a couple of runs of very cold weather, and it only takes 32 degrees to begin freezing the trickling waterfalls of this part of the county.
Located in a blind canyon, the waterfall of Ottawa Canyon dramatically reveals itself as you walk down the canyon. This year was probably the most crowded I've ever experienced the canyons in winter. It was certainly a nice day for winter - temperatures in the 20's and sun - and it was a weekend. I generally visit these canyons on weekdays to avoid so many people, but it's really nice to see families visiting natural sites instead of looking at them on the internet.

  Behind Ottawa Falls 

I met a few visitors who said they were at the park for the very first time, while others mentioned it was their first winter visit. What a great day for this to be your first time at the park. All of the waterfalls were fully frozen, it wasn't too cold, and there were lots of people to ask questions if you were lost, and even take a family photo with your phone. 

 Ottawa canyon is one of the waterfalls you can walk behind in summer and winter. The ice cascades from an overhang, allowing plenty of room to explore the back of the falls. This fall is often the choice of climbers because it's an almost vertical shaft which is quite challenging to scale. We didn't see any climbers on this icefall today, but we did run into a few an another icefall.

  Under the Falls

This photo gives an idea of how much room there is behind the icefall. A few other falls allow you to walk behind, but in winter, the ice sometimes extends to the canyon wall making it difficult or impossible to walk behind. In many other cases, the ice hangs free from the canyon, and you wouldn't want to be anywhere beneath that in the event it lets go of the canyon wall and falls. Hundreds or even thousands of pounds of ice falling to the canyon floor would certainly cause serious damage. 

 Even though the weather has been cold for a while, I still don't trust walking on the ice around the falls. I do see plenty of footprints, so I can assume the ice can support the weight of people, but I have heard stories of people falling through the ice around some of these icefalls, and one in particular fell into a 4 foot deep pool. He said it was a long, cold walk back to the car, and a very uncomfortable drive home. 

Today I watched a couple walk down the center of the stream all the way out to the Illinois River where they kept walking for a bit. They were about 50 feet from the bank - I couldn't watch any longer, I hope they made it safely back to land. Falling through the ice in the creek is uncomfortable, falling through the river ice is a recovery - you fall through and the current takes you downstream with little hope of finding your way back to the small hole you fell through. 

 Plenty more photos to come from the trip to see seven frozen waterfalls.

The Cold beach

Cold Beach 
 Our visit to the beach on this day was typical of years past - not another person in view all morning. Many years ago, I would often be the only person walking on the beach on cold winter days, but a bit more recently, I would regularly encounter a few others exploring as well. The weather wasn't all that cold or windy, but the beaches were empty. Good! This is how I prefer it. 

 The shelf ice is slowly building along the beach, but because it was not too windy as it formed, it's not mounded up high along the shore, but rather flat as it extends into the lake. Walking here, I realized how easy it would be for someone to unknowingly keep walking onto the ice to the water's edge.
  Viewing the Ice 
 Walking on the beach, you don't get a good idea of the shelf ice because you're line of sight is too low. Getting up a bit higher is always best so you can see above the ice and far into the lake. Mt. Baldy offers a great view of the shelf ice from about 100 feet above the beach, but sometimes all you need is a few feet of elevation to change your perspective. That's exactly what Dan is doing here when he climbed up this dead tree that washed up on shore.

The Dune Point

The Shelf Ice Is Building 
 In just a few days, shelf ice has begun to form along the shore of Lake Michigan. This year, the ice formed when the lake wasn't as rough, so the shelf ice didn't form large mounds along the beach. This makes it a bit more dangerous for visitors because the ice looks like the beach when you're walking along unless you look for some subtle clues. I can easily see how someone could just dash out all the way to the edge of the ice thinking they are safe - especially if they have never visited the area before. When the ice mounds up, it's a lot easier to tell where the beach ends and the ice begins. It still doesn't matter to some who are either unfamiliar with the danger, or just think they're bulletproof.
I suspect in a few more days the ice will form almost as far as the eye can see; it's so interesting to visit in the winter to see these changes. The lake looks more like the Arctic Ocean when it freezes up.
  The Point 
 From the higher elevations on the dunes, one can see the extent of the ice much easier. Viewing areas are very limited now that much of the dune areas are closed or off limits, but there are a few left such as Mt. Baldy, and Central Beach. You can always put your camera on a kite and fly it high above for photo, because drones are not allowed in the park. 

Some older trails lead harmlessly to some dune overlooks. Many old homes were razed over the past few years, and the sand and weed covered asphalt roads still exist. Most locals know these trails, visitors would never find them. 

 Along the stream you can see the trail leading off to the old roads. It would be a great thing for the park service to mark these and perhaps make a viewing deck in this area, but they've all but closed off the dunes. As I've believed for a long time, and today's approval to charge admission to the park proves, the park service wishes to put more effort into keeping the public out of the park than providing a natural experience for visitors.


Hiking with a camera is a lot different than just plain hiking. When I am with my camera, I'm looking around at the expanse of where I am for interesting views and angles. I am also looking at particular objects I encounter and their relationship to the landscape. And finally, I'm looking for small things that may normally get passed up if I was simply walking along. It's a constant scan - the whole, the large, and the tiny - over and over again. If you train your eye to do this as you're walking along, you don't miss much. In fact, you see far more than you ever thought you would. 

You really need to force your eye to look at things and places you would normally ignore, and not only will you find so many interesting things to photograph, you'll find so many more things to encounter and enjoy on your hike. 

With all that said, when you reach a special place in the landscape, get all the photos you want, but before leaving that area, STOP! Stop and take in everything you see, everything you hear, everything you smell, and everything you feel. It's amazing how just standing and staring out at Lake Michigan from atop a dune can make you feel. Forget all of the details around you and all of a sudden, you become part of the scene. You'll see, hear, and feel things you don't often encounter - small animals in the tall grass, singing birds, all sorts of things you don't hear if you keep walking, talking, and pulling out your phone. 

When we arrived at the top of the dune and followed the ridge trail, we stopped and just stood there soaking in the environment around us. At first we looked around for interesting things in the distance, but after a few moments, our eyes just glazed a bit as our minds began to take in everything around us. It really is magical.
  Hiking the Ridge of the Dune 
Not only do you want to look at the "interesting" view, turn around, look at what's behind and around you, often it's better than what you're looking at! Walking just a few steps and stopping again, often brings a whole new experience once again. 

Remember to take a bit of time to remove yourself from your hike, your walk, or your relaxing rest on a bench. Take in what's around you, look at things again - for the first time as they say.

On the Tallest Dune

In the Distance 
On our hike to the beach, we ended up following a well known trail from the old neighborhoods surrounding the park, up to what used to be a parking area. Now, this entire area is overgrown with marram grass and oak trees, so it's hard to imagine any cars could have driven right in this spot, but there are still remnants of signs and pieces of the old homes. 

 Out a bit from the parking area and former homes is the tallest dune in the area. There are old pipes and sheet metal terraces leading up to this point, at one time, it must have been someone's yard - what an incredible view! From this point, you can see all the way past Michigan City into Michigan. The Michigan City lighthouse can be seen close to the horizon, near the Nipsco Power Plant (which is scheduled to be razed in a few years).
  From the Highest Dune 
 Looking in the opposite direction from the same dune, you can see Chicago's skyline on clear days, and if you look closely, even the buildings and industry all along the horizon. This is a relatively quiet area, but looking at the footprints in the fresh snow, we weren't the only visitors on this morning. 

The tails lead in and out of the old parking area and former homes to a couple of wide, winding trails that were once roads. Every so often you can see the asphalt - but again, it's been so long since these were driven on, it's hard to imagine a car fitting down these trails. 

 Walking through this area, I can't imagine how great it must have been to own one of these properties. Incredible location, beautiful views, and deer for neighbors.

Central Beach in Early Winter

A View of the Beach

If you don't like crowds, then visit the beach in winter! Seriously, Lake Michigan beaches are all but abandoned in the cold weather, and that's exactly the time I love to explore them. One great benefit is the lack of people, there simply aren't many, which makes exploration perfect. No need to worry about stepping on some kid's sandcastle, someone's towel, or having an umbrella or tent in the middle of your view. Better yet, the scenery is totally different than summer, the beach takes on a whole different attitude. 

The cold and wind certainly make things more interesting during the visit, but they also provide endless unique things to explore. This was relatively early in the winter, so ice is just forming, but Lake Michigan has still managed to toss up a bunch of ice boulders onto the beach. Chunks of ice float around in the water until they are tossed up on the beach. Wave after wave pushes and pulls the chunks until they finally end up high enough on land to stay put. This constant action rounds the edges of the ice, making them look a lot like boulders that have been in rivers or glaciers. These will eventually pile up 15 feet tall or more along the shore.
  Ice Boulders on the Beach

While the ice chunks are still close to the waves, the water splashes and pours over them, adding more drama to the formations. Looking closely, layer upon layer of ice and sand can be seen on them, and in some cases long icicles form where the water runs down the ice. 

This area is a bit difficult to walk on, because the crashing waves create very smooth ice on the beach. Generally, you won't slide too far because there are so many ice boulders, you'll eventually slide into one. But, walking on any ice between the boulders and the water is not advised. The shoreline is always angled toward the lake, when the sand freezes, the ice is very smooth and slick. It's possible, to walk onto this slick spot and slide all the way to the cold lake water, where it would be very difficult to walk out because the ice is so very slippery. Enjoy nature at a safe distance.

Ice Formations Along the Shore

Ice Stalactites The cold weather begins to build up some shelf ice along the shore of Lake Michigan. At this early stage, the ice has not yet formed a shelf, and is completely attached to the land, so it's still safe to explore. In a few days, it will begin to form over the water, and that will be dangerous to venture onto. When the waves begin to mound up the floe ice and ice chunks floating in the lake, the shelf ice will begin to pile up into mounds reaching 15 or 20 feet high. Before that, the ice now forms intricate shapes as the water flows back and forth on the beach. The formations created look a lot like stalactites and stalagmites in caves. I suppose both features are created in a similar manner, only the ice is fast and seasonal, while the limestone formations take thousands of years to form. Ice Layers In this small formation, almost every layer can be seen from the ground up, almost like a topographical map. These same layers can be seen all around the shore at this time, but will eventually be covered in large chunks of ice and snow. Only time will tell if the shelf ice builds hundreds of feet out into the lake, or if it will remain as is for the rest of the winter.

Haunting Ice

Haunting Ice What was a bright, sunny day as we arrived at the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse, turned to an overcast winter day quite quickly, and dramatically. In fact, the fleeting transition between sun and clouds lasted only a moment or two. An overcast day generally provides very flat light, no real bright spots, no dramatic shadows. Compare that to a sunny day where the dynamic range in light is extreme from sun to shadow. When the clouds rolled in, they blocked most of the sun quickly, but the last few rays of sun illuminated the ice against the dark clouds and water. This created a dramatic, haunting look and feel to this image.

Ice Around the Pier

Frozen Shore

Early winter creates some sculpted ice on the shore of Lake Michigan where the water splashed up on every nearby surface and froze. Every blade of grass, every branch, and every railing is covered in a thick coat of ice. 

I arrived expecting much more ice on the lighthouse itself, but there is very little compared to most years - at least so far. There was quite a bit on the pier and the plants close to the river, where the waves push up and overflow the banks.

Icy Catwalk

On arrival, it was clear with full sun, but after a few minutes the clouds rolled in, changing the look of everything very quickly. The long icicles hanging from the catwalk were still illuminated by the sun, and stood out against the darker sky. The transition between sun and clouds can be seen in the image above. 

That cloud mass brought with it some freezing rain which covered the roadways with a thin sheet of ice. Our one day trip turned into two as we decided to stay the night instead of attempting the drive all the way home.

The "Hoodoos" of St. Joseph Michigan


The St. Joseph, Michigan Hoodoos

Like miniature versions of the sandstone formations of the Badlands and Brice Canyon, Utah, these formations look a lot like "Hoodoos." These particular formations, however, are only temporary features of the Lake Michigan shore. 

Winter does some incredible things to the beaches along the shore of the Great Lakes, but in addition to the ice and snow, small details often get overlooked. When water falls on sand, it seeps down to the layers below; in cold weather, the water turns to ice. Along the beaches, winds hit the shore and slowly move sand away from the lake, but the frozen portions don't wear away, they remain. These remaining formations are incredible little sculptures I call Hoodoos.
The Hoodoos of St. Joseph

I've seen these formations for years in other places. Usually, they are formed when wind mixes the snow with sand, and the snow begins to melt, then freezes again. I found hundreds of these in Silver Lake, Michigan in 2017, and blogged about them in my Huffington Post blog: Click here to view that post. The ones in St. Joseph, Michigan this year are much smaller, and confined to a rather small section of the beach, but they are a bit more consistent in style.
Field of Hoodoos

I was surprised to see quite a few kids and families were exploring the Hoodoos in the bitter cold wind. In years past, I was often the only person on the beach in the winter; it's good to see people getting out to explore and come across things they never imagined, like the interesting Hoodoos of St. Joseph, Michigan.

The Ice is Beginning to Form

The Ice Begins to Form

The new year brought some frigid weather to the southern Lake Michigan area, enough to begin the creation of some thick ice on the pier and catwalk of the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse. Typically, the ice begins to form much earlier in the season - sometimes in late November - but this winter, conditions weren't right until now.

Conditions include very cold temperatures, winds high enough to churn up waves that crash into the pier and lighthouse, and a liquid lake (not frozen yet) so waves can build up. A layer of ice on the lake prevents the water from splashing up, so later in the winter when the lake usually freezes over, ice rarely builds on the lighthouses.

Frozen Pier

While the ice hasn't yet covered the lighthouse, it is beginning to freeze the surfaces of the pier, railings, and catwalk. The ice on the railings is already about two feet thick may continue to build depending on how conditions are in the future.

Many years ago, winters along the Lake Michigan shoreline were generally lonely, very few people ventured to view the lighthouses or ice along the shore. In recent years, however, crowds of people brave the cold weather to experience the ice formations. As long as the everyone keeps off the ice, it's a great thing to see.