The Last Grip

The Last Grip
Probably the last of winter's grip on the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouses and channel markers.  Over the winter, ice built up on the concrete piers marking the banks of St. Joseph River - in places, feet thick. The increasingly sunny days bring with them warmth and the ability to melt this coating, once again revealing the structures underneath.

The piers were lined with fishermen, the shore dotted with seagulls and eager beach-goers, and the lake with melting drift ice. Warmer weather, and storms this week will almost certainly eliminate the last of winter's creations.

The Melting

The Melting Begins
Winter finally begins to release its grip on Lake Michigan, as the ice begins to melt.  Still extending to the visible horizon, the ice is giving way to a bit of water, creating some interesting formations along the shore.

Full sun, and temperatures reaching 50 degrees Fahrenheit made the walk on the beach comfortable - after 4 months of dashing through frigid weather. The St. Joseph, Michigan pier was swarming with people, walking, biking, and fishing; probably the first outings for most this year. It felt great to walk in sand again, rather than ice and snow.

Icy Expanse

Icy Expance
Looking more like a scene from the Great Salt Lake, or a volcanic vent, the shore of Lake Michigan is in a thawing state.  The mounds of shelf ice a few hundred feet off shore appear like mountains in the distance, while the melting ice at the shore has the look of mineral deposits, with jagged edges leading to cavernous spaces beneath the water.

The melting ice near the shore created some beautiful patterns on the edges; looking rather delicate, it could support my weight.  This melting just began, and we only noticed it in a small area of the beach.  Each day, will change this "landscape" drastically, until the ice is gone.

As cold as the water was, I felt the need to wade in just to experience the floating ice highlighted by the sun and shadows. Ultimately, I resisted.  I do, however, wish to bring along a kayak next time, to paddle in the water next to and between the mounds of ice.

Dune Patterns

Dune Patterns

Partially obscured by high clouds, and the dunes, the early morning sun highlights the wind-blown patterns in the freshly fallen snow.  Our first steps onto the beach after walking a few miles from the nearest parking area, and between these two dunes, were into the thigh-deep snow.  Solid in places, we'd fall through every few steps, making the hike a bit of a chore.

We walked as fast as possible to get to a legal place to climb the dunes before the distant clouds rolled in. As it turned out, after a long while on the top of the ridge, the clouds disappeared for the rest of the day, making the waters of Lake Michigan deep blue, and the drift ice bright white.

Horizontal Bands

Horizontal Bands
The deep blue waters of Lake Michigan, drift ice, shelf ice, sand, and snow create interesting bands of color and texture along the beach.  A relatively warm day allowed some of the ice on the lake to melt, a sure sign of Spring.  The snow will disappear soon as well, but the 15 foot tall mounds of shelf ice can take weeks to melt.

As much as I dislike cold weather, winter is a magical time on the Great Lakes.  After hiking miles to reach locations for photographs, I often remain, soaking in the atmosphere - quiet solitude.  I'm almost always the only person in sight, and from some vantage points, I can see for miles.

Once summer arrives, I'm rarely the only person in sight - unless I seek some of the relatively unknown places at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which I often do.

The Break Up, From the Ridge

The Break Up from the Ridge

This winter, most of the lakefront access areas I frequent, were closed, preventing me from viewing the frozen lake.  The main issue with the closings, was parking- there was nowhere close to park.  Having been to these beaches every winter for years, I was determined not to break the streak, so we found  the nearest parking area, and hiked in about three miles one way.

It was a relatively warm morning, with stiff winds blowing in, and fading sunshine.  We managed to climb the snow covered dune safely (and legally), and were greeted by this view.

Previously, ice covered Lake Michigan as far as the eye could see, but with the recent warm temperatures and high winds, the ice began to break up. The shelf ice, however, isn't going anywhere for some time.  From approximately 80 feet above the beach, we could see the extent of the 15 to 20 foot tall shelf ice mounds, and the deep blue, open water.

Well worth the hike and the climb, we experienced the beach in winter - one of my favorite times to visit - with no other people in sight for miles.  After capturing photographs, we remained on the ridge for some time, just to soak in the experience.

On to the next place, it was only 8:00 am....

Inside the Sugar Shack

Another Log on the Fire

The historic boiler inside the Chelberg sugar shack is wood fueled.  A worker quickly opened the doors to add another log to keep the sap boiling. After a moment, he closed the doors and a sound very similar to a jet engine emanated from the boiler, as the oxygen was sucked in from other places. The heat and steam generated by this process makes this cold weather work, rather comfortable, if you don't mind a bit of rain dripping on your head from the condensed steam. A Sweet Job Here, a worker describes the maple sugaring process to park visitors. The glass jug suspended over the evaporator is being tempered by they steam, in preparation for filling with hot maple syrup. The jug must be warmed prior to filling, or the hot syrup would shatter the cold glass. Ounce for ounce, maple sugar sweetens the same as cane sugar, but has less of an impact on glucose levels. I learn something every time I visit.

Maple Sugar Time

The Sugar Shack
Following a winter with plenty of days below zero, the sap isn't quite ready to run.  Days need to be above freezing, and nights need to dip below freezing for the sap to start running enough to collect.  We have had a few days above freezing, so the staff and volunteers at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore were able to collect a bit of sap for Maple Sugar Days, two weekends of Maple sugaring demonstrations.

The sugar shack houses a wood fired evaporator to boil off the majority of the water from the maple sap. With the cold weather, the sugar shack is the most comfortable portion of the maple sugaring process, inside a building with a large fire burning, and plenty of steam.  So much steam, in fact, that it "rains" inside the building as the steam hits the cold steel roof, and condensates.

Checking the Evaporator

Structure Revealed

Structure Revealed The rising winter sun reveals the structure of the Hennepin Canal's lock 11, the steel bridge, and even the trees. Following record cold weather, a few days of warm temperatures began to melt some of the snow, causing some minor flooding of fields, creeks, and parks. The towpath of the Hennepin Canal turned to ice after temperatures dropped once again, making it a bit hazardous to hike. After a tumble on the ice, we decided against hiking the distance between locks; instead, we opted to drive from lock to lock. The only casualty of the fall was discovered an hour later, when I decided to change lenses. As I removed the lens cap, pieces of glass fell to the ground. I immediately thought the front element of my 300mm lens was broken, rendering the lens useless. However, I discovered that only the UV filter was broken - the lens cap was driven into the filter, breaking it, but protecting the front element of the lens. This proves the inexpensive UV filters are worth their weight in gold. Make sure all of your lenses have a UV filter on them, if only to protect them against scratches and accidental breakage.

Ice "Locked"

Hennepin in Winter Lock 23 of the historic Hennepin Canal was still frozen solid, despite two days of weather near 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and a day of rain showers. Snowmobile tracks were the only sign of people; not a single footprint in the snow other than ours, as we hiked on the extremely slippery towpath. We don't really ever see many people anywhere on the canal, even in summer, but on this day, we didn't run into anyone else. Formerly called the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, the Hennepin Canal connects the Mississippi River and the Illinois River, two major waterways serving Illinois. Prior to railroads and good roads, canals such as these were the main method of transporting goods from one part of the country to another. The 33 lock Hennepin Canal is constructed of concrete -the first U.S. canal built using this new the technology. Construction began in 1892, and the first boat made the complete 104 mile voyage in 1907. At the same time this canal was being constructed, the locks on the Illinois River were widened to accommodate larger boats, making the Hennepin Canal obsolete before it was ever completed. Today, the canal and towpath are used for fishing, boating, hiking, biking, and snowmobiling.

As Far As the Eye Can See

As Far as the Eye Can See

The Michigan City East Pierhead is locked in ice - ice that extends as far as the eye can see, and covers over 60 percent of the surface of Lake Michigan. While this ice seems solid, it's made up of chunks of drift ice, pushed by the wind into the shelf ice on shore.  Snow and more ice filled in the gaps between the chunks, forming what appears to be a solid slab.

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore can be seen on the horizon at the left of the image.  Locked in by mounds of ice on one side, and closed parking lot gates on the other, waiting for spring and thousands of visitors.  I prefer visiting in winter, when I'm usually the only person in sight, and the views are ever changing.

Indiana Dunes Shelf Ice

Indiana Dunes Shelf Ice

The sand dunes of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore seen from far offshore, beyond the shelf ice that lines the beach.  The space between the mounds of ice in the foreground, and the 125 foot tall sand dunes in the distance is Lake Michigan - frozen solid with shelf ice, and drift ice.  This winter, over 60 percent of Lake Michigan is covered in ice, and liquid water cannot be seen anywhere between shore and the horizon.

If you view this image full size, the ice along the shore is clearly visible;  mounded up by waves crashing in to the shore several weeks ago. This provides an example of the extent of the ice.

While this ice appear solid, it's actually floating on the surface of the lake, and moving slowly.  Extremely dangerous to walk on, the temptation is far too great for the people who ignore the danger signs and venture out onto the ice - a potentially deadly undertaking.

I was in a safe location while taking this photo, not on the shelf ice.

Bright Snowcovered Lake


Following a day of light snow, and weeks of below average temperatures, the ice on Lake Michigan is not only bright white, it's covering over 60 percent of the lake - more than we've seen in decades.  The sun made the 16 degree temperatures seem warm, as we made our way through knee high snow to the pier.  Once on the pier, we made certain to stay on the actual pier, and not walk on the thick shelf ice that was mounded next to and on to the pier.

The trek out was fairly easy considering all of the ice, but toward the end of the pier, as I made my way around the lighthouse, the surface was very slippery, and the mounds didn't make it any easier to stay upright either.

Going out onto the pier in winter, gives you a great view of the shelf ice - from off shore.  Photographs of that, coming soon.

Colored Ice

Colored Ice
As water flows over and through the sandstone canyon walls, it picks up minerals and particles, and deposits them on the canyon floor.  In winter, the minerals and particles freeze in the ice, creating interesting earthtone colored ice that matches the canyon walls.

The colored ice was almost disorienting in some places, as the perfectly smooth colored ice made people and items appear to float above the surface, as well as reflect the canyon walls.  Certainly an interesting thing to experience first hand.

Beyond Cedar Point

Beyond Cedar Point
Beyond Cedar Point lies a short, blind canyon containing two waterfalls each approximately 20 feet in height. In winter, the waterfalls freeze, often creating caves of ice between the frozen waterfall and the canyon walls. It's great fun exploring these caves; they evolve everyday, and are rarely the same two visits in a row.

Often very slippery to climb into, but well worth the effort; it's as if you're transported to the underworld when inside. Visually similar to rock caves, the ice formations take only a fraction of the time to create as their stone counterparts.

Entering the Ice Cave
The light penetrates the ice walls, creating mesmerizing works of art from floor to ceiling. Minerals, sand and soil intermix with the ice, resulting in varying colors of ice.

Cascading Ice

Cascading Ice

Lake Falls, a 30 - 40 foot tall waterfall, froze solid this winter following a string of cold spells, some down to 17 below zero Fahrenheit. Because of the spray from the falling water, it's often very difficult to photograph so close to this waterfall, but when it's frozen, it's not a problem.

Actuallly, the water is still flowing behind the ice.  The intricate formations create a type of  "ice pipeline," allowing the water to flow within.  As you approach the frozen falls, you can often hear the flowing water, and on this day, we heard the water making a squeaking sound behind the ice.

Unlike most of the other waterfalls in the area, this particular fall does not create large ice caves behind it. More on those in the coming days.

The Ascent

The Ascent

Generally a waterfall cascading 30 to 40 feet to the bottom of the canyon, this year's harsh winter has stopped it in it's tracks.  While completely frozen on the outside, water continues to fall behind this wall of ice.  Upon arrival, we could hear the water rushing inside, and as we got closer, we could see it through the holes in the ice.

We hiked through the canyon for about three hours- in 15 degree temperatures, stopping to view over six frozen waterfalls of different sizes. With the recent snowfall, many of the ice formations were covered, and not as impressive as past years.  In many places, we could hear and see the water of the stream flowing beneath our path - the frozen stream.

We'll head back in the next couple of weeks, to check on the progress of the frozen falls elsewhere in the area.

Approaching Ice

Approaching Ice

Ice drifts from Lake Michigan into the St. Joseph River, effectively blocking the waterway, as winter tightens her grip on the region.  Not yet quite as dramatic as last year, the ice is beginning to form on the pier and lighthouse

Never Do This

Shelf Ice and Dunes
With all the recent coverage of the polar vortex, and frozen lighthouses, a lot more people are making the trek to the shore of Lake Michigan this winter. The lakeshore in winter is amazing - like an arctic mountain range seen from above. For those people who want to get a better look at the frozen lake, this looks like the perfect way to do it. However, what these people don't consider before venturing out onto the ice, is that this is perhaps one of the most dangerous things to do on the shore of Lake Michigan in winter.

The frozen mounds rise 15 or 20 feet above the surrounding surfaces. This is created by waves crashing into the floating ice that collects along the shore called shelf ice. Like a shelf, is not attached to the ground - in this case, it's floating on the surface of Lake Michigan.  The ice certainly appears stable, and solid, yet this is deceiving.  Cracks, thin spots, faults and holes are often intermixed with the mounds, and covered by drifted snow.
Dangerous 2

The pounding water undercuts the edges of the ice, and the underside is not consistant, but riddled with air pockets. These defects can lead directly to the 33 degree water below the ice, with no way of climbing back up.  Not only is the water unbearably cold - It's difficult to breathe when your body is immersed in very cold water due to contracting muscles.  Even worse, you may instinctively inhale or gasp when you hit the icy water, and drown.  Once through the ice, it's completely dark, and chances are, you will be swept away from the hole by the moving water. Holes such as the one shown in the photo below, are often hidden by a thin layer of snow or ice.

On the Edge

Never Do This

The people shown in the photo above are probably 200 feet off shore on Lake Michigan, where the depth of the water could certainly exceed 8 feet.  If they were to fall through the ice, they would have little or no way to escape without rescue assistance. Even falling off the edge into the water could prove fatal.

Please, no matter how tempting, do not venture on the ice.

Winter Reflection

Winter Reflection Walking along the ice and snow covered pier across the river from the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse on a rather warm, winter afternoon. Even though the harbor was locked in by drift ice, the river was still liquid, providing a great surface for reflections of the lighthouse. It snowed for the next several days, I'll have to head back to check out how the lighthouse appears now.