View From the Indian Caves

The View from the Indian Caves

A spring snowfall highlights the walls of the canyon locals call "The Indian Caves".  This small canyon is riddled with holes and caves its entire length.  The elevation change is approximately 30 feet, with small waterfalls near the end of the canyon where the stream empties into the Kankakee River.

This cave was large enough to walk into, but only about 25 feet long; just deep enough for the walls and ceiling to create a dramatic frame for the snow covered woods on the other side of the stream.

Not the largest or most dramatic canyon in Illinois, it is, however, a very interesting place to visit and explore. Located in Bradley, Illinois, just a few meters away from the Kankakee River, and about a 3/4 mile hike from the nearest parking, one gets the feeling of being much farther away from town than they really are, even though the parking area is right in the business district of the town.

View From the Bluff

South Haven Overlook

With hardly any snow left around land, walking on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan surprised us, as the lake was still in winter's icy grip. Signs of a warm up are evident if you know where to look: Plenty of sand on the ice piles; smooth, grey ice between the ice mounds (melt water frozen again); and little or no ice on the lighthouse.  Yet, it still appeared we were looking at an arctic seascape, littered with car-sized drift ice. and bordered by snow covered mountains.

Days like these are some of the best for visiting the lakeshore - especially for those who can't cope with the freezing weather often associated with winter along the Great Lakes. Not only is it very comfortable to walk the shore, but you can witness so many changes happening right before your eyes, as the ice begins to retreat.

Mysteries in Ice

They Came in Peace

The frozen Lake Michigan shore is always interesting, but as the ice begins to melt, even more interesting things can happen.  With a little imagination, the shore can create some fun stories.

 For instance, this ice mound takes on the appearance of an alien ship that landed on the shelf ice.  Here, people are carefully approaching the craft to investigate the landing craft.

Inverted Footprints

Just a few hundred feet away, negative footprints lead out onto the shelf ice.  Perhaps related to the alien ship in the photo above?  Most likely, these were hard-packed footprints in deep snow that filled with sand, blown in by the wind.  When the ice began to melt, the sand shielded the ice from the sun, and the packed ice melted slower than the surrounding ice, leaving these stepping stones on the frozen lake.

It's a bit early for April Fool's day, but fun none the less.

Ice Packed

Ice Packed

Even after many days of warm, spring temperatures, the ice remains on lake Michigan.  The lighthouse in South Haven, Michigan, still surrounded by ice, attracts dozens of visitors on this warm afternoon.  Temperatures near 50 degrees - a heatwave after months of below freezing temperatures - brought crowds of people to the beach, lighthouse and downtown shopping district.  With the exception of piles created by snow plows, snow was rather difficult to find anywhere else around town.  One look at Lake Michigan, and it seemed as though the area was still in a deep freeze.

Melt water seems to have filled much of the shelf ice between the shore and the ice mounds near the edge of the ice shelf. Refrozen, it creates a beautiful, abstract gray surface for seagulls to explore.

This is most likely one of the last weekends of the year for the frozen shore of southern Lake Michigan; don't let it slip past, get out and experience it first-hand.

Winter at the Beach

Winter at the Beach

Temperatures in the 40s attracted visitors to the Lake Michigan beaches over the weekend - even before the snow and ice had a chance to melt.

Walking and playing on the beach at this time of year has a very different look and feel than any other season. The mounds of ice just off shore block the view of the lake, but suggest a view of a different environment, one of the arctic.  From the beach, the mounds of ice look like a mountain range viewed from a great distance, eventhough they are only about 15 feet tall and a few hundred feet away.

These icy views will only last a few more days, so get out there and enjoy them before they melt away.

The Shack in the Sugar Bush

The Sugar Shack

Early farming in the northern United States often included Maple Sugar production.  If you were lucky enough to have plenty of Maple trees on your property, you didn't have to purchase cane sugar or molasses from the southern states. This was a matter of Northern pride during the Civil War.

Walking through the sugar bush (a wooded area which includes trees for sap collection), you'd often find buckets hanging from spiles pounded into trees.  The sap runs when temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing, and it drips into the buckets where it collects, ready for farmers to gather up.  Farmers then boiled the sap to reduce it into maple sugar or syrup.

To protect the workers and equipment from the elements, a sugar shack was built.  This housed supplies as well as the wood-fired stove and evaporator used to boil the sap. The sugar shack pictured above, is part of the historic Chellberg Farm, located within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The Sugar Shack

The Maple Sugar Shack

It's that time of year again!  Warm days and freezing nights - the perfect weather for Maple sap to begin running.  The fluctuations in temperature expands and contracts the fibers in the tree, allowing the sap to flow.  Tapping the trees, and collecting the sap is just the first step in making Maple sugar.

Warming the Syrup Jug

Maple Sugar Time at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is the perfect place to learn how maple sugar was processed throughout history.  Found only in the northern United States and Canada, maple sugar production is unique to our continent. Native Americans collected the sap in wood bowls, then added hot rocks to the sap to get the liquid to boil.  Later, European settlers to the area used large kettles to boil the sap over open fires, increasing production.  In the early 1900's, shallow metal evaporators were placed over wood stoves to heat more sap much faster.  The operation was housed inside a small building called a "sugar shack."

All of these methods are demonstrated by volunteers and park rangers at the historic Chellberg Farm, located within the national Park.  Children can also try their hand a tapping  a tree, and carrying buckets of sap hung from a yoke.

Maple Sugar Time takes place annually, on the first two (full) weekends of March.

Build Up

Ice Build Up

Viewed from the windward side, the shelf ice along the Michigan City, Indiana lighthouse and pier, virtually takes over the structure.  Rising at least 15 feet above the water's surface, one can touch the catwalk, and at some points, climb right up.

Here, the thickness and size of the ice is evident due to the hole in the ice seen in the foreground. Following some snow and wind, this hole could be completely covered over by a thin layer of snow and ice.  A person can unknowingly walk on that thin ice and plunge to the icy water below.

Here, we were safely over the concrete pier, and in no danger of falling through the shelf ice.



It's been said, you need to focus on the task at hand.  That's perfectly true, however, it also pays to take your eye off of that task and look around.  That's what happened here, as I focused all of my attention on photographing the ice covered lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan.

It was early morning, and as the sun began to illuminate the beach, I focused on the subject at hand, the reason I drove 100 miles, and woke up at 4 am - the frozen lighthouse. Moving from place to place along the beach, I kept my back toward the dunes, and hoped for the rising sun to illuminate the white ice against the dark clouds in the sky. It did.  But what was more interesting, and almost overlooked, was the eastern sky, moments before the sunrise.

As I changed location, I glanced back to see the red light of the rising sun playing in the clouds, with the dunes and trees silhouetted in front.

I only wish I was off shore, and able to capture this magical sunrise behind the frozen lighthouse. Maybe next time.


Ice and Carelessness

While on the pier at Grand Haven, Michigan, I noticed dozens of visitors walking on the shelf ice off shore of the public beach.  These particular people, decided to walk as far as they could, and made it to the very edge of the shelf ice.  Once there, they climbed the highest mound and stood on top, taking in the view.

Sounds like a great vantage point - probably was.  But that walk could have easily ended in tragedy if one foot fell through the ice on the way out or the way back.  Shelf ice is never safe to walk on.  Cracks and faults in the ice lead directly to the freezing water below.  The large mound can crack off of the rest of the ice shelf, and roll into the lake - taking everyone with it.

These people probably weren't aware of the danger, or simply figured they knew better.  I watched as they made their way back to shore, expecting one to simply disappear at any moment.  Luckily, they all returned safely.

Broken Ice

Sheets of Ice
Large sheets of ice, broken up by the waves of Lake Michigan, gather together in piles, soon to become pancake ice. Pancake ice is created when ice collides with other chunks of ice in moving water.  They collied and turn slighthly, over and over again.  The random movement creates round formations that look like pancakes or donuts. Notice how the broken ice is beginning to form round bunches on the water.

These large, flat pieces of ice came from the Grand River, and collected here, near the mouth of the river at Grand Haven, Michigan. Though they look rather small, the larger chunks measured about 10 feet across, and at least four inches thick.

As they moved in the water, an odd squeaking, cracking sound could be heard.

Winter Stroll

Winter Stroll

A Walk on the beach in winter is really a trip to another world.  Viewing Lake Michigan from a sand dune may be the only way to actually see the lake. Once you're down on the beach, the lake is invisible, obstructed by the 15 foot tall ice mounds created by the pounding waves and freezing temperatures. These mounds appear like mini-volcanos, slowing growing as the waves force water up though the cones of ice. Walking safely on the sand, it appears as if you're walking in the arctic, on top of a mountain range, viewing another mountain range from a distance, but the "mountain range" is in reality, only 15 feet tall.

Ice Mounds

If you haven't been to a Great Lakes beach in winter, put it on your list of things to do.  You've got another month at least to experience the magical, frozen landscape first-hand.  Remember to stay off of the ice mounds. Read why here, on my Huffington Post blog:

Frozen Pierhead

Frozen Pierhead

A pier on Lake Michigan, in winter, covered in piles of ice chunks several feet tall doesn't seem to be a prime destination for many, but for us, it was a perfect weekend getaway.  Most people visit beaches in the summer, and when I mention I'm heading to the beach in February, they seem to think I'm heading to the tropics.  I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to walk on the frozen shore - I could see a tropical beach any time of the year, but the ice boulders and shelf ice are only here for a while. Mix in giant icicles created by frozen spray from Lake Michigan, and we have the perfect spot to visit on a sunny winter afternoon.

Locked in Ice

We headed onto the frozen pier carefully; it was my youngest son's first time up close at a frozen lighthouse. Knowing the area and the construction of the pier is important, especially when bringing someone else with you.  It was easy to see where the concrete pier ended even though it was covered in ice that extended many feet into the lake.  We remained safely on the concrete areas, and avoided any areas where a slip would result in a slide into the cold lake. We stopped a few meters from the lighthouse, noticing the piles of ice further up were large enough to carry a falling person into the water like a toboggan.

From the vantage point of the pier, we could view the shelf ice from the windward side, the side facing the lake. Thankfully, on this visit, nobody was spotted walking on the dangerous shelf ice.

Michigan City Pierhead Iced Up

Michigan City Ice

The sunny afternoon brought temperatures near 40 degrees, making for a very comfortable visit to Michigan City, Indiana's Washington Park. The lakefront park is a convenient place to view the winter shore. A lot of the lakefront parks at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore are closed during the winter, so this is one place to view the shelf ice.  It also provides a great view, and access to the Michigan City East Pierhead lighthouse, and this year, it had quite a bit of ice on it. I haven't seen this lighthouse covered in ice as dramatically as some lighthouses in Michigan, but this year was different.

We decided to see how far we could walk out on the frozen pier before it got too dangerous.  The ice boulders washed up by the waves provided pretty good footing, preventing us from accidentally sliding off of the pier. The shelf ice can be safely viewed from the pier, and it was rather large and dramatic.

Ice Packed Harbor

As we climbed up and down the mounds of ice on the pier, we were reminded of the warm weather by the constant dripping coming from the melting ice on the catwalk.  At times, the ice was mounded so high, we were able to see over the catwalk.

More snow, cold, and wind this week, possibly adding to the ice on the pier in Michigan City.

Beneath Wildcat Falls

Beneath Wildcat Falls

Starved Rock's Wildcat Canyon features an 80 foot tall waterfall that freezes into a solid column of ice in winter.  Used by some for ice climbing, the column grows to at least eight feet in diameter, and is a wonder to stand near.

I was able to climb up a small, icy rock outcropping just behind the frozen waterfall. Here I could view the back of the waterfall - the portion toward the inside the concave canyon wall.  Water continued to drip from the stream above, and echoed inside the small cave created by the ice column. From the bottom of the frozen fall, one gets a unique perspective of the ice in relation to the canyon.

After years of visiting Starved Rock in winter, I'm still amazed at the scale of these icefalls.

Matthiessen's Frozen Waterfalls

Pair of Frozen Waterfalls

Almost every winter, the waterfalls of Matthiessen State Park freeze over. One pair of waterfalls that are in close proximity to each other, but not often visited (because one needs to cross a small creek), create ice caves on the sides of the canyon walls.

The canyon walls are undercut here, and as the water flows over, it drops several feet away from the interior rock wall allowing for space between the falling water and the back of the canyon wall. When the falling water freezes, it creates a solid wall of ice, with a few feet in between the ice and the rock wall.  Most years, agile hikers can climb into this space, and explore the "ice cave" from within.

Inside the Ice Cave

This winter, the canyon beyond Matthiessen's Cedar Point contained two frozen waterfalls, and one in particular created an ice cave that was long and accessible from both sides. The approximately 50 foot long cave had an interior height of about five feet, and width of four feet, making the walk inside relatively easy.  In years past, the length of the cave was obstructed by ice, and one could only venture in a few feet before confronting the end of the cave.

Colorful Ice

Eerily lit by sunlight filtering through the ice wall, I found the light mesmerizing as I explored inside the cave. The ice was multicolored; minerals and clay carried by the water froze in place, and the canyon walls, sky, and trees were telegraphing through the ice.  Water continued to fall between the frozen walls, creating a six to eight inch deep pond on the entire floor of the ice cave.  As I walked through the cave to the far end, it was possible to exit on the other side of the canyon, where a good amount of water was falling from the creek above. Not wanting to get drenched on such a cold afternoon, I headed back the way I came, viewing the ice from a different perspective.

Ice Cave Interior

Most of Matthiessen's five or more waterfalls freeze each winter, but the two beyond Cedar Point are by far the most interesting for me to explore - inside and out.

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.