Early Break Up

Break Up

A warm end to February has accelerated the break up of the shelf ice along the shore of Lake Michigan. What is left of the shelf ice, clings to the shore in only about a foot of water, yet the waves keep trying to build more and more ice mounds.

Generally a dangerous and even deadly practice, walking on this ice was safe - the only danger was stepping into about a foot of very cold water. The pounding waves attempt to pile up more ice, but they also tear apart what was previously built. The process is nearly endless until spring.

 Hints of Spring

The waves and cold breeze didn't scare everyone away from the lake, and a couple of people even walked out to the end of the pier as we walked the beach. I'm sure we'll see more cold weather in the coming weeks, but it's doubtful we'll see enough to build more shelf ice.

Crumbling Falls of LaSalle Canyon

Crumbling Falls

With the warm weather lately, the frozen waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park are transforming by the hour.  In some cases, the warm weather can help the icefalls grow, as the snow melts, it sends water down the streams that feed the falls.

Chunks of ice break loose and fall to the ground, then additional water freezes on and around them. In the early winter, this icefall was thin, and the light came through, making a colorful frozen wall hikers could walk behind.  Now, the falls have thickened, blocking out the light, and other pieces have broken off, making this icefall narrow again.

The water that continues to fall over the canyon wall, forms intricate shapes and patterns on the exterior of the frozen ice column. These are often the first parts of the ice to break off, so they must be enjoyed while they last.

Ice Formations

Climbing Tonti Falls

Climbing Tonti

Winter often creates beautiful frozen waterfalls in the canyons of Illinois' Starved Rock State Park, and once they're tall enough to reach the canyon floor, they can often support climbers.  With the supervision of park staff, climbers can take on a variety of ice climbing challenges.

Climbing Tonti Falls

French Canyon and Wildcat Canyon falls are the frozen waterfalls I've seen climbed the most often, but on this warm winter afternoon, the climbers were in Tonti Canyon. This canyon is a lot farther from the visitor's center, so it requires quite a hike to and from, and is less frequently visited by casual hikers.

Of the two falls in Tonti Canyon, only this waterfall was complete and thick enough to climb this year. It's amazing how tall these ice falls are, and how difficult they must be to climb. Not only the physical climb, but keeping your arms above your head for the entire climb, in the cold, with freezing water dripping down constantly.  It could certainly wear out a climber in a matter of minutes.

Reaching for the Top

From the perspective of the climber, a good path to the top of the falls must be much more difficult than it appears to the observer on the ground. Listening to the climber and the support people on the ground, I realized how hard it must be to negotiate the twists and turns of the ice with your face just inches away.

Contemplating the Next Move

Contemplating the next move while supported only by ice axes and crampons, this climber attempts to look up for the best way to the top.

Decending the Falls

Once at the top of the falls, the climbers can rest a bit before their decent down the falls, back to the canyon floor.  The decent seemed a lot easier, yet one must be careful of falling ice, and dropping to the ground too quickly.

The past two days have seen temperatures above 50 degrees, so these falls are most likely history, but another week or so of cold weather can create more of these interesting ice falls.

Wintering Eagles

American Bald Eagle
On our latest trip through the canyons of Starved Rock State Park, we encountered a few American Bald Eagles along the river trail. This area is known as a winter spot for eagles - the dam across the Illinois River prevents ice from forming on the water in this area, allowing the eagles to fish all winter long.

The recent warm weather has opened up quite a bit more of the river, so the eagles were not as concentrated in this area as they were earlier in the winter.  At times, I've seen 30 eagles on the trees of Plumb Island, just out of reach of most cameras. Occasionally, as they fish, they come close enough to photograph and view. They also rest in the trees away from the busy hiking trails.


I was rather surprised at how few hikers noticed this eagle resting in the nearby trees, but then, most people in this area were hiking the canyons, not looking to photograph or view eagles.  The bird watchers normally congregate on the Starved Rock bluff, or other viewing decks, so we had a perfect viewing area to ourselves.

A Blanket of Snow

Blanket of Snow

The Chicago area was hit with a snowstorm yesterday. While it certainly wasn't a record setting blizzard, it did dump around 12 inches of snow in my suburb. This storm only brought snow, no wind, so the snow fell upon everything evenly, and it also built up on objects creating interesting visuals all around us.

A cherub statue on a bench appeared to be wrapped in a blanket - a blanket of snow. The bench itself is about 18 inches tall, giving an idea of how much snow fell around the garden.

Snow Capped

A birdhouse made by my son many years ago, sits in one of the trees in our yard. It collected a cone of snow on the roof that measures more than the birdhouse itself. The birds might just feel a bit warmer with the added insulation on the roof.

Dripping Sand

Dripping Sand

Our hike on the beach of Mt. Baldy in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore introduced us to an interesting thing. The snow that fell earlier in the morning was moved by dripping sand.  Something that happens everyday along the dunes, small amounts of sand loses its grip and slides down the steep sides of the dunes.  Normally, the sand either goes unnoticed, or forms a slight line in the sand as it falls down the dune.

The sand kept falling, but as it did, it moved the fresh snow along with it, acting like tiny plows as it moved on toward the beach.

These lines echo the lines of the branches of the bare trees just above, growing on the dune and enduring yet another harsh winter on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Breaking Through

These dunes are relatively protected in winter, by mounds of shelf ice.  The high waves can't reach the dunes if they're blocked by this ice.  But as the temperature fluctuates, the ice weakens, and the waves increase, causing some of the ice mounds to crumble, making possible for the waves to reach beyond the shelf ice.

Ever changing, these mounds may collapse further if the warm weather continues, or, they may build stronger if the temperatures drop.  We'll see on our next visit.

The Winter Beach

The Winter Beach

A visit to Mt. Baldy on a warm winter afternoon was on the schedule after a morning of ice fishing on a small lake nearby. Temperatures in the upper 30's made this hike comfortable, if not a bit too hot dressed in winter gear - my coat was open the entire time.

Closed for two or three years, Mt. Baldy opened again last year, with a new path to the beach, avoiding the potentially dangerous parts of the main dune.  We noticed the new trail was being taken over by erosion as well.  A good part of the approach to the beach was missing, making the hike down to the beach a bit difficult.  In winter, the sand freezes, so it does not allow your feet to sink in, and the steep angle requires you to slide down the last 10 feet.

Ice Mounds

The views from the top of the dune are great, especially with the drift ice floating in Lake Michigan. The Michigan City lighthouse could be seen in the distance, beyond the mounds of shelf ice on the shore. Winds were blowing out toward the lake, so much of the ice drifted out away from shore. As soon as the winds shift back to normal, the ice will pack against the shore once again, creating more and more shelf ice.

Shelf ice is made up of these chunks packed together and piled up by the crashing waves, it's not solid. These variations create an unstable mound of ice that appears strong, but in reality, is quite fragile and inconsistent.

Shelf Ice Detail

The action of the waves creates mounds much like volcanoes, with holes through the center. These holes are often covered over by a thin layer of snow, creating hidden dangers for those who walk on the ice mounds. These holes, cracks, and other inconsistencies can potentially lead to death should one fall into them.

Visiting the winter shore is quite interesting, but one must remember to remain on solid ground at all times, and resist the urge to climb the shelf ice.

Winter Night on Lake Michigan

Chicago Lights

An unusually warm night for January, allowed us to explore the winter shore in relative comfort, despite the high winds which played havoc with long exposure photography. The trees moved, the camera moved, everything moved during the 4 second exposures.

During our hour or two visit, we didn't see or hear another person anywhere, not even passing on the road nearby. This is not unusual for a cold, winter visit, but this evening was right around 32 degrees, I expected to see a few people on the beach.

Plenty of footprints lead from the viewing area to the beach, and then onto the mounds of shelf ice.  Large cracks and hole can be seen in this ice, and especially with the high winds creating waves, the mounds can break off and roll into the freezing cold water. 

Winter Night

The yellow light pollution from the city of Chicago, some 40 miles away, illuminated the sky, making the horizon look almost like sunset, but looking up a bit, the stars can be seen.  The evening began cloudy, then as we explored the shore, the clouds rolled out a bit, exposing the stars over Lake Michigan.

The warm weather is expected for a couple of days, then back to the cold again.  Time will tell how the changes in temperature, wind speed and direction will affect the mounds of shelf ice along the shore. Generally, these changes create much more interesting shapes and mounds - I'll certainly visit again soon to see for myself.

Frozen Beach

Frozen Beach

Walking the narrow beach in winter brings great views, interesting observations, and something new every day. The setting sun illuminates the NIPSCO cooling tower in the distance, bathing it in warm sunlight - a stark contrast to the cold foreground objects.

The constant erosion of the foredunes brings full grown trees down to the beach, creating obstacles for visitors. In all seasons, these trees block the way, but in cold weather, it's not possible to walk around them. The freezing cold water keeps people from accessing some parts of the beach (unless they don't mind getting wet). In the freezing weather, it's possible to walk around some trees, however, the closer one gets to Kintzele Ditch, the more dangerous this can become. The ditch is a stream flowing between two dunes into Lake Michigan. The constant battering of waves moves the outlet of this stream hundreds of feet some days. If the ice covers the beach, there is no way of knowing where the stream is, and falling through the ice into this stream could be deadly this time of year. If you did manage to get out of the water, the walk back to the parking area is about a mile, in that time, hypothermia can set in, not to mention your clothing would be frozen stiff, preventing you from moving easily.

Ice Mounds

Knowing the beach in summer, certainly helps keep one safe in winter while viewing the forming ice mounds of Lake Michigan.

We Dare Go No Further

Dare Go No Further

It wouldn't be winter without a walk on the beach! The beach is probably one of the most interesting places in winter- especially the beaches of the American Great Lakes. Many people who visit during the warm months don't realize what a special place the beach is in winter.

Vast fields of ice form as the waves crash into the shore, splashing and piling ice onto the shore. These piles grow as much as 20 feet in height, then can extend hundreds of feet into the lake. The ice mounds resemble arctic mountain ranges, and one feels they are wandering in the arctic while walking on this Indiana beach.

Distant Snow

Although it's tempting, it's never safe to wander out on this shelf ice. Hidden cracks and holes lead directly to the freezing water below, with absolutely no chance of getting out. As much as I would love to climb the ice mounds, I know it's not worth the chance.

On this afternoon, the sun was setting, and the waves were crashing into the shelf ice. Walking on the beach is eerie, there is little sound on the beach, except for the occasional crash of water and chunks of ice thrown onto the ice piles by the waves. This is how the mounds form, little by little, inch by inch, the waves create the shelf ice.

Beyond the Ice Shelf

Walking on these beaches in winter seems like walking though a canyon. Tall sand dunes on one side, and hills of ice on the shore. The beach is certainly a different place in the winter, and one everyone should safely experience.

The Frozen Waterfall of Tonti Canyon

Leaving Tonti Canyon With daylight waning, we continued our hike from LaSalle Canyon to nearby Tonti Canyon. One of the few canyons of Starved Rock State Park that boasts two waterfalls. As we entered the canyon, we could see only one frozen waterfall; the first was only a series of icicles hanging from the canyon wall. With a bit of warm weather, water should begin flowing enough to form larger icefalls. Most canyons in this state park are blind, meaning the canyon is a dead end, and that end usually has a waterfall. Tonti is a canyon with tall vertical walls that narrow at the end, but the two waterfalls are about 100 feet from the end, and on opposing sides of the canyon. This arrangement allows visitors to take in the view of the canyon from the very end.
  The Growing Falls of Tonti Canyon

 The waterfall is well on its way to reaching the ground. The falling water freezes into long icicles, while the water that does reach the ground, piles up slowly and grows toward the icicles above. After a while, the two meet forming a solid column of ice. Perhaps it's the slow trickle of water, but something in this canyon makes very intricate twists and turns in the ice, and in my experience, when this icefall reaches the ground, it's the prettiest in the park.
  Deep in Tonti Canyon

Ice climbers frequent the park, and often climb this icefall when it's safe enough to do so. The climbing gear generally ruins the intricate formations, so it's best to visit the park before the ice climbers arrive. Warm temperatures are expected over the next three days, so these icefalls will undergo some extreme changes. They should all receive more water, so as long as the temperatures drop back below freezing at night, the falls should continue to grow.

Frozen Waterfall of La Salle Canyon

Exploring Behind the Falls An additional week of extremely cold weather in Northern Illinois has allowed the waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park to increase in size. The waterfall of La Salle canyon has grown about four times the size it was only a few days ago. Some parts of the waterfall are cracking and breaking off either due to its own weight or people hanging or climbing on it. Still impressive, these falls continue to grow hour after hour as long as a bit of water trickles over the rock ledge above. Through the Ice Exploring the backside of the falls is always impressive, as the light filters through the ice formations. Today, the ice took on a green tint from the light entering the canyon. A small portion of the icefall was broken off in the center, giving us a view of the canyon beyond. Backlit Falls The size of these frozen waterfalls isn't clearly understood without actually walking next to them. This photographer next to the falls, however, gives a good idea of the scale of the icefalls. The weather is supposed to warm up quite a bit next week, then drop again. Any rain or melt should freeze in a couple of days adding to the intricate designs of these Illinois ice falls.

St. Louis Canyon in Winter

Up From St. Louis Falls Following our hike in Matthiessen State Park, we headed over to nearby Starved Rock State Park. This park has many more canyons and trails, so the possibility of seeing frozen waterfalls is very good. The first stop was St. Louis Canyon, one of the more popular areas in the park, and one I tend to avoid when visiting - no real reason, maybe it's just too easy to access. The cold weather had already turned the waterfall into a complete icefall. We explored the falls from a distance first, then made our way around and under. St. Louis Canyon Falls A lot of times when I visit the frozen waterfalls, it's difficult or impossible to access the area behind the icefalls. It's either too slippery, or blocked by too much ice. Visiting early in the season, I was able to get behind the ice for a completely different view. Careful of falling ice, I explored the 40 foot tall ice column from beneath. The dripping water splashed onto me a bit, and in the single digit temperatures, froze on my camera immediately. Exploring the Back of the Falls Ice cleats are a must when visiting Starved Rock or Matthiessen State Parks in winter. Even when most of the snow has melted, the trails are often packed with ice from thousands of visitors, and most of the canyons are shaded most of the day. The trails are probably the last things to melt, and can be extremely dangerous in winter. Not only can a person slip and fall down, but that fall can result in a drop into a canyon on some narrow trails. The cleats allow you to walk on solid ice and packed snow without slipping at all. Beneath St. Louis Falls

Frozen Cascade

Frozen Cascade

The second stop on our trip to Matthiessen State Park was Cascade Falls.  Located in the lower dell portion of the park, it takes a bit of a hike to reach, even though you can view the area from the trail head.

Right after heavy rain or snow melt, the lower dells can be flooded, making it impossible to reach the canyon floor to view the caves and waterfall. But on this trip, we were able to make the full trip to the foot of the falls.

Behind the Ice Cascade As a matter of fact, we were also able to climb behind the frozen falls to view the ice from below, something that becomes increasingly more difficult as the ice increases in size. It's always interesting to see the ice illuminated from behind. Through the Cave Entrance Another feature of the lower dells are small caves. These caves are large enough to walk through, and some connect with each other via smaller passages. One cave opens up to the end of the canyon with a view of Cascade falls in the distance.

The First Frozen Icefalls of the Winter

Twins Beyond Cedar Point Over a week of frigid weather has turned the waterfalls of Matthiessen State Park into fantastic icefalls. Each winter, we make the trip out to Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks to view the canyons and especially the frozen waterfalls. The recent below zero temperatures turned the waterfalls into icefalls in a matter of days, and they're only going to get larger over the next several days.
  Ice Fall Approach
 Often, these frozen falls don't last very long, any warm weather can destroy the delicate formations; large chunks break off from above and crash into the canyon below, tearing up the intricate ice on it's way down. The forecast is for very cold weather to continue, so it appears the icefalls will last a few more weeks at least. Behind the Falls On many visits, the rock cut-outs are completely covered over by ice. Other times, such as today, the back of the ice was accessible, and we made our way behind the ice. Daylight filters through the ice, illuminating the formations from the back, and seemingly from within. The falls are continually growing, as water falls inside and around the ice formations, freezing, and adding layer upon layer of new ice. The area near the ice is always wet and slippery, so clothes and camera gear get splashed up - something you don't want in the winter. It can make the trip back pretty uncomfortable. The Falls From Above These two falls beyond Cedar Point are not often found by visitors of the park, and can go unnoticed. They're certainly worth the effort to find and reach them during the winter months when they're transformed into huge ice sculptures.

Sand Formations

Dune Sculptures Wind, sand, snow, and ice combined formed these interesting structures on the vast, rolling dunes of Silver Lake State Park, near Mears Michigan. Arriving at the top of the first dune, we readied ourselves for the long hike to Lake Michigan -it appears much closer than it really is. We then noticed mother nature's handiwork on the tops of the dunes. As the snow fell, and the wind blew, layers of snow and sand piled up over a foot tall in places. Then, some of the snow melted getting the sand wet, and the wet sand froze in some areas. The wind continued to blow away the loose sand, but the frozen sand stayed in place creating these formations. Sand Formations We didn't expect to see such patterns and formations, but they were a welcomed addition to our normally interesting hike through the dunes and forests of Silver Lake State Park. On this day, we had the entire park to ourselves, we didn't see another person all day; I suppose most people prefer the beach and dunes in the summer months. Our hike here usually includes a visit to some interdunal ponds, small bodies of water collecting between sets of dunes. These areas are vastly different than their surroundings, and they are home to many different plants and animals not found in the other areas of the park. Conifer forests often border these ponds, creating homes for birds and other wildlife. Interdunal Pond Now iced over, these small ponds blend in to their surroundings much more than in the warmer months. The conifer forests, however, were buzzing with birds gathering seeds in the cold winter air. They were such a different environment than the areas surrounding - like islands of life in the desert. The temperature was much warmer in these areas too, sheltered by the tall dunes on all sides, and buffered by the jack pine trees. This was a nice break from the cold wind found everywhere else in the park.

Waves of Sand

Expansive Dunes One of the most interesting areas of sand dunes along the eastern Lake Michigan lie within Silver Lake State Park near Mears, Michigan. Over 3,000 acres of rolling sand dune set between Lake Michigan and a smaller inland lake, Silver Lake. In addition to a huge expanse of bare, rolling sand dunes, there are countless interdunal ponds, grass prairies, and stands of conifer trees. Visitors can experience all these environments in a single hike. The hike, however, isn't going to be easy. The climb from the parking area is a steep walk up a loose sand dune, through a forest that is in the process of being buried by the ever-moving dunes. Once on top, the expanse of the park comes into view. Close to 1/2 mile of rolling sand separates you from the first stand of conifer trees, and they're not even half way to Lake Michigan. Taking Over the Forest Appearing more like an African desert than a Great Lakes field of dunes, Silver Lake State Park doesn't disappoint those who make the trek over the entire range of dunes to the lake. On this visit, we encountered something unusual on the dunes - patterns and waves of sand carved by the wind. While wind created patterns are nothing special here, these creations were unlike most. Following high winds, freezing temperatures, and snowfall, the sand and snow built up in thin layers, then, warmer weather began to melt some of the ice and snow. During this process, the layers of snow melted into water, wetting the sand which froze again. More winds eroded the sand that wasn't frozen, and these special formations appeared. Delicate Shapes on the Dune Some of these formations appeared like paper, thin layers of frozen sand, bent or stacked on top of one another. Others looked like turned vases, while others looked like a miniature canyon from the Western United States. I'll post many more photos of the interesting formations in the days to come.

A Winter Morning at Little Sable Point

Morning at Little Sable Point Following a long, early morning drive, we arrived at Silver Lake State Park, just south of Ludington, Michigan and began our hike. It wouldn't be a trip to this area without a visit to the Little Sable Point Light. The 107 foot tall brick tower was constructed in 1874, and has survived many cold winters on the shore of Lake Michigan. The lighthouse is open for tours during the warm months of the year, but today, we were the only two people in sight - the entire day. It seems, nobody enjoys the beach in the winter. Little Sable Point Lighthouse Ice has not yet formed along the shore of this area of Lake Michigan, usually this forms a bit later in the winter. Snow, however, was all around us, but it seems the sand retains heat a bit better than the surrounding surfaces, allowing the snow to melt from the dunes. Sitting directly in the sand of the beach, this lighthouse is one of the few on the southern shore of Lake Michigan not on a long pier marking a river or port. The lighthouse still has a third order Fresnel lens, and it's still operational - one of only 16 on the Great Lakes (70 in the United States).