The Ice Column


Canyon Ice Fall 
 Nearby LaSalle Canyon is a relatively square canyon named Tonti. There are two seasonal waterfalls in this canyon, running mostly in the Spring and after rainfall, but in winter, whatever water is present freezes into a dramatic ice column extending 60 feet to the canyon floor. Tonti Canyon is one of four frozen waterfalls at the park where ice climbing is allowed.

This winter, at least at this point, only one of the waterfalls was frozen completely, the other consisted of icicles hanging from the top of the rock wall. Given a few more weeks, this too will become a complete ice column. The shape of this icefall reminds me of the Native American Thunderbird, with the two wings of ice on either side. Given the area's history, this seems to be an annual spiritual reminder of this Native American presence.

Behind the Ice Column

As this ice column grows, it occupies more space at the canyon floor, and generally so much that one can't walk behind to see the falls from the back. This year, the column was thin enough at this point to easily walk behind for some images of the 60 foot tall ice fall.
As we explored the frozen waterfall, a group of ice climbers began staging their gear to climb the icefall. Permits are required to climb the waterfalls, and as I found out days later, Tonti Canyon is closed to visitors. We did not see a sign on our way in as we followed the tracks in the snow from LaSalle Canyon, so perhaps the closed notice was outdated on the website.

The Backlit Icefall

Backlit Falls

Not only was the day very cold, it also lacked sunlight. I'm a rather unusual photographer, I prefer sunlit scenes.   In general, most photographers prefer the flat light from an overcast day, it reduces the harsh contrast between bright and dark. But I would rather work through those difficulties while enjoying my time outside.

Sunlight in this case, may have brought out some interesting colors in the ice. The blues of the sky and the greens of the moss would have probably produced some great effects in the backlit ice.  But, I will take what I am offered - this scene is how I encountered it, I'm not waiting for the planets to align to capture an image!

Ice Curtain

It's difficult to tell just how large this waterfall is without some sort of known object near it for some scale. People not only add interest to the image, they offer a sense of scale. That's one of the benefits of hiking with someone, they can be used for scale! Plus, we can compare images later to see each other's take on the same subject.

It looks as if these falls will only get larger in the next week, then perhaps they will take a bit of a beating from the expected 35 degree temperatures next weekend. They certainly won't break apart completely, but they may show some wear. The melt water and rain - if it gets cold again at night - will make the ice grow larger and larger.

The Frozen Waterfall of LaSalle Canyon

Behind LaSalle Falls 
 Bitter cold has a grip on northern Illinois, giving us high temperatures in the single digits and lows below zero. All this cold begins to change the landscape, and there's often no better change than the waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park turning to ice. A check of the weather forecast showed another winter storm approaching the area on Monday, so our scheduled trip to Starved Rock was pushed up a day to avoid travel during the snowstorm. That did mean we would be hiking in temperatures only reaching 4 degrees Fahrenheit. We've done it before, and once we get into the canyons, we tend to forget about the cold - except for our hands which are exposed as we photograph the ice formations. Once we're finished with the photos, we move on to the next canyon, which often means walking into the bitter cold wind toward the Illinois River until we turn into the next blind canyon. 

 The frozen waterfall in LaSalle Canyon is a favorite, and almost never disappoints. The large overhang of the rock allows the water to flow over the opening in the rockface, allowing visitors to walk behind the waterfall. In winter, a sort of ice cave is formed by the falls, and the translucent ice takes on some beautiful colors. Many of the ice caves formed in this manner are in smaller canyons, so venturing behind the ice can be difficult if not impossible, but LaSalle is so large, it never closes up completely.
  Through the Ice 
 This ice is constantly changing, no matter how cold the temperature is, water is always flowing inside and around the icefalls. It's interesting to visit a few times in the winter so see just how much the falls change. At times, large chunks of ice fall to the canyon floor, and the process starts all over again. It's always best to stay away from the ice, and not to stand directly beneath it. 

 Despite the cold, we ran into a few visitors in a few canyons. Only about six people were in LaSalle Canyon during our visit, it's about a mile walk from the nearest parking area, so the freezing temperatures keep out all but the determined and prepared.

Winter Expanse


Lake Michigan From the Dune

The lakeshore can be a lonely place during the winter. Not many people visit, and those who do, tend to stay close to the parking areas and simply walk out and take a photo, then walk back. To get the best view of the lake, you need to climb a dune. Most dunes are off limits, but there are a few where visitors are allowed to follow the trails up.
Following the Ridge Trail

We followed the narrow trail along the ridge of the foredunes to get to the tallest dune in the area. The trail is challenging enough in the summer months, but the ice and snow made it a bit more difficult on this day. The snow also hides the trail in some places, so you have to look ahead to make sure you're still on the correct trail - not that you'll get lost, but to protect the plants growing in the area. This time we were lucky to find another person's foot prints on the trail; maybe a park ranger. Winter Expanse
Once at the top, we were treated to the best view of Lake Michigan in the area. I would approximate the height of the dune at 80 to 90 feet, but perhaps it's a bit taller. It's often difficult to tell how high up you are when you see the lake below, things tend to compress visually, but here we could see the ice did not quite go to the horizon, and the Chicago skyline was in the distance across the lake.

From Liquid to Ice in a Matter of Days


Iced Beach

Just a week of very cold weather was enough to turn Lake Michigan into something that appears to be in the arctic. The floe ice has gathered at the shore, and some shelf ice "volcanoes" have also formed, transforming the waterscape dramatically. From approximately the same place - just with a different lens - I captured the change the beach has undergone in only a few days.

The image below was taken two weeks prior to the image above (yet actually the beach looked exactly the same one week prior).
Cold Morning

Climbing up the trail to the small dune just above the beach, we can see the extent of the ice on the lake. While on the beach it appeared to completely cover Lake Michigan, from this vantage point 75 feet above the beach, open water can be seen on the horizon.

From the Dune 
 Again, this image was take from the same location as the one below (which was taken two weeks ago), using a different lens. The open water is only a memory until warm temptatures arrive and melt the ice on Lake Michigan.
  From Dimple Dune 
 Not only does the ice look beautiful, it also protects the beach from erosion by the crashing waves of winter storms. Protected by this front line defense of ice, erosion cannot take place. The newly replentished sand of Central Beach has already shown signs of erosion, but that is to be expected in this ever changing landscape. Dunes are the most unstable landforms on earth - according to the famous Henry Cowles who spent the better part of his life studying the biology of this area.

The Indiana Arctic


Icy Point

Not technically, but it sure does look like the Arctic at this time of year. Just seven days before, there wasn't a bit of ice at this location, only cold waves crashing on the beach. A few days of sub freezing weather (including three around zero) and Lake Michigan turns into something from another part of the world. On this morning, we were treated to bright sunshine, which illuminates the flow ice, contrasting it against the dark sky. More snow was on its way later in the day, and the approaching clouds can be seen on the horizon.
This is the point at Lakeview Beach Access, part of the Indiana Dunes National Park. It's the easiest access to view the beach - especially in winter. Park your car, and walk about 60 feet to the rail that overlooks Lake Michigan. This year, the path down to the beach is closed, so the view is limited to the patio area, you can't venture down to the sand. Before stopping here, we walked along the beach from the Dunbar Access to enjoy the ice close up. As we arrived at this point, we dared not go any further, erosion has eaten away at the sand on the point, so we weren't going to gamble and walk on the shelf ice. We walked back and drove up later - only to find the beach access was closed. Good thing we walked a few block on the frozen beach.

As Far As The Eye Can See

The view from the Lakeview Access patio is elevated, giving a higher vantage point of the icy lake, but a bit obstructed by trees. One of the better views is just down the path to the right, where you can look almost all the way to Central Beach - about 2 miles down the shore. That would be our next stop; Central beach is finally open after a long period of closure due to erosion and washroom renovations. The climb down to the beach at Central Beach is steep, and the climb up, is much more challenging. This will be corrected by waves over the winter, and bulldozers in the spring. Still, it's certainly worth the effort to view the beach in winter.

Surrounded by Ice

Locked in Ice

One week ago, Lake Michigan was liquid as far as the eye could see. Only a small amount of ice was seen along the shore, and it barely extended five feet out into the water. In only a few days, the ice has formed, and extends almost as far as the eye can see. This can happen rather quickly, but usually begins in January and takes a few weeks before Lake Michigan take on the look of the arctic. Temperatures overnight were down to 2 degrees above zero Fahrenheit, and by this time in the morning, they climbed all the way up to 8 degrees! This was the beginning of our hike on the Lake Michigan shore, we ultimately hiked 5 miles total on three beaches. Surprisingly, dressed appropriately, we were quite comfortable.

East Pierhead Lighthouse

The pier was very icy from last week's winter storm, so we were unable to venture any closer. At least that's what the signs told us, so we didn't bother to test if anyone would come out to tell us to get off the pier. We were not only dressed for the weather, but we also wore spikes on our boots to dig into the ice to prevent us from slipping. As I've done for many years, we could have walked all the way to the lighthouse safely, but the cameras on the pier may have falsely alerted the officials, so we figured it was best to stay off.

Still, there's something about the hike to the end of the icy pier that attracts me to the lakeshore every winter. If you haven't been to the shore of Lake Michigan in the dead of winter, make this the year you start the tradition. There are many areas where you can safely bring the entire family to view the frozen lake, some only 100 feet from the parking lot. We enjoy these access points too, but if you get down to the beach and hike a mile or two on the shoreline (on the sand NOT on the ice), you will be treated to a lonely, barren, beautiful landscape that is unlike anything you've experienced. And, most times you will not encounter another person in your entire field of vision, so stop, look around, and listen, take it all in.

Building Shelf Ice


the Building Shelf Ice
Temperatures have finally dropped enough to begin the ice building process on the shore of Lake Michigan. While only in the 20's, the ice still builds slowly, but later this week, temperatures are expected to drop to single digit highs - perfect for building plenty of ice! Climbing a bit up the dunes for a better view of the beach, you can see the extent of the shelf ice along the shore. It hasn't extended into the lake very much, but from this 30 foot tall dune, you get a different perspective of the shore.
Winter Shore
Lower down on the beach, the details of the ice are more evident. We were lucky enough to visit at the early stages, so we could actually walk out a bit on some of this ice. You can actually see the shore to the right, meaning this ice was formed when there were high waves, and the ice was deposited a bit above the normal waterline. If the ice extends any further, we wouldn't dream of walking on it.

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.

Milky Way Over LaPorte County

Milky Way Over LaPorte CountyThe night sky was quite dark due to the tiny crescent moon that had set by 10:30 pm, so it was a perfect time to wander out in the night. On a lonely road, I set up my camera and tripod hoping to capture the Milky Way, and hoping I would not encounter any cars or headlights - those tend to ruin night images. Luckily, on this night, not a single vehicle came within sight, and I could see for miles around.

The lights of nearby Walkerton, some 6 miles away, can be seen illuminating the horizon, allowing us to see the trees along the horizon, and giving the sky some color.

The brighter spheres in the sky are Jupiter and Saturn, I believe, visible at night in the south sky.

An Encounter With Comet Neowise

Comet Neowise Just After Sunset

About an hour after sunset, the new visitor to our night sky was visible in the northeast sky. Comet Neowise was discovered in March of 2020, and became visible to the naked eye in July. While it is visible to the unaided eye, I found it a bit difficult to view without the aid of a camera or binoculars, because the eye can see light better from the peripheral vision, or the sides of the eye.  So, looking just left or right of the comet actually gave me a better view - at least I could see it and aim the camera at it.

Comet Close Up

Aiming a 600mm lens at a tiny spot in the dark sky was not easy, but I did manage to capture at least one "close up" of the comet. Even the mirror moving on the camera when the shutter release was pressed would shake the image, so I had to use a mirror-up function and the timer to move the mirror up, then 10 seconds later, the image would be captured.

The image above is the result of quite a few takes; the F6.3 limit on the lens also created some obstacles to overcome. Generally, I choose 1.8 or 2.8 for astrophotography, but this lens isn't made for that, so I managed to compensate for the shortcomings of the lens.

Neowise Over the Lake

As the evening progressed, clouds entered our field of view, as the comet moved closer to the horizon. One last capture shows some clouds interfering with the comet's tail, and a few minutes later, the comet was covered by clouds.

If you get a chance in the next week or two, try to view the comet. If you miss your opportunity, you won't see it again for over 6000 years.