The Sentinels

Beneath the Sentinels Rising around 180 feet above the Mississippi River, the limestone bluffs called The Sentinels are one of the interesting rock formations of the Mississippi Palisades State Park. Located at the north eastern part of Illinois, right on the Mississippi River, the state park offers sweeping views of the countryside, the river, and nearby Iowa. The park allows rock climbing at times, and it appears to offer some challenging climbs. The Sentinels are two, tall spires of rock, separated from the rest of the bluff about 10 feet, making them free standing, and able to be climbed from different faces. The Sentinels The lines in the limestone show the geologic history of the driftless area of Illinois, the area of northern Illinois spared from the scouring glaciers. The rocks in this area are unusual here, as most everywhere else in northern Illinois they were destroyed during the ice age. Distinct bands toward the bottom contain completely different contents than the rest of the bluff, deposits such as these are of interest to the amateur geologist in our group. climbingsentinelssm
A bit of easy climbing to view the rock deposits and fossils contained in the bluff was in store. This bluff seemed to be crumbling a bit, and was closed to any "real" climbing, but our climbing was limited to the easily accessed areas of the Sentinels bases. Exploring the Sentinels
Some snow and ice was still in place on this cold morning, not what we expected because it was relatively warm over the last few days. But deep in the forest and in shaded areas, ice remained, making the hike to see some of these formations a bit tricky. In all the years we've visited the Mississippi Palisades, we never explored the Sentinels. Most of our visits were during the summer, when trees and leaves blocked the view of the formations, keeping them out of site from us. The bare trees allowed us to see these and investigate them in detail. As with many of the places we frequent, we always notice things we haven't seen before. They may not be as prominent of these, sometimes tiny or hidden, but they always keep us interested, and eager to return.

Rising Above the Mississippi

View Over the Sentinels
Rising up from the usually flat lands of Iowa and Illinois, the bluffs of the Mississippi Palisades State Park offer a unique look back into the geologic history of northern Illinois.  Referred to as the driftless area, this small portion Illinois was spared from the scouring action of the glaciers during the last ice age.  Because the glaciers did not flatten this area, most of the old geology is still visible here, including tall bluffs and rock cliffs.

Situated right next to the Mississippi River, the cliffs offer sweeping views of the mighty river, and the surrounding landscape. And in the winter, the lack of leaves on the trees allows visitors to see a bit more of the view in areas not generally known for good views.

Over the Mississippi

It's interesting to see how the Mississippi River changes the low lying areas around it. Rain, snow, and drought all shape these areas, and it's never been the same on any of my visits. The area is home to countless birds including white pelicans and bald eagles, all commonly seen in the trees across the river.

Mississippi River Wetlands

The lack of leaves on this visit helped us find a rock structure called The Sentinels. The trail up was surprisingly icy in some areas, preventing easy access to the overlook, but we were able to carefully make it to the top where the view was beautifully framed by the surrounding trees.

Cold Night Sky

Friday Night Sky

The weekend began with a cold night in rural LaPorte County, Indiana. On our arrival, we were greeted by a sky full of stars reflecting in the still waters of the lake. If the temperature was a bit warmer, we may have taken the kayaks for a starlight paddle around the lake, but an accidental fall into the water this time of year could be dangerous. By the morning, a thin layer of ice formed on the water, proving just how cold the water still was.

The moon had not risen yet, but the light from the city of LaPorte illuminated the sky near the western horizon. This light, and some of the stars, can't be seen by the naked eye, but they do show up on a relatively long exposure.

In the summer months, the "better" side of the Milky Way is visible here, that should be quite an interesting sight while paddling.

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.