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