Winter grips the Great Lakes region of the United States, and that grip has once again manifested itself on the lighthouses that dot the shore of southern Lake Michigan.
When conditions are favorable, winds churn the waters of Lake Michigan, building waves over ten feet in height. The waves crash into the piers and seawalls, and the resulting spray blasts dozens of feet into the air to cover everything within reach. In low temperatures, the spray freezes and slowly builds layers of ice on the lakefront surfaces. Quite often, the icy coating on pier railings, lighthouses, and nearby surfaces is over two feet thick.
When the wind changes direction, the patterns and textures of the ice change with it. Twisting and bending as the water freezes, ice patterns on the lighthouses grow into giant forms. Visitors often refer to these resulting spectacular formations as ice monsters. These monsters are never the same twice, and are ever changing as they grow with each splash, or melt with each sunny day.
As winter progresses, Lake Michigan begins to freeze. Then, wave action breaks up the ice, gathers it together, and in turbulent water, creates ice boulders. The ice chunks and boulders float, and are pushed to the shore by winds. Waves deposit the boulders on lakefront surfaces, burying the piers in piles of ice boulders six feet or more in height.
Walking on the piers in winter is dangerous and potentially deadly. The ice-covered surfaces are very uneven, forcing visitors to climb up and down the ice hills as they walk on the pier. Visitors must make certain they are walking over the actual pier and not over unstable, frozen portions of the lake, which can easily blend in with the pier's surface. However, the ice boulders deposited by the waves can sometimes make the hike on the pier a bit easier. The chunks form ridges and valleys where a foot can gain a hold, preventing the visitor from sliding uncontrollably off the pier and into the icy water. But every cold weather visitor should heed this warning: The winter shores of the Great Lakes are hazardous, and can prove fatal. Extreme caution must be exercised at all times.
Each lighthouse on Lake Michigan is unique, and so are the ice formations. This year, one of the most spectacular frozen lighthouses I visited was the Grand Haven, Michigan Lighthouse pictured at the top of this article. At the end of the pier stands the fog signal building, which includes a lantern room erected 36 feet above the lake. The entire lake side of the building was unrecognizable when I visited, blanketed in a layer of twisted, patterned ice.
The 1,151 foot long pier was covered in ice boulders, making the walk out to the fog signal building a bit tricky in spots. Most dangerous was the walk around the fog signal building to view the windward side and all of the ice. Never wanting to walk on the frozen lake, I was assured by a local resident there was concrete under the ice I planned to walk upon. The view in person was amazing--a huge wall of ice in the midst of the ice floes of Lake Michigan.
South Haven, Michigan was another stop along the winter shore. The vibrant red lighthouse stood in contrast to the blue sky and the white ice surrounding it. Like many of the lighthouses of southwestern Michigan, the South Haven light is a meeting place and walking destination for locals and visitors alike. In all seasons, the pier is crowded with people, and this visit was no different. People flocked to see the ice covered lighthouse, to experience the winter beauty surrounding them.
The St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse has become one of the more popular destinations over the last few years. Residents and travelers now flock to "St. Joe" to witness firsthand the ice creations on the outer lighthouse and catwalk. Not many years ago, when I would visit the pier in winter to photograph the formations, I was usually the only person in sight. Alone and photographing the ice formations, I would wonder, "Where is everyone? Why doesn't anyone come out here to experience this beauty?"
This lighthouse rarely disappoints ice seekers, and is relatively easy to access. The geometry of the pier in relation to the beach, and the prevailing winds seem to churn up the waters even more, creating lots of spray and outstanding ice sculptures on the structures.
The St. Joseph light catwalk holds and abundance of ice, offering the visitor an opportunity to wander in and out of the ice formations, making it a unique interactive experience. One must realize the ice hanging from the catwalk can weigh hundreds of pounds, so care must be taken, especially during a warming trend when the structure can heat up and ice can fall.
The ice monsters of southern Lake Michigan have once again beckoned me to their side. And once again, I have been rewarded with the sight of peaceful, frozen sentinels standing guard over the ice-locked harbors of southwest Michigan.