If there’s a silver lining to this year’s invasion of the polar vortex, it’s this: an even bigger Great Lakes ice show.
February sun dances through an otherworldly landscape of Lake Michigan ice shoves. Giant, jagged chunks with glacier-blue depths, the ice along Wisconsin’s Door County shore looks lit from within, dusted with snow and occasionally ominous. Depending on the winds, waves and whims of the Great Lakes (or big lakes such as Mille Lacs), ice can pile up more than 20 feet high.
Along the North Shore near Lutsen, wave after wave, night after night, layers of ice freeze across rocky outcrops, sculpting wavy glass curtains and delicate drips resembling crystals on a chandelier. On a frigid morning, with air colder than the water, Lake Superior steams in the pale yellow light.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore’s ice caves, the star attraction of this year’s ice show, have drawn more than 50,000 visitors since January and attracted international attention. An estimated crowd of 11,000 people on Saturday plus scant parking have meant a 12-mile hike for some or the need to take an $8 shuttle from the Legendary Waters Casino.
Anyone who is wary of crowds or the long march to them can find less showy but still strikingly beautiful ice formations up and down the shorelines. Finding these winter treasures relies on timing, luck and knowing where to look. There are no winter tip lines like fall foliage hot lines that direct people to icy attractions along Lake Superior or Lake Michigan.
Part of that’s the fast, fickle power of the Great Lakes. As they say along Superior, the lake is the boss and her moods swing with a fury. Even the substantial ice shelf that stretches as far as the eye can see near the Apostle Islands ice caves could be carved up and pulled out by waves and wind in less than a day, according to park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker.
Spiteful whitecaps can smash ice formations as quickly as shovel-wielding second-graders whacking icicles.
An artist’s eye for ice
“[Ice] changes incredibly fast,” says Grand Marais-based photographer Bryan Hansel, who explores the North Shore daily at sunrise and often sunset, seeking the best light and most interesting landscapes to photograph.
“We call those the golden hours,” he says. “Your best colors are going to be at the edge of the day.”
Hansel offers photography workshops year-round, but the winter sessions are the quickest to fill, he says. People are eager to learn how to stay warm in the cold, keep their equipment working and capture the best images with winter’s moody scenery.
Grand Marais has an advantage as one of the few places where the shore angles east to west and makes it possible to photograph both sunrise and sunset on Lake Superior. The way Artist’s Point juts into Lake Superior also snags ice shelves as they float by.
“One of the most interesting features is pancake ice — hundreds of little round ice pieces,” Hansel says. They originally break apart with sharp edges, but the lake smooths them like cobblestones and sends flotillas of icy pancakes into coves.
Natural light, the character of the ice and occasionally leeched minerals from rock can give frozen formations hints of color. “The deep blue seems to amaze people the most,” Hansel says. “The more consolidated and airless the ice, the bluer it gets.”
Finding the best ice
Ice climbers also key on the dense, blue ice, advising the sport’s newcomers to avoid white ice that’s full of air bubbles and not as likely to hold an ice ax — let alone the weight of a climber. If you’re heading toward the North Shore, it’s an easy detour to check out Minnesota’s ice-climbing mecca: Robinson’s Quarry in Sandstone. With a growing number of visitors and ice climbers, they’ve flooded the 60-foot cliffs and doubled the number of man-made frozen cascades for winter adventurers.
While nowhere near as tricky or risky as ice climbing, caution goes far in exploring formations of shoreline ice. Terrain that’s already rocky and uneven can sport slippery spots and crusty snow that won’t hold your weight. At Apostle Island National Lakeshore, staffers suggest hiking poles and waterproof boots with crampons or extra grips.
In years when the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore ice caves aren’t fully accessible, you can still enjoy views from above and into the sides with a hike on the cliff above Lake Superior. Wisconsin’s Cave Point County Park outside Door County’s Sturgeon Bay also overlooks memorable views of Lake Michigan’s aqua water and ice across its caves. Without the summer crowds, it’s easy to hear distinct sounds of the Great Lakes’ winter shorelines. Large hunks of ice can creak, grumble and groan. Gentle waves striking shards can sound like the tinkle of chimes. When waves push ice plates together and pull them apart, the sound is loud, strange crinkles. Even water washing across small beach rocks sounds different when ice perfectly encases the cobblestones.