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Ice Along the Michigan Coast JAN 30 09

A mercilessly cold breeze is blowing off the great lake, freezing my cheeks and numbing my fingers. What was I thinking when I left my gloves in the car? Thank goodness I at least had the presence of mind to throw my scarf around my neck, because nothing is gentle about this environment. It is defined by frigid temperatures, a raw-bones landscape of ice dusted over with snow and wind-blown sand.

I’m out here at Holland State Park with my friend and fellow storm chaser Kurt Hulst, traversing the jumbled terrain of Lake Michigan’s ice formations. Sunset is closing in rapidly. This will not be a colorful one, though. A gray deck of cirrostratus has robbed the sunlight, reducing land, lake, and sky to a panorama of gray and white. But this is fitting. The ice formations are a study in austere beauty—Old Man Winter’s vast sculpture garden, stretching out along over 400 miles of Lake Michigan coastline from the state line south of New Buffalo north all the way to the Mackinac Bridge.

Though ice builds up along all of the Great Lakes shores, I have a hunch that the formations reach their pinnacle along Michigan’s western coastline. I can’t prove this empirically, but it stands to reason. The formations are a seasonal expression of the same dynamics that produced the spectacular Lake Michigan sand dunes. Blowing across vast stretches of water, prevailing westerly winds build up mighty winter waves that crash against the shore, heaving spray and sand high into the air and lashing them landward. Layer by layer, the wave spray freezes over heaving, buckling chunks of lake ice.

By mid-winter, the result is an otherworldly landscape, stretching a quarter-mile and more from shore and littered with fantastic, alien shapes. Sprinkled with sand and rounded like immense boulders hung with frozen stalactites of ice, the ice sculptures look almost organic in nature—or perhaps molten, like products of volcanism rather than water, sand, and freezing temperatures.

I have been making my way toward the green-banded lighthouse at the end of the pier, but now I step out onto the ice floe in search of photos. The lighthouse itself is a prime subject. Framed among craggy ice shapes, it looks like some strange castle set on a mountaintop.

The ice here is stable, but it can be dangerous to venture too close to open water or into the wrong place on the ice pack. Slip off the ice into the water and there’s no way out. I tread where I can see by the footprints that others have already gone. And for a while, I forget about the cold. Because this place is enchanting, a cross between Antarctica and some mythical world, some frozen Narnia or Tolkienesque vista.

By and by, though, as I snap photos, my fingers grow too numb to ignore any longer. The sun has set, the gray light is receding into darkness, and the cold is growing colder. Kurt, too, looks like he’s finished farther out there on the ice. The time for photos is past—except for one last shot. Big Red, the beautiful, main lighthouse here on Holland Beach, is sending its beam out across the big lake. It just wouldn’t do to leave without getting a shot. And then it’s off to grab dinner and a beer at the Irish pub in downtown Holland.

I will be back, though. I had forgotten how beautiful and remarkable the ice formations are. But today, equipped with a camera to awaken my eyes and stir my imagination, I’ve been reminded. Some bright day, when there is plenty of sunlight to gild the wintry landscape and split itself into jewel-like refractions through the ice, I’ll return to explore another mood of Michigan’s frozen coastline.






Written by Dave.