The winter season is always a fun one in Michigan. There are many great places to see and things to do. I have been fortunate enough to live close enough to Lake Michigan to visit many of the lighthouses frozen over during the winter. The freeze begins in December and on those particularly cold winters the ice ramps up along the piers of the lighthouses. There have been a couple years where the Great Lakes froze quite a bit along the shorelines creating a lot of shelf ice. When this happens it is like a totally different world that what you are used to during the spring, summer and fall seasons. It is a frozen oasis with many hills and cliffs to explore. There is a particular danger to this ice though. The water of the lake and its currents are in constant motion under the ice. In some cases the ice can break away and weaken. Shelf ice out on Lake Michigan has become increasingly dangerous and not many people are aware of the potential danger that lies out on the ice.
In 2014 Lake Michigan had froze quite a bit. The shelf ice extended all the way past the lighthouse and pier. It brought many people out to the state park that year. Kids would sled down some of the ice hills near the base of the lakeshore. The ice was pretty solid there and they were pretty safe that close to the shoreline. Many photographers like myself were attracted to the lighthouses as that year was the most frozen I had seen the lake in a long time. Ottawa County Sheriff and and Coast Guard personnel were out there on a regular basis. They had knowledge that the currents below were moving some of the ice. They were advising everyone to stay off the ice beyond the end of the pier at outer lighthouse. They did not have to warn me twice, but I did see others ignore the warning. One person that ignored that warning not only put the himself in danger, but also put me in a dangerous spot as well.
I was taking some photos of the outer lighthouse encased in ice along the edge of the pier. I was just on the very edge of what was described as the “safe zone”. While I was taking shots, another photographer from Wisconsin decided to ignore the warnings and go further out. His buddy stayed back. I watched him navigate out on the ice about 20 feet beyond the pier and lighthouse into Lake Michigan. He yelled to his buddy that the ice was pretty solid. I also heard him state that the police officer had no clue what he was talking about. I continued to take some photographs. Suddenly I heard a yell from out where that gentleman was. He had slipped down into some loose ice. His foot was down in about six inches of water. He stated that there was some ice still under his foot, but he heard cracking sounds. I set my camera down. His buddy and myself started making our way toward him. He was able to grab onto some solid ice and pull himself away. We stood where we were as he slowly made his way back to us. Both of us were ready to go out and try to get him if he ran into more trouble. He finally made his way back to us without any issues. We all slowly made our way back to the pier and onto solid ice.
The ice out on the Great Lakes can be fun to explore, but can be extremely dangerous. I have heard many close calls from photographers taking the appearance of solid ice for granted. When going out on the ice, stay safe out there. If the police and Coast Guard are giving warnings of the dangers out there, heed their advice. Winter photography is challenging and very rewarding. There are many things that you can do ahead of time to make sure you stay safe out there. In some cases it is a matter of listening to those who know the terrain and the area well. There is no shame in seeking the advice of others. In other cases, it comes down to knowing information ahead of time so you can be prepared and make the most of your winter photography experience. There are things that I wished I knew ahead of my trips. Had I known what I was up against, I could have saved myself a lot of time and heartache dealing with dangerous winter situations. Winter in Michigan is beautiful. Stay safe and take a lot of great photos.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great place to visit during the winter season. Many people visit this park during the summer during its peak tourist season, but there is something special about Sleeping Bear Dunes during the winter. Gone are the people tubing down the Platte River. Gone are the people driving through the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Gone are the people crowding some of the popular hiking trails. There is a stillness at this park during the winter. When you stand out on the snow filled beaches, sounds of waves crashing against ice piles can be heard. When you walk through the snowy trails of Empire Bluffs there is total silence and the only thing that can be heard are a couple of creatures moving around, and the wind whistling between the trees. The scenery of Sleeping Bear Dunes is spectacular during the winter season. If you are looking to visit when the crowds are few then winter is the time to explore this top tourist attraction in Michigan.
If you are not prepared for the winter elements, you can run into a few problems. I have experienced some of those dangerous situations simply because of my lack of knowledge. As with many places up north, there are areas that do not get plowed. Keep in mind that some of the side roads to a few of the beaches do not get plowed. Stop by the Visitors Center in Empire to get an idea of what areas are plowed and safe to drive through. Two counties run through the park and each has their own plowing schedule. The visitors center park rangers should be able to tell you when the best time to head down certain roads are. As with many of my other adventures soft shoulders on the roadside are quite common. Look for a clear plowed parking lot or drive nearby to park the vehicle.
Snowshoes or skis are a must if you are doing some hiking in the park. This is where I had gone wrong in one of my first visits to this park during the winter season. I struggled in two popular hiking areas during the winter. The Empire Bluffs trail is a popular hiking trail during the tourist season. The trail gives you sweeping views of the dunes and Lake Michigan. You can see the village of Empire from the bluff. It is quite the sight to see during the winter, but you must be prepared. The park will give guided hikes in the winter of this trail. They use snowshoes to make the hike. There are many snow drifts up on the higher elevations. One minute you could be walking through a couple inches of snow on the trail and then the next you are knee deep in snow. Without snowshoes the hike is very difficult. I had to find this out the hard way. On the hike going down an incline I also slipped and fell right on my back. I would not recommend this hike without snowshoes.
The biggest mistake I made was out on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. During the winter this drive is shut down to all vehicles and is used as a cross country trail. It is recommended that you take the trail with skis or snowshoes. When I visited the park, there had just been a foot of fresh snow. There was a thaw a week before that so the road contained ice frozen over from the meltdown. This made it a lot more difficult. The scenery was nice and parts of the drive were pretty easy to walk by foot. Once I hit the higher elevations within the drive, I struggled a lot more. This is where the snow shoes or skis would have come in handy. Also, part of the drive was blocked off due to drifting snow. This is right at the Dune Overlook areas. The trail gets re-routed through the woods reconnecting back to the main drive in a lower elevation. The area I had the most trouble with was a huge hill heading to the Lake Michigan Overlook. Hiking with no snow shoes or skis was a workout and this hill became what I thought was going to be the death of me. I made it halfway up the hill and almost collapsed. I was so tired and so run down from the hike. I laid in the snow for about 10 minutes trying to gain the courage to keep going. I struggled up the rest of the hill and made it to the overlook. The view was stunning and it was a nice photo opportunity. However, I wished I had the right equipment to make the hike.
There are many times where some of the most simple things like snowshoes get overlooked. I have hiked many trails in the winter, and took it for granted that places like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is in a league of its own when it comes to winter hiking. These are common mistakes that I have made and I have heard similar stories from others who have made those same mistakes. When going to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, check in at the Visitors Center first. They will always provide you with the right information and tips to make your experience a great one. I made the mistake of overlooking that valuable information. Overlooking information can be costly, and I found that to be true on the ice near the lighthouses on Lake Michigan. Find out what happened in a couple days.