Winter in Northern Michigan is a sight to behold. The best is traveling right after a snowstorm has cleared out and fresh snow is hanging on every branch of every tree. I had that opportunity a couple years ago when the day after a snowstorm, it was a beautiful day with blue skies and lots of sun. It was still quite cold out, but the driving conditions were pretty good. There were still a few dangerous issues out on the road though that I had not really thought about until it was too late. Earlier in the day I was at Iargo Springs near Oscoda. I made my way up to Alpena toward the middle of the afternoon only to face another setback. I was surprised to find out that lots of people get stuck in the same location I did.
I traveled into Presque Isle just north of Alpena. The old and new lighthouses sit on each end of the isle. In my opinion the old one is the more interesting of the two. It is also a lot smaller, but the history and aesthetic appeal makes the old lighthouse a must see on any visit to the Alpena area. I stopped at the New Presque Isle Lighthouse first. It is at the northernmost end of the isle. The parking lot was cleared out and the lighthouse was opened for visitors. They were not doing tours up to the top of the lighthouse. I was there in the autumn season before and it can get quite windy. My guess is it is just too dangerous to make the climb up to the top due to the winter weather. You can still get an appreciation for the history of the lighthouse with the section that was opened. It is a nice lighthouse and definitely worth a stop to visit. Of the two lighthouses, the new lighthouse is also the most difficult to photograph in terms of lighting. The position of the lighthouse in relation to the sun makes it hard to get some different angles on the lighthouse.
My real adventure came when I visited the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse. As I mentioned before, this is what I feel is the more interesting lighthouse of the two. This lighthouse was closed up and a gate closed off the parking lot near the main road. I parked my car on the side area of the road where it looked like there was a bit of a turn off. That was my mistake. The whole area of the road is a soft shoulder. I ended up getting stuck for the second time that day. Countless efforts to dig myself out failed. Luckily, there was enough traffic that someone was able to pull me out with a chain. The guy that pulled me out lived down the street. He informed me that there is a marina parking lot about a quarter mile away that is plowed and a great place to park to view the lighthouse. I also found out that I was not the only one to park on the shoulders and get stuck. It turned out that this was quite common by many who were never aware of that marina parking lot.
I walked to the lighthouse. The snow was pretty deep in the area and no one had been there in the last 24 hours it looked like. At that time the water levels of Lake Huron were pretty low so there were quite a few rocks on the beach area outside of the lighthouse. The deep snow covered a lot of those rocks. It is very easy to misstep and trip over some of those rocks. A fresh blanket of snow with no previous trails made by anyone else in the last 24 hours left me to navigate my own way. I tripped up on some of those rocks and fell down hard. It is so easy to bang up your knee or twist your ankle in these conditions. It may not seem like a dangerous situation, but if you are not aware of what your surroundings are or the terrain that may be hidden, you could find yourself in a situation that could get you hurt.
The two lighthouses are beautiful during the winter season. The most important lessons learned is to know your surroundings and avoid parking along roadways. Too many people find themselves on a soft shoulder that they cannot get out of. Northern Michigan gets a lot more snow than what we do in Southern Michigan. Often we have a mindset of doing things that we are used to from where we live. I never adjusted my frame of mind when I made the trip from Grand Rapids to Alpena. I made that same mistake when I went to Sleeping Bear Dunes a couple years before that. At one point I thought I was going need an emergency rescue on a hike. I will tell you exactly how I got out of that situation in a couple days.
Northern Michigan is filled with spectacular scenery that spans all seasons. One of my favorite places to visit is Iargo Springs located along the Au Sable River Scenic Roadway. The spring is in the heart of the Huron-Manistee National Forest, but not too far from Oscoda, Michigan. My first experience there was during the fall color season. To gain access to the springs you have to be willing to take a stairway of at least 300 stairs down to the springs. From above you can see a nice overlook of the Au Sable River. The springs below flow out to the Au Sable River. It is worth the hike down and back up the stairway. These natural springs were a source of drinking water for some time. During the logging era, dams were built to route the water to the logging camps. Iargo Springs is a great place to visit for most of the year. The springs during the winter season are spectacular. It is really inspiring to see the winter snow surrounded by these springs and their running waters. The water is warm enough that during the winter the water will not freeze over allowing the springs and their runoff to flow with ease.
While it is quite beautiful to see, there are a few major things to keep in mind when stopping by. The National Forest leaves the main parking lot unplowed. That was my first mistake when visiting a few years ago. I was able to get into the parking lot pushing through with my SUV. I struggled getting into the parking lot, and was in trouble attempting to get out of the parking lot. The snow drifts and piles were so high that not even the best of cars can get out of the lot. I was fortunate on my trip to be able to flag someone with a plow, but even the person with the plow, snow tires and chains got stuck. We spent time shoveling out around his truck to allow for some traction. He was then able to get some clearance to make a path to plow. I was lucky to get my car out of that lot. There are no nearby parking areas that are clear enough to park your vehicle and it is extremely dangerous to park the car along the side of the street. The risk of having the car hit by another car and soft shoulders make the street just as dangerous as the actual parking lot. I have found that the best way to get access to the parking lot without risk of being stuck is to use a snowmobile as the mode of transportation to the springs.
The secondary danger is the actual stairway to the springs. Like the parking lot, the snow is not cleared on the stairway. There were many times on my way down that I almost took a dive due to missteps. The stairway near the top contains many drift areas. In some places the snow is fairly shallow and you can feel the stairway under you. The next step could be much deeper. This was really evident on the landing areas between steps. A couple times I rolled my ankle. I was lucky, but the odds of damaging your ankle is much greater with these winter conditions. The last thing anyone wants to do is have a sprained ankle or worse on a snow covered stairway in an area with little traffic. I found the trip downward dangerous, but much easier than the trip back up. This is something that must be considered when taking this trip. Those who have heart conditions and health issues are warned during peak tourism season when the conditions are much better. The hike back up is far more difficult under the winter conditions.
The scenic views are great and the trip is an adventure that you won’t forget. However, you always have to be prepared. I came away with some great shots from this trip to Iargo Springs. I also wish I had known some of the dangers ahead of time so I could have planned accordingly. Always keep this in mind; if the risk is too great, then wait until the right season or the right weather conditions to see the springs. It is just as beautiful in the spring, summer and fall seasons. Believe it or not, on this same day I ran into similar trouble near Alpena. I ended up in a ditch and found out that it was more common than I thought. More details to come in a couple days.
When getting ready to head out for a photo excursion I am usually excited thinking on what type of shot I want to come away with. I start thinking about the various angles I can shoot a particular subject, especially one that I have seen before. As a photographer you are always looking for new ways to challenge yourself. The four seasons hold various opportunities for the photographer. Each season brings about something new to be discovered or some unique challenge. I have found that winter photography brings about the biggest challenges due to the inclement weather that goes hand in hand with the season.
What is it about winter photography that creates some challenges that are hard to deal with. First of all, there are dangerous conditions. Ice out on the lakes, snowstorms and deep snow in some areas, and roadways that are difficult to drive all make winter photography a challenge to overcome. In some cases these challenges present dangerous and perilous situations. I have been in a few of those situation as have other photographers. I love the sense of adventure, but experiencing these situations have given me an additional appreciation for a safe return home. In the excitement of a new photography adventure, I pray for a safe return home to my loved ones.
Along the way I have experienced some dangerous situations in winter photography excursions. Next week I will be writing a four part series on the dangers of winter photography in Michigan. These are situations that I have dealt with over the last several years in the field. I have seen plenty of beautiful winter scenes, but had I known what lied in front of me prior to heading out, I may have approached it differently. Michigan is a wonderful place during winter, but sometimes we don’t have all the information when we start. With a little bit of information from someone who has experienced some of the dangers and pitfalls, some dangers can be avoided. I want your journey to be as safe as possible.
Sitting around a table with some acquaintances of mine we were generating conversation about places we wanted to go see in our home state of Michigan. The usual places that most people want to visit such as Mackinac Island and the bridge, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and summer resort cities like Grand Haven, Petoskey and Ludington were high on everyone’s list. In spite of knowing about these places, it amazed me how little people really knew about some of Michigan’s most frequently visited locations. It astounded me that several people did not know that cities like Marshall, Coldwater, Monroe, Bad Axe, Clare, Midland, Ironwood, Hancock and Copper Harbor even existed in the State of Michigan.
To be honest, while I have heard of these cities; there are a few things that I never knew existed within these cities. Earlier this summer I stopped at the Underground Railroad Monument in Battle Creek. Did you know that the monument is operated by the U.S. National Park Service? I would have never thought it was, but it makes sense in hindsight. They have a park ranger right at the monument to answer any all all questions about the fascinating history of the Underground Railroad and how it impacted Michigan. There are so many events and places that I have yet to discover in our great state. Don’t get me wrong, I love the lighthouse tours and the pristine waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula, but there is more to learn and more to discover.
This past year in photography has been a little bit of a transition for me. I have wanted to discover the unknown. I have wanted to get the experience of what is now known as our state’s famous tagline “Pure Michigan”. I have been blessed to see the Mackinac Bridge and many of the state’s famous landmarks. I yearn to see more and gain an understanding of what this state has to offer. To experience Michigan is to also converse with the people behind the scenes of some our cities annual events, or those running the museums, cider mills, and farm markets.
I have learned a great deal throughout this past year and I plan to pass some of this information along. Some of my posts will contain some facts and statistics about certain places as it is important to have some of the detailed information. However, a majority of the posts are going to be experienced based. I will not write as if I am an expert on various places within Michigan. Instead I will provide content about the journey to discovering new and exciting places. Those who are looking to find out what Michigan has to offer come with me on this journey. Let’s discover the mitten state together!