Reaching the Lighthouses

The Walk Back

The reason the lighthouses are difficult and dangerous to reach during the winter, is the same reason they are relatively safe to access.  Sounds like a bit of a paradox, but ice is the cause and solution to safely accessing the piers on Lake Michigan.  Of course, the ice is what draws hundreds of people to the lighthouses each day. This can be deadly when a smooth layer forms on the concrete surfaces of piers and seawalls. But when the ice is rolled into boulders by heavy wave action, and piled up onto the pier by the waves, a deep, textured surface is created, allowing your feet to plant themselves in the small valleys between the boulders, preventing slipping.

Grand Haven Boulders

The walk is a bit more difficult, as one needs to tread on uneven, hilly surfaces, but the danger of slipping, falling, and continuing to slide into the freezing water is all but eliminated.

Of course, care must also be taken in this situation, a trip on an ice boulder can send you falling into Lake Michigan.  Plus, it's often difficult to discern the shelf ice from the ice on the concrete pier, and a person can easily continue walking onto frozen Lake Michigan - a dangerous mistake.

Amidst the Ice Boulders

Above, a photographer is dwarfed by the piles of ice on the pier.
The mounds of ice provide a great opportunity to get up almost as high as the keeper's catwalk. These catwalks were constructed about 10 feet above the pier, to keep the workers away from high waves that could wash them into the lake. Thanks to the ice, were able to see the catwalk close up.

Standing Tall
But once on the pier, the view unfolds.  One cannot truly experience the extent of the ice until it's within their reach  Dwarfed by the piles of ice boulders and the ice formations created by Lake Michigan's waves, you get a real sense of the power of the Great Lakes - frozen in place for close examination.
Boulders on Pier


Dauntless Prow

Iced Prow

Looking more like a ship's prow plowing through the ice, the Grand Haven, Michigan fog signal building endures another winter on Lake Michigan.  Enveloped in ice formed by waves and spray during a winter storm, the fog building is also the outer lighthouse in a set of range lights standing guard at the mouth of the Grand River.  The longest river in Michigan, the Grand empties into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven, the pier and lighthouses mark the entrance to the Grand Haven port.

At a height of 35 feet, the lighthouse on top of the fog signal building was built with a sixth order Fresnel lens. The building was moved to the end of the pier in 1907, and the concrete "prow" was added in the 1920's to help divert Lake Michigan's waves away from the building.

Plenty of visitors walked along the pier to view the ice on this relatively warm, winter afternoon.  A few ventured out around the fog signal building to experience the icy view firsthand. Never wanting to walk on the drift ice or shelf ice, I was assured by local residents that the concrete pier extended nearly six feet from the building, thus allowing us to walk around without fear of falling through the ice.

Dozens of other visitors ignored warnings and walked out hundreds of feet onto the shelf ice, some with children in their arms. According to a Grand Haven police officer, 911 was automatically dialed three times over the weekend, when visitors accidentally pulled the safety cord on one of the life rings along the pier.  The response time for the Coast Guard, according to the officer, could be as long as two hours, because the port was frozen in, and rescue swimmers would need to be dispatched from another station.


Early Morning at the Outer Light

Morning at the Outer Light

Our day began before sunrise at the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse, where we made our way out on the ice covered pier to the outer lighthouse.  The sun hadn't risen yet, and the blue light of early morning bathed the ice.  We were surprised to find three other people already on the pier.  It was their first time visiting a frozen lighthouse - they were thrilled.  Many new people are making their way out to the lighthouses in winter, in fact, it's getting crowded!

The high waves tossed chunks of ice onto the pier, where they froze into piles several feet tall in places. This made hiking the pier a bit difficult, but the texture created by the chunks actually prevent your feet from slipping too much, so the danger of falling into the lake is lessened somewhat, but extreme care should always be taken.

On this visit, I decided to go up to the catwalk for a different view. Jumping to grab the catwalk bars 8 feet above the deck, I pulled myself up and stood on the catwalk and captured several images from the vantage point of a lighthouse keeper.  Judging by the ice on the catwalk surface, the high walkway did little to protect the keeper from the elements.

From the Lighthouse Keeper's Catwalk

My son Chris took this photo of me on the catwalk



Spending about three hours on the pier, we captured hundreds of images, and as always, every freeze is a unique experience.

Winter at the South Haven Lighthouse

South Haven in Winter

We were on the Indiana roads by 5am, on our way north to photograph several Michigan lighthouses in winter. Often, these lighthouses are covered in ice from early winter storms.  The lake needs to be liquid in order for the winds to create waves high enough to splash onto the lighthouses and piers; once the water freezes, the icing cannot continue.

One of our stops was the lighthouse at South Haven, Michigan.  A favorite of locals a visitors alike, this lighthouse sees crowds of people in most every season, including winter. A short walk from the quaint downtown area, and right along a popular beach, the lighthouse serves as the backdrop to every occasion - from weddings to walking the dog.

In winter, this deep red beacon stands out against the ice on Lake Michigan, and the ice clinging to the lakeside of the light.  We carefully made our way onto the pier, making sure the ice was not flat and leading into the lake.  Once slip and we would slide into the freezing water.  On this day, the ice on the pier was layed down in chunks- formed by turbulant water, and tossed up on the pier in piles.

Ice Boulders at South Haven

These uneven ice boulders create a deep textured surface, and the spaces between the boulders serve as perfect places to set your feet as you walk.  If a foot slips, it will slide into one of the depressions and stop before sliding sideways into the lake.  Add a layer of snow, and the traction gets surprisingly better.

The unusually warm day and sunshine began melting the ice from the iron lighthouse and catwalk, dripping on us and our gear as we photographed the formations. Another day or two of this weather, and the ice will retreat quickly, but winter is not finished with the Great Lakes, cold weather to come will certainly preserve the ice for weeks to come.


Heading Out

Heading Out

An unseasonably warm winter day was the perfect time to check out the activity in St. Joseph, Michigan.  While we were walking on the beach, a large vessel made its way past the lighthouses and onto Lake Michigan.  As it entered the lake, it turned north and eventually disappeared over the horizon.  We wondered where it was headed. Northern Michigan, Minnesota, perhaps somewhere along the St. Lawrence Seaway, or out onto the Atlantic Ocean for ports much farther away.

The passing vessel dwarfs the pier and lighthouses, and serves as a reminder to onlookers, of how shipping built the towns along Lake Michigan.

Beginning to Freeze

Beginning to Freeze

Less than two months away from the annual ice fishing derby, LaPorte County lakes are beginning to freeze.  Here, winds push the thin, newly formed ice to the shore, where is breaks into pieces, then freezes again.  This action creates some interesting patterns in the ice that generally only last a few hours until the spaces in beteen the plates of ice freeze as well.

Ice Patterns and Frosty Sticks

This seems to occur anywhere the water is moving gently - lakes on windy days, or near waterfalls where the falling water pushes forming ice away from the falls.  The image above, taken near a small waterfall feeding the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal near Lemont, Illinois, shows these ice patterns beginning to freeze.  Only a few hours later, the stream was frozen completely over, and the patterns were no longer visible.


Recent Happenings

Here are some of the latest events that have unfolded over the past few weeks.


In addition, it was also selected for Weather.com's Top 50 Science and Environment Photos of 2014.



Previous to this, the image along with several more, were featured in:
 UK's Daily Mail
The Huffington Post
ODN News, London

Along with a short interview for The Culture Trip

The Huffington Post also extended the invitation for me to become a photo blogger for their site. I plan on posting original material once a week, in addition to this blog.  My HuffPost blog author page and blog archive can be found here; http://huffingtonpost.com/tom-gill

Much more to come in the new year.

The Morning After the Freeze

The Morning After the Storm

Clouds finally break up a bit, allowing the sun to illuminate the frozen lighthouse and pier. At least two days of freezing temperatures and high winds caused a large build-up of ice on the outer lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan. Not unusual, but always stunning, the ice formations give the outer light the appearance of a frosted cake.

Arriving at the beach early in the morning, I waited for a couple of hours for the sun to finally break through the clouds. In the meantime, I met quite a few people who were taking photographs along the beach and pier.  It's always great to talk to other people with similar photographic interests, and even more intresting to view the images they captured.  The subject is the same, yet the interpretation is often quite different.


Ice Above

Ice Above

Getting close to the ice covered lighthouse is always the goal, but not always possible.  This visit to the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse was almost one of those times when accessing the end of the pier was not possible. But with a bit of luck, a local man used an axe and chopped a path to gain access to the end of the pier.  You can read about that in my previous post.

You need to get close to the ice to really appreciate the subtle twists and turns the wind and water created. The intricacies are remarkable, and easily passed by while taking in the big picture of a 35 foot tall structure covered in ice.

Standing below the ice gives a unique view of the formations, and having a deep blue sky as a background helps, in this case, to show off the glistening ice.   This is not a place I would stand once the temperatures climbed above freezing - hundreds of pounds, perhaps thousands of pounds of ice could crash down with little warning.

This ice lasted only a day or two, then, thanks to  warmer temperatures, the ice dwindled.


Frozen Range Lights

St Joe Range Lights

During the small window of time between the early freeze and the thaw a day later, I was able to capture the St. Joseph, Michigan outer range light covered in ice.  Check my earlier posts to view the images and read the story about how I was able to gain access to the outer light with the help of a local man.

Frozen Spray

The sunlight bathes the outer light, while the water and shore are still in shadow.  Later in the  morning, the sky would clear, then temperatures warmed up, rain fell, and so did the ice.

The spray from the high waves on Lake Michigan not only covered the lighthouse and portions of the catwalk, but also the surrounding bank of the St. Joseph River.  The marram grass and walkways were covered in a layer of ice, making walking very difficult.

Iced Crown

This close up shows the lantern of the outer light, covered on the windward side by ice, but still partially visible on the leeward side, framed by icy tendrils.

The ice is gone - for now - but winter promises another round of cold air, and the possibility of ice formations is still great.

Abominable Snow Man

Abominable

An early cold spell turned the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse into a 35 foot tall Abominable Snow Man - well, actually an Abominable Ice Man.  I you look closely at the ice formation, you can see two shoulders, arms, a head full of disheveled hair, and a long beard hanging down.

Each time this light ices up, the details are different.  The ice twists and turns as the wind blows the water sprayed onto the lighthouse, then freezes in the direction of the wind.

Making the trek out to the outer lighthouse was made easy by a local man who chopped through the ice build up on the railings of the pier.  The deck of the pier was mostly wet, not frozen, as the slightly above freezing temperature waters from Lake Michigan were still washing over, keeping the ice from building up.  The only icy place on the pier seemed to be right where I was standing to capture this image, but as the sun made its way around the lighthouse and the ice came out of the shadow of the tower, the ice melted enough for me to safely walk on.

Warm weather later in the day, and for the next two days, melted all of the ice - at least until the next cold, windy day on Lake Michigan.

Reaching the End of the Pier

The First Look at the Light

Once the ice was chopped away from the railing, allowing us to climb over safely - more importantly to climb back over to safety, I was greeted by the sun-bathed ice against a deep blue sky. The lighthouse tower is 35 feet tall, and the catwalk was built to protect lighthouse keepers and workers from the dangerous waves of Lake Michigan.  It's easy to see by the ice formations, that the catwalk would do little to prevent workers from getting soaked by the spray, and possibly washed over the rail.

Outer Light Northeast

A freeze like this so early in the season is unusual, and welcomed.  The deck of the pier is only wet, as the waves of Lake Michigan pour over it. The water is just above freezing, so it kept the ice from forming on the deck, allowing safe passage without the worry of slipping into the cold water. In a few more weeks, the water will freeze almost instantly on the deck, creating very dangerous conditions for visitors.

Frozen Before Thanksgiving

Checking Out the Ice

A recent arctic weather pattern turned the Midwest very cold and windy - the perfect ingredients for iced lighthouses!  This is the earliest I can remember, where the 35 foot tall outer lighthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan was completely covered in ice. As a rule, mid to late December was the typical time for icing -cold, windy, and the lake is still liquid.  Any later, and Lake Michigan tends to freeze over, and the splashing and spray are suppressed, and the lighthouses don't ice up.

Beating the forecast for warm weather and rain, I headed out to photograph the lighthouse before the ice melted, and before the skies turned to rain. Following an hour or two capturing images from shore, I headed out on the iced pier only to find the railings completely ice covered.  While this is nothing new, the ice also covered the only space between the rails allowing me to walk to the inner and outer lights. I considered climbing over, but the return was certainly not as easy, and not safe.

choppingsm

After a time photographing the pier and inner light, a familiar face came walking down the pier.  It was Tim, a local man who regularly studies bird migrations from the pier. I've run into Tim for the last six or seven years here, no matter what day I venture out to photograph the lighthouse from the end of the icy pier.  Today, he was armed with an axe, and ready to chop the ice away from a portion of the railing so he could get out to the outer light.

chopping2sm

He worked at chopping the ice for almost an hour, as I watched along with two fishermen and a few photographers. He finally made enough progress to safely climb over the rail. Tim held my camera gear as I climbed over to fasten a rope to the first catwalk upright, then back to the rail for a handhold in case we needed it on the return trip. Once over, I assisted a fellow photographer over the rail, and we made our way out past the inner lighthouse, to the outer light.  We were the first people this season to access the frozen outer light, and also to photograph it from the pier.

Windward Side of the Outer Light

I remained on the pier for quite a while afterward, photographing the light, and conversing with Tim as he set up his gear. We were joined soon after by another photographer. It was a great opportunity to meet some photographers and talk about our love for this lighthouse, especially in winter.

Sandhill Crane Migration

Sandhill Crane Migration

Each year, thousands of sandhill cranes migrate from the northern United States to their winter habitat in Florida. One stop along the way is in north central Indiana, at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.  At times, over 10,000 birds stop for a rest on their long migration.  This week, officials estimated the number around 8,000.

Watching the Sandhill Cranes

The birds stand over three feet tall, with a wing span of seven feet, and are quite vocal as they "kite" down to the marsh to feed and mingle. They arrive around an hour before sunset, from late September through mid December, but peak numbers are usually in mid November. Just before sunset, groups of three to twenty fly in from every direction, in formation, one after another, until the marsh takes on the blue color of their feathers.

Sandhill Gathering

Keeping just far enough away from the human spectators, they congregate until morning - the second best time to see them, as they take off to find food in the nearby farm fields.

People from all around visit the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area just to see the birds.  There is a raised platform with spotting scopes available to visitors, as well as ample parking.  This weekend, was cold, yet moderately crowded, as birdwatchers and photographers attempted to get their best look at the cranes.  During the morning hours, just after sunrise, the few dozen remaining sandhill cranes were only a hundred feet away from the viewing stand, allowing photographers to snap away.

On our return that evening, we parked amid the cars and buses - yes, tour buses of people wishing to view the cranes. Unfortunately, this evening, the birds were far in the distance, and not easily seen. Even though they were too far away to photograph, it was still exciting to see thousands of birds landing in the distance, flying in from every direction, almost constantly.  In the cold evening air, friendly park employees heated water on a propane stove, and offered hot chocolate and cookies to the visitors - an unexpected and welcome treat.

Autumn Yard Work

Autumn Yard Work There's nothing like the smell of burning leaves in the Fall. Even more than the colors that dot the landscape, the aroma of burning leaves confirms the season. Growing up in Chicago, we didn't get to experience the Autumn tradition of burning leaves, in fact, it was illegal. Besides, we probably only had 200 leaves to rake up and throw in the trash - or bury in the garden. Now my sons help my dad rake and burn the leaves before they are buried by the early snowfall.

It's great to get out to the country where burning is legal and experience the smell of burning leaves in the cool, Fall air. It just wouldn't seem like Fall without it.  Plus, the ashes are great for the garden.

Resting Kayaks

Resting Kayaks

On our return trip, we stopped at the beach - it's dark so early now, we figured we could enjoy gazing at the stars between the clouds.  It was very windy, so the clouds appeared as white smears across the sky, but it seemed to add some interest to the images I was able to capture.

The lights from the city of Chicago generally wash out most of the stars from this vantage point, however, the low cloud cover over the lake seemed to block some of that light from reaching these stars.  The light did, however, create some interesting viewing over the lake (see Saturday's post), making the image appear to have been taken over many hours, yet it was a single 20 second exposure.

Our viewing lasted only a few minutes before the low clouds arrived from Chicago, completely blocking out the stars all around us. Camera put away, we explored the beach in the darkness - a totally different experience for the senses.

Day into Night

Day into Night

The night sky on the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan is polluted by light from the city of Chicago.  The city is 50 miles across the lake at this point, yet the light completely washes out the stars over the city.

On this evening, the city light not only washed out the stars, but it illuminated the low clouds, making the horizon appear like sunset, yet sunset was two hours prior. High winds prevented my from taking very long exposures (the camera kept moving slightly when gusts hit), but the exposure did bring out the movement of the clouds and the waves.

This image appears to be a composite of sunset and the night sky, however, it is a single exposure, and image. The light pollution from Chicago is responsible for the yellow on the horizon.  If you look closely, you'll notice some lights from the buildings themselves.

Prepare to Get Your Feet Wet

Prepare to Get Your Feet Wet

A small wave washes over the pier at the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse. Things began to calm down following some extremely windy conditions on Lake Michigan. These small waves would only get your feet wet - maybe wet to your knees, nothing like the waves that crashed into the pier a day earlier.  Those waves would wash you into the lake with little effort.

The catwalk would protect the lighthouse keepers from such waves, but during certain storms, they wouldn't stay dry. The waves would almost reach the catwalk, and the spray would certainly tower over them, getting the keepers soaked with freezing water.

St Joseph Range Lights

St. Joseph Range Lights

A beautiful, sunny morning on Tiscornia Beach.  The sun illuminates the two lighthouses that comprise the St. Joseph range lights.

Range lights - also known as leading lights- help ships find the harbor entrance from a distance, especially at night.  In this case, the two lighthouses are set in line, a few hundred feet apart on a single pier.  The inner lighthouse is taller, so it can be seen over the outer lighthouse.  As ships approach the harbor, they steer so the two range lights are vertically in line, the inner light directly above the outer light.  Keeping these lights in vertical alignment, the helmsman is able to head directly toward them, and into the harbor in times of low visibility.

Range lights also assist ships in determining their position, even if they're not heading to port. Finding a bow or beam bearing may prove difficult using only one distant light or object, since the ship needs to be at an exact angle to take a sucessful bearing.  By lining up the two range lights, the navigator knows the ship is in line with the marker, and the bearing is accurate.

Even in these days of modern navigation systems, it's reassuring to see these sister lighthouses on the horizon, guiding ships to safe harbor.