Top photo by Kathryn Lund Johnson
The most striking winter features on the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are the ice curtains and caves. The natural formations show up in turquoise and white, and are worth their weight in gold.
Munising is a good base for exploring the spectacular ice structures. Nestled among bluffs along the shoreline, the town of 2,300 people is at the western edge of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a 40-plus-mile long stretch of wilderness known for its colorful, sculpted sandstone walls. Just a mile offshore on Grand Island, the sun sparkles off ice curtains, 10 to 90 feet high, that hang from cliffs.
We drove to the most easily accessible ice columns, about a mile east of Munising at Pictured Rocks’ Sand Point, to see that location’s climbing attraction during the annual Michigan Ice Fest. Braving frigid temperatures required to make the ice possible, we walked a half-mile along a road, then followed a hard-packed path through a mature hemlock forest. And wow! We came upon a cliff wall and massive sheets of thick and gnarled ice suggestive of fairy-tale scenery.
We learned that the otherworldly sheets of ice are formed when water seeps out from cracks in the cliff, hits cold air, and starts to solidify. Water from tiny streams called rivulets passes over the ridge and freezes in transit, forming stories-tall stalactites. These become thick sheets once the icicles, which are 20 to 50 feet high, make contact with the ground below.
A handful of climbers, tackling the ice, filled the airways with shouts of encouragement and congratulations. There was enough electricity among those gathered at the base of the cliff to supply power to Munising for a month.
Ice climbers wear safety hard-hats. Crampons are attached to their boots for gripping and steel teeth extend from the toes to dig into the ice. Elongated ice axes are strapped to their hands. They are on a mission.
While climbers work their way up these irregular sheets of hard packed ice, they are harnessed and on belay by a rope with a partner at the base of the cliff. The rope is fastened to a tree or other secure structure at the top of the cliff.
When climbers reach the top, they let out cheers and rappel back to earth to the open arms of their buddies, with enough memories for the rest of the winter. Interested ice climbers should attend the annual Michigan Ice Festival (February 14-18, 2018)—novice climbers will appreciate and learn more about this fast-growing sport.
EBEN ICE CAVES
A short drive southwest of the Sand Point ice curtains are the Rock River Canyon ice formations known as the Eben Ice Caves. After parking in a farm field outside the town of Eben Junction, it’s a three-quarter-mile trek to the site. The first quarter mile is an easy walk, but when the field meets the beech forest the terrain undulates, which makes snowshoes or ice cleats necessary for traction. Trekking or ski poles are helpful, too.
Just before reaching the ice grotto, there’s a climb up a relatively steep hill that reveals an amphitheater embraced by a massive blue and white tinted curtain that would impress even Oz. The translucent caverns are three to four-foot-thick columns of icy stalactites and stalagmites that form a curtain of ice to create rooms, or caves, with the cliff wall.
Openings in the ice curtain allow passage through and behind these massive sheets. The floor of this temporary cave has glare ice that is slick and uneven, and standing upright can be tricky. Little kids flop around like fish out of water.
Light shining through the translucent ice wall leaves a glow inside the cave; ethereal might be a good word to describe the out-of-body feeling it evokes. The cavern is sufficiently mesmerizing to blank out the cold of winter or any claustrophobia. It’s a temporary wonderland that disappears with the warmth of spring, to somewhat magically reappear the following winter.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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