Ice after the Ice Age

A poplar branch along Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette is coated in ice after big waves from Lake Superior splashed up and quickly froze, creating incredibly clear ice. Photo by Scot Stewart

A poplar branch along Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette is coated in ice after big waves from Lake Superior splashed up and quickly froze, creating incredibly clear ice. Photo by Scot Stewart

by Scot Stewart

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Whims and moods of Lake Superior molded by temperatures, winds and barometric pressures are continually in flux. During warmer months, lake watchers and visitors are sometimes lulled by placid, gentle laps of small waves kissing warm sand or oozing over Pre-Cambrian basalts and younger sandstones smoothed over the centuries by the Lake’s caress. Superior’s surface, its waves and reflections of a green shoreline by day and orange peach and rose skies at sunrise and sunset, are the moments crowning the months from April until early November.

Once the temperature begins to dip below freezing, though, everything changes a huge part of Upper Peninsula winter weather. A warm summer and fall often means ice is shy to form on the open water on Lake Superior. Like a mound of hot rocks under a campfire, the vast volume of water holds its heat a long time. Combine all that warm water with strong north winds and the U.P. gets wrapped in lake effect snow. The cold condenses moisture in the air over the water and carries it inland on north winds. Higher elevations and cooler temperatures over land turn the water into driven flakes.

Ice has 9 percent more volume than the water had before it froze. That means a couple of things. As water freezes, it expands and takes up more space. If it is in a can or bottle, it usually means the container is done. If the water is in something alive or recently alive, it can mean trouble. A tomato ends up as a pile of seeds, a skin and a small puddle of water if it freezes and thaws.

Life on the surface must be prepared for ice. Animals like otters, muskrats, ducks and geese must know how and where to enter water skimmed or covered with ice. Some of the most humorous scenes of waterfowl are those trying to land on a lake surface, only to realize on landing it’s solid and slippery and their final stopping point is much farther down the run, usually on their tails.

Beavers stockpile food in browse piles, branches cut and stuck in the mud around their lodge during the fall. Through openings from the lodges under water, they access the food during the winter below the surface of the ice on their ponds, cut small sections of the branches and return to their lodge to feed on the bark and branch tips. Should their ponds be located in shallow water and entirely freeze up during an extremely cold winter, the beavers are locked in their lodges and must chew their way through the walls to get to food on land or above the ice.

The fate of the beaver living in an expansive lodge at the Bog Walk at Presque Isle Park in Marquette between the two viewing platforms will be one of those homes this winter at the whims of the weather. Several beaver families in the past have not survived the winter there—it’s at least the third lodge built there in the past 20 years, and definitely the largest. The impact of the family on the wetlands has been impressive this past year. The city has been forced to wrap many tree trunks with wire to protect them from industrious incisors.

The U.P. is famous for its icicles. Some are not even close to a big lake. In places where cliffs expose layers of rock and soil containing ground water, the seepage freezes in colder weather to form great ice formations. The Eben Ice Caves in Alger County north of Eben is probably one of the most visited interior sites. Other sites are on County Road 510 in northern Marquette County and climbable formations lie on the Sand Point Road in Alger County. These formations are often slightly yellow, carrying a little iron in the water or picking up a touch of tannic acid from decomposing leaves. Thicker formations may diffuse light, making them appear bluish. A combination of the two creates green ice.

Truly dramatic, gigantic, 30-to-40-foot high blue and green curtains are a different matter all together, making winter a true theater of spectacles. Water seeping from the geological layers at Grand Island National Recreation Area in Munising Bay, especially across from Sand Point and at multiple sites along Pictured Rocks, offer 100-foot long curtains, 40-foot icicles and other mind-boggling formations starting from the very first cold weather each fall and winter. Getting to them early on can be a real challenge on foot, skis or snowshoes because of the temperature of the Lake itself. It is still liquid, even at 10 degrees below zero. It is often the early part of winter too when the formations are at their best. Cold weather creates clearer, cleaner-looking ice. Thaws cloud the ice and often melt tips, leaving broken ends.

Grand Island has a channel running on the southeast side around the old historic lighthouse and is one of the last places to free in winter. Crossing the channel from Sand Point is only about three-quarters of a mile—it can be done in minutes, unless there is uncertainty about the ice. Windy weather makes it continually unstable.

Viewers can cross at the Grand Island dock, and walk or ski around—but it’s more than four miles to the ice formations. With uneven ice, it can take an hour and a half to two hours on foot. Ice may be strongest at dawn after a cold night, but walking in the predawn darkness to experience the east side sunrise colors can be unnerving when pressure cracks underfoot snap through the ice, sometimes six or more inches thick, sounding like cannon blasts. Quiet mornings can turn into busy days there as visitors, waiting to see others  signaling the safety, make their crossing.

Winter winds, carrying an Arctic chill, sculpt the liquid lake into real ice, forming into 2-foot tall stalactites, saber-toothed tiger teeth, layer after layer of organ pipes, wispy veils of lacy fabric. These are the truly amazing, varied ice formations of Lake Superior. Recent cold winters have afforded hikers chances to visit the cliffs and caves at Presque Isle’s east side to see how winter splashes coat the rocks in amazing ice.

Winter storms this year, with strong northeast winds pushing huge waves into the shore, have created some of the best ice ever along Lakeshore Blvd. in Marquette. The sparkling frozen wonderland has stopped dozens of drivers in their tracks to see the poplars, dried tansy and other hardy plants growing in the rocks along the shore. It has been difficult to walk along the lake edge, the shapes, designs and formations so variable and so numerous. Branches over the water may be wrapped in inches of ice, barely holding up. Wind curls long icicles into toothy jaws. Strands of dangling ice sparkle like candelabra, shifting from bright yellow to amber to crimson in the setting sun. The sculpted beauty has been like Art on the Rocks, with each rock a new masterpiece.

Melting and freezing, storms and winds will continue to create, erase and build on the lake edge and even the ice surface itself as winter digs in and sets its current mood into new creations. Pressure fractures bring a unique three-dimensional beauty to ice underfoot, as passers by can see the bubbles trapped in building ice. It makes each day a new reason to see what has been shaped, painted or molded by a moody Lake Superior.

To read the full story please pick up a copy of this months Marquette Monthly at one of our distribution outlets.

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