It’s a Grand Island

It’s a Grand Island

Story and photos by Scot Stewart


4367: Mid-February ice formations on Grand Island are shown.

4523: Ice climber Kait Roszak of Madison Heights, Michigan, nears the top of a cliff face as Mike Wilkinson of Lexington, Kentucky, belays.

4521: Kait Roszak takes a break from the climb for a quick photo op.

1667: The sun shines through a curtain of ice on Grand Island.

4647: Icicles hang several feet down, nearly touching the frozen lake below.

“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” — John Muir

It is in a precarious spot, on an island, in icy Lake Superior. It marks its presence facing a channel with a good strong current, making it one of the last places in the harbor to freeze in winter. It’s a destination spot for visits in summer and definitely in winter, but it is definitely not easy to get there, especially in the cold months. There are several ways to get there in winter, like crossing the lake at the ferry landing and heading to Williams Landing. The fastest way to get to some of the best features on frozen winter days on foot is a short-cut, across that dangerous East Channel, but most winters that stretch does not freeze, and when it does, the ice may be thin, broken up and even moving. It may freeze up solid, only to reopen after strong winds and currents roil things up.

Grand Island lies in the center of Munising Harbor in Alger County, on the Big Lake. It holds approximately 13,500 acres, is about eight miles long and has about 35 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. It’s the largest island on the south shore of Lake Superior and has two lakes of its own—Duck and Mud. Mud is an impressive lake, just a bit over a mile long. The Ojibwe called the place Minnising. It has been translated several different ways, but the most lyrical is “the place of the great island.” It was an important place to Native peoples who gathered, camped, farmed, fished its shores, hunted and created sugar bushes there for perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 years before the arrival of European explorers, missionaries and fur traders.

The first family of European descent was the Abraham Williams family, for whom the landing is named. They settled there in buildings abandon by the American Fur Company in 1840, next to Native American birch dwellings. They thrived through a variety of endeavors, farming, blacksmithing, fishing, and running a sugar bush, until 1896 when the island was purchased by Cleveland Cliffs Company. William G. Mather, president of the company, admired the wild beauty of the island and built a lodge and game preserve there, filling it with elk, pronghorn, white-tailed deer and other game species. Many animals raised there were shipped to parks and states across the country looking to restock game numbers. Several structures in the central U.P. are named for him, including William G. Mather Elementary School in Munising. His mother’s maiden name, his middle name, Gwinn, was given to the company’s model town.

In 1990, the U.S. Forest Service purchased the island and created the Grand Island National Recreation Area. Today, visitors can camp, hike, bike, kayak, fish, hunt and ice climb. A few permanent homes also exist there on small private holdings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the U.S. Forest Service, works hard to restore numerous parts of the island to native vegetation and develop natural areas for wildlife, like pollinators.

In winter though, it is 60- to 80-foot-tall blue and aquamarine tinted formations that become a key attraction on the island. It is a 3/4 mile hike across the ice on Lake Superior from the mainland to Grand Island’s southeast corner, so it is a little intimidating—especially since several snowmobiles sunk out there earlier this winter and a hovercraft was sent to take the snowmobilers back to shore. The ice was much safer after continuing single-digit temperatures and calm winds. A well-trod pathway to the cliffs, mostly across ice with a few inches of snow atop it, took this writer and a few other adventurers one Sunday afternoonin February to Grand Island. There were 30-plus skiers, ice climbers and hikers out there with us. Water continues to seep down the cliffs, leaving plenty running over the surface on the ice close to the island’s shore.

Since the ice formations face the south and southeast, when the early morning sun shines, it hits the formations directly, sketching gorgeous pinks across the columns and daggers. Hikers and photographers must head out across the ice while it is still nearly dark. The 30- to 80-foot-tall ice formations soon loom in the dim light, but the ice conditions under foot are unclear, even with a flashlight.

Out on the lake, wind and wave conditions pull and push at the layer of ice, sometimes several miles wide and more than a foot thick. The pressure can cause huge, mile-long cracks. Like hair-line fractures to bones, no space opens, no ice is dislocated—it’s just cracked. It is the sound that is jarring, unnerving. It sounds like a distant cannon if far away, and like a shot gun discharged underfoot if it’s close.

Pressing on farther brings sights of the teeth of winter—huge icicles, Roman columns and rolling curtains—into closer view. They are all immense, and as they are unfurled in the light of the rising sun, they are breathtaking! They stretch out for more than half a mile along the island’s cliffs, alternating from short, squat areas to huge, towering sheets. And it becomes immediately clear they are not static.

The sound of dripping water plops and gurgles all along the ice. The ground water pushes along below the snow, soil and bedrock across the island, seeping through porous sandstone and occasionally dolomite. When the water reaches the edge of the island it has nowhere to go but down. Straight down to the lake ice. Then it rolls out in some areas and pools up in others. On cold days, a skim of ice forms along the top of the water. The following day, the water pools up again on top of the ice and some freezes again that night. Eventually there are many sandwiches of thin ice and the run-off water. It is close to shore so extra care must be taken, as the weight of even small hikers crushes the ice, releasing the water, and occasionally gives way to the water below, often four feet or more to the lake bottom.

There is more evidence the ice is active and ever changing. Huge icicles and growing columns are missing their ends. Sometimes a piece looms out of the lake ice. In other places there is not sign at all of the ice—it has been swallowed up by dripping water, moving ice and open water. Just disappeared. In yet other spots under large curtains, there are walls of rounded ice rising up four or five feet, covered in rounded knobs of accumulated drips or streams of water coming from overhead.



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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