Written by Jim DuFresne, with permission from Michigan BLUE magazine.
Hiking in late afternoon from the Gillette Sand Dune Visitor Center toward Lake Michigan, we quickly emerged from the forest to open dunes. It may have been February, but the winds off the Great Lake had swept the snow off the rolling hills of sand, which, in the low angle of the winter's sun, took on a golden brown hue.
We trudged across the sand and then stopped on the beach, stunned at the sight: Lake Michigan was open water, but the shoreline had been transformed into a thick shelf of ice and frozen formations that on this clear, cold day glittered like a jeweler’s display case of diamonds.
This is the season for ice hikes. For the next four to six weeks adventurous families and others can head to the nearest Great Lake to take in some of nature’s greatest sculpture: shoreline ice.
Call it winter beachcombing. Those long stretches of sandy shores that you love to stroll during the summer are just as interesting in February and March, after the prevailing winds have piled up ice bergs into craggy but impressive shapes and figures.
Arrive on a calm day like ours, and each jagged edge of the ice becomes a prism reflecting the sun into sparkles of light and bands of color. Better yet, try to arrive on a windy day when the surf is rushing toward you. The waves disappear under the icy shelf, and then suddenly erupt through cracks and holes like mid-winter volcanoes.
Any Great Lake shore can provide this spectacle to some degree. The most impressive ice is found in the western Upper Peninsula along Lake Superior in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, where the volcanoes are so big, you could climb them.
The most accessible volcanoes — eruptions that can be witnessed without leaving the warmth of your car heater — are found at the northern end of Lake Michigan where US-2 skirts its shorelines just west of St. Ignace.
We ventured to P.J Hoffmaster State Park on the outskirts of Muskegon.
From just outside Gillette’s visiting center we picked up the park’s half-mile Lake Michigan Trail and headed west for the big blue. The trail begins as a massive boardwalk and viewing area that are handicapped accessible, designed to allow everybody to experience the solitude of the sheltered back dune.
From the boardwalk the Lake Michigan Trail continues as an easy-to-follow path, even in the winter, until it breaks out of the hardwoods and pines into the park’s grassy foredunes. In about three steps we went from the sheltered winter forest to a sweeping view of the beach; we headed toward the lake and then gingerly walked onto the frozen shelf and across its ragged surface.
We peered down at its overhanging edge, made smooth by the continuous slaps of the surf, and admired huge icicles pointing toward the open water. For a while, the hope that a volcano will erupt is enough to keep you warm.
Author and world traveler Jim DuFresne resides in Clarkston and is a regular contributor to Michigan Blue. Michigan Blue magazine, Michigan's Lakestyle magazine, is published bi-monthly by Gemini Publications.