Mesmerizing Sights

Michigan’s stately lighthouses are transformed into fascinating abstract art when ice, snow, and changing skies frame these soaring beacons

Photos by Todd and Brad Reed Photography

The Ludington North Breakwater Light is a regional focal point, and a great place to watch the sunset in winter.

My ice cleats crunched over the snow and my breath formed clouds as I ventured along the frozen breakwater. Grand Haven’s pier is packed with sun-loving beachgoers in summer, but on this frigid February day only a handful of people joined me on a walk out to see the city’s iconic lighthouses encased in ice. 

A tunnel of steel catwalk supports arched overhead, swathed in thick columns of ice. Ahead of me, Grand Haven’s Inner Lighthouse tower bore only a thin glaze of ice, but its Outer Lighthouse stood like a gingerbread house dripping with white frosting. A blanket of ice concealed half of the building, hiding much of its vibrant red exterior from view. Hundreds of tiny icicles formed a delicate fringe along the structure’s roofline, frozen into squiggles created by constant westerly winds. The building’s porthole-shaped windows were nearly fully obscured by curtains of ice. 

I’d never seen anything like it.  

Like most Michiganders, I’ve been exposed to the state’s beloved lighthouses all my life. And also like most Michiganders, my experience with those lighthouses has largely been in the warm-weather months: cruising past the soaring beacons on a power boat, climbing winding staircases to stand on windy observation decks, photographing a Lake Michigan sunset framed by a lighthouse. 

But on this winter day, I heeded my father’s advice. “You should head out to the Grand Haven lighthouse,” he told me. “It’s supposed to be pretty right now.” 

What an understatement. 

Ice sculptures surround Pointe Betside Lighthouse, which is north of Frankfort and is situated at the southern entrance to the Manitou Passage. Construction was completed in 1858.

Icy Attractions

“I think photographing images of Michigan’s lighthouses in winter reminds people of the state’s year-round beauty,” says Brad Reed, co-owner with his father, Todd, of Todd and Brad Reed Photography in Ludington. “There’s an army of photographers ready to shoot Michigan’s natural beauty in summer or fall, but they usually forget about us come winter.” 

Brad and Todd Reed have both enjoyed photographing Michigan professionally for decades — Brad for 20 years and Todd for 53. The duo have focused largely on landscapes in their hometown of Ludington and in west and northern Michigan, branching off into the Upper Peninsula on occasion. The Reeds and their general manager, Rachel Gaudette, have sold their prints and photography books online and from their eponymous gallery since 2005. 

While the Reeds shoot a wide range of Michigan subjects, they have a great fondness for Michigan’s lighthouses. From a photographic standpoint, Brad’s favorite time of year to capture them is in winter, despite the sometimes fierce conditions.

“There’s so much beauty in the winter,” he says. “You get beautiful ice formations that sometimes look like abstract art, and there can be a lot of drama in the sky, in the snow, and in the ice.” 

My cold-weather lighthouse excursion began with Grand Haven’s ice-covered lights. After being wowed by their spectacular ice formations, I felt driven to see more. I was mesmerized by the interplay of ice and water, of light and shadow, and I was in awe of nature’s wildly creative forces. 

After Grand Haven, I visited the Holland Harbor South Pierhead Lighthouse, fondly known as Big Red. The light itself wasn’t covered in ice — water and air currents didn’t support ice build-up on that winter day — but the walkways out to the light shimmered with hoarfrost, like tiny jewels. The contrast of the brilliant red lighthouse against the white and blue of snow, water, and sky took my breath away. 

A few days later, I drove to South Haven to view its South Pierhead Light encased in ice. Next were visits to icy lights in Muskegon, Ludington, Silver Lake State Park, Manistee, and Frankfort. A week later I drove farther north, to see lighthouses in Mackinaw City and Marquette. Each one was different, each adorned with a thin glaze or frozen filigree, each surrounded by mounds of snow or bobbing icebergs. 

These lighthouse excursions were proving addictive. 

A beautiful winter’s day is made even prettier with an iconic lighthouse vista. Big Sable Point Lighthouse is one of the prettiest in Michigan and is located in Ludington State Park.

Timing is Everything

“Lake Michigan is the best place to see ice-covered lighthouses in Michigan because of the prevailing winds,” Brad says. “The winds come from the west, and they create pretty good surf when they travel across all that open water.” 

Can’t-miss lighthouses, he says, include the St. Joseph North Pier Inner and Outer lights, the Ludington North Breakwater Light, Point Betsie, and the Charlevoix South Pier Light Station. He particularly likes Charlevoix’s steel railings for their tendency to develop interesting icicles. 

Brad heads out for winter lighthouse-viewing between mid-February and early March, late enough in the season that ice shelves and icebergs have formed — which, in turn, throw powerful water spray that creates multilayered sculptures, sheathes, icicles, and glaze. By late winter, more of Lake Michigan’s surface has begun to freeze over, confining the surf that inundated lighthouses and piers just weeks before. When late March arrives, air temperatures have warmed enough to melt away all those elaborate formations.   

Night falls on the captivating Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse in Manistee. It’s located on the west end of the north pier.

Safe and Warm

As I tramped around Point Betsie Lighthouse near Frankfort, my ice cleats dug deep into the ice-covered shoreline. Ten weeks of winter precipitation and constant winds had fashioned the otherwise smooth, sandy beach into an uneven landscape of ice mounds, snowy flats, and frozen latticework. I crouched behind some ice-covered scrub to shield myself from the Lake Michigan spray and shot a few more photographs. After 30 minutes on the beach, I was ready for the warmth of my car. 

“My dad (Todd) was a member of the Coast Guard for 33 years, and he always impressed upon me the importance of safety,” Brad says. “That means taking great care on the ice.” Whenever the Reeds head out to shoot Great Lakes subjects, the pair wears spikes on their feet and on their wrists, and they wear life jackets. If the ice appears particularly slick, they don helmets. 

It can be difficult in winter to see where the land ends and where the water begins. When in doubt, they head for lighthouses that can be easily admired from solid land: Big and Little Sable Points, Point Betsie, and Old Mackinac Point in Mackinaw City among them. Beyond outfitting themselves for safety, they dress to be outdoors for hours, because the key to capturing the lights’ beauty comes down to timing and patience. 

“Miserable weather brings the potential for great photos,” Brad shares. “If it’s raining and then the sun comes out, if it’s snowing and the sun peeks through, that’s a recipe for some real drama.”

Those dramatic moments are what the Reeds term “magic light.” The key to catching those serendipitous moments, Brad says, lies with the photographer’s willingness to be there, despite inclement weather. 

I had an opportunity to prove his point on my lighthouse excursion in Ludington. As I walked around Big Sable Point in Ludington State Park, I felt a shift in the weather. The sky’s light cloud cover suddenly grew thick and menacing. A fierce wind began to whip up, leaving me cold and damp. I questioned how long I should linger around the stately black-and-white-striped lighthouse and its outbuildings. 

Just as I readied to leave, the sun emerged, casting the merest of pale rays over the landscape and adding a slight glow to ice formations and subtle drama to the clouds. I took a few photographs. I sat quietly with the image. I was enthralled. 

The St. Joseph North Pier Outer Light is constructed of steel framing and covered with metal sheets. In the winter, long, zigzag ice formations are reminiscent of a large bird’s wings.

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Michigan Lighthouses

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