On a Sunday afternoon last March, my wife Gail and I followed photographer Ken Scott onto frozen Lake Michigan and discovered that we had the Leelanau ice caves to ourselves. We were surprised. One weekend a few weeks earlier an estimated 5,000 people were there, causing traffic jams in a corner of Leelanau County that most winters is famously traffic-free.
But, of course, the winter of 2013-14 was not like most winters.
Ken loaned us his extra pairs of snowshoes equipped with steel cleats to grip the ice and led us down the trail from Gill’s Pier Road. We shuffled across an ice field spangled with beach sand until we reached the humped and bulging back of ice formations rising so high they cut off our view of the lake. We descended through a steep chute between them and came out in front of the formations.
Now we could see their scale: a great wall of ice 15 to 20 feet high running the length of the shore as far as we could see.
Along it were ramparts and parapets sculpted into shapes suggestive of the waves that had formed them. Some parts looked like faces in profile; some had the elephant and doughboy shapes of cumulus clouds; some were as sheer as the prows of ships.
Tucked in among them were the caves themselves: domed or keyhole shaped or vaulted like the naves of cathedrals. Small cathedrals, of course, but big enough for a dozen people to stand upright inside them. The floors were smooth and white, like melted candle wax. Overhead, the ceilings dripped with blue-tinted daggers of clear ice.
At one point Ken stopped and turned his head toward the big lake. In summer it would be blue water as far as you could see, with rollers breaking at our feet, but now all we could see was a jumbled sea of ice extending to the horizon. It could have been the frozen Arctic.
“Listen,” Ken said.
We listened but heard nothing.
He grinned. “Last week the ice was groaning out there. It sounded like whales singing.”
We were only a few weeks into the winter of 2013-14 when we began to realize that it might turn epic. Even in December it reminded us of the winters of our childhood, when temperatures were often below zero and county plows could never quite clear the drifts. Then came February and the winter started to get epic indeed.
We woke every morning to temperatures below zero — 15, 18 or 20 below. Snowdrifts grew to the eaves of houses. Plows shoved banks of snow so high along the highways that they nearly touched power lines. Schools started closing, sometimes for two or three days in succession.
A meteorological term entered our lexicon: polar vortex. The weather guy explained that the arctic jet stream was looping farther south than usual and with it came a circling mass of frigid air that usually stayed above Baffin Island and Siberia. It settled over the Great Plains and the Great Lakes region, bringing snowstorms and sub-zero temps. Records started falling. A meteorologist devised a “Misery Index” compiled from temperature, snow and wind data — and concluded that the Misery Index for the winter of ’14 it was the highest since 1950.
It wasn’t just cold. It was the Arctic come down to visit.
And the snow kept falling.
Most winters there’s a midwinter thaw, so even if 100 inches of snow falls, only a foot or two will remain on the ground. But this year the snow didn’t melt. It piled up. And this year — while lake effect snow accumulates on most of the windward shores of the Great Lakes — the Leelanau Peninsula, the little finger of the mitten, got much more than its share.
Maple City made news when it received more snow than the Upper Peninsula’s Keweenaw Peninsula. It snowed until the roofs of buildings collapsed. It snowed until there was no place for the Road Commission to put it. People had to ease their cars into intersections and honk their horns to warn oncoming traffic.
And then the Great Lakes began to freeze.
Not just the bays — that was rare enough — but the big water, the wide-open. It had been years. Many of us remembered the winter of 1977-78, when storms paralyzed the continent from the Canadian Prairies to New England. That year 93.1 percent of Lake Michigan froze over. It set a record many thought would stand forever. But 2014 broke the record — barely, but still — when 93.3 percent of the lake froze over.
It began early, in December, with ice anchoring in the sand and gravel at the edges of the lake forming an ice foot. Waves struck it and threw spray that froze and added new layers. A ledge formed — brilliant white because of the air trapped inside, and smooth as wax.
As the waves struck, they forced their way under the ice. You would see a wave break against the ledge and a moment later hear a deep bass throbbing as it passed through hollows underneath. If the water found a fissure, it would force a way through it to the surface and burst upward in a geyser-like spout. Every 50 or 100 feet along the ledge spout-holes grew into cones of ice 10 or 15 feet high. A wave would strike — and a beat later, a white volcano erupted. Ledges grew into ramparts and castles. Waves shoved plates of blue ice the size of patios onto the ramparts and breaking waves coated them in white. The waves burrowed into every other opening in the ice, as well, excavating small chambers into bigger ones, enlarging and smoothing until they formed smooth-walled caves.
The caves were a surprise.
Many of us had seen similar structures during other winters, but never many of them — and never this large. These were big enough for a crowd of people to fit inside, and as elaborate as limestone caves. They were cellars and grottos. Wave spray had embellished them with columns and pillars. They gleamed in sunlight and hundreds of crystal stalactites dripped from their ceilings.
Meanwhile, the lake got colder. The near-shore wash was thick with slush, with balls and plates of ice banging against each other. Then it froze into aggregate. Farther out sheets of clear ice formed, but waves shattered them and the pieces joined the aggregate. A wasteland of jumbled ice grew to the horizon, around the islands and across to Green Bay. It spread southward, past the Manitous and Point Betsie, down the shore and across the widest spot in the lake — 118 miles of open water to Wisconsin.
And the formations along the Leelanau coast grew larger.
In February, news of the caves was picked up by television and newspapers, but the mainstream media had already been scooped by Facebook and Twitter. Traffic jams forced the sheriff to close Gill’s Pier Road. After that people had to walk two miles to see the ice — and still they came by the hundreds. Many of them poured into Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern on M-22, where the hottest item on the menu was the Cave Burger.
Ken Scott was not the first to photograph the formations. He arrived after he heard the first rumors. But once Ken saw the ice, he was back every day — not because he earns his living with his camera (and works day and night, in every season, to do it), but because he’s never lost his spirit of play.
He lays his camera on the ice, sets the timer, then runs to capture a photo of himself leaping against the sky.
He’ll sit for hours waiting for the light to make some subtle switch, then fling himself into action. I’ve seen him dive to his belly to get a close-up of something on the ground, then roll over onto his back to capture the sky from that vantage.
And now and then, he spins in circles and cuts loose with wild, panoramic volleys from his camera, as if firing flowers at the world.
We’re lucky to have him. And lucky that he was here to document the remarkable ice formations during this remarkable winter. I’m certain we’ll be talking about this winter of ice and cold — and Ken Scott’s artistry — for many, many years.
(This essay first appeared as the introduction to “Ice Caves of Leelanau — A Visual Exploration” by Ken Scott (2014, Leelanau Press). A showcase of photography from this acclaimed book follows on page 36 in this edition of BLUE.)
Author Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City. BLUE Lake Stories artist Gary W. Odmark resides in Holland.