Ice floes off the coast of Lake Superior near Cascade River State Park, MN
In late February this winter, I traveled along Highway 61, following the scenic coast of Lake Superior heading north from Duluth 100 miles to Grand Marais, Minnesota. Incredible ice formations lined the shore. But what surprised me most was the sheer variety of ice that existed. The winter scenery changed from one spot to the next just a few miles away–including the lake itself, changing from frozen conditions to moving water with floating ice chunks. The powerful wind was responsible for completely transforming these locations, and creating truly amazing sights.
My travel companions were my Mom and two sisters who all live in southern Minnesota. All of us had traveled and explored the numerous state parks along this route in the summer and fall (excellent lodge to lodge hiking on the Superior Trail). But none of us had ever ventured Up North in the winter. It was late when we arrived in Duluth, but one sister braved the cold with me for a midnight walk from our hotel at Canal Park Inn to the Aerial Bridge for our first peek at frozen Lake Superior.
There under the bridge, the frozen ice had strange snow patterns on the otherwise smooth surface. Once back home I tried to research what these were–best I could find was a description of “snow ice patches” that are created from “blowing snow which collects in wet zones surrounding thaw holes and cracks in the beginning stage in the formation of snow-ice mounds.” Can anyone out there verify?
By the next morning, those beautiful patterns were gone, having disappeared under a thin layer of fresh snow. Glad I saw it when I did, because I never saw another sight like it for the remainder of our trip along Lake Superior. Heading north about 40 miles, we traveled to a lodge north of Two Harbors so we could have close access to Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse for the next couple of days. Here, my Mom is standing on the shore outside our lake home rental at Grand Superior Lodge. Note the growing shore ice forming on the exposed coastline from prevailing wind and wave action.
And notice that Lake Superior was not frozen at all! (I was highly disappointed to see moving water because that meant that the Lake Superior ice caves on the Wisconsin side–directly across the bay from Two Harbors, would NOT be accessible this year after all. So our plan to visit the ice caves was probably not going to happen at the end of our 10 day trip. Last year was the first year since 2009 that Lake Superior ice had froze thick enough for people to walk to the ice caves.) But even though the lake was not frozen, the shore line was pretty interesting to explore.
Gooseberry Falls State Park was just 2 miles from the lodge where we stayed. The short paved path and stairs leading to the main falls from the Visitor Center were covered in ice, and ironically the most difficult part of the park to navigate. (Snow pants make sliding down the stairs the quickest, safest way down.) Regular winter boots made exploring the rest of the park easy in the snow. The Lower Falls, which eventually empties out to Lake Superior, was more rewarding to see than the main falls. The frozen cascading water was tinged in a soft blue green.
Close up of the Lower Falls at Gooseberry
View from the backside of the frozen waterfall looking out at the park with my sisters walking on ahead. The next shot is simply looking up at a tree at the top of the falls.
The next day we took our complimentary snow shoes from the lodge to Split Rock Lighthouse park and hiked along the shore. What a difference! This was just 10 miles north of our lodge where the lake had zero ice.And here, it appeared that Lake Superior was covered in a thick blanket of snow, as are the rocks on shore. A bit further we reached the little island bird sanctuary and noticed the lake had more variation and ice chunks in the distance. And nice reflective surfaces for that pink sunset!And just steps left from where my sisters were sitting, the ice was noticeably different yet again. Note the cool patterns!
Split Rock lighthouse on Lake Superior
Powerful wind mixed with water turbulence cause ragged tear lines and form cracked patches in the ice sheets.
A bit further north the shoreline ice was growing on Lake Superior, and angular sheets of thin ice were jumbled along the shore. It was a little scary walking out on this surface, but I was careful to follow indents of other boot tracks and stay a safe distance from the edge. No idea what the lake temp was, but I didn’t want to fall in!
About halfway up the drive between Duluth and Grand Maraias, we stopped along the highway near Tettegouche Park. Here the shore line of Lake Superior really impressed!
A frozen fantasy forest materialized before our very eyes…Apparently an icy 15 foot wave crashed up the cliff and instantly froze all the vegetation in its reach. Every surface was covered in white. The ice was so thick– yet the weight didn’t seem to crush the tree branches underneath, or break off when accidentally stepped on.Was Frozen filmed here?Couldn’t resist taking a “selfie” via tripod in this magical icy forest.
Grand Marais, just 40 miles shy of the Canadian border, was our final destination on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Our corner suite at East Bay Hotel had walls of windows overlooking the mighty lake, allowing easy views of the ever changing shoreline (and easy access to shops and restaurants down the street–including the fantastic Trading Post (rent snowshoes for $10 a day), ligonberry crepes at Blue Water Cafe, and pizza at Sven and Ole’s). A short drive away, to the campground by the town entrance, brought us to Artist Point where bluish plate ice was piled high.
This plate ice was created from pressure ridges as the wind pushed the ice toward shore and shifted it back and forth, causing it to break up and collapse under its own weight. It can pile up 8-10 feet tall along shorelines.
But ice that blows in one day– can be gone the next! The day before, my sister had been standing on solid ice where the ice chunks were now swimming in the sea (see pic above). The ice had shifted yet again. Being there in person and witnessing how fast the ice conditions truly do change gave credibility to the stories we heard from locals about how every year they have to rescue ice fishermen by helicopter as they float out to sea…
We woke up one morning and noticed giant ice floes outside our hotel window. So of course we had to go out and investigate! My youngest sister couldn’t resist the urge to jump on one of the floating ice chunks. Yes, it was shallow there, but still…how fast do they float away?
Eleven miles further north on Highway 61, at Milemarker 121, there was plate ice galore. Ice was stacked up 20 ft tall in some places. Some kids were ascending the peaks as if mountain climbing.
But even the tiny ice formations were amazing. Who would’ve thought an icicle could support rocks piled with pebbles?
A couple of Canadian guys down from Thunder Bay for the day were playing on the ice. Here they’re curling. Note the height of these piles–no snow truck pushed this ice aside!Here, they’re skeet shooting. Look at the size of these chunks!
Went back later that night for the sunset, mesmerized by that ice and captured a giant ice block reflecting the pink of the setting sun.
Our final day in Grand Marais we learned that ice conditions were now frozen across the bay in Wisconsin and that the ice caves at Apostle Islands were now open to the public. Perfect timing! So we headed there the next day, finishing our trip by seeing our final ice formations of Lake Superior with a flourish!
We were so lucky to visit in the nine days they were open in 2015! (To see my separate blog entry about our ice cave visit go here.)
The variety of ice formations that we saw on Lake Superior was astounding in the short time we were there. I can only imagine the changing seascapes and shorelines over the course of an entire winter and soon as it begins to thaw in spring…