Thursday, February 25, 2010

Munising Falls

It is tradition for me to visit Munising Falls whenever I’m near the western end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Even in summer, when not much more than an unenthusiastic trickle of water drools from the top, I still must see it.

For me, most of the attraction is the sandstone formation that the water falls from. I am fascinated by the eroded cliff formations and canyons that were formed in the region when it was covered by glaciers. Here, Munising Creek drops 50 feet into the canyon below on its way to Lake Superior, a short distance away.

I could spend hours examining the layered walls of rock that surround me while walking the short path from the interpretive center to the waterfall. I am mystified by the people I have seen walk briskly toward the sound of splattering water, never once look from side to side, stop for a moment at the first viewing spot, snap a photo and turn around. I lose sleep over this kind of thing; it is the curse of the obsessive rock nerd.

Barriers have been put in place fairly recently in an attempt to stop visitors from walking under the cliff and behind the waterfall. Signs posted warning of the potential danger of falling rock lend justification to these measures, and in warmer months it is not unusual to see a park ranger keeping a casual eye on potential adventurers.

During winter, Munising Falls creates a different, possibly even more spectacular scene. A massive column of ice is created, giving the falls a much bigger presence. Unfortunately, lack of funding does not allow the interpretive center to remain open through the winter months, but the smaller number of visitors allows more freedom to explore and photograph the area without having to wait for people to get out of your frames. You are also less likely to get caught climbing over the barricades. Normally, I obey the rules about this kind of thing. I respect the desire to keep natural areas untouched and keep erosion to a minimum, but it is really hard to resist getting closer to that column of ice.

I speculate that when rules are broken and the ice is observed directly, the sound of running water can still be heard from within the frozen waterfall. I imagine that the trickling echo could lead someone to look down past the base of the ice to see the stream of water rush out to continue its journey. I can’t say for sure, though, and I have no idea where these photos came from.

The North Country Trail (also called the Lakeshore Trail along this stretch of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) can be accessed directly behind the interpretive center. For backpackers through-hiking the NCT - a 4600-mile footpath running from North Dakota to New York - Munising Falls would be a nice rest stop. It is also either the starting or ending point for those hiking the 42-mile Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore section only. This route is a one-way trip from Munising to Grand Marais (or the other way around) and features some of the most awe-inspiring scenery of the entire multi-state trail. I am considering this option for a fall backpacking trip later this year.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eben Ice Caves

Rock River Canyon Wilderness

Stalactites of Ice

I recently returned from three days of snowshoeing in the Upper Peninsula with my sister, Andrea. We dubbed our trip 'Frozen Ice Crystal Palace Adventure 2010'. In addition to being fanatical rock nerds, we are also certified ice geeks and had been looking forward to visiting some icy hot spots in the far north of Michigan.

Photo by Andrea
Our first destination for FICPA 2010 was the Eben Ice Caves, located in Rock River Canyon Wilderness in the western section of Hiawatha National Forest. Rock River Canyon is 150 feet deep and lined with sandstone outcrops, which have been eroded to form concave overhangs. During winter, ground water seeps over the edge and down through the sandstone where it freezes, creating huge curtains of ice and closing off the front of the outcrops to form caves.

In winter it is possible to access the ice caves from the south side of the wilderness area. A few miles north of Eben Junction, visitors can park their cars by the side of the road and cross an open field to the forest. The field is private property, but the owner allows for its use in winter to access the ice caves.

Photo by Andrea

After checking in at the Sunset Motel in Munising, we headed west on M-94, drove through Chatham, turned North at the Eben post office, then right onto Frey Road. We parked the car where the road curves left at the open field and headed to the first phase of our Ice Adventure.

Rock River Canyon

It felt much colder than it actually was. The temperature was somewhere in the low-mid 20's, but the light wind felt like an arctic assault to the face. Shortly after entering the woods, the effects of the wind tapered off and an interpretive sign welcomed us with information about the wilderness.

First Glimpse of Ice

From there the trail is easy to follow; the path has a few steep spots, but doesn't really require much work for such an awesome pay-off. Shortly before the caves, a short bridge cuts across a stream, then the trail curves to the right and begins to climb. The ice becomes visible at the center of the “V” created by the hills on either side of the path.

The Ice Cave

We had both seen a few photos of the ice caves, but none of them really captured the size of this phenomenon. It was difficult to decide where to begin to tackle it photographically, and we immediately began climbing around the hillsides to get a more expansive view, and crouching and crawling around at the base of the ice to see every possible angle. Unfortunately, my camera malfunctioned shortly after our arrival (I was able to fix the problem later), but luckily I could rely on Andrea to capture every square inch of the area and give me copies later

Blue chandelier

What we weren't able to capture, however, was the amazing sound inside the cave. The drips of water falling from above created wonderful echoes and added to the cave atmosphere. There is much variation of color and texture to the ice in different parts of the cave. Some formations were smooth and clear, others were bumpy and hollow-sounding, and there were some columns that looked like dripping candle wax.

Waxy Ice Column

The ice was mostly white or had a yellowish tint from the sandstone. Light shining through from outside of the cave gave other areas a blue or green glow. The cave floor consisted of waxy-looking pools of frozen water in some areas, and exposed earth in others.

Inside the cave - Photo by Andrea

We spent at least an hour at the Eben Ice Caves, and could have lingered a lot longer had it not been for the cold catching up to us due to lack of activity. We had intended to hike to a nearby waterfall after leaving Rock River Canyon, but it was now close to sunset, so we tabled that for later in the trip and headed back to Munising to drink hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and decide on the following day's hike.

"I could happily die in this cave." - Andrea

More photos of the Eben Ice Caves can be seen here.