Each winter temporary ice formations form along the orange sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Wherever a tiny stream cascades over a cliff, or where water oozes through porous stone, ice forms upon hitting the frigid temperatures of a Lake Superior winter. These formations are reliable enough to have descriptive names given by the ice climbers who return each winter to test their skills on the frozen columns.
I have photographed the formations over several winters, but the winter of 2023 was my favorite because Karen (my wife) and I experimented with backlighting the ice at twilight and at night to give a sense of the color and translucency of the beautiful formations. I find the natural artistry of the ice as stunning as the sandstone formations of the Utah desert, but these are ephemeral and have to recreate themselves each winter. What an experience!
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located along Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Its namesake cliffs are miles long and make for great adventures all year, whether kayaking, backpacking, day hiking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or taking a guided cruise past the cliffs at sunset.
When we go in winter, we wear Kahtoola MICROspikes when navigating sheer ice at the ice formations, and we watched many people trying to stay upright when they walked in regular snow boots. Wear them! We also take snowshoes in case there has been a fresh snowfall and the trails are buried in deep fluff, though the short trails from Sand Point Road are often packed down by climbers. We also take cross-country skis to use on the nearby groomed trails. When venturing out in winter, we always wear insulated boots, and dress in layers of merino wool long underwear, waterproof snow/rain pants, and down, fleece, and a Gore-Tex shell. Mittens are essential, and chemical handwarmers can help when it’s really cold out. Take high energy snacks. To us, navigating winter is far more rewarding than enduring the bugs of early summer in the Upper Peninsula; just be prepared.
Important information about Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
Karen and I have encountered Black and Grizzly Bears occasionally, and these sometimes make for memorable stories. Here are five adventures that we can’t possibly forget, along with assorted bear photographs I’ve taken in recent years.
WATCHING BEARS AT THE DUMP
Copper Harbor on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, circa 1959
My family used to take camping vacations to state parks back in the 1950s and 1960s. Of those, Fort Wilkins State Park at the tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, which sticks up like a long curved finger into Lake Superior, was a favorite. This was an early army outpost established in 1844 to keep order during a copper boom in the region, and there were cannons and a fort that excited the small boy in me.
But the coolest thing we did as a family there was to drive the ’57 Chevrolet station wagon to the dump and wait until dark, lined up with all the other classic Detroit cars. At deep dusk the bears arrived one by one, until there were five. They poked their snouts into the fresh garbage and turned over cardboard boxes with their powerful legs and claws, each working independently of the others. I remember one was a big cinnamon-colored bear, while the others had black hair. I’m sure the dump smell and flies were awful, but it was thrilling to see bears up close for the first time in my life.
Dumps used to be a special way for families to experience bears outside each small town in the Upper Peninsula. Those days are long gone, but those of us who experienced bears at the night dumps will never forget the adventure. Here is a sampling of memories of that time by many people: https://www.pasty.com/discuss/messages/313/617.html
SLEEPING WITH A BEAR
1982 in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks
We were camped in a dense stand of Red Spruce high in the mountains. We knew that there were bears in the mountains, so we hung our food, but we didn’t have the mental acuity or experience to hang the food correctly in a tight grove of toothpick trees.
An hour later, in the tent, we heard a dreaded sound outside. I opened the zipper, and of course it was a big American Black Bear of the bad boy kind. I startled it by poking my head out the opening, and the bear responded by immediately climbing a tall spruce within five feet of our tent. So, it was a standoff, with me looking nervously up at the bear and it looking nervously down at me, occasionally clacking its teeth to warn me how fierce he was.
The standoff lasted all night. I had finally fallen asleep and didn’t wake up until we heard the sound of claws descending on bark. We quickly got dressed and I assumed the bear had skedaddled away, but instead it went directed to our hanging food bag. I think the bear had gotten into the food before coming close to the tent the night before, and the torn bag waving in the breeze and a pile of plastic bags below told the story. We finally chased the bear away, but we were short on food the rest of the weekend trip. My morning ration of instant coffee had bear saliva on its torn plastic container, and we never did find the peanut butter.
In the years since then we have learned to engineer a relatively bear-proof hanging bag under most circumstances, but it is often a challenge that most hikers don’t master, based upon most of the hanging food bags we see. Bear spray is also a good idea, though I don’t normally carry it in Black Bear country.
FENDING OFF A BLACK BEAR WITH STONES
1989 in the Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington State
We left our rental car in the parking lot at the trail leading to Hannegan Pass to begin a backpacking adventure in North Cascades National Park. At the trailhead we had an unusual siting of a Black Bear wandering around, and in the trail register comments someone wrote “pesky bear!” We set out on our ten day backpack into lowering clouds.
We set up camp among blueberry bushes and conifers, cooked dinner and hung our food in two heavy bags from a tree branch, then retired to our tiny tent. The next morning, we got up and immediately found a Black Bear under our food hang, trying to get at it. I yelled at it and threw some stones to try and chase it away, and it left, But I had a feeling that it wasn’t done with harassing us, so I went to where I anticipated it might approach the bag next, and lo and behold, there it was! So I threw more stones, hoping to discourage it. After a couple more parries, the bear finally left us alone.
Later in the day however, as we were hiking, a bear descended a mountainside at an angle that would intersect with us, causing us to be really apprehensive about its intent. It came within 20 yards of us, and I suspect it was the same pesky bear, but we hiked beyond without incident. The rest of the trip was bear-free, but those first two days were more than a bit unnerving.
BEING BLUFF-CHARGED BY A BLACK BEAR
1991 in Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park
We hiked the 13+ mile trail to Enchanted Valley on a spring day, early in the season when Red Alder leaves were emerging. It is a long hike but the setting in the valley was worth it, with waterfalls cascading off the gray cliffs. We set up camp and talked to a national park ranger about a murder mystery we were reading called The Dark Place, by Aaron Elkins, which was set in that very part of Olympic National Park. We hung our food from a tree, then soothed our hike-weary bodies in our warm sleeping bags.
The next morning we awoke to see a bear foraging in the hummocky gravel of the Quinault River’s flood plain. I went out with my camera on a tripod and got too close to the bear; I knew that when it bluff-charged me and I hurriedly backed up, even with my long telephoto lens.
Then the ranger came out of the old hotel building, converted to a ranger station, and also saw the bear. He thought it was an opportunity for a photo, just like I had. He was wearing a wife beater undershirt instead of his uniform at that early hour, and he also had a camera. Only his was a point-and-shoot camera without a telephoto, so he had to get much closer to the bear than I did. It then bluff-charged him! It was really funny to watch a ranger–who knew better–get so close to a bear!
SURPRISING GRIZZLIES ON THE TRAIL
2010 Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia
We were high in the Canadian Rockies, staying in log huts with hobbit-height doors during a snowy September. This park is known for its Grizzly Bears, and we had to be careful about walking to the outhouse from the cabin. One morning we awoke to Grizzly tracks near the cabin, heading up a nearby trail we were going to walk later in the day. When we did the hike in a group, we came upon big rocks that the bear had turned over and dug around using the enormous strength in its front legs and claws (these huge muscles terminate in the hump on the back that is characteristic of this species). It had been searching for hibernating ground squirrels or marmots and could quickly dig them out of their winter chambers.
One morning our group rose well before the crack of dawn to walk a trail past Lake Magog and the Mount Assiniboine Lodge and into the trail system beyond. We had headlamps on because it was a dark, cloudy morning. The man ahead of me suddenly stopped and said “There is a big mammal in the trail just ahead.” We waited, and a Grizzly cub, hefty after a summer of ground squirrels and berries, crossed the trail. Then there was another, soon followed by mama. We had our bear spray unholstered and at the ready, and Karen began whistling three loud blasts with her whistle to alert another part of our group that had been late in getting started.
Fortunately nothing bad happened, even though we were in extremely close proximity to the mother and cubs. They left the trail area and moved off about two hundred yards, where the mama began furiously digging for ground squirrels, with the two cubs imitating her. She even stood up on her hind legs repeatedly to sniff the air; we think there was probably a big male–dangerous to her cubs–in the area, based upon a guy we met who was camping with his dog in the nearby campground. His bear encounters were scary enough that he rented a cabin for the next night.
Nothing like Grizzly encounters to set the heart racing!
You can see more of the work of photographer Lee Rentz at his website: leerentz.com
While traveling through Lake Superior State Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I am photographically prepared for wildlife. In the summer of 2007, I saw a Moose and a Black Bear in this forest, and want to be prepared for whatever I see. So I travel with the camera ready with a 500mm lens with a 1.4x extender. This is a good combination for wildlife, but I find that I still have to get close to a creature to get a good picture. Anyway, I was an Eagle Scout, so my motto has to be “Be Prepared.” And today it worked out well.
Late this afternoon, as I approached a sandy road cut in my vehicle, I saw movement ahead and quickly counted four kits and one adult fox playing much too close to the road. I pulled over when I could, and meanwhile the foxes had scrambled for safety up and over the embankment and into the forest; several looking down at me from their higher perch. Then I drove to a nearby side road and saw the family again, this time gathered in a meadow. I stopped and got a few pictures before the family went back into the forest. When I first parked the vehicle to try and get a picture, the adult was relaxed enough to be laying down, eyes half-closed in a squint that looks so restful. My sequence of pictures shows the adult laying down along, then one kit coming up and nuzzling, then the adult looked directly at me. Then the adult rose when it saw I was staying and stared with eyes wide open and intent on me and my intentions. Eventually it decided to leave and took the kits with her.
I later went back to the main road and discovered the fox den on the other side of the road from where I first saw them, near the top of the sandy road cut. This is the second den I have located in Lake Superior State Forest, and each one has been near the top of a steep (but not very high), sandy road cut. In each case the den entrance was in the open, without any obstructing vegetation. The fox knows to dig the den just below the root line of the trees and other plants; this allows easy digging but provides a stable roof of soil held in place by the roots. This fox didn’t pick such a good den location, however, being right at the edge of an asphalt highway–upon which I later saw two of the young foxes playing.
These Red Foxes interested me because the adult was not red; two of the kits were not red; and the two remaining kits were the typical Red Fox warm golden-red hue I’ve seen before (except in Alaska’s Denali National Park, where I saw a jet-black Red Fox). The coloration here was varied in shades of dark gray and black and reddish ochre that is known as the “Cross Fox.” There is a black line down the back and another black line that goes over the shoulders and down the legs; I suspect that when trappers skinned out a fox of this coloration and laid it out flat, the cross looked distinctive.
As I’m sitting here at the picnic table in the campground, I’m less than 100 yards from the fox den. In fact, twice since I’ve been in camp an adult fox trotted by. The second time, the fox was briefly curious enough to walk up hesitatingly and check me out from about 25 feet away.
I should mention the habitat. In this sandy soil the tree cover consists mostly of Jack Pine, Paper Birch, and Bigtooth Aspens, with a lot of bracken and reindeer lichen as ground cover.
I’ll see what tomorrow morning brings. [Note: the next morning I saw a single young Cross Fox outside the den in a drizzle, with the others probably warm and dry inside.]
Also today I saw a pair of fresh Sandhill Crane tracks crossing a road. I also saw a wet path roughly a foot wide crossing a road from wetland to wetland; I’m sure it was made by either a River Otter or a Beaver.
As I’m typing this at deep dusk, a whippoorwill is calling across the lake and mosquitoes are hovering around me with their incessant whine. It is a chilly June evening, and I’m wearing a layer of down.
This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer and you can see more of my work athttp://www.leerentz.com
Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.