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"The Two Sides of the Straits"

Mackinaw Today, issue: Summer 2001

     One might quickly think of the two sides of the Straits of Mackinac as being St. Ignace to the north and Mackinaw City to the south, connected by the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge. I’m going to describe to you another “two sides,” that being summer and winter.     Those of you who make up the 2.4 million persons who come to the Straits area to vacation in the summer months enjoy the vast benefits the region has to offer.

The Straits connect Lake Michigan with the other four Great Lakes. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world and collectively they comprise 20% of the earth’s freshwater. Michigan borders four of the five Great Lakes. With the nation’s increased scarcity of water, this mecca of water activities is a blessing that many other states and nations on earth may envy. For an in-depth discussion of the Great Lakes, check the web for “Great Lakes,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001.

Spring Breakup

      Fishing, power boating and sailing; jet skiing, swimming and diving are among the many recreational activities that absorb your leisure time. But, what happens in the other half of the year? The character of the region changes immensely. From one million visitors in the summer, Mackinac Island’s population dwindles to the 523 permanent residents, Mackinaw City, a beehive of summer activity of up to 60,000 daily, returns to its permanent residence of 961.   

     Perhaps, much to the dismay of many, the “no motorized vehicles,” Mackinac Island’s transportation changes from horse and carriage to buzzing snow-mobiles. At the airport in the winter months, it is often most difficult to find a parking spot for your snowmobile. A municipal ordinance allows their operation from November 15 to April 15. Michigan’s registered snow-mobiles number 378,121, and along with registered watercraft of 959,943, place it first in the nation in both categories. This population of “toys” is a testament to the diverse activities of “Michiganians” and our visitors.

     But, what are the Great Lakes and its waters like in the winter months? My perspective of flying the region for many years and photographing images for my book, Michigan Lighthouses, An Aerial Photographic Perspective, has allowed me an enviable view of the Straits in the winter. (We also have more lighthouses than any other state in the Union). When flying and photographing from my Cessna 172 Skyhawk, I might be traveling at 50 feet or at 5,000 feet. This allows a point of view seldom seen by any other means. Certainly one flying overhead in a Boeing 737 at 35,000 feet and five hundred miles per hour has little sense or appreciation of the factors affecting life in the region.

     Before the advent of the Weather Channel, the term “Lake Effect” was seldom used or understood outside the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes are an atmospheric phenomenon occurring in the middle of the nation, affecting the lives of millions of people. This microcosm of weather creates winds and pressure patterns that literally piles water on an opposite shore. This “seiche” may take different forms from displacing water a few feet to violent waves of several feet, leaving death and destruction in their wake. In the winter months, these winds and waves create “reefing ice” where blocks of ice several feet thick are piled one on top of another. If you have seen the photograph by Robert Benjamin of the Round Island Lighthouse in 1972, the gaping hole on the first level was the result of reefing ice.     Gentler winds and swells break sheets of ice into many pieces and the resulting wave action creates “pancake ice.” I once observed this phenomenon while slowly cruising at some 200 feet above Lake Michigan. Fascinated by this undulating ice field, I carefully studied how it was formed. These circular pieces of ice, which range from a couple feet to 25 feet or more in diameter, bob and rotate in the swells and small waves. As they bob and rotate,waves rool and splash over the edge, freeze in a colder atmospher and create a crusty ridge around the perimeter. 

     They appear from the air like Cheerios with too much sugar. I used a photograph of pancake ice as a backdrop for the copyright page in my book. These vast flows of ice extending several hundred yards to a few miles from shore (occasionally the Great Lakes freeze all across the surface), all comprise this vast glistening winter spectacle.

       Another delightful occasion is photographing during spring break up. The effects of flowing currents, melting sunlight, alternate thawing and freezing give rise to picturesque images from above. The offshore or crib lights are quite uninspiring in the summer months. I sometimes describe them as “chunks of concrete with a beacon on top covered by seagulls, cormorants and bird dung.” In the winter months the birds are gone and the concrete is washed or covered with snow and ice. And, the surrounding waters are filled with floating, sparkling cakes of ice. Another winter phenomenon is the vast movement of ice blown by shifting winds from one part of the lake to another. A description from my book:   

       On Saturday April 7th, 1990, I flew through the Manitou Passage and upper Beaver Island area to survey interesting photographic opportunities. I found Skillagalee surrounded by ice for many miles. Further north, the area of Gray’s Reef and Waugoshance was devoid of ice. A large ice shelf encircled White Shoal and Lansing Shoal [25 miles north-northwest] was completely free.

      The next day, after touring the Upper Peninsula, I retraced the previous day’s route, flying at 5,500 feet. From this lofty position (for me), I was surprised to find a very different condition. Lansing Shoal was surrounded by ice extending from the shoreline of Garden Island to a half-mile or more north of the light, a distance of some eight miles. Skillagalee, which was completely surrounded the day before, now had only scattered remains. This immense shift of ice would likely go unnoticed unless one was looking specifically for such phenomena.
      Where in Lake Michigan might side-by-side ice floes and molecules separate-one heading south towards the Chicago River and the other north to the Straits? This movement over some thirty hours must have encompassed several hundred square miles of water-a testament to the action of wind, waves and currents during spring thaw in the northern lakes.

Photographic Composition

I often use the “offshore” Spectacle Reef Lighthouse photograph as representing my thoughts on composition. This March photograph depicts the Straits during winter’s ice breakup. The multifaceted patterns of ice offer a varied and colorful backdrop to an image. The piled ice at the lighthouse base is reefed ice, stacked up in often-violent winter storms. The lighting during late winter, with the sun still moderately low on the horizon, casts a shadow running off the right edge. The photograph portrays two sides of the base structure, giving a better sense of dimension rather than a straight-on shot. I wanted to show the windows in the cut-stone structure and the solar panel that now provides electricity to operate the beacon. And, the altitude is critical to the final composition. I like to be in a position that might invite the viewer to think, “Where, how was that photograph taken?”

Winters Pleasures

      The alignment of all these elements, assuming I can visualize them in my mind’s-eye, is important. In doing aerial photography one cannot easily choose his lighting and atmospheric conditions—it’s difficult to “sit and wait” for more ideal conditions. As I’m flying, the many factors affecting the outcome of the image always seem in conflict with each other. Wind-drift and alignment of the airplane providing a forward angle to shoot, dodging passing seagulls, vibration and turbulence sometimes shaking the window loose from the magnets holding it against the wing are all at odds with each other—each having an impact on the final outcome. I often describe this “window of opportunity,” bringing all these elements into alignment, as being only one or two seconds.

     So, how does one go about enjoying these pleasures of winter? First, contact the various Chambers of Commerce: Mackinaw City (231-436-5574), Mackinac Island (906-847-6418), St. Ignace (906-643-8717), to see what is open during the winter months.

     Many facilities now operate on an extended season. Some, such as Mission Point Resort, will accept and lodge guests year-round. This is becoming more prevalent as a great deal of maintenance and construction work is completed over the winter, and the resort keeps open certain facilities and provides meals and staff (albeit more limited), to house these people. Some buildings are more costly to shut down than they are to heat over the winter.

     Transportation to and from the island is mostly by air with Paul Fullerton at Great Lakes Air in St. Ignace (906-643-7327), or Hoffman Flying Service out of Cheboygan (231-627-3864). The majority of horses are removed from the island in the winter, but a few remain. So, prepare to dress warm if you wind up on a snowmobile traveling from the airport or if you elect to take a winter sleigh-ride tour of the island. And, “if the weather be-good,” you too might briefly see from the air, as I have, the

spectacle of the Straits in winter. For an event really different, away from the summer throngs of people and fudge, consider the “Other Side of the Straits.”

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