Children and Shelf Ice

By Pam Henderson

If you’ve wandered up to the lakefront at Washington Park recently, you might have felt like you were transported to Greenland. The shelf ice along Lake Michigan’s lakeshore has again blessed us with a magnificent glacial-looking seascape. Almost as far as the eye can see is a blanket of white; and, if you listen closely, you can hear the waves lapping against the icy shoreline.

Yet, the majestic shelf ice is as dangerous as it is beautiful. The shelf ice creates the illusion that it is deep like a glacier. One can’t tell where the sand ends and the water begins. The shelf ice, though, is actually part of the shoreline, not the bed of the Lake. As a result, it is not supported by a stationary piece of land. The constant motion of the waves, along with the extreme temperatures and winds that whip around from every direction, help the shelf ice to be an ever-changing phenomenon. 

It’s hard to resist the temptation to venture onto the shelf ice. The adventure would give a climber a bird’s eye view of the Lake and the chance to traverse deeper into Lake Michigan’s footprint than could ever be navigated by a swimmer at ground level in the summertime. But, such an adventure could come at a deadly cost. You may think you’re climbing on ice and snow that is piled atop the sand at the shoreline, but in reality it’s piled atop the water. A fracture or air pocket in the ice below could send you plummeting into the frigid and dangerous water underneath the ice shelf formation. A rescue could be treacherous, perhaps impossible. Clearly, the shelf ice is no place to play.

Michigan City Parks and Recreation Department has again warned individuals this winter to “…stay off the shelf ice along Lake Michigan’s shoreline because it is not solid. The ice is lightweight with air pockets. It is pushed onto and near the beach by wind and wave action. While the formations are attractive, according to the advisory, they are filled with deadly invisible holes.”

Heed this warning to keep yourself safe, and be sure to educate your children about the dangers of shelf ice. The shelf ice appears so sturdy and grandiose that a child would not be likely to look at it and see danger. If you venture out to the lakefront, be sure that your children are supervised at all times. In the blink of an eye, a child could be lured onto the shelf ice and find himself in harm’s way.

You and your family can take in the beauty of the shelf ice while standing on sturdy ground, away from the dangers of the shifting ice and frigid water. Rick, the girls and I pack our parkas and cameras with us when we’re out and about on weekends, because we never know when we’ll find ourselves in front of a photo opportunity. Washington Park has a spectacular and expansive view of the shelf ice in Michigan City. If you want to brave the cold and windy walk out to the pier, watch for ice and waves on the walkways and around the lighthouse.

Two other favorite spots of my family are near the public parking area in Beverly Shores (off of Dunes Highway) and at the Portage Riverwalk (just down the road from Bass Pro Shop off of I-94). The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore recommends safely viewing the shelf ice from the Lake View Beach picnic area or park bath houses in Beverly Shores. Since these locations are farther west, when Chicago is visible on a clear day, the skyline appears close enough to almost pick up in your hand.

LaPorte’s lakes often freeze in winter, and attract fishermen, hikers and skiers. Before walking on the lake ice, check reports to see whether it is truly frozen enough for recreation. You may notice from the roadside that other people are fishing and walking on the ice; but you don’t know if they have taken precautionary measures to make sure that ice conditions are appropriate and safe.

Bundle up this weekend and show your children that the beauty of winter can be enjoyed in ways beyond viewing the snow through a living room window. Don’t wait too long – before we know it, spring will be here and the ice shelf will melt.