Frozen Pier – Saint Joseph, MI


With the advent of Instagram and other photo sharing sites such as Tumblr, Flikr, 500px (along with countless others), we are overloaded with a daily influx of imagery that far surpasses that of not only any other generation, but any other decade. There is a lot to be said of both the good and bad sides of this. For me, however, it keeps driving me to keep making great images that maybe, just maybe, will one day “go viral” or suddenly gain me thousands of followers.
It also serves as a daily reminder that many many times my photographs pale in comparison to images from photographers that have visited the same places. Even worse, places that I couldn’t even be bothered to photograph while I was there.
Such is the case with the pier at Saint Joseph, Michigan. While I had never been there, I did live within a couple hours drive for a lot of my “formative” years….and always pooh-poohed the idea of shooting any of the lighthouses or piers along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
That all changed when I started seeing post storm images of the lighthouse in St. Joe. The lighthouse and elevated walkway were covered in ice……. not just normal thin ice, but ice that was thick and wind sculpted…..shapes that were beautiful and yet ethereal.
Once I saw them, I knew that I needed to figure out a way to be there when they were covered in layers of ice. Luckily, I work quite often in Milwaukee, WI, which is just a few hours from St. Joe. I always travel with my camera (and usually a tripod shoved into my checked baggage), and one lucky week the conditions seemed primed for some photogenic ice to form on the St. Joe pier.
The forecast was for extremely cold temperatures the entire week, and Friday night there were to be high winds (out of the west), and large waves on Lake Michigan.
I was scheduled to be shooting Mon-Fri, and luckily I had arranged my flights in and out of Chicago due to cheaper airfares. My flight out of Chicago on Saturday morning wasn’t until around noon. I figured that if I got up around 3:00am, I could drive to St. Joe, shoot for an hour or so, and then drive back to Chicago with enough time to make my noon hour flight home.
Friday night I stopped by Walmart to get some waterproof pants, spikes for my shoes, and some dry bags to try and waterproof my camera with. I spent an hour or so with the dry bags, and felt pretty comfortable that my setup was as close to waterproof as possible. I got up at 3:00am, and proceeded to drive the four and a half hours to St. Joe. Once I started getting close, there was a white-out from blizzard conditions due to lake effect snow. I made it through that, and was excited to pull up at the pier in St. Joe a little before sunrise.
It was heavy overcast, making it obvious that there would be no “sunrise” images. Due to the heavy overcast, I was forced to bring my ISO up to around 800 in order to be able to shoot. I slipped on my spikes, waterproof pants, and took my “waterproof” camera rig out into the storm.
It was still quite windy as I slowly made my way out onto the pier. Everything was covered in thick ice……but not the beautiful clear ice I was looking for…..rather, the ugly, brown ice that is the result of so much dirt being airborn while water drops are being frozen the second they touch anything.
There was only one other person on the pier that morning, and he was out watching for waterspouts.
I had the pier to myself, and I carefully walked, hopped, and jumped over giant blocks of ice, mounds of partial rime ice, and smooth sections of perfectly slippery puddles of ice that had frozen over.
I spent around an hour photographing, and by the time I got back to my rental car, my right hand had become so cold that it was numb and pretty much useless….and then it hurt immensely as it warmed back up. I headed south, and made it to Chicago in time to return my rental car, hop the shuttle to the airport, and catch my flight back to Portland.
It was surreal being on the pier that morning. Ice was forming/covering the lake, and what should have been large 12-15 foot waves were being compressed and silenced by that ice, and more resembled 2-4 foot ankle slappers. The wind whipped around, freezing airborn water and turning it into stinging spikes that hurt the face. The waterproofing of my camera worked, and I had no problems whatsoever from the cold or moisture.
All in all, my gamble had paid off and I was able to squeeze in a fun shoot between a commercial job and my flight home ☺

Thanx for listening.