On Thursday, March 6th, 2014, we attempted something that hasn’t been done for 40 years: to hike the treacherous ice across the Manitou Passage to the islands 8 miles out.
In the 1970’s, Bob’s father and two brothers left the shore in Glen Arbor early one morning to attempt the crossing. They were cut off by open water a mile from South Manitou. Their hike took so much longer than planned that Bob’s mother called the Coast Guard in panic! Having heard his father and brother tell stories of the adventure, Bob has been waiting for his chance to hike to the Manitous for decades.
The winter of 2013-14 has been one of the most severe in living memory. It has seen temperatures plunging to -20°F, enormous amounts of snow, polar vortices, and fierce storms. The near record-level ice coverage on Lake Michigan has been a big part of the story, as have the amazing ice caves along the Leelanau shoreline.
It was all this cold weather and ice build-up that allowed us to attempt such an adventurous (some would say foolhardy!) hike.
The weather over the last week was brutally cold, but ideal for shoring up the ice pack. The temperature never rose above 21°F; it fell to as low as -20°F. Perhaps more important, there were only very light winds.
On Thursday, March 6, the weather created the perfect window for us. The bitter cold of the previous week was replaced by temperatures in the mid to high 20s with clear skies and no wind. The forecast for following days called for warm weather and wind. If we were going to attempt this, it had to be Thursday. It was now or never!
Safety was our primary concern. The weather had been cooperative and the ice appeared solid, but there is simply no such thing as “safe ice” on a Great Lake. We needed to be as prepared as possible.
Perhaps surprisingly, our primary concern was not falling through the ice. We had ice picks, ropes, and changes of clothes that gave us confidence that if one us fell through, he could quickly get out and get warm again.
Combined with warm clothing, sleeping bags, tents, thermal blankets, and other safety gear, we felt well equipped to deal with most of the hazards we could potentially face.
With a perfect weather window, we spent a hectic morning getting gear ready and making sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. By late morning, we were ready to head to Pyramid Point. Our group consisted of Bob Sutherland (our fearless leader), Andrew Pritchard (our digital marketing guy), Andrew Moore (Bob’s cousin and our marketing coordinator), and Tom Bisbee (a manager in our Distribution Center).
By noon, we had hiked down to the lake and were on the ice.
The early going was difficult. Half a mile of jagged ice caused by the continual freezing, thawing, and breakup of the pack greeted us. Slippery and uneven, these fields were an injury waiting to happen. We picked our way through the field slowly and cautiously.
Farther from shore, the ice evened out into perfectly flat sheets that made the going much easier. We picked up our pace and pressed on towards North Manitou Island.
Still we were very cautious. We stopped every few hundred yards to test the thickness of the ice. We never found ice that was less than 5 inches thick.
While it was reassuring to know the ice was quite thick, we knew the power of Lake Michigan’s currents makes for a dynamic environment that puts the ice pack under great stress. Large cracks and fissures were everywhere around us. While the crevices were frozen over, it was evidence that we could not take a single step for granted.
After 2 hours, we reached the Crib. This lighthouse has saved countless lives and shipping expeditions. The Manitou Passage has seen scores of terrible tragedies as numerous ships have met their demise and brave crew members have lost their lives. It was a very humbling moment to be in such a potentially wild environment. To learn more about the history of the shipwrecks along Manitou Passage, visit the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve.
The Crib was truly something to behold. It was an awe-inspiring and surreal moment. We were struck by how weird it felt to be walking up to a lighthouse in the middle of Lake Michigan.
Its base towered 25 feet above our heads and was covered in cascading ice formations. The lighthouse itself looked haunted, but that didn’t stop us from trying to climb it in order to find a better view for planning our route for the next half of our trek to North Manitou. Unfortunately, the ice was just too thick.
Had we been able to get a better vantage point, we would have seen that a “road” of perfectly smooth ice would have led us straight to the island. Instead, we chose what appeared to a direct route. It led through a field of jagged slabs of ice, some of which would shift as we stepped on them. We nicknamed the field the Boneyard and wished we had gone around it.
As we neared North Manitou, we encountered smaller versions of the ice caves and cliffs that can be seen along the Leelanau shoreline. They posed only a small barrier between us and the beach.
After 4.5 hours, we finally made it to the southeast shore of North Manitou Island. After a few cheers and high-fives, we sat down and grabbed our lunches out of our bags. We didn’t talk much, instead taking time to internalize what we just accomplished.
The afternoon was getting on and we had an arduous slog ahead of us. After taking a quick photo to mark the achievement on the island, we prepared for the return.
We knew our job was only half done. Like mountaineers in the Himalayas, our “summit” was exhilarating, but we still had to get down again.
Our return trip was much smoother than our outward trip. We discovered that the “highway” of ice we had veered off in our “direct route” through the Boneyard in fact made a nearly straight line from the island back to the Crib. We got on the “road” and double-timed it homeward.
Exhausted though we were, northern Michigan put on a show for us on the homeward journey. With the sun sinking in the west, the light turned amazing colors that reflected off the snow and the dunes of Pyramid Point.
It’s no surprise that northwest Michigan consistently ranks among the most beautiful places in America and the best places to watch a sunset.
To cap a near perfect day, the sun looked just as tired as we were, beautifully setting after a hard days work while we slogged back to Pyramid Point.
We made it back to shore at 8pm and promptly collapsed on the beach to rest. We gazed upwards at the sliver of moon and the emerging stars as the last glimmers of twilight faded in the west. Exhilarated, exhausted, and above all grateful. Grateful to live in beautiful northern Michigan, grateful for the perfect weather that had made this expedition possible, and grateful we had made it home safely.
We’ll have many more northern Michigan adventures on the lake, but it’s safe to say we will never do something like this again. As far as we know, no one has done this in the last 40 years, and we’re in no hurry to get back out onto the ice.
Please note: The ice on Lake Michigan is extremely dangerous. Even our journey in perfect conditions was not totally without mishap. Tom fell through. The photo below is where he went for a quick swim. As well prepared as we were, we were lucky. Trips like this can very easily end in catastrophe. We urge caution on the lakes at all times of the year, but especially in winter.