Freeze-Frame Transfixed by a Michigan ice palace By Jerry Harpt
WHEN SOME 50 EXCITED MEN, women, and children squeeze their cold, wet, tired, sweating bodies into and around a remote, claustrophobic frozen freak of nature, it raises a question. One voice in the crowd is bold enough to ask: "Ya, how in the heck are we gonna get back out?"
Years earlier, Michigan's Rock River Canyon ice cave was something of a local secret in an area famous for spectacular places to admire water that's spending the winter standing still. The powerful, seasonally petrified Munising Falls, for example, has long riveted eyes with a film of live water trickling almost invisibly behind a six-story-high wall of ice. It, like most other local winter magnets, is accessible by car.
But this long, narrow wilderness cave, a few miles from Lake Superior, didn't draw throngs until people decided that slogging a mile and a half through the snow might be considered less a hardship than a recreational experience.
Where to Go: From Green Bay, Wisconsin, head north on Highway 41 for about three hours, then take 67 north to Chatham in Alger County. Turn left on State Highway 94 to Eben Junction. Take a right at New Moon Tavern and travel north 1.5 miles to Frey Road. Veer right until you come to a curve. The snowshoe trail is on the right.
So it was that with the temperature at 22 degrees Fahrenheit, a bunch of former high school classmates, now mainly in our sixties, pulled to the side of a secluded country road, merged with another 15 or so carloads of highly spirited people we'd never seen before, and clambered through farmers' fields and a forest thickened with beech trees. Moms in snowshoes prodded children layered like mummies. Dads hauled younger kids in sleds. Everyone slipped and grasped at saplings as we climbed the steep ravine and back down into a depression that conceals the caves.
Near the grotto entrance, we hear giggling and are drawn toward a massive blue and white curtain--runoff that nature had suspended as it plunged over the sandstone cliff's face.
The sound, we discover, is coming from a group of student X-ray technicians, some brandishing beers to celebrate their day off. Our group edges in with them. Within the small sandstone amphitheater, slick floors and glare make standing upright tricky, and children flop about like halibut. Apparently, however, a translucent cavern formed by stalactites, stalagmites, and three- to four-foot-thick columns of ice is sufficiently mesmerizing to momentarily rid even cold, wet, tired, sweaty people of their fear of tight spaces packed with cold, wet, tired, sweaty people. I, for one, quickly forget about exiting and join the spontaneous celebration, growing increasingly ebullient at the thought that in just a few months, the glass-like wall that now captivates with its still silence will reawaken with a roar.
Jerry Harpt is a journalist and retired schoolteacher. He lives with his wife, Karen, on the Menominee River in Wallace, Michigan.