Terminal Beach: Remembering Chicago’s Polar Vortex

People like to throw around terms like “Chiberia” and “polar vortex” when describing Chicago’s harsh winters. I don’t know about all that, but I can tell you that twenty inches of snow and negative 40°C wind chills are no joke. A simple walk to the corner store in these conditions can be an adventure in itself. It takes 15 minutes to get dressed and when you open the door and step outside your facial hair freezes, while the wind burns your cheeks. The fresh coat of snow over the city is always pretty until it reshapes itself into these huge mounds of filthy black ice that hug every curbside. The best cure is to put on your warmest clothes, jump in a car with a few friends and hit the coast. Matt Lief Anderson, Reuben Wu, and Zak Marcom document the frozen Lake Michigan that straddles the city and surrounding Midwestern territories:

Above: Matt Lief Anderson

All access points to Mount Baldy had recently been closed after a six year old was swallowed by a sinkhole. A successful rescue effort saved the boy, but the entire beach was on strict lockdown until conditions improved. We combed the roads and adjacent entry points looking for alternative locations, ’til we ended up asking a security guard at nearby Bailly Generating Station for her suggestions.

Above: Matt Lief Anderson

Continuing up the Indiana coastline, we found an open stretch just east of the plant. We bundled up, grabbed our gear and proceeded to trek over a frozen mixture of sand and snow that looked, oddly enough, like a field of popcorn. Toward the waterline we headed, gingerly hiking over treacherous terrain, until we reached the jutting peaks of ice formed by endlessly beating waves falling upon the icy shore. We were alone and probably not being careful enough. While scaling one of the larger structures, I recall my only thought at the time was of the ice crumbling beneath me, sending us all into the frigid waters below where we’d never be heard from again.

Above: Video by Reuben Wu, music by Zak Marcom

“Get down! You are in GRAVE DANGER!” a faraway voice yelled over a loudspeaker. I looked inland to see the red-blue flash of police lights as we hurried down the icy bank toward our vehicle.  Luckily the officer wasn’t there when we arrived and drove to the end of the peninsula covered in ice. I was hyperaware of the lake water on either side of us, and of inescapable doom if we misstepped and fell in. Nevertheless, for us the real attraction was the iceberg-like formations along the coast. It felt like walking on another planet, certainly not the American Midwest. Every step you take is guesswork when you’re not following a man made path – it’s impossible to tell where the sand ends and the water begins. The sun eventually set in a blaze of technicolor and our journey was complete.

Images by Zak Marcom

It’s always a victory when you make it back alive and unscathed. Reuben offered up his Scotch and, honestly, nothing ever tastes so good.

A few days later I received a text from Zak reading, “We need to bring rope next time in case. I read how snow concealing thin areas of ice is the main reason people fall in.” Good call, Zak. Let’s definitely keep some on hand for our next trip.

Images by Zak Marcom
A collaboration with Matt Lief Anderson  |  Reuben Wu  |  Zak Marcom