MUNISING - This year's Michigan Ice Fest looks to be one of the best ever, as more than 500 people of all ages from all over the country have come to enjoy and experience climbing on some of the best ice the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has had in the festival's 25 year history.
"This year I think's going to be really big in that we have perfect conditions," said Bill Thompson, owner of Marquette's Down Wind Sports and organizer of the festival. "It's some of the best ice we've had in decades."
The festival began Thursday and runs through today. Included has been introductory and advanced climbing classes in the morning, demos from the late morning through the afternoon and a climbing social and slide shows in the evenings at Munising's Sydney's Restaurant and Shark Bay Bar, the festival's headquarters.
Ice climbers work their way up walls of ice during a Michigan Ice Fest demo session Saturday at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
8-year-old Crew Chmelar of downstate Norton Shores climbs the ice wall with a helping hand from Scott Schneiderhan of Ann Arbor at this year's festival. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Many of the more than 500 people of all ages from all over the country who came to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising to participate in this year's Michigan Ice Fest on Saturday are shown at one of the prime climbing locations. The festival aims to introduce new people to ice climbing, as well as to be a social event for established climbers. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Thompson said the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the Midwest's premier ice climbing venues, due largely to the area's sandstone cliffs. Because sandstone is so porous, precipitation in the fall and the early winter combined with fluctuating temperatures create magnificent ice formations for about a 20-mile stretch, as far as Chapel Beach, as well as on Grand Island and.
Originally started by four men from downstate Kalamazoo who decided to make a journey to Alger County for a climbing expedition at a time when the area was relatively unknown to ice climbers, then loved it so much they decided to make the trip annually. Thompson said that since he and the other organizers took over, the festival has grown exponentially.
"It went from a festival of 10 guys to, our first year of taking over, 40 guys, and now we have almost 500 children, women, men, senior citizens," he said. "We get the whole gamut."
In fact, perhaps the main focus of the festival today is to safely introduce a sport that can be difficult and potentially dangerous to novices.
"This is a sport that you can't just go into Down Wind Sports, buy the gear and go out on your own," Thompson said. "You really need instruction on how to properly do it and to be safe. And so we offer the opportunity here so folks can actually come out and, for a small fee, check out gear, come here and then learn the sport."
It's also a perfect opportunity for beginners to learn from the sport's most accomplished climbers.
"I kind of liken it to a basketball camp that has Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan as the instructors. That's what we have here," Thompson said. "They come from all over the country. They're professional climbers - that's what they do for a living - so they fly in, they teach our courses and then they do slide presentations at night."
Such a beginner Saturday was Malcom Williams, 15, of Charlevoix, who said he came to the festival with his best friend Elliot and Elliot's family after seeing in photographs from past years how incredible the ice looked.
"My best friend here and his family, they do it pretty much every year," Williams said. "And the pictures they showed me, it was just amazing how people can climb it, so I just wanted to come out here and see if I could do it. And I love it."
For Thompson and other ice climbers, the festival is also an opportunity to come together, catch up and kick back.
"Ice Fest, for me, is what I call a family reunion. A lot of these climbers come - we have guys from Kentucky, there's folks that came up from Arizona, they come from all corners of the United States - and I only get to see them once a year," he said. "We can exchange stories of climbs we've done and have a really good weekend together."
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org