"Don't climb the ice dunes," warn the rangers and the signs. Yet danger seemed remote as I scanned the serene frosted landscape near the entrance to Presque Isle State Park, a seven-mile spit of land arching into Lake Erie from Pennsylvania's far northwest corner.
Nevertheless, locals share tales of daredevils who've attempted ice dune ascents only to crash through and break an arm or a leg on ice jags, or succumb to hypothermia, or risk drowning in a frosted tomb. Then there was the woman stuck on a dune that broke free and drifted away from the shore.
For those who aspire only to plant their eyes, not their feet, on the dunes, the rewards come with lesser risks, such as fingers numb from clutching cameras.
I'm a year-round hiker, so last January I decided to see the ethereal ice dunes that transform Presque Isle into a sci-fi moonscape for several weeks each winter. The Arctic has more ice dunes, but Lake Erie is easier to reach. And the adjacent town of Erie is so rich in man-made spectacles that I made a second visit in December.
First, the indoor attractions
Erie Art Museum has transformed over the past 14 months, refurbishing its 1839 Greek Revival Old Customs House building and opening a new LEED-certified wing to display works spanning Cropsey to Calder to a carousel reclaimed from a grocery store. After stints as a cowboy, a carnival worker and a fencing instructor, Louis Dartanion Alexatos made the "menagerie machine" in the mid-20th century at his antiques store on nearby State Street. It's rimmed by Bible scenes, Jesus and the devil carting a sack stamped "souls." The artist, who died in 2006, kept carving even after losing his eyesight.
The museum's newest exhibits pair well with ice dunes for a wintry mix of a trip. "Double Exposure" contrasts photographs of glaciers taken in the 1930s to the 1960s and post-2005. In the 2007-11 "Politics of Snow" series, Philadelphia artist Diane Burko's oil paintings of Alaskan glaciers and other geological formations reveal clues to accelerated, potentially cataclysmic ice melt. Having observed many of these natural wonders since the 1970s, Burko explains in an artist's statement: "I now perceive the beauty and majesty of this landscape differently. I have lost my innocence." She uses beauty to draw eyes, then grip minds.
Another new show, "Lake Effect Lace," features snowflake images taken by Carol Posch Comstock through a microscope in near-zero-degree conditions. Given their intricacy, it's no surprise that this local artist also designs labyrinths.
Other exhibits shake off the chill. One gallery features Ruth E. Newton's watercolors of chubby, charming mischief-making animals. Newton, born in Erie in 1884, illustrated children's books, including a 1938 edition of Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." Also heartwarming: 120 songbirds carved by Ulysses Reynolds, a local farmer. To work up a vicarious sweat, have a look at Marion Sanford's 1941 bronzes of brawny, butter-churning, clothes-washing femmes.
After savoring some art, I find plenty more to see on foot. I spy such townie haunts as Sluggers, Skeeter's and Pie-in-the-Sky Cafe, whose BYOB status confers a split folk-rock personality. Westward, a stretch of stately but timeworn houses ends abruptly with a concrete monolith - the family-run Romolo Chocolates factory. Its "Famous Sponge Candy" calories can be strolled off across the street in hilly Frontier Park and Lake Erie Arboretum. But last January, I chose another course.
On to the beaches
Booted up and buzzed on dark chocolate bark, I drove 15 minutes west to Peninsula Drive, a necklace of land running north to Presque Isle State Park, which harbors Pennsylvania's only beaches.
You can't miss the park entrance: Just watch for the roller coaster tracks of Waldameer, an amusement park closed until spring, and the gleaming green tower of Tom Ridge Environmental Center, which offers such cerebral thrills as geological displays, "Big Green Screen" films and eco-tours year-round.
And free from fair-weather throngs, winter hikers have the park to themselves. Here you can see hardy birds, thick-furred rabbits, fragrant bayberry leaves and occasional "hard water" escapades: skating, ice surfing (wearing a windsurf sail with skates), even iceboating.
Ridge center volunteer Cynthia Taylor told me how iceboaters build craft that skate on steerable ski-like runners. Depending on the wind, iceboats can reach speeds of 80 mph. "Rough ice makes a bumpy ride," she said, "but it's such a rush." Even more amazing, she said, are the ice dunes.
These dunes, some surpassing 15 feet, form along the lake's edge when snow, ice chunks and frosted wave-spray swirl with waves; the air temperature must be sub-freezing, the water temperature just above. Dunes form on only a few lakeshores and in the Arctic.
Naturalist Brian Gula led the way to a scenic trail and the dunes. As we trudged through snow clots left by early 2011 blizzards, sunbeams lanced the gray skies, creating monochrome rainbows and glinting off ice floes clustered bayside. Our first stop: Horseshoe Pond, where houses are docked on the pond - not only compact houseboats but also larger abodes, some resembling three-bedroom modulars, on anchored floating platforms.
Commencing at Pine Tree Trail, Gula demonstrated how the Native Americans walked silently, toe-to-heel ("works those calf muscles"), and identified the tracks of mammals that live within the snow-topped pines, oaks and cottonwoods (though nonnative, the last earn their keep by stabilizing the island soil). As crystallized sand crunched underfoot, he explained nearby Misery Bay's name; sailors who died during the brutal winter of 1813 were buried in the lake, dropped through holes dug in the ice.
Next stop: Barracks Beach. Where unsuspecting summertime visitors cool their feet, amazing lunar-worthy ice dunes rise in silence for a few winter weeks.
The dune textures vary: mounds covered by frozen frosting, peaks pockmarked and abraded by wind-thrust grit, hills sandblasted by a turbo-charged power-washer. The colors range from ghostly white to variegated honey, ale and ash, turning charcoal as passing clouds cast their shadows.
Photography gave me an excuse for venturing closer to the dunes. Permission granted, I tiptoed across the snow-dusted terrain, which alternated between slippery and crumbly.
"Beware, the dunes are hollow!" Gula shouted, in case I might attempt a charge up-slope. After I crunched back to safety, he described a desperate call from a climber who'd gotten trapped after crashing through a dune. "Luckily she had a cellphone."
Not all surprises here involve calamity. The naturalist recalled the discovery of a two-pound woolly mammoth tooth by a bird-watcher who happened to look down.
Post-thaw, you can jog, bike and in-line skate a 14-mile paved path along Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie. But for sheer serenity, I'm booting up for snow-coated trails to catch those ice dunes before they melt.