South Haven writer visited the Apostle Islands ice caves last winter
The car flew through the night along Highway 13 on Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula. Looking to the left, we could see glimpses of the snow-covered lake lit by the moon. Pines and birches fringed with snow lined the road. Our road from Superior, Wisconsin ran through the little towns of Port Wing and Herbster, then through Cornucopia. A few miles farther, we saw a sign pointing to the entrance to Sand Point and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This would be our launching point when we returned the next day to visit the ice caves.
We had checked the website for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for the winter conditions at the mainland ice caves (http://www.nps.gov/apis/mainland-caves-winter.htm) and had brought our winter gear with us in preparation for a long walk out onto the ice to see the caves. The National Park Service website listed the items hikers should bring. It included ski poles and ice picks for stability, as well as yaktrax or other products to wear on your shoes for extra traction on the ice. Hikers were also advised to wear supportive footwear, layered clothing, and bring water and a thermos with a hot drink. We loaded up a backpack with all the recommended items and hit the road.
We had breakfast in Bayfield. There, we spoke to locals about the ice caves. One woman told us she had been out to see them five times. Another said going out at night was the best way to see the formations, as the moon glinted off the ice, giving everything an eerie white light. We heard about the long hike, and how cold it felt with the wind blowing off Lake Superior. “Make sure you wear enough layers,” said another woman, who had discovered she needed a warmer parka after her first time out to see the caves. We also learned that the ice caves off the mainland were not the only ice caves in the area.
The Apostle Islands, known for their sea caves and beautiful geological formations, also have ice formations in the winter. Their sea caves become ice caves just like the caves on the mainland. The main difference is that they are not nearly as easily accessible, since the islands are located in Lake Superior, ranging from half a mile to several miles from shore. They are also not monitored by the National Park Service, which checks the ice around the mainland caves every day and posts its condition on its website. If there are any problems with the ice or with danger to individuals, the entrance to the caves is closed.
From news reports, we had heard that the ice caves were drawing huge crowds. One article stated that over 120,000 visitors had come to the northern Wisconsin attraction – which is more than the area normally sees in a year. We were prepared to see many tourists, and we did. The ice caves are the sea caves of northern Wisconsin, transformed by spray and wave action from the lake as the lake freezes in the winter. Icicles and “ice needles” freeze in place, bringing a fairyland beauty to these picturesque caves cut into the sandstone of the Bayfield peninsula.
Our enthusiasm wetted by the stories from locals, we drove west from Bayfield to Cornucopia, where we had decided to catch the shuttle bus. Ehler’s General Store, a fixture for decades in the nearby town of Cornucopia, was normally closed during the winter, but had opened temporarily to attend to the large number of tourists coming to view the ice caves. We arrived at the entrance to the store to find a large sign on the door that read, “YES! You may use our bathroom!” Barbecue grills outside were being used to cook hotdogs and brats, and to toast marshmallows. We took a quick look inside, and decided to stop back again once we had visited the caves. The shuttle bus was parked on the street outside the store, the driver patiently waiting until we were finished inside before leaving for Meyers Beach Road.
The shuttle bus dropped us at the top of Meyers Beach Road, where a couple of park rangers stood, answering questions and directing traffic, as needed. The temperature was in the mid-teens above zero; we pulled on our layers and walked down to the parking lot at the bottom of Meyers Road, on the way passing a steady stream of people on their way back from the ice caves. Young adults, families with children, and retirees were all part of the group we saw walking up the hill from the parking lot. Some had pulled off hats, and unzipped jackets; all looked fairly exhausted.
The perimeter of the parking area had several picnic tables and outdoor biffies. We set our backpacks down on the tables, pulled on our ice cleats, and got ready to head out onto the ice. This area also had a few park rangers, answering questions and making sure everyone was safe. Interpretive signs told about the sea caves and ice caves. At a temperature of 15 degrees above zero, we didn’t spend much time standing around. Instead, we headed down the stairs towards the “beach” and the frozen lake.
Stepping off the stairs, we joined the long line of people walking along the shore of the lake toward the headland where the ice caves were located. A few days earlier, when there had been a thaw, the trail had been slushy, but today it was frozen solid, and a little bumpy where slushy footprints had frozen hard.
After a short time walking, we could feel the cold wind across our faces and had to stop to adjust our hats and scarves. It was a beautiful, sunny day, but the temperature was still only in the teens above zero, and the wind had a biting edge to it.
After about a mile, we reached the first formation, an ice waterfall. There was a park ranger stationed there, so we wouldn’t go too close. The day before, some tourists had walked under the waterfall and pieces of icicles had fallen down, hurting one of the group. It was still beautiful from a distance, but it would have been nice to have gotten closer to it.
A little farther on, we reached the first ice cave, where many people milled about and got up close to the ice formations. We walked in as far as we could go and took some photos, but then continued on. The next cave was fairly wide at the entrance, but narrowed dramatically as it went back towards the interior. As we walked toward the back, the temperature seemed to plummet. We were in shadows, and the lack of sun made a huge difference. Looking up, we saw that the cave was open at the top, so you could see the sky. We wondered if this was the cave we had seen from above during the summer. Hiking on the Meyers Beach Hiking Trail, we had looked down and seen kayakers underneath us, paddling in and out of the sea caves.
About halfway back, there was a large ice shelf about 3 feet high. Some folks were scrambling up the bank so they could go farther back into the cave. We talked with other people about it, and considered it, but decided not to try it. The ice was very slippery; there weren’t any toe holds in the step, so people were boosting others up. Those we talked to after they came back down said there was a lot of water on top of the ice, and there were holes in the ice that you could step into if you didn’t see them. We decided to be safe, rather than sorry.
As we walked back to the entrance of the cave, two park rangers headed in our direction. They looked like they were on a mission. We wondered if they were going to block off the ledge as being too dangerous. We asked another park ranger, who was standing in the sun outside the cave entrance. She said the two who had gone toward the back of the cave had only recently been assigned to the ice caves. They wanted to see the place the rangers had nicknamed “The Bones.” The National Park Service had brought in extra rangers as the interest in the ice caves had gotten stronger, and tourists had streamed to northern Wisconsin to see them. We asked about the nickname, and the ranger told us there had been many accidents back at the ice shelf, with people falling, breaking bones, and needing to be transported from the area on a stretcher. At that news, we were glad we hadn’t tried to get up on the ice shelf – and surprised that the Park Service had left the area open to tourists.
It was interesting talking to the park rangers, some of whom had come from other areas of the country to help out. One woman was from Arkansas; she had never been this far north in the winter before, although she had helped with many winter rescues in Arkansas. This being the last day to see the ice caves before they closed for the season, there were thousands of people in the area. We enjoyed meeting people from all over, and tried to take photos without unidentified tourists in them. There were kids running around, sliding down ice hills, or being pulled in sleds by parents. There were people with their companion animals, elderly folks and college kids. Some brought all the gear, as we did, and some just came at the spur of the moment, with no special boots, coats, or ski poles.
But it was too cold to stand around much. We trudged on a bit, but ended up turning around before we reached the end of the headland. We had only planned one day and had to be home so we could go to work in the morning.
We had been inspired by the spectacular scenery, and the fairyland icicles of the ice caves, as well as the friendly people we met in Bayfield, Cornucopia, and out at the caves. All in all, it was a wonderful experience. We agreed that, if the caves develop again this coming winter, we would definitely like to go again.