Just a week after they opened, and already the ice caves in the Apostle Island National Lakeshore in Bayfield County, Wisconsin are now closed for the 2015 season. Last year, cold temps created safe access to the caves for the first time since 2009, and ice conditions remained stable for a record 8 weeks, drawing national attention and 138,000 visitors. This year 37,800 people visited in the 9 days that the ice caves were deemed safe to access.
Luckily, my timing–pure chance–was perfect!
My sisters, Mom and I had been traveling along the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth to Grand Marais, Minnesota for a couple of weeks, and had left the last night of our trip open for either Duluth or a jaunt over to Cornucopia, Wisconsin in case the ice caves opened up. Just the day before, on Feb 28, park naturalists determined the ice was thick enough (10 inches) to support public access and the ice caves were OPEN! After a 4 hour drive from Grand Marais, we arrived Sunday night around 5:30pm, grabbed our boots– fitted with ice cleats– and quickly made our way to Meyers Beach parking lot, 4 miles east of Cornucopia.
Heavy clouds were overhead, and the wind was whipping around. People were returning from the caves. Not exactly the best time to be heading out… but we proceeded across the ice, in the darkening night. At least for a little while. It soon became abundantly clear that the distance from the parking lot stairs to the 1st cave–merely a mile–would take substantially longer to reach than a simple 15 minute walk on land. People we met on the ice informed us that our destination–the dark bend in the far distance–would take an hour and a half to reach.
So we stopped trying to chase time, and turned around probably a fourth of the way out, and began to appreciate the setting sun and the strange formations in the ice. It felt weird to be walking on Lake Superior. Growing up in Minnesota, I knew it never completely froze. So how is it– that if it’s only 51% frozen now, we could walk waaaay out from shore? And what about those dark inky sections–was it thinner there? Tiptoeing over the ice and seeing strange white jagged shapes floating in the icy depths was downright spooky!
Especially in the dark, feeling rather vulnerable on the surface of that vast Great Lake, when only a few other people were out. And what did those cracks or crevices indicate? Was it really safe? Adding to the creepiness was the NOISE we heard! I’m not talking about the click click click of our ice cleats, but the sudden booming noises that echoed beneath us, and loud grumbling sounds reverberating around us. It sounded like huge ice chunks colliding deep underfoot, and other times, like a hungry monster’s stomach growling! We were relieved to learn from locals the next day that those sounds are actually comforting, as it indicates that the frozen ice is expanding.
The next morning we agreed to get up early and get out on the ice by dawn. I wanted to get an early start knowing it would take 3 hours round trip just to walk to the ice caves, and we had to check out of our room at the Village Inn in nearby Cornucopia by 1pm, then head back to my sister’s homes in Minneapolis and Rochester by nightfall. Four hours to explore this place didn’t seem enough…(and wasn’t!)
We arrived around 6am (see, sis, we’re not the only car in the lot at this ungodly hour–we’re the tenth car here!) made it down the stairs, and onto to the ice in the blue hour when the light was nice, pastel and soft. Couldn’t resist stopping along the way to photograph the light play on the ice, intriguing lines and patterns.
The walk to the Apostle Island ice caves is not only long but fatiguing. Your core muscles are constantly engaged as you gingerly walk your cleats across the glassy, bumpy, and cracked ice. About halfway across, the toe of my cleat caught in a patch of snow, and CRASH, down I fell, smack on the ice, landing on my pinky finger. My camera, which had been perched on my tripod, took a blow to the side, and little doors holding the battery, card reader and LCD screen popped open. Great…hadn’t even reached the ice caves yet and my camera was toast. I put it back together again, turned it off, then on. Dead. Sickening. My finger was throbbing (broken), but all I cared about was my camera (Sony a99). Thankfully, I did have a back up camera with a telephoto lens in my camera bag.
Reaching the first ice cave, I took out my camera and discovered it had recovered from its concussion. All the settings were scrambled, and about 12 images were corrupted, but it worked again!!! 🙂
Most of the ice caves are actually ice formations decorating the sandstone cliffs along the mainland shore of Apostle Island National Park in Bayfield Country, Wisconsin. Only a few felt like a cave.
Not so easy to walk around. Sturdy boots with ice cleats definitely advised. And a face mask for strong winds. Water. (A back up camera!) Extra batteries kept close to your body heat. Mine froze up within 30 minutes due to chilly wind chills. And if you don’t want to haul heavy gear–take a tip from several photographers spotted pulling their gear including heavy tripods on sleds. As far as camera lenses, I used a 16-35mm for most of my shots, and occasionally my 70-300mm.
All in all a fantastic visit! Highly recommend this icy adventure. Check the automated ice line to see if conditions allow safe access: 715-779-3397 Ext 3. Consider staying at the Village Inn in Cornucopia, the closest inn to the caves at 4 miles away. Beds were comfy and whitefish meals were excellent in the adjacent restaurant. They also run a shuttle so you don’t have to fool with parking on the highway when the small parking lot at Meyers Beach gets filled up.