Sandstone caves filled with thousands of icicles. Frozen branches hanging over cliffs, clamoring in the breeze like wind chimes. Blue ice, orange ice, white ice.
Winter is not without its gifts, and this year, it has built a cathedral along the shore of Lake Superior, near Bayfield, Wis.
For the first time in five years, the mainland sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, about 250 miles northwest of Minneapolis, have opened to foot traffic, thanks to a cold winter that has made the lake ice thick enough for travel. It’s a sight many have likely never seen, yet it’s one not to be missed.
“These formations are fabulous all year long but especially now that they’re frosted over with ice,” said Neil Howk with the National Park Service.
Waves have splashed across the cliffs, leaving ice sheets along their faces. Waterfalls, some made by underground springs jutting out from bedrock, have frozen in place before breaking and crumbling like Roman ruins. Consistent cold has kept hoarfrost-covered cave icicles untouched.
The views of this winter wonderland are spectacular, and people are taking note.
When the National Park Service announced on Jan. 15 that the caves were open to visitors, the response was unprecedented, said Howk, assistant chief of interpretation for the national lakeshore. In the 10 days that followed, an estimated 10,000 people flocked to Meyers Beach, from where the caves are accessible, sometimes parking as much as a mile away as hundreds of cars filled the parking lot and adjoining roads.
“We are in uncharted waters — we’ve never seen any kind of response like this,” Howk said, adding that the beach typically has around 35,000 visitors all year, and most come in the summer months.
One reason people are flocking to the park may be the immediacy at which information is spread these days, said Julie Van Stappen, the lakeshore’s chief of planning and resource management. Another reason may be that the caves have been inaccessible by foot for so long.
Climate change has meant less ice cover on average in recent years, and the location of the caves leaves them in a precarious position as far as the ice sheet is concerned, Van Stappen said.
“If you look at where the ice caves are, they are really exposed to the northwest,” she said. “So if you get huge winds from the northwest, you can get waves underneath that ice that can buckle it and pry it out.”
Those big waves were seen near in the caves’ Mawikwe Bay a year ago this week.
The park service looks for an ice sheet — at least a foot thick near the mainland — in place between the shore and nearby Eagle Island for two weeks before it declares travel along the ice “low risk” and open for foot traffic, Howk said.
Those conditions were met by the first week of February last year, and the park service was about to declare the caves open to visitors when the wind blew in.
In just a matter of hours, the ice broke up and was carried away from shore, Howk said.
While this winter’s ice has been in place earlier than Howk can recall — and there have been years the caves have been accessible through March and into the first week of April — a wind event like last year’s could put a quick end to the winter cave viewing, he said.
“Temperatures could go up into the 40s and we get a big wind and, poof, it could all go away,” Howk said. “(The ice) could be there for a couple of days or it could be there for a couple of months.”
The caves begin a little more than a mile northeast from the beach and continue for another two miles, but most people don’t travel the entire length of the caves, Howk said.
Howk added that just because the park service has opened the caves to foot traffic doesn’t mean a visit is completely safe; visitors are taking some risk traveling across the ice and should take note if the ice starts moving underneath their feet.
“If you’re out there and there’s cracking and popping and you can feel the ice going up and down, it’s a good time to go back to the car,” he said.
Visitors should abstain from climbing the cave walls and should watch for falling ice. It’s also important that they dress for the weather — especially considering the cold wind that can blow across the frozen lake — and be prepared to walk a few miles across sometimes uneven and slippery terrain.
“The people who are going out there and are prepared are pretty jazzed about the whole thing,” Howk said. “(They) know that it’s a special experience.”