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Record numbers flock to ice caves

Thousands are flocking to the Ice Caves at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to take in the winter beauty created by nature. (Deb Krieg/For the Superior Telegram)

A series of record-breaking weekends has left the Apostles Islands National Lakeshore facing new challenges. Saturday, the national park that serves as gateway to the Lake Superior ice caves welcomed a record 11,000 visitors; another 10,000 visited Sunday.

“Having this many people in one place is more like Yosemite Valley,” said Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker. “Put Yosemite Valley in the middle of Antarctica and that’s what we’re dealing with.”

The National Park Service and volunteers have done a phenomenal job of managing the crowds, according to Kelley Linehan with the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau.

“They have pulled out all the stops to create a worthwhile and valuable experience for all the visitors coming through,” she said.

They’re not alone. The entire community has rallied together to keep ice cave traffic flowing. The Bayfield and Ashland chambers of commerce stepped up to add 16 portable toilets to the two permanent ones at Meyers Beach. The town of Bell plows the path to the caves after every snowfall. Local businesses have opened up and set up shuttle bus service for weekends. Staff members from other national parks have been tapped to supplement the Apostle Islands crew. Volunteers have stepped forward to help.

“The whole thing is unprecedented in scale,” said Krumenaker.

“Bayfield is a popular tourist destination during the summer months but has never experienced this kind of influx of visitors during the off season,” Linehan said. “Many of our local businesses are seeing numbers that they would expect in July, and it only continues to grow.”

About 150,000 people visited the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore last year. As of Sunday, the ice caves had pulled in 64,000 visitors in a little more than a month. The first weekend the ice caves were open, the park welcomed 2,000 visitors in one day. That was the most crowded day the park had ever seen, winter or summer. Social media and national television exposure have helped fuel ever-growing crowds.

“I think it’s terrific the rest of the world is discovering what we’ve known for a long time,” Krumenaker said, that the Apostle Islands are “one of America’s crown jewels.”

The ice cave sensation has generated an estimated $5 to $7 million economic boost to Bayfield County, with spillover into Washburn and Ashland, according Linehan.

But the boom is taking a toll. The stairs at Meyers Beach have been almost completely destroyed. Staff members are spending long hours on the ice, many working six days a week, 12-hour days. With no time to count parking proceeds, $3 per car, it’s hard to tell whether that income is paying for the extra hours and park wear and tear.

“It also changes things,” Krumenaker said. No longer is a trek to the ice caves a solitary voyage; it has become a group experience. Whether this is a one-time phenomenon or a turning point that will change the park’s profile forever remains to be seen.

“It’s very exciting and very scary at the same time,” Krumenaker said. “We’re so grateful for the community support. We couldn’t do it without the community and our friends group.”

Linehan viewed the caves before they went viral.

“They are absolutely a sight to behold,” she said. “In many ways I liken it to the Grand Canyon, in that photos, as beautiful as they are, simply do not do the formations justice. There is a feeling there that must be experienced to be understood.”

Because the ice caves have captured national interest, visitors should plan accordingly. Come during the week if possible and start your trip early. To secure parking spaces people should get to Meyers Beach by 8:30 a.m., Krumenaker said.

Just as important, the superintendent said, “Really understand the conditions you’re going out in.” Dress warmly and realize that the ice is slippery. Krumenaker encouraged everyone to bring a ski pole and, if possible, ice cleats to add to winter boots. There have been a small number of injuries at the caves, almost exclusively due to people slipping on the ice.

How long the ice caves will be accessible is a big question, and one with no solid answer.

“This could last another month,” Krumenaker said. “It could last three days.”

The ice, when it goes, could break up overnight or gradually warm up, posing a slow danger. Visiting the caves in their icy splendor is an ephemeral event, Linehan said, and once the park declares them inaccessible, people need to obey that decision for their own safety. She said the rock formations are also accessible in summer by kayak. Krumenaker added that there is a beautiful trail which follows the top of the cliffs, allowing views into the caves from above, summer or winter.

For the most recent information on the conditions of the ice you have to walk on to reach the caves, call the national park's ice line at 715-779-3397, ext. 3 or check the park’s Facebook site, Tips, maps and frequently asked questions are listed on the park’s website,