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Apostle Islands ice caves are drawing 4,000 tourists each weekend

Mike Simonson, Wisconsin Public Radio

Instead of a gold rush, there’s an ice rush in the otherwise hibernating villages of Cornucopia and Bayfield: 4,000 sight-seers are trekking to the Apostle Islands mainland ice caves each weekend and bringing a lot of business to the area.

Usually Ehler’s General Store in Cornucopia is closed until April. But Mike Upthegrove says they’re opening up on Saturday because the ice-cavers need hot drinks and brats.

“It’s more than phenomenal,” said Upthegrove. “That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Just down the road is the Village Inn. Cheryl O’Bryon says the inn is full and the restaurant is busy during a time when the sidewalks are usually rolled up for winter.

“The last three weekends have been like nothing we’ve seen before,” said O’Bryon. “It is definitely an economic miracle, there’s no doubt about that. I’m staffed right now like I would be on the Fourth of July weekend. It’s incredible.”

“It’s got to be social media, all those beautiful pictures on Facebook I think,” she added.

She said they’ve had customers from as far away as Japan, China and Australia.

The crush of visitors to the Apostle Islands sea caves has turned Highway 13 into a parking lot for as far as three miles in either direction of the sea caves entrance at Meyer’s Beach, making things potentially dangerous for hikers.

Bay Area Rural Transit Authority General Manager Tom Waby said they’ll address the problem by running a 27-passenger shuttle bus continuously from Ehler’s Store and a plowed farm field-turned parking lot at Happy Hollow Road and Highway 13 to Meyer’s Beach Road.

“Of course the scary part for us is, what do you do when you have a 27-passenger bus and you pull up and you have 120 people standing there?” said Waby.

The shuttle will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and charge $2 each way.