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Access to Apostle Islands ice caves isn’t looking promising this winter

Visitors explore and photograph large ice columns in one of the main caves along the shore of Lake Superior in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore east of Cornucopia on Feb. 28, 2015. The prospects of the lake freezing in a way that allows access to the caves this winter are uncertain. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Jana Hollingsworth

Forum News Service

The 8 inches of pack ice in front of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore ice caves Jan. 22 was broken up and gone by late last week. It's still too early to tell, but access on Lake Superior ice for hikers to see the popular caves this winter isn't looking good, said Neil Howk, assistant chief of interpretation for the national lakeshore.

"I can look out my window here in Bayfield and see a big chunk of open water just south of Madeline Island that wasn't there yesterday," Howk said Thursday. "But it's still January, so a lot of things can change in a couple of weeks."

The caves and cliffs east of Cornucopia are encased in ice curtains each winter thanks to Lake Superior waves crashing ashore and freezing, and also because of groundwater seeping down from above. The display forms every year — but they're not always accessible to hikers.

Thousands of visitors were able to make their way more than a mile out along the shoreline to see the caves in 2014 and 2015. During each of those years, the lake was 90 percent covered in ice. But Lake Superior was only about 10 percent covered by ice during a handful of years before 2014. This year is shaping up to look more like a 10 percent year, Howk said.

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, ice cover on Lake Superior was about 7 percent as of Wednesday.

Howk said access to the caves usually is a late-winter phenomena. When they were accessible in mid-January two years ago, that was out of the norm. And last year, it wasn't until the end of February, when the area experienced a "deep freeze," that people were able to walk out on the lake and see the caves.

If that happens again, Howk said, there could be ice suitable for making the trek.

"But we got off to a slow start this year, and the weather we have now is not going to make much ice," he said, suggesting that people could still see interesting ice formations by following the trail atop the cliffs.

The region has experienced an unusually warm December followed by an average January.

Extremely cold weather allowed for 37,000 people to visit the caves during nine days last year and about 137,000 people the year before, when the caves were accessible in winter for the first time in five years. That year visitors could walk out to the ice caves for about two months before conditions deteriorated and access was closed.

Forecasters are calling for a stretch of below-zero temperatures in early February which, if wind conditions are right, could allow ice to form along the sea caves shoreline.

Ice condition information can be found by calling (715) 779-3397, ext. 3, or by visiting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Facebook page for the most recent updates.

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