Thursday, February 6, 2014

Apostle Island Ice Caves: February 1st, 2014

Lake Superior is almost entirely frozen over for the first time in almost two decades.  Thanks, Polar Vortex! Although I can see open water from my house, the South Shore of Wisconsin has frozen over entirely - including the area around Bayfield.  It seems like everyone is talking about the Apostle Island Ice Cavethis year, and with good reason.

Every so often the South Shore will freeze over enough so that people can walk on the ice over to the caves on Mawikwe Bay.  I've gone sea kayaking to those caves before: sandstone cliffs and rock formations, arches and little grottoes.  The chance to hike out to them and see them in the winter was very tempting...and we weren't alone.

There were literally thousands of people out there with us.  We started to suspect something on the drive out, when we realized that we were in the middle of a caravan of cars that stretched forwards and back as far as we could see.  We were on a small, isolated two-lane road in the middle of winter.  Something was up.  And then we saw the parked cars.  

Folks, it looked like the road to a Grateful Dead concert.  Cars parked along the roadside, people walking in groups towards the entrance of the park, lots and lots of bright colors (especially Hunter Orange).  There was a carnival atmosphere.  I was stunned...and worried about how far we would have to walk after parking.  We estimated that there were cars parked at least two miles from the entrance, as well as along the side roads.

Luck was on our side.  The traffic controlman waved us into the parking lot (which held about 30 cars total) with the instruction that "there's one spot left".  That "one spot" was the closest one to the shore.  What luck!  We hopped out of the car, thanked our lucky stars, got on our Yak Trax, and headed out onto the lake.

Joe on the Lake

The crowd seemed to split into two groups: a long line of people hugging the shoreline of the bay, and those who headed out across the lake itself to the closest point.  Joe and I decided to go across the lake and then walk along the shore on the way back.  It was NOT easy going: we'd received about 4 inches of new snow that morning and it was still coming down, making it difficult to see where we were stepping.  We had our Yak Trax, but for this part of the hike we wished that we'd brought our snowshoes instead.

Tiny people looking at the point

Being out on the Lake gave us the interesting perspective of checking out the scene from a distance.  People looked like tiny ants, milling about on the shore.  Those wearing Hunter Orange stood out.  There were old people with walking poles, parents pulling kids on sleds, lots of dogs (some in booties to protect their paws from the ice), a few snowmobilers, snowshoers and skiiers on the Lake with us, and even a few people with Fat Tire bikes.

Different colors of ice: blue, yellow, red, green...

It was great.  I didn't feel one bit cranky about the crowds.  It was just so awesome that THAT MANY PEOPLE would take time out of their weekend, put on their snow pants and carhartt overalls, drive to the middle of nowhere, and hike two miles across a frozen lake in the snow and wind to take in a unique natural phenomenon like this.  I was all verklempt at how many people there were.  Everybody (with the exception of a few cranky kids) seemed to be having a great time.  It was fantastic.

Trees with ice for roots

Although we enjoyed hiking across the Lake and viewing the scenery from afar, it was even more amazing to get right up close to the Ice Caves.  We went around the first point and hiked another mile or so down to where the crowds were a bit thinner, and then we started taking pictures.

There are about a billion pictures online of the Ice Caves (check out some of those links in the first few sentences of this post, above).  But I just have to add in a few of our own.

My camera gave everything a blue tint - amazing, though.

If you're headed out there, I would highly recommend bringing a pair of Yak Trax or some other form of crampon for your boots.  It is definitely possible to enjoy the caves without them, but keep in mind it's all ice!  You won't be slipping around as much and you'll be able to poke around in the caves without fear of crashing into an icicle.

Joe prays for the icicles to hold on tight while he takes out his camera...

...and gets this picture.  

There are entire frozen waterfalls out there, a dozen feet across and around.  There are also places in which the sandstone is perfectly visible through an inch-thick layer of glass-like ice.  All of it immense, strong, and delicate and tiny - and it'll all be gone in a few months when the Chinook blows in and the warm wind will send the ice crashing back into the lake.

Tiny icicles clung to the roof of the caves, with captured snowflakes and hoarfrost clinging to them like crystals.

There were plenty of places in which the more daring visitors could crawl through narrow caves and tunnels in the ice.  I didn't do any spelunking on this trip, but chatted with some folks who said that there were large caverns through the tunnels and ways to go from one cave to the other from behind the ice.  I believed them.

Joe was braver than I and crawled through the caves a bit.  Watch yer head, Joe!

We took the shore path on the way back.  It was well-trodden, much easier than cutting across the lake on the way out!  The long line of people stretched out for as far as we could see.  There was kind of a post-apocalyptic feeling - people marching through the desolate landscape, nothing green in sight under the bright harsh sun.  Except for the fact that everybody was joking and smiling.  :-)

A happy post-apocalyptic scene?

Joe started counting people when we got close to the trailhead - over 300 passed us over just about half a mile.  We passed 75 people coming down the short flight of stairs to the Lake as we were heading back up.  There were almost 40 people queued up for the two restrooms on site.  And then we made somebody very happy when we finally got into the car and vacated the best parking spot in all of Bayfield County.

Exhausted and hungry, we headed to Washburn to grab some lunch.  We stopped at Coco's Cafe and had AMAZING sandwiches.  Joe had the Lake Trout Reuben and I had the Apple Turkey Cheddar Melt.  The bread was so good that I bought a loaf to take home...and then, on a whim, also bought a loaf of banana bread, an apple turnover for Joe, and a cupcake for me.  We'd highly recommend Coco's for anyone heading out to the Apostle Islands - winter or summer.  We'll be back!

Elly "Polar" Vortex: Queen of the Ice Caves

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