Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Apostle Island Ice Caves

Yes, we were among the 11,300 people who made their way out to the Apostle Islands caves last Saturday—but it isn't like you think.

It happened like this. One morning I saw a photo online somewhere of the blue ice that's been building up along the North Shore. I hadn't seen such a thing since the mid-70s, when two friends and I spent a few winter days in the vicinity of Grand Marais. It was an awesome, unearthly, unforgettable sight.
Hil and I hadn't been on a weekend getaway in several weeks, and I said, "Let's go see the blue ice on Lake Superior!"

Hilary said, "Maybe we can book the 'residence" in Bayfield?"

That wasn't the direction I was thinking about but it sounded like a good idea. It's one of our favorite spots—an entire house, with sauna, overlooking Chequamegon Bay and Madeleine Island.

I called Mike, the Seagull Motel proprietor. The "residence" was booked but he had a room with kitchen and similar view for $70 a night.

"And what's your cancellation policy again?"  I asked.

"If you wake up that morning and don't fell like coming, just call me," he said. "I'll have it booked again in half an hour."

Only later did I see a few posts about the ice caves. I wasn't sure how the crowds would fit into our quiet weekend getaway, and I was vaguely relieved when they closed the caves due to high winds on March 3.

They opened again a few days later.  To go, or not to go?

We got a late start Friday morning, took the freeway north to Duluth and across the harbor on the Bong Bridge. As we puttered through the stoplights in Superior I tried to assemble the scattered brick architectural relics we passed into a pleasing whole, and also to remember where the accordion museum was located.

A half hour down Highway 2 we stopped at the After Hours Ski Trails in Brule and skied a few loops before continuing to Bayfield. It was sunny, the temperature was 31 degrees. Parts of the trail took us through long stretches of poplar, maybe thirty years old. One of the trails closer to the Brule River was lined with mature white pines. Magnificent.

The next morning, tired of over-thinking the issue of crowds and spectacles, we headed north through the Red Cliff reservation and arrived at Mawikwe Road at 7:10. By that time there were perhaps twenty cars lined up alongside the highway. We pulled over and took our place at the end of the line.

It was a 1.4 mile walk down the road to the lake, and I began to wonder if it might have been a better idea to continue on to Meyers Beach Road. But who could say how many cars were already parked there? Mawikwe Road made for a pleasant stroll through the woods and fields, downhill all the way, and the minute we stepped out onto the ice I was glad we'd come.

Snow-covered ice stretched off to the horizon. Small groups of people were passing by further out on the lake, heading to the caves from the Meyers Beach parking lot.

"The caves start right over there," someone said, pointing to reddish cliffs we could see maybe a half-mile to the east.

The sky was clear, the cliffs were in shadow, and the sunlight was streaking across the treetops, sending blue shadows hundreds of feet out across the snowy lake. A week earlier the ice had been bare and park officials were recommending ice cleats or crampons, but it had snowed since then and walking was easy. We'd brought along our ski poles but didn't need them.

The expansiveness of the sky and lake was exhilarating. Blue sky and white snow as far as the eye could see, with Eagle Island floating like an island of greenery in the distance, maybe two miles away and a mile off shore.

If I never make a trip to the arctic, a few half-hour treks like this will have to do.

There wasn't much congestion, except at the entrance to one or two of the caves. In fact, the people added to the fun. I heard one group of young men discussing when they needed to turn around and head home. I don't know where they came in from, but it was four hours away.

Another couple found it impossible to secure a reservation within a hundred miles and ended up driving up from home. They left at 2 a.m.

As for the caves themselves? I wouldn't say they were beautiful. For the most part, the ice was oozing out the sides of the cliffs in grotesque patterns, ribbons, and shapes. The red rock was beautiful, the trees above the face of the cliffs were gorgeous, and the entire ensemble—trees, stone, ice, snow, sky—was sublime. But considered in themselves, the "ice caves" were less than dazzling.

By 10 a.m. we were sitting in Ehrens General Store in Cornucopia eating hot chili out of cardboard cups. On the way back to Bayfield I measured the line of cars parked along the road by Meyers Beach. It was four miles from one end to the other.

That afternoon we drove out across the ice bridge to Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island, where we found one car in the parking lot and open water as far as the eye could see. During our hike along the cliffs through the hemlocks we came upon some of that famous blue ice that had drawn us north in the first place. Ecstasy once again.


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