From Past Master West:
On September 26, 1970, the president signed Public Law 91-424 creating the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This national park currently includes twenty-one of the islands in the AI archipelago as well as twelve-mile strip of land along the Wisconsin shoreline. The area is a marvel of red cliffs set against the stark blue waters of Lake Superior. During the summer months, the park is a popular tourist destination, largely for Wisconsinites and Minnesotans seeking to escape the cities further south. This year, however, the number of visitors to the park over the winter months soared as a result of the combination of extreme cold winter weather allowing the formation of ice caves along the cliffs with news frenzy across both traditional and social media outlets.
On January 15, 2014, the National Park Service published an announcement that for the first time since 2009, weather conditions were sufficient to allow the formation of spectacular ice caves along the mainland cliffs of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. In just under two months, more than 120,000 visitors have flocked to the icy shores of Lake Superior to make the one mile hike from Meyers Beach to the caves. On March 11, 2014, the Wisconsin Radio Network reported this was higher than the number of visitors to the park for the entire year of 2013. By way of comparison, NPS’s recently released report for 2012 states that the park had 163,419 visitors for that year.
Having heard about the caves on the news and viewed the photos of friends and family who had visited them already, on March 6 my wife and I loaded the kids into our car and headed north. The popularity of the caves made finding lodging difficult in the northwoods, and the closest hotel we were able to locate was in Duluth – just over an hour’s drive from Meyers Beach. On the morning of March 7 we arrived at the entrance to the beach to find that the parking lot was full and cars were parked along the edges of the half-mile-long driveway and for at least another half-mile in each direction along the highway.
Finding a spot to park, we bundled the kids into their snow gear, grabbed their sleds (we anticipated that our four-year-old was not going to be up for the full 5-6 mile roundtrip hike), and started following the line of people streaming toward the lake. The path along the shore was well-worn, making foot travel relatively easy. What we found when we arrived at the edge of the cliff-line was nothing short of amazing. Waterfalls had frozen in place. Sheets of ice covered the openings of the sea caves, creating protected caverns behind their walls. In some places the cliff face was covered with patchwork patterns of colored ice.
We walked a mile or so along the shore and took hundreds of photos. The kids found small holes in the ice wall and explored caverns set into the shoreline for which the entrances were too small for adults to access. Even our seven-year-old son, who had complained all morning that he thought the caves would be boring, popped his head out of a hole in the ice and with a huge smile on his face screamed to anyone in earshot that “this is awesome!” I have to agree with him. The overuse of the word awesome has lead to its diminution, if not outright bastardization, but in this instance the awe-striking natural beauty of the lakeshore made it perhaps the most appropriate word to describe our trip.