The Stunning Beauty of the Apostle Islands Ice Caves
Ice is a wondrous thing, clear as glass, cold and slippery, relentlessly unforgiving it shapes the world around it. A year ago I had the chance to visit the Apostle Island ice caves, which are truly stunning. Located along the southern shore of Lake Superior the caves have been carved out of sandstone by the lake over thousands of years. The only way to get to the ice caves is to don your winter clothes and trek across a mile of ice.
One of the downsides to climate change is that the ice doesn’t freeze in the area behind the Apostle Islands as often as it used to. Before last year it had been five years since you could get to the caves; so when the ice froze there was a lot more motivation for people to see them. When you add in social media, the whole world can go topsy-turvy. The combination of time, global warming, and Facebook erupted into a phenomenon that resulted in 138,000 people from around the world traveling to Bayfield to hike across the ice.
The Colors of Ice
When we got to our hotel in Bayfield late on a Sunday afternoon, we decided to take a run out to see what we could find. It was getting late in the day by the time we made it to Meyers Beach, which is the trailhead for caves.
The sun was already low in the sky as we started walking toward the caves. There was this steady stream of heavily bundled up, but happy looking people trekking back to their cars. To say we were dressed for the weather was an understatement, having just spent the weekend at some friends’ cabin where the thermometer spent most of its time at minus 30°F we were prepared for being outside in real cold.
Walking across the ice reminded me how beautiful winter could be, there’s a crispness that comes with the cold that demands your attention. When you get to the far side of the bay, you realize it’s not just about the caves. All along the shore are rivers of white ice and snow intermixed with the golden brown of the sandstone and the deep green of the pines and if you’re really lucky the deep blue sky of a clear winter day. Where ever you turned there was a waterfall frozen in time. Inside the caves crystal, clear icicles hung from the ceilings as if the water had been dripping down since the beginning of time.
As the sun sank beneath the horizon and the stars started to come out a deep silence fell across the lake. It was as if the few of us still left knew that any loud noise would scare the dusk away.
When I close my eyes, I can still see the colors from the sunset, oranges and blues shining through the ice, reflecting the light, changing colors as the sun set into the horizon bringing the night to life.
The walk back was quiet and peaceful under the night sky, except for almost missing the light marking the parking lot and our way off the ice.
I have always loved spending time on the ice late at night when the sky is clear. It’s fun bringing people who grew up in warmer climates out on to the ice for the first time, it’s especially fun to do at night, when it’s so quiet you can hear the snow crunch under your feet, and the sky is full of stars, and you can see forever. That’s when you can hear the ice talk as it moves and shifts slowly underneath your feet; sometimes the moans sound like they are right next to you and other times the cracking sounds like it is from another far away world.
A Day of Exploration
We got up early Monday morning to explore further down the shore. There are several miles of caves scattered along the shoreline, so you can spend all day out on the ice. We wanted to get there early to beat the crowds, which is a really weird thing to say when you’re talking about trekking across a couple of miles of ice in sub-zero weather to see more ice.
The crowds the second day were enormous; there were thousands of people flocking across the lake. Walking across the ice it felt like we were going to a big game; people were helping each other out, chatting along the way. Right next to you you’d see people dressed in full-on abominable snowman snowmobile suits walking alongside older folks using ski poles as canes. My favorite was the college girls who were wearing yoga pants and looked like they were on spring break.
The contrast between the lakeside and the shore side was surreal. Across the lake, it looked like you had been transported to the moon, everywhere around were craters and chunks of ice and as far as you could see there was nothing but the emptiness of the frozen lake.
When you looked to the shore, there were sheets of ice flowing from the earth covering the rock with clear glass. There were spots where the ice flowed forth like it was lava bubbling up from deep in the earth and places where huge icicles the size of trees had collapsed under their own weight and littered the lake as if they came from a frozen Atlantis.
The farther we pushed down the shore, the fewer people there were. Eventually, we got far enough that it felt like we were in a wild place. Which is important to remember when you are several miles out on the ice, the wind is whipping by, and the caves start to feel more like a shelter than natural wonders.
Everywhere you turned the water had done something different. You could see where the ice had frozen fast and clear and where it had been eroded by the wind and if you looked carefully in the small places you could see snowflakes being born.
When they announced in late February this year that the caves would finally open after a much warmer winter, my first inclination was to hop in the car and head north, which I still may do if they last another couple of weeks.
What’s drawing me back, what will keep drawing me back, is I know it will be different, it has to be, the nature of ice is to push and pull, to shape the world around it, to stay for a moment in time and then to fade away.
If You Go
If you go, which you definitely should check with the National Park Service, they also have a Facebook page where they post regular updates. The ice conditions are always changing, and you do not want to be on the lake when the ice is unsafe. Here is a link to info on the Apostle Islands and the ice caves from Bayfield.
There are a number of places to stay; we’re big fans of Bayfield, which is a charming town on the water and is the entry point to the Apostle Islands.
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Mark is an experienced food writer, recipe developer, and photographer who is also Umami’s publisher and CEO. A passionate cook who loves to cook for friends, he can often be found in the kitchen or by the grill testing new recipes.
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