Apostle Islands ‘ice caves’ will be off-limits after Sunday, park service says

REUTERS/Eric Miller
The scenario of rapid ice breakup with hundreds or thousands of people offshore had become a subject of growing concern for the park service, police agencies and local businesses.

The “ice caves” at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore will be off-limits after Sunday, park officials announced this afternoon, and possibly sooner if ice conditions worsen.

The decision — driven partly by deteriorating ice, partly by disaster planning and partly by general fatigue — will end an unprecedented tourism surge that has flooded the area with something close to a year’s worth of visitors in a 10-week period when visitation typically trickles, and many hospitality businesses board up until spring.

It’s the first time the National Park Service has given advance notice of its decision to close (or, for that matter, to open) a pedestrian route over the Lake Superior ice to the caves from its Meyers Beach parking lot. Normally such calls are made on a day-to-day basis.

But this has been a highly abnormal year, and the scenario of rapid ice breakup with hundreds or thousands of people offshore had become a subject of growing concern for the park service, police agencies and local businesses, according to park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker.

Recent warm weather has been thinning the ice underfoot, but a larger concern is upward pressure from waves that form in open water and are wind-driven under the ice into shallow shoreline areas, where their energy concentrates and the only way the water can go is up.

Another risk: softening of ice at the shoreline, where melt driven by sun-warmed red sandstone has begun to create patches of open water between ice and shore.

Concerns in community

On Monday, Krumenaker told me informally that he thought the ice was likely to hold up for another week or two, although officially the park will never make predictions more than a day or two in advance.

On Tuesday, he went to the weekly coordination meeting with local government, police and business representatives that has become necessary for crowd management this winter and got “quite a surprise”:

They said, We think it’s time. We’re starting to worry about this — what are you guys going to do?

They actually suggested that we close proactively rather than waiting for the ice to trigger an unsafe condition.

I said, “You’ll have my back?” They said yes. And we were actually delighted, because we’ve been trying to figure out how to decide this. And we can give people a first-ever heads-up, you’ve got three or four more days and then that’s it.

The ice caves form every year at the park’s mainland sea caves, carved in the sandstone cliffs by centuries of wind and waves, then adorned in freezing weather with ice formations created by water that splashes, sprays and seeps along the shore.

And in most winters, until recently, enough ice forms along the shoreline from Meyers Beach to the caves to meet the park service’s safety protocols of thickness, strength and stability for opening the 1.5-mile pedestrian route.

In the winter of 2009, the last time the caves were accessible, about 8,400 people walked over the ice to see them. That’s more than twice the number of winter visitors the park tpyically sees in a no-caves year.

This year, after four winters of thin ice, a route to the caves was opened on Jan. 15 and the attraction went viral thanks to social media, cresting above 120,000 visitors last weekend.

Beleaguered service sectors

Krumenaker’s beleaguered staff has been bolstered with reinforcements from other national parks, as well as special ranger teams trained in managing “incidents” from forest fires to the biker rallies in Sturgis, S.D.

But no such support has been available to the local police agencies, to Bayfield’s volunteer ambulance service or to the scores of area businesses that have reopened or expanded to serve the spiraling throngs, Krumenaker said.

In the tourism industry, most of them are feeling that it’s been a great year, we’re not used to making money in the winter and we’re really enjoying that aspect, but now we’ve made it and we’re tired.

For the county sheriff, the ambulance service and other agencies that have helped us out, though, there’s no additional revenue that I’m aware of that they have access to, and we’ve been unable to help them financially in any way.

 I wish I could, but there’s no way for me to do that. And they’ve been great troupers, doing everything that was needed.

Still, I did not expect them all to come to me yesterday and recommend that we shut it down.

Now the concern shifts to making the closure stick, because it’s not practically possible to keep people from disregarding the warnings and going out on the ice anyway.

Park staff will be stationed at Meyers Beach for a while to inform people of the “legal closure” of access across the lake, Krumenaker said, and local police agencies will patrol the roads to further discourage the heedless, “but as we discussed the other day, there will still be a few crazy people going out anyway.”

If such pushback becomes excessive, the park service can block entry to the Meyers Beach parking lot, the access road to the lot, or both.

But ultimately public safety depends on public acceptance we’re now in a part of the year when the ice can break up suddenly and without warning, and disappear completely in a matter of hours.

* * *

It’s possible that access to the caves will close before Sunday, too, if conditions warrant. For the current closure status, go here or call the park’s Ice Line at 715-779-3397 and press 3.

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