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As ‘ice caves’ go viral, hordes of visitors swarm to the Apostle Islands

In a typical winter, “you can count the visitors on two hands,” says Bob Krumenaker, the park’s superintendent.

From Jan. 15, when the route opening was announced, through last Sunday, Krumenaker's staff counted 120,000 visitors to the ice caves. That's 71 percent of average annual visitation to the park, and fully half of the all-time record set in 1998.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

First of two articles

For nine weeks now people from all over the country, and some from still farther afield, have been converging on Wisconsin’s Bayfield peninsula in numbers that might qualify in another species as irruption: a huge population influx at an uncharacteristic place and time.

Day after day, hundreds and then thousands have come in pac boots and parkas — and a few in high heels or tennis shoes — to the parking lot at Meyers Beach.

A mainland feature of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the spot is a summer-long magnet for kayakers who stream down steep stairs to a gravel strand and launch themselves toward the sea caves, a series of arches, chambers and tunnels carved in the red sandstone cliffs by centuries of wind and waves on Lake Superior.

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In a typical winter, though, “you can count the visitors on two hands,” says Bob Krumenaker, the park’s superintendent.

This winter, the lake ice has been thick enough for long enough for the National Park Service to open a 1.5-mile walking route from Meyers Beach to the sea caves, now transformed by seeps and splashes and spray into ice caves of unearthly beauty. This used to happen almost every winter but hasn’t for the last four.

From Jan. 15, when the route opening was announced, through last Sunday, Krumenaker’s staff counted 120,000 visitors to the ice caves. That’s 71 percent of average annual visitation to the park, and fully half of the all-time record set in 1998.

It’s 14 times more visitors as were drawn to the ice caves in 2009, when the route was open for two months, and this year’s numbers continue to spiral, in large part because social media have helped the idea of ice-cave visitation go viral. And Krumenaker thinks the ice may hold for another couple of weeks, possibly longer.

The irruption has overwhelmed his staff, as well as the area’s hospitality industry. The National Park Service’s regional office has sent him reinforcements in the form of rangers temporarily transferred from locations as distant as Missouri. The next arrivals are to include a special team of rangers trained to handle such mass “incidents” in the way the park service handles Western wildfires.

It’s also bringing in a lot more of the $3-a-day fees you pay to park a car at Meyers Beach — but there hasn’t been time to count the money.

I caught up with Krumenaker on Monday and we talked for a while about what the phenomenon has been like so far and what lies ahead. Following are excerpts from his comments.

On who is coming to the caves and why:

I’m absolutely amazed, delighted and confused, all at the same time, at how this has become so globally known.

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The first couple of weeks were dominated by people who were local and regional, from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and as it went viral we’ve run into people who say they’re from China and Japan and Australia. One of your colleagues, at the Strib, found a Hungarian visitor.

We have some local people coming back, more than once, but at this point it seems to be a higher percentage of people who are not local. This is making people’s life list. We’ve heard people say it’s on their bucket list. Somebody else called it a pilgrimage.

There’s actually a prohibition that’s on all federal agencies from doing surveys of people without it being formalized and reviewed and approved ahead of time, which we couldn’t do. Very informally, we’ve talked to people and surveyed license plates, but the further you come from the more likely you’re using a rental car, so that’s not a particularly good index.

Social media is the biggest driver, but I think there are three. One is the polar vortex and all of the news interest in that, aided a little bit by the winter Olympics. A lot of the media like the idea of a “happy” cold weather story.

Then there’s the climate-change story. If you saw the NBC and CBS clips, they used a climate change sound bite [from his interview]. Which is the one I would have wanted them to use. Given the trends we are seeing in ice cover all over the lake, this is an endangered experience.

On how long the route may last:

The latest it has ever run is the first week of April, so we know it can go that long. Of course, it never started as early as it did this year, so there’s no precedent for mid-January through even now, let alone April. So we don’t really know.

 We’ve seen a decrease in the thickness of the ice over the last week, as its gotten warmer, but it’s still considerably thick enough. We say, at least 18 inches and it’s still way over that. There’s a little bit more open water in the satellite images.

We’re looking at the 30-day forecast and we’re looking at the storm forecast. I think it will take a big storm to break it up, and I haven’t seen any in the forecast for the next week or two. It wouldn’t surprise me if it lasted through the end of March. And that’s wonderful, but everyone’s exhausted.

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On differences between the caves route and the “ice road” from the peninsula’s eastern side to Madeline Island:

It’s not just temperature that causes sufficient ice cover, it’s the absence of wave action that will break up the surface ice as it forms. Even in the warmest winter, the protected waters will freeze, and the indicator we use around here for that is the ice road.

We have a data set that goes back to 1856 because they founded this community as a port and they were watching the navigable seasons, and those seasons are almost exactly what the Madeline Island ferry’s season is today.

There used to be years when the ice road was viable until the icebreaker came to start opening up the navigation channel. And since I’ve been here — I got here in the spring of 2002 — there  have been two years when the ferry ran all winter. Those are climate change indicators.

This year, driven probably by the caves, Bayfield and the surrounding areas are seeing unprecedented levels of winter visitors and that also extends to Madeline.

 I can see the ice road from my house, I’m looking out my window at it right now, and it’s been not unusual in the last several weeks, especially on weekends, to see a line of headlights coming back from Madeline, maybe 20 cars at once on the ice. I’ve never seen that before.

On the management challenge posed by such heavy visitation:

We think we’re going to catch up with the money counting this week, because in addition to the park rangers we have coming in to help, we’ll have a finance person who will help us sort it all out and document it for the permanent record.

Rangers have come from all over the Midwest region of the park service, which is a big triangle from Arkansas up to the Dakotas and then east to Ohio, and anybody in that region is tappable. I think the farthest is from the Ozark National Scenic Riverway in Missouri.

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This is now being managed a little bit the way a fire is managed in the national parks, using an incident-command system.

We’re bringing up, in the next several days, an incident commander to take over the day-to-day management from our staff. Our staff is still fully engaged, but we’ll have experienced, additional people, including what’s called a SET Team — a Special Events and Tactics Team — of law enforcement officers from around the region.

They’re not really needed for serious law enforcement, but they’re also EMTs and crowd-control people. They’re park rangers who are specially trained in crowd control and “incidents” — these are the folks who go to the Sturgis rallies [of motorcyclists in the Black Hills], or the  July 4th fair at the arch in St. Louis that attracts 100,000 people every year.

On emergencies and oddities:

We’ve had several emergency situations that could have been serious, but with the great rescue work that our staff has done, in real close coordination with the Bayfield ambulance service — who are volunteers — I don’t think we’ve had anything in the sense of life-threatening injuries or long-term damage.

We’ve had quite a few broken bones, a number of head injuries, some of them clearly concussions, but, you know, after somebody gets taken to the hospital we don’t really get much more information. All caused by people falling on slippery ice.

 No heart attacks. Considering the numbers of people we’ve had, nothing really horrible.

The staff enjoyed telling me about the woman who arrived in stiletto heels — I don’t know where she was from or any more info than that —and there have been a couple of twentysomething guys who came in shorts and tennis shoes. And not on a day like today when it’s 50, more like a zero-degree day.

But for the most part, people have shown up well-dressed and prepared for the conditions, which are arduous. It’s a minimum three-mile round-trip over the ice from Meyers Beach to the caves and back, longer if you can’t get into the lot and have to park out on Meyers Road or Hwy. 13.

They come back tired, and cold, and hungry. But they’re happy.

Tomorrow: Prospects for the rest of the ice-cave season and beyond.

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Further information about visiting the ice caves, including important warnings about inherent danger and necessary preparations are available here.