4 March 2022
DULUTH — With plenty of freezing days this winter, hopes were high for a chance to trek out to the shimmering Apostle Islands mainland ice caves.
But low ice cover and strong northwesterly winds that bashed dangerous ice shards into the caves mean viewing the natural phenomenon from Lake Superior will likely wait at least another year. The last time the caves were accessible from the lake was 2015, when 17,000 winter enthusiasts made the two-mile roundtrip ice hike.
“There has been an incredible amount of wind,” said Julie Van Stappen, spokeswoman for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
The wind created lengthy cracks, movement and pack ice, the most dangerous kind, and pushed it against the caves, she said. The ice is broken into pieces creating a shark fin-like minefield studded with ice boulders and 10-foot ledges in some places, which wouldn’t allow a rescue snowmobile through.
“Even though at times you look out and go, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s white as far as the eye can see,’ the conditions are just not suitable,” Van Stappen said.
Even the park’s ice rescue team has only been out to the caves once this winter, although rangers check for accessibility regularly, posting updates to the park’s Facebook page.
About 65% of Lake Superior is covered in ice this week. In 2014, when the caves were accessible for weeks and in 2015 when the window narrowed to nine days, the lake was mostly covered.
A warming Lake Superior and an increase in turbulent storms could mean accessibility to the caves, cloaked in crystal-like formations created by waves and seepage, will be increasingly rare, national researchers and climatologists say.
Calm, cold conditions create the kind of strong ice necessary to travel with the least amount of risk on the frozen lake, Van Stappen said.
For those still itching to see the Cornucopia-area caves, the lakeshore trail that offers views from the top is open. (Bring ice cleats.)
About 2 feet of snow fell on the Washburn and Bayfield region last week, making snowshoeing, skiing and snowmobiling good options to take in the last weeks of winter.