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A sight to see: ice caves on Lake Superior islands
Sunday, February 24, 2002

Knight Ridder News Service , Wisconsin. By Beth Gauper

Along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a big freeze triggers glee, not groans. Only when temperatures stay low for a long time will the edges of Lake Superior freeze enough for people to walk out to the mainland ice caves, whose beauty is renowned.

Even when ice is sufficiently solid -- and in three of the last four winters, it was only for a few days -- wind may suddenly split it, and snow may block the access drive.

So, when park rangers say it's OK to go -- well, you'd better go.

I'd been calling the ice cave hot line for a month last year when, on Feb. 20, I finally heard the magic words: "Conditions do allow access to the Squaw Bay ice caves." But a foot of snow fell that weekend, and I couldn't get going until March 1.

Borrowing a pair of snowshoes from the innkeeper at the Fo'c'sle Bed & Breakfast in Cornucopia, Wis., I drove four miles east to Meyers Road, parked near the lakeshore and started picking my way over the lumpy path. The whole world was white, except for the frosty blue of the sky, and it was hard to tell where lake ended and shore began -- especially since a 4-foot-high wall of snowy boulders sat where I thought the lake should be.

Then I passed Craig Mealman of nearby Russell Township, who explained that the "boulders" were blocks of ice pushed toward the shore by wind. Mealman had just been to the caves and was planning to return the next week with a picnic.

"There are a few areas where I'd just like to sit and look at it," he said. "You can sit and take in the awe of it. In one place, it looks just like a crystal geode on the inside; it's cool."

The ice is formed by lake spray and by water trickling over and between layers of the red sandstone cliffs, which rise 50 to 80 feet above the lake. Ice formations also can be found in the sea caves at Swallow Point on Sand Island and on the north shore of Devil's Island.

But it's rare to gain access to those caves, unlike the ones that line Squaw Bay, now called Mawikwe (Maw-ICK-way) Bay, Ojibwe for weeping woman. Delicately colored by minerals in the rock and soil, frozen to the cliffs in ways that mimic the stalactites, columns and flowstone found in underground caves, the ice formations are spectacular.

I walked closer to the caves and skidded; snowshoes aren't much good on glass. An infinite variety of ice covered the cliffs -- smooth blue humps at the base, froths of mint-green blooming out of the middle and thin layers draped over the top, translucent as a centenarian's skin.

It was as if a limestone cave had been turned inside out and left to shimmer in the sun. There were colonies of chalk-white soda straws and bacon-strip flowstone. Inside the caves, gnarled yellow columns formed rows of organ pipes, and stalactites hung like cow teats. Outside, ice clung to rock in ridged waves, like fish scales, and the soda straws in some crevices were as thick as shag carpet.

All this ice is just a bonus, though, for the cliffs are spectacular in themselves. Over eons, the waves of Lake Superior have cut arches and chambers in this red sandstone, with shadowy interiors connected by skeletal fingers of rock. Topped by spindly birch trees, white and black against the winter sky, they're breathtaking.

Soon the light began to fade, and I ducked into a cave one last time, looking through a fringe of icicles at the red sun sitting on the horizon, amid bands of pink.

I trudged back and went into Cornucopia to have dinner at Fish Lipps, a cheerful place with colored lights and booths lined by windows. As I waited for my burger, I talked with T.J. Lovick, whose family runs Fish Lipps. He told me why the park rangers are so conservative about allowing cave access.

"That lake can split just like that," he said. "You get wind surges, and it moves the ice back and forth. One day the lake is white, and the next day it's open as far as you can see. It can happen in two hours."

Often, he said, people stop by the restaurant asking for directions to the caves.

"We have a lot of people come in and ask for directions in December and January," he said. "Their local lakes are frozen, and they think this is a regular lake." He laughed uproariously.

Cornucopia, a fishing village since the 1920s, is the northernmost town in Wisconsin. Today, it's a friendly, laid-back spot with a marina that caters to sailors and a few gift shops that snag tourists who happen by.

In the morning, Dave Tillmans, who owns the Fo'c'sle with his wife, Mary Beth, took me by snowmobile to see more ice formations -- Lost Creek Falls. Lumbering along on snowmobiles, we cut into the woods across from the Village Inn and onto the wide, rolling Herbster Trail, which Tillmans said is part of a 600-mile network in Bayfield County. It was nice -- so nice I couldn't help thinking what a truly great ski trail it would make.

"We ski, too," he said. "Skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, sailing -- we do it all. Our children are too young to know it yet, but this is a little paradise."

A tree had fallen across the waterfall, obscuring it, and huge dollops of snow turned the creek and banks into a single surface. So we turned back, afraid we'd step into open water if we went any further. Tillmans tried to describe it instead.

"I've always thought of it as a Minnehaha Falls," he said. "You can walk around behind the water."

The forest and lake were gorgeous, and I hated to leave. Around the peninsula in Bayfield, at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore headquarters, rangers were bracing themselves for an onslaught of visitors. It was the first weekend people would be able to get to the caves, and the first winter, after three warm years, that the ice had frozen for more than a few days.

"The lake is a huge heat sink, and it takes a long time for that heat to dissipate," said Neil Howk, the ranger whose voice I had heard so often on the hot line. "It takes a long time for the ice to get going."

angers regularly check the ice with augers, he said, but still get nervous, especially with up to 1,000 people going out on a weekend.

"We don't say it's safe to go out on the ice any time, because that's stupid," Howk said. "Ice is not safe. Basically, our message is, conditions do allow access."

But on the Apostle Islands lakeshore, those are magic words.


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