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Popularity of sea caves gives boost to Northwestern Wisconsin

April and Kendra Randrup of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., are framed by an archway covered by icicles during a visit to the Apostle Island sea caves near Cornucopia in mid-January. The caves are accessible in winter this season for the first time since 2009. (2014 file / News Tribune)

Long after the icicles adorning the Apostle Islands mainland sea caves melt away, the positive economic effects of the phenomenon should continue to provide a boost to Bayfield County.

The ice caves near Cornucopia, open this winter for the first time in five years, drew about 10,000 visitors last weekend. With temperatures struggling to climb above zero, that was about half as many as on the previous few weekends.

Still, about 90,000 people have walked across the ice of Lake Superior to reach the sea caves since access opened six weeks ago.

Town of Bell Supervisor Mike O'Bryon, who runs the Village Inn in Cornucopia, said the thousands of shoppers and diners are helping local businesses -- and not just in the short term. O'Bryon said the Village Inn already is booked for July.

"We have cabins and rooms, and it's filling up quick," he said. "Usually it doesn't happen this early. It's definitely impacted it.

"They're coming back. That's for sure. We hear that every day, several times a day," O'Bryon said of visitors to the ice caves, calling the situation "crazy wonderful."

"We may have been discovered," Apostle Islands National Lakeshore spokeswoman Julie Van Stappen said.

Van Stappen said the 90,000 visitors to the ice caves are more than half of the 160,000 people who typically visit the park in an entire year. So they've called in the reserves.

"We brought back every seasonal (employee), everyone on furlough that we could possibly grab on to, to assist with us -- plus there's people from other parks who have come to assist," she said. "The local community and so many different people have pulled together to help with the situation."

Van Stappen said she expects bigger crowds at the caves this weekend, when temperatures are predicted to be less severe than last weekend's double-digit below-zero wind chills.

The forecast calls for highs around 30 degrees, "which will feel like summer for us," she said.

If the caves draw their usual 20,000 visitors next weekend, that will bring the season total past 100,000.

For updates on access to the caves, call the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore's ice caves information line at (715) 779-3397, ext. 3; visit the park's website at nps.gov/apis; or visit the park's Facebook page.

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