Column: Risk, reward in visiting the frozen Apostle Islands sea caves (with video)An occasional deep rumble rises from beneath frozen Lake Superior. The wind rustles through vegetation high atop vertical bluffs covered in jagged daggers of ice. All of it seems to carry an echo: “You’re not supposed to be here.”
By: Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune
CORNUCOPIA — An occasional deep rumble rises from beneath frozen Lake Superior. The wind rustles through vegetation high atop vertical bluffs covered in jagged daggers of ice. Dripping water plinks deep within a cave in the rust-orange sandstone.
All of it seems to carry an echo: “You’re not supposed to be here.”
But Mother Nature’s head has been overruled by her heart this winter, and for the first time since 2009, hikers willing to make the journey have been granted access to the ice-bedecked Apostle Islands sea caves.
The realm of kayakers in the summer, the arches, caves, cliffs and clefts are encased in a wild array of icicles and ice curtains each winter thanks to groundwater seeping down from above, and, more significantly, waves crashing ashore and freezing on early-winter days.
Many years, the lake that creates the ice formations also keeps them off-limits. The sandstone cliffs drop straight into Lake Superior, so hiking there requires that the water be completely frozen over — a tough task on the west-facing, windswept shore, made more challenging as the lake’s waters continue their decades-long warming trend.
This winter, though, our below-normal temperatures have helped pave the way for adventure-seekers to reach the mainland ice caves. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore officials on Wednesday made the official announcement that the caves were accessible.
It’s about a 70-mile drive from Duluth to the access point at Meyers Beach, near Cornucopia. From there, it’s a make-your-own-way trek of about a mile along the shore and out onto the ice.
The trek was a bit of a slog earlier this week, thanks to a half-foot of new snow that swirled about in the 30 mph gusts, concealing ankle-twisting potholes and obliterating the tracks of hikers just minutes after they were made. Perhaps 15 hardy souls had bundled up and braced themselves against the wind — though if past seasons are any indication, crowds on sunny weekend days may number in the hundreds if the ice holds.
The payoff for those who make the hike? An up-close look at ice in a wide spectrum of shapes, textures and colors — ribbons and curtains and walls and spears draped along the cliff and hanging from the rocks.
A sea arch, the Keyhole, coated in ice but permitting passage beneath dozens of frozen stilettos.
Caves with openings largely — but not completely — covered by ice, allowing the brave to wriggle inside for an otherworldly, translucent, transcendent experience, the delicate crystals of ice on the ceiling contrasting with the feet-thick mass of frozen water at the mouth of the cavern.
As distracting as the crystalline beauty may be, it can’t completely put the dangers out of mind. A ton of ice could crash down from above; a pressure ridge could rupture from below. Those echoes return: “You’re not supposed to be here.”
But for now, at least, wind, water and ice have granted us a temporary ticket to this spectacle in our backyard — a chance to enter a fleeting, frozen world before it melts away.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at (218) 720-4102 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @akpix.