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Lake Superior ice expands, but not to the Apostle Islands caves - yet

A stack of almost perfectly parallel sheets of ice glows an eerie blue in the sunshine Tuesday morning on Lake Superior near Brighton Beach. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
Lake Superior photographed from orbit by NASA’s Terra satellite on Feb. 11. Ice coverage on the lake has expanded to about 50 percent as of this week. Photo by NASA/SSEC2 / 3
Sheets of ice tilting at every angle stack up near the shore of Lake Superior between the Lester River and Brighton Beach on Tuesday morning. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

Ice coverage on the Great Lakes isn’t as historic as last year, but it is better than the 30-year average and is fit for all ice-related activities — well, almost all.

“With the exception of the Apostle Islands,” Mark Gill said. “Everywhere else folks want to play on the ice, they’re playing on the ice.”

Gill is the director of vessel traffic services with the U.S. Coast Guard in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. He monitors ice on the Great Lakes and, at 77 percent coverage across the five lakes, said this year’s ice is greater than the 30-year average.

But at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the expected ice boon has yet to materialize. After receiving 138,000 visitors to its famous ice caves near Cornucopia over two months last year, the park has yet to collect a dime of the $5 per head it was set to charge in 2015.

“I wish I could say (whether they’ll open), because it’s the hardest thing to plan for — an event that may or may not happen,” said Chris Smith, the park’s chief of protection. “It’s been cold enough, but the lake hasn’t settled down enough for the ice to stay in.”

Accessing the ice-bedecked mainland sea caves requires hiking a mile-long route from Meyers Beach, near Cornucopia, across a frozen bay of Lake Superior.

There is ice in the caves, but it’s new ice, just four or five days old. Smith described parameters that need to be met before the park will allow for on-ice exploration. The ice, he said, needs to be thick enough, which it’s currently not, and needs to be locked in among some of the islands and certain points on the mainland.

“It needs to be stable enough so that wave action created by wind doesn’t peel it out right away,” said Smith, who would not let even his fellow park rangers check the ice Tuesday because “it’s just not there yet.”

This is the third time ice has infiltrated the caves so far this winter, but each other time “it’s blown right back out,” Smith said.

Hope remains, though, for park visitors to be able to trek out onto the ice and to the caves. Just two weeks ago, ice coverage on the Great Lakes was 36 percent. It’s more than doubled since, with Lakes Erie and Huron reaching nearly full coverage. Lake Superior coverage is up to 50 percent. That’s a significant departure from last year’s historic 91 percent coverage, but indicative of greater possibilities, Gill said.  

“We’ll peak here in the next two weeks, usually around the first of March,” he said. “Last year started abnormally cold in November and didn’t let up.”

The ice won’t be as thick as last year, which saw ice top out at 44 inches in places on Lake Superior.

“We’ll have great coverage, but not anywhere near the thickness,” Gill said.

Anglers have started trekking out on the ice offshore from Duluth, though the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says ice is never 100 percent safe and anyone venturing on the lake should take precautions and be aware of rapidly changing conditions.

Shards of ice also have started stacking up in picturesque piles along the North Shore, drawing photographers and other visitors to Brighton Beach, Stony Point and Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse state parks, among other locations.

Gill said he understood that Apostle Islands park officials were still “waiting for the caves to seal up,” but neither he nor Smith was willing to predict whether or when that would happen. In the meantime, park visitors are allowed to walk Meyers Beach, Smith said — but there’s no safe way to walk beyond to the caves.

“I honestly don’t know one way or another,” Smith said. “There’s a reason we don’t see any ice shanties out there.”

Last year, the ice fishermen who target holes well beyond the caves were “out there all day every day,” Smith said. “They were the canaries in the coal mine. I came out one day, no fishermen. A couple days later, the ice was gone.”

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