CORNUCOPIA - The frozen spectacle of the Apostle Islands mainland sea caves picked up Saturday where it left off last year, with thousands of people - poles in hand and cleats on their feet - making the slippery trek across the Lake Superior ice.
Boys on ice skates, parents pulling sleds loaded with kids, a few huskies on leashes - they all formed a steady line along the 1-mile route from the access point at Meyers Beach, east of Cornucopia, to the caves.
Some visitors took advantage of the sunny, 20-degree, calm conditions to take a break for lunch in an ice cave or to pose for photos with the ice formations. By noon Saturday, the first day the ice caves access was officially open, 2,800 people had already left the mainland to walk out to the ice caves - and the number of visitors was expected to reach 4,000 by the end of the day.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore staff decided Wednesday that the Lake Superior ice was safe for pedestrian traffic and that the caves could open Saturday. As word spread in the Northland and beyond, many people made plans to make the trip.
Duluth resident Jon Dyess said he likes to view the ice caves as the sun begins to set, but he and Kelli Griffith of Duluth decided to hike out to the ice caves early on opening day to not only beat the rush and find a good parking spot, but also to view the icy stalactites before people started breaking off the tips.
Dyess visited the ice caves last year, and noted that this year's ice formations - caused by waves crashing ashore and freezing earlier in the winter, and groundwater seeping from above - look different than last year. In her first viewing of the ice caves this year, Griffith said she was impressed - but also slightly nervous about walking on the ice as it groaned. Originally from Texas, Griffith moved to Duluth several years ago and had visited the Apostle Islands area a few times, but only during summer.
"There's nothing like this at all" in Texas, she said Saturday at the ice caves.
Dana Peterson made the five-hour drive from Menominee, Mich., to see the caves. She stayed in the area the night before and woke up early to be out on the ice at 9 a.m. on opening day, noting that she lucked out with Saturday's good weather.
"It's really cool. I didn't know what to expect," she said, adding that this was her first time seeing the ice caves and she plans to come back next year if they're open.
Having viewed the ice caves last year, Eric Gustafson knew what to expect, bringing his camera and tripod with him to photograph the ice formations this year. He left his Minneapolis house at 2 a.m. Saturday to reach the ice caves by mid-morning.
Knowing how popular the ice caves were last year, his goal was to get there early so he wouldn't have to park so far away, he said. By noon, the line of parked cars stretched for miles along Wisconsin Highway 13 on either side of the entrance to Meyers Beach.
As visitors left Meyers Beach to head for the ice caves, they were wished a good time by Fred Schlichting, a National Park Service employee who works as a ranger and the lighthouse keeper on Raspberry Island.
"Just follow the crowds. You'll know where to go," he said in answer to a visitor's question.
Having lived in nearby Cornucopia for 45 years, viewing the ice caves is a normal winter activity for Schlichting. He went on a trip overseas last year and was surprised to see the Wisconsin ice caves on the news there, he said.
The caves drew 138,000 visitors in two months last year, including 20,000 in a single weekend and 10,000 people in one day, Schlichting said.
As news of the ice caves went viral via social media last year - the first time they had been accessible in winter in five years - Park Service staff was surprised by its overnight popularity and brought in staff from nearby parks to help manage the crowds.
This year, they've started out prepared, Schlichting said. Park staff was out on the ice monitoring the crowds Saturday, and by noon there had been several emergencies due to people falling on the ice. Schlichting urged people to use traction devices on their boots and use walking poles if they have them. The lake is glare ice, he said.
Anyone planning to make the trip to see the caves should first call the park's ice caves access phone line at (715) 779-3397, ext. 3, for updates on ice conditions.
Beginning this year, cave visitors age 16 and older will be charged a $5 fee per person, per day; payment can be made with cash at Meyers Beach. There are also annual passes available for $10 per person at the park headquarters in Bayfield. The money will help cover the park's costs from handling the influx of visitors.