Communities near Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are standing ready to help the park operate as close to normal as possible this winter, which means the popular mainland "ice caves" could be more easily accessible if the ice allows.
The caves, which Lake Superior has cut into the lakeshore's shoreline, draw thousands of visitors when conditions are cold enough to make the lake ice safe to walk on. "Delicate arches, vaulted chambers, and hidden passageways honeycomb cliffs on the north shore of Devils Island, Swallow Point on Sand Island, and northeast of Cornucopia on the mainland," note park interpreters.
And come winter, when the weather turns extremely cold, if there's an extended period of calm weather ice might "lock in" adjacent to the mainland caves, enabling visitors to explore them.
Earlier this month, Apostle Islands Superintendent Bob Krumenaker announced that, due to budget constraints, Meyers Road in the lakeshore would not be plowed and motorized travel would be prohibited once the road is snow‐covered.
But last week the superintendent and surrounding communities reached an agreement to see that a roughly half-mile-long stretch of road leading to the ice caves would be plowed and that park personnel would be available for weekend staffing in the event the caves are open to the public. The rangers not only are available to answer questions, but keep an eye on ice conditions, caution visitors against hazards, and respond to any emergencies that might arise.
While officials from Bell, Wisconsin, agreed to plow the road when needed, the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau, along with the Friends of Apostle Islands, agreed to help pay the personnel costs of park rangers for weekend duty.
“That allows us to open the area, ice caves or not, all winter," Superintendent Krumenaker said. "And the Park Service will continue to operate the restrooms and handle any garbage and we will keep the access to the beach shoveled, as well."
With those logistics covered, all that is needed is a good cold spell in northern Wisconsin. Conditions haven't allowed for the public to explore the ice caves since 2009. Last winter it looked like the ice would be solid enough for the public, but the day before the caves were to be open Lake Superior waves broke up the ice.
When the caves are open, the crowds turn out. Superintendent Krumenaker said they've had days in February of cold years when the visitation in the lakeshore, because of the ice caves, surpassed the busiest of summer days there.
While the community support will help the park open the ice caves if weather allows, the superintendent said the reduced visitor center hours at the lakeshore's visitor center in Bayfield -- it will be closed through the winter -- will remain in effect. But during regular office hours at the park’s Bayfield, Wisconsin, headquarters (M‐F 8‐4:30 except holidays), visitors may obtain brochures and have their questions answered.
Additionally, the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, roughly 22 miles south of Bayfield, is closed on Sundays, but open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m..