After providing an estimated $10-$12 million boom in tourism, the "ice caves" at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin will soon be off-limits due to deteriorating conditions, according to lakeshore Superintendent Bob Krumenaker.
The caves -- featuring a fanciful array of icicles, ice sheets, and frozen draperies that formed in, on, and around the caves Lake Superior eroded into cliffs -- opened this year for the first time since 2009 as bitterly cold weather wrapped its frosty arms around the Midwest. Visitors flocked to see the natural phenomenon; nearly 97,000 people have walked out on the lake to inspect the caves this winter.
Now, however, the weather is warming some and the lake is threatening to make the ice unstable. Superintendent Krumenaker said Wednesday that access to the ice caves will close for the season no later than Sunday night "due to rapidly changing ice conditions and growing day-to-day uncertainty about safety. If ice conditions deteriorate before then, the access could close sooner."
At a meeting on Tuesday, partner agencies working with the National Park Service to manage the tremendous influx of visitors to the area urged the Park Service to be proactive in closing the access to the ice caves to avoid a worst-case scenario of the ice breaking up while people are out on it.
'This has been a remarkable ice cave season,' the lakeshore superintendent said in a release, 'the longest and best one anyone can remember, and certainly the most popular. But spring is coming, the ice is weakening, and we can see the edge of the ice pack coming closer to the mainland ice caves every day.
"The beautiful formations are melting, and some have already fallen, raising concerns. Safety is our top priority, and by planning for a closure, rather than reacting quickly to a change in conditions, we can assure that the season ends on a high note.'
Bayfield County District 3 Supervisor Kenneth 'Bucky' Jardine, who represents the Port Wing area, agreed that it's time to be prudent.
'The lake is treacherous,' Mr. Jardine said. 'It's a mean old lady. I don't want to see anyone die out there.'
While lakeshore officials expect that ice conditions will still allow access through this weekend, rangers will be monitoring conditions very closely and will make an immediate announcement if an earlier closure becomes necessary.
If you're thinking about seeing the ice caves before the closure, you can call the automated ice line (715-779-3398 x3) or check the park's Facebook site to find out the latest status. The park's Bayfield visitor center will remain open through March 23rd and will reopen in May.
Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau Executive Director David Eades estimated that there's been a $10-12 million boost from the increased winter traffic.