By Pat Christman
The Free Press
COURNUCOPIA, WISC. — For the first time since 2008, the ice caves along Wisconsin's north shore near Cournucopia in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are accessible to visitors. The caves, carved out of the Lake Superior brownstone featured in many area buildings, are popular with kayakers in the summertime.
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Ice conditions the last five years have prevented people from walking on the frozen Lake Superior to the popular attraction. This year has proven to be unique, with more than 95 percent of Lake Superior covered in ice (typically only 60 to 70 percent is covered), helping to make the caves reachable.
Not to mention the unique wind and wave action that has made the ice formations particularly striking this year, even by local standards.
Deep snow, slippery ice and bone-chilling cold face visitors on those rare years the caves can be accessed on foot, skis or snowshoes. Snowmobiling is not allowed within a quarter mile of the shoreline of any of the Apostle Islands. This year, visitors flocked to the ice caves by the thousands despite the challenges, which include a 2-mile hike round trip over the ice just to get to the beginning of the caves.
Last week's winter storm dumped 17 inches of fresh snow on the area and brought strong northwest winds, prompting the National Park Service to close the caves until the ice's stability could be checked. Those same northerly winds that formed the caves can break up even the strongest ice around them and make them inaccessible.
The Park Service reopened the caves mid-morning Saturday.
National Lakeshore officials say a record 21,000 people visited the caves last weekend. Nearly 60,000 have visited since they were declared open Jan. 15.
National Park Service officials attribute the heavy traffic to general media and social media attention. Five other national parks have sent staff to help, and the local sheriff's offices, U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol are also helping out. The Town of Bell has been plowing Meyers Beach Road, the access road that leads to the lakeshore and the ice caves, since mid-January even though the road isn't routinely plowed. Collection buckets adorn the counters of most area businesses taking donations to help offset the cost.
The influx of tourists has been a boon for area businesses during what is normally a quiet time of year.
"The first Sunday, we just filled up with people, and it totally took us off guard," said Cheryl O'Bryon, who runs the Village Inn bar and restaurant in nearby Cornucopia. "Talking to those people, they had seen people's posts from the Saturday, that day before, when it first opened, and then that just goes viral."
O'Bryon has had guests from as far away as Australia and China. She's even had to cancel a planned vacation due to the influx of business on what is normally a quiet winter. On recent weekends she has served more than 400 people a day, "which is 385 people more than we would have last year at the same time," she said with a laugh.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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