Bayfield, Wis. – Erno Hettinger stood atop a vast, frozen field of Lake Superior ice, hunched his back against whipping wind and gazed at the fantastic walls of icicles hanging from sandstone cliffs.
“Beautiful,” he pronounced it in a thick accent. “This must be seen.”
The 66-year-old Hungarian, in the U.S. for a three-month engineering job, had flown to Minneapolis from New Jersey, drove a rental car across ice-rutted highways, then hiked more than a mile over snow because he wanted to view the fleeting natural wonder in person.
Tens of thousands of others did, too.
Since news has spread around the globe that the ice-draped caves and cliffs are accessible for the first time in five years, this normally hibernating tourist community has awakened to throngs making the pilgrimage onto the big lake’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore mainland caves.
More than 76,000 have flocked to the spot since Jan. 15, when park officials deemed the lake’s ice low-risk for visitors. That’s more than half the number of visitors for all of last year for the entire park, covering 21 islands and the mainland caves.
Shuttle buses now zoom past miles of cars parked on the road to the trailhead on weekends. Restaurants and hotels that would normally be hoping for winter guests are often full. Enterprising residents hawk ice cave T-shirts and sell hot chocolate from outdoor stands outside the park.
A quick and deep winter freeze made formations in the caves extra intricate and spectacular, officials say, but the locals thank international news coverage and social media for spreading the word.
“It just never ceases,” marveled Bob Krumenaker, the parks’ superintendent who has taken to calling the busy scene “Yosemite Valley in the middle of Antarctica.”
Few are complaining. The ice cave tourists have sunk an estimated $10 million into the area.
Though some businesses remain closed for the winter, others that are typically staffed in summers with college and high school students are extending their winter hours and scrambling to get by on overtime.
Cheryl O’Bryon hasn’t taken a day off since mid-January, often working 16 hour days in tiny Cornucopia, where she and her husband own the Village Inn bar, restaurant and bed-and-breakfast.
She can’t help but beam when she talks about the ice cave rush.
“It’s been just unbelievable,” O’Bryon said. “We’ve never seen this kind of influx of people. Ever. Not even in the summertime.”
The couple has added 16 employees to their normally reduced winter staffing of six or seven. They canceled a vacation to Mexico. They barely have time to do laundry.
O’Bryon said she hopes the influx will give people an idea to come back in the spring, summer and fall. “They’ve discovered our little corner of the world,” she said.
It may work with Colleen and Donald Rost-Banik, who sat down to a late lunch at the Pier Plaza restaurant in Bayfield. After moving to Minneapolis from Hawaii in September, the couple decided to embrace winter by trekking to the caves. They left awe-struck.
“It was absolutely breathtaking,” Donald said.
“The icicles that are hanging down, they look like chandeliers,” Colleen said. “It has definitely given us incentive to come up here in other seasons.”
Down the street, the Howl Clothing and Adventure store hung signs in the windows calling itself the “Ice Cave Outfitter.”
“A lot of people come and they aren’t dressed appropriately,” said clerk Wendy Thier, just before selling a pair of gloves to a Des Moines couple. Before they left, she peered from behind the cash register to check their feet. “Do you have warm boots on?” she asked.
‘Nice to be busy’
On a recent Sunday evening, hungry patrons in puffy down coats and stocking caps stuffed inside the colorful, flamingo-themed Maggie’s restaurant to wait 30 to 60 minutes for a table.
Staffing was short, bartender Lisa Bresette explained as she poured beers and mixed bloody Marys: “We ran out of people … but it’s really nice to be busy.”
The influx has meant long hours and extra help called in for the National Park staff, too. This year’s ice cave crowd is already six times larger than the busiest previous winter with accessible ice caves, which drew 12,000 people. Staff has increased from about 20 to nearly 40 to handle it all.
At the entrance to the trailhead, officials set up an incident command center to respond with snowmobiles to calls for help, typically about a dozen a day on weekends for everything ranging from bumped heads and twisted ankles to concussions and broken bones. They haven’t even had time to count the money collected from $3 fees from the parking lot, which normally holds only about 50 cars.
Workers kept smiles as they directed visitors down a snow-covered staircase toward the lake and caves. Crowds have been respectful and friendly, they said.
“This is one of those rare events that everybody is happy,” Krumenaker said.
Tom Grabarek, of Flagstaff, Ariz., visited the caves with his family on a blustery afternoon and was stunned by the crowds. People came on skis and snowshoes, they pulled sleds with children and put boots on tiny dogs to make the trek: “I mean, it’s colder than crap and there were families, all sizes of people,” he noted.
Barb and Rob Grott, of Dayton, Minn., saw the caves 10-15 years ago, and they were nearly alone on the ice.
Back then, Rob said, the locals had a hard time describing where to find the trail. Now, while it’s good to see the area booming, he said, “in a way it’s not the same. It feels like the little thing you knew about is gone.”
For all of the good that the frozen caves have brought, the locals know the ice cave bonanza can be gone quickly if conditions turn ugly.
Last year, park officials were ready to open the ice to hikers in early February, Krumenaker said. They typed up a news release and prepared to send it out the next morning. But overnight, the ice broke up, likely by winds making waves somewhere else on the lake, he said.
It’s why park officials urge visitors to check their website or Facebook page for conditions before they set out.
“There’s a saying around here, which is very apt, which is ‘the lake is the boss,’ ” Krumenaker said.
They will keep the access open as long as the lake allows it, he said. Then, “we’re going to need to sleep for a week.”