Nature’s fleeting wonder brings crowds, cash to the Apostle Islands area.
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.