“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.