Apostle Islands Ice Caves: Part 1

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Once the decision had been made to journey north to see the Apostle Islands Ice Caves, I tried to be strategic in choosing which days to go. I looked at the weather forecast, and the only days with little chance of snow were Wednesday and Thursday (February 12 and 13) so I set my plans and made reservations. The idea was to leave early Wednesday morning to make the nine hour drive and get out on the ice before sunset that afternoon, then also have all day Thursday and as long as I needed Friday to work with as well.

Of course, as we all know you can rarely count on the weather or those predicting it, and the morning that I left found me driving through near white-out conditions shortly after crossing the river at Dubuque. That nine hour drive turned into eleven, and despite my early start the delay would have had me pulling up to the lakeshore on the verge of dusk. Rather than do that, I simply drove on to my motel room in Bayfield and hunkered down for the evening.

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The snow continued to fall all night and heavy into the next morning, piling from four to eight inches depending on the report. With it came twenty mile an hour wind, which I knew would make the 18 mile drive from Bayfield to Myers Beach a bit sketchy. The storm was supposed to pass by mid-morning, however, so I watched the radar and tried to wait patiently. Finally around noon there was a clearing, and I stepped over to the motel office to ask about road conditions.

“Headed to the ice caves, are ya?” said the cheerful manager who had just come in from shoveling snow in shorts and tennis shoes, his mustache coated in frosty white.

“Yeah,” I said. “I was just wondering if you’ve heard how the roads are heading over there?”

“Ah, shouldn’t be bad,” he said. “But you know you’ll have plenty of company. Been pretty crazy this year. I heard something like 3,000 visitors on weekdays, 8,500 on the weekends. People have to park on the highway and walk for miles.”

My jaw dropped. I figured there might be some other people out there, but hadn’t even considered the possibility of crowds; especially since I’d come in the middle of the week. I’d actually anticipated more of a solitary experience (which in hindsight was incredibly naïve.) My stomach knotted knowing what this would mean from a photographic standpoint.

The motel manager went on to tell me about the numerous injuries people have had on the ice, usually (as with most cases in natural settings) by those who had ventured out unprepared. It’s a mile and a half walk from the beach-side parking lot to the start of the ice caves, literally across the frozen Lake Superior surface. Most of the problems were due to people either underestimating the elements or the terrain.

“The rangers, they stand in the parking lot and can almost hand-pick which folks they’ll see coming back on a stretcher,” said the man with a dry chuckle. “As far as the road over there, though, should be fine…”

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The highway was a skating rink. Plows seemed to have broken through the drifts at some point earlier in the day, but the pavement was snow packed and slick. The 18 mile drive was stressful and unpleasant, except for one moment when I slowed to watch a bobcat cross the road in front of me. Otherwise, it was pretty much a white-knuckle affair.

When I finally arrived safely near the turnout to Myers Beach, I found cars parked along the shoulder of the highway and took my place at the end of the line. From this point, it ended up being about a mile walk to the beach access; which sucked as it meant less time at the actual caves, but could have been much worse. I shouldered my pack with emergency clothing, food and photo gear and made quick strides toward the lakeshore.

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There was a seemingly endless parade of people coming and going along an obvious path leading to the caves. I’m not going to lie, the crowds got to me almost immediately. The first shot I tried to compose had someone’s head dash across the frame just as I went to click the shutter. As did the second, and the third… and so on. If there’s one thing I’ve come to expect of people in these situations, it’s how predictably unpredictable they can be. I’d find a potential shot of icicles hanging from a cliff at the back of a cove and wait for a clearing to shoot, only to have the last person passing stop for a break in the middle of the scene. I’d locate an isolated cave when I thought nobody was around, only to have someone emerge smiling from within.

One time I climbed inside one of the caves and had almost perfect light and a cool perspective looking out through the ice. There was only one small group meandering through the frame, and if I could just wait them out- a matter of fifteen seconds- I might get an awesome photo. Sure enough though, just as they were about to disappear from sight a young lady from the group stopped on a dime, looked my way, turned and slowly approached across the ice.

“Would you like me to take a picture of you in there?” she shouted in a friendly voice.

“Uh, no thanks…” I said quickly. If she moved immediately I might still catch the fading light.

“Are you sure?” she yelled, raising her hands and shrugging her shoulders to emphasize the offer.

-And it was gone.

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Stories like that may seem comical now, and I know that girl meant well, but in the moment they can be almost infuriating. Especially when they happen time after time and your frustration level rises to a “You’ve got to be kidding me!” sort of frenzy. But I’m not one to yell and cuss or be rude to other people. Sure, I get inwardly flustered, particularly with the adrenaline of seeing an excellent photo begging to be captured in fleeting light; but I’m also grounded enough to realize that others have the right to enjoy the experience too. Usually it only takes a second for me to temper my frustration and realign my focus. On this day, I had the help of a young family to nudge me along.

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I’d been on the lake for about an hour, and for a good twenty minutes I was unable to shake them. Two little boys dashing every which way; rosy cheeked and upper lips glazed with snot. Dad was almost as excitable, though I’m guessing his choice of cotton blue jeans on this snowy day may have had the rangers taking dibs on his means of return to shore. Mom was a trooper, trudging along pulling a green saucer sled but you could tell she was damn cold and doing her best to take one for the team.

Despite their motley appearance, it seemed we were tethered at the hip. I’d stop to examine a section of shoreline, and Dad would race in front of me to stick his head in a cave. I’d try to push ahead, and one of the boys would follow suit, speed walking along side just as fast as his tiny legs would carry. Then I’d stop to try and take a picture, and he’d jump up and down in front of me waving his arms, urging the others to catch up.

“Come on people,” I thought. “I didn’t drive all this way to take pictures of your kid.”

Funny enough, though, it was when I finally had a chance to break away that I actually stopped to observe. The family came upon a large cave that tunneled deep into the sandstone and one by one disappeared out of sight.

“About time,” I thought and quickly turned to make tracks toward the horizon. But I couldn’t help but slow to a halt at the sound of joyous echoes from behind.

“Dad!… Dad!!! This is AWESOME! You could have the best hockey game EVER in here!”

That kid was having the time of his young life, and here I was getting all pissy and uptight because I felt entitled to a photograph? That changed my attitude real quick. I love finding solitude in nature. I love discovering unbroken views that at least seem to be free of any influence or intrusion by man. I’ve found my style and built my business trying to capture such scenes. But I also strive to inspire through my work. I want to encourage people to stand up and fight to protect our wild places, and I know that getting them out and allowing them to connect with nature is key. It’s in first realizing that sense of awe and wonder that I and many others experience each time we set foot in a national park that new passions will be born; and new voices will call out on wilderness’ behalf. Sometimes that’s going to mean sharing the vista; and ultimately of course I’m alright with that. But it’s nice to have these gentle reminders, just the same.

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I spent the rest of the day simply enjoying the experience and taking what I was given. When there were a bunch of people around I’d play photojournalist and try to capture the scene. (I’ll have a separate blog post coming soon featuring the best of my “people” images.) When I found a rare and momentary break in the crowd or could take a strained angle to try and photograph a section of the lakeshore without people in the frame, I’d snap off a few shots. These windows of opportunity generally lasted thirty seconds to a minute tops, included lots of creative posturing and almost always ended with a figure loping into the corner of my viewfinder; but oh well. I did my best to make the most of the time I had.

I ended up shooting until the snow picked up to the point I could no longer keep my lens clear then hiked back to the car; satisfied and eager for one more crack at things the next day.

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Stay tuned for Part 2 of my visit to the ice caves, and check out my Facebook page for more photos from the trip.

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5 thoughts on “Apostle Islands Ice Caves: Part 1

  1. This is a great series. Now you need to do a follow-up in the summertime or fall. There’s plenty to see and do, so you could easily justify your trip again 🙂 Lighthouses! Wilderness! Beaches! Blueberries! Tom’s Burned Down Cafe!

    • Thanks Jason; I get the sense that you’d never run out of things to see or do up there! I definitely hope to get back again soon, and to spend more time to take advantage of all of the opportunities!

  2. Love your ice caves blog. I couldn’t stop laughing! I’ve been out to the caves many times over the years and some trips I’ve been the only one at the caves. I’ve never seen anything like it this year. One weekend they had 26,000 visitors and the total so far is over 100,000. Your account reminds me of a John Oliver comedy piece he did on his trip to Michigan Tech in the UP.

    • Thank you so much Philip! I took some time to look through your photos as well- beautiful! You’re very lucky to live close enough to have easy access to this amazing place. I hope to get back and spend more time soon!

  3. Pingback: Apostle Islands Ice Caves: Part 2 | Another song, Another mile...

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