Lost in a Crowd: The Ice Caves Phenomenon

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I almost hate to admit it; but when I left home in the pre-dawn hours one morning last month and settled in for the five hundred mile drive north, I wondered if I’d see anybody else out on the lake. I’d heard about the Apostle Islands Ice Caves a few weeks before, on a public radio broadcast in Louisiana, but despite being obsessed with visiting for myself I hadn’t really tuned in to the news stories since. In fact, it wasn’t until after my arrival in Bayfield and talking to a friendly motel manager that I had any indication of what was in store.

“You’ll have plenty of company… 3,000 people on weekdays, 8,500 a day on the weekends…” he said.

That’s when it dawned on me. I’d heard about this while in Louisiana… Of course word was out!

Thanks to such extensive press coverage and driven even further by social media, the Apostle Islands Ice Caves became one of the winter of 2014’s biggest phenomena. The route opened on January 15 when park rangers determined that Lake Superior had frozen sufficiently to allow public access to the caves, located about a mile and a half northeast of Myers Beach along the mainland shore. This was the first winter of safe passage since 2009. Initially locals came to view their long inaccessible winter haunt, then those from across the upper great lakes region converged on the scene.

By the time I arrived on February 13, the caves had already gone viral. The majority of the license plates I noticed were still from Wisconsin and Minnesota, but I did see cars from as far away as Ohio and even New York. Eventually people came from all over America, and additional reports claim visitors from Hungary, China, and Japan. An Australian news network even sent its own reporter.

All told, it’s been estimated that over 120,000 people have come to see the ice caves this year. More visitors arrived in a single week than came in the entire winter of 2009. It’s been a huge boom to the small local communities which depend on summertime vacationers, but don’t often see tourists once the snow flies. It’s also been overwhelming, and the park service has had to call in rangers from all over the Midwest and has even enlisted the help of border patrol to help deal with the crowds.

The people are still coming, but not for long. A press release was issued on Wednesday stating that due to uncertainty and rapidly changing ice conditions, the route will be closing for the season this Sunday night, if not sooner.

As mentioned in previous posts, from a photographic sense the greatest challenge in dealing with these crowds was just the unpredictability of people. No matter what, no matter how unexpected, there was always somebody that managed to find their way into nearly every shot. This was frustrating at first, but after a little inner strife I decided to take an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em…” approach and began photographing the other visitors. Ironically, these people images wound up being some of my favorite shots.

The following collection highlights an average weekday scene this winter at the ice caves.

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If you’d like to see additional photos and read more about my trip to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves, check out these previous entries…

Apostle Islands Ice Caves: A Prelude

Apostle Islands Ice Caves: Part 1

Apostle Islands Ice Caves: Part 2

And for even more Ice Cave photos, take a look at my Facebook page by clicking HERE. Be sure to LIKE the page to follow my photographic adventures around the Midwest… and beyond!

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6 thoughts on “Lost in a Crowd: The Ice Caves Phenomenon

  1. Very cool! I was hoping to get up there from Chicago and see them after seeing it on the CBS Evening News, but we didn’t make it. It looks amazing, and your people shots here are great!

    • Thanks Alison! It was definitely a great experience. You guys will have to keep it in mind and try to get up there the next time around. I know history says it could be a few years (and with a changing climate who knows…) but I certainly hope the opportunity is there again soon!

  2. You really obtained some fabulous shots during your visit! I wished I had more time (we just did a quick day trip from Duluth) on a bitter sub-zero day, so picked one half of the day to explore the caves. Given that it could be years for this event to occur again, I am sure your trek was worth it!

    • Thanks Kat. Looking at your photos, I think you definitely made the most of your limited time as you have some great shots too! I know I also keep wishing I’d had more time to explore; I wish I could have been there in the evening on a clear day to see the lakeshore bathed in golden sunlight. I keep catching myself daydreaming about heading up there again next year- but might be saying “next year” for awhile. Definitely glad I made the trip!

  3. Wow I have never seen anything like that! I did not even hear about it until now. I enjoyed the way your framed your shots using the hanging icicles. Thanks for bringing a piece of the experience back to share!

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