(Reuters) — Crowds of people are flocking
to northwestern Wisconsin to trek on a frozen-over Lake Superior to
reach dramatic ice caves accessible on foot for the first time in
several years, courtesy of the long, frigid winter.
The ice caves on Superior's shoreline are carved out of sandstone
by waves from the lake and derive their name from the icy freeze in
winter that makes them glisten with hoar frost, icicles and ice
Reachable in warm weather by boat, the caves are accessible in
winter only by walking across ice when it is thick and stable
It has been five years since the ice caves were last reachable in
the winter, officials said.
About 35,000 people have hiked the more than 1 mile route across the
ice in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore since officials
declared the ice a "low risk" on January 15, park spokeswoman Julie
Van Stappen said.
"We have never had this number of people coming," she said. "It has
been a bit overwhelming, but it has been great for the local
community, and they are gorgeous."
A cool autumn and early winter combined with polar vortexes helped
lake ice build up weeks earlier than normal, said George Leshkevich,
a researcher for the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
The Great Lakes in the last week reached its broadest ice coverage
in 20 years at 88 percent, with Lake Superior at about 95 percent,
according to the research laboratory.
Van Stappen said the round-trip trek to the caves can take three
hours or more over a well-packed and slippery path with little cover
to break the sometimes fierce winds.
Still, the number of visitors was expected to surge over the
three-day Presidents Day weekend, boosting tourist activity in such
towns as Bayfield, about 18 miles west of the caves.
Maggie's restaurant in Bayfield was doing more than double the
business it normally does in February, which is typically a good
winter month anyway because of events such as cross country ski
races, office manager Heidi Nelson said.
"Our waiters and bartenders are just elated," Nelson said.
At the Bayfield Inn, manager Tyler Stoklasa said this may be the
busiest winter season he has seen.
"We are doing July-type business right now," Stoklasa said.
(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis and Brendan O'Brien in
Milwaukee; editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Matthew Lewis)