Ice caves popularity overwhelms park staff

Ice caves
Courtesy: Michele Juza

BAYFIELD (AP) – The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has turned to other agencies for help in handling the thousands of people visiting the area to see the majestic ice caves along the southern shore of Lake Superior.

It’s been five years since the ice has been thick enough for hikers to safely reach the caves.

Ice caves are seen at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield County, Feb. 12, 2014.
Ice caves are seen at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield County, Feb. 12, 2014. (WLUK/Pauleen Le)

Last Saturday was the busiest yet this winter, with 11,000 people making the trek to the caves, chief ranger Chris Smith told Minnesota Public Radio News. Even on Monday, 1,800 people visited the ice caves, park officials said.

“It’s been overwhelming,” Smith said. “We did not anticipate this level of turnout for this.”

Smith said five other national parks have sent staff to help, and that the local sheriff’s offices, U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol are also helping out.

An Incident Command Center has been set up in a small trailer at the trailhead, where they jump on snowmobiles to respond to a dozen or more emergency calls on a busy day, Smith said.

“We can bring people in here into our little trailer, get them warmed up, keep them in here until the ambulance gets here,” he said.

Those calls usually involve injuries from slipping on the ice and hypothermia.

Park Service officials attribute the heavy traffic to general media and social media attention. It’s been a boon for area businesses.

“The first Sunday, we just filled up with people, and it totally took us off guard,” said Cheryl O’Bryon, who runs the Village Inn bar and restaurant in nearby Cornucopia. “Talking to those people, they had seen people’s posts from the Saturday, that day before, when it first opened, and then that just goes viral.”

O’Bryon has had guests from as far away as Australia and China. On recent weekends she has served more than 400 people a day, “which is 385 people more than we would have last year at the same time,” she said with a laugh.

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