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Friday, March 21, 2014
Ice cave craze
Visitors grab rare chance to see one of nature's most incredible sights at Apostle Islands in the US

Erno Hettinger stood atop a vast field of ice on Lake Superior in the U.S., hunched his back against the wind and gazed at the fantastic walls of icicles hanging from the cliffs. "Beautiful," he whispered. "This must be seen."

The 66-year-old Hungarian, who was in the U.S. for a three-month engineering job, had flown to Minneapolis from New Jersey, driven a rental car across icy highways and then hiked more than a kilometer over snow because he wanted to view the fleeting natural wonder in person. Tens of thousands of others did, too — eagerly grabbing the chance to see this spectacular sight before officials were forced to close access to the lake on March 16.

After news spread that the ice-draped caves and cliffs were accessible for the first time in five years, throngs of tourists made the trip onto the lake to see Apostle Islands National Lakeshore's mainland caves. More than 138,000 people flocked to the spot after Jan. 15, when park officials deemed the lake's ice low-risk for visitors.

A quick and deep winter freeze made formations in the caves especially intricate and spectacular, officials said, but locals thank news coverage and social media for spreading the word. "It just never ceased," remarked Bob Krumenaker, the parks' superintendent, about the crowds of visitors.

Among those who came were Colleen and Donald Rost-Banik. After moving to Minneapolis from Hawaii in September, the couple decided to embrace winter by trekking to the caves. They left awe-struck. "It was absolutely breathtaking," Donald said. "The icicles that were hanging down, they looked like chandeliers," Colleen said.

The influx meant workers at the national park had to work long hours and call in extra help. This year's ice cave crowd was over 10 times larger than the busiest previous winter with accessible ice caves, which drew 12,000 people.

At the entrance to the trailhead, officials had to 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 broken bones. Workers smiled as they directed visitors down a snow-covered staircase toward the lake and caves. Crowds were respectful and friendly, they said. "This was one of those rare events when everybody was happy," Krumenaker said.

Tom Grabarek visited the caves with his family 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, he noted.

Although officials have now closed access to the caves, local businesses feel extremely grateful to have had this ice cave bonanza. This has not always been the case. Last year, for example, 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 because of winds making waves somewhere else on the lake, he said.

"There's a saying around here, which is very apt, which is 'the lake is the boss,'" Krumenaker said. They kept the access open as long as the lake allowed, he noted. Now that this record-breaking season has finally ended, "we're going to need to sleep for a week."

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