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Apostle Islands sea caves remain closed

Visitors explore and photograph large ice columns in one of the main sea caves along the Lake Superior shore east of Cornucopia, Wisc., on Feb. 28, 2015. (News Tribune file photo)

BAYFIELD, Wisc.—This month's frigid weather hasn't pushed the needle toward opening the popular, ice-coated Apostle Islands mainland sea caves to the public.

Staff at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore reported last week that it was like "walking on bowling balls" when checking Lake Superior ice conditions around the caves, but they're still hoping that this winter could be a repeat of 2015, when the sea caves were last opened. That year, the initial poor-quality ice blew out into the lake, making way for ice that formed as a slick skating rink that could withstand the weight of thousands of visitors walking to the caves each day, said Julie Van Stappen, chief of planning and resource management at Apostle Islands.

"It's anyone's guess what's going to happen. We were hoping that the ice was going to blow out because that frequently happens, and then, the next ice that comes in is really good ice," Van Stappen said.

The ice formations on the sea caves have been happening for generations, but the phenomenon went viral with the advent of social media, drawing thousands of visitors to make their way along the ice to the caves. Although the caves aren't open to the public, Van Stappen said people can still walk on the mainland trail above the caves, but she recommends wearing traction devices, such as Yaktrax.

Leaders with the Apostle Islands park and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are asking people to check official sources for updates and to heed those determinations. An unofficial Facebook page and website, posing as the Apostle Islands, has been posting untrustworthy information about ice conditions at the Apostle Islands and the "Red Cliff ice caves," they said.

"The problem is that it's an individual who has a Facebook site called 'Apostle Islands,' and it's a very nice site, but he is not making it clear that he does not represent the National Park Service. Sometimes he says that, but he's going out there telling people what's open and what's closed. He's got no authority to make any decisions on opening or closing of any ice anywhere. He has no authority," said Apostle Islands Superintendent Bob Krumenaker.

Apostle Islands has trained staff members who calculate ice thickness and stability to determine whether the ice can hold the weight of 10,000 visitors in a day, Krumenaker said.

"People sometimes say we're really conservative, and I say, 'Yes, we are,' " he said. "We want people to go out to the caves and, more importantly, come back so they can do it again."

He added that the person behind the unofficial pages isn't tied to a local organization that can rescue people off the ice if needed.

"He is putting out messages that could potentially threaten people's lives if they listen to him. Neither the park service nor the tribe is supportive of this. In fact, we're pretty unhappy about it," Krumenaker said.

The Red Cliff Band, the National Park Service and the business community are united in following only official ice condition reports, Krumenaker said. Red Cliff Chairman Rick Peterson said the band supports the park service and the economic benefit the sea caves bring to the local community, but public safety is the band's first concern. The band doesn't advise or make recommendations on ice conditions or ice safety, instead leaving ice safety determinations to the park service, he said.

"They have trained experts, and they monitor the ice much more closely than we do. What we do officially is refer people over to their Facebook or website," Peterson said.

Official up-to-date sea cave information can be found on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore's Facebook page at facebook.com/apostleislandsnationallakeshore, the Apostle Island's website at nps.gov/apis or by calling the park's Ice Line at (715) 779-3397, ext. 3.

Checking ice conditions

The Apostle Islands team checks ice conditions at least once a week, if weather conditions allow, and they're planning to test the ice on Wednesday, Jan. 17, Van Stappen said. When staff checked the ice last week, it had a crack in it and an uneven surface with shards of ice sticking up, she said.

"What happens in normal years is that you get a thin amount of ice, then you get some wind that breaks it up and then you get the shark fin-type stuff, which is really hard to get through. This year, it was apparently more slushy, and it got cold so quickly that it basically came in as slush, and they've got a whole bunch of poor-quality ice. On top of that, it's basically like little pyramids all over," she said.

As soon as the ice team gives the OK, Apostle Islands staff will wait 10 days to ensure that the ice stays intact and safe. If it does, then the caves will open to the public, said Van Stappen. Good ice conditions are not only needed for the safety of visitors walking on the ice to the caves, but it also ensures that park staff can transport a visitor on a snowmobile in the case of an emergency.

"We have some pretty strict criteria we've developed over the years to try to be cautious and safe. We want people to enjoy it, but on the other hand, we don't want them to get hurt," she said.

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