Social media brings unprecedented attention to Apostle Islands sea caves
Neil Howk has never seen anything like this in his 30 years at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield.
An estimated 11,000 people visited the park’s ice-festooned sea caves on Lake Superior last weekend, said Howk, assistant chief of interpretation for the park.
On Saturday, cars were parked for seven miles along Wisconsin Highway 13 near the sea caves’ access road, he said. At least a dozen visitors had to be hauled off the ice by snowmobile Saturday because of injuries, he said.
The unprecedented popularity of the ice caves is overwhelming the small park’s resources, Howk said.
“It’s consuming pretty much everything right now,” Howk said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck thing. The division chiefs are out parking cars.”
While the ice caves have been mildly popular historically in years of dependable ice, this is the first year since 2009 that ice has been deemed safe enough for foot travel to the caves. The popularity has been driven by media coverage and by social media, park and tourism officials say.
“All of the tens of thousands of people who have already been here are sharing their photos with friends,” Howk said. “The profile is astronomically different than anything we’ve ever seen.”
“People are coming from all over the world,” said Mary Motiff, tourism director for Bayfield County Tourism in Washburn. “We’ve had coverage from all over the world between websites and Facebook. It really has gone viral.”
She estimates the sea cave phenomenon is generating between $5.6 million and $7.2 million for the economy of northern Bayfield County and the nearby city of Ashland.
“This is bigger than Apple Fest (the Bayfield Apple Festival),” Motiff said.
That three-day event each fall draws about 40,000 visitors, she said. The sea caves are drawing more than 10,000 people a weekend, and the season could last six to eight weeks. Park Service officials announced Jan. 15 that ice was reliable enough to open the sea caves to foot travel, and the season could possibly extend well into March.
Saturday was the biggest day for visitors so far, Howk said, with an estimated 8,500 people making the 1.1-mile trek to where the sea caves begin. They extend for another two miles along the shore. Water seeping out of the sedimentary rock in wave-carved caves along the shore forms dramatic icicles, ice pillars, ice tunnels and arches.
In addition, many visitors had to walk another two or three miles to where they parked.
On the ice Saturday, the scene was a subdued spectacle. Columns of visitors marched across the ice to and from the caves. Visitors crawled into caves, snapped thousands of photos and ate lunch on the ice. No snowmobiles are permitted to travel to the caves except for park officials making patrols or responding to emergencies.
Most people act responsibly, park officials said, but the crowds are taking a toll on the ice formations.
“People are tempted to touch the ice,” Howk said. “Icicles are being broken off. The finer details are not there anymore. The formations are being impacted by people climbing around. But that’s not a long-term problem.”
It’s not a long-term problem because in a few months, all of that ice will melt back into Lake Superior.
The park has bumped staffing up as crowds have increased, Howk said. The park started with six people on duty, but it’s now up to 12 or 14 on weekend days, he said. Employees from other national parks in the region and the U.S. Border Patrol have been brought in to beef up the staff, Howk said.
Before this past weekend, five or six people had to be taken to medical facilities by ambulance, Howk said.
“Numerous others had to be brought back to the parking lot on a snowmobile,” he said. “We had at least a dozen of those on Saturday.”
Although snow covers the ice out on the lake, inside the caves, the ice is bare, he said.
“We’ve had a couple of broken arms, a broken ankle, a broken wrist,” he said.
And some people aren’t in good enough physical shape to make the trek to the caves.
“A number of people who shouldn’t be trying to make the walk are going out,” Howk said.
The increased staffing requirements are straining the park’s budget, he said.
“The budget is a huge concern,” Howk said. “Any money we spend now won’t be there for summertime.”
Cooperation from local chambers of commerce, nearby Bell Township, the Friends of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Friends of Apostle Islands National Park has been exceptional, he said.
Until a recent series of milder winters, visitors could expect to travel to the ice caves about eight or nine years out of every 10, Howk said. From 2003 to 2009, the caves were accessible for part of every winter except in 2006, he said.
Park officials also are concerned about what will happen when the ice becomes unsafe at some point.
“If the ice is not safe, and we have 5,000 people coming, and the Park Service is saying it’s not safe to go, we have real concerns that’s going to be a problem,” Howk said.