The four people sat in folding chairs next to a picnic table on the frozen edge of Lake Superior, 10 miles or so north of Bayfield.
They were in a shoreline nook carved over eons by waves from the lake, the layered cliffs rising above them. They were surrounded by the stalactites of ice formed by the water seeping through the ground. It was about 13 degrees, and the two couples were dressed for time outside, heavy boots, pants and coats.
ďItís their anniversary!Ē one of the women called through her layers of winter clothing, pointing with a mittened hand to her companions. ďDo you want a margarita? How about a piece of chocolate cake?Ē
I drove up to Bayfield on Saturday after reading several news accounts about the fact that Lake Superior, for the first time in five years, had frozen solid enough to hike to the famous sea caves. The area is part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The National Park Service has a list of criteria that make for a safe passage. Well, Lake Superior is never completely safe, and itís constantly changing, but safe enough.
I have been obsessed with the caves for years. Maybe it started when I was kid, and my parents treated me to a Bayfield cruise. Maybe it came from a photo I saw of a kayaker in the mouth of one the caves, taken from deeper inside. At any rate, I always felt this urge to venture inside of them.
Walking to them in the winter is the quickest and easiest way to do that, but conditions have to be right. And to be right, there has to be periods of bone-chilling cold. Yes, itís cold up in Bayfield. But as I found out after planning a wedding anniversary weekend around the hike two years ago, the waves of the lake typically make ice conditions unpredictable and dangerous. We ended up walking to the caves on the overland trail that hugs the shoreline. It was great, and we saw the caves from a distance, and could even peer down into them from above. And although the weekend itself was terrific and memorable, there still was tinge of disappointment coloring it.
So after reading those news accounts that-- finally! -- we had a winter cold enough allow pedestrian access to the caves, I had to go. I got up early Saturday, drove four hours north, had lunch, and then found my way to the caves.
I love Bayfield and the Apostle Islands. Located north of the middle of nowhere, itís usually quiet and peaceful and set apart enough to get a wilderness experience without much effort at all. But the ice cave hike was not that. Not that at all. The walk to the caves, about a mile on the ice, was as crowded as Times Square in New York City during rush hour.
Only instead of car horns and sirens, the predominant sound was the squeaking of winter boots on snow, the swishing of snowpants and the constant hum of conversations. It all was punctuated with the squeals of children, sometimes with delight, sometimes with frustration, cold and tiredness.
There were old people, young people, people dressed in top-of-the-line winter gear, others wearing thin cotton jackets and no hats. I saw one guy wearing shorts. There were shutterbugs of all types, carrying camera equipment worth thousands of dollars. There were dirtbags who smoked their cigarettes and then dropped the butts on the ice. There was a guy on a fat tire bike (against park regulations, it turns out.) Everybody was in awe of the scene before them. It was a visceral reminder of the workings of nature, the interaction between earth, wind and water.
I walked away reluctantly after spending, I donít know, an hour and half or so exploring the shoreline. I drove home thinking about the experience.
You know how you can build things in your imagination and then when you see them in real life they are disappointing? This was not that.
This was so much better, so much more interesting than I ever thought. Now I have to do the summer version.
Photos from the State Parks: Wyalusing State Park | Hartman Creek State Park | Governor Dodge State Park | Devil's Lake State Park | Rib Mountain State Park | Kohler-Andrae State Park | High Cliff State Park | Copper Falls State Park | Amnicon Falls State Park
Read more from Keith Uhlig.
Keith Uhligís blog veers toward outdoor silent sports, running, biking, kayaking, etc., but also can be about eating cheese, growing up and living in central Wisconsin and life in general. You can reach Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org.