Ice caves melting; visitors plan to return in the summer

By KBJR News 1

March 10, 2014 Updated Mar 11, 2014 at 9:45 AM CDT

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, WI (NNCNOW.com) --- The ice caves on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are melting and even though it's a weekday, it didn't stop thousands from making the journey to see them.

The influx of winter tourists is expected to spill over into the summer.

They're melting... but thousands are trying to get one last glimpse before the ice turns back to water. The National Park Service is reporting over 120 thousand visitors to the caves this season, and that number is nearly as many as typically visit the park for the entire year.

"We've known all along that the park is an amazing place and now hundreds of thousands of people all over the world understand the beauty of Lake Superior." said Apostle Islands National Lakeshore official, Neil Howk.

Puddles are forming everywhere and soon the ice that covers the lake will also melt and the water will be too deep to walk through.

As the temperatures rise, the ice caves will once again become the sea caves and people are already taking a hint by making reservations for the summertime so they can revisit in a different way.

"We'll definitely come back in the summer because we kayak so it'd be nice to kayak this area and try and get into these same caves." said visitor, Heather Pawlak.

Heather Pawlak and her family were among the thousands exploring the caves and they're far from alone with their intentions to come back.

"I want to come out for Big Top Chautauqua and then do a sea kayak thing." said another visitor.

The caves have already made a large economic impact and many are booking in advance for the summertime.

"We're estimating about 10 to 12 million dollars of economic impact to the Bayfield County area. Already we're seeing higher than average bookings for this coming summer." said Kelley Linehan of the Bayfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

Before the caves became accessible, business owners like Cheryl O'Bryon were on thin ice financially, but now, thanks to some very thick ice... she can plan for a future.

"Most of July and especially a good part of August is booked, especially on the weekends. Typically July is a busy month for us, we get a lot of the same people every year, but we're getting tons of phone calls. If we had more space, we'd have a lot more people that's for sure!" said Village Inn owner, Cheryl O'Bryon.

The ice won't last long as temperatures heat up, but many people in the area can at least say the economic impact will keep their businesses open and ready for anyone who wishes to explore Northern Wisconsin.

The park service says they are prepared to pull people off the ice as soon as signs of an ice break up are in sight.

Bryce Henry