Driving: 16 hours, 900 miles
Sustenance: beef jerky, belVitas and Girl Scout thin mint cookies
Entertainment: good conversation and silly singing with friends
Goal: cross the ice caves off bucket list
It’s strange to think that just two weeks ago there was snow on the ground and ice covered the majority of Lake Superior, creating the spectacular Apostle Islands Ice Caves for the second year in a row.
As I started writing this yesterday, it was a sunny 50 degrees and joggers were out wearing shorts and long-sleeved T-shirts. March can be a trickster in Wisconsin, so we take advantage of the weather before it turns sour. It’s never a matter of “if” but “when.” Because today it is cold and gray and snow is on the way.
I was set on seeing the ice caves this year since their formation is never a guarantee and the weather is so unpredictable. And so were about 37,800 other people.
If I was going to do it, planning for the trip would be last minute. I still needed to find a pair of decent snow boots since I’m prone to frostbite, travel companions and a place to stay overnight. Luckily it didn’t take me long to find all three.
Boots that can withstand arctic temperatures: Check. (Thanks REI)
Two buds from college eager for a road trip: Check. (Thanks Beth and Anna)
Room in a guest house in Bayfield that is modeled after the Raspberry Island Lighthouse: Check. (Thanks Susie)
Susie told us that if the ice caves closed before we arrived, she wouldn’t charge us for the room if we decided not to come. In her words, “If I was traveling to Green Bay to watch the Packers and I showed up and the stadium was gone, I wouldn’t want to be charged either if I wanted to turn around.” Seemed like a sound policy to us!
The caves opened Feb. 28 through March 3, closed for a couple days during a windy snowstorm, and then reopened March 5 and closed for the season March 9. Nine days.
We planned our trip for Saturday, March 7, but I left Friday to pick up Beth and Anna in Green Bay.
On my way up, I stopped by my mom’s to get extra gloves, mittens and Yaktrax for our boots, my sister’s to borrow some of her snowmobiling gear and Menards to get another pair of ice cleats. You can never be too prepared.
I had made the next part of the drive on Hwys. 26 and 41 many times to and from St. Norbert College, and out habit I took one of the De Pere exits and drove through campus and across the bridge over the Fox River. I found a place to park and caught the sun setting behind Old St. Joe’s and Main Hall.
Next stop was delicious sushi at KOKO’s with Beth, Anna and our other close friends from college, Katie and Koren. I hadn’t seen most of these ladies since my wedding reception last fall, so it was great to catch up. While we waited for a table, we walked across the street and enjoyed happy hour and conversation at The Libertine.
Katie and I stayed overnight by Beth, Anna and their sneezy, adorable cat Prefontaine. We made sure we had everything packed, for the most part, before going to bed.
But it didn’t take long before my alarm went off at 3 a.m. I’m not generally one for early morning wake-up calls, but I was so excited for this trip I never hit snooze. We got the car packed up, said goodbye to Katie and were out of the driveway while it was still dark at 4 a.m. Right on schedule.
After a quick pre-breakfast snack in the car, it didn’t take Beth long to fall asleep in the back seat. But Anna was struggling to get comfortable because she was bursting with creative ideas for work and furiously scribbled them on a notepad by the light of the moon.
Soon we were in Wausau and dawn was breaking. We drove through a few flurries before hitting Minocqua, where we stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s. With everyone awake we stayed busy talking the rest of the way up north. We took another bathroom break in Ashland and got psyched for the adventure ahead. I’ll spare you our impromptu rendition of “On the Road Again.”
Anna took this selfie when we left Washburn for Cornucopia. We were overtired but definitely excited.
We had been debating whether we should find a spot to park along Hwy. 13 (which we knew could be a mile or two walk just to get to Meyers Road) or take the shuttle from Cornucopia (which we could be waiting in line for awhile). Either way, it was a beautiful day – a few degrees above freezing and the sun was shining.
When we got closer to our destination, we saw the signs for the shuttle at the Cornucopia Community Center/Bell Town Hall and didn’t think the line was that long. I’m glad we spent the $4 round trip, because later in the day the line of cars stretched more than two miles in each direction from the access point. After miles of walking on the ice I think we would’ve been too exhausted for that.
It was about 10:30 a.m. when we left on the shuttle. Here’s another selfie when we were all geared up on the bus.
It was a quick drive to Meyers Road, where we then walked to Meyers Beach, paid $5 each and started our icy trek.
The first thing that struck me was how blue the sky was.
Notice the cracks on the surface? Yeah, we checked those out, too. The cylindrical “pipes” of either ice or air pockets shooting up around them really caught my attention.
As did these foggy shapes under the top layer of ice. Unfortunately we couldn’t see to the sandy bottom of the lake because of the snowstorm a few days prior, but the inky abyss was astounding just the same.
Despite the massive line of people making this mecca with us (some already on their return trip), it was mostly quiet except for our feet smashing the snow – especially when we crunched on thin plates of ice stacked up beneath us like potato chips.
Once we neared the sandstone cliffs, the sun reappeared and lit up the backdrop and our energy levels. We were almost there.
The tone of the trip also changed as we got closer. Audibly with the volume of children squealing in delight while exploring the icy playground, and emotionally as we began to realize just how grand these formations are.
You might think thousands of people trying to see the ice caves at the same time might create chaos, but everyone seemed to understand that there was enough to go around for everyone. We often saw short lines of people form in front of particularly captivating spots for family photos (which will likely appear on their holiday cards this year).
Props to the parents who brought out their little ones on such a beautiful day. I witnessed a few kids smack off icicles in their reach, but parents quickly corrected their behavior. Plus, sometimes you get a little thirsty.
We didn’t run into anyone who refused to take our photo, they just politely asked that we stick around and return the favor.
The only park rangers I saw were on their snowmobiles off in the distance, so none of this courtesy was “manufactured” because the government was “watching,” as some people might expect. They were just there to ensure our safety. Thank you!
We had spent considerable time next to and inside the caves, sliding like seals on our bellies to get a closer look.
But Anna reminded us to take a break and step back to see the whole picture. I’m glad she did.
It was also neat to see the sandstone color mixed in with the ice.
Another stretch of cascading ice changed hues from blue to red and yellow.
The ice formations made for some awesome natural frames.
We made sure to keep our energy levels up. We ate cookies (our lembas bread).
And stayed hydrated with water.
I attempted to drink from a melting waterfall of sorts, but in the process got my camera wet – unlike this smart photographer who kept her distance a bit.
Some people came really prepared to eat lunch in the caves, like the Schock family from Osceola.
When we realized it was about 2 p.m. and we still had a bit of a trek back to the shuttle, we decided to turn back. Some people brought their ice skates to make the return trip faster, while some zonked out kids were treated to a sled ride.
And if you don’t have a string, any stick or piece of driftwood will do.
Once we neared the shore at Meyers Beach, I turned around to take this panoramic shot of the ebb and flow of the ice traffic.
There were still plenty of people in the parking lot getting their tickets to the natural amusement park when we walked by.
And the man parked at the entrance selling water and snacks out of his truck must have done well considering hot dogs were crossed off his list at 3 p.m.
After we boarded the bus and got dropped off by our cars, there was still a decent line at the community center.
We were definitely hungry, so we took Hwy. 13 into Bayfield in search of a good restaurant. And by the looks of how many cars were still parked along the highway, we were optimistic we’d beat the rush. Thanks for snapping these shots while I drove, Beth.
A few loops around downtown Bayfield and we decided to try Maggie’s – a restaurant known for its collection of flamingo trinkets. While we waited for a table, we chatted with the hostess about the eclectic mix of pink birds hanging from the ceiling and sitting on window sills. She told us that unfortunately some people have stolen some of their decorations, but others have made up for it by donating a few of their own when they stop by to eat.
We shared a basket of sweet potato fries and each had a burger. I highly recommend the one with sheep’s milk cheese.
But alas, we still wanted dessert. So we stopped by a little grocery store and picked up ice cream and other snacks, which we would later enjoy in our room while watching St. Vincent, a movie starring Bill Murray that we rented at a gas station. We considered looking for something to do during Bayfield’s Winter Festival, but most of the activities already took place during the day…and we were tired.
On our drive to the “movie store” in Washburn, I showed my friends where Drew and I got married last August at Memorial Park. It was so serene as the sun was fading, and it brought back beautiful memories.
When we settled into our spacious room, Anna discovered the whirlpool bath that unfortunately did not have working jets. Still, she said it was relaxing. The three of us cozied up on the bed and watched the movie on the laptop since the TV in the room didn’t have a DVD slot.
We were definitely ready for sleep, and luckily our neighbors didn’t put up a fight when we asked them to turn down their music. We had a long day of driving ahead of us, and it was daylight saving time so we were losing an hour.
In the morning we dropped off our keys and the movie, filled up with gas and food at a different Coco’s, and hit the road. We flipped through my collection of Now That’s What I Call Music 5-9 CDs. Not Now 59. These songs went back to our middle school years of N’Sync, Shaggy, Nelly Furtado and Destiny’s Child. Oh yeah, way back. And somehow we still knew most of the words – especially Beth.
Soon we were back in Green Bay to unpack and say goodbye to my awesome travel companions. A few hours after that I was back home in Madison, exhausted but fulfilled from a whirlwind of an adventure.