BAYFIELD, WISCONSIN (National Park Service) – Public access to the mainland ice caves in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore remain closed due to unstable ice conditions. As recently as February 4, there was open water at the caves, and ice cover on Lake Superior was at record lows. In spite of the recent cold temperatures, most of Lake Superior remains open water and the ice that has formed near the caves is unstable, jagged, and rough, creating high risk conditions. “Ice at the caves is so unstable and jagged that it will not allow safe access by rescue teams using snowmobiles,” said Chief Ranger Chris Smith.
“Current conditions are different from the ice cave conditions of 2014, when over 95% of Lake Superior was covered in ice,” said park superintendent Lynne Dominy. “The current ice shelf formed over the past two weeks from blown in chunks of ice, subject to movement by winds and fracturing by Lake Superior waves. Under these conditions, changes in wind direction and waves can cause this ice shelf to blow in one day and be gone the next.”
Although the park has specific criteria for determining when the ice caves can be deemed “accessible”, the extent of unfrozen surface waters and duration of subzero temperatures will always control the stability of the ice shelf. Lake Superior is warming rapidly, ice cover is decreasing, and the likelihood of access to the ice caves has become a rare event. “One of the most common phrases you hear around here is ‘the Lake is the Boss’-which is true in the summer and in the winter,” added Dominy.
“The park’s primary concern is the health and safety of the community, park visitors, and staff,” added Dominy. “As the NPS monitors and responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working closely with the NPS Office of Public Health and local health office to use the latest science to guide our decision making.” Due to the continuing high prevalence of COVID in the area, Bayfield County Health Department issued a mass gathering limitation order prohibiting gatherings over 100 people to protect the health and well-being of residents and visitors alike, and to prevent first responders and the local healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. Past ice cave events attracted thousands of visitors, with peak days of 14,000 people. Roadways, bathrooms, EMT trailers, parking, stairways, and the ice caves can become extremely congested and not allow for social distancing. The ice caves at Apostle Island National Lakeshore will remain closed for the 2021 season.
For more information about Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, please visit our website at www.nps.gov/apis or call (715) 779-3398. Join Apostle Island’s on-line conversations on Facebook: www.facebook.com/apostleislandsnps
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