This winter I had the opportunity to walk across part of Lake Superior and explore some of the ice caves. There are preparations needed for this adventure. First, you have to wait until the conditions are favorable for the caves to be open, this includes Lake Superior having enough ice on it. Cold – zero or lower– weather for a prolonged period of time (like a month or more) to ensure that the frozen cascades of ice are not loose. Warm enough weather that you can be outside – bundled up of course. And light wind or it will knock you to the ground. This year these conditions presented themselves for 2 weeks. That’s it – 2 weeks. Some years the conditions never happen and the caves remain closed. You cannot schedule this adventure and expect it will happen on your schedule.
So the first week the caves were open, it made the news. I went the second week (and the last as it turned out). It is estimated 50,000 other people went that weekend also. So I had many companions on the ice; this was a comfort. If the ice broke or a giant icicle fell on me, there would be people around to report my death immediately, thus not having to wait for my body to be found with the spring thaw.
The lake is huge, so having that many people on the lake was nothing. We were like ants scuttling along our paths to and from the caves.
Everyone is dressed for the cold, most of us look like we are the size of a Sumo wrestler. It was about 30 degrees when I stepped onto the lake. Stepping onto the lake requires some equipment (besides lots of clothing layers), namely ice cleats. I had never worn ice cleats before but was impressed with how effective they were at keeping me upright on the ice.
It is also recommended that you carry and use ski pole(s). I didn’t have any ski poles but the park had a limited number of spiked walking sticks available, which I snatched with little regard to the needs of those younger or older than me. (No one else wanted one.) The sticks are broom handles that have a nail driven into them with the pointed end of the nail out. I am not sure how this was accomplished; nevertheless, I appreciate other people’s initiative and skills. The walking stick wasn’t really needed except when climbing over rough terrain. Yes, there was rough terrain on a frozen lake. There were large mounds of snow and ice that had to be climbed making footing difficult and the likelihood of falling even greater.
As I began the trek to the caves, which was about 2 miles across the ice, I was unprepared for the feeling I got walking on the ice. In places where the snow had been blown away, the ice was black – it reminded me of asphalt – and other places it was a deep blue or white. Walking across the black was the part that unnerved me the most. I had the image that I was stepping into a deep black hole. I was glad there were lots of other people around but the lake is so large and we were spread out from each other, I doubted if anyone other than those that were closest to me would have known I had been swallowed up and I suspected that they would have disappeared with me.
By the time I reached the caves, I was breathing hard. It isn’t so much the distance as it is the cold, the wind, uneven walking, and the beauty you see as you come near the first cave. The caves are part of the shore. Other than during the winter, you would only be able to see these caves via a canoe or kayak, if at all.
The eons of the lake’s tides and storms have hollowed out these caves. There is one very large cave that has a domed roof that must be 30 feet high and at least 30 feet across. It is a beautiful place.
As you wander from cave to cave you see cascades of frozen water that form stalactites and frozen waterfalls. In other places, the ice forms passageways the young and agile can crawl through. One cave has reddish ice that seems to gush down the sides of the cave walls.
At the mouth of another cave, there was a very large block of ice (over 4’ long and about 3’ high) sitting on top of the frozen lake. Looking up you can see where it fell from when the ice became slightly thawed. It would have been terrifying to have been there when it fell, but now it lays on the ice and makes a comfortable place to lean against to rest.
The walk back seemed shorter but maybe it was because I had become accustom to my surroundings and walking on ice isn’t so scary after all – it is an adventure.