APOSTLE ISLANDS ICE CAVES
Ice Caves on Lake Superior in Wisconsin like you’ve never seen before!
Nearly everyone knows about the visually stunning Apostle Islands Mainland Ice Caves located near Bayfield, Wisconsin on Lake Superior. A world-wide phenomenon when they went viral during the winter of 2014, the ice caves at Meyers Beach haven’t been open to the public since 2015. However, they are far from the only ice caves to be found in the Apostles. In this article I’ll take you along for the ride as we explore some of the other distant and seldom seen Wisconsin ice caves found in the outer ring of the Apostle Islands.
Looking out across the bleak, dreary and frozen expanse of Lake Superior from the depths of an ice cave on Cat Island. Quite literally at the very edge of the ice pack, with open water visible directly in front.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
I’m not one to lecture, but let's get this out of the way: Please don’t try any of this yourself. No, seriously. While the ice conditions at the mainland ice caves are closely and carefully monitored by Park Service staff all winter, the ice in the outer ring of islands where these ice caves are found isn’t checked by anyone. Ever. Consider this: if Park Service staff deem the ice conditions along the mainland unsafe for the public, as they have every year since 2015, what do you think the ice conditions 20+ miles out are like? It can, and often does, change daily out there. It’s always unpredictable and occasionally dangerous. When we venture out into the far reaches of the Apostles, we do so only after having meticulously planned and prepared. We study satellite images of the ice pack to see where the ice has formed, and importantly, how long it’s been there. We carefully watch the Lake Superior marine weather forecast, with a special emphasis on wind speed and direction. The wrong wind can build swell out on the open, unfrozen parts of Lake Superior (known as "dead roll") that will break a 12" thick sheet of ice into pieces within minutes. We talk with ice fisherman who have been out in the islands to know what conditions they’ve encountered. We’re fully prepared with every conceivable piece of safety gear to self-rescue should it become necessary. And we have years of experience adventuring in the winter season in all corners of the Apostles, along with a healthy dose of respect for Lake Superior.
To recap - unless you have all the safety gear and the requisite experience with ice and winter conditions in the Apostles, it's best to wait for the Park Service to give the green light at the mainland ice caves.
Geared up with a Mustang Survival Suit, ice cleats, ice picks, and a throw rope while shooting jigsaw pattern ice plates at the north end of Cat Island. Not visible in the frame was the ice bar I used to check thickness. This was one of the most incredible winter scenes I've ever photographed in the Apostle Islands.
A typical setup on my snowmobile, shown here near Trout Point on Stockton Island: Nebulous inflatable raft, ice bar, throw rope, ice auger for checking ice thickness, GPS navigation, and a waterproof bag with extra base and mid layer clothing. Besides a cell phone, which is mostly useless in the outer ring of the Apostles, I carry a handheld marine radio and a PLB.
WHERE ARE THE ICE CAVES IN THE APOSTLE ISLANDS
Again, we're not talking about the famous mainland ice caves at Meyers Beach today. A bit further out from the mainland in the inner ring of islands there are several smaller and less dramatic ice caves to be found. These ice caves are often sheltered from big waves and freezing spray by the other nearby islands. It is precisely that freezing spray combined with gale force winds across the open expanse of Lake Superior that build the unbelievably gorgeous formations in the ice caves out at the edge. And that’s what we’re after. The big prize.
We’ll focus primarily on four islands here. Cat, Stockton, North Twin and Devil’s.
Easily one of the most dramatic Lake Superior ice caves we've ever discovered, this one on Cat Island. Sheets and sheets of beautiful ice layered against the sandstone cliffs to form an impromptu ice cave.
CAT ISLAND ICE CAVES
Surprisingly, despite being nearly 20 miles from the mainland Cat Island has been one of the more reliable destinations for us in recent years. This has been a function (as always) of wind direction in combination with long stretches of bitterly cold weather. Those conditions have allowed the ice sheet to lock up solidly between Manitou, Ironwood, Cat, and the north side of Stockton Island, permitting access to the north tip of Cat. There are a series of stunning sandstone cliffs, caves, and arches along the coastline up there, all of which bear the brunt of the violence Lake Superior brings to these islands during freeze-up. The resulting ice caves and formations are among the most incredible I’ve ever seen anywhere.
Delicate and simultaneously rugged, this Cat Island ice cave stopped us dead in our tracks. It's mind boggling to contemplate how this must have formed - just the right combination of wind and freezing spray before the ice locked up. Amazing!
Photographing the ice formations at the north end of Cat Island. It's impossible to describe just how incredible it is to stand there, in that place.
STOCKTON ISLAND ICE CAVES
With open exposure from the northeast across the vastness of Lake Superior and corresponding strong current action that wraps around the southeast tip, reaching the section of coastline on Stockton Island containing all the amazing sea stacks, ice caves, and sandstone formations is an iffy proposition, at best. The ice just doesn't like to stick there. It isn't uncommon to have ice lock-up solidly and then break up and blow back out in just a few short days time. During the winter of 2022 we had only a single day that we were able to access a small stretch of that coastline for exactly that reason. At one point, there was a sheet of ice 12" thick that ice fishermen had been on for days. A stiff northeast wind one morning buckled and broke it all up. It went from a solid, stable sheet of ice to open water in less than an hour.
But when it does lock up out there, the rewards are mind blowing, and some of the best ice caves on Lake Superior are found there. We’ve discovered ice arches that defy imagination, ice caves completely buried in piles of pack ice 30+ feet tall, and of course the ever-amazing sea stacks Stockton Island is famous for.
Lake Superior sunrise from underneath an incredible ice arch we discovered along the frozen coastline of Stockton Island during a bone-chilling stretch of Polar Vortex. Before The Lake froze up, wave action piled ice into the back corner of this little cove, where it froze into a solid wall of ice. Later, more waves hollowed out part of the solid ice wall, forming this ice arch. An amazing find!
One Man Against the World.
From deep within an magnificent Apostle Island ice cave on Stockton Island.
NORTH TWIN ISLAND ICE CAVES
If I were a betting man, I’d bet against a successful excursion to North Twin 100 out of 100 times. Along with Devil’s Island, it’s exposed to the full wrath and fury of Lake Superior. Getting the ice pack to lock in that far out is never a given. I’ve been there once, and it remains one of the most epic and unforgettable things I’ve done in the Apostles. Backing up just a bit - We’d been to the north end of Cat Island the previous weekend, and at that time there was no chance of crossing over to North Twin. The channel between the islands was all broken unstable pack ice. But during the ensuing week we watched (via satellite images) as a narrow ice bridge formed between the north end of Cat and the south tip of North Twin. By itself, that wouldn’t have inspired much hope, but there was also no new snow and basically no big wind the entire week. That allowed us to have confidence the solid white isthmus of ice we were seeing on satellite wasn’t newly formed skim ice with a dusting of snow on top, but instead ice that had been locked into place without being disturbed for nearly a week.
On the day of our expedition we paused as we reached the north end of Cat Island. We were entering uncharted territory, as it were. There on the distant horizon was North Twin island. Almost begging us to try it. We slowly made our way out onto the channel, drilling with ice augers frequently to check thickness, and following the track we had plotted via GPS to ensure we stayed on the narrow ice bridge. As it was, we never had less than 16" of solid ice all the way across. The feeling of euphoria as we reached the south tip of North Twin Island is difficult to put into words.
It was a good day to be alive.
The MODIS satellite image we used to plan our route to North Twin Island. The red arrow depicts the solid ice bridge beginning at the north end of Cat Island and terminating at the south tip of North Twin. Note the darker pockets of unstable pack ice and slush on either side. The red circle is North Twin Island, with open water on three sides.
Towering nearly 40' high, the massive ice formations we found on the north end of the island were insane. An absolutely unforgettable and extremely rare excursion that I have no expectation of ever getting to do again.
DEVIL'S ISLAND ICE CAVES
The grand prize. The holy grail. Reaching Devil’s Island over the ice had been a bucket-list adventure of mine for years and years. We crossed it off one particularly brutal winter with back-to-back excursions on two consecutive days, but it was far from a sure thing. We knew from studying satellite images the entire north end of the island was open water, and a large pocket of open water appeared just off the west coastline in between Devil's and Bear Island as well. It left us with an ice bridge stretching between Rocky Island and the south end of Devil’s.
Everything lined up perfectly during the week leading up to our Devil's Island attempt. Bitter cold weather continued building the ice shelf, and moderate winds did no harm to existing ice. We were as ready as we would ever be.
When the Big Day arrived we launched our snowmobiles from Red Cliff at first light and proceeded to cautiously weave through the Apostles following trails we'd been using for several weeks by that point. We reached the southwest tip of Rocky Island without difficulty, and continued up the coastline as planned to our jumping off point where we'd begin the crossing to Devil's. There was no small bit of trepidation as we left the relative security of Rocky Island and began to work our way across the channel, drilling with our ice augers as we went. Further and further, until finally, unbelievably, we were standing on Devil's Island.
There were smiles all around, and our spirits couldn't have possibly been higher as we carefully made our way up the east side of Devil's. We soon had to abandon our snowmobiles due to massive fields of jagged pack ice, and then continued on foot all the way up to the north end near the Devil's Island lighthouse where open water finally stopped us.
Having seen ice caves on nearly every island in the Apostles many, many times over the years, the raw ferocity of what we experienced on Devil's Island that day was on another level entirely. There's a fury Lake Superior saves for these islands that exist out on the edge. A rage the inner ring of islands are never exposed to. What's left behind for the intrepid explorer to discover is nothing short of astounding.
A self portrait inside the single most astonishing ice cave I've ever seen, up near the north end of Devil's Island. For perspective on just how much and how thick the ice is, in the summer months you can drive a boat through this cave without any difficulty.
A scene I doubted I'd ever witness. An image I thought I'd never make. The Devil's Island lighthouse in winter.
Questions about any and all things Apostle Islands? DM me on Instagram.