ICE CAVES: A POLAR VORTEX ROAD TRIP
While a majority of people in the northern United States are hunkered down in their cozy homes to escape the chilling winter, I decided to take a different approach. With over 90% of the Great Lakes frozen and the tales of awesome ice caves, it was time to take advantage of the negative degree weather and show people that just because it is bitterly cold doesn’t mean you have to lay around and wait for spring. Who knows, at this rate, it may never come.
The next thing you know, Kayla and I are shoving snowboards, snow pants, cameras, and even bathing suits into the back of my car. We had no plans, but being the middle of winter in the dead north we knew we could easily find cheap places to sleep. We knew the ice caves were a must, but other than that it was fair game for any other exploration.
Let the games begin.
So we set off into the setting sun of the north while most kids our age were on a plane to the tropics for spring break.
First off, I would like to thank the weather for being extremely cooperative. No sarcasm. For anyone who has had the pleasure of experiencing winter in the upper United States, you know seeing the sun is a pure blessing. However the entire trip it was perfect sun (with a slight occasional cloud) which made for perfect roads and brightened spirits. On the polar vortex side, our warmest temperature was -11 Fahrenheit. But in all honesty, it was perfect.
We showed up to the furthest parking point before preparing to make our way across the ice, where you could already see the wind blowing the snow in the bay. Blasting the heat in our car for ten minutes we finally got up the guts to step out into the chilling air. There was no way we expected to be sweating by the time we reached the caves on Grand Island in Lake Superior, but if it would have been any warmer trekking out I probably would have had a heat stroke. Starting out, the -11 and heavy wind was extremely cold but we figured out that walking backward blocked the wind perfectly and before we knew it we were regretting the four layers we had clumped on when leaving the car. In order to get to Grand Island, you must park your car on the furthest point and then brace for a three-quarter mile walk across the bay. It’s really not far, but sinking into the snow with every step makes it harder to do.
Thankfully we were the first people out to the ice caves that morning beside a pair of ice climbers gearing up on the far side. With no noise of the outside world and the wind blocked by the island, we found ourselves lying in the open mouth of the first cave, staring up at the giant icicles that stood multiple stories high. We stripped our outer coat, and threw our gloves to the side and took in the awe-inspiring ice formations. We had heard these caves were cool…but we had no idea how absolutely breathtaking they actually were.
For the first twenty minutes we climbed around fallen ice boulders, slid on patches of ice and relaxed against the cold rock; completely awestruck.
Venturing to the first enclosed cave was like a scene from an Ice Castle in a fairytale. All I needed was a crown and a ruby slipper. Prince charming would have been a nice touch too.
From there it only got better. Completely enclosed caves where you must maneuver between ice and rock, drinking fountains of fresh water from dripping icicles and even pure ice slides that were fun for any adult. Somehow in our entertainment of the giant sculptures we never even noticed the line of a bigger crowd making their way to the ice caves. Pretty soon we were joined by cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and snowshoers. All who seemed just as amazed as we were.
When a group formed, more ice climbers had joined as well. There were four pairs by the time we left. I've always wanted to try ice climbing, although I haven't been able to manage yet so I was completely jealous watching them gear up and climb to the top. Ice climbing is not easy folks, I can tell you that much.
While at the caves you can look around and see massive chunks that have fallen and now sat as part of the ice floor. You looked at them and just thought "my god, I'm glad I wasn't here when that happened". These caves show the true beauty of an arctic winter, but you can't forget how unsafe they could be on a warm day. Even with the negative temperatures, some of the ice was melting due to the direct sunlight which was also stunning.
Some caves you could walk right in too and others were so small you must crawl. It was hard to believe they weren't created by man. So perfectly formed...they really made you realize that humans are actually ants in the universe.
I could have stayed there all day and all night if I would have packed for winter camping. However eventually we moved our hike further south on the island towards an old abandoned lighthouse where in spite of the still -11 degree weather, we managed to nap laying in complete peacefulness at the base of the structure. Simply perfect.
Although we had been up since the wee hours of the morning, returning from the ice caves we weren’t ready to give up on amazing scenery from the day quite yet. We then headed to Munising Falls, however, there wasn’t much falling. Frozen almost completely solid you could venture up to the sides and behind the ice structure, looking down on the snow-covered river where only a small stream was in existence.
We sat next to the falls peacefully for about a half hour, still wondering why we hadn't discovered it sooner.
Next on our polar road trip, we decided to explore inland ice caves. We left mid-morning expecting to be at the caves around 11:00 am. However shortly after leaving town, I realized our gas was low, not worrying too much about it I continued driving assuming one of the towns we had to pass through on the way would have a gas station. Town one, no gas. Town two, no gas. Town three….no gas.
After driving about fifteen miles on my low fuel light I pulled off the road hoping one of us could get service to look up the closest station. Of course, service was limited. I mean we were in the middle of one of the least populated areas in the United States.
It took about five minutes to load the map that showed the closest gas station was 17 miles away.
Well, we decided to continue on hoping to find a gas station that wasn't on the map and by this time we had long passed where we should have turned for the ice caves. We continued past the road after coming to the conclusion gas was most important and we would for sure run out on the dirt road that leads back to the area. Preparing to hitchhike after it ran out we then realized we were on a road that split right between an "experimental forest" which was perfect because not only would we run out of gas but we would run out of gas in a place where a frozen swamp monster may pop out and we would never to be heard from again. Setting our sights on the main road a few miles ahead we prayed Petunia (yes I named my car) would make it that few miles further.
Well unbelievably we made it to the main road after riding about 12 more miles, there were a few other cars on the road and we headed north in hope of finding a gas station. All of the sudden our "god please help us" prayers were answered when we came over a hill to see an old brown gas station. Not only were we thrilled, but we screamed and shouted at the top of our lungs. Kayla was petting the car dashboard and shouting something along the lines of "God does exist and he loves us!".
Our celebration was short lived once we pulled into the parking lot. The truth of it was that it used to be a gas station--but now it had been transformed into a cafe and therefore no longer sold gas. Just our luck. We jumped out of the car and flagged down an elderly couple heading into the cafe. The sweetest little old lady lit the glimmer of hope in us once more by informing us there was gas station only a mile further up the road. Literally jumping back to the car we made it the last mile and pulled into the gas station. The creepy life-sized llamas staring at us through the second story window didn't even phase us.
Thanks, General Store, you really saved us.
Petunia was up and running after riding for 30 miles below empty. We headed back to the caves...although we never actually made it because coming from the other direction we completely missed the turn and didn't realize it until we were almost back to the town where we started. Slightly frustrated that we had wasted the entire morning we then spotted a giant hill off of the road that looked awesome for some backcountry snowboarding. We whipped the car to the side of the road, pulled out our boards and started up the giant hill. With the snow piles the height of the car we should have figured that the hike up would not be a pleasant one.
Sinking waste deep in the snow and holding ourselves up on the steep slant by small trees we were sweating even though the temperature read -26 that morning. Caring the boards didn't add to the easiness either. We were also keeping an open eye since we were convinced our laughs and screams could wake a hibernating bear nearby. I mean, wouldn't that have been the icing on the cake.
It took an hour and fifteen minutes to make the summit, but the riding was the best powder possible for a non-mountainous area.
The rest of the day consisted of singing 70s hits and making random road trip pit stops at abandoned houses and venturing under the frozen Mackinac Bridge between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Not many people can say they've done that.
Not once during the trip did the temperature climb above zero Fahrenheit, yet it was a perfect weekend. The truth is, polar vortex temperatures open doors for more adventures. They create breathtaking ice caves, frozen waterfalls and frozen ice tundras that have one convinced they are nowhere near America and have somehow transported to Antarctica. Sure, you may need 4 layers of clothing and if you have to pee in a snowbank for a bathroom emergency you might get slight butt frost-bite, but it sure is a hell of a lot better than sitting around at home waiting for the cold to pass.
If you constantly sit around waiting, all you'll ever do is wait. And a story can't be created by waiting.
Scroll below for more pictures from our ice cave adventure!