The Ice Caves of the Apostle Islands are nothing short of amazing. Centuries of erosion have sculpted the sandstone cliffs of the Apostle Islands National Lake Shore into a maze of intricate passageways and caves. Only accessible via Lake Superior, they provide kayakers with beautiful scenes, and photography opportunities, during calm days in the warm months of summer. But, it’s not often that Lake Superior freezes enough to allow access to them by foot in the winter. It happened for the first time in five years last year, and then again this year, but only for nine short days. The hike to them in winter can be somewhat daunting, but it’s well worth the effort.
Hiking across a frozen Lake the size of Superior is hard to describe to someone who has never done it. This year, the ice was very smooth and crystal clear. I could see the bottom of the lake right through it. In fact, it was so clear that as I walked with the sun at my back I could see my shadow on the bottom of the lake 15 feet or more beneath me. It's a memory I'll never forget.
The first caves begin just over a mile from the nearest access point. To get there, you must hike over the frozen lake. The caves themselves then stretch along the shore for another two miles or more. As you walk beside them, you have 30- to 40-foot crimson and cinnamon cliffs to the south; the flat ice-covered lake runs north to the horizon. Given the stark contrast, it can feel as though you have stepped onto another planet. The cliffs rise from the lake and form a border of cinnamon brown, red and orange around the harsh winter landscape. The ice formations that form on them are different every year, but are always spectacular. From huge frozen waterfalls towering 30–40 feet high to tiny, crystalized frost formations and thousands upon thousands of icicles. There are miles of frozen shoreline to explore.
Photographing the caves can be tricky. By their nature, they tend to be dark, and the light conditions outside are constantly changing. I always bracket my exposures and shoot RAW so that I can have greater range to process the shadows and highlights in Lightroom.
But it’s actually getting in position to photograph the caves that can be the most challenging. Forget the cold and the hike involved—some of the most intriguing shots are taken from inside the caves, many of which only have small openings. To get into some of the more out-of-the-way spots I had to crawl on my stomach, pushing my gear in front of me as I went. The ice was very thick—there was no risk of it breaking, but lake ice makes noise. It creaks and pops. The caves can make those sounds echo. When you’re lying on your stomach, squeezing through, and the ice creaks beneath you, it can really get your attention! Once inside, small caves open up—many big enough to kneel in but not to stand. On its roof are thousands of ice formations. It really is a take-your-breath-away moment. These formations are extremely delicate—the slightest touch and they disappear into a fine snow.
Equipment & Settings:
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35 ƒ2.8 USM, Canon 70 / 300 (for Delicate), Manfroto Carbon Tripod, REALLY WARM MITTENS: Outdoor Research
Still Remains – ISO 100 / 17mm / ƒ11 / @ 1/20 second
Just for You – ISO 100 / 16mm / ƒ22 / @ 1 / 4 second
What If – ISO 100 / 16mm / ƒ11 / @ 1/6 second
Delicate – ISO 100 / 93mm / ƒ11 @ 1/6 second