I Saw a James, a Simon, a Bunch of Andrews, Johns, Philips, Thomases, Matthews, Maybe a Bartholomew but Definitely Not a Labbaeus or a Judas

The Apostle Islands National Park is about an hour-and-a-half from Duluth. Every now and then, we have cause to drive that direction or swing over to the neighboring town of Bayfield. However, the other day, we aimed the car directly towards the park, on purpose.

We decided to join the stampede and visit the ice caves there–usually only seen by visitors in kayaks during the summer. It’s been five years since the caves could be visited on foot; getting there is dependent on ice conditions on Lake Superior, and in general, the ice isn’t suitable. This year, though, the extended cold has created conditions that allow thousands upon thousands of visitors access to the caves. That rare access, coupled with the power of social media and regional news coverage, has created a perfect storm of tourism.

Figuring the ideal time to visit a place that’s become a phenomenon would be a weekday, we packed up some lunches and the kids and headed over on Tuesday.

In short order, the moods in the car made me wonder, “Why are we making this effort again?”

I was dopey and headache-y during the drive over (but still well able to enjoy the hell out of Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure), and the kids, formerly the most harmonious of siblings, lapsed into their middle school relationship, wherein Allegra finds her brother annoying, and her brother excels as Prime Trigger Tripper. The most-recent trigger is Paco’s new ability to whistle. He whistles all day long and is adding new songs to his repertoire every day: the Olympics theme; “Oh, Susannah”; the songs his sister practices on the clarinet each evening. Without thinking, he whistles. Contrastingly hyper-aware, Allegra notices every time he whistles. Here is an excerpt from the transcript of our time in the car that day:

Paco: Tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet (“Ode to Joy”)

Allegra, looking up from her book: Not in the car.

Paco: Oh, yea.

Two minutes later:

Paco: Tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet

Allegra, sighing exasperatedly: PACO. NOT. IN. THE. CAR.

Paco: Whoops.


And so on. Ninety minutes each way.

This dynamic may be familiar to anyone who’s ever been part of a family. It may be the reason you currently live alone. I understand and view your existence with a certain amount of envy.

Once we got to the park, our moods got worse. The place was mayhem. There was no question of trying to drive down the road to the parking lot, as the road was fully parked on both sides, with perhaps a hundred people walking down it. Looking to park out on the main road (where cars whiz past at 55 mph), we drove first one direction and then the other. Lines of parked cars stretched a mile in either direction. People who’d not walked a mile since 1991 were out, walking a mile, plus another, plus three more, by the time the day’s activities were over.

Hungry, stunned at the steady flow of humanity, our collective mood slumped even more. Good Lord, REALLY? On a Tuesday?

In general, we count on moving one’s body in the out of doors in the winter to be a terrific weeder. We can go virtually anywhere in Nature in February and be assured that there will be only a couple other crazies about. So what the hell?

It appears people want to see ice. And caves. It appears the news coverage is doing its job since 11,000 people showed up last Saturday, with another 10,000 taking it all in on Sunday. It appears people are itching for an outing. It appears this is a record good “off season” for the hotels and restaurants in the area (one restaurant owner said, in a newspaper article, that they’ve been serving 400 people a day, which is 385 more than they’d normally be serving on any given day this time of year). It appears that the only thing more lovely than visiting the Apostles is visiting the Apostles when it’s possible to be Jesusian and walk on water.

We drove back and forth, trying to decide where to park. Eventually, I suggested, “Let me drop you guys at the road that leads down to the parking lot, and then I’ll park way down the highway and eat my sandwich as I walk to meet you.”

Gracious, but that was a fine picnic-stacker of a sandwich, with roast beef, turkey, and ham all piled on Byron’s Hearth bread and glued together with his red-wine mustard. Gnawing on it as I walked along the highway, I marveled at all the Sam’s Club shoppers who were out for their yearly airing.

I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to seeing the sights in the company of 4,000 new friends, and I still wasn’t quite sure I actually wanted to be doing this thing,

but I do love a good sandwich slathered with the condiment of people watching.

When I got to the family, their feelings matched mine. But, heckfire, we were there, so off we went.

To trudge along at the end of a long, unbroken line of people feels strange. My mind kept flitting to historic trudges–The Trail of Tears…the Jews in WWII…all sorts of grim images (grimages!). I can’t think of another time I’ve been out in an open space like that, shuffling along with myriad groupings of others. It didn’t make me feel happy or touristy or like taking pictures. In fact, I snapped this one simply because there was a rare moment of fewer people cluttering the horizon.


As soon as we neared the start of Icey Things, our family peeled off from the pack, angling for a break. The fellas headed off one direction, and Allegra and I poked around in another. With that, we broke the ho-hum mood of the day and began enjoying ourselves.

I can never get over it: ice is beautiful.

For the next three hours, all of our cameras were firing; all of our rear ends were freezing from sliding in and out and over and around; all of our faces were smiling.

Yes, ice is beautiful. So are rocks.

If you aren’t personally into ice or rocks, we should probably say goodbye right now. Consider this sentence right here The End of the Post.





SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC DSCN1483 DSCN1485 DSCN1493 DSCN1513 DSCN1531 DSCN1537 Joce IceYup, my mood was dramatically improved by the time we reached the end of the chambers/caves/recesses.

Of course, when we got to the end point, that actually meant we were at our midpoint: we still had to turn around and walk back. Applying all her best Intermediate Algebra, Allegra pointed out that taking a tangent off the main path would actually be a shorter route back to the parking lot. It also would mean walking through untrampled snow, which is hard work. Shorter = better, though, so off we went.

Three minutes later, I suggested that I return to the beaten path and run, not only back to the parking lot, but back to the car another couple miles past that. Oh, yes, please, moaned the weary walkers (too tired to kvetch about whistling during the ride home, one hoped).

And with that, the day ended much better than it had begun. My mukluks and I ran across the frozen ice–Haha, Jesus! Look what you never did!–and hoofed it back to the car. The Sam’s Club shoppers were uniformly stunned, as I jogged by.

The car and I arrived in the parking lot a few minutes before my very tired family did. Sheer fatigue threatened to drag the mood down once again, but, on a runner’s high, I wasn’t about to brook any more of that nonsense.

“All right, then: who needs pie?”







19 responses to “I Saw a James, a Simon, a Bunch of Andrews, Johns, Philips, Thomases, Matthews, Maybe a Bartholomew but Definitely Not a Labbaeus or a Judas”

  1. Lil Avatar

    OK, I’ll grant you the pretty. There’s something to be said for ice, even if it’s not in a cocktail.

  2. Phyllis Mead Avatar
    Phyllis Mead

    Thanks for all amazing images–my camera stayed home –oops. I was impressed and surprisingly unharried by the multitudes enjoying the caves along with us (We went Wed). To enjoy nature with no tickets, no souvenir booths, just fresh air–heartening to see so many folks up to the hike. We were lucky to find a spot to park in the drive to the parking lot. Memorable.

  3. Joanne Avatar

    Holy cwrap, you win!
    This is so incredible, I am slack jawed.
    And I won’t even bother to make a post of the ice cycle pictures I’ve taken around town.

  4. Chantal Avatar

    Thanks for posting such awesome photos! I have read about these caves in the news and it is nice to have a personalized tour! 🙂

  5. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    Wow. It’s as amazing as I imagined. But I don’t think I can summon the gumption to drive 12 miles round trip and endure the crowds. I wish I could, but I can’t.

  6. Jess Avatar

    That is amazing. I love how you were grumpy at first. It makes me feel better about how often I’m grumpy. But I especially love how it turned out to be such a great day. Also: “It may be the reason you currently live alone. I understand and view your existence with a certain amount of envy.” Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahahahahah- *sigh*

  7. Jenny Woolf Avatar

    Fabulous images. Great description. I was there with you and your family and your whistling son.

  8. Maria Avatar

    Where the hell are your gloves?! That was my main thought as I viewed your lush photos. I kept thinking, “Oh, good hell…chappy hands, chappy hands!” And as I looked at those gorgeous golds and oranges in the rock, I kept thinking how much nicer it would be to touch those rocks on a hot day in July when they had been baking in the sun all day…..but that’s me. I somehow am the product of thin skinned Irish parents who somehow adapted to the harsh Iowa Winters….I detest Winter. Just. detest. it. And ok, the photos are freaking gorgeous, but I am shivering now. Thanks for harshing my mellow….

  9. kmkat Avatar

    Phabulous photos! ::hangs head in shame:: Sorry, but I had to do that; it occurred to me after about the third photo and kept repeating all the while. I had never heard about the ice caves until this winter, when two different friends who have cabins nearby both mentioned the caves. They (the caves) are amazing!

  10. lime Avatar

    “It appears that the only thing more lovely than visiting the Apostles is visiting the Apostles when it’s possible to be Jesusian and walk on water.”

    Have I mentioned lately how much I love you and how you crack me up? That sentence is one example of why. And hey, here’s to trekking through gorgeous ice caves to get the middle schoolers to chill out.

  11. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    Winter really becomes you.

    Definitely gorgeous.

  12. Secret Agent Woman Avatar

    That’s a really beautiful place. Looks terribly cold, though!

  13. christopher Avatar

    I could definitely see myself doing a trip like that to see ice caves…as for the rest of the crew…my son would love the ice too…but would be bored to death on the trek there and back.

  14. Meg Avatar

    Amazing! Fabulous! Way to get past the annoyances! Oh, and I’m still trying to decide which Joce-lism I like better: “Jesusian” or “grimages.” I share your fascination with the beauty of ice and rock – the fixed and the flowing-temorarily-fixed. I’ll have to dig out my pictures of frozen Niagara Falls – you’d probably love them.

  15. Friko Avatar

    You insufferable show-off. Jogging back indeed, past all the weary sloggers.

    Beautiful, awe-inspiring ice pictures though. I can’t imagine temperatures which would cause such mighty edifices to grow. Certainly worth the trip.

    Paco’s whistling is surely not as bad as a backseat full of kids all whining: are we nearly there yet?

  16. chickens consigliere Avatar

    Well. I need pie. I haven’t really earned it, but I do need it. These were beautiful-I am glad you shared.

  17. chlost Avatar

    Amazing. I love how the minerals flow into the icicles to make them colored. As a kid, I loved to see the ice hanging on the cliffs along Hwy 14 near La Crosse. Those icicles were blue-tinged.
    Your kids will remember that day very fondly long into their adulthood. Good job, mom and dad!

  18. MidlifeRoadtripper Avatar

    Wow! Wow! Wow! I’ve read about the Apostle Islands and being able to walk to the ice caves this year. Almost made me want to dig in my closet for long lost winter attire and spring for a plane ticket to MSP, then onto Duluth and up. I’ve been to Bayfield in the summer. Can’t imagine it in winter. But this ice cave thing – fascinates me. Thank you, thank you. Now I don’t have to go to there in winter. Absolutely beautiful. I could feel the air, the snow crunch under your feet. So much easier to run to the car then trudge an unmarked snow path. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

    Enjoyed it. And I can’t believe the crowds. Also looked like you picked a good day. This weekend would have had you in much different winter attire.

  19. SmitoniusAndSonata Avatar

    Thank you so much for doing this for us all . I , for one , am delighted to see it all without getting chilblained ears !

    Good choice of pick-me-up , too … some hot chocolate and a good slice of pie can revive the dead after a hard day .

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