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