The End of the World (Wisconsin)

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The “ice caves” of the Apostle Islands lakeshore have been getting a lot of press – for the first time in five years, an ice bridge has formed on Lake Superior, allowing visitors to walk to the ice-blasted cliffside caves – so my wife and I agreed that since it was in the same state, we had no excuse for not going. Wisconsin is capable of spectacular beauty…I am led to understand; we don’t get out of the city much and the impressions I’ve had these last few months are Targets and gray snow-slush. Northern Wisconsin is a popular destination for out-of-state visitors: on a holiday weekend (in warmer weather) a long line of traffic clogs I-90 as Illinois tourists charge up north and then back again. It had been a while for me, and I had forgotten, for example, how many lakes we have. Not quite as many as Minnesota, who have so many lakes that one is simply called “Woman Lake,” but an impressive number nonetheless. We briefly considered cancelling due to a snowstorm much worse than originally predicted, but finally decided to press on, driving for hours through limited visibility and drifting snow that would suddenly make traction vanish. The further north you push, the less roads are plowed, largely, it seems, for the sake of snowmobilers. One particularly important-sounding road off the highway, called “Fire Lane,” was blocked by about four feet of snow, though no one seemed to mind. Then you reach the small towns where Burger Kings have been replaced by bait shops, and the bars have unapologetic names like “The Rehab” (“Because No One Likes a Quitter!” reads the print underneath). Yet everything is larger than life in northern Wisconsin. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox – whose Cook Shanty is closed for the season – tower over their parking lot not very far from what must claim the title for World’s Largest Corkscrew Bottle Opener, just outside a liquor store. We finally found shelter at our snowed-in B&B in Bayfield, overlooking Lake Superior, with the feeling that we had arrived north of the Arctic Circle, at the end of the world. I had to remind myself of Canada, on the other side of that lake 80% frozen-over. (Later in the week, in fact, my wife and I met one of Canada’s artistic amabassadors, the great director Guy Maddin, of Winnipeg. So such a place is real, and people actually live there.)

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The next morning we headed out to the ice caves some twenty minutes away. Thousands of sightseers had arrived over the weekend, having heard about the caves on NPR or the Washington Post or the national news; we came on a Tuesday morning, arriving alongside a school bus field trip of little kids, and it only became more crowded as the day wore on (the caves are on the western side of the peninsula, which means that the light’s better in the afternoon). Walking down the steps to Meyers Beach, everyone heading down asks the people heading back up, “Is it worth it?” The response is always, “Yes, it’s beautiful!” So we walked, and we walked, and we walked. I carried in my backpack so many supplies that the only reasonable explanation would be that we planned to get trapped for six days in an ice cave; in the end, we just drank a little bit of bottled tea. My single stuffed backpack was nothing compared to the weights carried by our fellow trekkers, some of whom brought tripods for their expensive cameras, while others pulled their children via plastic sled and rope. The children reclined or kicked their legs in the air or drank their sodas, decadent and happy.

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It was a warm day in the upper thirties, and the ice made its displeasure known. It groaned and cracked and snapped (and relieved itself, loudly and rudely, down one dark cave that sounded like an echoing public bathroom). At one point my wife and I were convinced that one of us had dropped something, but I could only conclude that the noise was the ice below me, perturbed. I told a fellow trekker that it was like standing on a glacier, and he agreed with me; I suddenly realized I was making it sound like I had actually stood on a glacier before, and his response sounded just as bluffing. In some places the frozen lake had turned to wet slush. Meanwhile, field-trip-kids vanished into dark crevices, merrily. There were so many places for them to go where the adults couldn’t; I was reminded of Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island – Walt designed it so kids could get free of adults but never be in danger. Here, the school had a liability nightmare on their hands. (Anyone seen Billy? Last I saw him he was by the…ice?) Some brought cross-country skis, a smart decision if one were to try to visit every last ice cave. My wife and I walked so far that the trampled snow upon the lake – our path for miles – soon narrowed, and the snow became deeper and ankle-twistingly uneven. What was ahead was best for skis, and soon we turned back. We’d walked past our limit and the trek back left us exhausted; many of those around us seemed equally spent. Nonetheless, on the steps up from Meyers Beach, someone asked, “Was it everything you’d hoped it would be?” and the person ahead of us said, “Yeah, it’s great!” But I liked the idea of an exhausted, bitter tourist shouting back, “It’s frozen water.” Because that’s what it was. Pretty frozen water, though, the kind you’d see in mythical lands further north of Wisconsin, if such places actually were.

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