Some winters, with severe temperatures cold enough, freeze a path on the surface Lake Superior to the ice filled sandstone caves of Mawikwe Bay. Yesterday 11,500 people gathered family and friends to make the miles long walk. A short tour might stretch 3 miles. A wayfarer on the longer journey might walk 9 miles to see all the wonders.
Tall cliffs rise above a shore without a beach which prevents easy access in the warmer months. Then you need a large boat or skill in a kayak. Winter ice democratizes the caves and fills them with wondrous ice formations: icicles, stalactites and stalagmites of ice, huge multicolored waterfalls of ice, walls of ice, delicate crystals and usually a frozen wainscoting coating plastered on the rocky face by the waves silenced by the freeze.
For a few weeks during the winters of her choosing, the Lake allows these thousands to swarm across her frozen surface to marvel at the caves she has carved over millennia in the soft sandstone cliffs and the ice sculpture she threw up for possible winter visitors in just the past few weeks. The constant seepage of water on the cliffs and in the chambers of the caves, I suspect, inspired the local name Mawikwe: “Weeping Woman” in Ojibwe. These tears form the winter wonders. Some year the frozen path remains from mid January to mid March. This year the ice anchored safely only in middle February.
Normally Lake Superior hauls huge loads of wheat, coal and iron ore in 1000 foot long freighters on her back, but in winter she has tens of thousands of light feet bearing a cargo of curiosity, delight and wonder.
Located on a remote lake shore, far more distant than the local mall or Cineplex, people travel for an afternoon’s entertainment: older couples with grey beards and heads in sensible winter clothes; younger folks barely dressed for the sharp winter lake winds; parents with sleds (and strollers), dogs and kids with boundless energy crawling in and out of the little caverns on their bellies. This year the park personnel advised crampons or a strange and new winter convenience called “Yaktrax” strapped to boots for traction and ski poles for balance on the slick, wind blown, lake ice.
I have visited these caves in winters past when the walk was a quiet tour, mostly enjoyed by locals. Now social media draws visitors from far distances. One visitor I met on the ice drove 800 miles for this weekend. Park personnel seemed pleased at the new notoriety of their remote, nearly wilderness lake shore. The Lake remains still like she enjoys she company and admiration of so many ordinary folk during this bleak end-of-winter season.
It’s truly a wonderful spectacle. However, the Lake must get back to work. This week The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alder will begin breaking ice inside the Duluth-Superior harbor. In a couple weeks the locks at Sault Ste. Marie will open to raise and lower ships from Lake Huron to Lake Superior.
Within days the Lake will shrug off the ice cloak and shatter the trail on Lake Superior to the caves and ice sculptures for another year or maybe two, three or four until the forces of winter freeze another path.