A frigid northern wind cut across the open field and right through my many layers. I couldn't stop my teeth from chattering. This was the first stop of the day, the first time I had to step outside my warm car after the long drive from Appleton, and the pre-dawn temperatures shocked my system. Head down I pushed forward and followed the ghost of a trail to the Eben Ice Caves.
These formations are fairly popular. I've heard about them from multiple sources, snippets of how cool they look and how easy they are to reach. Plus they're a small detour from my route up to Marquette, just a short swing over to Chatham. While the last few miles of the drive were a bit difficult with last night's snow there was a large parking lot, several portable toilets, and this ghost of a trail to mark the start of the trek.
Once I closed in on the woods the trail narrowed and became well-defined. Wind and snowmobiles must spread out the field segment. There was more than enough traffic, judging by the deep forest path, to pack down a trail. The woods were cold and still, holding back the wind, and I walked in silence.
With the exception of a single park sign and a few downed trees there was little to interrupt my path. Where an obstacle showed up the path split and merged up again, offering easy ways to continue north. I didn't carry a GPS. Figured I wouldn't have to with all these tracks.
The trail took me east than north, swinging back up across the way from the barn that was visible from the field. Then it started to go down. First drop was small, maybe a dozen feet, then there were two larger dips. The second dip was too steep for a path to tackle head-on so the trail swung sideways along the bank. It was here that I started to notice just how slick the path was.
Along the way there were signs warning about slippery spots, advising the use of cleats, but I had figured that I could always just crawl across the ice if it was too tough. Classy, I know. The only 'cleats' I had were the crampons on my snowshoes that I had left in the car. The path itself was slick too, though, pounded down by countless boots and smoothed out by the snow. I had to watch my step on these slopes or I'd have a fun drop before I even reached the ice caves.
Once the trail reached the bottom of the second dip it turned east again and followed the bottom of the valley wall. It was a creek gorge, hewn from rock and dirt, and the trail was forced to weave up and down as smaller tributaries trickled in from the side. This meant more slick spots. There was one spot with a wooden bridge, a bridge that had two feet or so of hard-packed snow piled on top, that was just humorous to look at. It looked like a crumbling hat on an over-burdened head.
Just when I was starting to get a bit worried about time (I was meeting up with some people in Ishpeming in a bit) the trail twisted to the right, towards the wall, and the ice caves showed up. I took a minute to stop and look around. They looked pretty neat from a distance, a wall of mottled ice popping up out of the snow. I also took the time to look at the trail. It narrowed dangerously here and promised no good footholds for the next few dozen yards.
Taking my time I continued on, careful steps across the trail. Then, as I got closer to the caves, I noticed that the trail was ice too. The seeping water that formed the wall of ice pooled up below, creating a small rink, and then poured out the small gap that I was trying to climb. I cut off the trail into the fluffy snow on the side and bypassed that nastiness.
Now up on the same level of the caves I was able to appreciate what was really going on here. The floor, where the ice pooled up on, was not a flat surface. There was a large bump on the north side, a mountain of ice almost ten feet tall, that merged with the wall. In front of me a bulging protrusion of ice grew from the main floor, a slow motion wave rolling forward. Oh, and then there were the caves themselves, the curtains of icicles-on-icicles that extended off the overhanging rock wall. It was pretty neat.
Shuffling across the ice I edged closer and snuck in one of the gaps. These are ice caves, after all. The floor was an ugly yellow color, sediments from the seeping water, the same sickly colors as the rest of the ice. It was weird how the curtains came crashing down. There was no formality where they met the floor. Instead, they appeared to punch through the solid floor, stabbing it through in a clean puncture.
Sliding across the floor I snuck under the rock and to the other large opening. They were separated by maybe twenty feet of solid wall. To the sides, the outskirts of the caves, ice choked up the gap, so this was the only really 'cave' part available. My breathing was the only sound I could hear tucked away in here. I was glad I came here early before the traffic started.
After poking around the other side I slid back out, taking time to look around the caves as I slowly headed back to the trail. They were pretty, no question about that, I was just surprised at how small they were. The ice formations on Grand Island, the Apostle Islands, and the cliffs of Freda all out-dwarfed them by several orders of magnitude. Sure, they were on Lake Superior, and you had to walk on lake ice to reach them, but those walls of ice and caves could hold this entire piece inside.
I skipped the pretense and slid down from the ice rink on my rear. That darn trail was slicker than most of the slides I remember from school days. The walk back was brisk. Going up slippery surfaces is much easier than going down and I was still a bit chilly from the morning air. It was a cool spot to visit, one that I'm glad that I finally carved out time for, but now I had other places to be.