Adventure business offering guided tours to Lake Superior tribal land ice caves

April and Kendra Randrup of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., are framed by an archway covered by icicles during a visit to the Apostle Island sea caves near Cornucopia, Jan. 16, 2015. Although the caves are not accessible so far this year, caves on the Red Cliff reservation on the other side of the peninsula are accessible for guided tours. Forum News Service file photo.

BAYFIELD, Wis. -- The now famous Apostle Island National Lakeshore ice caves may be stranded in open Lake Superior water so far this winter and remain off-limits due to the federal government shutdown, but other ice caves on Red Cliff tribal land may soon be accessible to hikers.

The lesser-known caves are located on Red Cliff Reservation land. They are not within Apostle Island National Lakeshore and are outside Park Service jurisdiction.

Located on the east side of the Bayfield Peninsula, in more protected waters, the water around the Red Cliff caves froze over last week.

“I’m thinking that by Jan. 31, maybe even a little before then, we should have a good eight inches of ice for walking,’’ said Troy Gordon, a Red Cliff tribal member and co-owner of Apostle Islands Adventures. “The west side of the peninsula, where the Meyers Beach-access caves are, is wide open water now. ... But we’ve got good ice forming on the east side.”

The Myers Beach-access ice caves drew an astounding 138,000 visitors early in 2014, during a bitterly cold winter, and another 37,800 people in 2015. But those caves, under the purview of the National Park Service, haven't been accessible the last three winters due to unsafe ice. They may not be accessible, even if ice firms up this year, if the shutdown continues.

“Access to the ice caves is currently closed for the 2018-2019 season,’’ a recording on the Apostle Island National Lakeshore phone line notes.

Apostle Island Adventures’ Facebook site and web page created a stir last winter with some people “misunderstanding what caves the group was offering tours to,” Gordon said. Park Service officials — who are not available to comment this year because they are not working during the government shutdown — said in 2018 that Gordon’s operation’s advertising was misleading people into thinking that the trips were somehow sanctioned by the Park Service and thus safe.

Gordon denies those allegations, saying the Park Service was trying to keep the focus on the ice caves they controlled.

“We are trying to make it clear that these are entirely different ice caves we’re going to,” Gordon said. “We aren’t going to do anything unsafe. We were walking people out last year literally a couple miles from where people were driving trucks out to Madeline Island on the ice. Yet we had people saying we were being unsafe.”

Gordon said that the company’s eight summer kayaking trip guides become ice cave guides in winter, with groups of 12-25 people per guide. Visitors park on the mainland at Red Cliff, just north of Bayfield, and walk about a three-mile round trip with their guide to the tribal iced caves, Gordon said.

The guided trip costs $30 for adults, $25 for teens and $15 for kids 12 and under. Gordon compared it to the Grand Portage band in Minnesota charging visitors to take guided tours to the famous Witch Tree.

“There was some real misinformation out there last winter about what we are trying to do here,” Gordon said. “These are entirely different ice caves than most people are familiar with.”

Gordon encourages anyone who wants to make the trek this winter to make a reservations at their website at bayfieldkayak.com and click on “ice caves” or call (715) 408-2244.