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Great Lakes freeze draws record visitors to ice caves national park

By Bill Kirkos, CNN
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
This winter, 93% of Lake Superior froze, creating a spectacular icy landscape. Here, hundreds of small icicles are seen on the ceiling of a sandstone cave at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northwest Wisconsin. This winter, 93% of Lake Superior froze, creating a spectacular icy landscape. Here, hundreds of small icicles are seen on the ceiling of a sandstone cave at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northwest Wisconsin.
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The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
The ice caves of Lake Superior
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The ice caves are spectacular this winter at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
  • The freezing of the Great Lakes has created a natural wonder
  • More than 120,000 people walk three miles round-trip over a frozen Lake Superior
  • The caves are like "walking into a hall of gods," visitor says

Apostle Islands National Shoreline, Wisconsin (CNN) -- For thousands of years, waves on the largest of the Great Lakes have battered northwest Wisconsin, shaping the dramatic sandstone caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

But that punishment halted this winter when 93% of Lake Superior froze, creating a spectacular icy landscape many locals say they haven't seen in a generation.

It's a serendipitous spinoff from the five Great Lakes being virtually frozen over this winter, a rare event that marks the arctic misery afflicting the Midwest. At one point, more than 90% of the world's largest surface freshwater system was frozen over, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. That figure for the Great Lakes fell to 84% as of Wednesday.

The massive freeze, however, has created natural wonders.

Ice caves form on Lake Superior

Bob Krumenaker, the National Park Service's superintendent at Lakeshore, said there have been thousands of additional visitors flocking to ice caves.

"The caves form almost the same kind of features that you'd find in an underground limestone cave -- the soda straws, the curtains, the stalactites -- but they're all forming out of ice in just days and weeks instead of something that would form underground in limestone over hundreds of thousands of years," he said.

This season has easily been the busiest in terms of visitors: In the past two months, more than 120,000 people have made the roughly three-mile round-trip trek by foot over a frozen Lake Superior to see the ice formations and caves that will melt away in just a few weeks.

Debbie Stumpf was one of the intrepid visitors Wednesday.

She likened the experience to "walking into a hall of gods."

"How many chances do you have to lay on your back and look up at icicles?" she said.

The journey to the caves is a big part of the experience.

"I like that we have to walk so far out to get here. We've seen some really unique people out here," she said.

Visitors have hailed from all over the world this winter, including China, Japan, Australia and Hungary, Krumenaker said. They all helped make this year the busiest in the history of the park, which received National Lakeshore status under the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1970.

CNN's Michael Martinez contributed to this report.

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