Lake Superior Ice Caves Draw Big Business for Northern Wisconsin PRO

Number 2 Septic Services was on standby for the Apostle Island ice cave season. And when the caves opened, it got busy quickly!
Lake Superior Ice Caves Draw Big Business for Northern Wisconsin PRO

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It was a short — but busy — season for the Apostle Islands ice caves, located on Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wisconsin.

In 2014, an extremely cold winter allowed the National Park Service to open the caves after a five-year hiatus. As word spread via social media, the caves became a worldwide news story, and people flocked to the winter attraction. The National Park Service was left scrambling; they needed more staff, more equipment and more portable restrooms — quickly.

To help ease the restroom situation, the Park Service contacted Joshua Rowley of Number 2 Septic Services in nearby Ashland.

“Last year was kind of a rush order,” says Rowley, who maintains an inventory of about 300 units, including many from Imperial.

When all was said and done, 138,000 people toured the caves in 2014, which was more than 10 times the attendance in 2009.

Preparing for another season

This year, things were a little different. Early on, the Park Service announced it would collect a $5 entrance fee to cover the cost of staff, restrooms and safety equipment. And although everyone hoped for a repeat of 2014 in terms of attendance, nothing is guaranteed on Lake Superior, where ice conditions can change in a heartbeat. 

But as winter deepened and the ice thickened, things began to look promising for an opening.

“I was on standby three different times, and then the ice blew out,” he says. “When the caves finally opened, I had about five days notice that it was going to happen. Everything was ready this time.”

And then the crowds came in waves. The short season, which lasted just two weekends, drew 37,800 people. On the busiest day — Saturday, March 7 — more than 11,000 people made the 1-mile trek from shore to the caves. Parking stretched up to 3.7 miles down the state highway near the park entrance.

The crowded parking lot and roads made it a challenge to service the restrooms.

“We have to service the restrooms daily, and it’s a nightmare because of the amount of toilets and amount of waste,” Rowley says. “It usually takes four guys to get in and out of there fast enough. But it’s a really cool event, just the vast number of people from out of the area. We’ve got people coming from other continents and other countries just to see the ice caves.” 

And the walk was worth it. Spectators had the chance to view Lake Superior’s rare winter jewels: pillars and curtains and shelves of ice, all contrasted against the deep reds and oranges of the sandstone shoreline.

As quickly as it had started, the season was over. The caves closed on Monday, March 9, as warm spring winds swept over the region and the ice began melting.

Rowley says he’s learned the importance of location and timing.

“When the Park Service calls and says, ‘We need you now,’ now means now,” he says. “When those caves are up and running, you’ve got to be ready.”

Rowley’s units have been cleaned up and removed. The crowds are gone, and the caves are left to drip and melt in silence.


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