For contributing writer Carl Van Cleve, the economic effects of the large crowds at the ice caves near Cornucopia, Wis., were more intriguing than the caves themselves. Last week, he drove out to Bayfield County to investigate. Here's his take on the situation.
I slowed to a stop and lowered my window as the man in the bright orange vest approached my car. “You going to the caves?” he asked.
“No,” I told him. “I’m headed for Cornucopia.”
“All right, just take it easy,” he said as he waved me through.
I proceeded with caution along the rural highway, passing by what seemed to be an endless line of cars parked along the shoulder. There were dozens of people dressed in heavy snow gear milling about and talking with one another. Some were sitting on open truck beds and putting on snow pants and boots, as others were reaching into their cars to grab thermoses or packed lunches. The scene of pseudo-tailgaters extended for about a mile along U.S. Highway 13.
“Yeah, and that’s nothing! I mean, this is quiet compared to what it was like,” says Cheryl O’Bryon. She is the owner of The Village Inn in Cornucopia, Wis., where droves of tourists have been gathering this winter.
The source of the crowds is the ice caves located along Meyers Beach between the tiny towns of Cornucopia and Bayfield, Wis. Word has gotten out about the caves this year, and people are coming from far and wide to hike out and see them.
This has provided a much-appreciated boost to the local economy.
“It’s been pretty wonderful,” says O’Bryon. “Since the caves opened, we’ve been pretty much nonstop busy with record numbers of both eaters and people staying here.”
Mary Thiel, owner of Howl Clothing & Adventure in Bayfield, Wis. can also attest to the increase in customers.
“I don’t even know, I’m sure it’s tenfold in foot traffic at least,” Thiel says. “The foot traffic has exploded.”
The extra traffic has been great for Thiel’s store. She says one product in particular, STABILicers, which stretch over your shoe to function as an ice cleat, has been selling very well. “We haven’t been able to keep those in stock, those just fly out,” she says. “Every time we get a new shipment of them they’re selling out within a few days.”
Local store owners have started adjusting their businesses plans to accommodate the ice cave traffic. At the Village Inn, O’Bryon has started selling ice cave T-shirts.
“Fun stuff. We have a local guy that does T-shirts so we got together as soon as the frenzy started and we ordered T-shirts,” O’Bryon says. “Last Saturday we sold out of the first 40 that we bought, called our guy and had more printed, and now we’re about halfway through the next case.”
Just down the road, Max Taubert, owner of Ehler’s General Store, has reopened his store on weekends.
“It’s been a real shot in the arm,” Taubert says. “We’re generally closed in the winter. There’s a lot we’re doing right now that’s completely off of the regular plan.”
Taubert also started selling brats, hot dogs and soup to the people who assemble outside his store to wait in line for shuttles to the ice caves. Normally he does not even sell hot food, but two weekends ago, he sold 80 pounds of brats in two days, which led to a rather interesting boast.
“I bought all the buns north of Highway 2 in Bayfield County,” a feat that he says is not as impressive as it sounds. “It’s kind of funny, I called Iron River asking if they had enough buns for it to be worth it for me to drive all the way over there.”
The ice caves were last open in 2009, so they are not unknown to store owners, but many were still very surprised by their popularity this year. Danielle Ewalt, owner of Big Water Coffee Roasters in Bayfield, was one of those people.
“We had no clue to expect bigger things this winter,” Ewalt says. “We’ve always known that when the caves are open you can get a bump in business, but it’s been nothing like what we’ve experienced this year. We’ve more than doubled last winter’s output.”
Most have been shocked by the extent of the madness. Thiel spoke of what it was like to see lines of cars up to 6 miles long parked along U.S. Highway 13.
“I mean it’s kind of astounding,” she says. “They’re doing a five mile hike before they even get to the start of the hike!”
Several people are attributing the popularity of the ice caves this year to Facebook, and other social media sites.
“It was like those first people that went out took pictures and put it on their Facebook and whatever and all of a sudden it just went viral,” says O’Bryon.
“In years past, even with the caves open, it’s been nowhere near this many people. Now though, with all the social media sites and the news stories, there have been more people than ever before,” Taubert says. “It’s crazy.”
Whatever the cause of the sudden popularity, no business owners in the Bayfield area are complaining. Ewalt is definitely a fan of the phenomenon.
“It’s been really great that all these people have been coming to see this natural wonder,” says Ewalt. “It’s been great for the Bayfield community and I think it will continue to be great in future winters.”
Hopefully, for the sake of local business owners, they won’t have to wait another five years to find out.
STORY AND PHOTO SUBMITTED BY CARL VAN CLEVE