Thursday, February 14, 2013

Guest Shots -- The Sea Caves of Cornucopia


The fieldwork for this project was originally scheduled to run a single year, like it says up on the header. As it stands, we went 15 months.

With each passing day it grows more unlikely that I'll manage a coda. I'm good with that 'cause if the fieldwork ended at the Presque Isle River in November, then that was an entirely appropriate place for it, during some of the most perfect light of the entire gig.

While I've spent this winter largely housebound, others have been out and about. So this week we've turned things over to friends.

Photographers Philip J. Kucera & Betsy Wesselhoft recently walked Superior ice to work the fabled sea caves off Cornucopia and have generously agreed to share.

We'll let Phil go first:


Image Courtesy of Betsy Wesselhoft


Betsy & I have traveled the south shore of Lake Superior for a little over two years, gathering material for a photo exhibition. It's a collaborative effort to present two perspectives on the overlooked and secret sites of Superior's basin.

I'll admit we're an odd couple with the tying bind being our love of photography, the wonder of discovery...and the never ending quest for a decent noon meal on the road.

Betsy & Phil about to enjoy a decent noon meal at Maggie's in Bayfield

A friend of Betsy's sums us up with "You guys should title the exhibit The Lady and the Curmudgeon". Maybe she's right.

I'll try to describe us.

We met while covering a January 42k cross-country ski race in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's cold up north in January, know what I mean? We're working the finish line as the skiers limp in. I'm shooting close-ups of bearded faces turned icicle white, eyes almost frozen shut, aid workers manhandling the afflicted. 42k in the snow and cold and wind chill well below zero. I don't know why I was out there.

And Betsy? We warm to a cup of coffee at a greasy spoon after the race and I scan through pictures on her LCD screen. Skiers approaching the finish line with poles flailing -- you can almost hear the triumphant shouts; smiling faces in every shot, couples hugging -- caught midstream and jumping for joy.

Looks to me like The Agony and the Ecstasy, I tell her. You must watch a lot of movies is the reply. Thus are partnerships born.

But the subject for today is the sea caves of the Bayfield Peninsula. After three long, warmer winters, we're finally able to photograph the amazing caves in January. With global warming stirring the waters of Superior, these days the big lake doesn't often freeze over.

Image courtesy of Philip J. Kucera


You reach the cave area on Wisconsin Hwy. 13, a few miles east of Cornucopia, Wisconsin. Watch for the Meyer's Road sign. It's a one mile-plus hike on snow and ice from the plowed parking area to the first of the caves. You'll walk on frozen water and the footing can be treacherous. We carry climber's crampons and use them when the ice is bad.

Image courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

The caves come under the aegis of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. You can call the park hot line (715)779-3398, extension 3 for info on ice conditions and access to the caves. For a live view of the lakeshore from the sea caves webcam atop the high cliffs go here and click the "Pictures" column on the far right. The web view changes every few minutes and runs summer and winter. Enjoy!

It's an adventure for the hardy and the cautious. If you've the spirit, you'll find yourself in wonderland.

Image courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

I'll turn it over to Betsy to tell you about our recent walk out on the ice...


Image Courtesy of Philip J. Kucera

At the bottom of the stairs to Meyer’s Beach, we encountered a family of four returning from their walk to the iced over sea caves.

Seeing the two young daughters beam with the pride of conquering the caves triggered a random memory. An Olympic coach told his adult gymnasts before competition: “If little girls can do it, you can”.

I had my mantra for this excursion.

Left foot, right foot, one step at a time. This isn’t so bad. I can tell we're walking the shore as there's dirt in the snow. It’s cold, but I'm dressed for it and at least in this one regard, I’m comfortable.

After about twenty minutes we're on the ice. It’s lumpy but solid and my photography partner says it's eight inches thick.  He doesn’t know just how much a chicken I am at heart. Or maybe he does.  He mentions that I shouldn't let noises heard out here bother me. Check.

Imagine if you will a suburban-raised woman of a certain age smack dab outside her comfort zone.  Having heard about the beauty of the sea caves, I've anticipated seeing them for years and have often envisioned myself on the wrong side of the ice. It’s not a happy thought.

Enough of that. I’m on the right side of the ice and am actually breathing normally, though my senses are on full alert and my heart is grabbed by the very first turn we make.  I start shooting and don’t want to stop. Can I capture this? Can I bring a piece of this home in my black-camera-wonder?

Phil beckons me on to the next area. Keep moving, says he. There is so much more.

He’s right.

Image Courtesy of Betsy Wesselhoft

We encounter more folks on the ice and everyone is filled with goodwill. We're out together in this magical place where the only price for admission is a bit of bravery and a $3.00 parking fee, paid on the honor system. For this place where jaws drop and eyes widen with each new view. For this place where danger lurks all around, in the caprice of ice and the winds it shifts with.

"Look in here," Phil says. "Hoarfrost".

There are millions of ultra fine strands of ice inside the cave. These ephemeral beauties evade our ability to capture without the benefit of ground-hugging tripods. We take memory shots and walk on.

After a bit, Phil wanders while I stay grounded where I'm at. I take a deeper look all around, allowing this other-planet view to settle into my soul. It's like nothing I've ever experienced.

The sun goes down behind the overcast sky.

Phil waltzes back through uneven ice in his normal deft manner as I anticipate the walk back. He never slips and refuses any kind of a walking stick. Earlier, I took a quick digger even with mine.

On this day of days, we're last to head off the ice.

I follow Phil around the outer edge of an ice ridge and that takes us a significant distance from shore. I wonder how we'll get across this high ridge to reach the shoreline. A wave of anxiety rolls through me.

"If little girls can do it…"

Breathe. Left. Right. Left. Right. A few long minutes later an opening appears and a clear path is presented. Gratitude resonates throughout my being as I glance upward.

Let the light seep away I think to myself, since we're now at the base of the stairs.

Soon we're back in the warmth of the car. Contentment fills time and space as we journey back to Ironwood.

If women can claim notches on their belts (and of course we can), I’m claiming this one. I’ve faced my fear of the ice and returned with evidence of the day to share. That night as I drift off to sleep, my gratitude goes out to all little girls who inspire us to take risks.

And to Phil, who knew not only that I could walk the ice, but how enriched I'd be once I had.

Image Courtesy of Betsy Wesselhoft


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