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There may be a fee to see Apostle Island ice caves this winter – if they return

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It could cost a bit more to visit the Apostle Island ice caves – if and when the caves return.

Last winter, roughly 138,000 people visited the ice caves on Lake Superior near the Apostle Islands. This unprecedented popularity stretched the Apostle Island National Lakeshore's budget, so the park is proposing a special recreation permit fee of $5 for visitors 12 and older to cover the majority of costs, according to a news release.

Park officials say because the ice caves received national and international attention, they believe attendance numbers like this will be the norm in the future, not the exception. They Added that the $5 fee doesn't cover all costs, but it will help provide proper staff and infrastructure for the event.

Currently, the park charges a fee of $3 per car parked at Meyers Beach, which provides access to visit the caves. During the 10-week Ice Caves Special Event of 2014, most people parked in temporary lots, so the park only collected $47,000 – a fraction of what it cost to manage the event, the release says. Other groups stepped in to help with funding.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore will hold two open houses to discuss the proposed fee with the public:

  • Oct. 22 from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, Wisconsin.
  • Oct. 23 from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Headquarters in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

Members of the public can also submit comments online here.

MPR News points out that odds are against there being impressive ice caves this winter because the attraction is increasingly rare.

Last year was the first time the caves have been open since 2009, the last time Lake Superior was frozen enough to allow people to reach the caves on foot. That year, fewer than 10,000 people visited the caves.

Word about the caves last winter traveled fast across the Internet and social media, including posts published by Slate magazine, a blog on the Wall Street Journal website, National Geographic and others.

The event not only brought throngs of people, but also nearly $10 million in revenue to the local communities.

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