LELAND — They kept coming — carload after carload — a centipede of vehicles that stretched for more than two miles, and whose occupants lined up for a chance to crawl into the gaping mouths ice caves formed on the Lake Michigan shoreline north of Leland.
Thousands of weekend tourists took advantage of a lull in the seemingly unending winter to snap photos of and gawk at the “once in a lifetime event.”
“We wanted our kids to see it,” said Karla Blackmer, who explored the rows of massive caves twice during the weekend. “Living here and never seeing anything like that before, we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. It’s been a hard winter. When you have an opportunity to see something like you just have to go.”
Blackmer drove up from Kingsley in southern Grand Traverse County, and estimates at least 1,000 people stopped by the caves site on Saturday and maybe twice that on Sunday. The caves are on an ice sheet that extends away from a beach access point near Gills Pier Road north of Leland.
The uplift and caverns in its face formed when wind and waves heaved onto the edge of an already-formed ice sheet.
By Sunday at 4:30 p.m., when Blackmer’s family packed into their car to head home after their second trip, a string of parked cars extended more than two miles along the small county roads near the beach.
The droves of outdoors enthusiasts prompted the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Department to assign three of its deputies to handle traffic chores. The three county roads west of M-22 near the beach access turned into an impromptu parking lot, said Deputy Brian Dion.
Dion was called to the area Sunday to work 10 hours of overtime controlling traffic. By the end of the day, he and two other deputies were forced to turn Gills Pier and Onomonee Roads into a one-way loop to keep cars moving.