BY NATHAN PAYNE
— 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.
“One local said he waited an hour to get home,” Dion said. “Vehicles stretched from 2.25 miles away where I was. People were willing to walk that far. It was crazy out there.”
The flow of visitors began a little more than a week ago, after Northwestern Michigan College photography instructor Tom Auch posted photos of the caves online. Auch and videographer George Meredith hiked the 1/3-mile out to the tallest shelf of ice looking for caves.
“My partner, George Meredith, and I went out there about a week ago and it was literally un-tracked,” he said. “It kind of created mayhem out there. It got a little bit out of control.”
Visitors flocked to the beach after Auch’s photos and Meredith’s video hit first regional then national news outlets. By the weekend, the glut of people began to concern officials. The Leelanau Township Fire Department dispatched a crew to stay on scene during the weekend in case of an emergency. There were 60 vehicles parked along the roadway Monday while viewers continued to venture onto the ice, Dion said.
Auch spent the past 40 years documenting the outdoors across the region and can’t remember a year when the ice caves formed as large as they are this year. The biggest ones are more than 30 feet tall and as wide as a two-car garage, he said.
The last time he remembers ice caves forming large enough to stand in was in 2005.
“I did some research online and didn’t find anything being bigger than 20 feet,” Auch said adding that consistent warming of water in the Great Lakes continues to diminish the probability of ice caves forming again in the future. “It’s unlikely we’re going to see this again. This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Auch and Dion were quick to warn visitors of the potential dangers associated with trekking onto the ice.
“There is no question there will be hazardous situations out there on the ice in the coming weeks,” Auch said. “There’s some large, large cracks in the ceiling of some of the caves. I don’t think they’re dangerous, but they will be.”