Businesses in far northern Minnesota that have been cut off from visitors since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have joined together to build a much-needed and first-ever ice road across Lake of the Woods.
The Northwest Angle – the northernmost point of the contiguous United States that's home to about 120 year-round residents and a dozen resorts – is accessible by land only via a 40-mile drive through Manitoba, Canada, and two international border crossings.
But last March, Canada closed its border with the U.S. to help curb the spread of COVID-19, cutting Angle Inlet off from the rest of the state – and the country.
With no way to get to the Angle except to cross Lake of the Woods, tourism plummeted.
Since last March, resorts on the Angle, which rely heavily on visiting anglers, saw their revenue drop 50-90%, depending on the resort, because they missed out on two weeks of the ice fishing season and the entire open water season, Joe Henry, the executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, told Bring Me The News.
"It's one of those things where the pandemic has created winners and losers when it comes to business," Henry said. "But this is a very, very unique problem where you don't have a chance when your customers can't get to you.
"It's small business people caught between two nations and a pandemic with a closed border," he said, adding it's a "very unusual situation."
So, with struggling resorts and businesses facing another season with limited visitors and revenue – and no end in sight to the border closures – they came together to build an ice road on the lake.
"While going with very little revenue for the whole year, they had to do something," Henry said.
They took a chance on The Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, with the resorts all having to put up a "good chunk of money" to get their plan going, Henry added.
And now, after more than $30,000 and 200-plus hours of construction, the ice road is now open to visitors (it officially opened Jan. 18, later than they'd hoped due to an unseasonably warm start to winter).
Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road
The road includes a 22-mile plowed stretch on Lake of the Woods with some bridges over large cracks in the 21-25-inch thick ice and another 8 miles through the woods on what's normally a snowmobile trail that runs along the border of Manitoba, Canada, according to Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau.
It is the first-ever ice road connecting Angle Inlet and the islands to the Springsteel Resort north of Warroad, providing a way for visitors to get to the area for its world-class fishing while staying out of Canada.
To drive the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, visitors need to get an ice pass (you can buy them through the resorts or online here). A roundtrip pass will run you $120 per vehicle to the resorts on Angle Inlet or $145 roundtrip to go to the islands. Season passes are $500.
The money goes toward plowing and upkeep of the ice road, which is maintained by the Northwest Angle resort community, with Henry noting it costs about $1,500 per mile to build and maintain an ice road. (Updates about road conditions are posted on the ice road's Facebook page here.)
As of Feb. 4, the resorts have sold about 320 passes to use the road, Henry said.
Jon Thelen of Destination-Fish explains the process and gives a tour of the route the ice road takes in a video on Facebook (watch it below).
Henry in a tourism bureau Facebook video said the road is smooth, well-marked and serves as a pipeline to "some of the best fishing in North America."
The ice fishing season on Lake of the Woods is longer elsewhere in the state because it's on the border, giving anglers on the lake until March 31 to remove their fish houses. The lake also has an extended walleye season (it ends April 14) and the pike season doesn't close.
The hope is that the weather will cooperate so the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road will be able to stay open through the month of March, and this weekend's below-zero temperatures should help extend the life of the road.
"All that's doing is helping us create a bigger ice cube that might last well into March," Henry said.
And if the road doesn't last until the end of the season, there are other ways to get to the Angle for its world-class fishing besides driving through Canada. Lake Country Air will fly you there, you can snowmobile (there are two trails all the way there) and there's a passenger service via bombardiers, Henry said.
While tourists can't currently get to the Angle via land, residents are able to come and go via Canada for medical needs, food and other necessities, Henry explained.
While the ice road has garnered national media attention and has served as a tourist attraction for some who are making it a point to visit the Angle to experience the road, resort owners hope this will be the one-and-only time they'll be accessible via ice road.
"It's a lot more economical to be able to drive through Canada," Henry said, citing the high costs to build and maintain the road, which make it not worth it to build in the future if they don't have to.