DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Woodland Resort owner Kyle Blanchfield goes with the flow.
For example, instead of fretting about the warm weather ending the 2021 ice fishing season on Devils Lake a week early, Blanchfield used the extra time to do maintenance projects before summer anglers arrive.
“I would have loved to have had another week, but we had a great winter, so I’m not complaining ,” Blanchfield said on a 50-degree mid-March day as he showed visitors around the rural Devils Lake resort he runs with his wife, Karin.
“This is a very slow time of year, but it’s a wonderful time of year to do maintenance and painting," he said.
If 2021 is anything like last year, the next month will be the calm before the storm of visitors, and in late May Woodland Resort will be booked full of reservations. However, in March 2020, it looked like it would be anything but busy, Blanchfield said.
“This time last year, we were getting tons of cancellations and we were wondering, 'what in the world is happening?'” he said. “We were sweating bullets. You didn’t want to be working here because every time the phone rang, it was someone canceling."
But as COVID-19 restrictions eased later in the spring, the reverse happened.
“It turned out that to be isolated in North Dakota was an asset,” he said. “North Dakota is a pretty good place to get away from COVID because we’re spread apart."
Meanwhile, the U.S.-Canada border, which shut down March 20, 2020, extended its closure, and some of the Midwest anglers who had planned summer trips to Canada stayed in the U.S. and found their way to Devils Lake resorts.
“They were looking for an alternative,” Blanchfield said. "We thought we were going to have a down year, and we ended up having a respectively good year, and I think we have to thank (Canada Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau for that.”
On the east side of the city of Devils Lake, Eastbay Campground, located at the mouth of Six Mile Bay and the main lake, also saw an influx of tourists last summer.
“I think for North Dakota, it was a big plus for tourism,” said Bill Wood, who owns Eastbay Campground with his wife, Val.
“We’re getting a lot of people coming up from Iowa,” he said. The resort’s 298 seasonal camping spots and 37 short-term campsites and cabins were full last year, and he expects Eastbay Campground to be at capacity again this year. Wood predicts campers will have arrived in force by the end of May.
“Memorial Day weekend, we’ll be full,” he said.
The campers help alleviate the financial hit from the loss of revenue from the event center the Woods built on their resort grounds a few years ago. The 400-capacity events center, which hosts weddings and other large gatherings, had 12 bookings last year and already has 12 for this year.
“It hurts not to have the weddings, but we kind of offset it with the Iowa people coming in,” Wood said.
The benefit that Eastbay Campground and Woodland Resort received from the border closure was replicated throughout Ramsey County lake country in 2020.
“We fared a little differently here than other cities,” said Suzie Kenner, Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce executive director. Besides the increase in Iowans who came to Devils Lake last summer to fish, the number of anglers from Minnesota also rose in 2020.
“Overall, I think we weathered the storm,” Kenner said. "We stayed pretty strong.”
Within the city of Devils Lake, however, there were businesses that lost revenue because of the cancellation of events.
“Everything in 2020 was canceled,” she said. That included the Devils Run annual car show held the weekend after Memorial Day, fishing tournaments and the annual Ribfest, a cooking competition held in July.
The events’ cancellation hurt local businesses that typically see increased customer traffic on event weekends, Kenner said.
Meanwhile, this year, the annual Devils Lake Volunteer Fire Department Ice Fishing tournament, which was scheduled for late January, was canceled – not because of COVID but because the ice on the lake wasn’t thick enough.
“That was a huge hit for us,” Kenner said. “That fills all of our hotels, all of our resorts.”
However, the other annual events that were scheduled in 2021 remain on the calendar. It should help this year be more profitable.
Blanchfield is hopeful some of the newcomers from last year will return to Woodland Resort this summer.
“That is the million-dollar question,” he said. He understands that if the U.S.-Canada border opens, the visitors who rented spots at Woodland last year may return to the Canadian resorts they had long patronized, he said.
“People developed close relationships with the campground owners,” Blanchfield said.
At the same time, Devils Lake resorts, which are closer to the campers’ homes, require less travel time and less gas to get there, he noted. Anglers who fish on North Dakota lakes get to keep more fish than they can keep in Canada and the prices at Devils Lake resorts are competitive with Canadian resort prices.
Blanchfield believes those factors will encourage some of last year’s first-time visitors to continue coming to Woodland Resort.
"I think we’ll keep one-quarter,” he said. Meanwhile, his longtime customers who canceled last year also will fill campground spaces.
“We’ve already gotten most of them back,” Blanchfield said. “Right now, we look like we have a solid year.”