GRAND FORKS — It’s not quite there yet, but a winter road from the south end of Lake of the Woods to the Northwest Angle could be open as soon as this coming week.
That all depends on Mother Nature delivering some colder temperatures, said Brett Alsleben of Points North Services on the Northwest Angle. Points North Services is one of the partners involved in developing, maintaining and plowing the ice road, which will provide much-needed road access to this remote part of Minnesota surrounded on three sides by Canada and accessible by road only by traveling about 40 miles through Manitoba.
The Northwest Angle has been cut off by road to everyone but permanent residents and workers deemed essential since March, when the U.S.-Canada border closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, as it’s called, will begin at Springsteel Resort north of Warroad, Minn., and follow frozen Lake of the Woods some 22 miles northeast and north to the “Border Cut Trail,” a cut in the trees along the Minnesota-Manitoba border. The 8-mile land trail connects with county roads that take visitors either to Angle Inlet or Young's Bay, where the ice road to Oak and Flag islands begins.
Points North Services plows and maintains the ice road from Young's Bay to the Angle.
“The road is almost done and tied in to Springsteel,” said Alsleben, who’s been operating one of the plow trucks working on the winter road. “Part of the problem is we don’t have a lot of ice – probably 14 inches in the weakest (areas) and probably only 16 in the best.”
Organizers have said they want a consistent 15 inches of ice at minimum before opening the road to the public.
While the thickness minimum is close, Alsleben said a warm snap early this week caused the ice to shift in some areas, which happens with drastic temperature swings. That, in turn, can create cracks, which need time to heal.
In a perfect world, daytime highs of 10 to 15 degrees above zero and lows around zero would be ideal, Alsleben said; temperatures earlier this week soared into the 30s.
“If everything would have gone like it did on Saturday and Sunday, it would have been open today,” Alsleben said Wednesday, Jan. 6. “But (Tuesday), with that 40-degree swing the day before, it just messed with (the road).”
Now, the middle part of this coming week appears more likely.
“I never thought I’d be complaining about a 35-degree day in January,” Alsleben said.
As many as five plow trucks have been working on the ice road in an effort to have it ready when conditions allow, Alsleben said. People who understand the physics of driving on ice probably would be fine, he said, but not everyone realizes that driving too fast creates waves under the ice that can damage the road.
That’s why organizers recommend a 25 mph speed limit on the road when it opens.
“We’ve had trucks go the full distance already,” Alsleben said. “So, it’s safe, but it’s not ready-for-public safe yet, if that makes sense.”
The road will be as wide as the ice road from Young's Bay to Flag and Oak islands, which is several lanes wide and had “an easy 20 inches” of ice a week and a half ago, Alsleben said.
“That one up there didn’t give us any fits at all this year, and it’s good to go,” he said. “It’s just this one heading south (to Springsteel) that’s fighting us a little bit.”
A few days of colder weather also would help the land portion of the winter road, he said. Traditionally a snowmobile route, the Border Cut Trail has been widened and cleared of any brush that would have interfered with vehicle travel, Alsleben said.
“The mainland road needs some cold and that will straighten out,” he said. “That’s all done; it’s a little rough, but some snow and a little cold will help that.”
The winter road isn’t meant for wheelhouses, the deluxe ice fishing houses on wheels that are prevalent on the south shore of Lake of the Woods.
“Anything lower to the ground is going to be an issue – a low car (or) a low trailer,” Alsleben said.
Despite the recent lack of cold weather, the opening of the road is within a few days of the predictions organizers made when they announced the winter road in late November, he said.
It’s been a real community effort, both among Northwest Angle businesses, staff at Springsteel Resort and other partners, Alsleben said.
“We joke up in the Angle because everybody in the Angle is there for a reason, and everybody’s a little bit more stubborn and a little bit more bullheaded, and they all have their way of doing things, usually,” Alsleben said. “It’s actually been pretty good. You’ve got all these different people with all these different businesses and right now, everybody’s got the same problem, and everybody wants that one problem gone – that’s the border issue.
“It was a decision to go ahead, and we’ve had 100% backing, and that’s where we’re at. It’s good to see that – it’s fun to see that.”
Organizers developed a Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road Facebook page, which includes regular updates on the status of the road and a link for purchasing winter road passes, which cost $145 per vehicle.
Visitors also can reach the Angle via snowmobile trails from the south shore of Lake of the Woods, by a tracked vehicle passenger service operating out of Sportsman’s Lodge or Lake Country Air, a Duluth-based flying service.
Based on recent fishing reports, getting to the Angle would definitely be worth the trip.
“Hopefully, we get the road open so people can enjoy that,” Alsleben said. “I’ve only been out once, but I had some people tell me they had probably their personal best-ever day fishing last weekend.”