Carving out a path through the pandemic — and the snow — on Northwest Angle's ice road

A man stands on a plank bridge with a snow plow behind him.
Cale Alseben stands on the Northwest Angle ice road in front of a snowplow he uses to clear the 30-mile road on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.
John Enger | MPR News

In a typical winter, thousands of ice anglers take the hourlong drive north from Warroad through Canada to reach the storied walleye waters off the Northwest Angle.

But this is not a typical winter.

The Canadian border has been closed to all but essential travel from the U.S. since the start of the pandemic. The Angle’s entire economy is built on fishing tourism, and the tourists can’t use the regular route.

So the Angle — an isolated triangle of land at the northernmost tip of Minnesota, reachable by road only through Canada — got creative. Last summer, Gregg Hennum took anglers across Lake of the Woods in his boats.

And when the lake froze, Cale Alsleben and a bunch of resort-workers-turned-plow-drivers carved a 30-mile road across the ice, from just outside Warroad and due north to the Angle’s northern shore.

The ice road opened in January and is working pretty well so far. But driving it is a strange, and sometimes hair-raising, experience.

Lake of the Woods is big. That’s the first thing to remember. Seventeen hundred square miles. Frozen and covered in snow, it’s an almost impossibly large expanse of white, with this single, isolated road running over it.

The ice-fishing villages set up by mainland resorts fade a few miles out, north of Warroad. Then there’s nothing to see. White lake. White cloudy sky. No horizon. Nothing except fence posts jammed into the ice, marking the way.

Without sensory input — shadows, colors, depth of field — the brain plays tricks. Even Alsleben said it’s hard to keep his head on straight.

A yellow signs against a background of white.
A sign points drivers to the Northwest Angle ice road, which runs 30 miles from Warroad, Minn., to the northern shore of Lake of the Woods on Monday, Feb.1, 2021.
John Enger | MPR News

“You start feeling like you’re going uphill or downhill or something,” he said. “It’s weird.”

He felt compelled to clarify: The hills and valleys are just a mental glitch. The road crosses a frozen lake. It’s exactly as level as the curvature of the earth.

Part of his problem was the windshield wipers on his truck which, as of early this month, didn’t work. Snow from his huge, angled plow billowed up onto the windshield and stuck. The cab became a white void, inside the much larger white void of Lake of the Woods itself. He drove on muscle memory, which didn’t seem to bother him.

“After you're on the ice for a while you just get comfortable with it, especially after it’s opened up,” he said. “When you’re opening up the road for the first time, you’re always sort of puckered up.”

Alsleben is 22. Slight, with the chill vibe and incredible risk tolerance of a professional snowboarder. What puckered him up about opening the road back in January, was the possibility of falling through the thinner early season ice and drowning in the freezing water.

The ice is usually more than 20 inches thick at this point in the season. But there are still pressure ridges — where the ice, which expands, and then buckles over the course of the winter has jammed up against itself. Alsleben and a handful of other plow drivers level the heaved ice with chainsaws and lay plank bridges over the slushy water that’s seeped through the cracks.

A span of wood sits over slush on a frozen lake.
The Northwest Angle ice road is covered with a plank bridge over a pressure ridge where the ice has cracked and become uneven, seen on Lake of the Woods. Plow drivers level the heaved ice with chainsaws and lay plank bridges over the slushy water.
John Enger | MPR News

Just keeping the ice road open has not been easy, on Alsleben or his equipment. He’s constantly driving back and forth from Angle Inlet — the Angle’s only town — down an 8-mile path over a frozen tamarack bog, then many hours, back and forth, out over the 22 miles of lake ice. A couple weeks ago, his plow truck got so overworked and abused, it caught on fire.

“I noticed the power steering started going out,” he said. “I got out and there was a glow under the truck.”

He put out the fire with snow, but not quick enough. Lots of important wiring was reduced to ashes. That’s why the windshield wipers don’t work.

“Every plow truck has something wrong with it,” he said. “I just keep a fire extinguisher in here now.”

Much has been made of the Northwest Angle ice road. In a video from the local tourism department, promoter Joe Henry tells of how the resort owners banded together to carve out the road, skirting border closures and saving their businesses. He calls it a 30-mile road to paradise — a bargain, he says, at $145 per vehicle, round trip.

“It’s smooth, it’s well-marked,” he said. “I tell you what, it’s kind of a pipeline to some of the best fishing in North America.”

A road on a frozen lake fades into the distance.
The Northwest Angle ice road runs for 30 miles across Lake of the Woods, pictured on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.
John Enger | MPR News

The tourism folks might have oversold it — just a bit.

The road is, surely, a herculean accomplishment for Alsleben and the resorts. And it seems to be bringing about 20 trucks a day to the Northwest Angle. That’s a small fraction of what they’d normally see, but it’s desperately needed. Fishing is the Angle’s only economy. Without the ice road, there’d be no money at all.

But it’s also not exactly a “road.” It’s a trail. Its very existence is as tenuous as Alsleben’s plow truck. One major snowfall could close the road for a week. A hard wind might fill it in with snow. An especially cold night might shift the three or four pressure ridges along the way. All the plank bridges would have to be adjusted, painstakingly, by Alsleben and the other plow drivers, before traffic could resume.

It’s also not exactly clear what would happen if something went wrong out there. If, say, a truck full of tourists got stuck on the ice. The local sheriff’s department is responsible for emergency calls on the lake, but vehicle recovery depends on ice conditions — which will become more and more of an issue as the season winds down.

Ice road condition updates posted on the tourism Facebook page are already warning guests not to drive the road at night. Fluctuating temperatures are threatening to shift the pressure ridges.

Even when everything is working perfectly, driving it can be a bit terrifying, crawling along at 25 mph, careful not to drift off course.

A man stands next to a metal pole.
Cale Alseben stands near an obelisk that marks the border between the U.S. and Canada near the end of the Northwest Angle ice road. Alsleben describes the border trail as a strange sort of no-man’s-land.
John Enger | MPR News

“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” said Fred Caribetta, the Angle’s mail carrier of 25 years.

While waiting for a hamburger at Jerry’s Bar in Angle Inlet, he admitted he’s wary of the ice road. His work takes him across small portions of the frozen lake to islands, and secluded places. He knows his ice, and he’s glad he’s an essential worker, allowed to cross the Canadian border — so he doesn’t have to use the ice road.

“I’ve been in enough situations I’d rather not repeat,” he said. “The lake changes overnight. One day you might have 10 inches of ice. The next you might have five.”

But, he said, most folks at the Angle are comfortable with the risks. Most anglers, too. And he’s glad they are. He says, the ice road has been a lifeline.

Before the ice road, Jerry’s was only open a couple days a week, struggling to get by. Now they’re back to full-time hours. It’s still not very busy. On the other side of the room, Cale Alsleben ate at a table with his parents. One angler sat alone in a corner, Caribetta at the bar. It’s just enough.

The resorts are doing some business too, which means the hundred or so people who live on the Angle are getting some work again. Not a lot of work, but some.

“If the amount of stuff they’re order from Amazon is any indication,” Caribetta said. “People up here are doing okay.”

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