EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of the Herald's "On the border" project, which includes multiple stories and a three-part video documentary that can be found at the bottom of this story.
The story of Lake of the Woods during the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways is a tale of two lakes.
It’s a story of winners and losers.
The winners can be found along the south shore of Lake of the Woods, where tourism flourished once Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz lifted stay-at-home restrictions in late May, and people began satisfying their appetites to get outside for a taste of normalcy – or at least something resembling normalcy.
Like Lake of the Woods on a windy day, the season got off to a rocky start, but it rebounded nicely once the figurative waves settled, according to Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.
- Brad Dokken column: 'On the border' multimedia series launches in print and online
- On the border: Struggles, successes in northern Minnesota come to the forefront
“People as a rule, they wanted to social-distance, they wanted to get out and be outdoors,” Henry said. “Fishing was a very popular sport, and they wanted to get out of the metro areas, so Lake of the Woods was a very natural destination.
“So, consequently, on the south end of the lake, our resorts (did) quite well this summer.”
Herald reporters and photographers/videographers traveled to Lancaster, Roseau, Warroad and the Lake of the Woods area in northwest Minnesota this fall to document the challenges the tourism industry and other businesses in the region have faced during the first eight months of the pandemic. What the Herald found is that some in the region have struggled, or had to adjust and adapt, due to the border closure. Meanwhile, some businesses there were seeing upticks in business as summer turned to autumn.
Tough times up north
The plot took a twist up at the Northwest Angle, that oddity of Minnesota geography surrounded on three sides by Canada and accessible from the U.S. only by crossing the lake. Thanks to the ongoing U.S.-Canada border closure to nonessential travel, getting to the Northwest Angle by road – which requires traveling about 40 miles through Manitoba – hasn’t been an option for anyone but permanent residents and essential workers since March.
UPCOMING STORIES IN 'LIFE ON THE BORDER' SERIES
Impact of COVID-19 a mixed bag for businesses in northwest Minnesota border communities
- Hockey, like life, goes on in Warroad, Minn., despite indoor rink closures during coronavirus pandemic
- Tales from the Northwest Angle: Whether getting mail or getting married, life here is never dull
As a result, the Angle – and its myriad scenic islands and sheltered bays – has only been reachable by crossing some 40 miles of windswept lake, a dangerous proposition for all but the most experienced boaters.
It’s even farther to reach resorts at Young’s Bay and Angle Inlet on the Northwest Angle mainland.
“We are a 100% tourism-based economy,” said Paul Colson, a third-generation owner of Jake’s Northwest Angle Resort on the Northwest Angle mainland with his wife, Karen. “That’s what we are, is all tourism, so we’ve essentially been on lockdown since March, when the Canadians closed the border to us.”
In a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention, plans are in place for an ice road this winter from Springsteel Resort near Warroad, Minn., to the Northwest Angle on a route that will follow both the lake and a trail cut through the trees on the U.S.-Canada border. That will help salvage the winter season, but without vehicle access all summer, it’s been a tough go for the dozen or so resorts on the mainland and nearby Flag and Oak islands.
“People are frustrated; they’re angry,” Colson said. “I feel like this summer was stolen from us.”
Caught in the middle
Efforts by Minnesota’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Collin Peterson and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, among others, to reach out to Canadian government officials in hopes of allowing Angle-bound visitors to cross the border and access Manitoba roads, haven’t been successful, Lake of the Woods Tourism’s Henry said.
“The Northwest Angle is such a beautiful spot, but it’s caught between two countries, and it’s also caught between the politics of two countries,” Henry said. “I’ve been in close contact with many of our federal representatives, and they all have been reaching out to Canadian counterparts trying to create some kind of access, but nobody wants to touch it from Canada, and it certainly seems that nothing is going to change there for the time being.”
Jake’s Northwest Angle Resort didn’t have its first guests in camp until July 29, and the resort’s total lodging tax revenue for May, June and July was a mere $2.25, Colson said. Lodging revenue from May through September at the resort was down 83% from the same period in 2019, he said.
All because longtime guests with reservations on the books couldn’t drive to the resort.
“This would have been the best June I ever had in my life,” Colson said. “And now, I had zero people in May, June and almost all of July. I’ve had basically a week’s worth of business.”
As bad as that sounds, Colson says he and his wife at least are in a position to survive this year financially. Their three kids are grown up, and he only makes improvements to the resort when he has the capital to do so.
“We know our existence is pretty tenuous here, so that’s kind of built into our brains, and we don’t overextend,” Colson said. “So for us, I’m 50 years old. How much money does it take for me to generate to survive? Well, if I had three kids at home and was looking at them going to college and having a resort payment? Oh my goodness.
“I don’t know how you do it. I guess you have a really good relationship with your bank.”
Trying to get a firm answer from the Canada Border Services Agency on what constitutes essential travel has been equally frustrating, Colson says. As an example, Colson said he asked one CBSA official whether a mechanic could travel to the Angle to fix a vehicle and was told that would be essential.
Only to be told by another CBSA officer that it wasn’t.
The Herald on three occasions in October tried without success to reach the Northwest Angle. First, a Canadian border agent said travel by road wouldn’t be allowed because media weren’t deemed essential and could do their work by phone or internet; wind and an early freeze-up prevented two efforts to get there by boat.
Meanwhile, a crew of workers was able to drive to the Angle to put in a dock at a private cabin just down from the resort, Colson said.
“We’ve learned the key words are ‘deemed essential,’ because I can’t even get a real answer on what’s essential,” Colson said. “Having a guy come in and put in a dock, is that essential? Hell no! Not in my mind.
“I keep saying, ‘Look, you show me the science that anybody’s ever been exposed (to COVID-19) by a passing vehicle,’” Colson said. “Essential travel for us is tourism.”
It’s not like businesses at the Angle want the Canadian border to open, he says; all they’re asking for is right of transit.
“We just want Americans to be able to drive from America to America,” Colson said.
Down, up, down
The tourism slump also has been apparent in Warroad, Minn., on the big lake’s southwestern shore. Sisters Janet Marvin, Robin Marvin and Randi Oftedahl saw business drop, rebound and drop again at Doc's Harbor Inn nestled along the Warroad River.
The house where Dr. Leland S. Hughes, a veterinarian, once lived with his wife, Mildred, and their three children, besides hosting overnight stays, typically runs from 15 to 20 two-day sessions of summer camps for children ages 7 to 14.
The sisters held camps during the summers of 2017, 2018 and 2019. They canceled the 2020 camps because of concerns about spreading COVID-19.
“It hit us big because that was a huge summer income for us,” Janet Marvin said. “We also do nonmotorized boat rentals, and that was down.”
The number of guests staying at Doc’s Harbor Inn also was down this year, despite the sanitizing and safety protocols Marvin and her sisters put in place. During the first six years, the inn, located just south of the state Highway 11 bridge over the Warroad River, was a popular place.
“We had a lot of people who came here for fishing excursions and weddings,” Marvin said. “The people that stay with us are coming for a gathering because we have the yard and the house.”
Because people couldn’t safely gather, events were canceled. That resulted in fewer bookings at the inn, she said.
Doc’s Harbor Inn was unable to receive any Payroll Protection Program money because it is too small to meet the criteria, Marvin said.
She and her sisters ran specials for the inn during October, such as staying two nights and getting the third night free, in an effort to attract business. They also reduced their per-night price by $50 during November.
Still, since March, business at the inn has remained quiet.
“We didn’t have anyone in March, April, May,” Marvin said. Business picked up during the summer “when people wanted to get out,” she said. However, this fall, business slowed again.
“I think people are a little unsettled now,” Marvin said in late October.
‘Frustrated to desperate’
That unsettled mindset also lingers up at the Northwest Angle. Ed Arnesen, a Lake of the Woods County commissioner who represents the Northwest Angle – “the most northerly district in the United States other than Alaska,” he says – describes the mood among business owners up at the Angle as “frustrated to desperate.”
“It seems like the farther west you go in Angle Inlet, the worse it gets,” Arnesen said. “Distance-wise, it’s just hard for people to get up there across the big lake with smaller boats. A lot of the people that fish up there have smaller boats than we do on the south end of the lake because they usually trailer them up, and it’s more protected water.
“So, it’s kind of a double-whammy for them.”
Arnesen, a third-generation resident of the Rocky Point area and owner of Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort north of Roosevelt, Minn., said the resort on the south shore of Lake of the Woods had to shut down its busy winter season two weeks early when the pandemic descended in mid-March and didn’t reopen until June 10.
After that, people flocked to the south shore of the big lake.
“The summer was good on this side of the lake – very busy,” Arnesen said. “I think on the south end of the lake, it’s been busier than normal. Unfortunately, on the Northwest Angle and Islands, it’s been slower because of the border restrictions.”
Pulling the plug
It’s been even tougher for operators who own fishing camps in Canada. Gary Moeller and Nick Anthony, partners in Ballard’s Resort near Baudette, Minn., also own Ballard’s Black Island, a fishing camp on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods.
The owners of the camp, which relies exclusively on American tourists, decided to cancel the season in July when it became apparent there would be no end to the border closure extensions, which continue to be implemented a few weeks at a time.
“It was super frustrating for us, not knowing,” Moeller said. “Obviously, they’re dealing with the entire border, but to just continue to extend it a few weeks at a time and a few weeks at a time and a few weeks at a time just created a scheduling nightmare for us.
“You’re on the phone nonstop, people always wanting to know, ‘What have you heard? What do you know? What’s going on?’ And we never had an answer for it. So finally, in July, we decided just to call it. It was fairly predictable at that point.”
Neither Moeller nor Anthony have been to the Ontario camp since the border closed but have Canadian contacts who mowed the lawn and kept an eye on the place. Crossing into Canada would have required filling out “a 40-page document or something like that,” Anthony said, along with spending 14 days in quarantine.
“Quite honestly, we haven’t even looked at it,” Anthony said. Not being able to offer the experience available on the Ontario side of the lake, which is drastically different from the open expanse of Minnesota waters, has been frustrating, he said.
At least, the partners say, they’ve had the American resort to fall back on during the border closure, and business on the south end of the lake has been brisk.
“It’s unfortunate, overall, for all of northwest Ontario because we/they were receiving next to no support from the government at all,” Moeller said. “It’s as though northwest Ontario doesn’t even exist right now, and it’s super frustrating financially. We’re obviously fortunate because we have another business that we can continue with, but a lot of our friends, that’s their sole income.
“It’s dire straits for a lot of them.”
In some ways, Moeller said, the brisk traffic on the south shore of Lake of the Woods this past summer was a surprise.
“I think we had a feeling early on that with the border being closed, we’d see a surge of fishermen that just wanted to get out and go,” Moeller said. “I think the biggest surprise for me was seeing the amount of resident fishermen that came up this summer.”
Normally, Minnesota residents make up about 25% of the summer clientele at Ballard’s, Moeller said. This year, 52% of the resort’s summer reservations came from Minnesota.
“Actually, for me, it was nice to see so many families, (and) you just know the reason they’re finally able to come to Lake of the Woods is because Timmy doesn’t have Little League, and Suzie isn’t in basketball camp somewhere,” Moeller said. “They actually had time, and I think they wanted to stay in-state and they wanted to do something fun, and so, hopefully, maybe we’ll get some long-term business out of the people that were from Minnesota but first-time ever to Lake of the Woods.”
On the other end of the lake, Colson, of Jake’s Northwest Angle, says he just wants his regular customers back.
“We’ve got a great clientele. I think we’ll be fine,” Colson said. “It depends on how long this goes on. When does this end? Are we talking this winter? Next summer – is that in jeopardy, too? Can you go a couple of years?”
Colson says he just wants to run a resort without the drama that’s been thrust upon his and other businesses at the Northwest Angle because of Canada’s border-crossing restrictions.
Boring, he said, would be a “nice baseline.”
“You show me a map where everybody has just been clobbered,” Colson said. “There is no place like this that’s been hit this hard. I look around, and it’s been all for nothing.
“The Northwest Angle is truly the burnt offering on the altar of COVID – there is no other way to say it.”
ON THE BORDER CHAPTER 1: BUSINESS
ON THE BORDER CHAPTER 2: LIFE ON THE LAKE
ON THE BORDER CHAPTER 3: BORDER LIFE