Northwest Angle remains cut off from tourism, traffic as U.S.-Canada border closure drags on
Life for resort owners and other businesses on Minnesota's Northwest Angle has been especially challenging since March 2020, when the U.S.-Canada border closed to nonessential travel in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is only marginally better this year.
NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn. – On a normal Saturday in June, Young’s Bay Resort and other resorts on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle would be buzzing with activity. Cabins would be full, fishermen would be buying bait, gas and other supplies, and the boat ramp would be busy.
This summer, not so much. Better than last year in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps, but only marginally.
“There’s really not much of a buzz at all right now, unfortunately, but there usually is,” said Richard McKeever, whose dad, Rick, founded Young’s Bay Resort in the 1970s when the road to the Angle was only a few years old. “It’s been better than last year at this time. It’s still not what we’re looking for, but it’s certainly a small improvement.”
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Life for resort owners and other businesses on the Northwest Angle has been especially challenging since March 2020, when the U.S.-Canada border closed to nonessential travel in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bordered on three sides by Canada and accessible from Minnesota only by crossing some 40 miles of Lake of the Woods, the U.S. exclave has essentially been cut off to everyone but the 120-or-so permanent Angle residents since the border closed.
Driving to the Angle requires traveling about 40 miles of remote Manitoba highway that will remain off-limits until the border reopens, whenever that might be.
Despite growing pressure from both sides of the border, the Canadian government on Friday, June 18, extended border restrictions on nonessential travel until July 21. The U.S. and Canada have extended the border restrictions in one-month increments since March 21, 2020.
“Stuff changes so fast on that border that you can hardly keep track,” said Russ Barrett, a permanent Angle resident who was tinkering with his boat, tied up along the shore of Crow Creek, on a recent warm Saturday afternoon. “They announce it on the 21st of every month – extended, extended. Now, it’s extended to (July) 21, and who knows beyond that.”
Barrett and his wife were in Arizona when the pandemic hit and had only been back on the Angle a couple of weeks. Initially reluctant to give his name to a Herald reporter and photographer who stopped by for a chat, Barrett eventually acquiesced.
“Joe Biden – write that down,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t like giving out my name because it’s risky. You could be undercover FBI or something.”
The border closure and uncertain prospects for reopening have been especially difficult for resorts on the Northwest Angle mainland, where many visitors traditionally trailer their own boats on the road through Manitoba and fish the Ontario side of the lake. Sprinkled with thousands of islands, the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods offers better scenery and more protection from the wind than the open expanse of Minnesota waters.
With both the road to the Angle and the Ontario side of the lake off limits until the border reopens, McKeever at Young’s Bay says business is down 75% to 80% – “pretty easily” – since the onset of the pandemic.
“All of the resorts are in the same boat,” he said. “Some of the island resorts are doing a little better. They have been catering to people who want guides, and they rent boats and things like that, so they’ve been doing OK. Some resorts do it a little different, and it’s worked out well for them right now because of the way they're structured.”
An ice road constructed last winter across 22 miles of lake and an 8-mile cut along the U.S.-Canada border allowed visitors to reach the Angle by road without driving through Canada. That salvaged the winter for resorts that cater to ice fishing.
The road, which cost about $1,500 a mile to plow and maintain for the season, according to Lake of the Woods Tourism, opened in late January and remained accessible through the second week of March. A joint effort between Northwest Angle resorts, residents and the local snowmobile club, the road project covered its cost, thanks to an access fee of $120 to the mainland and $145 to the islands, according to Brett Alsleben of Points North Services, one of the partners in the ice road venture.
People didn’t hesitate to head for the Angle once the road opened.
“It was like a light switch, actually,” Alsleben said. “The day the road opened, it was busy. Resorts were full, and it was kind of back to life again.
“It fulfilled the purpose that we needed it to do.”
The instant uptick in traffic confirmed the hunger people had for getting to the Angle, McKeever says. The impact on the resort’s winter business was “huge,” he said.
“February can be kind of a slower month as far as ice fishing goes,” McKeever said. “This year, we did just about twice as much (business) as we did the previous February, that’s how excited people were just to get out and do something.”
Then and now
The appetite for getting out has continued, though on a much smaller scale, this summer. People want to come, McKeever says, and either take the passenger service or bring their own boats across the lake when the wind cooperates.
Traffic is up from last summer, he said, but it’s a far cry from normal.
“A lot of our customers, even if they could have gotten across the border, weren’t coming (last year) anyway because they were scared, not knowing what was going on” with the pandemic, McKeever said. “This year, a lot of them are saying, ‘We’re going to figure it out one way or another.’”
Tom Schuster of Grand Forks was one of the visitors to figure it out on this recent June Saturday. In a normal year, Schuster said, he would have a camper parked at Young’s Bay and drive to the Angle seven or eight weekends a summer.
This year, he took the risk and boated some 40 miles across the lake from Warroad, Minn., and was at the dock at Young’s Bay Resort by 7 a.m.
“I’ve been coming up here for 42 years – that’s just my short story,” Schuster said. “This is the first time I’ve done the boat ride. On a day like today, it’s fine, you can cruise 40. I’ve got an old tin can with a 15-year-old motor that’s pretty good.”
Judging by the wind forecast, Schuster figured he’d probably stay a day later than originally planned. He’d set up a tent in the campground at Young’s Bay Resort, where McKeever told him he could have his pick of the campsites because no one else was there.
“We all want some of our normal back, and this is my biggest normal right here,” Schuster said of being at the Angle. “These are great people – everybody will tell you.”
The plight of the Northwest Angle and the impact of the travel restrictions on people and communities along the border has drawn the attention of both the national media and Minnesota’s congressional delegation in recent months.
A reporter and photographer from the New York Times recently visited the Angle, and Canadian outlets, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and CTV, also have reported on the border restrictions and their impact on the Angle.
In April, U.S. Reps. Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber, both R-Minn., hosted a forum in International Falls, Minn., accessible both in person and virtually, to shed light on border issues. The two Republicans and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., also have introduced legislation to provide forgivable loans for qualifying businesses.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith , both D-Minn., have introduced similar legislation and reached out to Canadian federal counterparts about the need to reopen the border as COVID-19 vaccination rates rise and infection rates fall. Klobuchar also raised the issue last month during a meeting of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group, a panel of lawmakers from the two countries; Klobuchar chairs the U.S. Senate delegation.
On Tuesday, June 15, Joe Henry of Lake of the Woods Tourism testified remotely before a Senate subcommittee hearing on “The State of Outdoor Tourism, Recreation and Ecotourism.”
Opening the 40 miles of road through Canada for visitors and seasonal property owners to reach the Northwest Angle is a priority, along with securing a forgivable loan program, Henry said during his testimony.
“As America is coming out of the pandemic and things are starting to open up again, resorts and businesses up at the Northwest Angle are once again ‘cut off’ from their customers,” Henry said. “They are now facing their second summer of little to no business and their customers not being able to reach them.”
For businesses and property owners on the Angle, the border reopening can’t happen soon enough.
“The floodgates will open the minute we get that border open and can fish in Canada,” said Brian Sage, who owns Sages Angle West Resort on Angle Inlet with his wife, Jane, and son, Lance.
Retired teachers – Brian taught four years at Glyndon-Felton (Minn.) and 29 years in Warroad before retiring in 2004, and Jane taught 30 years in Warroad, retiring in 2006 – the Sages bought the property and established the resort in 1991. They became permanent Angle residents in 2006. Lance Sage teaches social studies in Warroad and guides during the summer.
Business last year was down about 85%, and the cancellations for this year continue to roll in, Brian Sage said. As of early June, the resort already had 20 cancellations for the month.
“That’s a lot of revenue for the month of June,” he said.
Glimmer of hope
Despite the ongoing border closure and yet another extension on travel restrictions, there seems to be at least a glimmer of hope that a reopening is in sight, Sage said, calling himself an “eternal optimist.”
Whenever it happens, the border reopening likely will have restrictions, he says.
“I don’t have any inside information or anything, but it’s not going to be wide open by any means, I don’t think,” Sage said. “I think Canada will require some form of identification that you’ve had the vaccine, which is fine. That’s the way it probably should be.
“I understand that they have some issues (in Canada), and we’re dealing with a foreign country. It’s frustrating, but hopefully the end is coming.”
Until then, resorts on the Angle will get by as best they can and hope the guests that are on the books stay there.
“This is just unbelievable,” said Grace Prothero, who founded Prothero’s Post Resort on Angle Inlet with her husband, Dale, moving from Kansas to the Angle in 1961 with their three young children. Dale died in May 2017, just shy of their 70th anniversary, and her son Tim, daughter-in-law Cyndy and daughter Linda Knight help out with camp duties.
“I had 60 cancellations last year,” Grace Prothero said, sitting with Tim on the porch of the resort’s rustic log store below a bleached set of moose antlers.
Like last year, Prothero said she started out this spring with a full season of reservations on the books. More than 90% of the resort’s clientele are repeat visitors.
“Those people still want to come, the same ones who wanted to come last year at the beginning,” she said. “This year, I was full again. And they’re slowly canceling.”
It’s a familiar refrain across the Angle, a refrain that now will continue at least through the end of July.
“The hardest part is not knowing what to expect because you can’t plan for anything,” McKeever of Young’s Bay Resort said. “You’re constantly guessing.”