Editor's note: This is an update with the latest conditions as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, to a column that appeared Saturday, Jan. 9.
Unseasonably warm weather has been a challenge in the opening of a winter road from the south end of Lake of the Woods to the Northwest Angle, but it now appears the road could open Thursday afternoon, an organizer of the ice road project said Tuesday.
The wild card is the weather and the potential for strong winds and at least 4 inches of snow Thursday in some areas, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Forks.
"We'll know about noon Thursday whether it will go or not go," Brett Alsleben of Points North Services on the Northwest Angle said Tuesday afternoon. "Right now, it's going to be a go one way or the other, barring any high winds or a lot of snow."
Points North is one of the partners in the ice road project and also plows and maintains an ice road from Young's Bay on the Northwest Angle mainland to Flag and Oak islands.
The plan for the first few days is to have a pilot car lead vehicles heading north to the Angle, with departure times from Springsteel Resort north of Warroad, Minn., staggered throughout the day, Alsleben said. Besides directing travelers on the new winter road, the pilot car will help keep speeds down, he said.
Driving too fast can cause waves under the ice, in turn making cracks and damaging the road.
"There's enough ice for cars and trucks, but we don't want people speeding around and cracking up the ice," Alsleben said.
Visitors planning a trip to the Northwest Angle can contact Points North Services or the resort where they're staying for updates on pilot car times, Alsleben said.
When it opens, Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, as it's called 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.
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The road begins at Springsteel Resort north of Warroad and follows 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.
Despite the recent warm weather, ice road conditions are at the point where it can open for public use, Alsleben said. Organizers have said they want a consistent 15 inches of ice at minimum before opening the road to the public.
"We kind of got everything ready, and now we're going to wait and see," he said late Tuesday afternoon. "It's still contingent on the weather."
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.
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 hopefully will happen within a few days of the mid-January 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.”
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 (recently).”