OAK ISLAND, Minn. – The fish weren't exactly jumping out of the holes, but they didn't have to be.
Just being here was good enough. And getting here was a huge part of the adventure.
A fine adventure it was.
So it went last weekend, when a friend and I made a trip to Lake of the Woods’ Northwest Angle on the new Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, a 28-mile trek from Springsteel Resort north of Warroad, Minn., across lake and land that comes out on Lake of the Woods County Road 49 on the Northwest Angle mainland.
It’s a geographical oddity, the Angle, surrounded on three sides by Canada and cut off from the rest of Minnesota by some 40 miles of Lake of the Woods.
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Our destination was Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island, a winter getaway nearly every year since Frank Walsh and his wife, Laura, bought the place in 1994.
Some winters, we’ve made the trip by road, trailering snowmobiles across the border into Manitoba for about 40 miles before driving back into the U.S. on the Northwest Angle mainland.
Other winters, we’ve made the trip by snowmobile, towing portable fish houses and other necessities across the lake on a groomed trail from Warroad. The trip can take anywhere from an hour and 15 minutes to twice that long, depending on the weather and trail conditions.
Any way you get there, traveling to the Angle is an adventure, and that’s part of the attraction. But with the U.S.-Canada border closed to tourism and other nonessential travel since March, reaching the Angle by driving through Manitoba isn't an option and won’t be until the border reopens, whenever that might be.
That’s where the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road comes into play. A Herculean effort that costs about $1,500 a mile to plow and maintain for the season, according to Lake of the Woods Tourism, the ice road is a way for resorts and other businesses up at the Angle to salvage the winter season after a disastrous summer.
There's been a noticeable uptick in activity across the Angle since the road opened, said Brett Alsleben of Points North Services near Young’s Bay on the Northwest Angle mainland. Points North is a partner in helping to plow and maintain the ice road, which has been open about 3 weeks.
“There really hasn’t been any problems,” Alsleben said this week. “We haven’t had cars getting stuck or lost. I don’t really know how you’d get lost, but …”
It’s not only tourists taking advantage of the road, which carries a $120 fee to the mainland and $145 to the islands; it’s also seasonal cabin owners who haven’t been able to drive or haul supplies to their property in months.
“A lot of people, I guess, like it,” said Brett Alsleben’s son, Cale Alsleben, 22, who does the bulk of Points North’s share of the ice road plowing. “I didn’t really think they would, but then you think about it, it’s something new that they haven’t ever done before.”
Maintaining the road involves “a lot of plowing, a lot of hours,” Cale said. Points North also plows the road from Young’s Bay to Brush, Flag and Oak islands on the Minnesota side of the Angle, as it does every winter.
“Plowing and fixing – that’s pretty much all I do in the wintertime,” Cale said. “You can usually plow for a day or two and then fix for half a day. That’s about how it goes.”
“It’s interesting around here,” Brett Alsleben said. “We (didn’t have) any traffic driving by at all, all summer. That road opened up, and it’s kind of like it’s back to normal. You almost have to be careful because you’re not used to looking for cars.”
The sun was bright and the road freshly plowed when we hit the ice at 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, for the trek from Springsteel to Oak Island. Towing a snowmobile on a single-place trailer, our goal was to get to the island before dark.
We took our time, averaging about 20 mph on the ice and maybe half that speed on the land trail, a shared route through a cut in the trees along the Canada-U.S. border that’s normally just a snowmobile trail. We pulled up to the door of our cabin on Oak Island 2 hours and 15 minutes later, as the sun was setting on the western horizon.
After multiple attempts at reaching the Angle last fall were thwarted by the weather, it was good to finally be back on the island for the first time since February 2020, when five of us had snowmobiled from Warroad on a blustery Saturday afternoon for a four-day adventure, blissfully unaware of the looming pandemic that would affect all of our lives mere weeks later.
Lines in the water
We’d had our lines in the water maybe two hours last Saturday morning when my fishing partner watched a massive red blob race up on the screen of his electronics and slam the Chubby Darter lure he dangled some 18 feet below.
Line peeled from the reel as the fish raced back toward the depths. After a couple of line-screaming runs, it became apparent this was no walleye, not even a trophy-size one.
Then we saw it, a massive northern pike cruising past the bottom of the hole; its back was as wide as the hole.
Oh. My. Goodness.
The pike made a couple more runs before my buddy got it steered up the hole. The head of the toothy fish was literally out of the water when a treble hook on the lure got caught on the ice a few inches below.
The pike shook the lure and slid back down the hole before either of us could attempt to land it.
“Aaarrgggh!” he said, or something to that effect.
The pike was every bit of 40 inches and easily more than 20 pounds, perhaps even rivaling the 42½-inch behemoth I landed in the same area three winters earlier.
A photo would have been nice, but the sight of that big pike will resonate in our collective memories for years to come.
Turn for the better
Fishing fortunes took a turn for the better the second afternoon with a flurry of walleyes and saugers as the dreary light of a cloudy day began to wane.
Set up in about 18 feet of water, we both released walleyes too big to keep, threw back numerous “day care fish” too small to keep and left the ice with a two-person limit of walleyes and saugers, more than enough for a tasty fish fry that night back at camp.
“Think about what happened,” my friend said as we packed up to leave the ice. “We just had a ‘slow’ day of fishing, yet we have a limit of walleyes and saugers in the bucket.”
Thanks to a healthy dose of Angle ingenuity in the form of the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, there’ve been many enjoyable days spent ice fishing recently in this northernmost point of the Lower 48.
Organizers hope the Northwest Angle Ice Road can stay open into March, and resorts in this cut-off part of Minnesota can continue to take reservations instead of cancellations.
“It’s been good that way,” Brett Alsleben of Points North said. “It tells you how much the road was needed, I guess.”
On the Web:
For the latest updates on the ice road and a link to purchase trail passes, check out the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road Facebook page at facebook.com/nwaiceroad.
IF YOU GO
Access to the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road begins at Springsteel Resort, 38004 Beach St., north of Warroad, Minn.
The ice road is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and will be as long as ice and trail conditions allow.
Trail passes for the ice road cost $145 to the islands on the Minnesota side of the Northwest Angle and $120 to the mainland.
Trail passes are sold through the Eventbrite online ticketing site, with a link available on the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road Facebook page. Travelers to the Northwest Angle mainland can purchase trail passes from the resort where they’re staying.
Based on my experience, I would recommend buying the trail pass before beginning the trip. I ordered my pass online from my phone while on the road. My credit card was charged $145, plus a $10.46 convenience fee, but the pass never showed up anywhere I could access it. I contacted Points North Services on the Northwest Angle mainland, and they were able to fix the problem from their end before we got to Springsteel.
Traveling the ice road with as much daylight as possible is highly recommended, especially on cloudy days when everything looks the same, and it is difficult to discern where the horizon ends and the ice begins.
Driving a vehicle with ample clearance also is a good idea, especially when crossing the bridge over a large ice heave south of Stony Point that has been active during the recent warm snap, requiring frequent maintenance of the bridge.
We were able to travel 20 to 25 mph on the ice, but the land portion required us to slow down to about 10 mph. We also were trailering a snowmobile on a single-place trailer.
– Brad Dokken