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Operators pull the plug on Northwest Angle ice road; conditions too rough for plowing to continue

A blizzard just days after the road opened forced Points North Services to close the ice road Wednesday, Jan. 19, and try to find a new route around ice that broke up badly during the storm.

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Signs greet visitors to the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods County Road 49 at the Minnesota-Manitoba border in January 2021.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn. – The operators of an ice road that provided access from the south shore of Lake of the Woods to Minnesota’s Northwest Angle have decided to discontinue the road, perhaps for the season, because of snow and ice conditions that hampered plowing efforts.

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Points North Services announced the decision Thursday afternoon on the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road Facebook page . Points North, a business on the Northwest Angle mainland, was overseeing this year’s ice road effort.

“If things change, we will announce at that time,” the Facebook post reads. “The plow drivers have put in great efforts to make this road happen, but in the end we can’t fight Mother Nature.

“She is brutally tough on equipment.”

The Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road opened for the season Friday, Jan. 14, and connected with a road maintained by Springsteel Resort north of Warroad, Minnesota, to provide vehicle access across Lake of the Woods to the Angle without having to drive through Manitoba.

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A Minnesota exclave, the Northwest Angle is bordered on three sides by Canada and accessible by road only by driving through about 40 miles of Manitoba before re-entering the U.S.

A blizzard just days after the road opened forced Points North Services to close the ice road Wednesday, Jan. 19, and try to find a new route around ice that broke up badly during the storm.

"The wind and the cold made that snow just rock hard, and it's almost unplowable," Brett Alsleben of Points North Services said Thursday afternoon. "It's just unmovable."

The obstacles became insurmountable, given the snow and ice conditions this winter.

"We're just going to wreck everything if we keep trying," Alsleben said. "We might try again if it warms up some, but right now, it's not looking very good."

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From Springsteel Resort to the point where the ice road ended at the Flag Island land portage on the Northwest Angle, the road across frozen Lake of the Woods was about 37 miles long. The decision by Points North Services to discontinue the ice road to the Northwest Angle doesn’t affect the road Springsteel maintains on the south end of the lake.

The Northwest Angle made news last winter when Points North Services, along with Northwest Angle resorts, a local snowmobile club and others, teamed up to develop the ice road as a way to bring traffic to the Angle while the Canadian border remained closed to nonessential travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic

Ice and snow conditions were much more favorable last year, though, and the road also included an 8-mile land route along the Minnesota-Manitoba border from Stony Point on Lake of the Woods to Lake of the Woods County Road 49.

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The impact on local tourism was almost immediate.

This year, Points North Services was going it alone on the ice road, which was entirely on the lake.

"We're getting the weather we hoped we wouldn't have last year, and we didn't have it last year," he said. "So, we're back to a normal winter and that's why there's usually not a road down there."

The decision to discontinue the ice road no doubt will be disappointing to Northwest Angle resorts and other businesses. Even with the Canada border open to nonessential travel, traffic to the Angle has been nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels because of Canada’s vaccination and testing requirements, which require travelers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test taken no more than 72 hours before entering Canada.

"There's still a great call" for the road, Alsleben said. "There's still a lot of people that want it, that need it. It's just that Mother Nature is winning this year."

Visitors can still reach the Northwest Angle by driving through Manitoba if they meet Canada’s vaccination and testing requirements, by groomed snowmobile trails from the south end of the lake, by Bombardier tracked vehicle through Lake of the Woods Passenger Service or by air through Lake Country Air, a St. Paul-based company providing charter air service from either Baudette or Warroad.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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