Standing on the frozen lake, three miles from shore and with his young dog at his side, Paul Colson scanned the featureless white expanse with his binoculars when he spotted the glimmer of headlights miles away.
Anticipation gave way to euphoria, and finally relief: By the end of the day, more than two dozen vehicles had traveled on an ice road born of desperation.
"It's the first ray of light," Colson said.
He and the other 120 residents of Minnesota's remote Northwest Angle — the chimney-like chunk of Minnesota that juts into Canada and is separated by Lake of the Woods from the rest of the state — have been isolated for nearly a year by COVID-19.
Except for those who live there, the Angle has been unreachable by road because Canada shut its border to visitors in response to the pandemic. The Angle's summer resort businesses tanked, and winter looked just as bleak with the main route through Manitoba off limits to visitors.
"We felt abandoned by everyone," said Colson, owner of Jake's Northwest Angle, a resort started by his grandfather. "It's emotional for us. This is our home. It's our way of life."
Determined to save themselves, Colson and his fellow resort owners did something that's never been done before, at least in recent memory: They built a 22-mile road across frozen Big Traverse Bay, from Warroad to the Angle's south end, to draw visitors to their doorsteps.
Ice roads are common on Minnesota lakes, including those that connect the Angle's mainland to nearby island resorts. But few — if any — ice roads have been as long or built over such a wide expanse of frozen water as this one, dubbed the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road.
"I don't think there's anyone who said, 'Hey, this is a great idea. We should have done it years ago,' " said Frank Walsh, co-owner of Walsh's Bay Store Camp on Oak Island. "But it's the only thing we can do. No one was starry-eyed about this or knew it was going to be easy."
An expensive gamble
Ice roads are dependent on the weather, an ever-changing variable that makes building and maintaining them a labor-intensive and often costly endeavor.
To ensure it's safe, it must be tended daily. When snow falls or the wind piles up drifts, plows must clear a fresh path between the stakes. As temperatures fluctuate, ice pressure ridges that rise and fall must be cut down and bridged.
But at a time when so much else was out of their hands, the resort owners figured the ice road was a task they could tackle. Eight Angle resorts that are usually open in the winter chipped in money to get the road started, not knowing how much it ultimately may cost through the season. So far, they've plowed more than $75,000 into the road.
Costs will be offset by users who pay $120 for a round-trip pass to the Angle and $145 if their trip takes them to the resorts on Flag and Oak islands; they may also opt for a $500 season pass. They've sold more than 400 passes so far and hope they can break even by season's end.
"It's an expensive gamble," Colson said. But there was no other option except to close their businesses to those who come to ice fish and seek outdoor adventures in Minnesota's northernmost point.
"It's not a shoulder season for us. It's huge," he said. "People book a year in advance."
With their backs against the wall, the resort owners are in a fight to survive, said Joe Henry, executive director for Lake of the Woods Tourism.
Some resorts squeezed out only 10% of their normal summer business, he said; others did better. But it largely depended on whether customers were willing to pay for a boat shuttle or if they had a boat big enough to handle wind-whipped waves on the open lake.
Resort owners asked state and federal leaders to persuade Canadian officials to open a 40-mile "travel corridor" through Manitoba to the Angle. "If you go north from Roseau through Manitoba, there aren't more than a dozen driveways that you'll pass," Colson said. "The last 22 miles there's nothing." But the corridor idea went nowhere.
Throughout 2020, the Angle felt like the setting for the "Twilight Zone" episode where a man discovers a town with no one around, Colson said. He dreaded answering the phone because he had to tell people over and over that the Angle was still unreachable by car.
"It was like Groundhog Day," he said. "You mow the grass, stain and paint and try to stay sane because you're watching your life being taken away from you."
'A lot happier'
Resort owners now are looking to the ice road as their lifeline — even with its limitations.
Drivers are urged to use it only during daylight hours because darkness and bad weather might strand someone in life-threatening conditions. Storms and white-out conditions could temporarily close the road, as it did recently when ferocious winds sidelined plows.
And Mother Nature delayed the road's official opening by two weeks because high temperatures slowed ice-making on the lake.
Until the first visitors arrived on the road Jan. 18, only those who could hop on snowmobiles or pay for a shuttle aboard a Bombardier — basically an oversized, enclosed and heated multipassenger snowmobile — could cross the frozen lake. Some flew in after Lake Country Air began an on-demand flight service in December, landing on the ice at the Angle.
For weeks, Gregg Hennum, co-owner of Sportsman's Oak Island Lodge, shuttled visitors two to six times a day in his Bombardiers. As more people take the ice road, he's making only a few trips a week. Though his resort did better than some others, owing to his boat shuttle in summer and Bombardier runs in the winter, he's firmly behind the ice road.
"It doesn't do me any good to watch people suffer," Hennum said. "Everyone here is a lot happier. People are moving around."
Since news about the road has spread, the phone has been ringing again at Jake's Northwest Angle.
People are rallying to support the Angle's hard-hit businesses, Colson said. Regulars and newcomers are coming to fish, ski and snowmobile, while others want to experience the novelty of a long road across a vast lake where the shoreline eventually disappears, giving a sense of being a long way from anywhere.
For Ryan Hanson of Big Lake, Minn., the ice road paved the way for his first excursion to the Angle to fish with friends and family. As 30 mph wind gusts whipped up clouds of snow and reduced visibility, stakes and signs along the road easily guided him north.
An avid ice angler, he's used to driving his truck on frozen lakes. But the Northwest Angle road is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Hanson said.
"They aren't likely going to [build] it again," he said, noting he already plans to return for another ice fishing trip this winter.
With about 2 feet of ice now covering Lake of the Woods and subzero temperatures making more, Angle resort owners hope to draw visitors well into March, weeks after fish houses have to be removed from most Minnesota lakes but not those on the northern border.
For those who make a living in this unique corner of the state, their can-do attitude has finally given them a reason to be cautiously optimistic.
"Some say this is the best that they've felt in six months," said Henry. "The ice road has given them hope."