BEMIDJI-Allen Foster had never been to Lake of the Woods before last week, when he and a buddy, Derick Kubitz, set out from Wheeler's Point near Baudette, Minn., on an ice road plowed 22 miles onto the lake to an area south of Garden Island.
It's a trip neither of them will forget anytime soon.
Traveling the ice road in a Dodge Ram four-wheel-drive pickup and towing a 21-foot Ice Castle fish house on wheels, the fishermen were excited to reach a distant fishing hotspot the resort had suggested they try after paying their access fee that Thursday afternoon, Feb. 21.
So excited, in fact, they hadn't checked the extended weather forecast, Foster says.
"Of course, the guy (at the resort) never said a word about any storms or anything, and I wasn't paying any attention," Foster, of Bemidji said. "I drive truck over the road so I was concentrating on the truck. Literally, I got home from over the road, I hooked up my (Ice) Castle, met my buddy and we took off."
Smooth to stuck
Set up in a nook the resort had plowed off the main ice road out there in the middle of nowhere, Foster says the first couple of days went smoothly. They caught fish, and the weather was nice, at least by this winter's standards.
"It was nice and clear out; it wasn't windy," he said. "It snowed a little bit Friday night, roughly 2 maybe 3 inches, but it was just like really soft, powdery stuff. Everything was going good."
That all changed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, when the generator they used to power the Ice Castle ran out of gas. Foster got up and stepped outside to refuel the generator, only to be greeted by the weather equivalent of a buzzsaw.
"It was blowing like crazy," he recalls. "My neighbor, who was roughly 60 yards from me, had his outdoor lights on all the way around his Ice Castle, and those were all lit up when I went to sleep.
"I couldn't even see them, it was blowing so hard."
The men, who had planned to return to Bemidji on Sunday night, decided to cut the trip short and head back to shore at first light, Foster recalls. The road by that time had drifted shut, and they didn't make it more than a quarter of a mile.
"I started plowing through a bunch of drifts, which was starting to slow me down, and then I hit one big drift that came about midway up the grill of my pickup," Foster said. "That slowed me down pretty good, and then all of a sudden, the pickup just dropped, and I dropped down almost a foot and a half in slush."
The weight of the snow had pushed water up through cracks in the ice, creating slushy pockets that lurked beneath the drifts. Coupled with drifting snow that now blocked the road, conditions were impassable.
"I got the Castle and my pickup into that slush, and it dragged me right to a screeching halt, and that's where I sat," Foster said.
The blizzard conditions Foster and Kubitz encountered in the wee hours of Feb. 24 more than 20 miles from shore had stranded dozens of anglers who used the access road near Wheeler's Point. Over the next two days, authorities, including the Lake of the Woods County Sheriff's Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, joined resorts along the south shore of the big lake in reaching anglers stuck on the ice.
Authorities even flew the area by helicopter. And while nearly a dozen anglers were reported missing at various times during the storm and its aftermath, all had been accounted for by Tuesday afternoon.
"The conditions I would say were horrid," said Eric Benjamin, a conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources in Warroad, Minn., who spent 13 hours Monday assisting authorities with rescue efforts. "After all that drifting snow, a lot of people were stranded."
Foster says his provider's cellphone service was marginal that far from shore, but he was able to get enough reception about 7:30 a.m. Sunday to call the resort and tell them his predicament.
He had plenty of company.
"They told me they knew that people were getting stuck, and they were doing their best to try breaking trails to get everybody," Foster said.
He'd start his pickup every so often and put it in gear to spin the tires and keep them from freezing into the ice.
"I kept doing that for an hour, two, three, four and finally eight hours go by, and still nothing," Foster said. "Nobody was showing up."
Bundling up, he walked up to check on a group in a nearby truck that was stuck in even deeper water and slush.
"He said he'd been in contact with the lodge quite a bit, and they were doing their best," Foster said. "I said, as long as you've got contact, I'm good. I said I didn't have any (cellphone) service so I'm just kind of stuck on high ground here. I don't know what to do."
The slush was up to his knees, Foster says, and only the heat from his feet kept the inside of his boots from freezing.
About that same time, an angler who was still set up and fishing in a nearby wheelhouse invited Foster and Kubitz inside to chat and warm up; he also fried some fish for them.
The samaritan fisherman had cell service and let Foster tap into his wi-fi hotspot. Foster then made a post on Facebook with photos showing his predicament and asking for advice, thinking he was only sending the message out to friends.
Instead, the message was public, and the post went viral, Foster says, shared 2,700 times in less than 24 hours.
"I had message after message coming through of people asking if I'm OK," he said. "I'm like, 'Oh my goodness. People, I'm OK, this isn't a life and death situation yet. I'm good for now.' "
About 1:30 a.m. Monday with still no sign of rescue, Foster says he began to panic. Questions flooded his mind: Where are the plows? Are they stuck? Why don't I see any lights?
Then he saw them about 4 a.m., lights that were faintly visible far off in the distance.
In that moment, panic and despair turned to hope.
"It was like five vehicles in a row with huge light bars just glowing in the distance, and they were plowing like crazy to me, and they came straight to me, and plowed me out," Foster said.
Getting the pickup freed and onto the cleared ice road took about 2½ hours, and jerking the fish house loose took another hour, Foster recalls.
The truck and fish house were free by about 8:30 a.m. Monday, Foster says, but their troubles weren't over yet. The wheels on the fish house were frozen and wouldn't turn. Long story short, he and Kubitz left the house on the lake and drove into Baudette to buy blow torches and 1-pound propane bottles they used to melt the ice enough for the wheels to turn.
Problem remedied, they were back on shore with the Ice Castle and headed home to Bemidji by 3 p.m.
Looking back on the ordeal, Foster says he'd take a few more precautions next time, including switching to a cellphone provider that has better service on Lake of the Woods.
He'll definitely be more vigilant about watching the weather, he says.
"I would go back to Lake of the Woods, but like I said, I've got quite a checklist," Foster said. "I know what to expect and what to plan for now."
The authorities and area resorts did a "phenomenal" job of getting himself and other stranded anglers off the lake, Foster says, no small task given the conditions and the difficulty in clearing more than 20 miles of snow- and slush-clogged ice roads.
"It was quite the ordeal, alright," Foster said. "It was a good fishing trip that kind of went bad, but all in all, I still had fun."