ANGLE INLET, Minn. — My mother didn’t leave many things on her bucket list, and saw much of North America and Europe in her 64-plus years on the planet. But living most of her life in Warroad, Minn., and on Flag Island in Lake of the Woods during the summer, there was one activity Lynda Myers always wanted to experience and didn’t get the chance before losing a bout with cancer 10 years ago.
Mom always wanted to spend “ice out” at the cabin.
For the few dozen permanent residents of the Minnesota islands that dot the northernmost tip of the state, ice out or “breakup” is the span of anywhere from two weeks to two months in the spring when the lake’s ice thaws to the point where travel by car or snowmobile isn’t safe and you are effectively landlocked until there is enough open water to get a boat to the mainland.
While it definitely feels like spring in the southern third of Minnesota, with no snow and temps in the 50s or higher, it is still effectively winter on Lake of the Woods in late March. Curtis Powassin found nearly 3 feet of ice on Saturday, March 28, when he went fishing, testing the 36-inch ice auger to its limits. He came home with a fresh-caught meal.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages through the world, and brings life to a veritable standstill in the country’s major population centers, in this most isolated part of Minnesota, most things are typical.
“From our point of view out here on the islands, this is just normal ice out,” said Deb Butler from her home on Flag Island. “You lay in provisions. We have enough because we ready ourselves for up to eight weeks. You run out of fresh stuff, but we’re not little kids anymore, so we don’t need that. It’s kind of business as usual for us.”
A generation or two ago there was little in the way of communication or entertainment technology available in the region, which could not be reached by road until 1970. Today there is satellite television, Internet, a 2,000-member Facebook group for residents and cabin owners to share news and advice, and a decent cellphone signal to be had if you go with the right company. Area residents can keep up on all the world’s virus news although some, wisely, choose not to.
“I haven’t been watching the news. I just stick with Netflix,” said Powassin, who made a $300 trip to Costco in Winnipeg, Manitoba, before settling in on the islands with his girlfriend and her young son two weeks ago. “Everybody is getting all worried about stuff, but I’m just doing my own thing and will wait until it’s over.”
Others pick and choose what they digest at a time like this.
“Anytime our president comes on to talk, we turn it off,” said Brian Sage, a retired social studies teacher from Warroad who lives on the west end of the Northwest Angle. “If it’s (Dr. Anthony) Fauchi, we’ll listen to him. I’m religious with PBS and I watch them every night.”
The region’s businesses rely heavily on summer tourism, as people from all over the country head for the lake to chase the abundant walleyes and trophy muskies. Still six weeks or so from the Minnesota fishing opener, there is concern as some early season reservations have been canceled. But there is also quiet optimism among resort owners that the summer will bring a reprieve from the threat of COVID-19.
“Most everyone is kind of banking on the fact that warm weather and sunlight will do a lot to mitigate the coronavirus thing,” said Butler, who ran the passenger service that ferried tourists to the island resorts for a decade before retiring in 2014. “All of the resort owners are going about their business as if it’s going to open on time and fishing is going to be great. We all hope that’s what it is.”
To access the Northwest Angle by car, one has to travel through Manitoba for roughly 40 miles, clearing customs twice. The current tightening of the Canadian border because of the virus has made this more challenging, with some cabin owners being turned away, but UPS, FedEx and gas trucks can still make the trip, meaning there are mail and grocery deliveries available. Jerry’s, the popular bar/restaurant adjacent to Young’s Bay Resort and Marina, where hundreds of folks park and leave their boats in the summer, is closed except for takeout and off-sale beer and liquor. Sage said he will go there for “necessities” like an occasional bottle of brandy and can take a daily two-mile walk without seeing any other people, meaning there are no social distancing concerns.
So while the rest of the world isolates, the Northwest Angle does as residents have done for 100 years, with a few twists on normal life. A post on the Facebook page implores cabin owners to please stay away for now, for fear of the virus spreading to this place where the nearest hospital is two hours away. On the lake, there are signs of a typical ice out happening, while the world endures a most unusual spring.
“We already have a little bit of open water in some spots,” Butler said. “There’s a dark spot where we saw three Canada geese sitting. They’ll stand on the ice and look at a dark spot for a long time. But then we saw an eagle sitting by it, and eagles don’t sit there unless they are actually hunting or fishing.”
With all of the new challenges in the world these days, Lake of the Woods ice out is starting as usual. One just wishes mom was there to see it.