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Cut off from rest of U.S. by Canada, Minnesota's Northwest Angle builds a 22-mile ice road

The ice road crosses Lake of the Woods, giving struggling resorts a lifeline.

ANGLE INLET, Minn. — Paul and Karen Colson live 40 miles north of Warroad, Minnesota.

They may as well be on the moon.

“Cut off,” Paul says. “Totally, totally.”

For the past 10 months, the Minnesota husband and wife have been essentially severed from the rest of the United States.

That’s when Canada, seeking to slow the spread of COVID-19, closed its southern border to all but essential travel.

Roughly 40 miles away, a dozen resorts, and about 100 residents they support, lost the Canadian highway that provides the only access into Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.

Summer bookings evaporated at Jake’s Northwest Angle, the third-generation resort started by Paul’s grandfather.

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE 11
The Northwest Angle Ice Road

“Very depressing,” Karen Colson says.

“We had zero people at our place,” her husband adds.

Some resorts tried ferrying customers in by boat, but even that limited effort was rendered moot by colder weather.

Resort owners needed something bold. They now have it, in the form of a 22-mile ice road cut across frozen Lake of the Woods.

“I thought it was kind of crazy,” Cale Alsleben says as he steers a battered Chevy pickup and plow across a frozen moonscape.

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE 11
Karen & Paul Colson own Jake's Northwest Angle Resort

Nearby, Cale’s dad drives another plow. With no trees, buildings, or hills to block the wind, ice road plowing never ends.

But what choice do they have?

“We gotta figure some way to get customers up here,” Cale says.

It’s working.

Two weeks since the opening, the Northwest Angle ice road has returned life to the northernmost tip of the lower 48 states.

The lights are on again in the Colson’s cabins, fish houses are full on the lake and people are coming and going from Jerry’s Bar & Restaurant.

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE 11
Plowing on the Northwest Angle Ice Road

All thanks to a 25 mile-per-hour highway built on 20 inches of ice.

“My wife was very skeptical about me coming out here,” Scott Bushman says on the drive back home to Wisconsin after several days of fishing on the Angle. 

Scott’s friend, Jim VanHerwynen, says his wife had concerns too. “When you do see the plow trucks out there, it makes you feel a little more comfortable,” Jim says with a laugh.

Passage on the ice road requires a $145 roundtrip permit. Season passes are being sold for $500. 

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE 11
Sandy Baumgartner holds up her season pass for the Northwest Angle ice road

Resort owners, who put up the seed money for the ice road, say they’re not looking to make a profit, only cover their initial investment and the costs associated with constant plowing and temporary bridge placement over pressure ridges.

“It's worth this $500 pass,” Sandy Baumgartner says from the passenger seat of her husband’s pickup truck while navigating the ice road up to the Angle.

“We have a cabin up here and it's the only way we can get here right now,” Sandy’s husband, Mike Baumgartner, says.

The ice will only prop up the Angle’s economy until spring, but the Colsons will take it.

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE 11
A pickup crosses a temporary bridge placed over a pressure ridge on the Northwest Angle ice road

“We don't have anything else,” Paul says.

His resort is paid off, but Paul worries for other owners making loan payments.

“Everybody will be able to hang on a little bit longer,” Karen says.

Ten months after the border closing, the Canadian government still only permits permanent residents of the Angle to cross for essential needs like food and medical treatment.

The ice road is the lifeline the angle has craved.

“Sink or swim,” Paul says. “So, we just keep swimming.”

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