Trouble is lurking under about 3 feet of snow on many of northern Minnesota’s frozen lakes. And it’s killing business for resorts and others that count heavily on winter tourists to bring in the bucks.
It all started a few days after Christmas, when a major storm dumped more than a foot of snow across the region, insulating lakes that hadn’t yet established a solid base of ice and slowing down the making of ice. Making matters worse, the heavy snow pushed down the existing ice, opening cracks and allowing water to seep up.
Snow turned to slush, making it difficult, if not impossible, to plow miles of roads across frozen lakes. Small towns of fish houses that usually pop up didn’t. Some trucks and snowmobiles that have ventured out have gotten stuck in the slush. In a few cases, icehouses and vehicles have been swamped. Those conditions have forced some communities to cancel annual ice fishing contests.
“There’s not a soul out there,” Jack Shriver, owner of Shriver’s Bait Co. in Walker, said after a recent visit to Erickson’s Landing, a public access point on Leech Lake where 40 to 60 icehouses typically stand. “It’s like a ghost town out there.”
And that’s dire news for people like Kim Leonhardt, who owns High Banks Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish with her husband, Rick. Their business, like many other resorts, often earns as much revenue in 10 winter weeks as it does over five months in the summer. Not this year.
Their winter revenue is down 40 percent and likely even more by March because they will close the resort early after the walleye season ends Feb. 23.
“We’re just hoping and praying we can get to February 23,” Kim Leonhardt said. “Even if we had 15 days of minus forty, it wouldn’t correct what we have going on. There’s too much snow that’s already insulating the ice.”
Normally, the close of walleye season brings out those ice fishing for perch. “It’s prime time,” Leonhardt said. “They sit on their lawn chairs, enjoying the nice springlike weather.”
But now she’s calling customers and canceling their reservations. “It’s incredibly disheartening,” she said.
The slowdown is trickling down to other businesses, including restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, bait shops and even companies that provide portable toilets for fishing contests. “It’s a disaster,” Leonhardt said.
Some places, like Lake of the Woods, have dodged the worst of it, and anglers are dropping their lines there.
But on Upper Red Lake, Chris Freudenberg closed his resort last week after fighting the bad ice conditions.
“It’s a sad deal,” said Freudenberg, who co-owns Rogers’ on Red. Big game days, like Super Bowl Sunday, usually brought in business. “Guys would come up and fish during the day and watch the game. It would be standing room only.”
But as news spread, including on social media, about limited ice roads and tough conditions, business dropped. Freudenberg even made his own posts on Facebook, including photos of icehouses and a truck stuck in slush.
“One icehouse had 3 inches of ice that had to be chopped out,” he said. “It took two full days to get people unstuck. … Some people who come up don’t have a problem and others are getting buried. We’re breaking tons of equipment getting people unstuck. It’s doesn’t work economically anymore. We just have to get through until next year.”
‘It isn’t normal’
Winter fishing provides 80 percent of the revenue for Freudenberg’s business.
Ice fishing “used to be a lot of guys sitting on buckets,” he said. Now fish houses offer the comforts of home, and those on wheels offer that and convenience.
The wheel house phenomenon has been a boon to getting families together in the outdoors. High Banks Resort caters to them, plowing out space for a “campground on ice” at the cost of an access fee for users. In a normal year, 125 wheel houses would be out there, Leonhardt said. This year, she had to say no, reserving the limited ice road they could plow — 2 miles instead of the usual 25 miles — for resort guests.
And even those anglers are feeling pinched, because the limited ice roads keep many from moving to their GPS-marked hot spots. “It’s frustrating for them,” Leonhardt said. “It’s like they’re a dog on a tie-down stake.”
“People want the convenience of a normal winter, and a normal winter is not happening,” she said. “Even the snowmobiles are getting stuck — that’s how bad it is. And when you’re stuck, you’re stuck for hours, because you have to shovel and shovel. And you’re shoveling water.”
Those who rely on winter tourism have learned to adjust to weather variables like blizzards or wind. But ice is supposed to be a Minnesota winter constant, and this year it isn’t, Leonhardt said. “We’ve had resort owners who’ve been in business for 35 years and they’ve never seen a winter like this,” she said.
That’s why she and others gathered last week to ask state legislators for financial help.
“We would be thrilled to have some funding so we could have the cash flow to get into our next season and open for summer,” Leonhardt said.
Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who couldn’t get his spearhouse onto Wolf Lake this year, may draft legislation to provide low-interest loans to businesses affected by the slushy winter.
“It isn’t normal,” said Freudenberg. “It’s like when a tornado hits town. It’s a natural disaster.”