WARROAD, Minn. — The sight of Lake of the Woods as we snowmobiled out the mouth of the Warroad River and steered our sleds north into a stiff northwest wind definitely wasn’t for the faint of heart.
A blizzard it wasn’t, but the sea of white was unsettling just the same, in the way 30 mph northwest winds always are on Lake of the Woods. A well-marked and well-maintained snowmobile trail would keep us on course, but the 45-mile expanse of white that separated us from our destination at Oak Island on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle would take longer than usual to cross.
At times, it was difficult to tell where the lake ended and the horizon began.
It was Saturday, Feb. 15, and four friends and I were making the trip by snowmobile across the big lake for a few days of ice fishing and camaraderie. Each of us pulled sleds or portable fish houses, which carried most of our food for the week along with various adult beverages and, of course, our ice fishing gear.
A fifth friend from Canada would meet us at Oak Island.
Weeks of planning and anticipation had gotten us to this point, but not even the best-laid plans can account for 30 mph northwest winds.
Nothing had come easy on this blustery day, and the trip from Grand Forks to Warroad took longer than usual. Too fast, and the four-place trailer loaded with gear and snowmobiles would sway in the crosswind.
The trip across the lake, it appeared, would be no different. We were at least an hour behind schedule, and any plans for wetting a line had been replaced by simply getting to the island before dark.
At least we’d cover the most open expanse of our trip in daylight before hitting the protection of the Northwest Angle’s wooded shoreline. And with five snowmobiles and an experienced mechanic in the crew, there was safety in numbers.
Besides, what’s an adventure without a dose of adversity.
Keeping an eye
Leading the northward procession, I kept an eye on my mirrors for headlights to make sure the rest of the crew was behind me. The wind-whipped snow limited visibility, and I could never see more than one or two sleds behind me. As long as others kept watch, I knew everything was OK when I saw headlights.
The visibility limited my speed, and the fastest I dared travel was about 25 mph. We inched our way northeast past Springsteel, Buffalo Point and the city of wheelhouses that dotted the plowed road.
I could barely make out Stony Point in the distance, but I felt relief in knowing the protection of a wooded shoreline beyond it soon would provide at least marginal relief from the wind, snow and single-digit temperatures.
It was about that time that I looked back and realized I couldn’t see any headlights behind me.
I turned around and had driven maybe half a mile when I saw the headlights of the next snowmobile behind me. He’d lost sight of the three headlights behind him and said he’d wait on the trail while I drove back to find the other guys.
Finally, about a mile farther south, I saw the first headlight in the procession. Then the second. Then the third.
There was no mechanical trouble, but the crosswind had blown the cover off the portable fish house the last driver in our caravan was pulling and sent it sailing into the great white beyond. The wind then hit the canvas and poles, basically setting up the portable as it was being pulled down the trail.
By some miracle, he found the cover about half a mile away and got the portable resituated. Only to have it happen again a short time later.
Again, he found the cover and managed to secure it tight enough to prevent a third mishap. The encounter cost us about 20 minutes of daylight, but it could have been much worse.
Swirling ‘snow devils’
Sun was peeking through the clouds on the western horizon as we approached Driftwood Point. “Snow devils” occasionally swirled in the distance like miniature twisters, a sight made even more spectacular when lit by the afternoon sun.
Daylight was fading, but any unease we might have felt quickly turned to anticipation at Driftwood Point, the unofficial entrance to the Northwest Angle, and the trail sign directing us northeast toward Oak Island. Familiar landmarks such as Four Blocks, Little Oak Island and Massacre Island — the latter in Ontario — provided welcome assurance our northward journey was nearing an end.
We stopped for gas at Sportsman’s Oak Island Lodge on the east side of Oak Island and headed west on the Minnesota-Ontario border toward Walsh’s Bay Store Camp, our destination for the next four days.
The sunset was absolutely brilliant.
The trek had taken nearly 2½ hours, more than an hour longer than usual, but aside from the portable fish house mishaps, our journey to Oak Island had gone about as well as could be expected, given the conditions.
Our adventure was officially underway.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to email@example.com.