Upper Red Lake vehicle ban affecting resort business

Thin ice taking toll on northern Minnesota tourism industry

Thin ice taking toll on northern Minnesota tourism industry

Drone video shows a giant crack – a wind-whipped chasm of water – in Upper Red Lake.

“This just happens to be a year where we’ve had some significant warm weather and rain,” declares Beltrami County Sheriff Jason Riggs.       

The conditions have authorities concerned about safety.

“The wind will shift that piece of ice,” explains Chief Rick Thayer, from Kelliher Fire and Rescue. “Basically, breaks a sheet of ice off, a nice clean crack most times, and moves that floe into a different spot.”  

Thayer says his crews made seven ice rescues in December.

That includes a multi-agency response last Friday, where 122 ice anglers were evacuated by boat from an ice floe that had broken off.

”You have to find a safe place that we can get the people across, lot of times like a shuttle service,” says Scott Waldo, co-owner of West Wind Resort, and a Kelliher Fire volunteer. “Trying to get to one side of the ice to the other and get the people back safely.”

The next day, Riggs ordered a vehicle ban on the lake, including snowmobiles and ATVs — something he says hasn’t happened since 2005. Authorities said after a meeting Wednesday they will reevaluate conditions on Monday after the lake has some time to heal.

Resort operators told authorities that there are still significant ice cracks resulting in several ice floes moving in the water. There are also reportedly several “football field-size[d]” openings in the lake.

“It’s slowed down a lot here,” Waldo notes. “I think the motorized vehicle traffic has definitely scared some people off.”

He says even before the vehicle ban, his business was half that of last season.

Now, Waldo says, his customer numbers have dropped by up to 80%.
“You typically have three months in the winter to make your living and if you don’t have it, it’s not great,” he says. “We’ll do okay, but there are some smaller outfits, that’s basically their living for a year and it’s going to hurt.”

Waldo agrees that safety is the most important thing.

“What we are looking for is more solidity in the ice body,” Riggs says. “There to keep the wind from pushing it around, and opening up those cracks, that separates the ice from the land mass.”

Though private vehicles are banned, resort operators and guide services have permission to operate vehicles on the ice for the safety of their customers.

“For every call we receive of someone going in the ice, I’m sure there are at least five that are handled locally we don’t know about,” Riggs told the resort operators in Wednesday’s meeting. “Many of you [resort operators] are your customers’ first responders and you assist them. That is why I’m allowing you to serve your customers.”