It all started with a photo from a friend, showing what appeared to be a bar made of ice.
You know -- like a saloon. A drinking establishment or a place to sip on some cocktails. That kind of bar.
In the picture, the bar was also perched atop a frozen lake. Was it really made of ice blocks? Where was this exactly? How do you get there? Did Elsa build it?
Kidding on that last one; a little mom joke for any fellow parents out there.
After doing some Googling and sending an email to confirm, we got our answer: It’s not exactly an ice bar, but it is an igloo bar. Or, more specifically, The Igloo Bar, which sits in front of Zippel Bay Resort, located on the frozen Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota.
Joe Henry, the executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, was more than happy to talk all about it. Word has definitely spread about the Igloo Bar, which first opened in December of 2017, and operates seasonally (which makes sense, considering it’s on a frozen lake). Here’s a picture: Please don’t laugh; this shot makes it pretty clear that it’s NOT, in fact, made of ice -- more on this soon!
The bar is about 1,000 square feet, with two big-screen TVs, drink offerings, several hot-food options -- and get this: You can actually fish while inside. Visitors have the option to rent a fishing hole for $5 an hour, and the bartenders, instead of just keeping some lemons and limes behind the counter, will sell you minnows, as well.
“For some people, this is their dream,” Henry said. “It’s been a big hit.”
People love the Igloo Bar, and come from all over the area to visit. It’s mostly an angler and vacationers crowd, but that’s to be expected, considering the region -- Lake of the Woods draws quite the crowd, and is considered by many to be the walleye capital of the world, Henry said.
Imagine, catching a fish inside a bar.
“I said to the owner of the resort, Nick, ‘It gets pretty festive when someone catches a walleye, right?’ He goes, ‘You should see when someone loses one!’” Henry said with a laugh.
It sounds so “classic Minnesota,” doesn’t it? Ice fishing. From an igloo. On a frozen-over lake. With a beer in hand.
The bar is open to the public, by the way, meaning, you don’t have to stay at the affiliated resort to get in. There’s even an ice road (which is exactly what it sounds like -- a road made on top of the ice) that’s well-marked, plowed and maintained for people coming by car or snowmobile.
“People who are ice fishing or on vacation -- they’ll come from all other parts of the lake to rub elbows,” Henry said.
And finally, the structure is not made of real ice.
Resort workers have to prep the bar for opening each winter, which typically happens in the end of December or the beginning of January. The ice has to be ready, and Henry said there are little tricks involved to build and strengthen it. The bar itself is made of an aluminum frame that looks like ice blocks. The pieces are then bolted together.
If all this talk about bars and beers has you wondering about the bathroom situation, Igloo Bar is equipped with portable toilets -- and the good news is, they are heated.
“Nick said some of the gals were giving him a hard time, so they first started heating the women’s, and then had to heat the men’s,” Henry said.
Good to know.
Ice fishing -- it might not be what you’re picturing
Although this started as a story about a bar, of course, we had to learn more about the ice fishing.
In Lake of the Woods, the region draws more than just the seasoned anglers and Minnesota natives who have grown up with the sport. Ice fishing can be for anyone, Henry said. And the experience can transcend the fishing itself.
“We see family outings, bachelorette parties, business groups, father-daughter trips -- you name it,” Henry said.
People come from all over. The county has dozens of lodging facilities and options. If you’re flying in, many visitors choose to land in Bemidji or International Falls.
Henry said he’s taken members of the media out fishing, for example, some of whom don’t have ice in their region.
“We’ll get them out on the lake in a full-sized pickup truck, and their eyes will go right to the GPS, kind of in disbelief that they’re driving over the water,” he said.
For some, it’s surreal, especially if you’ve never been out before. But it’s a lot safer than you might imagine -- most winters, the ice gets to be 2 to 3 feet thick, meaning, no: You won’t fall through. Absolutely not. Late in the winter, on parts of the lake, semi-trucks will even drive over the ice in some cases, like if they’re hauling materials.
Needless to say, the weight of your body is nothing compared to the size of a big rig.
Still, someone with an old-school mentality might ask a question like, “Why would anyone want to ice fish?”
Henry helped paint the picture.
“You might think about sitting on a bucket, freezing,” Henry said. “But those are the old days. Nowadays, you stay in a resort, you have a nice breakfast and they take you to a heated fish house. You step inside the door, you’ll see your holes all drilled into the ice, they’re cleaned out, and you’re ready to fish. You’re walking 10 steps from the cold into the heated ice house. You’re basically in a living room. Inside, it’s cozy, the fish are biting, you’ll bring snacks -- maybe lunch or your favorite beverages. You fish for most of the day. It gets dark around 4:30, so about 4:15 or 4:30, you head for shore. And it’s just in time for happy hour.”
Lake of the Woods has resorts offering a full-service experience. You can even book meal plans. Some might include the resort cleaning your fish and cooking up your fresh catches. How cool is that?
“Culturally, it’s really fun,” Henry said. “Because of the technology with the insulated fish houses, (the sport) is now available to an average person. It’d be a very narrow piece of the pie if it were just anglers. Now, it’s not only fun to fish, but it’s an adventure. It’s not cold anymore. You just opened it up to people who want to go and have a good time.”
Sleeper houses sound like fun, too.
Inside, you’ll typically find bunk beds, a propane stovetop and oven, and fishing holes. If you stay in one, you can wake up at the crack of dawn and start fishing immediately, Henry said -- because remember, you’re actually out on the ice already.
“And then if you go out after dark and look up at the sky, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring,” Henry said. “There’s little light pollution, and the sky looks like something you’ve never seen. Fishing is only part of the experience.”
We had to ask about the pandemic. How has the region held up, considering business closures and a decline in tourism?
Henry said at first, it was “crazy.” The region lost two weeks of ice fishing in March 2020, when COVID-19 really took hold, and things really didn’t get rolling again until June or so.
But the summer was decent, Henry added. All of the outdoor recreation in the region took a hit heading into this current ice fishing season, but all things considered, fishing is a pretty pandemic-safe activity.
You’re around your own friends or family, but when it comes to people outside your party, you’re able to maintain a social distance. You’re in a vehicle with your own group. It’s just you guys on your section of the lake. You can order takeout or be extra cautious with your meals, if you’d like. Some resorts will deliver food right to your room. You really don’t have to see anyone else, if you don’t want to, Henry said.
Lake of the Woods resorts adopted new cleaning protocols, contactless check-in procedures, and made sure everyone was adhering to Minnesota state law. For example, there were limits set on how many people could be in a bar at once, considering the pandemic.
And of course, the situation with COVID-19 remains fluid. It’s hard to make blanket statements about what all resorts, restaurants and hotels are doing -- but Henry said business owners in the county have been COVID-conscious and they’re trying to keep things as safe as possible. After all, their livelihood depends on it.
A community comes together like never before
What started as a quirky travel story about a so-called ice bar (and then touched on the fishing!) has now evolved into something much bigger.
In speaking to Henry in late November, he started detailing a project that would have sounded absurd, pre-pandemic. But it’s now a reality.
So, there’s an area of the U.S. that, as a result of the United States-Canada border closure (due to COVID-19), has been basically cut off from civilization and customers since March 2020. And in order to travel there, you have to drive through Canada about 40 miles before entering back into the U.S.
We’re talking about the northernmost point in the contiguous United States. It’s where the 14,552 islands of Lake of the Woods begin. The region boasts some of the best fishing in the Midwest, Henry said. This is known as Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.
And in case you skimmed over that first reference: The NW Angle has been cut off from customers for 10 months. Do you realize how long that is? Back in March 2020, probably no one would have guessed that the unprecedented situation would span nearly a year. But here we are.
The border closure has drastically reduced tourism in this part of Lake of the Woods. So the community decided to do something about it: Build an ice road.
To travel to the NW Angle, you’d normally drive 40 miles through Canada and enter back into Minnesota up at the Angle.
Facing another season of little revenue, the NW Angle community, made up of about 120 strong, pulled together and created the NW Angle Guest Ice Road.
The ice road, which opened earlier this week, is 30 miles long. The road stays in Minnesota and travels over 22 miles of ice and eight miles through forest. It already has seen hundreds of hours invested in plowing, staking, erecting signage and building and placing bridges over cracks in the ice, which is standard protocol with an ice road.
When Henry first spoke with us about creating such a road, he estimated it would cost about $1,500 a mile to build and maintain.
“I drove up on it Monday and back on Wednesday,” Henry said in an email, adding that it’s looking “incredible.” Unseasonably mild temperatures held back the start of the ice road compared to a normal winter, but it’s now in great shape.
“Honestly, after experiencing postcard-type scenery and just the adventure of driving up, catching walleyes was just a bonus,” Henry said. “It felt good knowing we were supporting some great people.”
He added, “It’s a lot of labor, but a small community is coming together to fight for their existence. They’re caught between two nations during a pandemic. It’s a small group of entrepreneurs, and despite the fact that they work in competing businesses, they’re coming together and uniting to save each other. And it’s happening right before our eyes. ... It’s uncharted territory.”
Between the Igloo Bar, the idea that ice fishing just might make for the perfect socially distanced vacation and now this determined, neighborly community? Count us all in on Lake of the Woods.