BAUDETTE, Minn. – Ask ice guides about the extremes of working the vast Lake of the Woods and they’ll tell you their work isn’t so much a job as a brotherhood. They’re self-described “men amongst men.”
So it was for a crew encountered Jan. 7 from Sportsman’s Lodge, located at the south end of the lake on the Rainy River and in competition with several nearby resorts for visitors who come from around the country hoping to catch fish. The ice guides know they need to provide the best experience possible.
Their 12- to 14-hour days can be intense. Each morning, the guides monitor ice cracks and weather conditions before shuttling visitors in large tracked vehicles called Bombardiers, or bombers, to pre-placed icehouses. A day of ice fishing costs $115, but prices vary.
While visitors fish, the guides use their bombers to drag unoccupied icehouses to different spots, then shovel snow around the outside to insulate them. The work demands physical strength, endurance and a bit of grit — a jovial personality helps, too.
“It’s a tough job for tough men,” said Joe Anderson, 56, an ice guide of five years with a distinctive laugh and endearing personality masked by a habit for telling bawdy jokes. “It can get dangerous real quick.”
The region has experienced some of the mild winter weather, but it’s normally anything but. Temperatures can be well below zero for weeks, sometimes accompanied by winds upward of 20 miles per hour. Bombers can break down miles from shore, or they may need to cross a large ice crack using a portable bridge. Stakes with flags posted along the edge of groomed ice roads help drivers navigate in whiteouts, when visibility can be fewer than 15 feet.
“I love when we’ve got everybody out here rockin’ and rollin’,” yelled Anderson over the roar of his bomber. He accelerated to keep up with the group, causing black smoke to pour from the exhaust and a smile to grow on his face.
The group of 10 was in high spirits because it was a nice sunny day with no troubles — but they never know what to expect next.
“It’s a mixed bag, just like the fishing,” Anderson said.
Matthew Weber is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.