The tires spun in place, desperately searching for purchase in the newly deposited drifts of snow. The wind had picked up significantly in the minutes since we descended the boat ramp and adventured onto the frozen expanse of one of Voyageurs National Park’s famed ice roads. Visible just moments earlier, the road was now buried beneath an unforgiving blanket of white.
Slush began to form. For the first time since driving onto the ice, a slight panic began to set in. It was like a scene from an improbable car insurance commercial that was writing itself in real time. I imagined the call to my insurance agent, explaining that my car was stuck on a lake in northern Minnesota.
In a last ditch effort for salvation, I cleared some of the snow that had built in front of and behind my wheels and revved the engine. The tires groaned as they regained their grip and carried us across the ice and back to dry land without further incident. Escaping with only a minor sinking feeling and a bit of disappointment at the brief foray, I could only laugh and settle on a personal theory that felt like it was ringing more true with each new sought-after experience. Adventures, however you define them, often happen in that impossible-to-anticipate moment when the unexpected meets the unplanned.
You won’t fall through, guaranteed
For most visitors to Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, a trip across one of the ice roads is a way to experience a side of the park that is unique to winter. While mishaps like the one above do happen, the overwhelming majority of ventures across the the frozen roadway are hassle-free. Crews work hard to plow set routes through newly fallen snow, but changing weather conditions can contribute to slippery situations.
The ice must be a minimum of 12 inches thick before the park will allow travel across the temporary roadways—and officials won’t hesitate to shut down sections that pose potential risk. “We have rigorous safety standards,” says Tanya Schoewe, the park’s Chief of Interpretation. “The most common issues are drifts of blowing snow and the resulting formation of slush. We wouldn’t ever let it get to a point where someone would fall through.”
Established in 1975, Voyageurs National Park encompasses an area of over 200,000 acres, a third of which is water. In the colder months, that third is transformed into a frozen expanse that invites pursuits ranging from snowmobiling and skiing to the unique opportunity of driving on ice. The park currently maintains two separate ice roads from November to April. The seven-mile Rainy Lake Ice Road, which has been in operation since the mid 1990s, departs from the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, while the five-year-old Kabetogama Lake Ice Road connects 15 frozen miles between the Kabetogama and Ash River Visitor Centers.
Other activities on the ice
At Rainy Lake, winter enthusiasts can borrow snowshoes for free and rent cross-country skis for a nominal fee. The park grooms ski and snowshoe trails along the ice road as well as on a few of the islands it passes, allowing visitors to park at any point and explore the areas off the road.
Interpretative signs are set up along both roads, enlightening visitors to the park’s unique history and educating them about conservation efforts. Rangers at the park have no shortage of recommendations and maps available to those who inquire, making adventure along the ice roads easy to find.
“One of the coolest things to explore on the Rainy Lake road is definitely snowshoeing to the old gold mine shaft on Bushyhead Island,” says Schoewe. “As for Kabetogama, there’s an ice rink and sledding hill, and of course ice fishing anywhere off the roads.”
The new normal
Driving the ice roads at Voyageurs National Park is a one-of-a-kind experience. There’s the awkward feeling of motoring past the dock onto the lake and the constant pops and cracks that reverberate from the thin layer of compacted snow over the ice. But after a while, the whole process begins to feel normal, even unremarkable, as the beauty of the national park unfolds and you forget, if only for a moment, that what lies beneath is anything but.
Having recovered from the disappointment of turning back early the previous day, feeling and encouraged by much better weather, my own trip along the ice roads of Voyageurs started again on day two with fresh optimism and renewed vigor. As fate would have it, a mere mile into the second attempt we were met by crews busy at work, clearing a path through the same snow that had stalled us earlier.
Returning to shore by way of the boat launch, the same laugh manifested just as it had the day before. Strapping into my skis and taking off across the lake from shore was both unexpected and unplanned—the perfect ingredients for an adventure.