BAUDETTE, Minn. — An uproar on Lake of the Woods social media last week highlighted what some call a long-standing rift in local resort towns between vacationers and year-round residents.
“There’s a great divide in this area about what is lake and what is town, who is local and who is not,” said Mike Kinsella, who owns Border View Lodge in Baudette. “It’s kind of unfortunate in the way that it’s, without a doubt, the opposite of 'Minnesota Nice.' ”
The rancor comes after the Lake of the Woods and neighboring Koochiching County commissioners voted Tuesday, March 24, to close county-controlled access points to the Rainy River in an effort to slow the influx of visitors to the area amid COVID-19 concerns. The Lake of the Woods board will revisit the decision at its meeting on April 14.
Baudette Mayor Rick Rone said the backlash on Facebook is not representative of the majority of either permanent residents or visiting anglers, and the vast majority of people are understanding of the board's decision in unprecedented times.
Still, Kinsella, who also sits on the Lake of the Woods Tourism Board, fears there will be long-term impacts on tourism to the area.
“These tourists, these people that are ‘going to kill everybody’s grandma,’ I think their responses are, ‘OK, we’ll remember, and we’ll go to places that want us to be there,' ” he said. “So yeah, there’s going to be a long-term effect.”
Gregg Hennum, owner of Sportsman’s Lodge in Baudette, said the tensions started around the same time the fear started.
As news of more positive COVID-19 cases in Minnesota reached the North Shore in the far northeast part of the state, year-round residents took to social media to tell tourists to go home, expressing fear that visitors from other areas would bring the virus with them to the small vacation towns or buy up items already in short supply at local grocery stores.
Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau Director Joe Henry said tourists had largely stopped coming to the area. He said, over the past few weeks, resorts have had to give tens of thousands of dollars in refunds for canceled reservations. Kinsella said, on one recent weekend, he had more than 100 bookings, five of which showed up.
In some ways, Henry said, it is fortunate the outbreak happened when it did. As businesses across the state scaled back operations and locked down, only the tail end of a robust winter ice fishing season was impacted, around the time when many resorts would be closing their books on the season anyway.
But Hennum said that healthy winter season, which drew huge numbers of visiting ice fishing enthusiasts, could now be contributing to some of the pushback against tourists.
Anglers logged a record 2 million hours of fishing pressure during the winter of 2018-19 on Lake of the Woods, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Numbers from this winter aren't yet available, but the estimate is expected to be every bit as high, if not higher.
"There's been an invisible wall between the town and the resorts for 40 years," Hennum said. "Nothing major. Just slight disagreements. But as soon as the fear factor started to build, that's when people, I noticed, started to get a little more vocal."
Henry said many walleye anglers consider the first two weeks of April to be the greater loss. He said the first half of April offers some of the best walleye fishing of the year, which in the “Walleye Capital of the World” draws anglers from across the Midwest.
He said that he understands the frustrations on both sides, from the fear of the year-round residents to the loss of a treasured tradition for walleye anglers.
"I mean, we had one person call us and say, 'I just want to verify that those accesses are actually closed. I've been coming up there from Rochester for 50 years, and this will be the first year I haven't fished the river,' " Henry said.
On social media, and especially in community Facebook groups, anglers argued that fishing is inherently an act of social distancing. Year-round residents argued, on the other hand, that anglers still congregate at access points, in gas stations and in grocery stores. Kinsella said, at some of the bitterest points preceding the commissioners’ decision to close access points, he saw some threatening to block access to roadways or commit other acts of violence against visitors.
Lake of the Woods County Sheriff Gary Fish couldn't be reached for comment by this publication's press deadline, but a Koochiching County dispatcher said there have been no reports resulting from threats seen on social media.
Hennum said he's not that active on social media, and so hasn't seen the vitriol he's heard about secondhand. Does he believe those threats will spill over into the offline world?
"Of course not," he said.
Rone emphasized the distinction between social media and real life and said that, while it’s easy to air frustrations from behind a computer screen, at the end of the day, Lake of the Woods residents are just scared of what effect the virus could have on their community with limited access to emergency medical care.
According to Rone, the LakeWood Health Center in Baudette has no ICU beds and no ventilators, and, after the departure of two doctors, the hospital is staffed by a single physician.
Henry said that fact has likely been a driving factor behind much of the online vitriol.
"During times like this when there's a lot of anxiety, you get all sorts of different emotions coming out," he said.