DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — The cartography of snowmobile trails north of Detroit Lakes, Minn., looks like the brain map of someone cold and confused. There are miles and miles (and miles) of trails, and they wind around in the most chaotic way through some of the most beautiful forests in Minnesota.
Most are groomed by hardy volunteers from snowmobile clubs with biker gang names like Northwoods Trail Reapers and Naytahwaush Nightriders — and the admittedly much-less-ominous-sounding Forest Riders Snowmobile Club. Becker County alone claims 400 miles of groomed trails and, when you get a bit farther north, the system expands into a mind-boggling muddle of signed-but-still-befuddling options. You can travel all day and see fewer than a half dozen other sleds.
But if you were to run across a gathering of snowmobilers temporarily weary of ditchbanging and tired of meandering the forest trails, it will be at one of a handful of hangouts for the hardy that serve their helmeted clientele hot respites from their cold woodland ramblings. Chili, cheese soups, burgers, fried chicken and beef. Heavy-duty dinners of the comfort food variety designed to support the mythical, but convenient, assertion that you can burn off all those calories in the cold.
Pinehurst Resort in Naytahwaush, Lobo’s near Itasca State Park, Hoot Owl Resort on Hoot Owl Lake and my favorite, Ice Cracking Lodge across the road from Ice Cracking Lake. Some have gas and all have grub and, in every case, they are warm, friendly and look every bit the kind of place you’d find off the beaten path in the Northwoods of Minnesota. In some cases, they really are off the beaten path.
Hoot Owl Resort is a dash across a lake that feels so remote you’d think the trail signs taking you there were a Midwestern joke and a couple of guys with hammers, leftover nails and a half can of paint were laughing at you at Bear’s Sports Bar in Waubun.
You can get to Ice Cracking Lodge through a mess of backwoods trails, trail 275 and county Highway 35 in Ponsford. It’s a box of a building with a gravel parking lot filled, sometimes, at this time of year, with snowmobiles. But inside it does the heavy pine bit very well with log furniture, roomy booths, an intimate bar and, of course, slot machines.
The menu is what you might expect of an up-north resort that doesn’t know how to be pretentious. But it’s also what you were hoping for. The Thunder Burger is the half-pound beef patty served in all the variations you’d expect of a bar burger, including combinations of bacon, Swiss cheese, pepper jack and barbecue sauce that give you the no-nonsense burger names you see on menus all across the Midwest like California Thunder Burger and Bacon Thunder Burger. Mercifully missing are avocados, shiitake mushrooms, chevre and wagyu — pleasant in their own time and place, but not on a trail and not in the woods.
Our dinner consisted of just such a Thunder Burger ($11.99 for a basket with sides) and also fried chicken ($15.99) with a substantial bowl of coleslaw and a very nicely put together side of garlic mashed potatoes.
The prime rib and baked potato, spendy at $30.99, is advertised as 16 ounces but was a pound and half if it didn’t weigh in at more. At the end of it all, a Blue Moon, a slice of turtle pie and a pleasant chat with a server who talks to you like she knew you in high school — and it was far enough in the past that you can’t be sure she didn’t.
The point is, Minnesota is cold. Washington, D.C., is crazy. Enough people have lost their minds that disappearing into the woods to soak up the scenery, eat fried chicken at a table made of pine logs and watch a guy on TV take aim at a wild turkey while whispering to the camera like it was all a big secret might be exactly what you need.
Inside the restaurant you wear a mask, not to make a point but because the sign says so, and someone might close them up if you don’t. You can sit far enough away from others to be safe and eat food made carefully, served with condiments individually packaged in little tubs.
Snowmobile trails like Strawberry Mountain Road may as well be a million miles from the next potential infection and, inside your helmet, you only have your own breath to think about. It may be the best version of “stay safe” you will run across all winter.
Ice Cracking Lodge
- Address: 30389 county Highway 35, Ponsford, Minn.
- Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Wednesday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday, and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Phone: 218-573-3631
- Online: www.facebook.com/icecrackinglodge
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.