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Water Taxi Helps Walleye Enthusiasts Reach Resorts Economically Hit By Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Imagine running a business that is accessible by one road which is now illegal for your customers to drive. That is what's happening in the small resort community of Minnesota's Northwest Angle. One local man did the only thing he could to keep business open. Here's Minnesota Public Radio's John Enger.

JOHN ENGER, BYLINE: The Northwest Angle is technically part of Minnesota but just barely. It's cut off from the rest of the lower 48 by a massive lake - so far north, to get there by car you have to cross into Canada, drive 40 miles, then cross back into the U.S. Thousands of fishing enthusiasts hook up their boat trailers to make the trip every summer, pursuing the coveted walleye. They fill the 12 fishing resorts that underpin the Angle's entire economy and support the hundred-or-so year-round residents.

But not this summer. The Canadian border has been closed to all but essential travel since the start of the pandemic. While people who live on the Angle can drive back and forth, their customers can't. Economically speaking, they might as well be on an island. The only way to get there is on a big speedboat 40 miles across the shallow, choppy, sometimes dangerous lake of the woods. And the only boat available is Gregg Hennum's water taxi.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SWISHING)

ENGER: Hennum runs the only transport service to and from the Northwest Angle. He's the only reason resorts up there are just hurting and not dead. His boat leaves for the Angle every morning at 6:00 a.m., usually with a hired driver.

ZAK JOSEPHSON: Hi.

GREGG HENNUM: Hey.

ENGER: Today, the only passenger is Zak Josephson, a nomadic software developer who's thinking about settling down on the Angle. It's the isolation that appeals to him.

JOSEPHSON: And just not have to worry about being around crowds and infectious diseases and loud political people.

ENGER: The boat crosses 40 miles of rough waves in an hour and a half. Stone islands rise from the water. Young's Bay Resort is the main stop. This morning, owner Richard McKeever is sitting in his empty bait shop.

RICHARD MCKEEVER: On a normal morning like this, we would have six, eight trucks with boats waiting to launch here. You couldn't see the end of them, and now you see what we have.

ENGER: The Angle's economy is built on a dozen fishing resorts. Not one of them is turning a profit, but Hennum's shuttle service is helping most scrape by. Angle Outpost usually has 40 guests.

JASON GOULET: Actually, I'm at an all-time high (laughter). I've got three groups. No, I got two. One left yesterday. I got two groups, four people.

ENGER: They were dropped off by Hennum. At Sage's Angle Resort, two guests, both dropped off by Hennum. And at Grace Prothero's Trading Post...

GRACE PROTHERO: I've probably had 70 cancellations.

ENGER: Only about 20 guests actually came. And, well, you know how they got there.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SWISHING)

ENGER: For the evening's return trip, Gregg Hennum is at the helm. Early in the pandemic, he realized that the Angle was going to need some sort of water highway to survive. So he bought two more power boats, each with 600-horsepower outboards. It cost him almost $150,000. But he says it's not about the money. The Angle is in his blood. He grew up here, learning to read in the Angle's one-room schoolhouse.

HENNUM: You know, I'll do whatever I can to make this work for everybody. It's been crazy. I'm a little nervous about the winter (laughter).

ENGER: The ice fishing season is a big deal up here. Gregg Hennum would either have to plow 40 miles of the lake to make an ice road or outfit expensive track vehicles that operate on top of the snow. Either way, he says, he'll make it work. People here are relying on that.

For NPR News, I'm John Enger.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CALM BLUE SEA'S "NOW THOSE ASHES ARE AT THE BOTTOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.