Published January 25, 2010, 08:49 AM

Upper Red Lake: Ice road adventures

Buddy Hillman and fellow plow drivers Kelly Petrowske and Jonny Petrowske make ice roads for wintertime anglers on Upper Red Lake; a good ice road, in many ways, is like a work of art.

By: Brad Dokken, Northland Outdoors

WASKISH, Minn. — The cloud of white whooshing like a snow-and-ice tornado across the horizon of Upper Red Lake brought to mind the image of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character.

Or maybe Pig-Pen, the unkempt kid of “Peanuts” comic strip fame who’s perennially surrounded by a cloud of dust.

They’re common sights in winter on Upper Red, these white clouds. But here on the northern shore of Minnesota’s largest inland lake, the whirling walls of snow and ice usually mean one thing:

There’s a Hillman or a Petrowske nearby.

Driving a plow truck.

It could be Buddy Hillman, 43, whose family has owned the Hillman’s bait shop and general store in Waskish since the early 1940s. Or Kelly Petrowske, 54, whose grandfather homesteaded on the north shore of Upper Red in 1921 and who has made his living on or along the big lake most of his life. Or Petrowske’s son, Jonny, 35, who left a sales job in the Twin Cities a few years back to come home to Upper Red.

They’re not the only ones plowing roads on the lake, this trio, but few have been at the game longer.

And no one, Kelly Petrowske says, takes their plowing more seriously than Buddy Hillman, the unofficial captain of this team who approaches making an ice road the way an artist might approach a canvas.

“This is his passion,” Petrowske said. “He just loves it. Michelangelo painted a ceiling — Buddy makes ice fishing roads.”

Hillman highway

The Sistine Chapel, in this case, is an ice road that begins just across state Highway 72 from the Hillman Store in Waskish and continues west about nine miles to the boundary of the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

The ice road’s in the same place every winter, and it’s every bit as wide as a two-lane highway. If it’s not snowing or blowing too hard, Hillman says, you can see the light from the store seven miles out on the lake.

Besides plowing ice roads and charging a $10 daily fee for access, Hillman rents 13 “sleeper” ice houses to anglers who come mostly for walleyes; the Petrowskes rent eight of the overnight houses. In that sense, they’re competitors. But when it comes to plowing, they’re partners who work together to maintain some 25 miles of ice roads that allow anglers to reach some of the most remote spots on Upper Red’s north shore.

Another operator who rents houses along the north shore also helps out with the plowing.

“We’ve got a lot of roads, so without them guys, it would be tough,” Hillman said.

Ice time

As he is every day throughout the winter, Hillman’s on the ice clearing snow from the edges of the road on this January afternoon. His mode of transport is a rusty 1988 Ford F-350 diesel with an imposing-looking V-plow mounted to the front.

What it lacks in looks, the old

1-ton truck makes up for in power. Besides, Hillman says, an old truck is easier to fix. That’s a plus, because plowing an ice road is hard on equipment. Trucks break down. Sometimes, they even break through the ice. Hillman has a fleet of four V-plows and a straight blade and “a bunch of others” he keeps around for parts, and most are 1984 or older.

“Everybody gives me (grief) about these old trucks, but they’re the only ones that hold up,” he said.

Kelly Petrowske, who drives a Dodge Ram 2500 diesel that’s considerably newer than any of Hillman’s trucks, can’t help but chuckle when he talks about the aging fleet.

“Buddy does more with nothing than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Petrowske said. “He plowed two years in a truck that didn’t have a floor.”

Hillman’s old F-350 has a floor but an electric fan mounted in the cab appears to be the closest thing it has to a defroster. Rumbling across the lake on some sixth sense that allows him to see through a windshield that’s mostly covered with snow and slush, Hillman gives a visitor a crash course (maybe “quick course” would be a better phrase) on the finer points of building an ice road.

There’s more to it, he says, than plowing a long road out on the lake and gradually making it wider. Instead, Hillman says, he starts by plowing a road its full width — at least 150 feet — and gradually making it longer.

All of the snow goes to one side because the weight causes snow banks to pressure the ice and sink, which in turn makes the road more prone to flooding. Keeping the snow bank on one side also makes it easier for anglers to get off the road and access fishing spots away from the plowing.

It’s slow going, Hillman said, and it often takes him a full day to make a single mile of road.

“Last year, I kept track, and it took me 132 miles to make one mile of road,” Hillman said.

Lots of changes

There’ve been a lot of changes on Upper Red since the Hillmans and Petrowskes started plowing roads on the lake more than 30 years ago. Walleye populations crashed in the mid-1990s, and the fishermen quit coming.

Waskish turned into a ghost town, and for several years, there were no ice roads. Hillman made ends meet by laying flooring in the Twin Cities.

Then, about 10 years ago, a small group of local anglers hit the ice fishing equivalent of the mother lode — a huge population of slab crappies that had filled the void after the walleye collapse. Almost overnight, Waskish went from bust to boom and anglers — and ice fishing roads — were everywhere.

The crappie boom has run its course, but the walleyes are back. There’s a lot less traffic today than there was during the height of the boom, but anglers visiting Upper Red don’t lack for access options.

Not even Lake of the Woods, which has about a half-dozen plowed roads, offers as many access choices as Upper Red.

“I bet there are over 15 roads on the lake now,” Hillman said, “12 for sure.”

Job hazards

Hillman says he’s had trucks break through the ice nine times, but only once did he get wet — in January 2006, when he got a quick ride all the way to the bottom of the lake in 14 feet of water.

“It was just like a bunch of ice cubes,” Hillman said. “Sometimes, it’s just bad ice. It gets your attention.”

Petrowske’s wife, Patsy, happened to be driving on the lake not far from Hillman at the time.

“She came running up, and Buddy popped right up out of the hole,” Kelly Petrowske recalls with a laugh. “She asked him, ‘Where’s your truck?’”

With the help of Petrowske and some others, Hillman got the sunken truck out of the lake and even got it running again.

Later that winter, Hillman came out one morning to find a snorkel mounted to his truck along with two magnetic signs reading, “Buddy’s Underwater Crappie Tours.”

Petrowske admits he might have had something to do with that.

Despite the occasional misadventure and practical joke, Hillman admits there’s nothing he likes more than making a good ice road. Even if it means long days and late-night forays onto the ice to rescue a fisherman who’s gotten lost on the lake or broken down.

The job, he says, certainly beats laying flooring and living in the Twin Cities.

“I love it,” he said. “It isn’t always a money maker, I can tell you that for sure.”

Hillman pauses several seconds when asked about the attraction.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s not a bad office.”

For more information:

Hillman's Store: (218) 647-8504.

Kelly Petrowske, Waskish Minnow Station: (218) 647-8652.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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