Lake of the Woods shack-turned-cafe lures in winter fishers, ice road travellers

At a distance, Claudette Howe's brown shack just off the ice road on Lake of the Woods looks like it could be for ice fishing — but the little unassuming building is actually luring in the hungry with something more tantalizing than frozen minnows.

Hard Water Cafe on ice near Kenora, Ont., serving up hot drinks, food and sweet treats for second year

Claudette Howe and her husband get ready to open the Hard Water Cafe for business next to the ice road on Lake of the Woods. (Submitted by Claudette Howe)

A thunderous snowplow shakes the ice and shoots up walls of snow as it blows by a brown shack just off the ice road that starts on shore in Kenora, Ont., and snakes out onto Lake of the Woods.

At a glance, the shack looks like it could be for winter fishing, but the tiny unassuming building is actually a hotspot that's luring in the hungry with something more tantalizing than frozen minnows.

Claudette Howe and her husband had grown tired of the pace of retired life and last January opened the Hard Water Cafe, which is located out on the ice about a kilometre from the ministry landing just before Treaty Island.

Now into its second year, the little business keeps the grandmother busy.

"This thing gets any bigger and I'm going to have to hire [staff]," said Howe, laughing. 

"Isn't that what they say about retirement? You're busier when you're retired. I'm totally enjoying it though." 

Claudette Howe makes everything she sells at the Hard Water Cafe, which only opens on weekends. (Submitted by Claudette Howe)

She spends her week days caring for her 14-month-old grandson while keeping an eye on the oven as she bakes blueberry pies, lemon squares — even pumpkin and peanut butter dog treats — for the weekend.

A sign outside invites chilly passersby in for a bite on Saturdays and Sundays, where Howe sells sweet treats alongside piping hot coffee, apple cider, hot chocolate, chili and soup.

Chairs surround a steel bonfire pit in front of the cafe where people chow down and warm their toes.

A family of snowmobilers stops by the cafe for a treat in January. (Submitted by Claudette Howe )

Fishers, ice road travellers and locals make up most of Howe's customer base, but it also occasionally draws in tourists. Someone from Australia recently stopped by, said Howe.

"Everybody thinks it's an amazing thing," she said.

"A lot of people have been appreciating it. I've had a lot of support."

Andrea Ronnebeck and her family are repeat customers. They live in Kenora but have a cabin on Wolf Island that is only accessible by water in the summer, and they use the Lake of the Woods ice road in the winter for transporting big things like furniture and appliances to the cabin.

Snow blows by as Andrea Ronnebeck's friend visiting from southern Ontario buys some treats from Claudette. (Submitted by Andrea Ronnebeck)

When Ronnebeck's friend from southern Ontario visited, they decided to take her out on the ice for a treat in the unconventional cafe setting.

"She has never been on the ice road, let alone to a cafe on an ice road," said Ronnebeck, whose sampled Howe's apple pies, German chocolate brownies and chocolate caramel bar.

"It's a fun adventure and worth the five minute drive from the mainland."

Claudette Howe and her family out on the ice one sunny day last month. (Submitted by Claudette Howe )

Howe's daughter, Chayla Fonger, said the recurring customers rant and rave about the Hard Water Cafe. 

She said that the post-retirement business, and the positive energy that goes along with it, is making her mother happy.

"She's always been that type of people person and I think her being in retirement, she just wasn't getting that being around people aspect," said Fonger.

"I think that's why it was just, 'Oh my gosh, yes, let's do this and I completely support you!'"

A couple of people on fat bikes warm up with some hot drinks by the fire. (Submitted by Claudette Howe)

There have been bumps along the way. 

Within two weeks of the cafe opening last January it was shot at several times, as were other fishing shacks in the area. Luckily no one was hurt, and Ontario Provincial Police eventually arrested and charged two men, said Howe. Apart from that, the cafe has been incident-free.

Howe said things are expanding and getting more organized. In the near future, she has a special deal planned for couples on the weekend following Valentine's Day.

Long term, she's mulling adding another shack with indoor seating where people can escape the windswept lake on the colder days.

Howe said she has no plans of slowing down.

"We're going to be there for a while … as long as I can."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email


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