In the bone-chilling deep-freeze of northern Minnesota, there are dozens of lakes and one deepening mystery.
Smack in the middle of North Long Lake, surrounded by eight miles of ice thick enough to drive on, there is a gaping black hole nearly a half-mile long.
It is a lake within a frozen lake — a huge crescent of open water that, for some reason, refuses to freeze over.
"I've never seen anything like it," said lakefront resident Joan Rush, standing on her back porch as clouds of steam rose from the hole.
"I don't go out there," she said, "I just stay here and watch."
The hole first appeared last winter, and returned this year.
Since then, more than a dozen snowmobilers have fallen in. One died.
Local authorities ordered an investigation, and have spent $10,000 trying to figure out why this section of the lake seems to defy the forces of nature.
Divers with cameras probed the 20-foot depths looking for currents and seismic activity, but found nothing unusual. A team of scientists have tested for just about everything, but still have no idea what is causing the phenomenon.
"It's uniformly warm from the bottom to the top, surprisingly so. That's what's keeping the lake open," said scientist Alan Cibuzar. "I have never seen anything like this."
Since the black hole opened up last year, it has frozen over only once. Not in sub-zero temperatures, but on a balmy 40-degree day.
Locals' Theories Vary
With every bizarre twist, the mystery grows. So do the theories about how the hole was formed.
At the Sportland Cafe, a combination gas station, diner and convenience store, conversation centers on the mystery.
"It must be some kind of volcanic action," said a waitress topping off a cup of decaf.
"It could be aliens or someone's septic backing up," added a man in coveralls between bites of his waffle.
But Ed Peck, sitting on a swivel stool nearby, doesn't think any of his neighbors' theories hold water. "I think it's a bunch of hooey myself. It's no mystery. We live on an earthquake fault up here. People don't realize that."
Hole Puts Town on the Map
Back out on the lake, bundled up ice fishermen drill holes and tie bobbers in full view of the steaming hole. Other than not venturing too close, most pay no attention to the mist and the open water. "The fishing was never that great here anyway," said one teenage fisherman gripping a bag filled with wriggling minnows.
In the distance, there is the sound of a four-wheeler snowmobile and the unmistakable crunch of tire chains on ice. Ken Rush, 80, pulls into view. His four-wheeler tows a pair of old couches — perches for the curious. Rush has taken on the role of Unofficial Tour Guide and chronicler of the black hole's every move.
"From the other day, it's open further on that end and more frozen at the other end," Rush explained, gesturing widely. "This has put Brainerd on the map."
Local businesses are seizing the notoriety. At a waterfront restaurant called Iven's Restaurant on the Bay, a huge sign announces, "Come sip our Black Hole Martini and view the hole."
The martini is a purplish concoction of vanilla vodka and black Sambuca. In the drink-sized version of the black hole, there is no mystery. The "hole" is a black licorice jellybean bobbing at the bottom of the glass.