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True North

True North
Photo by Jonathan Chapman

(page 1 of 3)

“I’M GONNA HIT IT NOW,” Celeste Colson warns, then throws her 18-foot Lund into gear. The boat lurches forward, streaking across the sparkling blue expanse at hang-on-to-your-hat velocity. Up in the Northwest Angle—the “bump,” or “chimney,” on the border between Minnesota and Canada—speedboats are as common as pickup trucks. The majority of the territory is water: a portion of Lake of the Woods, with a few small islands and a 130-square-mile peninsula that borders Manitoba. Colson cranks the wheel and motors up Bear River, a marshy, slow-flowing creek that runs into the lake. Bear River looks like Minnesota’s answer to the Everglades, with a curvy, boat-wide swath cut through a carpet of wild rice. Captain Colson drives like she’s chasing bass in the bayou, taking hairpin turns with NASCAR ferocity.

On this scorching July afternoon, Colson is headed to Linda Kastl’s house, which is too remote to be reached by road. In the summer, Kastl and her family commute by boat; in the winter, they get around by snowmobile. This sort of isolation has always been the Angle’s defining characteristic. The peninsula was created by mistake by early surveyors. In 1818, when the problem was “fixed,” the little chunk of land—which, by all rights, should probably belong to Canada—was given to the United States.

The lonely gravel road to the 70-person town of Angle Inlet from “mainland” Minnesota (which requires American visitors to drive north into Canada, then back east into the United States) wasn’t built until the 1970s. Before then, the Angle was accessible only by boat or float plane. Residents didn’t have electricity until the mid-1970s; phone service came along in 1991. Angle Inlet is home to the last one-room public schoolhouse in the state; Kastl is its teacher. (She remembers her job interview: “The principal asked if I had a strong arm and I thought, ‘Are the kids that unruly?’ Then he told me, ‘You have to start the snowmobiles after school.’”) Last year, Colson’s three grandsons were Kastl’s only students.

Ten minutes later, Colson ties up her boat at Kastl’s dock, where she is greeted by three barking bichons. The cabin is cozy and modern: there’s a microwave tucked into a log cubby, a cool blast of air conditioning. While Kastl wraps up a call on her cell phone, Colson visits with her children, teenagers dressed in T-shirts advertising Old Navy and Disney. The Angle may be the northernmost point in the contiguous United States—historically, Minnesota’s wildest wild—but, in some respects, it could be Maple Grove.

While pagers, Internet, and GPS have certainly arrived at the Angle, they’ve hardly changed its culture. Resort owners may take reservations online, but they’re still renting out tiny hand-built cabins. The Angle is one of the last communities where you can seal a deal with a handshake and live among lifelong neighbors. It’s the sort of place where checks don’t bounce, drivers leave their keys in the ignition, and, if the proprietor isn’t manning the store, you can help yourself and pay later.

THE HEADQUARTERS OF Jake’s Northwest Angle, the resort that Colson runs with her son, Paul, and her daughter-in-law, Karen, is a combination office, store, and spot to stop and shoot the breeze. Its walls are decorated with instructional placards (How to Release Fish and Muskellunge and Northern Pike: Know How to Tell the Difference), plus a few poster-size fishing photos, including one of a blond, mulleted teen who grew up to be Paul, 36. The shelves are stocked with everything from T-shirts to toothbrushes; sunscreen, baked beans, Pampers, and shore lunch kits; fuses, Folgers, disposable cameras, and cans of Malkin’s jam. An entire section is devoted to fishing lures, including muskie plugs (lures) as big as a child’s forearm that are set with heavy-duty treble hooks.

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