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True North

True North
Photo by Jonathan Chapman

(page 3 of 3)

Last spring, CNN dispatched a reporter from Anderson Cooper 360° to the Angle’s drive-up Customs station, a location so casual it’s known simply as “Jim’s Corner.” In contrast to the more secure stations in Warroad or Roseau, where driver’s licenses are scrutinized and vehicle trunks inspected, Jim’s is little more than a shack equipped with a pay phone and videophone, where visitors push one of two buttons (American flag to enter the Angle, Canadian to leave) and relay their birth dates and license-plate numbers. The CNN report suggested that the unmanned border posed a significant terrorist threat in our post-9/11 world, a supposition many Angle residents felt was sensational. About a dozen years ago, the Colsons helped border officials apprehend a group of illegal immigrants trying to enter the United States through Canada without a Customs check-in, but they consider that an isolated incident.

The Colsons would know. Their history on the Angle dates back to Jake’s arrival in 1917, when, as he used to say, you could fall asleep to the sound of Indian drums echoing across the lake. Since that time, fishing resorts have been the Angle’s main business, though not always a terribly lucrative one. The Colsons persisted because they believed the Angle was a good place for their children to grow up, learning to work beside their parents, helping out as gophers and dock hands.

“Raising a family was the reason I came back to the resort,” says Paul, who, like many of the area’s youth, tried life in the city before returning to his roots. (During his first year of college in Flagstaff, Arizona, he decorated his dorm room with a bearskin rug.) Paul likes the way the community helps keep an eye on his three young sons, and how the one-room school is isolated from the problems of urban schools. “It’s the only drug-free school in the state,” Celeste remarks. When Angle children reach junior high, they must transfer to the school in Warroad, 65 miles away, where Paul found the other kids to be decidedly less mature. “We’re sheltered by choice, not out of ignorance,” he says.

WHEN NORM AND JOAN Undahl moved from Minneapolis to Oak Island, a few miles off the Angle mainland, in 1975, their families thought they were crazy. “Both of our parents said, ‘It’s like you’re moving 40 years back in history,’” Joan recalls. In many ways, it was true. Milk was kept cold in a hole in the ground and human waste was disposed of in a latrine. But along with full moons and hooting owls, it was all part of the experience. Today the Undahls live in a modern home next to what used to be Norm’s Camp, the resort they built and managed for nearly three decades. But they live a simple life. “If we get a new pair of jeans and L.L. Bean boots, we’re in fine shape,” Joan remarks. When the Undahls owned Norm’s, she says, the cabins had only two clocks: one that ran backwards, and another that had lost its arms. But no one seemed to care in a place so far north that the summer sun sets a half-hour later than it does in Minneapolis. “The only two times you needed to know was when you arrived and when you left,” Joan says.

Back then, the Undahls went to town (meaning Warroad) only a half-dozen times a year, relying on the daily passenger and freight boat service to deliver groceries and supplies. (When the Coast Guard required the aging captains to upgrade from wood- to steel-hulled boats, the passenger service went out of business.) When the lake freezes in fall and thaws in the spring, the Undahls can’t leave their water-locked home. They adjust by canning, storing, and eating less-perishable foods, which Joan didn’t mind until she visited a Minneapolis grocery store: “The produce department was beautiful, so colorful,” she remembers. “I oohed and ahhed and people must have thought I just came out of a mental institution.” But missing out on fresh foods and new movies or having to do your own repairs are minor inconveniences. As Angle residents age, access to health care is one of their biggest concerns. Celeste says a 911 operator once told her, “Don’t bother calling us, because we won’t come.”

Overall, though, Angle residents don’t seem to yearn for urban life. Rick McKeever, the proprietor of Young’s Resort, was born on nearby Flag Island but lived for years in the Twin Cities. He remembers the day he decided to leave: he’d stopped to get gas and the station wouldn’t take cash for fear the cashier might get robbed. “If that’s the way it’s got to be, I thought, then I’ve got to go home.”

Home was where his grandpa and father were commercial fishermen until his father started the Flag Island Resort. After spending his youth loading ice and taking out garbage, McKeever didn’t want to become a resort owner—and neither did his wife. “When we got married, she made me promise we would never go into the resort business,” he says with a grin. Their attitude changed when they got the chance to buy Young’s in the early 1970s. “I couldn’t drag her away now,” he says.

McKeever spends most of the summer behind the counter of the resort’s store, scooping minnows out of the sinks and monitoring the 150-dock marina. In the winter he builds $350,000 cabins “to try to get this off,” he jokes, patting a nonexistent beer belly. Even the Angle isn’t immune to forces of gentrification, albeit at a much slower rate than other lakeside communities. New development has recently spurred some controversy, particularly the large shared capital development being proposed on Oak Island. Yet the more things change on the Angle, the more they stay the same. Even with a cell phone clipped to his belt and a couple of cordless phones on the counter, McKeever still uses the marine band radios that Angle residents relied on before phone service. A few local busybodies bought radios, McKeever says, just so they could listen in.

Ironically, privacy is one thing Celeste Colson misses from her days in the Twin Cities. Even though there are places in the Angle where “you could walk outside without a stitch on, and nobody would know,” Colson says, gossip travels fast where everyone knows each other’s business. (The post office once delivered a letter to Colson’s daughter addressed with just her first name and the Angle Inlet Zip Code.) “I know what you’re doing now,” Colson says of her neighbors, “but I also know what you did last week, and what your family is doing.”

One man remains a mystery, though: the Angle’s so-called hermit, Houston Lockwood, who lived in a tiny cabin hidden in thea simply furnished living room in  a log cabin woods. He survived off the land for many years until committing suicide about 25 years ago, blowing himself up with dynamite at a place called Blueberry Rock.

In the back room of Prothero’s Trading Post sits an aging man whose knuckles are as knobby as the wood he whittles—Dale Prothero, who keeps Lockwood’s memory alive. The log cabin, which Prothero built, is furnished with handmade bookshelves and braided rugs, and near the fireplace there’s a painting of Lockwood, a Grizzly Adams–type, paddling a canoe. On the wall hangs Lockwood’s “winter suit,” made of buckskin from a deer he shot and killed. The graying shirt and pants, with fringes on the sleeves and buttons made from antlers, make the room seem even more like the scene of an old National Geographic photograph, historic and exotic.

To outsiders, the lore of Lockwood, the mythological muskies, and the controversies of the Canadian border, are all a part of the Angle’s allure, creating a curiosity that’s almost anthropological. “The first time people come up here,” Rick McKeever notes, “they think they’re at the end of the earth.” But to Angle residents, these quirks are part of life. This is home, and it’s almost normal. MM

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

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