True North

“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.
 

 

Celeste outfits a family of three with ice, life jackets, and bait in much the same manner as her late husband’s father, the titular Jake, would have when he started the resort back in 1945. The man gathers fishing poles while the woman snacks on a candy bar, sitting beside a scatter of kitchen table–type clutter: two fly swatters, a half bag of tortilla chips, a Sudoku puzzle book, a baseball cap, an open Bible, and a calendar for recording cabin bookings.

Next to the desk, a pink heart-shaped sign reads, “If we see you smoking, we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate measures.” Celeste has the same firm yet lighthearted tone in her voice when she insists on lending the family a cooler to store any fish they catch—no, no, you can’t use a stringer, the warm water will affect the quality of the fish.

Because the fishing at Lake of the Woods is some of the best in North America, there’s hardly a car in the Angle—nearly every visitor arrives in a truck or a motor home with a boat trailer hitched to the back. Paul estimates that 90 percent of their guests are repeats, who keep coming until they can’t. This weekend, two men were out fishing with their octogenarian fathers. “You have some groups die off on ya,” Paul admits. More than 10,000 visitors come and go each year, mostly family men in their forties who, in the summer, sport farmer tans, khaki shorts, and Ducks Unlimited T-shirts. At the end of the day, these groups will gather at Grumpy’s Bar & Restaurant, hunkered over plates of prime rib and iceberg salads, trading stories of the day’s catch.

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, socks, and Teva sandals, Paul extracts night crawlers from a box of dirt and packs them into small Styrofoam containers. He says that about two-thirds of Jake’s guests come for the walleye fishing; the rest hope to land muskie. Walleye fishermen, he explains, tend to be a relaxed bunch, focusing as much on group-bonding and wildlife-watching as bringing home a trophy. Muskie fishermen, on the other hand, tend to have a macho mindset that won’t be deterred by bad luck or weather. “For them, it’s like boot camp,” Paul says. “It’s a mine’s-bigger-than-yours mentality.”

Paul has been guiding since he was 13, and he knows the lake better than just about anyone. He says fish are plentiful these days due to a strong ethic of catch-and-release and the changing way the sport is being marketed. Paul and others are trying to emphasize the experience of fishing (enjoying the outdoors, landing a catch) rather than what you bring home (“kill shots” and a cooler-full of fillets). Fishermen don’t have to bring home dinner to justify a fishing trip to their wives anymore. “If you want your best buy on walleye,” Celeste says matter of factly, “go down to Byerly’s.”

But the waters haven’t always been calm. Because Lake of the Woods is shared by the United States and Canada, fishing rights have been a point of contention, particularly during the “walleye wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Ontario began imposing fees and quotas on Americans fishing in Canadian waters. The regulations discouraged visitors; resort bookings declined. When Angle residents lobbied Congress for help, no one paid much attention.

That is, until residents proposed to secede from the United States, in the spring of 1998, in what they now readily admit was a publicity stunt. As soon as Representative Collin Peterson introduced the resolution (which he had neglected to discuss with the Red Lake Indian Band, which controls the Angle’s uninhabited interior), the phones started ringing with calls from the Boston Herald, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. When a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times asked Paul if he thought the exploit had worked, Paul cracked, “Well, you called me.”

In the end, a compromise was reached and the Colsons did reap a few benefits from the dustup. Paul, for one, met his wife, who was selling fishing licenses at a Canadian resort, and, looking to increase business, Jake’s started accommodating ice fishermen, which now generates more revenue than summer fishing. Yet the unusual border continues to pose challenges.
 

 

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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