Border Closure: The Challenge in Reaching Minnesota’s Northwest Angle & Islands

 In Warroad

The Canadian border is currently closed to tourists and cabin owners who want to access Minnesota’s Northwest Angle and islands in Lake of the Woods. It is prompting many to travel there the way folks did 50 years ago, via a long, windy, bouncy trip over 40-plus miles of open water. But the destination always has made the journey worthwhile.

Written By: Jess Myers | May 23rd 2020

Border closing

FLAG ISLAND, Minn. — You don’t get to the Minnesota islands in Lake of the Woods by accident. In the world of “heading to the lake cabin” in a state that has roughly a million of them, this is the advanced version.

From the Twin Cities, it can take nine hours to get door-to-door from house to cabin, in the same state. Even from nearby towns like Warroad and Roseau, the trip to Flag, Oak, Brush or one of a half-dozen other Minnesota islands involves packing a car, clearing Canadian customs (passport required), driving 65 miles (more than half of it on gravel), checking back in with American customs, loading everything from your car into a boat then traversing 20-30 minutes by water before finally unpacking at the dock.

Forgot something? It’s two hours (through Manitoba) to the nearest full-service grocery/hardware/liquor store. Medical emergency? Again, two hours to the nearest hospital. A dozen years ago, a freak injury to our dog while visiting family led to an hour in the boat and a 220-mile round trip drive to an emergency veterinarian in Steinbach, outside Winnipeg.

But when you get there, in the midst of 14,000 mostly uninhabited islands, the scenery, the serenity and the fishing make it absolutely worth the journey.

Jumbled geography

Created as a result of a map-making error more than 200 years ago, Minnesota’s Northwest Angle (or, as you can describe it to visitors: “that bump that sticks up at the top of the state” ) is one of those anomalies that your eighth-grade geography teacher likely stumped you with as the bonus question on a test. These islands and a chunk of the mainland that are part of Minnesota are surrounded by Manitoba to the west, Ontario to the north and east, and 40-plus miles of open water to the south.

Until 1970, when that winding and dusty gravel road was carved through the thick woods, the only way to get to the Angle was by water or by bush plane. Prior to that, two big wooden boats named the Resolute and the Bert Steele made the four-hour trek from Warroad and back daily in the open water season across the Big Traverse — that stretch of open water roughly three times the size of Mille Lacs Lake, so named by voyageurs for the challenge of crossing it by canoe in the early 1700s.

In the depths of the Great Depression, my maternal grandfather Julius Anderson of Warroad was offered 70 acres of land on Flag Island, including a little less than a mile of shoreline, for the then-whopping price of $125. Until his passing in 1996, Grandpa Julius always (we assume) joked that he only had $75 in the bank, and had to marry my grandmother to get the other $50.

Before her passing a decade later, I sat down with my grandmother, Phyllis Anderson, with a recorder running and listened to her describe life in small-town northern Minnesota in the 1930s through the 1970s. It was fascinating, and among the most mesmerizing stories were those of trips to Flag Island — the boat ride, the small harbor on Oak Island, traveling from there to their cabin on the next island over, roughly a mile away, by rowboat, and living on light, heat and energy provided by wood, candles, kerosene lamps and propane. Everything used to build the cabins that dot the shoreline came over water. Every nail, board, shingle and major appliance was loaded into and out of a boat at some point.

In the summer of 1969, when I was a few weeks old, my parents brought me along on one of those boat trips. Long before child safety seats became the mode of travel for young children, this infant was placed in the bottom of a wooden fish crate lined with blankets and dubbed “Jess’s Ark” for the slow, windy, bouncy journey across the Big Traverse.

A year after that, the road opened, and in the 50 years since, I have been to our cabins on Flag Island every summer, but have made just three more trips across the big water.

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