Northwest Angle

The Northwest Angle:  A geographic anomaly, a small triangle of American territory completely isolated from the rest of Minnesota, cut off from the United States by sixty miles of Canadian wilderness and the vast, mysterious waters of Lake of the Woods.

Lake of the Woods: One of the largest bodies of water on the North American continent.  Straddling the U.S. Canadian border, it is eighty miles long, sixty miles wide, and contains more than 14,000 islands, mostly uninhabited.  This is the best walleye-fishing lake in the world.  It has also become a notorious avenue for international smuggling.

Like many Minnesotans, I’d heard of Lake of the Woods and the Northwest Angle, but I’d never paid much attention.  These were places so far north that not many people—except really rabid walleye fishermen—ever went there.  But nearly a year ago, while casting about for a good seed idea for the next Cork O’Connor novel, I happened to visit the Kitchigami library system (think Brainerd) in northwestern Minnesota.  After one of the events, I went out with the librarian and some other folks for a beer or two.  For reasons I can’t now recall, talk turned to the Northwest Angle.  When I heard, really heard, about this place, all my sensibilities as a mystery writer tingled.  Here was a remote, little known area surrounded by a vast body of water that contained a gazillion, mostly wild islands, with an international border running through it.  In addition, much of the land was held by the Ojibwe.  I thought to myself, All kinds of criminal activities could go on out there, hidden among those islands. Honest to god, by the time I’d returned to St. Paul, I had a rough outline of the story already in my head.

But I’d never been to the Angle, as it’s called by locals.  And because I write profoundly out of a sense of place, I knew I had to visit the area and spend time on the Lake of the Woods.  So in mid-July, that’s exactly what I did.

Internationally speaking, the Angle is problematic.  After driving almost eight hours north from the Twin Cities, you hit the border just outside Warroad, Minnesota.  You have to pass through customs where, because of the events of 9/11, passports have become necessary.  Then you drive another hour on mostly back road, some of it pretty rugged, and, in the middle of a great woodland, cross the border back into the United States.  There’s no customs office at that point, only a sign noting the shift of nationality.  A few miles farther, you come to a place called Jim’s Corner, where there’s a little, unmanned booth with a video phone and instructions (a little vague) on how to call into U.S. customs to report your entry.  Sometimes the videophone works and sometimes it doesn’t.  For me, it didn’t.  So I entered the U.S. technically illegally.  I would later learn the horrible potential in this action.

We drove, my wife and I, for several more miles along the dusty washboard road through thick forest until we finally came to the Angle.  I was surprised.  In a place so far removed, I’d expected primitive conditions.  The Angle is remarkably modern.  Electricity, land phones, even Internet.  The only thing you can’t count on is cell phone reception.  It’s pretty hit or miss (mostly miss) up there.

At Young’s Landing, we were picked up by Deb of the Island Passenger Service and ferried out to Oak Island, where we’d made arrangements to stay at the Angle Inn Lodge.  Our wonderful hosts, Debra Kellerman and Tony Wandersee, greeted us and our Lake of the Woods adventure began.

In my next posting, I’ll tell you all about our exploration of that incredible lake and the graciousness of the folks who call it home.

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