A vacation-long stay in the frosty hinterlands of northern Minnesota where Breeah’s family resides was highlighted, of course, by a jaunt up to the famed Northwest Angle, the only piece of land belonging to the contiguous United States that sits north of the 49th parallel.
Only someone like me would dream of the Northwest Angle as a travel destination. Outside of it being a mapping oddity, it really has no immediate attraction outside of being nestled in the rather mystical Lake of the Woods. If you want to get there by car (which, thanks to her father, we made a go of it this way), you will be crossing through an equally sparsely populated cut of Manitoba (which was likely preceded by a drive through, well, sparsely populated portions of Minnesota and/or North Dakota, depending on the route you take). There is nothing to “see” here, but that’s not the reason people like me go up there.Yes, we go up there to say we’ve been there, but there are honestly very few places left quite like the Northwest Angle. Tucked away in the back pockets of the United States is this little piece of land that is everything you’d expect from a remote and strange anomaly such as it is. The Angle delivers on everything you’d expect it to. It is one wickedly cool place…
We set out on Dec. 29 – which, under normal circumstances – would be a hideous day to set forth for the Angle. But it had so far been a brown winter with unseasonable warmth. We left from Warroad, Minnesota – which I’ll talk about later in the week – where Breeah’s brother was stationed for a hockey tournament. From Warroad – which, by road at least, is the closest American town to the Angle. Five or six miles up is the Manitoba border – which, upon crossing, I gained my seventh Canadian province! cha-ching! Whether I got the feel of Manitoba is arguable, since we only drove through the small towns of Middlebro and Sprague, each of which don’t offer much in the way of attractions. In fact, the first couple miles of Manitoba is undeveloped and swampy – a nature preserve of sorts.
Oh – before I forget, we had to check in with both the U.S. and Canada border patrols before crossing into Manitoba. Each one was mildly amused at our plans – with the Canadian side being a tad more helpful in providing a map and instructions on how to report to customs upon reaching the Angle.
The road changes to gravel once you get past the turnoff to Moose Lake Provincial Park. After a short while you finally come among a cluster of signs indicating your arrival in the Angle and U.S. territory. As you can see from my previous post, the blue sign marks the border while another sign on the left side of the road advertises the Angle as the top of the country. Yet another sign further down marks the spot as Red Lake Indian Reserve territory (as most of the Angle is) and, of course, a Manitoba sign beckons on the opposite end as you return as well as a phone reporting station to be used if the lights are flashing. It’s a cornucopia of obscure road sign photo ops if there ever was.
The gravel road is rather smooth up to Jim’s Corner, which houses the small customs booth right before you get into town. It’s a bit of a ride – I think we calculated 11 miles – before you actually get into Angle Inlet, the de-facto “capital” of the Angle. Yes, you actually can enter the Angle without having to check in with customs, that is, if you decide to turn back before reaching Jim’s Corner. Before I get too off track, Angle Inlet is actually one of three residential areas in the Angle. According to the local phone book in Warroad, where I gleefully perused through the three pages of Northwest Angle listings, the area also includes Penasse and Oak Island as separate entities – and people do actually have addresses on these other islands off the Angle coast. In fact, I met someone who used to work on Oak Island – I’ll get back to that later on here…
Anyway, so we passed by maybe 2-3 trucks (including one semi) on the road up the Angle. Upon arrival at Jim’s we had to wait behind a couple pairs in the reporting line. The booth is worth the trip in itself. All four of us huddled into the cramped little station and dialed up the U.S. on the video phone and exclaimed our arrival in the Angle. The video phone is a rather simple device, portraying live video of yourself (which is, I presume, relayed back to the customs office) while you report to the customs official over the phone. Only two buttons exist on the phone, an American flag and a Canadian flag. The official will ask for all names in the party, the license plate (and sometimes car make/model/color) and the birth dates of everyone. On the way back, the Canadians gave us a reporting number, which I assume is used if one is stopped and questioned along the way.
From Jim’s Corner you can head east or west, with large signs pointing out every establishment in each direction. It’s almost as if they are saying “so you want to see the northernmost school and post office? well, go this way…”. So, yes, our first order of business was to head as north as possible, even though we pretty much knew the northernmost point would be a highly unlikely destination today (it’s a good five miles out of town with no passable roads save for some snowmobile tracks).
The “town” comes into view quite quickly after leaving Jim’s. There are a few roads in the community and houses range from trailer-size to typical suburban neighborhood quality. One that stuck out in particular was this huge log house that we guessed was a resort. We found out later that, no, it was actually just a house (for three people) that was going to be utilized as a bed and breakfast sometime in the future and that it would be hosting the town’s New Year’s party as well.
We drove by Grumpy’s Resort – which appeared to be just a log house. A building nearby had a restaurant sign on it, but didn’t look to be doing any business. Further up the road was the General Store, the mini “most northerly” post office and the golf course. The post office was a treat – it’s one of the smallest I’ve ever seen and I was about ready to get a cancellation but nobody was manning the station, despite our arrival being during operating hours according to the sign on the door.
We hopped back in the car and headed further into town, stopping at the neighboring Angle Inlet School and St. Luke’s Church, both the northernmost of their kind in the lower 48. The Angle Inlet school is a one room school – the last in Minnesota – which is almost outdone in size by its playground. Of course, I dunked on the northernmost basketball hoop as well.
It’s funny, the whole time we couldn’t shake the feeling that this little town had been deserted. There was very little – if any – movement around town. One almost felt like they we’re being watched. It wasn’t necessarily eerie, just odd. It was rather peaceful, really, though we did feel like we we’re sharing this remote place with only us and a lone deer wandering around the neighborhood. We followed the deer further down until we could drive no more – ending at Sage’s Angle West – a summer resort near the northwestern shore. We looped back into town and drove down a couple other neighborhood streets, taking in the “airport” and airstrip (just an open field really) and heading into the General Store. A very nice lady (and first sign of life in town) ran the place and it was stocked with various souvenirs, handcrafted items, snacks and pop. We gave them some good business, as I walked out with a $13 hat and Breeah’s mom bought some mittens and a collectible ruler to measure fish. I also grabbed a couple maps and the local “historical” paper – which is brimming with stories, facts and general history about the Angle and is a great read. I scanned the front page and collected a few maps/handouts into a downloadable PDF.
We now drove back, passed Jim’s Corner and towards Jerry’s Restaurant on the northeastern shore of the Angle. To our surprise, Jerry’s was not only open but quite welcoming inside. It’s a full restaurant stocked with photos, articles, nic-nacs, maps, a pool table and other random things. It’s a colorful place, really. The food is quite good as well – I ordered the “Juicy Lucy” which is a double burger with plenty of cheese in the middle. I couldn’t complain.
Breeah’s dad and I ran into a local while meandering around the place. He was the type of guy you could talk with for hours, maybe not so much because you wanted to, just because he keeps on talking. The former Oak Island worker told of how the islands (mostly in Ontario) resemble European scenery and every island is worth many photographs in itself (I don’t doubt that). I asked him how one would go about reaching the northernmost point of land on the angle to which he exclaimed…
“Oh, it’s easy. You just need a snowmobile pulling a canoe – and maybe some snowshoes just in case.”
Yeah, I’ll get on that. I imagine the ice that way hadn’t froze to the point of trusting a snowmobile all the way there – hence the necessity of the canoe. He said someone had asked him about that trip earlier and he regretted not taking him up on it.
We left Jerry’s and drove onto the ice – my first experience with “ice road trucking.” There were already a few huts set up for ice fishing and various traffic was making its way up and down the ice to set up shop. It’s so weird – almost a feeling of walking on water – to be out walking around the middle of a lake. One could drive on this ice all the way back to Warroad, cutting travel time considerably I suspect. I’m not sure you could do that when we were there – as it was still unseasonably warm and the ice cover in Warroad was suspect.
So it was back to Jim’s Corner and back to Canada (and then the “mainland” U.S.). Upon arrival near Warroad the U.S. border agent asked if we had fun at the Angle – joking that we never really made it to the top since Point Barrow is the only true qualifier. Whatever. That tiny fact didn’t spoil our trip to the top of the U.S.
I’m sure I’ll be back to visit the Angle again one day – maybe to seek out the even more obscure Elm Point (south of Buffalo Point in Manitoba). There is still much to be said about our trip to Northern Minnesota, so stay tuned!
(If you would like to see more photos from the trip to the Angle, check out my flickr gallery)