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The Northwest Angle
By Amy Radil
August 17, 1998
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Minnesota's Northwest Angle was created by accident, tethered to mapmakers' hazy conceptions of the origins of the Mississippi River. When the river turned up south of where they expected, the border dropped down too, leaving an isolated piece of the U.S. up north. Today, that piece is home to some 100 year-round Minnesota residents, who say the beauty of the place is without equal, and the living has never been easy.

TO UNDERSTAND THE NORTHWEST ANGLE, you must understand fish - the mouth-watering walleye and massive muskellunge that bring people to the forty small resorts summer and winter. You must also understand the magnitude of the Lake of the Woods, divided between Canada and the U.S. The Angle is just one peninsula jutting out along the lake's 65,000 miles of shoreline and 14,000 islands. Human settlement on the Angle is clustered along its northern edge - cabins line the creeks leading into a bay called Angle Inlet.

Paul Colson: What you want to do is leave a little silvery strip next to the skin.
Paul Colson, a third-generation Angleite, has returned from a day guiding fishermen on the lake. He quickly cleans the day's catch of walleye on the metal countertops in the resort fish house. What impresses him after a lifetime here is the sheer immensity of the lake.
Colson: The area I know well is probably a 30-mile radius. The stuff I can run at night - that's the stuff I know. There's a difference. People say they know Lake of the Woods. Nobody knows it.
The Northwest Angle appeared on the nation's radar last spring when a group of residents announced their desire to secede from the U.S. and join Manitoba. The reason was a complicated dispute involving the U.S., Canada, Ontario, Minnesota, and international treaties. Angle residents say Canada has passed burdensome border-crossing rules while Ontario, fearing overfishing, has passed discriminatory fishing regulations. Angle residents have also become angry over inaction by the U.S. They say regulation of international border waters can't apply to just certain groups on that water. Resort owner Gary Dietzler, who also runs a restaurant called Grumpy's, says Ontario is trying to drive them out of business, and visitors to his resort are being penalized.
Dietzler: The point being, if you stay at a Canadian resort, you can boat to an American resort. And when you get there, you can pick up the phone, call U.S. customs, buy a license, and you can go catch a limit of walleyes and keep them. If you're staying at a U.S. resort, you have to buy a permit, then buy a license, then buy another license that validates that license, then catch fish and put them back in the lake. Now if those two situations are equal and fair, my name's Grumpy.
The secession stunt succeeded in grabbing the world's attention. It's a rare day now that a TV crew can't be found on the Angle. Dietzler says they are brainstorming additional ways to get publicity.
Dietzler: Some of which we wouldn't want to do until the summer tourism season is over so we have six months to heal the wounds.
This PR savvy is strangely at odds with the Angle itself, where residents prize their remoteness and isolation. Most of the land on the Angle is uninhabited, held in trust by the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Red Lake Chairman Bobby Whitefeather says the land was undesirable to homesteaders, so the U.S. government gave it back to the band in 1945. Band members visit the Angle seasonally to hunt or pick berries. When Congressman Colin Peterson introduced a resolution for the Angle to secede, he neglected to discuss it with the Red Lake Band, an incident Whitefeather says still rankles.
Whitefeather: The most disturbing part of this effort was the consideration for we as a sovereign nation; that a congressman that serves our district would not have the decency, or even respect, to let us know - we were the primary stakeholders of the area and we were not considered.
But Whitefeather says relations with Angle residents have remained cordial. Droughts and economic downturns brought white residents from surrounding states to the Angle. They worked as loggers, lived off the land, and ran small resorts. What they needed - like a church, a school, and a post office - they built themselves. George Risser was born in Kenora, Ontario, the closest hospital by water, and grew up on the Angle.
Risser: We thought we were awful poor, which everybody was up here. Pretty poor folks. But I don't think it hurt anybody. Everyone was healthy and no one ended up in jail. Not much to get in trouble about.
Like many residents, Risser left the Angle as a young man and came back married. Now he's the local postmaster, presiding over a log post office about 10 feet square. His grandparents were some of the first settlers on the Angle. His parents met at what he calls an "old-time dance."
Risser: Used to be a big thing. Even when I was young they still had dances at somebody's house. Everybody in the territory would come, everybody played some type of instrument.
Changes came slowly. Many people cite the completion of a year-round road to the Angle in the 1970s as a major innovation. Before then, summer travelers had to take a passenger boat between the Angle and the town of Warroad.

Celeste Colson runs the resort started by her father-in-law in the 40s. She returned to the Angle with her family from the Twin Cities in the 70s. When Colson gets reminiscing with a friend over tea one night, she says it was like going back in time.

Colson: I remember one night shortly after we got there. One of the kids got sick, started crying, and I got up, lit the kerosene lamp, and went over. One of the kids had thrown up. I stripped off the sheets, threw them out the door, changed the sheets, blew out the light. The next morning I'm rinsing in the creek. (laughing)
Telephone service arrived on the mainland in the 1990s, but people on the islands still use radio telephones, and overall, marine-band radio remains the preferred form of communication. Angle gossips have been known to listen in on the channels where private conversations are taking place.

The Angle couldn't be more different from tourist spots along the North Shore of Lake Superior, where there's always a hiking trail and a cappuccino around the bend. While old-timers claim the Angle has changed beyond recognition, there's not a condominium in sight - or a grocery store, or a gas station. Conspicuous consumption in cars or houses would seem to be frowned upon here, although people speak admiringly of the bigger boats showing up.

Amy Dietzler: We grew up together.
Adam Rasmussen and Amy Dietzler are back home for the summer after their first year away at college. They say growing up on the Angle had its drawbacks, like a dearth of activities outside school. This fall the Angle school will have nine students in its one-room schoolhouse - the last one in the state. But the tiny school is known for producing top students.
Adam: The parents are so involved in school up here, they do come to every activity. Even if you're not a parent, pretty much everyone comes here to the picnics in the spring, and the Christmas program, and all those things.
Amy: And the whole community up here really supports the school. It's a huge reunion every time they have a play or things like that. And they expect a lot from kids up here, and they have a good teacher, and she really does well with the challenges she has to face.
Besides running a classroom for all ages, teacher Linda Kastl lives in a cabin on the Bear River to which no road extends. She boats to school in the summer, snowmobiles in winter. When the school closed for a few years for lack of students, Kastl had to begin her trip even earlier to go teach in Warroad, two hours away.
Kastl: So at six in the morning I left our cabin, made my way down to the dock with a flashlight, and got the boat started. So in one hand I held the throttle, and the other hand, the flashlight. And Bear River is not just straight. You have to stay between the wild rice and the channel.
Commutes and other mundane aspects of urban life get complicated when living in relative wilderness. Today, the wilderness Kastl experiences on her commutes co-exists with encroachments from the outside. Satellite dishes adorn most yards, and bombardiers and snowmobiles have made the Angle a busy place in winter when it was once empty and quiet. Still, the past feels tangible and immediate. In the skirmishes between the Ontario government and Angle residents, there's an echo of the feuds between rival fur trading companies as well as the warring Sioux and Chippewa.

On Magnusen's Island at the mouth of Angle Inlet a replica of the French Fort St. Charles rises on the lakeshore. As Celeste Colson explains, the site was identified thanks to a gruesome piece of Lake of the Woods history.

Colson: The French were perceived by the Sioux as allies of the Chippewa and there was a contingent sent out of here, including the explorer's son and a priest - Father Alneay - one day's trip toward Fort St. Frances, and they were ambushed by the Sioux and killed on the island that still bears the name Massacre.
The remains were taken to Fort St. Charles for ceremonial burial. In 1909, an expedition uncovered 19 skulls in two neat rows. Today the struggle for control over the lake's bounty continues, albeit more diplomatically. Angleites speak knowledgeably of turn-of-the-century treaties with Canada. The border, disputed for more than 200 years until 1925, is haunting them again. This time they say their removed location and small numbers have caused the U.S. to abandon them. Colson has big dreams for the Angle. While she's forced to care about fishing, and has been to Washington to plead the case against Ontario, what really excites her is taking more advantage of the lake's natural and human history.
Colson: I'm interested in taking people out to see historically interesting, scenic spots. We have cactus on some of the islands that bloom! Isn't that amazing? There's eagles ... just neat stuff to see. That's what I would like to do, why I took the course. And birdwatching ... there's got to be other people like me out there.
Colson also wants to see an interpretive center and museum established. Canadian officials have signaled that the border crossing issue may be resolved soon by installing video equipment at a now-closed border station. Colson is hopeful that the fishing regulations, too, will be altered in the next 18 months, so resort owners can relax. And she can get on to more important tasks, like teaching her grandchildren the lore of the Northwest Angle.