As they have every year for the past 15 years, Jim Best and his wife, Pam, have been planning an extended visit to their cabin on Oak Island in Lake of the Woods’ Northwest Angle, that little nub at the top of Minnesota that marks the northernmost point of the Lower 48.
Through a long-ago mapmaking error, the Northwest Angle became part of the United States instead of Canada, which surrounds it on three sides, and the only way to reach the area by road is to first cross into Canada and then back into Minnesota.
That’s a problem this spring because the U.S. and Canada have closed their borders to all nonessential travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally set to expire May 21, the border closure this week was extended until June 21.
Permanent residents of the Angle can cross the border as usual, but seasonal cabin owners like Best can’t access cabins they own and on which they pay taxes unless they make the 40-plus-mile trek by water across the Minnesota portion of Lake of the Woods.
At the same time, the 11 resorts on the Angle mainland and islands are scrambling to arrange transportation from the south end of the lake for guests who haven’t already canceled their reservations.
The phones started ringing as soon as news of the border closure extension became official, said Mick Messelt, an East Grand Forks native and an owner of Flag Island Resort.
“They made the announcement at 10:30 that morning, and I bet we had 15 cancellations that afternoon,” Messelt said. “We’re just looking at the schedule for next week, and we were all booked up for next weekend.”
As of Thursday, only six of the resort’s 21 cabins were still booked, “and that’s still with a week to go,” Messelt said.
Lance Sage of Sage’s Angle West Resort on the Northwest Angle mainland said they’ve had quite a few cancellations, as well.
“It’s one of those where you give them a true scenario of having to cross the lake – it’s the only real way,” Sage said. “And there are some groups that are still willing to do that. But it’s a whole other step in the process.
“It’s going to be a difficult summer at least through June 21, and who knows what happens after that?”
Where there’s a will ...
Best, who had planned to make the three-day drive from his home in Mesa, Ariz., to the Northwest Angle mainland where he stores his boat, instead will be flying into Fargo on Saturday, May 30, and taking an island passenger service from the south shore of Lake of the Woods to Oak Island the next day.
Instead of spending three weeks, Best says he and his wife will stay a week and hope the borders reopen to nonessential travel after June 21 so they can make the three-day drive for a longer stay.
“It’s just a totally weird, weird year,” said Best, who owns a mortgage business in Mesa. “Having a place on a remote island, you definitely have to be organized. You have to know exactly what you’re bringing with you. I have detailed lists, I have detailed ways that I’ve got to go about getting there, and not being able to make those plans, it’s tough.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and if we have to take the charter service across, we’ll do whatever it takes to get up there and enjoy what that place has to offer.”
Because of the border restrictions, Best can’t even fish in Canada, an unfortunate turn of events because most of his best spots are on the Ontario side of the lake.
A diehard muskie fisherman, Best says reopening the border June 21 would be an especially welcome turn of events because Ontario’s muskie season opens Saturday, June 20.
The best muskie fishing on Lake of the Woods is in Ontario waters. He’ll be back for the muskie opener if the border reopens; if not, he’ll time a return visit closer to July 4.
“Us muskie guys, we live for this,” Best said. “I’ve been planning all year. I’m in my office at my home right now, and I’d have to say there’s one, two, three, four huge crates that are packed up with supplies and everything else that I was going to throw into the back of the truck and head up.
“So all of that stuff is still going to be sitting here.”
Pleading his case
Dick Myers of Warroad, Minn., says his family’s history on the Northwest Angle dates back to the 1930s. This will be his 56th season on Flag Island, where he owns a cabin.
Because of the border closure, friends and family who were planning to visit in early June won’t be making the trip, Myers said.
A similar story is playing out across the Northwest Angle. The official number of property owners affected by the border closure wasn’t immediately available from Lake of the Woods County, but Myers estimates it’s at least 100
“People just want to access their property in the United States,” he said. “Going on the road is a no-brainer. There’s a 42-mile road through Canada; let the people go through and make it illegal to stop. If you stop, you’re subject to arrest. We’re not going to hurt Canada, we’re not going to hurt the people.
“The coronavirus isn’t going to fly out the window when you’re driving through.”
Myers says he has reached out to Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, along with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Collin Peterson, both D-Minn., among others in an effort to get the road opened for Angle-bound travelers.
“They apparently have not been able to do anything because nothing has changed,” Myers said. “I sent an email to the U.S. Consulate in Ottawa, and they sent me back information about how I could get a visa. Well, that isn’t what I want. I don’t think they really understand the logistics of the area.”
That’s always been the case, said Allen Edman of Warroad, who operates Edman’s Angling Adventures guide service with his brother, Scott.
“The Angle has never fit any regulations that have been applied to the national borders,” Edman said. “Already, the residents are traveling up there. It wouldn’t make any difference in regards to coronavirus if they opened it up to cabin owners and the tourists.”
Until that happens, the brothers, both Warroad school teachers who grew up on the Angle and own a cabin there, will be shuttling their clients from Warroad to the Angle in their 21-foot Lund fishing boats. Other guests will choose to fish the south end of the lake.
So far, at least, cancellations have been minimal, Allen Edman said.
“The property owners, they’re not the most important ones in this equation,” he said. “It’s all the tourists that are coming up for three, four or five days that we need to get up there to keep all the resorts going and all the businesses going first.”
Myers, who recently bought a 24-foot tritoon boat powered by a 250-horsepower Mercury, said he was hoping to make the trek across the lake from Warroad to Flag Island on Saturday if the wind cooperates.
“But then the problem is I have to come back the same way so I have to watch the wind coming home, too,” he said. “And I’m (almost) 81 years old; if I have any medical problems, I don’t know what I’d do.”
No doubt, he says, the lack of road access to the Angle will result in people trying to cross by boat who might not have reliable equipment or don’t understand the risks.
“I was talking to a guide the other night and he said, ‘You know, the way it is, people are not used to the fact that that can be very rough, and big, dangerous water,’” Myers said. “Somebody will probably die because they could not take the road, and they’ll try to take the lake up there.”
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