FLAG ISLAND, Minn. — “Wow, that was easy,” my sister Christina said over the pleasant roar of the 250-horse Mercury outboard as familiar Lake of the Woods landmarks like the Oak Island beaches, Laketrails Base Camp and the Flag Island lighthouse began to take shape on the horizon ahead.
She and I were among 11 family members and friends (and four dogs) who had left the mouth of the Warroad River roughly 75 minutes earlier on a 24-foot tritoon, bound for our family’s Flag Island cabins on a hot and sticky, but relatively calm, Saturday morning in July.
Every other trip there among the hundred or more that my sister had made, starting in the summer of 1979 when she was not yet a year old, had been taken primarily by land, through Canada. With the coronavirus pandemic closing the Canadian border to most travelers — even those American cabin owners and tourists seeking safe passage through Manitoba without stopping — a trip across the big water was about the only way to go.
The traditional overland journey from Warroad, Minn., to the Minnesota islands involves packing your car for a 65-mile trip of which more than one-third is gravel. You drive into Manitoba (with a stop and potential search at Canadian Customs, and a passport or Nexus card required), eventually drive back into Minnesota (with a check-in by phone with U.S. Customs), park at either Young’s Bay Resort’s marina or the docks at Jake’s Northwest Angle, unload everything from your car into your boat, then travel another 20-30 minutes by water to your final stop.
That car/boat process generally takes two hours or more, but potential delays are plentiful. Things such as long lines at the Canadian border or a lengthy search by an overly thorough customs agent, a long wait to check back in with U.S. Customs (where, post 9/11, there has been a noted decrease in cordiality, even when attempting to re-enter your own country), a busy boat launch, and a road in bad condition — especially in the spring with mud and frost heaves — can make this a journey of three hours or more.
Prior to 1970, when the road through the Northwest Angle wilderness was first carved, travel by water from either Warroad or the resorts and marinas at Wheelers Point, north of Baudette, Minn., was about the only way to get there. A few bush pilots flew planes with floats (or skis in the winter) to the region, but the primary way to reach islands such as Flag, Oak and Brush was via one of two wooden passenger ferries, named the Resolute and the Bert Steele, which ran from Warroad and back, charging around $15 per person (roughly $71 in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars) each way. It was the slow boat to Canada, for sure, with trips from Warroad to the islands routinely taking five hours.
One of the resorts at Wheelers Point has been taking passengers across the Big Traverse this summer with a more comfortable ride in a launch that takes two hours or less. They charge $140 per person round trip so factoring in inflation, the price has dropped $2 in five decades.
In late July 2020, with good weather in a comfortable boat with modern navigation, the trip from Warroad to Flag Island took 90 minutes, dock to dock. Three days later, there were winds of 10 to 12 mph from the northwest, meaning that more than half of the trip back, from Stony Point to the red blinking buoy a mile out of Warroad, was bouncy. Our experienced captain, Curtis Powassin, who has spent his 40-some years living on the lake, had to slow down a bit and take the whitecaps into account as he hugged the Minnesota side of the invisible line that separates us from Manitoba (in strict adherence to that Canadian border closure).
When we arrived safely back at our dock in Warroad, I noted that the return trip, wind and all, had taken seven minutes more than the trip out. No questions from customs agents in Canada or the U.S. No passport, Nexus card or vaccination record for the dogs required. No bumpy and dusty gravel road.
To be sure, the journey of roughly 40 miles by water is not for everyone. While it can be quicker and more scenic to go by boat, especially with the right vessel and modern navigation equipment, it is inherently more dangerous than driving, even in perfect weather. Mechanical problems can happen, storms can blow in quickly, and deadheads (floating logs looming invisibly just below the lake’s surface, waiting to destroy a passing propeller) are a notable navigation hazard. Even before the iconic Warroad water tower with the crossed hockey sticks is out of sight, cell phone service is spotty at best, nonexistent with some carriers.
If you are going to make the trip by water, have a safe boat in good condition, have navigation gear that will draw you a map, have plenty of gas, always wear life jackets and thoroughly check the wind (cell phone weather apps like Windy are excellent). Caravans with other boaters are a smart idea. If it is blowing harder than 10 mph, the trip may be bouncy and wet. Winds of 15 mph or more, from any direction, are dangerous, and you should stay off the big water. Remember, the weather remains undefeated.
The border will most certainly be open again someday. When it is, the marinas in Angle Inlet will again be busy and the parking lots will be full of trucks with empty boat trailers, bearing license plates of states from coast to coast. But one unforeseen result of the pandemic and the related border closure, in this strangest of summers on Lake of the Woods, may have been a rediscovery, 50 years later, of the water route to the islands as a better way for some to go.