FLAG ISLAND, Minn. — You don’t get to the Minnesota islands in Lake of the Woods by accident. In the world of “heading to the lake cabin” in a state that has roughly a million of them, this is the advanced version.
From the Twin Cities, it can take nine hours to get door-to-door from house to cabin, in the same state. Even from nearby towns like Warroad and Roseau, the trip to Flag, Oak, Brush or one of a half-dozen other Minnesota islands involves packing a car, clearing Canadian customs (passport required), driving 65 miles (more than half of it on gravel), checking back in with American customs, loading everything from your car into a boat then traversing 20-30 minutes by water before finally unpacking at the dock.
Forgot something? It’s two hours (through Manitoba) to the nearest full-service grocery/hardware/liquor store. Medical emergency? Again, two hours to the nearest hospital. A dozen years ago, a freak injury to our dog while visiting family led to an hour in the boat and a 220-mile round trip drive to an emergency veterinarian in Steinbach, outside Winnipeg.
But when you get there, in the midst of 14,000 mostly uninhabited islands, the scenery, the serenity and the fishing make it absolutely worth the journey.
Created as a result of a map-making error more than 200 years ago, Minnesota’s Northwest Angle (or, as you can describe it to visitors: “that bump that sticks up at the top of the state” ) is one of those anomalies that your eighth-grade geography teacher likely stumped you with as the bonus question on a test. These islands and a chunk of the mainland that are part of Minnesota are surrounded by Manitoba to the west, Ontario to the north and east, and 40-plus miles of open water to the south.
Until 1970, when that winding and dusty gravel road was carved through the thick woods, the only way to get to the Angle was by water or by bush plane. Prior to that, two big wooden boats named the Resolute and the Bert Steele made the four-hour trek from Warroad and back daily in the open water season across the Big Traverse — that stretch of open water roughly three times the size of Mille Lacs Lake, so named by voyageurs for the challenge of crossing it by canoe in the early 1700s.
In the depths of the Great Depression, my maternal grandfather Julius Anderson of Warroad was offered 70 acres of land on Flag Island, including a little less than a mile of shoreline, for the then-whopping price of $125. Until his passing in 1996, Grandpa Julius always (we assume) joked that he only had $75 in the bank, and had to marry my grandmother to get the other $50.
Before her passing a decade later, I sat down with my grandmother, Phyllis Anderson, with a recorder running and listened to her describe life in small-town northern Minnesota in the 1930s through the 1970s. It was fascinating, and among the most mesmerizing stories were those of trips to Flag Island — the boat ride, the small harbor on Oak Island, traveling from there to their cabin on the next island over, roughly a mile away, by rowboat, and living on light, heat and energy provided by wood, candles, kerosene lamps and propane. Everything used to build the cabins that dot the shoreline came over water. Every nail, board, shingle and major appliance was loaded into and out of a boat at some point.
In the summer of 1969, when I was a few weeks old, my parents brought me along on one of those boat trips. Long before child safety seats became the mode of travel for young children, this infant was placed in the bottom of a wooden fish crate lined with blankets and dubbed “Jess’s Ark” for the slow, windy, bouncy journey across the Big Traverse.
A year after that, the road opened, and in the 50 years since, I have been to our cabins on Flag Island every summer, but have made just three more trips across the big water.
Back to the Big Traverse
This month, with the Canadians’ closure of the border to nonessential travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, all of that is changing. While permanent residents of the Angle and resort owners can pass through, Canadian customs is not allowing cabin owners and tourists access to the road that connects most of Minnesota to the Angle.
Even though they have no intent to stop in Canada and are literally just passing through on the way to this most remote part of the state, the border is closed. Locals that have reached out to every elected official from their area county commissioner to the guy in the White House have thus far been unable to get a “safe passage” exception in place.
So a half-century after the Resolute and Bert Steele were put in permanent dry dock, cabin owners and those most determined to chase muskies and walleyes are headed back to the big water. They’re gassing up the boat, testing the navigation equipment, putting on their life jackets and watching the weather — especially the wind — in preparation for a trip that is now much faster and generally safer than it was in the days of infants in fish crates.
The lake seems smaller these days. Outboard motors of 250 horsepower or larger have cut the duration of the trip in half, while cell phones (if you have the brand that gets a signal in the islands) and GPS navigation have eliminated many of the unknowns. But the west winds that blow from the prairies of Manitoba and North Dakota remain undefeated, and can make the two-hour trip a wet, bumpy mess when the big lake gets angry and dangerous.
Locals hope the inconvenience will only be temporary, and that a political solution can be found without someone getting lost or hurt or worse. But for now, the pandemic is just the latest challenge that comes along with visiting a cabin in the islands.
As has been the case for a century or more, the destination always seems to make the journey worthwhile.