Just before the sun rises over Flag Island, when the double-crested cormorants stand motionless in the paddies of wild rice and Lake of the Woods is a million-acre pane of black glass, it is difficult to comprehend how the British could have let this place go.
When the temperature drops to 50-below in January, when it’s so cold the propane heaters won’t light and the one gravel road to the rest of the world drifts with snow, it is hard to understand why the Americans ever wanted it.
A quirk of a place born of an 18th century map-making error, the Northwest Angle is part of Minnesota but connected by land only to Canada. To drive to their state capital, Angleites must leave U.S. soil, travel through southeastern Manitoba and halt at U.S. Customs before reentering the United States.
Living on the Angle, the northernmost point in the continental United States, has always been hard. But for generations, residents of Angle Inlet have endured, taking pride in their status as American orphans of geography.
Now, however, many in the community of 100 or so are talking about getting out. They’re talking about becoming Canadians.
They’re talking about seceding.
Earlier this year, Ontario declared that Minnesota-based sportsmen could catch the buttery-tasting fish in provincial waters--they just had to toss them back. Claiming the Ontario fishery was ailing and in need of protection, authorities made just one exception to the rule: American fishermen who stayed in a Canadian lodge could keep their delicious fish.
It is but the latest charge, albeit a particularly bold one, in a two-decade campaign to drive the Northwest Angle’s fishing lodges out of business, folks here contend. And, they say, it is only the latest example of their own government in Washington ignoring the plight of 14 little lodges and 91 registered voters.
And so, unable to beat the Canadians, they say they might join them.
Declaring that residents of the Angle deserve either the protection of the U.S. or their freedom, Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) has introduced a bill to let Angle voters make the call to stay or go. Even if Peterson’s bill were to pass (highly unlikely), ceding the Northwest Angle would still require a constitutional amendment (even more unlikely). And when the idea was first floated in the spring, most people here appreciated the secession movement primarily for its considerable public relations value.
But it has been a bad fishing season. Business is off 20%, 30% and more, lodge owners say. Folks such as the Builders and Traders Exchange of Grand Forks, N.D., who had been coming to Celeste Colson’s place for years, headed to Ontario lodges instead. After ponying up hundreds and thousands of dollars for cabins, fishing boats and guides, they expected to at least get the traditional walleye lunch out of the deal.
Colson, who runs Jake’s Northwest Angle with her son Paul, doesn’t really want to alter her citizenship. But Paul’s wife, Karen, is Canadian, and their twin boys hold dual citizenship. The 60-year-old Colson, whose lodge has been in the family since 1945, would much rather be Canadian than out of business.
“For years it was a joke: secession,” Colson says. “We’d open casinos. We’d raise marijuana. We’d declare war on the United States and then sue them for war damages. We’d all be in the navy. It was a big joke. And then this happened and somebody said, ‘Hey, wait . . . ‘ “
An Ideal Site for Fishing
“When the wind kicks up, that’s where you want to be fishing,” the always slightly sunburned Colson shouts above the grumble-gurgle of her 20-foot outboard, pointing to the islands ahead.
Colson has just finished her duties as organist at St. Luke’s Church at the Angle and is now on her way to find a boat in trouble. She is in Minnesota waters. The boat and the islands she’s pointing to are in Ontario waters.
Motoring on, Colson crosses an international boundary that has befuddled life here since shortly after the Revolutionary War.
Relying on a chart drawn by a Virginia Colonist named John Mitchell, diplomats for the newly formed United States and Great Britain agreed in 1783 that the line dividing the U.S. and what would become Canada should begin at the mouth of the St. Croix River, now the northeastern boundary of Maine. It would then run west through the Great Lakes, on “to the most northwestern point [of Lake of the Woods], and from thence, on a due west course, to the river Mississippi.”
But the Mississippi didn’t lie to the west. Its headwaters were 145 miles to the south, at what is now Lake Itasca, Minn.
Settlers in the Angle considered themselves part of the U.S. But it wasn’t until 1925 that American and Canadian negotiators officially proclaimed that, natural boundaries be damned, the border would run from the northwestern-most point of the lake straight south to the 49th Parallel. Anything west of the line belonged to Canada. Anything to the east belonged to the U.S.
That left Minnesota with the Northwest Angle and 317,000 acres of Lake of the Woods, the vast majority of it in the wide-open waters of big Traverse Bay.
The division of the lake has proven as problematic as the division of the land.
Wide-open waters are fine for the bigger boats out of the Minnesota towns of Baudette and Warroad, 29-footers that can carry a party of six fishermen. But they are dangerous for the smaller, more intimate and, most important, less expensive boats favored in the Angle.
Lake of the Woods averages just 26 feet deep and is as shallow as 1 and 2 feet in many places. And when the wind blows, which is often and without warning, open water is not where you want to be in a small boat.
Where you want to be is among the sheltering islands. There are 14,652 of them. All but a handful are in Canadian waters.
Later, after Colson has towed in the broken-down boat, which lost its engine to an unmarked rock just below the surface, Bob Nunn, the Angle’s one deputy sheriff, sums up the island problem this way: “If we had 10 of their islands down here, we could give a rat’s butt if we ever got up to Canada.”
Walleye Is the Big Lure
Lake of the Woods is a fisherman’s dream. On a single fine day, a good angler with a full box of tackle could reel in northern pike, smallmouth bass, muskie, lake sturgeon, yellow perch and black crappie. But it is the walleye that lures most fishermen to the Northwest Angle.
Greenish-black with golden sides and bright-white bellies, walleye aren’t spectacular fighters when first hooked. But they struggle consistently, twisting and diving for the bottom. For the most part, however, the reason you fish for walleye is so you can eat them. And anglers tie their lines with plugs, worms, a bottom-bouncing rig topped with a leech, a jig, a silver spinner laced with a minnow--just about anything to tempt a nice fat one.
“I talk to people from all over the world, and when they eat a walleye, they say it just doesn’t get any better,” says Rick McKeever, owner of Young’s Bay Resort. “Fresh-caught walleye is the best there is.”
Folks here know all about catch-and-release fishing, tossing back your silvery prey so the two of you might meet again. They even promote catch-and-release on small billboards.
But tossing back all your walleye, they say, just doesn’t seem right.
Since 1980, however, Ontario has been incrementally limiting the ability of Minnesota-based sportfishermen to take walleye in provincial waters.
The first restriction limited each Minnesota-based vessel to 18 fish, regardless of the number of fishermen on board. Canadian federal courts struck down that rule as discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. A host of other changes, however, has survived legal challenges.
So today, the rules are very different depending on which passport you hold and where you launch.
Ontario-based fishermen purchase a nonresident Minnesota fishing license for $8 to $31, depending on the type of license, and can catch and keep as many as six walleye per day.
Angle-based fishermen, on the other hand, must buy a nonresident Ontario license for roughly the same amount the Canadians pay for a Minnesota license. Then they must buy a Border Water Conservation tag. Then they can go walleye fishing, but they can’t keep any walleye.
“There are probably some people who will go broke” because of the new regulations, says Paul Evans, president of the Angle Inlet Landowners Assn. “There are probably some people who will just get the hell out.”
Protection Issue, Canadians Say
Thirty-nine nautical miles north of here, in Kenora, Canada, officials with the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources say they are not trying to drive anyone out of business, they are only trying to protect walleye. And the reason for the latest regulation, they say, is very simple.
“We don’t have enough fish to share,” Scott Lockhart, acting supervisor for the Lake of the Woods area, says in the respectful tone used by officials on both sides of the border. “We can’t satisfy all the demands in Ontario, so we certainly can’t satisfy the demands from Minnesota.”
Forty-two nautical miles the other way, at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office in Baudette, fisheries supervisor Mike Larson says, with equal respect, that there is one serious flaw in Ontario’s argument: “The walleye population is in real good shape.”
Even if the fishery were too depleted to accommodate Minnesota-based fishermen, Angle residents want to know, how is it that there are suddenly enough walleye if those same fishermen change their reservations and stay in an Ontario lodge?
Lockhart answers that question this way: “There are management decisions made for the sake of the fishery and decisions made for the sake of your taxpayers.”
A comprehensive study conducted jointly by the Minnesota and Ontario governments in 1992 determined that 82,490 pounds of walleye was being taken each year in the Ontario section of the lake most frequently visited by Angle-based fishermen--well below the 103,500 pounds everyone agreed could be harvested without depleting the fishery.
Today, Minnesota officials say annual sampling indicates that the fishery is in even better shape than it was six years ago.
The Ontario side, meanwhile, cautions against relying solely on fish counts to determine the health of the fishery, noting that growth rates, the age at which walleye begin to spawn and other indicators should be factored in. They say a report due out later this year, this one also a “cooperative effort” between the two governments, will suggest such problems. Minnesota officials say it won’t.
The other equally intractable facet of the dispute revolves around the treaties that govern the shared waters.
According to Angleites and some experts, from the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909--which states the waters “shall forever continue free and open for the purposes of commerce to the ships, vessels, and boats of both countries"--to the North American Free Trade Agreement, residents from either country are allowed to fish in the waters of the other.
“I think there’s a possibility that this would violate NAFTA,” says Jean Hennessey of the Institute on International Environmental Policy at Dartmouth and a former member of the International Joint Commission--a multinational body set up to mediate disputes over border waters. “If they are international waters, the fish belong just as much to the U.S. as to Canada.”
But Frank Bevacqua, a spokesman for the current International Joint Commission, says the commission has not been asked to investigate the latest dispute. Busy mediating big-dollar commercial fishing disputes between the two countries on both coasts, it probably won’t get involved any time soon, officials agree.
That’s why the talk of secession doesn’t die. That’s why Angleites talk of hiring an international law attorney and taking their case to the World Trade Organization or the World Court. But they figure the retainer alone for such an attorney would be about $60,000.
That would buy four brand-new fishing boats.
Mail Arrives 3 Days a Week
Here’s how things work in the Northwest Angle.
The mail comes by boat in the summer, by Hovercraft in the early winter and late spring, when the ice is soft, and by snowmobile in the dead of winter. No matter the season, it comes only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
All the men are expected to sign up with the volunteer Fire Department, and everyone is encouraged to learn CPR, since the nearest hospital is 63 miles away in Roseau, Minn., and getting there requires a stop at U.S. Customs.
If you own a marine-band radio, you keep it on. And if you own a bar, like Del Larson does, and a few locals run out of drinking money, you deliver them a round of beers and a $20 bill to keep them going.
“Only in the Angle,” Larson says, chuckling at his own generous way of doing business. “Only in the Angle.”
Almost everything is a little bit different here--from the way the boggy woods swallowed up 70-year-old Johnny Johnson as he gathered cedar poles in May and spat him back out eight days later, skinny but alive, to the way some lodges fly the Stars and Stripes and the Canadian flag side by side.
Besides the fishing, that’s why people come here. It’s also why those who grow up in the Angle tend to go out, see the world, and then come back.
They come back to live, as Celeste Colson’s boy Paul, 28, did after attending college in Flagstaff, Ariz., Duluth and Birmingham, England. And they come back to die, as her husband, David, did when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December 1995 and refused to spend his last days in a hospital in Grand Forks.
When he died the following May, the family borrowed a stretcher, loaded his body into a Chevrolet Suburban and drove him out of Minnesota, into Canada, and back into Minnesota, to the funeral home in Roseau.
“Life isn’t always easy up here,” Celeste Colson says before heading out to gas up a boat. “But we like it. And we don’t want to secede. But we are hurting.”
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A conflict over the walleye has fueled a secessionist effort for remote Northwest Angle, currently part of Minnesota but geographically connected to Canada.