Surrounded on 3 sides by Canada, U.S. residents of Northwest Angle learn to live with odd 'geographic reality'
Surveying, mapping mistakes created an isolated, rural sliver of Minnesota
Jeanette McAtee recoils in mock horror when she remembers her husband's suggestion they move to the Northwest Angle — the northernmost point in Minnesota, and one of the most isolated slivers of the American dream.
McAtee wanted nothing to do with an existence where you have to cross an international border twice just to visit the doctor's office.
Twenty years later, she rises from her chair in the wood-panelled shop she and her husband built, in this community she never wanted to live in. She has long since become convinced.
"I'm glad we moved," she says with a smile. "I wouldn't have said that when we moved. I thought, 'Oh my gosh,'" chuckling at the memory.
McAtee's store has become a lifesaver in this geographical oddity, some 300 square kilometres of land that appears on a map like the United States is jabbing its thumb into Canada's gut.
It looks, as well, like it doesn't belong in the contiguous U.S. — and the fact is it wouldn't exist if not for a surveyor's mistake.
The Northwest Angle's only land link is its western border with Manitoba. To the north and east is the border with Ontario. It's technically part of Minnesota — but with Lake of the Woods to the south, it shares no land connection with the rest of the state.
McAtee runs a convenience store brimming with assorted trinkets like wooden bowls and rugs, and basics, like cartons of milk. It needs to be all things to all people, because the nearest competition is at least 100 kilometres in any direction.
In the Angle, as it's affectionately known by locals, you don't go back for the carton of eggs you neglected to pick up while out of town — you forget about it.
This makes her shop essential to the hardy 120 people who live in the community year-round and frequent the few haunts: the convenience store, the restaurant, the church and their small shack of a post office.
"People help each other out all the time," McAtee says, as a customer jokingly bickers in the background.
"Talk about characters, we have several," she adds. "Let's say we're all unique up here in a way."
Paul and Karen Colson are amused by a recent petition that suggested this splinter of Minnesota that they call home should be handed over to Canada.
It was pitched on a U.S. government website late last month by someone who identified themselves only as "C.C."
The appeal brought another round of attention to this orphaned frontier of the U.S., whose residents seem just fine with where they are in the world.
On a map, the Northwest Angle doesn't make sense — but that's because it owes its existence as part of the U.S. to surveying errors and awkward attempts to form a border in the early days of the United States of America.
It came about due to reliance on a map that misidentified the source of the Mississippi River, and the shape of Lake of the Woods, when drawing up borders in the late 1700s.
It was determined the border between the U.S. and British holdings would run from the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods west to the Mississippi River — which was in fact south, not west.
In the early 19th century, an attempt was made to correct the mistake, with a decision the border would run due south from the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods. That, however, cut off the piece of land now known as the Northwest Angle.
Hence, the Angle became the only place in the United States outside Alaska that is north of the 49th parallel.
'Chimney of Minnesota'
The Colsons don't mind the attention that brings. As year-round fishing lodge owners, the exposure generates tourism and, hopefully, business.
But visiting this so-called "chimney of Minnesota" is onerous. By land, visitors coming over the gravel road from southeastern Manitoba don't meet any menacing border walls, or even a single border agent.
Rather, they find a heated shack with a podium staffed by an iPad, which doesn't turn on in frigid weather. That's where visitors are supposed to register that they're crossing into the U.S. The alternative is to call border officials or use a mobile app on your phone, neither of which are of use to visitors with spotty cellphone service.
Thankfully, there are locations in town where the iPads do work to permit legal border crossing, including Jake's Northwest Angle resort, which is owned by the Colsons.
Crossing the border routinely is a hassle that residents of the community of Angle Inlet, Minn. — located in the Northwest Angle — get used to, but it's obvious the authorities don't care too much, Paul said.
"If you're really worried about people going into the Angle, then put a customs [office] up down the road and let's just go ahead and check people through. Otherwise," he said, "it's not really a problem."
Their family's abode is a shrine to a life spent outdoors. Pictures hang on the wall of game their three sons hunted, deer antlers are mounted and taxidermy lynx and elk hang over their loft.
To live in the Angle, they say, is to sacrifice.
"We are so far away from the rest of the U.S. that you don't have any of the things that people just normally take for granted," Paul said.
"Can you imagine having to tell people to have a passport to come over for supper at your house?"
When they were in school, the Colsons' kids, now young adults, left for classes in Warroad, Minn. — a 100-kilometre drive to the south — at six in the morning. They went by bus, and there was no way they could stick around for organized sports.
"It didn't matter if they wanted to or not," Karen Colson said.
To get there by land involves crossing the Canada-U.S. border twice — once heading into Manitoba to the west, and then again heading into Minnesota to the south.
"This is our geographic reality," her husband added. "You have to accept this is how life is."
Errands few and far between
Unless they must get parts immediately, they leave town only when they have a list of things to purchase. Paul hasn't bothered with a paid haircut in 20 years — that's done at home.
There are intricacies to life you wouldn't think of. They are legally barred from bringing home produce they bought in Warroad — since it technically has to enter Canada, then go back into the U.S. to get to the Angle.
The restrictions have also changed over time, depending on the trade dispute of the day — a past control on bringing eggs from Canada into the U.S., for example.
"People were bringing cases of eggs by boat to supply the restaurants up here," Karen said.
It can become so complicated the township flirted with joining Canada in the late 1990s.
They threatened to secede from the U.S. when Ontario told anglers fishing in Canadian waters they could only keep their catch if they stayed in Canadian lodgings overnight. The restrictions eventually handicapped fishing resorts like the Colsons'.
To garner attention for their isolated community, they concocted an outlandish stunt that had their Minnesota congressman, Collin Peterson, proposing a constitutional amendment to empower his constituents to become Canadians.
"He went to the floor, read it, and then everything broke loose," said Paul, who recalled carrying a book called How to Start Your Own Country to his first meeting with Peterson.
Flirting with seceding
He said they never intended to secede, but the whirlwind of press got their country to fight for them.
There were silver linings to the dispute, though: Paul says he never would have met his wife, Karen — originally of Dauphin, Man. — if he didn't have to clear customs at the lake. She was working a summer job on the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods.
Once they became an item, they considered living elsewhere. They tried Alaska, but kept feeling drawn to the Angle. They stuck around after Paul's father died unexpectedly and the fishing lodge was entrusted to them, the third generation of the family to run it.
"I've always had five-, 10-, 20-year plans," Paul said, when asked if living in the Angle has been worth it. "Raising a family was always my goal, and I've got great kids."
Life in the Angle is harder by yourself, reasons long-term resident Michelle Friend. You have to be OK with the solitude.
"There's so many women who come up here and they can't find anything to do," she said. "If you don't like to be outdoors, there isn't a lot other than — I don't know — fishing, hiking, boating.
"But I really liked the area.… In the 21 years I've lived here, I've learned how to snowmobile, how to drive a boat, how to repair all kinds of equipment."
Bundled up in a yellow parka and trapper's hat, she works as a housekeeper at Jake's resort year-round and runs a lawn-cutting operation in the summer. A second job can be critical to make ends meet.
She said her grocery shopping is supplemented by neighbours offering their hunted game and fish, free of charge. People look out for each other here, she said.
Locally grown food
"Every day I go down the road and I wave at every car I meet, and I bet maybe once a week it's someone I don't know," she recalls. "They'd feel bad if I didn't wave and I'd feel bad if they didn't wave — it's that sort of community."
One of her occasional greeters would be George Risser, the 78-year-old former postmaster (he was replaced in the job by his wife).
On the front steps of his home, he munches a cookie while scanning the snow-swept marshland and its pockets of forest and open spaces.
The community's nine-hole golf course is his backyard.
While happy, Risser longs a bit for the past, before the 1970s, when there wasn't a gravel road leading into their community. The former employee of a Nebraska hydro company yearns, ironically, for the days when there was no electricity here either.
"I think people like it the way things are now, but I don't as much. I can remember what it was like back when there was less people around and I knew everybody. Now I don't know hardly anybody."
Around the bend, Bill Magoon, who's lived in the Northwest Angle for just under a decade, knows about life here more recently, after the road from the west provided an established link.
He doesn't want this place to get any more populated, though.
"The only thing that'd mess up this place is if they pave the road and too many city people come here," he laughed, lounging on his couch as the setting sun cast a shadow in his living room.
He and his wife, Nancy, have lived together in the Northwest Angle since spurning the bustle of upstate New York almost 10 years ago for the comparative solitude of a homestead, where you set up a trough in your front lawn for the deer.
"We just figured we would be here and the kids will be wherever — you know, doing their own thing," Nancy said.
But then their daughters followed suit. Their youngest met a guy from the Angle and got married. Their oldest daughter stuck around, too, when the rest of her family settled here.
The best part of this slice of the rural United States, Bill explains, is that pretty much everyone who lives in the Angle wants to be here.
He approaches the kitchen where his wife is making a batch of chicken divan. They're hosting some friends later that night. Dinner parties, hosted by the Magoons or their neighbours, happen two or three times a week, Bill says.
"That wouldn't happen in New York."
Watch CBC's television feature on those living in the Northwest Angle: