By Jesse Walters
Curiosity got the best of me. I had been staring at a map of Northern Minnesota all winter, intrigued by the isolated sliver of land on the northwestern shore of Lake Of The Woods. The Northwest Angle or “The Angle” as it’s called by the locals, is a piece of Minnesota few riders have been to – 120 square miles of USA surrounded by water and Canada. What is life like up there? They’re Minnesotans on paper but how much Canadian influence is there? Do they root for the Wild or the Jets? Do they order Canadian bacon on their pizza or ham? Over the long winter, I had many important questions that needed answering. When the snow melted this spring, I knew I’d have to check it out.
First a little background. Minnesota’s Northwest Angle is a relic of surveys, cartography and treaties that evolved over time. The Angle as it sits today, is a result of border treaties dating back to 1793, as well as an incorrect assumption the Mississippi river ran northwest of the Lake of The Woods. It has the distinction of being the most northern US land in the lower 48 States, it uniquely resides north of the 49th parallel. The only land route is via Manitoba, Canada, and riding there requires a Passport or MN Enhanced Driver’s License. Without a Passport or Enhanced License, you must travel within the continental USA, which requires boat or aircraft in the summer.
With the long Memorial Day weekend fast approaching, my riding buddy, Blake Freking, and I decided it was the perfect time to make the trip. With Blake’s Buell Ulysses and my KTM Adventure packed with camping gear, we hit the road and made our way from Finland, MN towards Warroad, MN. Jimmy Buffett said “The best navigators don’t know where they’re going until they get there”, that was the spirit we took as we headed northwest.
We rode through International Falls and headed west on Minnesota Highway 11 towards Warroad, watching the deep canopy of Superior National Forest give way to hints of farm country. John Deere implements sat proudly along the highway and Grumman Ag Cat aircraft dive-bombed the fields, reminiscent of southwestern Minnesota where Blake and I grew up.
That evening we settle on the Beltrami Island State campground about 20 miles southeast of Warroad, a clean campground with hand pump well water and an outhouse. You can imagine how surprised we were to find no other campers when we arrived. It was Memorial Day weekend mind you. We setup camp, collected some dead jack pine and made a nice campfire followed by Mountain House freeze-dried food. Marginal coffee over the smell of the campfire never tasted so good. It was about that time when we realized why no other campers were present. Trains. Lot’s of CN trains running parallel to Highway 11 all night long. Fortunately the sound of snoring and earplugs helped drown out the sound of 5,000 tons gliding by every hour.
The next morning, on the outskirts of Warroad, we turned right off Highway 11 onto Highway 313. Highway 313 led us to the international border. The border crossing into Canada was uneventful, Highway 313 turned into Manitoba 12. It was a quick 14 miles from the Canadian border crossing to the town of Sprague where we turned right and headed north on Highway 308 towards The Angle. As we neared The Angle, Highway 308 turned to gravel where my DOT knobby tires really paid off. Blake was running street tires and had no problem keeping pace, but a planted front end, thanks to my Continental TKC 80, is always welcome.
About 10 miles later, we approached the border between Manitoba and The Angle, but there was no Customs Agent to greet us. Instead, road signs instructed visitors to use the U.S. Customs phone at Jim’s Corner another 8 miles ahead to call the authorities upon arrival. Jim’s Corner was nothing more than a taxpayer funded phone booth and parking lot. The phone had two buttons, one for USA and one for Canada. Call the country you are about to enter. Simple and straight forward.
After calling the U.S. Customs, we rode over to Young’s Bay at the eastern edge of The Angle. There, we stopped at Jerry’s Bar and Restaurant where we were greeted by friendly staff. The bartender was born and raised in the Northwest Angle and clued us in to the last operating single-room school house in Minnesota, located on the other end of The Angle. From there we headed for the western edge of The Angle to the town of Angle Inlet, MN, where we found the single-room school house and chatted with the gas station attendant at J&M Company gas station. We learned many long distance riders stop in at J&M Station for bonus points on various Iron Butt Rallies. Being near the northern most point in the lower 48, as well as being the only gas station in the area, they are quite familiar with LD riders and their log book requirements when they come to town.
After chatting with the gas station attendant for a while, we cruised around Angle Inlet, impressed by how well kept the remote town was. We came, we saw and we still hadn’t made a plan on where we were going next. The Pinawa Dam three hours northwest sounded intriguing, but required a 4-hour detour around Lake of the Woods. Instead we chose to save the Pinawa Dam for another trip. We had no plans to head home that afternoon, but we slowly made our way south towards Ely, the weather was beautiful and roads were clear so we kept riding. The lack of traffic on Highway 1 south of Ely allowed us to use our auxiliary headlights, providing ample light to spot kamikaze moose and deer resulting in a very enjoyable night ride at a relaxed 45mph. It was 10PM when we approached The Knotted Pine in Isabella and it was Saturday night, so we stopped in for another marginal coffee and chips. Great culmination to a 750-mile, 32-hour ride!
I never found out which NHL team is predominate at The Angle, but from what I gather, Angle residents are proud Minnesotans and even prouder of the little sliver of land they call home. l bet they root for Suter and Parise like the rest of us. Maybe a little more route preparation could have netted a visit to the Pinawa Dam on this trip, but as far as Jimmy Buffett’s concerned, our navigation and preparation was spot on because we eventually got there.