If I ever want to get lost, really lost, I know where I’ll go: Lake of the Woods at night without a compass.
During World War II, several islands on this 950,000-acre lake hosted German POW camps. By several accounts, they were poorly guarded because those in charge knew that a successful escape was nearly impossible. More than 14,000 identical-looking, craggy, tree-covered, rocky islands can drive a person with an excellent internal compass into delirious confusion.
That’s why I spent four days exploring the grand borderland lake armed with someone who’s familiar with the area, detailed fishing maps, a GPS with a special Lake of the Woods chip, and a year’s supply of fresh batteries in my pocket. There are marked trails on the lake, but we wanted an adventure.
Most people consider Lake of the Woods, the body of water that separates Minnesota from Ontario and Manitoba, a summertime fishing destination. There’s at least one person, though, who rents out a cabin for only the winter months. That’s my cousin, Jeff Rowe, who guides out of Morson, Ontario, with his business called Extreme Canadian Ice Fishing Adventures. I joined up with him and some clients in late March.
Jeff is happiest standing over a hole in the ice with a stubby fishing pole, and we made sure to test the waters at several of his favorite locations (all marked on his GPS). However, since we both inherited our grandfather’s sense of exploration, we turned the Lake of the Woods into a multi-day scavenger hunt for history, geography and buried treasure.
N 49° XX.XX8 W 94° XX.XX9
Big Fish At Whitefish Bay
I’d rather post my social security number as a sponsored link on Google.com than face the consequences of revealing our lake trout hotspot. Jeff isn’t just a guide, he’s my cousin and I see him on holidays. Plus, he still has my walleye as hostage in his freezer. I’m not giving too much away by saying we caught these big guys on Whitefish Bay. This area of the lake is known for trout, and everyone got lucky here except for me. Catches were in the 10-pound-plus range, topping out at a bit over 12 pounds (caught, appropriately, by 12-year-old Taylor Houle.) One can spend a lot of time on Lake of the Woods and never dip a line. However, the rewards of a drilled hole, a short fishing pole and some quiet time are well worth it.
Over the course of three days, the group of five caught 13 lake trout, 78 walleye, nine perch, three sauger, one northern and one small crappie.We kept our limit and released the rest. Jeff keeps his favorite hotspots marked on his GPS, and we’d move three or four times a day to different nooks of the lake. Most were within a 50-mile radius of our starting point in Morson.
N 49° 19.265 W 94° 05.136
There’s a new society of treasure hunters, who both hide and find hidden objects — all via GPS. It’s called geocaching, and there are at least 10 caches hidden on various islands on Lake of the Woods. We found one on Timber Island at Whitefish Bay. We circled the island on our snowmobiles until Jeff’s GPS flashed the coordinates of the suggested point of embarkation onto land. We parked the sleds, and Jeff, holding the GPS in his outstretched hand, crashed through the first layer of underbrush and up an embankment. After a good 20 minutes of trees, bushes and steep rock faces, we reached the highest point of the island.
We were both breathing hard when Jeff pointed out a small cairn. The numbers on the GPS matched the numbers on our piece of paper, so we started to disassemble the small rock pile. Buried in the middle was a plastic container, full of little objects and a logbook. We were the first to find this cache, and future searchers will see our names leading off the logbook.
Geocachers like to trade trinkets, so we did: we added a Munising 300 snowmobile race button and a patch that says “Snowmobile For Kids.” We copied a recipe for “Grandma Osborne’s 150% Potatoes”, which was noted as tasting like half potatoes, half sour cream and half cheese.
N 49° 16.548 / W 94° 45.678
There are a couple locations of grisly interest on Lake of the Woods, including the aptly-named Massacre Island. Considering the island’s harrowing history, it seems we should have paid it more reverence than gunning the snowmobiles up its rocky face to its highest point. A weather-battered wooden cross at the top commemorates the site where 20 French explorers were beheaded by the Sioux in the spring of 1736. Judging from the open rock expanses and minimal foliage on the island, the attack could not have been a surprise. However, with no other islands within a reasonable distance, the French party likely had no other choice than to accept their fate. Other than looking at the cross, it was hard to reflect on the dead — we were too busy checking out the uninterrupted view of the lake, the islands, pointing out potential fishing locations and checking maps for our next stop. Snowmobile access points to the island are on the east end and on the northwest side.
N 49° 20.732 / W 94° 04.223
Not too far from the northernmost point in the continental United States is the most northerly post office in Angle Inlet, population 152. It represents 85 post boxes in the 56711 ZIP code. The log cabin-style post office, about 10 feet square, is open daily but only recieves mail on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. There’s an even more diminutive post office outlet on Oak Island, under the 56741 ZIP, which has 46 post boxes rented out. Its outdoor mailbox is taped shut in the winter to keep it from filling with blowing snow.
N 49° 20.692 / W 94° 58.206
Learning Local Customs
There may be no resident customs agents on Lake of the Woods, but one still needs to pass through customs when crossing the international border. These phone booths have a direct line to the appropriate officials: one button connects to the U.S.; the other to Canada. This booth is at Angle Inlet in Minnesota, but other booths are on border islands.
N 49° 12.130 / W 94° 29.500
Before snowmobilers roamed the frozen waters of Lake of the Woods, there were artists who left their mark on several rock faces. These pictographs, located on the north side of Painted Rock Island, are an estimated 900 years old. We thought they’d be hard to find, but the size and sheer number of them at this site made them easy to spot from way off. We rode as close as we could, then climbed up some drifts and ice heaves to take a closer look. Archaeologists have yet to unravel the secrets of the ochre-colored paint that seems to stand up to the harsh elements on the lake. Even so, pictographs fall under “look, don’t touch.” There are numerous pictograph locations on Lake of the Woods.
N 49° 28.155 / W 94° 39.027
A Bad Place To Break Down
This is not the spot to be when you realize that you have a pocket full of GPS batteries but no spare spark plugs. The engine on the Ski-Doo was low on power, quite boggy and the plugs were black with carbon. So we did what any good explorer would have done: pulled out a knife and scraped the crud off the plug, reinstalled it and hoped for the best. As we wrapped up the project, we found out we were not as far away from civilization as we had thought: A minivan crested what looked like a muddy, rocky snowmobile portage and continued onto an ice road that veered off to our right. Several ice roads are plowed onto the lake by resort owners and native tribes, and they’re marked on the snowmobile maps. Beware of berms created by the ice roads, as they can launch unsuspecting snowmobilers quite a distance.
N 49° 21.708 / W 94° 58.858
When we drove our snowmobiles through the wooden gates of Fort St. Charles, I felt a bit guilty. First, because it felt like driving through someone’s front door. Second, because our modern mode of transportation was a strange juxtaposition to the lives of the site’s original occupants who arrived by canoe and built the fort in 1723. The fort isn’t original — it was rebuilt in 1960 — but the location is exactly where European history began Lake of the Woods. French voyageurs, under commander Pierre La Verendrye, used this point as an outpost for Westerly exploration, as well as a fur-trading post. It’s also the burial site for at least two victims of a Sioux massacre (see Massacre Island): the beheaded reamins of Verendrye’s son Jean-Baptiste and Father Jean-Pierre Aulneau told modern-day archaeologists that this was the fort’s site. The fort was abandoned in the mid-1750s. There is a small chapel in the fort with an altar to honor who Catholics consider Minnesota’s first martyred priest.
N 49° 19.628 / W 94° 53.713
Flag Island Resort
Flag Island Resort doesn’t have the same bustle in the winter as it likely has in the summer. Many of the cabins were closed for the season, as is the bar. So if you’re the type who prefers solitude to action, this is one place to be.
Several cabins are winterized — the large unit we rented for the night is owned by a Polaris employee. Dan Schmidt, manager of the resort, is a one-man show. He guides, does the housekeeping, maintains the Web site and even had us to his cabin for breakfast. He conducts business from his cell phone or his bedroom/office. The book “How To Win The Walleye Game” sits on his nightstand. The 700-acre island has four permanent residents. Nearby Oak Island has about 12.
An ice road extends to Flag Island, so guests can drive up in the winter. He also has some rental snowmobiles available. He sells gas from a dock-mounted pump.
While I talked to Schmidt, who’s better known as Flag Island Dan, he slowly reached over and slid my notebook toward himself. He then picked up the pen and started writing, as if to take notes on our conversation.
He then slid the notebook back, making no comment, but giving the ultimate advice to a Lake of the Woods explorer: “Go create your own waypoint.”