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A Community Angles to Leave U.S.

Walleye dispute has Minnesotans contemplating life as Canadians.

October 10, 1998|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn. — 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.

Why? Walleye.

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.

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