Northwest Angle first isolated by geography, now by COVID-19

Pandemic border restrictions play havoc with Angle resorts

Two children look over a lake.
Ever since the border crossings to and from the Northwest Angle were closed down, resident Kellie Knight has been exploring nature with her children, Julian and Iris. Usually Knight spends her summers working at a resort, packed with anglers. She says she’s trying to make the best of the COVID-19 precautions.
Courtesy of Kellie Knight

Nearly every dollar that goes to the Northwest Angle of Minnesota travels there in the pocket of an angler. 

Only about 120 people live there year-round. But usually in the early summer, trucks and boat trailers arrive in such force, the dust clouds they raise from the dirt roads never quite have a chance to settle — but not this summer.

This summer, the roads are empty. And so are the resorts — which is a problem for Sunset Lodge co-owner Samantha Palmquist, who said it feels “eerie.”

“This is when we make our money,” she said. “June is our busiest month up here, and right now, we have no people in camp.”

The issue, she said, is one of access. The Angle is part of Minnesota, but just barely. To get there by road, Palmquist’s customers have to cross into Canada, drive north for about an hour, then cross back into the United States. Two international border crossings — both of which are closed right now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It'll stay that way for a while, Palmquist said — at least until June 21, and maybe a whole lot longer. 

“You always hear rumors that they want to extend it to August,” she said. “We really have no idea.”

If nothing changes, she worries she’ll have to lay off her staff of 12 people. That’s 10 percent of the population of the Angle — unemployed — and other resorts will have to do the same.

Now technically, you can get to the Angle, without leaving the U.S. You just launch a boat at Warroad, Minn., or from the Rainy River and head north across Lake of the Woods.

The trouble is, it takes hours and the lake is so big it can be very risky. 

At Sportsman's Oak Island Lodge, Chi Chi Lundsten is coordinating a sort of boat escort service. One big boat heads across the lake, with a line of half dozen smaller ones trailing behind like ducklings. It works, but there’s another challenge, Lundsten said. Right now, again, because of coronavirus concerns, U.S. anglers aren’t allowed to fish Canadian waters. 

“Most people, once they get here, want to fish the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods,” she said. “You can tuck in behind islands and get out of the wind.” 

Canada has most of the really choice fishing spots. Without them, the Angle is a hard sell. 

But not everyone saw the closures as bad news.

When the crossings were first shut down Kellie Knight was relieved. The Angle really became Minnesota’s most isolated community. Yes, it was bad for business, but it also made it the perfect place to weather the worst pandemic in recent history. 

“We’re going to survive here at the Angle,” she said. “We can control who we’re exposed to. I was at peace with it.”

Instead of working at her grandmother’s resort, Knight hung out with her two young children. She watched the birds return home. She worked on her novel, and life was good. 

And then another big story hit the news. The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Protests and riots, and suddenly, the woman who felt like a social justice warrior didn’t love the quiet so much anymore. 

“How could we do this to a whole block of people? How could you not just weep?” she said. “If I could be there I would, in a heartbeat. I would be standing up and getting as close to the front lines as I dared.” 

Before the Warroad Pioneer newspaper shut down, Knight had a regular column. She was known as the Angle’s lone Democrat, hyperbolic, but largely true.  

The Northwest Angle is not the place to weather this disaster — not for her.