GRAND FORKS — Carmen Christiansen and his dad, Wally, had quite the adventurous trek across Lake of the Woods earlier this week on the return leg of a fishing trip to Oak Island on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.

He didn’t realize how adventurous no, make that dangerous it could have been until he pulled up to the dock at Long Point Resort on the south shore of the big lake north of Williams, Minn., some 2 hours after embarking on the 40ish-mile trek from Oak Island to the south shore.

More on that later. …

Getting to the “Angle” as it’s better known has been a challenge since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic because the U.S.-Canada border remains closed to nonessential travel. The Northwest Angle, which resulted from a mapping error in the 1800s, is surrounded on three sides by Canada, and the only way to get there by road is to travel through Manitoba.

For most of us, that isn’t an option until border restrictions are lifted, whenever that might be.

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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

Permanent residents and workers deemed “essential” a definition that seems to have a different meaning depending on whom you ask can travel to the Angle by road. For everyone else, the only way to get there is to cross the 40-some-mile expanse of Big Traverse Bay by boat or floatplane.

Since floatplane service to the Angle is a thing of the past, getting there by boat is basically the only option.

Which brings us back to Christiansen’s little adventure, one of many that have occurred since ice left the lake last spring and Americans try to reach property or resorts in their own country by water.

A partner in a family owned company of radio stations in southwest Minnesota, Christiansen, 55, of Ruthton, Minn., and his dad, 74, of Lake Benton, Minn., had made the trek to Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island to fish muskies and jig up a few walleyes for the dinner table.

The best muskie fishing on Lake of the Woods is in Ontario waters, where habitat is more suitable, but Christiansen says he and his dad still had good luck fishing in Minnesota.

“My dad caught a 42 (inch muskie) and like a 39, and then I had a 48, which just was the fattest thing I’ve caught, I think, ever,” Christiansen said Wednesday, Oct. 21, in a phone interview. “It was fun.”

Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, Christiansen and his dad left Oak Island shortly after 6 a.m. in an effort to beat the worst of the winds on their return to the south shore and the long trek home. The sky was cloudy and snow was in the forecast.

“It was pitch black when we left,” Christiansen said.

The first leg of the trip from Oak Island to Garden Island, which is perhaps 10 miles or so by water, “was pretty wavy” and took about half an hour, Christiansen recalls.

Between Garden Island and Long Point, there’s nothing but open water. Southeast winds, at 8 to 9 mph, still churned up waves Christiansen estimates were 4 to 4½ feet high.

“It was terrible — to the point where it was scary,” he said.

That made for slow going, even in Christiansen’s 21-foot Champion fishing boat, which is powered by a 225-horse Honda outboard. A full windshield and cover and a propane sunflower heater kept them dry and warm on the bumpy ride.

“It was just, tip the (bow) up and kind of plow through the waves as best we could,” Christiansen said. “When we were about 5 miles out from Garden, and it was taking so long and the waves were so big, I was thinking, ‘OK, what happens if this motor quits?’”

Wave after wave, they inched their way south toward Long Point, finally pulling into the resort’s protected harbor shortly before 8:30 a.m.

“It was very inspiring to get to the dock,” Christiansen said.

That’s when the motor quit; everything was dead.

“I was coasting into the dock,” he said. “I looked at my dad, he looked at me, and it was just like, ‘whoa.’ So I tried to start it again — and nothing. I couldn’t even trim up the motor.

“It ran perfect all trip long all the way to the dock and then boom! it quit.”

Safely back on shore but rattled by what could have been, Christiansen got the boat on the trailer and hit the trim switch again.

It worked, but only intermittently.

“Then I knew it was a wiring problem,” he said. “I think there was a loose connection on the main power wire into the motor that must have loosened up from all the jarring or whatever.”

The trip back to southwest Minnesota was almost as stressful, Christiansen recalls, and they ran into snow and slushy highways south of Thief River Falls that persisted for the rest of the trip.

“I white-knuckled it all the way across the lake, and then we had to white knuckle it in the slush,” Christiansen said. “We saw about five people in the ditch, so it was not a very fun ride home, either. It was a very stressful day.”

Looking back on the trek across the lake and their brush with disaster, Christiansen said they should have waited for better weather. In a normal year, they wouldn’t even have fished the Angle, Christiansen says, because the family has a cabin on the Canadian side of the lake near Morson, Ont.

Like countless other Americans with property in Canada, they can’t get to their cabin because of the border closure. The Northwest Angle is the next best thing, Christiansen says, but crossing by water safely is a constant challenge.

“It’s just a horrible situation for the lodge owners up there because people just can’t get there,” he said. “They want to go but they cancel because of wind or weather or whatever.”

So far, at least, no one has died crossing the lake between the south shore and the Northwest Angle this year, but Christiansen and his dad could have been the first if the motor had quit miles from shore.

“I’m pretty sure we’re not going to do that again,” he said with a laugh. “It gives you an eerie feeling.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148, or email bdokken@gfherald.com.