I’m a geography geek. When I was young, I would spend long driving hours on family road trips with the road atlas, pouring through the maps, looking for unique locations. When I was in High School, my geography teacher, fresh out of college and bored teaching a subject he didn’t have interest in, allowed me to teach the final few months of the school year- units on Australia and Antarctica. It was no surprise when I went on to college and majored in Social Studies, with a concentration in Geography. When I was a teacher, I spent long hours crafting my lesson plans and designing my own worksheets, instead of using the provided textbooks. Geography has always been a big part of my life, and that has obviously translated over into my travels.
In January of 2003, I was visiting Key West, Florida, when we made a trip to the famous “Southernmost Point in the Continental United States” monument. That got my already geographically-obsessed mind going. I wondered how hard it would be to visit the other extreme points in the continental U.S. I had already made up my mind to attempt to visit the national park units in the lower 48 states, and the more I looked at the map, it seemed easy enough to incorporate these extreme points in with that quest.
I visited the westernmost point in Washington state in 2005, followed by the easternmost point in Maine in 2008. In June of 2009, I visited the Geographic Center of the United States in Kansas. The final point, the northernmost point, was something I had planned later in that trip.
The northernmost point is a geographic anomaly. It is the only point in the continental United States that lies north of the 49th Parallel. It is technically part of Minnesota, but it is not connected to the rest of Minnesota by land. This 116 square mile section of land is only part of the United States due to an incorrect understanding of where the source of the Mississippi River was and a mistake made by the first mapmakers in the area.
Getting to the Northwest Angle requires crossing into Canada. As I was coming from North Dakota, I entered Canada via the border crossing at Pembina, ND and drove 85 miles through the plains of Manitoba. I reached the turn-off to head north toward the ‘Angle’ on Manitoba Highway 308. I had researched getting to the Northwest Angle and did not find a lot of information, but I did know the two roads that I would be taking (308 & 525) would be unpaved. I had not read anywhere how rough these roads would be.
The section of Manitoba I had passed through had been sparsely populated farmland, but once I turned north, I entered heavy forest with only the slightest signs of settlement anywhere. The final 8 mile stretch of road (Manitoba 525) was some of the roughest road I have ever driven on. (I was later told by the nice lady at the gas station in the Northwest Angle that recent rains had made the road rougher than normal.) I expected to feel elation at collecting this final token of the geographic conquest, but the pinging of rocks from the gravel road underneath the van and the boring nature of the drive had taken a little of that enjoyment out of me.
I questioned myself further when in the five minutes it took me to set up the camera and tripod to snap my pictures, I was swarmed with mosquitos and biting flies. This shouldn’t have been a surprise- the Northwoods of Minnesota are renowned for their biting insect population- but I was still annoyed at the inconvenience.
There are no formal customs booths entering the Northwest Angle. Instead, the sign shown above instructs visitors to proceed 8 miles down the road to a small shed where they will communicate via videophone with both United States and Canadian customs officers.
I phoned both the county’s customs officials. The video part of the phone was not working. I read both my passport number and explained the purpose of my visit. I felt a little silly explaining this to them, but I guessed that despite avid fisherman, most of the Angle’s visitors were there for the same purpose as me.
As previously mentioned, finding information about the Northwest Angle had proven difficult. I drove to the only town in the territory, Angle Inlet, which was one of the smallest settlements I have ever seen. There were a few basic businesses serving the population (116 permanent residents as of the last census). There was also a resort and golf course on the northern end of the peninsula. 70% of the Northwest Angle’s land is part of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Many of the dwellings I saw appeared to be summer cottages.
The only thing that comes close to a ‘tourist site’ in the Northwest Angle is the pint-sized Northernmost Post Office in the Continental United States. It had closed for the day at the time of my visit, so I stopped at the small gas station across the street to try and find some postcards or other small souvenirs from my visit. They didn’t have any postcards, so I settled for a tourist brochure/newspaper, which was all the nice lady behind the counter could come up with as a souvenir. I asked her how many people she saw visiting for the same obscure purpose as me.
“A few, I suppose. Most end up looking as disappointed as you do now.”
I hadn’t meant to look so downtrodden. I shouldn’t have expected much. Later, upon reflection, I was able to come up with some pride in being enough of a geek for geography that I would spend half a day of my precious vacation time traveling to such a forlorn place. As for that day, I left the store, turned the van south, and hoped I could make it paved roads before the impending rain started.
I understand it’s not a ringing endorsement for the place. It might not make it on a list of hidden gems in the United States. The woods are beautiful, and so is Lake-in-the-Woods, the large body of water that borders Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba. I’ve heard it is a great place for fishing and that the fall colors are beautiful. I even read that during the winter, when the lake is frozen, people are able to drive across it to get there from the rest of Minnesota. The crossing back into the United States at Warroad, Minnesota was, by far, the most unpleasant U.S./Canadian Border crossing I have ever done. They must have figured if you are crazy enough to go all that way for bragging right, you must be worth some extra scrutiny.
If you go, the closest hotels with good ratings on TripAdvisor are about 30 miles away:
- Falcon Trails Resort in Falcon Lake, Manitoba
- Crescent Beach Cottages & Motel in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Manitoba
- Can Am Inn in Warroad, Minnesota
To see the rest of my geographic extreme points, check out the article on my blog.