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Going all the way west in Ontario (11 photos)

This week, Bill takes us to visit the western-most point in Ontario - which happened to be underwater at the time he arrived

It is not Mount Everest but it is a quest.

Last year it was how far can you drive a car north in Ontario, we did that. Now it is trying to reach the four surveyed boundaries of the province.

With the intrepid adventurer, Brian Emblin, we leave his home within the city with the heart of gold at 5:31 p.m. on Thursday, June 16. We see the first black bear, a big one, on the north side of Highway 11 near Smooth Rock Falls. It is a good omen as it goes back into the bush.

We don’t stop for a selfie at the alien spaceship in Moonbeam. We are on a mission so the tourism icon black bear in Kapuskasing and the wolves in Hearst are bypassed as well. We take a seven-hour nap in Longlac.

Next morning, the sun is not yet up, we drive through what will be the open pit Equinox Gold Mine in Geraldton, they’re working feverishly now to strip the overburden. The town’s iconic tourism headframe at the junction of Highway 584 and Highway 11 is being dismantled. Then there is a Sasquatch sighting in Beardmore and a snowman.

The steep rock palisades are the gateway to Nipigon - it is always a breathtaking, northwestern bit of scenery. It is at the junction of Highways 11 and 17 you cross that impressive cable suspension bridge spanning the Nipigon River. 

It is early morning, coffee and a bagel at Tim’s, the CBC Radio says it is brisk and windy, and the really big oversized Canadian flag at the Husky Truck Stop is indeed billowing. We feel even more like Canucks when we see the first sign for the ‘Courage Highway.’

We pass the Panorama Amethyst Mine. On one side of Highway 11/17 is the Terry Fox roadside commemorative monument and to the south, you see the Sleeping Giant. We pass the turnoff to Armstrong and last spring’s epic story of the Hermit of Whitewater Lake. We bypass Thunder Bay and Mount McKay.

The next decision is to take Highway 17 where the 11/17 split begins and then we enter the Central Time Zone. Upsala, Ignace, Dryden and Kenora pass by.

From Kenora to the Manitoba border it is a curvy Highway 17, with lots of lakes and rock cuts. We enter Manitoba at 1:47 p.m., one hour ahead. We have already travelled 1318 km from Timmins.

Angle Inlet

Getting to the most western boundary of the province means you have to drive into ‘Friendly Manitoba’ you see the green and blue of the forest and water on their licence plates.

Ours is now the two-tone-blue plates with white lettering, along with the phrase “A place To grow” instead of “Yours to discover.” It is Highway 1 now and it is a four-lane highway because so many Manitobans flock to their camps and cottages on Lake of the Woods, Falcon Lake and Whiteshell Provincial Parks from west to east. “Winnipegers” do the “Muskoka” pilgrimage on the weekends. You notice the topography is that much flatter and the large trenches on the side of the highway.

About 35 km west of the provincial boundary we turn south on Manitoba #308 it is a gravel road for 55 km with small moat-like canals on alternating sides of the road. We come to #525, headed east to Angle Inlet; we are on back roads but there are road closure signs turned sideways!

On the way, we pass two extensive peat bog cutting areas (Premiere Tech Horticulture ). Peat is used as the optimal growing medium because of its ability to retain moisture, the moss will soak up 20 times its weight in moisture.

It appears you are never too far from the water table. This part of the world has seen extensive and prolonged rain this spring.

We have to cross into the USA but this is different than airport customs. At the border you are welcomed by signs and asked to report to the digital reporting entry station with your passport. No personnel here. It looks like a bus shelter with a privacy door. There is a phone and an iPad. You must download an app on your smartphone called ArriveCAN. This is a free app and is necessary to enter the country.

Here you must upload a picture of your passport and your vaccination card. You contact USA border customs coming and have a chat on the phone with Canadian customs when leaving. The sign adjacent to the border is about Sasquatch sightings…true!

Eight miles beyond is Angle. It is the most northern contiguous point in the continental USA. Called “the chimney” of Minnesota, it is tucked into the most southwestern corner of Lake of the Woods.

Distance and speed are now posted in miles, 25 M.P.H. and temperature in Fahrenheit (72 degrees F) and we have some real paper American one dollar bills. You are in another country. The distances are shorter, your money shrinks and it seems to be hotter.

The first thing you notice in this tiny hamlet there are the American flags on homes, the General Store and other community buildings, they are patriotic. Brian says, “We’re not like that eh!” We are not so patriotic when it comes to waving the flag. He says, “We choose not to be.”

Border Crossing History

When you leave the check-in booth you are now on Lake of the Woods County Rd. 49 denoting the 49th parallel and it is the furthest American community above the parallel of latitude within the continental USA.

It is all because of a mapping error. Angle Inlet became famous during the pandemic, see this New York Times article, the community remained cut off from their country because of a geographical quirk, the Canadian government and a gravel road through Manitoba.

The drafters of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 believed the Mississippi River flowed north to the Arctic sea and hence the westernmost boundary of British North America would be the centre of the Mississippi River.

Back then Benjamin Franklin acting on behalf of the new country and British representatives relied on the Mitchell Map of colonial American geographer John Mitchell, which did not indicate the source of the Mississippi River—thought to lie some distance to the northwest—or the true shape of Lake of the Woods, which was instead shown as roughly oval.

Angle Township was designated as territory of the United States because negotiators of the initial Canada–U.S. border misunderstood the geography of the area.

The treaty stated that the boundary between U.S. territory and the British possessions to the north would run "...through the Lake of the Woods to the northwestern most point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi..." After many years and the War of 1812, when the US tried to take us over, the border was established creating Northwest Angle. The USA was not going to give up what it had gained.

Angle Township (Northwest Angle) has a total area of 123.09 square miles (318.81 km2) of land and then there is the Lake of the Woods water area within the USA. The community of Angle is approximately five square kilometres (about two square miles).

We’re headed for the Outpost Lodge, a family-run operation going back to the 1950’s Lisa and Jason Goulet’s children are fifth-generation residents. They are like most lodge owners they like people. This June alone represents more revenue generated than the previous two years during the pandemic.

For a demographic context, there is no enforcement in Angle Inlet which is located in the Lake of the Woods County which is part of the 7th Congressional District of eight within Minnesota, there are eight in the state. There are 3'763 people in the county and about 150 in Angle Inlet.

Under state laws, you are allowed to conceal or “open carry” a handgun. We did not see any guns just many fishers plying the walleye waters of Lake of the Woods. Seventy per cent of the county voted Republican in the last presidential election. There are no cannabis stores in Minnesota and the drinking age is 21. The county had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state with only 59 per cent receiving one dose.

The owners, the Goulets, are not vaccinated. They had the misperception that “Canadians were severely locked down for two years and wondered why we had to show vaccine passports to go to the food store (?).”

Angle Inlet has the last one-room school house in Minnesota. After Grade Six you have to take the bus to Warroad, Minnesota more than seventy minutes away and you have to cross the Canadian border then back into Minnesota and return at the end of the day, checking in via four border crossings per day.

There are about a dozen students and the bus driver does the contacting of US/Canadian customs. Angle was a former logging community but has embraced summer and winter fishing clients. Originally it was water access only and then the back roads through Manitoba connected the community.

The Western Extremity

Lake of the Woods is “big water.” It is the second-largest lake in Ontario next to Nipigon and of shared by two countries. It is here the water of the Northwest Angle Inlet allows access to the most western boundary point a curved line around a point of land on the map.

We are greeted by large white pelicans at the dock, magnificent birds, different and “endangered.” Across the inlet we see the homes of Northwest Angle Indian Reserve 33B, which is on the Ontario side of the inlet, it is water access primarily and through a logging road.

For versatility, we brought along a square stern canoe with a 3 H.P. engine. There is too much wind out of the east so we rented a larger boat from Jason.

We need to travel west into the inlet about 6 km (3.7 miles).

The aluminum 16’ open bow, side console with a 40 H.P.Honda four-stroke keeps ahead of the waves. We reach the international boundary first and see the USA/Canada swath of land cut on the south side of the inlet denoting the border. The buoy is submerged.

That’s the border of Minnesota (USA), Manitoba and Ontario (Canada).

We have to go a little further, about another km to where the Ontario border meets Manitoba at its furthest western extremity. There is no marching band to greet us, only mosquitoes, dragonflies and emergent vegetation from the usually dry land. 

The GPS identifies the water-based location. It is an imaginary line with a history and we have an orange safety cone for our marker and the commemorative photos. We made it!

On a normal year there would be a land mass but the water is about five to six feet (US-imperial measure) higher this year.

In particular, American and Canadian lodge owners are bemoaning the high water because of the flooding. In a recent news report, the Lake of the Woods Control Board said the large lake straddling the Ontario, Minnesota and Manitoba borders appears to be at or near a crest after rising to its highest level since the record flood of 1950.

We witnessed what has happened. The flooding of the 30th-largest freshwater lake on the planet by area has submerged docks and boathouses, prompted evacuations in Kenora and raised the erosion risk along the grassy southwestern shore in Minnesota which includes Angle.

When we arrived, we were about one week past the crest and it was receding. It is expected to take two months to return to normal summer levels.

Upon return to the dock, Jason says, “Damn those dams, particularly the one in Kenora.” He refers to the Norman Dam (not Ontario Power Generation) the gates are wide open (we went to see it on our return) but it holds back water that eventually flows north via the Winnipeg River that could potentially flood the City of Winnipeg.

To celebrate we go to the only restaurant in the area, Jerry’s is located at the municipal marina. The small park adjacent to the restaurant has the barrel-shaped, yellow, blue, white, green, black ringed, contiguous icon marker denoting the northernmost point within the USA, with park benches and another check-in booth. 

It is all underwater. Jerry’s is surrounded by a wall of sandbags and you need water shoes or rubber boots to reach the veranda. The affable server fills us in on the water levels. Most people go to the tourism marker at the marina but we have fulfilled another promise.

The next day we return to the land of free health care, retracing our steps. We leave again before sunrise bound for some pictographs near Ignace which become spectacular finds. We are grateful to see these morphs and left respect such this past winter’s story 

Headed back we take a back roads detour to the amethyst mine for some treasure. We get back to Timmins on Sunday, June 19, at 8:34 p.m. having travelled in total 2,931 km, over 76 hours and eleven minutes, including three short sleeps.

At the end of the day, so far, the effort to reach each surveyed boundary extremity is increasing.

The eastern was a relatively easy highway, a secondary highway drive.

The most southern required a ferry ride.

To the west, it was another province, another country and a boat ride.

Excluding the Centre of Ontario, previously reached by snowshoe, we have reached three out of the four cardinal direction boundaries. The northern boundary of Nunavit, Manitoba and Ontario is somewhat near Fort Severn, the most northern community in Ontario. The summit is within our reach but it will be a logistical challenge. Stay tuned for more on the back roads.