It was a bit more than 10,000 years ago that the huge glacial ice sheets that covered the northern half of North America, Europe and Asia began to melt. The Ice Age had, in effect, been a huge expansion of the Earth’s north polar ice cap. The glaciers’ footprint had dramatically changed the landscape of the affected areas that had been subjected to its icy grip. As the Earth’s climate slowly warmed over the course of several centuries, the ice retreated to the north revealing a rearranged topography and a new landscape emerged. Those glaciers had contained massive amounts of fresh water and as they melted and retreated, much of that water was left behind and further shaped the landscape.
The Minnesota River valley is one dramatic result of that melting water as it ran off from the retreating glacier, slicing and carving its way through the gently rolling landscape that the glaciers had left behind. There are other “leftovers” from that glacial melt including many lakes, large and small. These included Lake Winnipeg, the tenth largest lake on Earth, and the sizeable Lake of the Woods, on the Minnesota –Manitoba- Ontario border, among many other smaller but significant lakes.
The lakes are all the leftover ponds from the huge glacial Lake Agassi which was larger than the all Great Lakes combined and once covered much of Manitoba and large parts of Minnesota, North Dakota and Ontario. For nearly 2,000 years that water went about carving the valley that now is home to the Minnesota River.
It was to Lake of the Woods that we went this past weekend for what has been an annual ice fishing get away. I’ll admit that driving north more than 400 miles in mid-January is counter to many folks’ idea of a good time. The 15 below air temperature and our area’s icy roads early last Friday morning did make me wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter to go 400+ miles south instead where we could fish in the Missouri River.
That wouldn’t be the same, of course, so up north we went leaving at 5 a.m. in the chilly air and icy roads. The drive is familiar but always interesting. It’s a full day’s view of Minnesota, through Morris, Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes and Thief River Falls. We continue all the way to Roseau and then head north 10 miles to the Canadian border and into the southeast corner of Manitoba for about 40 miles, about half of that on gravel roads.
We cross back into Minnesota, heading east another 15 miles or so on gravel into that small part of Minnesota that juts north into Canada called the Northwest Angle, to the west shore of Lake of the Woods at a place called Young’s Bay. Those two wooded border crossings are more monitored than you might expect. North of Roseau, the border stations are fully staffed for both countries but at the Northwest Angle crossing, there is only a video phone in a small eight by eight foot unheated building.
You call the country you are about to enter and register your name, birth date, car license number and sometimes your passport number. Interestingly, the call-in station isn’t located right at the U.S. border but instead is located a few miles inside the border at a convenient gravel intersection just outside of the little village of Angle Inlet. It’s remote and casual but everyone takes those border crossing seriously.
At Young’s Bay we drive out onto the thick lake ice for six or seven miles on a wide, plowed pathway, past the Flag Island weather station and along the north side of Oak Island at the northeastern tip of Northwest Angle to a bay on the island’s east shore where the Angle Inn Lodge. Lake of the Woods is not only in Minnesota but also in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario and just to the east of the lodge, beyond the bay, is the Ontario border. There are many other smaller islands and a beautiful view in all directions.
Due to our Minnesota fishing licenses, we fish only in Minnesota waters but the populations of walleye and sauger, cousins in the fish world, are indifferent to that border and move freely along the bottom of the lake, 26 feet below the ice and our four-person fish houses. It’s great fun to jig your fishing lines and pull in those great game fish.
The rules mandate that all walleyes that measure between the 19 and a half inch and 28 inch “slot” must be immediately returned to the lake. We also returned to the lake any walleye under 14 inches and any sauger smaller than 12 inches. You can keep four walleye that are not in the “slot” each day but only one of them can be over 28 inches. The biggest fish our group caught was 22 and a half inches, which, after a quick picture, swam away in the cold lake waters.
All in all, our fishing was better than some years and not as good as others but, in the end, we came home with a nice array of fillets and some more good memories. Heading north in mid-January may not sound so enticing to some folks but after 26 years, we’ve managed to get used to it and already look forward to next year when we can go fishing in the waters left behind by those Ice Age glaciers. _________