Why Lake of the Woods couldn't stay lost

Its muskies weigh fifty pounds. Almost every hunter takes a deer. Its blue-green beauty spellbinds sightseers. New thousands find it every year-and for a few this means the end of a private paradise

Robert Collins August 2 1958

Why Lake of the Woods couldn't stay lost

Its muskies weigh fifty pounds. Almost every hunter takes a deer. Its blue-green beauty spellbinds sightseers. New thousands find it every year-and for a few this means the end of a private paradise

Robert Collins August 2 1958

Why Lake of the Woods couldn't stay lost

Its muskies weigh fifty pounds. Almost every hunter takes a deer. Its blue-green beauty spellbinds sightseers. New thousands find it every year-and for a few this means the end of a private paradise

Robert Collins

There is a lonely vastness of lake and evergreen forest where life could be simple — and sweet —that disturbs the daydreams of city people everywhere. You may have had the vision yourself; certainly, if you'd ever been set down in the big Lake of the Woods country, you'd have been face to face with it. You still would be, for that matter, in every way but one. The breath-catching beauty of this lakeland is as impelling as it ever was. but fame, the family car and the outboard motor have shattered the solitude that once you would have shared only with whistling swans, great white pelicans and a blew of the happiest people anywhere. Today these people aren’t quite as happy as they were: “The lake's getting sort of crowded," one of them says.

His complaint is only comparatively true. Last summer twelve hundred pleasure boats chugged into Lake of the Woods through the Cyclone Island Canadian customs point alone. And every fifteen miles or so along the shore are camps that didn't exist a decade ago. To tourists this is probably the happiest hunting and fishing ground in North America. Thousands of fishermen swear by its waters and particularly its fortyand fifty-pound muskellunge. Each autumn some three thousand hunters converge on the Kenora woods and about seventy percent take home a deer. Each winter air-borne shotgun-toting hunters, usually wealthy Americans, skim above the lake ice, risking their necks for the dubious thrill of killing timber wolves, which carry a twenty-five-dollar-a-head bounty. In 1956-57 more than three hundred w'olvcs were shot. At least one plane crashed but its occupants survived.

Yet even with sportsmen sometimes stepping on each other's heels, to the casual visitor this lonely blue-green land seems anything but crowded. The lake proper and the region cover roughly ten thousand square miles yet contain fewer people than Kitchener, Moose Jaw or Oshawa. Lake of the Woods is in the geographical centre of Canada. Thousands of cross-country motorists and CPR passengers brush its perimeter at Kenora every year. Air travelers between Winnipeg and the Lakehead lly over it twenty times a day. But few really know this country-within a-country.

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Why Lake of the Woods couldn’t stay lost continued from page 14

It is bounded on the north by Kenora. a hummocky green-and-granite town ol ten thousand, tied by bridges to a sister community, Keewatin. Thirty miles west of Kenora, Shoal Lake, a Lake ol the Woods appendage, reaches into Manitoba, providing water for Winnipeg ninety miles away.

South of Shoal Lake, in Lake of the Woods’ Big Traverse, Canada and the United States interlock like a jigsaw puzzle. A freakish northern twist of the international boundary thrusts a tab of American territory between Manitoba and Ontario. It gives the U. S. about thirty percent of Lake of the Woods’ water, a few' islands and an isolated chunk of Minnesota soil, the Northwest Angle, jutting into the lake off Manitoba. South of the Angle, on the Minnesota mainland, squats Warroad. a tourist and commercial fishing town.

At the southeast corner of the lake, the Rainy River curls eighty miles east like a tail, separating Ontario and Minnesota and cradling Ontario's half-forgotten Rainy River farm belt. Fort Frances, Ont., a lumber town of nine thousand, and International Falls, Minn., face each other across the river, like the tuft on the end of the tail. Beyond them is Rainy Lake; beyond that wilderness and the Lakehead. Northwest from Fort Frances, a hundred-and-forty-tw'o-mile paved highway follows Lake of the Woods’ east shore to Kenora.

This, geographically, is the private world of the Lake of the Woods. But it means many different things to many people. To most Ontarians, a thousand miles to the east, it is as foreign as Labrador or the Yukon.

To many of the local people, even, the lake is strictly a meal ticket. They are the hundreds of camp operators, outfitters and vendors of minnows to fishermen and English china and woolens to American visitors. They arc the fur farmers who find Lake of the Woods climate and fish ideal for mink. They are the entrepreneurs like lean John Flostrand of Keewatin. who peels and cuts native poplar into rustic furniture for tourists; Cecil Tew, the operator of a Kenora freezer and filleting plant, who thriftily turns waste fish heads and entrails into minced mink food at five cents a pound; and Ted Rowell, a Minnesota pharmacist who parlayed a worthless fish into a fortune. Twenty-three years ago he discovered that the Lake of the Woods burbot, a scrawny predator despised by commercial fishermen, had a liver richer in vitamins than the cod’s. Row-ell founded a laboratory in Baudette, on Rainy River, to process burbot-liver products.

There is still another, non-commercial, Lake of the Woods, known only to a

few of the most contented people anywhere. The lake is theirs, winter and summer. Although they, too. earn livings from it they treasure it chiefly as a retreat from noise, neighbors and time.

Like all the lucky people who live in this secret world. Captain Claude Albert Cossey was a truly happy man. A sixtyone-year-old mariner with the pink untroubled face of a thirty-year-old, Cossey had job, hobby and holiday rolled into one until just this spring.

He never wanted to be anything but a lake-boat skipper. All his life lie cruised Lake of the Woods’ fourteen hundred square miles of water, which lie partly in Manitoba, partly in Minnesota, mostly in Ontario.

Cossey has sounded the lake’s treacherous granite reefs and probed its thirty thousand miles of wrinkled shoreline, chiseled by glaciers from Precambrian rock. He poked around some of the 14,632 islands strewn like freckles over the lake’s face. He watched the windswept southern basin, the Big Traverse, churned into fury by gales. And on other days he drifted in a silent shimmering world of sky and water.

For twelve years Cossey did this in an aura of mahogany paneling, tiled bathrooms, thick carpets, Wedgwood china and tinkling bar. As captain of the eighty-six-ton yacht, Grace Anne II. based in Kenora and owned by a mining company, he conducted American generals, Canadian premiers and international tycoons on courtesy trips around the lake. When navigation opened this spring. Cossey was transferred to Lake Winnipeg. But it is safe to say that someday he will be back.

Another of the lake’s willing captives, Barbara Machin, a sturdy brunette in her early forties, has lived on Shoal Lake since 1931. Her income and background would open doors at any social level. Her father, the late Lt.-Col. Harold Machin, was an Ontario MPP. a lawyer and a gold-mine owner. Her maternal grandfather. William Knight, made a fortune in South African gold and diamonds and kept an FInglish estate. Miss Machin was educated in a Toronto boarding school and holds gold-bearing properties all around Kenora.

"But I don’t give two hoots for society," she says. "I hate cities. Out here you can live without neighbors peering over your back fence.”

Barbara Machin’s life is neither primitive nor dull. Her two-story log-andframe lodge, tucked behind a sheltering point, has electricity, plumbing and a fortune in exquisite hand-painted china, rare curios, ornate Victorian furniture and other heirlooms.

In the summer, with a small staff, she takes in tourists, as much for her entertainment as theirs. In the winter she runs a small sawmill, plods through the bush staking claims, or browses in a library heaped with volumes from Churchill’s history of England to a rare seventeenthcentury English geography.

Radiotelephone, motor boat, Stinson airplane and the local grapevine arc her links with outside. Commercial fishermen or Indians drop in just often enough to review the news; what happened to the Indian cowboy-singer who auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry? Which Indian is unofficially in charge of homebrew manufacture this season? And whatever hap-

pened to that woman tourist who arrived at Machin’s for a two-week stay with thirty cocktail dresses?

Barbara Machin’s full-time pilot and fellow Lake of the Woods devotee is pretty blond Ruth Parsons, a twentyfive-year-old ex-schoolteacher and perhaps the only woman bush pilot in Canada. Ruth obtained her commercial license in 1954. over the protests of three flying brothers who thought woman's place was in the classroom. Since then she has flown almost exclusively for Miss Machin, on mining assignments or ferrying tourists to and from Kenora.

Machin’s camp never advertises. But the Americans discovered it. as they’ve discovered most other Lake of the Woods spots, and word-of-mouth built a steady clientèle. Ninety-eight percent of the tourists in the region are American. They converge at International Falls, driveover the Rainy River bridge and into Fort Frances, busiest Canadian customs check point between Sault Ste. Marie and the Pacific coast.

At first they scarcely know they've left home. In Fort Frances as in International Falls the air is scented with sawdust and wood pulp and the smokestacks of Mando— the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp and Paper Company — tower over mills that chew, steam and squeeze Lake of the Woods logs into paper.

Foil Frances helps International Falls celebrate July Fourth. The Falls helps Fort Frances celebrate Dominion Day and they take turns holding Labor Day parades. They share service clubs, a celebrity concert series, an enthusiasm for Canadian hockey and American highschool football, and a radio station. Canadian-owned CFOB, Fort Frances, has three American announcers, carries forty percent American advertising and has both American and Canadian wire service for equal news coverage.

But as tourists drive west and north, past Holstein herds and fragrant hay fields, into raw outcroppings and cobaltblue waters, the outer world melts away. Black cormorants and bald eagles wheel overhead, deer and fox flash through the tamarac and Lake of the Woods begins to cast its spell. On the water a boatman can cruise all day in the busiest season without glimpsing another human in the bewildering array of islands and inlets.

“Great shot! Who took that one for you?”


Some visitors hanker to own an island. You can buy one outright, up to three acres, for a minimum of three hundred and twenty-five dollars. For weli-heeled summer residents that's the least expense. Their “cottages” dwarf the average city home. One California millionaire spent fifty thousand dollars improving his Lake of the Woods place. Another graced his grounds with stone walls and fruit trees. An Indiana doctor lines his interior walls with thousands of costly fishing lures.

Sixty-five-year-old Arthur Holmdahl. president of an Iowa metal - stamping company, has a twelve-acre estate on Alexandria Island with barbecue pit, vegetable garden, clipped lawns, concrete walks and six-bedroom lodge with thermal picture windows. Much of it was built under Holmdahl’s “work-play-planfor-friends.” He frequently drafts bankers or millionaire industrialists to shovel cement, nail shingles or hoe corn. But then Holmdahl takes them fishing in his twenty-seven-ton houseboat or restores their strength at his well-stocked bar and twelve-place lazy-susan dining table.

Probably the most famous summer home in the region is the now deserted "castle” near Fort Frances on a Rainy l ake island. Here, in the Thirties, an Iowa lawyer named French built an eight-room stone-and-stucco replica of a European chateau, with one semi-circular room that imaginative natives call "the tower.” French, who is now dead, installed electric lights, plumbing, three bathrooms, three stone fireplaces, antiques, a grand piano and a retinue of servants. For many summers he roughed it there in Olympian grandeur.

But surely French with his wealth was no happier than. say. Jake Colson, postmaster of Angle Inlet, or lakeboat captain Fay H. Young. Captain Young was a sick man when he went to Warroad. Minn., forty years ago. Three bouts of scarlet fever had given him nephritis. Doctors said he couldn't be cured.

He'd done some boating on the Mississippi so he turned to the leisurely life of lake-boat skipper. His appetite improved, the disease waned and he raised two daughters who also learned to pilot lake boats. Today at seventy-two Young looks spry as a boy. He credits it all to his idyllic lile on I ake of the Woods.

He runs the mail, cargo and passenger boat Resolute on the hundred-and-eightymile round trip to Kenora once a week all summer; three times a week on the ninety-mile round trip to Oak Island and the Northwest Angle. He stops wherever passengers want out and doesn't fret over timetables. East autumn he’d almost decided to sell the Resolute with one stipulation: the new skipper must give Young boat rides up l ake of the Woods anytime he wants them.

One of Young's mail stops is Angle Inlet on the Northwest Angle. Postmaster Jake Colson, an easygoing grey-headed bear of a man. lied here thirty-five years ago to be his own boss.

"I was working in a Kansas restaurant," Colson rumbles. "One day 1 got so fed up 1 just walked out. Well, I looked up and saw a fiock of geese heading north and I says, 'Hey, fellas, wait for me.’ "

He never regretted it. foday on the Angle he and his wife have electricity, poultry, a few tourist cabins, sixty-four neighbors—mostly loggers, fishermen and dairymen — and unlimited peace. There are no telephones. One visits neighbors via boat in summer and by car or truck over the ice in winter. Sometimes the truck wheels crash through thin ice or bog down in snowdrifts. Angle folk regard such mishaps with immense good humor.

"Nobody gets annoyed at little things out here." says Miss Bobbie Bray, a breezy brunette who runs tourist cabins and a tavern on Oak Island near the Angle each summer and works in a Chicago dry-cleaning plant most winters. "I spent a winter here and I've never had so many laughs. We had parties, we read books, we listened to the radio. I never seem to have time to read or listen to music in the city."

"And we’re not bushed, like so many people think," adds her brother. Cody, a boilermaker-turned-pilot who runs summer charter flights off Oak Island and wants to build an all-weather air strip there. "I've flown people to Warroad hospital in thirty minutes. That’s quicker than you get there in some cities."

"And we've got space,” says Elvin Hansen. Oak Island’s storekeeper and customs officer, whose white hair springs thickly from a tanned unwrinkled forehead. "I was a plumber before 1 came here in 1923. 1 just had to get out of those dark crowded basements. Now 1 wouldn't know what to do with myself in the city.”

Hansen, like others around the lake, sometimes wonders how long he'll keep his space and privacy. Civilization is closing in. The Ontario government is going to build a five-million-dollar threeand-a-half-mile causeway over Rainy l ake, joining Fort Frances with Highway 120 and the 1 akehead. It will open the wilderness around Atikokan and. conversely, may bring more eastern tourists to l ake of the Woods.

Meanwhile Manitoba proposes to put a north-south road through bush and swamp immediately west of the lake. Eventually it would join an American super-highway, the Mississippi Parkw'ay, extending to the Gulf of Mexico.

Even with roads it will take a few' years to tame this land. Most of the bush is known only to Indians. Many islands are unexplored and unnamed. There has been no over-all hydrographic survey of Canadian waters; official marine charts are marked, "Based on local information . . . use with caution." In many w'avs. l ake of the Woods is still as remote as when the first explorers registered their puzzlement with place names like Labyrinth Bay, Quandry Bay and Infernal Point.

The lake’s history is fraught with mystery and confusion. There was mystery, and tragedy too, in the death of Father Jean Pierre Aulneau, Jesuit missionary. One day in 1736 Aulneau and twenty companions left the LaVérendrye fort on the lake in canoes. They camped on an island. A Sioux party hailed them with a peace sign and sat down. Then the Sioux massacred the French.

Details or the exact location of the killing were never known. But Massacre Island (the probable site), Aulneau Peninsula and Father Aulneau Memorial Church in Warroad, Minn., commemorate the priest today.

The Warroad church is also a tribute to a contemporary priest and lake enthusiast, Father Emmett Shanahan, a tousled puckish man in his early fifties. In 1954 a volunteer corps led by Shanahan completed the graceful hundred-andfifteen-thousand-dollar building of pine logs and cedar shakes. On the rectory wall the priest hung a thirty-three-pound muskie he’d pulled from the lake. On the roof is a replica of the cairn that once marked Father Aulneau’s grave. The church has everything, in fact, except a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars. The little parish has whittled the debt to seventy-six thousand hut still needs do-

nations. Chief fund-raiser Shanahan has been slowed by a heart attack.

“One thing about it,” he grins, “they could take our building away but what could they use it for except a church?”

While the lake people ponder the debt hanging over their rustic church, more and more tourists come to look it over. Last summer the Kenora tourist bureau registered more Manitobans than Ontarians and more visitors from Minnesota and Iowa — 6,527 —than from the ten provinces combined.

How long before all of Lake of the Woods becomes just another accessible tourist area? Winnipeg newspapers predict that Manitoba’s link with the Parkway will bring Lake of the Woods "within easy reach.” William Noden. Ontario MPP for Rainy River, thinks the Rainy Lake causeway will open “a second transCanada highway route.”

None of this pleases the people of the lake who like their private world the way it is. Some say the moose and deer population is already dwindling and a game refuge should be set up on Big Island, largest on the lake. Others sympathize with Barbara Machin, who is developing a second camp a hundred miles north of Lake of the Woods and says, "If it gets too crowded down here I'll move north.” Like the Harley Jensens and all the rest, she came not to tame the wilderness but keep it wild.

Jensen and his wife, Io, moved to

American Point, near the Northwest Angle, in 1953. Both were raised in cities. They continued working after marriage. Io was a nurse. Harley a junior partner in his brother’s Minneapolis supermarket. They bought a new car every year and kept a handsome apartment overlooking a lake.

"But we hardly saw each other,” says Io. "We weren't getting any companionship out of marriage.”

"Rush, rush, rush was all I did.” says Harley, a tall, blond intense young man. “I could see I'd have ulcers in no time.”

Now, raising two children and operating a few summer cabins, a year-round store and the most northerly post office in any State, they still work hard hut with a difference.

"You couldn't jar us off here,” Harley said one day last fall. "The nicest time is now, when the tourists are gone. It's quiet but never dull. Sure, we live from day to day, like the Indians. But did you ever see an Indian with an ulcer or a bald head?”

He glanced around the quiet kitchen with its electric lights, deep freeze and radiotelephone hookup with Kenora. Outside a breeze whispered in off the lake and sunlight sifted through the pines onto a sign Jensen keeps over his warehouse: TIME IS NO OBJECT.

“We have so much more than we ever had in the city . . .” said Harley

Jensen. ★