The Northernmost Point of the Contiguous United States

Above:  In the morning, Paul took me in his boat to the northernmost point in the contiguous United States, in the Northwest Angle.  Then I drove back into Canada and then the U.S. again.  After getting a free t-shirt in International Falls, I drove on to Lake Itasca, pulling into the campground after dark.

I met Paul at the marina at 9 a.m., as we’d agreed yesterday, and we got in his boat and slowly pulled out and into the Lake of the Woods.  Our destination was the northernmost point of the contiguous United States and Paul told me there was a buoy there marking the site.  “A surveyor put it there a few years ago,” he said.  A few hundred yards from the marina, Paul nudged the throttle up, then pushed it all the way and we raced up the lake at 40 mph.  It was drizzling a bit but not too cold, maybe 55 degrees, and within about 10 minutes, he throttled down the engine.  We hadn’t passed a single boat since leaving Angle Inlet and there was no one around us, in this remote arm of the lake.  The lake was absolutely still and by now the drizzle had thankfully abated.

“I have to shut the engine down because there are too many weeds here,” he said, so he killed the engine and we started paddling towards a buoy a hundred yards away.  As we approached the buoy, I could see that it was red, white and blue and said “USA.”  We finally reached the buoy and I pulled it out of the water a bit.  I looked at my GPS and confirmed that this was, indeed, the northernmost point of the Lower 48 states.

I was hoping to go ashore, to step on the northernmost point of the land in the Lower 48, but the shoreline was a few hundred yards away and Paul said that it was all muck, so I’d get swallowed up in the mud.  Good enough.  After I did a short video panorama, Paul told me the history of the Northwest Angle.

After the Revolutionary War, in 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed that designated the boundary between the U.S. and Canada.  According to the treaty, the boundary started at the northwesternmost point of the Lake of the Woods and then extended westward to the Mississippi River.  They didn’t realize, however, that the Mississippi River lay a hundred miles to the south of the Lake of the Woods, not to the west.  So in 1818, a line was surveyed from this location, at the lake’s northwesternmost point, straight south to the forty-ninth parallel, which then extended west to the Pacific and formed the U.S./Canada border.  The little bulb of land directly to the east of that north-south line, called the Northwest Angle, remained in the United States. The Northwest Angle wasn’t caused by a surveying or mapping error, as many people suggest.  Rather, as Paul told me, it’s because this area hadn’t been explored yet and the folks creating the boundaries didn’t have all of the information.

Above: One of the best experiences of my trip so far was visiting the northernmost point of the contiguous United States, in a place called the Northwest Angle of northern Minnesota.  Paul Colson, the friendly owner of Jake's Resort, kindly offered to take me out there. (3:05)

Paul and I chatted here for about 20 minutes, floating stationary in the boat.  It was an absolutely quiet morning and there wasn’t another person within miles, and the Lake of the Woods was totally calm, like glass, without even the faintest breeze.  I asked Paul what it was like to live here and he said, “I’ve lived here all my life and I love it,” so I followed with the obvious question, “Doesn’t it get cold in the winter?”  He replied, “You get used to it.  Those folks in the city, like International Falls, complain about the cold when it gets down to 20 below.  But to me, 20 below is comfortable.”  Now, I used to live in the “city,” (in this case, Madison, Wisconsin), and I considered 20 below to be anything but comfortable.  But Paul continued, “The coldest it ever got here was about 55 below and our generator went out, so that was a little unpleasant.  But just like anywhere, you get used to the weather.” 

Paul also told me about his kids.  He and Karen had three kids, two of whom were in college and one was still in high school, living at home.  Their son goes to school in Warroad, Minnesota, nearly two hours away, and gets up very early each morning, then takes a school bus into Canada and back into the U.S. at Warroad.  Paul also said there are about a hundred year-round American residents in the Northwest Angle.  And regarding all the geopolitical issues in this area and different regulations between the U.S. and Canada (like fishing), he said, “We like it here, but we just want to be left alone and not get caught up in all those bureaucratic issues.”  Fair enough.

Above: As we sat in Paul's boat on the northernmost point of the contiguous United States, he explained to me the history of the Northwest Angle. It was the perfect classroom. (1:42)

After a while we paddled back to open weed-free water, then Paul started the engine and we zipped back to Angle Inlet.  When we got back to his office, Paul showed me clippings from an article about the Northwest Angle from a 1950s National Geographic magazine featuring stories about his long-since-departed grandfather, Jake, the founder of Jake’s Resort.  I didn’t consider it until later, but I thought it was nice that Paul still calls it “Jake’s Resort,” out of respect to his grandfather, rather than “Paul’s Resort.”  But that’s the kind of guy Paul is.

I spent 20 more minutes with Paul, joined by his pleasant wife Karen, talking with them in their office.  Then figuring that I’d taken up enough of their time, I paid them, shook their hands, thanked them again, then got in my truck and headed back to the border.  I’d been in the Northwest Angle for less than 24 hours but it seemed like so much longer than that.  In that short time, I’d gained an appreciation and a much better understanding of this place.  Thanks again, Paul.

By the way, the Northwest Angle, being the northernmost point of the contiguous United States, was Extreme Geographic Compass Point #8 of the 16 points around the country, and the first extreme compass point I'd visited since I was in San Diego back in May.  I was halfway done now.  You can check out my write-up of this extreme point here, and I've posted a panorama photo of the northernmost point here.

The Northernmost Point of the Lower 48 States

Coming “Back” to the U.S.

After leaving Angle Inlet, I drove on the dirt road to Jim’s Corner, where I picked up the telephone again, this time to call Canadian Customs, then got back in my truck and headed into Canada.  An hour later, I crossed the border again, entering the U.S. at Warroad, Minnesota.  The guy at the U.S. Customs office was friendly and, after taking a peek in the back of my truck, waved me through. 

Warroad was another of those fabled cold places that I’d read so much about – in the newspaper during winter mornings, when I checked to see where the coldest place in America had been the day before.  Quite often it was Warroad, so I was glad it was mid-September now and not January.  After getting a couple hot dogs at a mini-mart for lunch, I got back in the truck and continued east on Highway 11 past Baudette (another fabled Cold City) and finally to the granddaddy Cold City of them all, International Falls, Minnesota.

Back in the 1980s when I was a BLM ranger in the Rocky Mountains, I lived in Gunnison, Colorado and for years, Gunnison and International Falls had a friendly competition to see which was the coldest city each year (i.e., the coldest city for the most days of the year).  Of course, this sort of Extreme Geography thing fascinated me, even at that tender age, and since I’d already visited Gunnison on this trip, I had to pay a visit to International Falls.  This being mid-September, it was reasonably warm, around 60 degrees, and I was wearing shorts.  Not too many folks wear shorts here in December, I was certain, except perhaps hardy folks like Paul.

There’s more to International Falls, though, than just cold weather.  As I discovered, it has the largest statue of Smokey Bear anywhere in the world, and there’s a museum devoted to local football legend Bronco Nagurski (o.k., that’s going way back).  I stopped in the Chamber of Commerce and met the president of the chamber, a pleasant woman named Shawn, and told her about my Extreme Geography journey around America, mentioning to her that I used to live in International Falls’ rival town, Gunnison.  Shawn, who used to be the mayor of International Falls, was fascinated with my adventure and gave me a free International Falls t-shirt.  I thought that was incredibly kind and I promised her that I’d wear it proudly.

I left International Falls around 4 p.m. and headed south to Voyageurs National Park.  There are something like 55 National Parks in the U.S. (and over 400 National Park units, like National Monuments and National Historic Sites), and I’ve been to almost all 55 of them at some point in my life.  But I’d never been to Voyageurs National Park, so I wanted to check it out. 

I reached the Kabetogama Visitor Center at Voyageurs National Park 15 minutes before they closed, stamped my National Park passport book, as I do with every visit to a National Park, then chatted with the friendly staff behind the desk, a ranger fellow and a woman who was a Park Service volunteer.  I mentioned to both that I was traveling around the U.S. visiting extreme geographic places and they both became fascinated.  “What’s your website?” he asked, so I went out to my truck to get some travel cards, which I gave to each of them.  They were interesting folks, as park rangers tend to be, and we had a good conversation about extreme sites in America, including the highest point in Nebraska, which the woman had recently visited (darn, I missed that one). 

Looking at the clock on the wall, though, I realized it was a few minutes before the 5 p.m. closing time, so I ran around the Visitor Center and took some pictures, then said goodbye and got back into my truck.

My destination that night was Itasca State Park south of Bemidji, which was more than two hours away and home of the fabled Lake Itasca.  Lake Itasca was another place I’d always wanted to visit because it was the headwaters of the Mississippi River.  After driving across northern Minnesota for a couple hours, I stopped at a mini-mart near Bemidji to get some dinner (cold fried chicken), then found the State Park.  By now it was well past sunset and, this being a Friday evening, the campground was pretty full.  But I kept driving and driving around the immense campground in the darkness until I found an unoccupied site. 

I ate my cold chicken by the light of my candle lantern while listening to kids and parents in the various campsites around me, which brought a smile to my face because it reminded me of all the times I’d camped with my parents and older siblings when I was a kid.  Between the northernmost point of the U.S., the purportedly coldest place in the U.S., and now here at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, it had been another amazing Extreme Geographic day.

Northern (brrrr...) Minnesota



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