TORONTO, Ontario (CTV News) — Separated from the rest of the United States by the closed Canadian border, one community in Minnesota put its northern ingenuity to work to restore its lifeline to the outside world.
The so-called Northwest Angle is a geographical oddity associated with the Canada-U.S. border. Officially known as Angle Township, it is separated from the rest of Minnesota by Lake of the Woods.
This unusual arrangement dates back to pre-Confederation treaties between the U.S. and Great Britain, which used an inaccurate map to determine where the Canada-U.S. border would run. Over the years, the Angle’s unique geography has led to at least one secession attempt, as well as an unsuccessful online petition in 2018 to have the U.S. “give Canada back” the land.
The only way residents of the Angle can drive to the U.S. is by heading west and then south through Manitoba, a one-way trip of approximately 100 kilometres.
That inconvenience became a much bigger problem last year, when Canada began to turn away non-essential travellers from the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
An exception was made for anyone using Canada to get from the contiguous U.S. to Alaska. That rule was later refined after it became clear some Americans were claiming they were en route to Alaska as they entered the country, then sightseeing in Canada instead.
The government’s published information about border restrictions does not mention any exceptions for the 100 or so residents of the Northwest Angle, who have thus spent the last 10 months relying on flights and boat trips as their only means of transportation to and from the rest of the U.S.
Many of those who live in the Angle earn their livelihoods by working at resorts within the 320-square-kilometre patch of isolated America. In normal years, they receive a steady stream of visitors interested in the fishing and other outdoor recreation the area has to offer.
Last year, though, with the Angle nearly inaccessible, business disappeared.
“We had zero people at our place,” resort owner Paul Colson told KARE-TV on Monday.
As winter approached, some of the Angle’s residents hatched a plan. Just like in northern parts of Canada unreached by the road network, they decided to wait until Lake of the Woods froze over in order to build an ice road on it.
Cale Alsleben told KARE-TV that he first thought the idea was “kind of crazy” – but sure enough, once the ice got stable enough, he and other plow drivers got to work carving out the road’s 35-kilometre path, bridges and all.
The road isn’t free to use; anyone wanting to cross between the Angle and the rest of Minnesota must pay either US$145 for a round-trip or US$500 for a season pass.
It is working, though. In the two weeks it’s been open, tourists and seasonal visitors have returned to the Angle – giving Colson and other resort operators a chance to earn a little bit of money before the weather warms up, the ice road melts, and non-essential vehicle travel is once again impossible.
The Northwest Angle isn’t the only part of Canada or the U.S. where residents feel they’ve been abandoned by their country due to the border closure.
Point Roberts, Wash. can only be reached by land via the border crossing in Delta, B.C. The community’s population is believed to have fallen by one-third since the pandemic began, and the president of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce told CTV News Vancouver last week that all of the businesses on the pene-exclave have either closed up shop or lost the vast majority of their revenue.
At the other end of the border, the government of New Brunswick has launched a temporary ferry service to maintain a connection to Campobello Island, which is only reachable over land through Maine. There were concerns about alleged American overreach around the island even before the pandemic, with some residents claiming in 2019 that the U.S. border patrol was opening their mail.
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