Lake of the Woods

(Lac Du Bois)

Lake of the Woods is famous for fishing, hunting, bird watching, camping, hiking, swimming, snowmobiling, sailing, boating and exploring. Just ask anyone in Northwest Ontario, Minnesota, or Manitoba and they can tell you how to get to “the Woods”, LOTW, or LOW as the lake is also commonly known. With 1 million acres of water, 65,000 miles of shoreline, and over 14,500 islands, Lake of the Woods is a vast body of water that would take a lifetime to fully explore.

A Google Maps screen shot of LOTW and Morson’s location.

Lake of the Woods is a unique body of water that has land claims of two countries; Canada and the United States of America. The most open part of the lake is the upper section of Minnesota water known as Big Traverse Bay. There is also a MN mainland portion of the lake that somehow got surround by Canadian land on all sides. It was cut off from the rest of Minnesota land, but directly reachable via Minnesota based water back when the powers that be drew up international boundaries. To drive to the Northwest Angle via mainland vehicle, you must enter Canada at the Sprague, Manitoba border crossing before arriving back to a US border boundary that leads to the tiny town of Angle Inlet, MN located within the NW Angle land portion (circled in red) of Lake of the Woods. See photo below.

The NW Angle is a unique piece of geography surrounded by Canada land, but connect to MN by water. Screen shot from Google Maps.

Warroad and Baudette (Minnesota) sit on the south end of the lake. Areas surrounding Rainy River, Bergland, Morson, Nestor Falls, Sioux Narrows and Kenora shape the Ontario side of the lake. A large majority of the lake is in Ontario, Canada. 

The early residents were Cree and Sioux and later Ojibwa or Chippewa. The following story was written about the Cree Indians’ legend of Lake of the Woods.

Legend of the Lake of the Woods
According to a legend of the Cree Indians who lived in the Lake of the Woods region before the Chippewa, the lake was created by one of their lesser Gods in a fit of whimsy.

They say it is a magic lake.

Its waters are of many colors: sometimes blue, sometimes tawny, sometimes the color of black tea and sometimes as thick and green as pea soup. It is said that the Wendigo who created this lake became so enamored with his handiwork that he transformed himself into an image of rock so he might forever remain to marvel at what even a lesser God can do when the spirit is strong within him.

“I’ll make a garden of this lake,” said the Wendigo, and he did. From the land of the Sioux he brought maples and planted them among the northern pines. Amid the shrubs and grasses that sleep through the long winters, he mixed alien shrubs to remind him of lands of earlier springs. On the most barren of all his islands, he planted cactus, where of winter nights the trees are driven by intense cold.

“I’ll hide treasure in this lake,” said the Wendigo, and he did. He salted the shores and islands with gold, silver, with beryl, mica, feldspar, zinc-blend, galena, antimony, iron, cobalt and fool’s gold.

He was a clever spirit, this Wendigo, and a perverse one. It is said that on summer nights when the thunderclaps climb like bastions of the Matuba Manito above the mirrored lake, one can still hear his sardonic laughter reverberating among the hills.

“I’ll make a maze of this lake,” he said, “to confound those who might seek to drive my people from it. I will place puzzles here that will perplex men forever more.” And he did.

He made the lake so widely different from north to south, from east to west, and from top to bottom, that some men called it the Lake of the Sandhills, some Whitefish Lake, and other Lac aux Iles. Some in saying these names meant a part separately, and some the whole thing together. This three-in-one the Wendigo bounded by the crookest shoreline in the land of the Cree, Chippewa and Assiniboine together a winding, twisting, serrated shoreline of bays, promontories, inlets, and ingenious cul-de-sacs among which an intruder can easily become lost. And to compound confusion he scattered magnetic ore along the shore to addle the compasses of the white man.

Then, in a final turn of perverse glee, this Wendigo filled the upper lake so full of islands that there were more islands than lake, more rock than water, more trees than waves: in a lake so curiously contrived that it wasn’t a lake at all, but a maze of narrow channels winding amidst forests and walls of rock.

As many as the leaves of autumn, said the Cree, of the islands in the lake. As many as the stars of a winter’s night, said the coureurs de bois. The Wendigo, by then perhaps, had immolated himself in stone.

When the white man came to this lake whose islands were as many as the leaves of autumn and the stars of a winter night, they added the final touch of whimsy. Instead of calling it the “Lake of the Islands”, they called it the Lake of the Woods.   

— Author unknown

French fur traders arrived in the late 1600’s. June 8, 1736 was the famous massacre of Father Aulneau, Jean Baptiste de le Vérendrye (son of explorer Pierre de le Vérendrye) and 19 other voyagers on an island close to Fort St. Charles. By the mid 1700’s, Lake of the Woods was part of a busy water route between Winnipeg and Lake Superior. As the 1800’s came to a close, land grants offered by the government attracted many settlers. The need to clear land in accordance with the guidelines of the grants was the impetus for a timber industry and the emergence of a small agricultural community between the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods.

trading route from LOTW to Lake Superior

The busy water route carried passengers by steam boat from Kenora (Rat Portage) via Lake of the Woods to ports along the Rainy River and up Rainy Lake. Lumber companies used the route for towing logs. Lake travelers complained that night travel on the Lake of the Woods was nearly impossible. In response, several lighthouses were put in place during the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. One such lighthouse is the Tomahawk Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1900. The lighthouse was eventually moved to the mainland once it was no longer needed to alert travelers because automated light markers were added along main travel routes. There it was restored and converted to a museum with artifacts pertaining to early lake travel. In addition to dangers on the lake, these steamboats had to be hand maneuvered over rapids on the Rainy River in order to safely move cargo from port to port. The era of the steam ships ended with the completion of the railway systems connected the east to west and south to north.

What makes Lake of the Woods so great? Its shorelines and islands are largely undeveloped. Travelers can marvel at much of the same scenery that the first voyageurs saw when they discovered this island-studded lake in the center of the continent.

Centuries old Indian rock paintings on Lake of the Woods stand as remnants of the area’s earliest inhabitants. They are believed to be 800 – 900 years old, Indian rock paintings on Lake of the Woods still mystify historians and chemists. Even though the art is considered primitive, the materials used by the early artists to create it have not been equaled in modern times as evidenced by their durability through centuries of exposure to the climate. An overhanging cliff on Painted Rock Island is one of many sites of the rock paintings that are known to exist on Lake of the Woods.

Lake of the Woods holds many different species of fish. Walleye, muskie (muskellunge), northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, crappie, perch and lake trout are some of the game fish that are plentiful. In the Morson area, Miles Bay, Obabikon Lake, Sasbaskong Bay and Whitefish Bay are some of the best places to fish on Lake of the Woods. Fishing tactics can vary as water clarity and other factors progress through seasonal change.

Lake of the Woods still abounds with the same wildlife the early voyageurs saw on their initial travels. Moose, white-tailed deer, black bear, fox, beaver, otter, coyote, mink, timber wolves, and brush wolves can be spotted both on the islands and mainland areas. Hunting for most big game is open to both residents and non-residents.

Lake of the Woods also boasts many plant species. Wild blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries can be found in season. Yellow lady slippers, wild roses and honeysuckle are just a few of the many beautiful wild flowers in the area.

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