Favorite places pop up in unexpected ways. I have a short list of all-time favorite places and a longer list of locales I just love to visit. A recent ride up north, a trip I expected to be no more than a nice little winter break, added another favorite to my short list.
The trip came about thanks to Del Wright from Mattracks, who suggested we ride some of his company's tracked ATVs. Mattracks builds track systems for trucks and ATVs. The systems have been around since 1994 and are used on all seven continents. They are particularly popular for commercial applications where trucks must cross snow or mud. The U.S. military tested the Mattracks on its military Hummers, and the tracks were vastly superior to tires in deep, soft sand. Search-and-rescue teams in heavily snowy areas also use Mattracks-equipped vehicles.
Mattracks' Litefoot system is designed specifically for ATVs and utility vehicles. As with the truck system, the Litefoot system allows access into seriously nasty terrain. It can be used in mud or snow where light ground pressure means ATVs float rather than dig in.
We took four Mattracks-equipped machines north to the 70-mile-long expanse of the Lake of the Woods on the northern edge of Minnesota, along the Canadian border. Wright made arrangements at a lodge in Northwest Angle, the small chunk of Minnesota bordered by the lake and Canada. The area offers remote lodges, good ice fishing and miles and miles of deep snow perfectly suited for the unique track system.
Our Mattracks crew of Wright, myself, customer service rep Jeremy Anderson (aka J.T.) and Brendan Dirkes was blessed with bright sunshine and "balmy" 20-degree weather. That kind of fortune is unusual, as I have a knack for bringing bad weather to the world's nicest places.
Northern Minnesota has a slightly different definition of nice. When February bares its teeth in the Lake of the Woods area, temperatures plummet to 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and residents hunker down in their houses and hope the furnace doesn't go out.
Dirkes and I met Wright and J.T. bright and early at a hotel in Roseau. As we sat down to bacon and eggs at the hotel's restaurant, Wright filled us in on the Mattracks system and how the fish were biting on the lake.
"The system is nearly unstoppable in the snow and mud," he told us. "We've literally had trouble getting these things stuck."
Dirkes and I exchanged glances.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," he said. "We need to get one of these things stuck this weekend!"
Wright laughed and told us to give it our best shot.
Full of coffee and eggs, we headed out of town and followed Wright to Karlstad, a burg of 794 souls whose main source of income is the Mattracks plant. We took a quick tour of the small factory and got a look at the trucks and ATVs being converted to work with tracks.
"Installation on an ATV takes about 30 minutes," Wright told us as we checked out one of the quads undergoing an installation. The technician working on the machine snorted and said, "Fifteen minutes once you know what you are doing."
The system bolts directly to the ATV's hubs and appears to be relatively easy to install. With a home lift and hand tools, one could bolt on the tracks for the winter and/or heavy mud use, then convert the machine back to use with wheels without undue strain.
Our introduction complete, it was time to see if we could bury a Mattracks-equipped machine. Our final destination was Oak Island, which is part of Northwest Angle. The Angle, as locals call it, is the northernmost bit of land in the lower 48 states, and the odd little piece is only accessible by water, air or driving through Canada. An anomaly that resulted from border confusion in the early 1800s, the Angle is a unique place with a smattering of fishing resorts, a shore lined with summer cabins ranging from rustic to stunning and about 100 hardy full-time residents.
We made the trek north of Karlstad through Roseau and across the Canadian border, where a grumpy official waved us through after a few questions about our destination, cargo and professions. Returning to the U.S. to enter Northwest Angle is another matter, as the border crossing is nothing more than a phone booth. You stop, call and tell U.S. Customs you are crossing. Once you supply your vehicle's license-plate number and date of entry, you are given an access number. The phone booth border crossing was out of order, so we stopped at a restaurant and called customs, as we were warned that without that access number U.S. officials would not let us pass!
With our customs duties complete, we unloaded at the restaurant and parking lot at Young's Bay. We had three tracked ATVs-a Polaris Sportsman 700, a Sportsman 800 and an older Yamaha Grizzly-and a tracked Polaris Ranger.
We loaded these machines with clothing, extra gas, ice-fishing gear and camera equipment and took to the ice. After you drive between the bar and a closed shop, the land stops and the giant Lake of the Woods begins. A plowed highway allows access to a selection of lodges and bars nestled in a cluster of islands and bays on the northwestern corner of the lake.
We cut along the ice highway and snaked across the smaller bays, stopping to play in drifts on their edges. The Mattracks machines sit up considerably higher than stock and look as if they are ready to take on the world. Looks are not deceiving, as the Mattracks-equipped ATVs are amazingly capable in the snow. We crossed deep drifts and fresh powder and were unable to stick the machines, despite our best efforts.
We dived into fresh snowbanks with 3 to 4 feet of snow, and the tracks churned their way through the powder with ease. They did not auger themselves into the snow, and they powered through the deep stuff with ease.
The tracks use a gear reduction that considerably slows the machines' speed. Mattracks claims a 30 percent final-drive reduction, and it felt as though it was more than that. Even the big Polaris Sportsman 800 seemed sluggish, and the top speed felt like less than 30 mph.
The major drawback of the Mattracks system is not, however, the speed. Steering effort is quite high on the tracked machines. You can turn gradually with relative ease, as light pressure on the bar will move you in a steady arc. Tight turns, however, require serious muscle.
After riding about 6 miles across the ice, we came to our base of operations for the trip, Norm's Camp (800/473-8311, 218/223-8311; www.normscamp.com). The lodge, which is on Oak Island, consists of a cluster of small cabins scattered around the wooded property. When we pulled in, a couple of deer bounced into the woods and Norm Undahl came out and showed us our cabins.
We got settled into our cabins, which were simply furnished and decorated like a grandmother's house, with afghans draped over the couch, ceramic animals on shelves and small framed paintings on the walls. Then we set out to fish in Norm's ice-fishing houses, less than a mile away on the edge of an open bay of the lake. Once you get out into open ice, the sheer size of the lake strikes you, with white ice stretching as far as you can see, a barren ivory desert dotted with clumps of islands.
On a nearby island we again did our best to stick the Mattracks-modified machines in 4-foot-deep snowbanks. We had surprisingly little luck, as the tracked machines floated across the tops of the drifts with relative ease. J.T. was able to stick the 800 when he stopped in a worn-down track in a waist-deep snowdrift, but we pulled out the machine so easily we suspected it could have been driven out with a bit of abuse.
Snug in Norm's heated shacks, we netted a half-dozen walleye ranging from 11/42 to 2-plus pounds. We filleted out slabs of white, firm fish, went home and had a fry.
We did some more exploring on day two as we ventured across several miles of open ice to nearby Massacre Island. The island juts out of the Lake of the Woods, topped by a wooden cross commemorating 21 people slain by the Sioux in 1736. Several winding trails lead to the memorial. The first we came across was a tight, narrow trail nearly enclosed in brush. The Ranger would never fit through, and the Mattracks-equipped quads were too tall and wide to easily navigate the path.
We circled around the island and found a more open trail leading up the island hill. The route crossed several steep inclines covered with snow, ice and bare rock. The Mattracks-equipped rigs climbed these tricky slopes with ease, spinning just a tiny bit on the rock. The tracks worked impressively-a wheeled vehicle would have had serious trouble, and the deep snow-covered trails would have left tire-equipped rigs buried.
After our outing, we did more ice fishing and caught another half-dozen walleyes. As the day turned to night, the eelpout moved in. Eelpout are spineless bottom feeders best described as ugly and foul-smelling, and once they start biting the walleyes are typically gone. After pulling in four of the snakelike creatures, we called it quits and headed back to the cabin.
One thing about eelpout-like most of the world's disgusting creatures, locals swear they taste good. Dirkes was curious about this and filleted the four fish that night. We applauded his bravery and stayed downwind as he sliced the eelpout; they certainly didn't smell appetizing. He later told us they were "good eating" after being boiled and soaked in butter. I'd say the same is true of old shoe leather.
The eelpout nastiness behind us, we went to The Angle Inn Lodge for a couple of pizzas. Debra Kellerman, the head of the Northwest Angle chamber of commerce (and part-time bartender), filled us in on the Angle's somewhat bizarre history.
"When the Angle tried to secede, they flew in all the politicians from Canada and America to my lodge," she said. "We sat 'em down and told 'em we weren't taking them off the island until they settled this thing."
She laughs, remembering the scene, and continues. "They thought we were kidding!"
The incident in question was the infamous attempt of the Northwest Angle to secede from the Union. They ended up sticking with the United States, despite a tempting offer from Manitoba.
She added stories about the Angle's attempt to form America's 52nd state, Moosylvania, in 1953; fruitless fugitive chases in the Angle by the FBI; and a nearby hermit's home blown to bits for unknown reasons in the '70s.
This kind of miscreant behavior is better suited to my people (Wisconsinites-think Ed Gein and Bud Selig) rather than the demure Minnesotans, and I found the Angle a happily wacky aberration in the land of lutefisk and lefse.
Sometimes the best places are right in your backyard. I'll be back to the Angle, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Winter Riding on the Lake of the WoodsNative American legend has it that the 15,000 islands and 65,000 miles of shoreline on the Lake of the Woods were formed by the Wendigo, a spurned deity, in order to create a place that would elicit tribute from the natives and confuse the white man. The Wendigo is said to enjoy popping up now and again to check out his creation, taking the form of a rock when he surfaces and occasionally catching a boater unaware when he pops to the surface.
Whether it's the Wendigo or not, the Lake of the Woods is a treacherous place. Boaters have to navigate narrow, shallow rock-choked channels. Unwary boaters smash into these rocks each summer, and the bays are not much safer in the winter.
The water in the channels continues to flow all winter, which prevents good ice from forming. The ice can also "honeycomb," taking a crystalline form that is brittle and unstable. If you venture into the giant lake's thousands of untracked small channels and bays, you have no way of knowing if the ice is solid or will break under your weight.
We asked Norm Undahl, the owner of Norm's Camp, how people read the ice to travel in the winter.
"Drive on it," he said. "If you fall through, the ice is bad."
The only concrete advice we were able to elicit was to ride only on ice with a previous track on it. We decided not to tempt the Wendigo and stuck to well-traveled paths in order to avoid dropping a machine into the icy waters. This was a pretty big disappointment for me, as I was really looking forward to exploring some of the thousands of bays on the huge lake. Perhaps I'll go back with a canoe, get properly lost in the lake's myriad bays and give the Wendigo another chance.