The road to the Northwest Angle is a multi-faceted character in an epic, cross-genre novel that spans decades. The story has had many narrators over the years, from the original logging and dragline crews, to the hearty stick-pickers and early adventurers, to the Lake of the Woods county folks who’ve matured and maintained it, to the oft-traveling parents, school bus driver and local package carriers who, today, use the road nearly 260 days a year.
To know The Angle is to be intimately acquainted with its road. The only over-land passage in and out, it belongs to both Canada and the US. It sports a tarred toupee for a majority of its winding miles, but the final 18 are gravel, and that is where its bi-polar personality is cemented and made infamous.
For many, the road has become the object of a love-hate relationship; it gives people The Angle, but it also leeches life from their vehicles, sanity from their psyches, and time sweet time. Estimating a three-hour round trip (and that’s on a good day), a 20-year resident who travels to town once a week has spent almost half a year of their life on The Angle road.
But travel times and group-think are about to decrease and uplift, respectively.
As of November 1st, a new storyteller has taken both the stage and the heavy-equipment controls of our road-centered saga. Mike Graves, a home-owner on Flag Island and a resident of Ham Lake was hired by Lake of the Woods County to replace long-time employee Doug Arnold upon his retirement this fall.
Graves professes to be the kind of guy who likes to and wants to work. For the past 33 years as a service manager in the automotive industry, he consistently logged 12-14-hour days, and now, after only a month on the job has patterned routines that keep him working towards what’s important.
“My philosophy on life is to always have something planned in the near future that you push yourself towards,” Graves said. Simple though that might be, it serves to keep his family young and active. And, it is often simplicity that gets results, creates change and moves mountains (of gravel, in this case.)
Residents have long complained to the county that the road isn’t crowned, which causes it to hold water when it rains, as the snow melts and when the frost rises each spring. Traffic then tears it to bits. “I remember the first year I had the UPS job the road was the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Angle resident Tony Butler said. He travels the road Monday through Friday regardless of weather. “Chuck holes a foot deep. Wash boards that bounced you off the road. I’m sure it was why the job opened up,” he added.
Even this past fall despite additional fill being added to the road the last two summers, several days of heavy rain right before the temperatures plummeted created miles of horrendous, frozen washboards. That was the mess Graves inherited when he came on board, though he isn’t the type to focus on the negative or get mired in bad luck.
With his family split between Ham Lake and The Angle, Graves is pouring his time into doing the job well. Ever a creature of habit, he preps his thermos of English Breakfast tea in the dark of morning, spends an hour or so cleaning the new-to-him county shop, and as he drives the grader-fitted-with-ice-blade, he waves to every single vehicle he sees. He has worked laboriously over ill-kept equipment, spent hours sawing fallen trees after the recent wind storm, and been OCD-in-a-good-way about removing ice-damns from the recycling center. “To save someone their hip,” he said.
His winter priorities are safety and his summer priorities are a 4 degree crown. “One of my biggest goals is to put a crown on that road this summer so it gets proper drainage” he said. “This past fall, I knew coming in I had a pretty good challenge starting off with the road as bad as it was. Realistically, if I can keep a base [of snow] on it, that will help fill in the holes. I like to see people compact it by driving on it, and then, when we get a good hard freeze I do what I’m doing now,” which is to use the toothy ice-blade to break up the solid ice and leave a cushion of forward-traction on top of the road.
It’s early, and yet the accolades are piling-up.
“It thrills me to death that I’m getting compliments rather than negativity,” Graves said. “I feel like I’m working for the people of the Northwest Angle, and I want to do my very best to satisfy everyone here.
According to the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, nearly $2 Million was spent on lodging at the NW Angle in 2015, which has an economic impact to the area in excess of $10 Million. In a very real sense, Graves is taking care of a $10 Million road. That’s the significance his role plays in the small, tourism-based economy of The Angle.
“I want to do my very best to make it so that the road is satisfactory not only for the people of The Angle but also for the tourists…for the people arriving here with boats on trailers,” he said. “If I can get a crown on the road and if I can be diligent about taking care of it and inspecting it daily, weather permitting of course, I think I can make a difference on peoples’ happiness coming in.”
The Graves family has been coming to The Angle since 1993, and his wife Linda and he purchased their lot on Flag Island in 2007. He keeps busy building their log cabin, hunting, fishing and making friends everywhere Linda and he go. The personable and often gregarious exterior he brings to the county job will be a boon to The Angle.
And he welcomes feedback. Graves wanted his phone number published [612-201-1063] so people can reach him about their concerns and to report their demo or recycling fees. “People up here do a wonderful job of putting things in the right places; I’ve got to commend them,” he said. But for demo or larger drop-offs, “they need to call me because I don’t want to have to police them. I know who’s doing it, but I don’t want to point fingers at them and say ‘hey, you didn’t report that.’”
He would also like to hear vehicles sound their horn as they approach the grader from the rear.
That shouldn’t be too hard to remember. Honk when you see the $10 Million Dollar man plowing and grading the next happy chapter in The Angle road’s history. He’ll be waving, and beneath that bushy mustache, smiling right back.
(Published in the December 7th issue of the Warroad Pioneer)