I met Joan Undahl only six years ago when she invited me to lunch at Sportsman’s Oak Island Lodge to gracefully hand over the involvement she still had in The Angle’s annual Blueberry Festival. We laughed and talked, and I’m sure I must have seemed naive and yet oddly familiar in my fresh-from-the-city attitudes. Over the years that followed, I saw her many times at luncheons, when she needed groceries delivered or the rare boat ride to Young’s Bay. She was always sending me letters with random ideas for The Angle she had saved over the years, and I was honored to have been chosen in her eyes as someone who might carry-on those dreams.
She was gentle and kind, funny and generous, a woman of vision and ever a champion of the Northwest Angle and Islands. I would come to know later that when she met her Norm, she knew they were soulmates from their very first date. She was a collector of stories, an unofficial historian and a woman unafraid in the early modern frontier of Oak Island on Lake of the Woods.
I had the great privilege of interviewing Joan in preparation to honor her and the contributions she made at a future Angle Days event, which unfortunately never came to be. Much of this information and all the quotes are from that interview, conducted in June of 2015. Bits and pieces were also gleaned from the shared-memories her long-time friends hold of her life and their relationships with her.
Joan Undahl died December 28, 2017 and joined her soul mate, just over two years gone, in that great fishing camp in the sky. In 2015, I wrote of Norm’s passing:
“The Angle, as she does, has let go of another beloved. Hard-working resort owner and lovingly-stubborn resident Norm Undahl passed away on October 30. …. Norm and Joan were an anchor couple on Oak Island and I’m sure residents would agree, it just won’t be the same.”
Born and raised in Baudette, Joan lived in the Twin Cities for a time where she had work in the printing industry. Her family had owned part of Garden Island since 1938, so her roots and her heart were always at the lake. In 1969, the couple built their cabin on Oak Island and moved there permanently in 1975. They started clearing land and built guest cabins. By the winter of 1977, they ran a year-round business called Norm’s Camp, which in its heyday could take about 20 people. Joan liked the fact that in those days, most of their guests flew in.
“We always wanted to say, ‘We did it!’ instead of ‘We should have,’” Joan recounted. The move was a complete lifestyle change and she threw herself into it with gusto and laughter. “It was a wonderful life, those early days,” she said. “I’m so glad we were here before electricity, indoor plumbing, the telephone, and the road. We stepped back at least 40 years in lifestyle. We even carried our water from a hole in the ice in the winter.”
Joan said that everyone from those times can remember the first electric item they plugged in and the first time they could flush the toilet. She remembered most fondly the toaster! “Oh, to have toast!” she laughed. “The gas stove toaster would burn one side and then you’d have to turn it and inevitably burn that side too.”
According to Joan and as best I can parse out, as tourism grew in the 1970’s, the forestry department of the DNR contacted key community members about the need for a more organized means of providing possible guests with area information. Resorts had previously belonged to the Warroad & Northwest Angle Resort Association, but after a meeting between groups from The Angle Mainland and The Islands, which Joan said were distinctly different communities in those days, it was decided a local organization was needed. Thus was born the NW Angle and Islands Chamber of Commerce.
Joad said that a great effort was then undertaken to unite the two communities. She told stories of the grand winter dinner parties and early spring potlucks to kick off the spring season. She mentioned by name Fuzz LePage’s Road Kill BBQ, Anderson Myer’s Corn Feed, the Flag Island Frolic, Mergen’s Wild Game Feed, Carlson’s & McKeever’s March Fish Fry and the Center Island Closing Party. In 1983, the Blueberry Festival was started and became another unifying event around the community. It was renamed Angle Days in 2012 and continues on to this day, though is largely focused on The Angle Mainland.
Over the next several decades, the Chamber of Commerce was very active and helped grow awareness of the area throughout the state and beyond. Joan named nearly a dozen other key organizers before she would admit to her own role, which, in her words, was as a general organizer and working with the local businesses. She also said planning she helped plan Winter Fest and the Progressive Dinner. “One year, Jon Kleven even had a firepit and a small kettle serving up something,” Joan remembered fondly.
Joan could have, but didn’t, claim the title of The Angle’s first (and likely only) female fishing guide. She was quick to share her fishing holes and (limited) experience with whomever asked, and once when Fred Dickinson inquired about how deep to fish on a specific point, her reply was that she didn’t know. “I just fished on the bottom,” she said. (They didn’t have depth-finders in those days.)
Joan also spoke about the many wonderful people and businesses around Warroad and Baudette that, only with their support and services, made the unique lifestyle at the Northwest Angle and Islands possible. “They were extremely good to us,” she said, “Always making sure our supplies got on the airplane or got on the boat to come north.”
But as change happened, with the modernization, the road and the growing attraction to the area, the focus turned away from the “lifestyle” and more towards business, Joan said. Though she had been integral in much of the growth, it didn’t make it any easier for her.
Still, it was the timeless aspects of the NW Angle & Islands that Joan ended on in our interview. For her, it had always been about nature. It was the birds, the changing of the seasons, the moon coming up over the islands, the beautiful northern lights. “Those were the real benefits we all had,” she said. “And always being able to count on the neighbors. If there was a problem, they were there.”
Joan had many dreams for The Angle, including a marker for the northernmost spot in the contiguous United States. That most notable achievement came to fruition in her lifetime, though she was never able to see it in person. She also envisioned wild flowers along The Angle roads, memorial tree plantings, a Guide’s calendar, dog sled races and a Garrison Keillor visit.
Joan was a remarkable lady who achieved more for our community than most of us will ever know. May our fond memories of her kind heart and her enduring determination mark a beloved chapter in the as-yet unwritten history book of the Northwest Angle and Islands.
(Published in the January 16, 2018 issue of the Warroad Pioneer in Warroad, Minnesota)