Lake of the Woods Digital Guide the culmination of more than 20 years of exploring and research.
ON LAKE OF THE WOODS, Ont. — It’s just a bucket of rust now, a monument to an era when people tried to forge a living from this rugged part of Lake of the Woods, but the 1936 Dodge with suicide doors must have been quite the car back in the day.
As he’s done many times over the years, Joe Laurin stops at the small island in the Tug Channel on this perfect late-summer Saturday to show off the car for a visitor who’s come to do some exploring.
Also along on this voyage of discovery and rediscovery is his wife, Anita, and friend Ann Zavoral of Fargo, who like the Laurins has a cabin at Flag Island on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.
There’ll be other sites to explore, as well, including an old gold mine, a house in decay that looks like Batman (supposedly built by a crew member on the popular ’60s TV show), an island where prickly pear cactus grows, the remains of a hull and boiler from a steamer that ran aground and lunch at Wiley Point Lodge, a popular tourist destination closer to Kenora, Ont., than Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, where the day’s adventure began.
A powertrain engineer at Polaris Industries in Roseau, Minn., Laurin, 52, recently released the “Lake of the Woods Digital Guide,” an app highlighting some 130 points of interest along the big lake, including prisoner of war camps, old mines, resorts and restaurants, favorite fishing spots, pictographs and petroglyphs.
The focus is on Ontario waters, but the app also features several sites on the Minnesota side of the lake. Just as it teems with walleyes, Lake of the Woods teems with sites and stories.
“It’s such a fascinating lake,” Laurin says, steering his 22-foot Harbercraft through a maze of islands on the Ontario side of the lake as he tracks his whereabouts with GPS. “You go to a different lake, and it’s like nothing’s as nice as this: 30 miles by 60 miles, 14,000 islands (and) tons of history.”
Years of exploring
Available in both IOS and Android versions, the Lake of the Woods app is the culmination of more than 20 years and 2,000 gallons of gas spent exploring the big lake and its rich history, Laurin says.
Anita is the fishing fanatic in the family, Laurin says; he prefers the history.
“So many people come up here, and just all the guys go fishing,” Laurin said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but maybe you could encourage more families by just having more to do outside of fishing. Even though I don’t like fishing and Anita does, most couples are the other way, and I thought if you could bring some fun into it, it might be worthwhile for more people to come up here.”
Laurin, who grew up in the Chicago area and graduated from Winona State University, says he knew little of Lake of the Woods before starting at Polaris in 1990 and going out on the lake with factory test drivers. The big lake and its history quickly lured him in, and the Laurins purchased property on Flag Island overlooking Ontario in the early 2000s.
They built their cabin, dubbed “The Flag Island Lighthouse,” in 2008, and the cabin is featured on Laurin’s app. The 50-foot-high lighthouse with four levels offers a spectacular view of the lake, and the third level is devoted to Lake of the Woods history.
The lighthouse cabin has drawn numerous passers-by over the years who think it’s a tourist attraction, Laurin says.
“We have so many people who think it’s public we have a guest book now, and if people stop in, we’ll give them a tour,” he said. “We’ve had people actually from all over the world.”
Change of heart
Initially, Laurin says he was reluctant to share the knowledge he’s collected on the lake for fear people would visit and possibly vandalize some of the more sensitive sites such as the pictographs that are centuries old.
“I was worried about a lot of things you shouldn’t be worried about,” he said. “It was in the last year I thought, ‘I’m going to have a bunch of stuff. Do I die with all this knowledge or do I share it with other people?’”
The Lake of the Woods app is broken down by categories that include fishing, waterfalls, pictographs, petroglyphs, restaurants, gold mines, POW camps, hiking, portages and history. Each listing includes a photo, a brief history, GPS coordinates and a link to its location on a map.
“There are a lot of cool spots people talk about, but everyone just knows about a handful — they don’t have over 100,” Laurin said. “And they don’t realize what’s all out there.”
Cell phone service isn’t necessary to use the app, and users can enter the latitude and longitude coordinates of sites they wish to explore into their personal GPS units. The app by design doesn’t have navigation capability, Laurin says.
“I didn’t want to be responsible for having people navigate because enough people hit rocks that know what they’re doing on the lake,” he said. “I give them the GPS coordinates and then they can see on a Google Earth map about where it is in relationship to the lake, and then people can go from there.”
Originally, Laurin says he only planned to release an IOS version of the app when it came out in early July, but demand prompted him to develop the app for Android users, as well. There’s already been one update of the app, available for $19.99 on the App Store and Google Play — look for the Lake of the Woods buoy icon — and Laurin most certainly will find additional sites, given his passion for exploring the lake.
He’s still trying find back, for example, a history-laden island he stumbled upon a decade or so ago somewhere between Flag Island and Sioux Narrows, Ont.
“We go to this island, there’s a nice beach, and under the canopy of a big evergreen tree was a one-room shack with a Model A or Model B next to it, and inside the shack was a journal of the guy’s life,” Laurin said.
That was in the early days of commercial GPS units, and Laurin logged the coordinates into his handheld GPS for future reference. They ran into a storm on the return to the Northwest Angle, the GPS got wet and failed, and Laurin lost the waypoint.
“We could never find it again,” he said. “Everyone kind of remembers where it was, and it’s like 10 years ago, and we still haven’t found it.”
Response to the Lake of the Woods app has been favorable, Laurin says, and he has sold a few hundred copies.
“I’m getting comments back that hey, this is great, long overdue,” Laurin said. “Most everybody should be satisfied with finding something unique.”
Exploring the app
Here’s a look at the sites visited during a recent day of exploring as described by Joe Laurin in his “Lake of the Woods Digital Guide.”
- 1936 Pontiac with Suicide Doors: “There are several old cars in this area from a civilization that occurred in the 1940s. Just north of the cars is School House Point; the school burnt down and the little town died.”
- French Portage Old Church Bell: “In the 1930s, School House Point was ready for the new school teacher. Upon his arrival the first night he was dining with neighbors and the school burned. The church was then used as the school. This is the site of the original church, the cabin foundation is the church. This is private property, but you can see the bell from the water. Also, the current owner is friendly.”
- Red Rock Bluff: “Legend has it on top of this bluff a stainless steel cross was erected to recognize the 1930s civilization that existed in the School House Point Area. I could not find the cross; if you do, let me know.”
- Inland Lake Waterfall: “Inland lake creates waterfall. Beaver dams have limited its outflow.”
- Cactus: “There is cactus on the lake in many spots. It’s prickly pear cactus and is usually only a few inches tall. It survives the winter and the theory is birds bring the seeds up here. It only grows on rock cracks.”
- Dead Broke Mine: “Legend has it several brothers tried to start a mine, they got about 50 feet and ran out of money. Nice camping spot, too. Most people fishing in this area never knew of the mine, since a tree is growing at the mine opening, disguising it.”
- Wiley’s Resort Restaurant: “Protected bay, overnight accommodations, 5-star restaurant, best lake nightlife outside of Kenora.”
- Batman House: “Local legend was that it was built by a member of the ‘Batman’ cast in the ’60s and died shortly after and it has been abandoned. Not many places have spiral staircases and stainless steel outside decks. There is a path on the back side of the island that is safer than trying to navigate the rotten dock.”
- Fidelity Rock: “Petroglyph on top side of a reef. Low water is needed to see.”
- Steamboat Bay: “Old steamer laid to rest in this bay. You can see the boiler and hull on a clear day.”
- Flag Island Lighthouse: “Four-story private lighthouse cabin, has a light the owners will turn on for you if you pass by at night, call if you like a tour.”