GRAND FORKS — The cryptic message caught my attention.
“Mail you package tomorrow,” it read. “Unpack it very carefully. Fragile. Then call for an explanation.”
“Hmmm,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what that could be.”
Set the hook and reel me in.
Such was the message I got a couple of weeks back from Frank Walsh of Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island in Lake of the Woods’ Northwest Angle.
Photographer Eric Hylden and I had been trying to get up to the Northwest Angle for a story about the impact of the U.S.-Canada border closure on tourism and everyday life in the northernmost portion of the Lower 48 that’s surrounded on three sides by Canada.
The plan was to stay at Walsh’s camp and spend a couple of days visiting local businesses and residents, with Walsh taking us by boat to the places we wanted to go.
We tried to get up to the Northwest Angle — and I mean really tried — but hit a roadblock at every turn. First, we were told by Canadian border authorities, in so many words, that we wouldn’t be allowed into Manitoba to access the 25 or so miles of Canadian road that has to be traveled to reach the Angle.
Northwest Angle residents and workers deemed essential can cross into Manitoba, but apparently, we weren’t essential enough to meet the criteria. I can only conclude that Canada was worried about the coronavirus flying out the window of the car as we drove down the road en route to our own country.
That left getting to the Angle by water as our only option.
Two attempts to cross the 40-plus miles of open water from the south shore of Lake of the Woods by boat were thwarted, first by wind and then a week or so later, by the sudden onset of cold weather that forced the passenger service that ferries people across the lake to shut down for the season.
Which is where Walsh’s cryptic message comes into play.
On Oct. 28, a long box from Walsh showed up on my doorstep. Even though it was expected, the cryptic message he’d sent me the previous week prompted me to waste little time in opening the box.
A look at the contents did little to satisfy my curiosity.
Removing several sheets of bubble wrap that had been placed to protect the contents, I came across an odd-looking thingamabob: A 5-inch wooden handle about a half-inch in diameter with a thin “branch” more than 2-feet long curving upward from the center of the handle.
Holes were drilled at the top and bottom of the handle, and an arrow and the word “Up” were written in magic marker. The bark had been carefully whittled from both the handle and the thin branch.
“What in the world …?” I thought to myself.
I had no idea what I was looking at, so I called Walsh for an explanation.
“Ever heard of a weather stick?” he asked.
Several years ago, Walsh said he’d gotten a similar device as a Christmas gift at an Angle holiday gathering. Figuring it was a gag gift that would make for good conversation around camp, Walsh hung the gizmo about 15 feet off the ground.
Oddly enough, he said, it worked. When bad weather approached, the stick would bend down. When good weather approached, the stick would bend upward.
The weather stick Walsh received as a gift recently succumbed to years of exposure to the elements, and so he did some research to see about getting a replacement.
Turns out, they’re available online for about $10.
Walsh says he did some more research and learned that weather sticks often are carved from balsam fir trees, which are in abundance at his camp on Oak Island.
So, with time on his hands, he started making a few, including the weather stick he planned to give me during my thwarted trip to Oak Island.
He decided to send it by mail when I couldn’t get to the island. Not getting there was disappointing, but the arrival of the box on my doorstep — and its unusual contents — definitely brightened my day.
Further research, this time from that fountain of online knowledge, Wikipedia, provided additional details:
“A weather stick is a traditional means of weather prediction used by some Native Americans. It consists of a balsam fir or birch rod mounted outdoors which twists upwards in low humidity and downwards in high-humidity environments,” according to Wikipedia, citing the NovaLynx.com weather website. “These sticks were first used by the Native Americans of the American northeast and the Canadian east and southeast, who noted the behavior of dry branches prior to the arrival of weather changes.”
So there you have it. ...
I haven’t had a chance to try my weather stick, which I will hang at the family getaway in northwest Minnesota, but I plan to do so, perhaps as early as this weekend.
At any rate, it will make for good conversation by the fire pit.
I’ll keep you posted.