The lineworkers of the lake
The many challenges of Roseau Electric Cooperative's waterlocked Northwest Angle territory are overcome with grit – and a lot of gratitude.
When in Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, visitors typically have two options. Go to Canada, or go fishing.
See, the Angle (lovingly called so by the locals) is the reason the state outline of Minnesota sports a small cowlick on top, a nubbin of American land that boasts world-class walleye and the northernmost point of the contiguous United States. You can only get there by grabbing a passport and driving 40 miles through Manitoba, Canada, or you can hope the winter has enough bite to allow for an ice road across the Lake of the Woods.
Jedd VonEnde has traveled to the Angle both ways. But as a veteran lineworker for Roseau Electric Cooperative (REC), his visits often require transportation beyond a utility truck, snowmobile or even a boat.
The man needs a barge. A big one.
“We always have projects up here, like replacements and fix-ups and new services as people are building,” VonEnde said as he stood near the shore of Oak Island, one of the several Lake of the Woods islands served by REC.
Earlier that morning, he and his four-man crew had filled their 44-foot steel barge – named The Evenson – with the conduit, transformers and heavy machinery needed to work on the island, launching seven miles away from the Angle mainland. The five lineworkers would be among multiple REC crews spending their summer repairing and replacing flood-damaged transformers, junction boxes and underground cable, hopping from one island to another, and another, and another.
“The barge is amazing compared to what we used to have,” VonEnde said, referring to the 30-foot pontoon the co-op used prior to 2005. “I took the maiden voyage, from Warroad to here.”
The Evenson was custom-built by Jerry Solom, a Wannaska, Minn., welder with a shipbuilding hobby who happened to be the brother of an REC employee. Other co-op crew members, including VonEnde, assisted with welding and construction. Together, they ensured the barge would meet all of their Northwest Angle needs, like maintaining nearly 89 miles of underwater primary wire and holding freight of more than 40,000 pounds; bucket trucks aren’t light.
The machine was christened The Evenson in memory of longtime lineworker Bob Evenson, who was taken by cancer in 1999.
“He had worked at Roseau Electric for his entire career, and he worked up in the Angle a lot,” said REC Member Services Director Jeremy Lindemann, who has also long served the Angle as an REC electrician. “He was one of the first linemen who brought power up to the Angle.”
Reliability after high waters
Lindemann docked his boat at Walsh’s Bay Store Camp, near the Oak Island worksite of the REC line crew. Before his boots even hit the shore, he was greeted as an old friend by camp owner Frank Walsh. Moments later, he ran into Frank’s wife, Laura.
“So, what are you guys doing out here?” she asked, gesturing with curiosity to the hard hat-clad men staging work equipment in the resort’s backyard.
“It will make your power more reliable,” Lindemann assured her.
The summer of 2022 brought destructive flooding to the islands of the Angle, with the lake rising 6-8 feet higher than normal. Most docks were underwater, if they didn’t already float away. Many of REC’s transformers and junction boxes are along the shore, so they too were underwater. Wind and erosion subsequently exposed much of the REC electric cable that rises from the lakebed up onto the islands. Since the equipment was energized during this time, it suffered electrolysis from the minerals in the water.
“Once the water goes away, your transformers will rust out in a year. Because of all that, you have to replace all of these transformers and junction boxes,” Lindemann explained. “A lot of those are being relocated, so at that time it makes sense to also refeed a lot of that, which is what they are doing on Oak Island.”
Roseau Electric was approved for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to replace 27 pad-mounted transformers, 13 single-phase junction boxes and nearly 10 miles of underground cable, a project that crews plan to complete before the cold season. “We’re going island to island. So we have another two weeks on Oak Island here, and then we’ll have American Point, and then we’ll have some crossings from island to island,” VonEnde said, adding that five separate islands will receive a co-op visit.
On that day in June, VonEnde took his seat behind the controls of a large directional boring machine as lineworker Devyn Brandt walked far ahead, using a handheld locating device to precisely guide the drill head around obstructions to a transformer nearly 100 yards away. Once the drill made it to the designated dig-out by a transformer, the crew used the underground path to feed new, more efficient primary cable.
As the work turned to the wooded, rockier core of the island (rocks deposited by the glacier that formed the Angle islands eons ago), the boring machine was swapped for a trenching plow. This method allows for faster underground line placement and the ability to call in a digging machine when bounties of boulders are unavoidable.
“There are always challenges up here, but the challenges are fun,” VonEnde said.
“Now when you’re working on the beach, stringing wire across the water – that’s the most relaxing,” lineworker Brandt added, in placid retrospection of his years working the Angle.
On the other side of the island, Chi Chi Lundsten has co-owned the Sportsman’s Oak Island Lodge for 20 years. She worked there even before that. She’s long witnessed the service provided by REC and often plays the role of “Angle electricity educator” to first-time resort visitors.
“I get some guests who ask, ‘Are you running on a generator?’ and I say, ‘Nope! We have our local REC,’” she laughed. “And then they ask, ‘How?’ So I tell them – cable underwater, laid back in the ‘70s.”
In 1973, REC took on the gargantuan task of electrifying the Angle. At that time, they weren’t equipped with barges, directional boring machines or anything close to the technology available to co-ops today.
“A lot of those linemen are retired now, but it used to be just one big celebration when they would bring power somewhere,” Lindemann said. “People would invite them in and they’d have a big party. It was crazy. They were just so thankful.”
The locals’ appreciation for reliable electricity continues today. When REC crews encounter challenges, the Angle’s residents and business owners step in to assist. Two years ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, Lundsten lost power at the resort during wicked weather. REC was unable to get to Oak Island that day because of the conditions. But on Thanksgiving, they made it to the Angle mainland. The lake was freezing over and rough, so they called in some help from an island neighbor.
“Frank [Walsh] went and got them on his airboat, and they came over and got my power back,” Lundsten said. “I was teasing them. I said, ‘So are they saving dinner for you at home?’”
The give and take of service and appreciation is ever-present. In the first couple of weeks of the summer, a resident cooked the line crew a lunch of fresh walleye, potatoes and onions as they replaced line on his property. Other locals have offered spare tools if the crew is in an unexpected pinch – they understand their remoteness precludes a quick jaunt back to the shop.
Roseau Electric Cooperative lineworkers energize the Angle. But the Angle energizes them right back.
“A guy told us the other night, ‘How the hell we even have power on an island is something,’” VonEnde recalled, his tone that of humility. “He said, ‘If it ever goes out, we should be happy it was even here to start with.’”
MAIN IMAGE: The Roseau line crew delivers equipment to an island worksite by barge. Pictured left to right: Devyn Brandt, Dillion Thompson, Justin Olson, Jedd VonEnde and Connor Eidsmoe. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)