Working on the beautiful Angle
The Northwest Angle is vast and scenic, but Minnkota crews sometimes find challenges in providing services to the northernmost point in the contiguous U.S.
After maneuvering through winding, snow-covered roads, Minnkota’s Jason Bjerke was forced to stop at his second border checkpoint in less than an hour. The first one went smoothly – taking just a minute or so to get through Canadian customs.
Farther up the road, Bjerke was in an old shed at a checkpoint called Jim’s Corner. Inside was a videophone he used to call U.S. customs officials to tell them he’s re-entering the United States at the Northwest Angle.
The customs official told him the videophone is no longer being used. Bjerke was asked to go next door to a newly built shed where an iPad would allow him to check in. The problem was, the iPad wasn’t hooked up yet and wouldn’t turn on.
After a stop of more than 10 minutes and some back-and-forth with a U.S. customs official on the videophone, the Minnkota technical maintenance technician and his coworker were granted permission to enter the country.
Welcome to life working at the northernmost point in the contiguous United States and the most remote area in the service territory of the 11 Minnkota distribution cooperatives. Bjerke’s delay actually wasn’t that bad. He had some coworkers go through Jim’s Corner the next day, and they were held up 45 minutes because of the new entry system.
Minnkota was busy at the Angle, which is served by member Roseau Electric Cooperative, for a few weeks installing a new ripple control injector at a substation. The new equipment will allow Minnkota to control the electricity load in the area, which is reaching its maximum allowed due to transmission line constraints. As the system nears its capacity, the equipment sends a signal to temporarily control heating systems and other loads.
“The ripple injector installed at the Angle is a little different than any of the others we have on the system,” said Nick Gellerman, Minnkota engineer. “It uses a pulse from the meter to calculate the amount of load on the substation, and can send messages automatically without operator input. For the rest of our load control sites, we send out messages manually based mostly on market conditions.”
Minnkota and Roseau Electric are making a big investment in the area, with the ripple control injector and new communications equipment. Not only will the upgrade allow Minnkota to shed load with its off-peak program, it will also allow Minnkota to communicate better with the substation from its Grand Forks control center.
Don’t forget your tool belt
Employees from both Roseau Electric and Minnkota will tell you that passing through customs actually isn’t the biggest obstacle for those who are working at the Angle. The biggest challenge working in the scenic area is the remoteness itself.
This unique part of the country can be reached by motoring several miles through a nature-filled gravel road of tamarack, black spruce, white and red pine, cedar and birch. While enjoying the majestic trees, one has to be mindful of the many mammals that can pop out at any moment.
Spectacular scenery, for sure, but you leave conveniences behind.
“If you have a problem, there’s no place to go to get help,” said Mike Vetsch, Minnkota senior electrician. “There’s no hardware stores, no anything. So if you’re missing material, you’re pretty much out of luck.”
Vetsch said he almost ran out of diesel fuel for his truck one time at the Angle. None of the resorts carry the fuel. The closest place he could find was in Sprague, Man., which is nearly 40 miles from Minnkota’s Northwest Angle substation.
For a good selection of hardware materials, you must travel 60 miles back across the border on a mix of gravel and pavement to either Warroad or Roseau.
Roseau Electric gets up to the Angle a lot more than Minnkota. Ross Nelson, a Roseau Electric lineman who helped with the ripple injector project, said being in the remote area requires more planning of materials before leaving the co-op.
“You forget one item and it sets you back a half a day of work sometimes,” Nelson said.
Partnership to serve
Because the Angle is a 3½-hour drive from Minnkota’s corporate campus in Grand Forks, Minnkota and Roseau made an arrangement in which Roseau built the new control house for the ripple injector, did the dirt work, installed piping and ran the wires for the project.
Justin Olson also was part of the Roseau crew working at the Angle. He couldn’t have been more pleased. He has a cabin about 2 miles from the substation.
“It’s different up here from working at home,” Olson said. “You drive a barge, you boat around. It’s scenic. When you’re working up here, it doesn’t really feel like you’re working. But this is the most remote area we serve.”
Olson said it’s a lot easier working at the Angle today than it was back in the day.
Technology is the biggest reason. When he has a problem or a question, he can email or send a text with a photo to describe the situation to a Roseau coworker. When he had trouble installing a threshold on the new control house door, he just emailed a Minnkota employee.
It turned out to be the wrong threshold. Minnkota sent the correct one with a crew already scheduled to travel to the Angle for work the next day.
Bjerke said he’s used to working in remote areas of Minnesota. “We’re always traveling and going to substations that are in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “The border isn’t a big issue. When we have a Minnkota sticker on the side of our truck, they kind of know we’re up here for a reason.