Angle to Key West: Kettle Falls (6/27)

Namakan Lake, Voyageurs National Park – June 27, 2012

A twisting maze of channels, bays, and islands connect Rainy and Namakan Lakes. I counted every turn and stared at my maps to keep from getting lost. Miles into it, with the border so twisted that I looked south into Canada, I heard the roar of Kettle Falls and saw the white walls of a hotel rising in the forest.

Sitting in the heart of the middle of nowhere, the odd building fits the place. The weight of the walls has pressed into the soft ground, shifting the hotel as winter freezes and expands the muddy foundation. Floors buckle up, doors tilt, hallways slant, but the building holds together somehow, as unconventional as its clients.

Lumberman Ed Rose built the hotel in 1910. With the end of the gold rush that saw Rainy Lake City appear and disappear overnight, lumber became king. The hotel was supposed to help with dam construction and  moving timber through the lakes, but the rumor is that the hotel was secretly financed by Nellie Bly. She needed a place on the edge of proper society for her “fancy ladies” to operate and a few hundred lumberjacks on payday would be good for business.

When prohibition hit, whiskey never stopped flowing for long at the hotel bar. Bootleggers and smugglers operated stills big enough for a man to lie down in and kept them out of authority’s reach along the winding maze of a border. The whole place remained a bit wild as late as the 70s.

The bar’s still there though. Its floor bulging a foot from the door to the middle of the room, making you feel drunk just by walking in. Old pictures of pin-up girls cover the walls and no one knows if they were some of Madam Bly’s favorites. The nickelodeon in the corner still plays music, but it costs a quarter now.

As a song belts out, you can almost feel the old hotel come to life again, like it’s trying to remember a past that keeps slipping further and further away.

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