Living Off the Grid
When Dorothy first visited the Isle of Pines in 1930, the only way to get to Knife Lake was by canoe or float plane. Embarking on such a trip took planning and coordination. Not much has changed in over 85 years except that float planes are only allowed in extreme cases of emergency and by the U.S. Forest Service. The fifteen-mile trip from Moose Lake still requires physical labor to paddle the lakes and carry gear over five* portages.
Winter travel required just as much preparation. Prior to the use of snowmobiles, there were three ways to get to Knife Lake in the winter: skis, snowshoes, or by sled dog teams. Wind sleds and snowmobiles provided a brief respite to the more physically taxing methods during the late-1950s into the early-1980s. However, a broken down or slush-bogged machine sometimes created more work.
The remoteness of the Isle of Pines Resort posed challenges in operating the four-cabin resort. Bill Berglund and subsequently, Dorothy Molter, had to be selective with which supplies were essential and which ones were luxury. From 1930 to Dorothy’s passing in 1986, the laws regarding travel in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness changed significantly, limiting the options for transport of goods.
Prior to the float plane ban of 1949, items such as propane tanks, crates of soda pop in glass bottles, and gasoline for the boat motors were easily shipped via aircraft. However, after the ban (an Executive Order) made the five portages between Moose and Knife Lakes were still an obstacle to transporting heavy items.
There was no running water on the Isle of Pines so any drinking, cooking or cleaning water had to be hauled up from the lake. The “call of nature” was answered in the backhouse (outhouse) making for a chilly task during the cold, winter months, which made bed pans a useful tool.
Without electricity, appliances we enjoy today were not available. All laundry was washed by hand and dried outdoors until Dorothy obtained a gas-powered washing machine in her later years. Lights were either oil or propane and provided a warm glow rather than a bright light, and any refrigeration was provided by iceboxes filled with the ice, which had been cut in large blocks from the frozen lake during winter and hauled to the ice house.
Cooking was done over a woodstove, which also provided the heat for the cabin. This meant that “bucking up wood” for the winter was an ongoing chore, and a lot of work. Ample supplies of firewood were available all around Knife Lake but it took time and energy. The wood had to be located, sawed, loaded into the boat, unloaded on the Isle of Pines, and then sawed into stove lengths, split and stacked. There is an adage, “Wood warms you twice: once while putting it up and once while it burns” for a reason! With four cabins and frigid Minnesota winters, putting up wood was a continuous, year-round project.
Maintenance was an ongoing task as wind, rain and snowstorms could make a mess of trails between cabins with fallen branches and trees, and heavy waves or heaving ice could damage docks and foot bridges. Just like with any home or business, routine work on a cabin roof, a leaky boat or a damaged motor prop provided additional work to be done.
When Dorothy first moved to Knife Lake, communication from Isle of Pines to town was limited to mail, telegraph or word-of-mouth, and would often take days. In the 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service gave Dorothy a two-way radio for daily communication. Until then, she was known to send grocery lists back to town with visitors who would then pass the list on to someone else who may be traveling up to see her in a few days.
Dorothy also kept a small garden and took advantage of the abundant edible flora and fauna of the area when time allowed.
Living in the wilderness also puts you smack in the middle of wildlife habitat. Dorothy may have chased a bear or two off in her time, but she was quite a friend to the animals and birds of the area. Living on an island in the middle of a big lake helped prevent issues with wildlife but she also avoided conflict by keeping temptations limited (securing food stores and compost and keeping a clean island).
Living on an island posed a problem for trash removal. Bill Berglund and Dorothy lived in an era where “disposable” was a novel idea (disposable diapers were first introduced in 1948). An empty coffee can was used to store nuts and bolts, and glass soda pop bottles were reused to make homemade root beer. Nevertheless, garbage did accumulate and, as was common, a garbage pit or pile corralled all the items no longer usable or broken.
Today, living “off the grid” is often attributed to those starring on reality TV shows featuring individuals or families in remote areas of Alaska or Idaho. Some say all it takes is a little common sense, a strong back and some basic survival skills paired with self-reliance and motivation to try and live like Dorothy.
The remaining signs of Dorothy’s presence on the islands include the Ribbon Rock (moved here by Dorothy’s nephews), a lilac bush near the summer tent area and Point Cabin, an English rose bush near the summer tent area and a smattering of non-native perennial flowers.
If you go to the Isle of Pines, you may notice open areas where buildings once existed as well as paths between those areas. Although no markers or signs are present, please note that no camping is allowed on the Isle of Pines.
Navigating to the Isle of Pines
Knife Lake, home to the Isle of Pines, is located in Lake County, Minnesota on the international border between Minnesota, U.S.A. and Ontario, Canada, with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) on the U.S. side and Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side. A U.S. Forest Service permit is required to travel to Knife Lake due to its location within the BWCAW and access is limited to canoe, snowshoe, ski or dogsled travel. The nearest road is 15 miles at the Moose Lake public access point and the closest town is Ely, Minnesota approximately 30 miles from Isle of Pines on Knife Lake.
During “soft” water season (ice break-up in late-spring to ice formation in early-fall), the most direct route to Knife Lake is via the Moose Chain to Birch Lake, through to Carp Lake, onto Melon then, Seed and finally, Knife. *This is the route that takes travelers through 8 lakes and over 6 portages. Dorothy often used with her aluminum canoe and motor, which eliminated the need for the portage between Sucker and Birch Lakes. During the “hard” water season (passable ice on the lakes), Dorothy either used her snow machine or snowshoed to Moose Lake. During this time, there was also a winter route available that was slightly shorter.
THIS MAP NOT TO BE USED FOR NAVIGATION
The Dorothy Molter Museum has created custom maps and data sheets to help in trip planning for those interested in visiting the Isle of Pines from the Moose Lake landing (there are a variety of routes to access Knife Lake, this is only one). Data points include several of the building sites shown on the map.
Knife Lake’s area is 4919.46 acres with 99 miles of shoreline and is over 170 feet at its deepest point. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Knife Lake has good clarity and low algae levels throughout the open water season. Fish species present include burbot (eelpout), lake trout, lake whitefish, northern pike, rock bass, smallmouth bass, tullibee (cisco), walleye, yellow perch, short-head redhorse and white sucker.