Friends remember ‘Aulneau Jack’ Wollack, a Northwest Angle personality
Known as “Aulneau Jack” to some, Wollack made a solo canoe trip around the Aulneau Peninsula on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods when he was 75 years old.
The Northwest Angle has attracted its share of colorful personalities over the years, but that little chunk of land at the top of Minnesota bordered on three sides by Canada is a bit less colorful with the passing of Jack Wollack, those who knew him say.
Wollack, a longtime teacher at Little Falls (Minn.) Community High School and director of Laketrails Base Camp on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods from 1976 until 1988, died Jan. 8, at an assisted living facility in New Hope, Minn.
A renowned Northwest Angle outdoorsman and naturalist, Wollack was 79 years old.
“He was a quirky person – I guess that’s how I would describe it,” said Sue Lemm, director of Laketrails, a base camp that specializes in wilderness canoe trips for teen-agers. “I think he was misunderstood in that way. Everybody always says, ‘Oh, I don’t care what they say,’ but Jack is the only person I’ve ever known who really meant that. And he didn’t say it all the time, but he just clearly did not care what people thought.
“He was marching to his own drummer, and that was great for him.”
That was also apparent in the way he dressed, Lemm says.
“He would dress like a hobo,” she said. “I don’t think he kept a calendar, and there was no clock in his house – ever. He thought that was dangerous. He said, when people start thinking they need to be somewhere at a certain time, that’s going to cause you to take risks on the lake.”
Wollack, who grew up in Duluth, first worked as a summer guide at Laketrails beginning in 1963. He taught English and wilderness studies in Little Falls before retiring to Birch Island on Lake of the Woods, where he lived 24 years until health issues forced him to leave in the fall of 2021.
Wollack was married 23 years but divorced while still teaching in Little Falls.
Known as “Aulneau Jack” to some or “Pierre LaQuierre” – a voyageur alter ego character he developed at Laketrails – to others, Wollack made a solo canoe trip around the Aulneau Peninsula on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods when he was 75 years old.
The massive peninsula and its labyrinth of bays and inlets measures about 20 miles long, 10 miles wide and contains more than 80 lakes, according to Wikipedia.
“He loved to explore the lake,” said Lemm, who met Wollack in the mid-’90s. “He knew this lake probably better than anybody I know. I mean, fishermen know the lake, but Jack knew all the little nooks and crannies. He’d go into the Aulneau, and he knew all the lakes and portages and every little goofy thing in there.”
Wollack was always “kind of the nature guy,” Lemm said. During his frequent canoe travels, he would always paddle close to shore so he could observe any wildlife that might wander into view, friends say.
“He knew things about wildlife that I suppose wildlife researchers know, but Jack didn’t have that kind of training,” Lemm said. “He just knew it from observation.”
Jeff Birchem, a retired conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, worked the Northwest Angle as part of his patrol area from 1991 until retiring in 2013. A 1976 graduate of Little Falls Community High School, Birchem had Wollack for an English teacher and also took his wilderness studies classes.
Reading books such as Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac,” and “Walden,” by Henry David Thoreau, in Wollack’s classes inspired him to think about nature and the outdoors more deeply, Birchem says. Wollack also wrote a guide called “The 10 Commandments of Wilderness Survival” in 1991. Among its tenets: “Go with the flow” and “Be here now.”
Birchem, of Baudette, Minn., reached out to suggest a story on Wollack.
Ten Commandments of Wilderness Survival by inforumdocs on Scribd
“Jack was probably the first person that ever got me thinking about natural resources,” Birchem said. “It got me past just thinking in the hunting and fishing mode. It gave me deeper thoughts (about nature), and he brought that out.”
Birchem, who kept in contact with Wollack at the Northwest Angle, said any time Wollack called him was special, but few encounters were more memorable than the time “Aulneau Jack” lost his canoe near Stony Point, about halfway between Warroad, Minn., and the Angle.
It was Memorial Day weekend about 2010 or thereabouts, Birchem says, and Wollack had decided to paddle the 40-plus miles from the Angle to Warroad. Upon arrival, he saw there were people everywhere enjoying a busy holiday weekend.
“Jack doesn’t want any of this, so he turns around and canoes back to Stony Point,” Birchem said. “He gets on shore – he loved scrounging and beachcombing, and May is a good time to do it – he starts beachcombing, and he turns around and his canoe has floated away.”
Wollack had been a swimming coach in Little Falls but figured the water was too cold and the canoe too far away for him to safely reach, Birchem says, so he let it float away.
“He ends up walking to a duck hunting camp, borrows a rowboat and rows across Buffalo Bay,” which is in Manitoba and several miles wide, Birchem said. “Now it’s dark, he sleeps in the fish cleaning room for the night – this is May, so it’s still pretty cool. The next day, he hitchhikes and gets picked up by the postmaster and gets a ride back to the Angle.”
Upon his safe return to Birch Island, Wollack called Birchem about the misadventure. Based on the wind direction, Wollack figured his canoe would end up somewhere between Swift Ditch and Rocky Point along the South Shore of Lake of the Woods, Birchem recalls.
A couple of days later, Birchem launched his patrol boat at Swift Ditch in strong winds hoping to find the canoe. He’d gone maybe 200 yards when he saw a 5-gallon bucket; just beyond the bucket, he saw the canoe.
“It’s windy, I’m by myself, and it’s all muskeg,” Birchem said. “The canoe is completely full of water sitting upright, but I can’t move it at all because it’s full of water.”
Then he remembers the 5-gallon bucket.
“I get my boat up in the muskeg, and I’m rocking pretty hard here – it’s just not a good place to be parking your boat – so I just park it there, and I’m just going to walk over to his canoe,” Birchem said. “I looked down, and I see a strap laying there – it’s completely covered – I pull this strap up, and it’s his backpack.”
Inside the backpack were Wollack’s wallet, his driver’s license, his passport and “like $2,000,” Birchem recalls.
“I found all of his stuff, and I called him up. I think the only thing out of the whole deal that he lost was a paddle,” Birchem said. “I remember getting it back to him, and it was one of the coolest things to take all that stuff up there. And I remember saying, ‘Well, you know Jack, that’s why you buy a canoe license so you get service like this from the DNR.’
“And he laughed.”
Going with the flow
Life’s little misadventures always had a way of turning out for Wollack, said Jeff Odendahl, who met Wollack in 1967 as a rookie canoe guide at Laketrails. Odendahl, who later taught at a parochial school in Little Falls, also was director at Laketrails from 1994 through 2004, and then for one summer in 2007.
On his very first canoe expedition with Wollack in 1967, each leading a group of Laketrails campers, Odendahl recalls, Wollack decided they should take an overland route across the Aulneau Peninsula.
They were lost for the next day and a half.
“It’s still the most incredible canoe trip I’ve ever been on,” Odendahl, of Maplewood, Minn., said. “Jack was just incredible. He had a way of finding his way around things. We were definitely lost, but he didn’t let things like that hold him back. He just kept going, and it always turned out.”
Wollack had a knack for being comfortable and fitting in wherever life took him, Odendahl says. That was Jack.
“I’ve told people this before – Jack is the most deeply spiritual person I think I’ve ever met, and I say that not in a hokey way or an obsessive way,” Odendahl said. “It’s just that I think he had a way of experiencing God in his life, and things just happened to Jack that I don’t think would normally happen to most of us – like being lost in the middle of the Aulneau and coming out of it.
“He did have a connection, I think, to the Creator, and he believed in all of the good of creation, too. He loved the outdoors and he loved Lake of the Woods. Even until he got really, really sick here the last couple of months in November and December, he was still trying to plot on how he could get back up to his island.”
Leaving the Angle
Lemm, the present Laketrails director, recalls that beautiful, sunny fall day in September 2021 when Wollack left his island for the last time. He was having trouble with his legs and called Lemm to say he needed to see a doctor. She boated to Birch Island and, with the help of a couple of friends from nearby Flag Island, managed to get Wollack into the boat.
It was the last time he would see Lake of the Woods; his beautiful Lake of the Woods.
“It was just the most beautiful day,” Lemm recalled. “It was sunny and warm in the fall, and we were sitting there, and I thought, ‘Boy, Jack, I hope you get back here.’ But he told me later, he said, ‘I had no idea that would be the last time I wouldn’t be there.’ So, it’s really kind of sad the way he left.”
Wollack is survived by daughters Laura McLeod of Brooklyn Park, Minn., and Jill Wollack of Portland, Ore.; son Forrest and daughter-in-law Mika Wollack of Bloomington, Minn.; sisters Connie Eide, Bonnie Karasek, Linda (Ron) Bodell, Mary (Steve) Nightingale and Kathy (Mike Moore) Wollack; and grandsons Quinlan and Sean McIntire.
A funeral for Wollack will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 22 – Earth Day – at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Duluth.
Even in death, the memory of Wollack will endure as part of what Birchem calls “my (Northwest) Angle.”
“When I go to the Angle, those back bays on the Ontario side where there isn’t anybody around, that’s Jack Wollack,” Birchem said. “That’s what I’ll remember about Jack.”