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Posts Tagged ‘Canoeing’

Our Island50-foot diameter, perfect circular shape. Circumference dotted with large granite boulders. Surrounding our circle is a range of the bluest waters imaginable. Deep royals, rich navys, distant cornflowers, and endless azures. Our circle rises with only slight symmetrical convexity from which sprout dozens of fragrant evergreen trees. A padded pine leaf surface provides our base, downed wood provides our warmth. For this weekend this is our island, this is our Minnesota world.

Voyageurs National Park is an endless wilderness of water. Its lakes feel more like oceans than ponds. The water runs deep and the sky is endless. There’s no hiking here. Land exists as a border, a barrier. We explore via two-person canoe, like the fur-trapping french canadian voyageurs before us. Our bags sit in between us two paddlers. We travel wherever the water takes us. Our only fixed destination is one of the Park’s many campsite that dot the border landscapes. Our first day’s journey will zig zag from campground to campground looking for an empty nest.

We arrive at each campground too late. Our binoculars show no openings. Each haven is occupied by a motorboat working with far more horsepower than our tired triceps. Each site brings another failure. It’s starting to get late. We’re still in our canoe. Our tensions rise and the arguments ensue.

Then she appears: our island. She looks flat, she looks empty, she looks secluded, she looks safe. She’s not official but she looks all right to us. Others have been here before. Perhaps last week perhaps last month. A brass marker proves she’s been surveyed by the U.S. Geological Service. But she is ours now.

We relax and the worry dissipates. We’ve been canoeing all day but this is the first time we’ve taken in our surroundings: it’s beautiful. We sunbathe on our rocky shore and watch the sun set for what seems like hours. Bald eagles fly overhead. We spot a moose swimming from island to island. The next day, we sleep in until the rain stops. We only leave to explore the neighboring islands looking for firewood.

That fire never happens. Black skies come rushing toward us almost as quickly as the motorboats scurry to get back to their campsites. A downpour is coming. We collect our things and jump in the tent the second before the heavens open. Our tent is being whipped by sudden bursts of wind; our weight is the only thing holding it down. We sneak a peak outside a see ferocious whitecaps and a threatening darkness. Twenty minutes later the skies clear, the waters calm and a phenomenal sunset captures the world.

“Could we stay on our deserted island forever?” we wonder. Maybe if we had remembered our fishing rods.

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Conventional wisdom doesn’t work at Big Thicket National Preserve. Logic, ecological understandings, park boundaries, National Park Service protection, floral roles; throw these things out the window. Nothing here is as it seems. Everything collides in the thicket.

The land itself is a dark stew of mysterious swampland caused by the convergence of the southeastern swamplands, eastern deciduous forest. the Midwestern prairie, and the Southwestern desert. Flooding is common and necessary; it regulates the diversity of life. Brown bear and mountain lions hunt feral pigs and exotic nutria alongside alligator and bobcat. Fifty species of reptiles hunt insects alongside Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, and sundews.

The Bachman’s sparrow calls these woods home. She is found only in the continental United States, the only sparrow to hold this distinction. Could we find her? “Not a chance,” we thought. We’re only novice birders and sparrows are difficult to pinpoint. We headed out into the swamp and onto a boardwalk trail. Rain fell above us, caught on the floral canopy above. The dark black waters of the surrounding swamps dutifully reflected the large oaks and beech trees. Despite the overwhelming visual evidence, Big Thicket did not feel like the swamps of the south. There are few palmettos, less green and more browns. It felt like a wet, overrun Pennsylvania forest. But unlike our northeastern forest land, the Big Thicket’s mucky earth holds a vast liquid treasure: oil.

Admittedly, the world’s first oil strike, in 1859, did happen in a Pennsylvania forest, but that black gold was in very short supply. America’s next major oil discovery wouldn’t happen until 1901 at Spindletop, a hill a few miles south of Beaumont, Texas and a few miles south of the lands now preserved as Big Thicket.

Big Thicket’s parklands do not connect. Some of the land follows rivers, some follow creeks and some protect important habitats. When you look at a map the Park’s boundaries looks haphazard and non-nonsensical. Suburbs, towns, oil sites and private Texas land strangle the park’s deceivingly large 97,000 acres. Each disconnected Park Unit has a different purpose. Some are for hikers, some are for canoers, and some are for hunters. However, by 2001 Big Sandy Creek, a hunting Unit, had become increasingly poached for its oil. The land was being destroyed, the animals were fleeing because of the unending noise and the hunters weren’t happy. Who were the poachers? Who was harming the land? The National Park Service.

It is hard to believe that the Park Service would harm the land for its own profit. But it happens. As a result, the Sierra Club sued. And in 2006, a U.S. District judge ruled that the Park Service was in the wrong; they had not done enough to address the environmental impact. Their drilling decisions were “not supported by reasoned explanations, and hence are arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.”

Big Thicket’s boardwalk dips, takes many turns and is under constant attack from flooding. One break in the wood required a running start and a determined long jump. Gab’s leap cleared the muck below by mere inches. We were ready for a rest. Luckily, there was a wooden bench nearby. We sat mesmerized by the sounds of birds and the rain above. Then, in the underbrush ahead, Gab spotted a bird. She kept her binoculars fixed while Michael read from the Sibley Guide:

M: Found in open pinewoods with patchy understory of brush and palmetto.
G: Yes, yes, that’s where we are.
M: Solitary and secretive; difficult to see except when singing.
G: Well, he’s singing now from the bottom limb of the brush!
M: Does he have a buffy, er orangish, breast that constrasts with a whitish belly?
G: I’m pretty sure.
M: Is there reddish stripes on his head and one that stripes from his eye?
G: I think, he’s got to turn..oh, darn. he just flew away. I’m sure it was the Bachman’s sparrow. It had to be it had to be. Can you believe we just saw one?
M: Not really. But if you say so than, wow, that’s some kind of sighting. You think we can spot another one?
G: Why not?

So we sat for a little bit longer enjoying our time in the most unlikely of places.

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near Florida City, Fla.
Visited: January 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Struggling AnglerWHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the areas of the park accessible through its main entrance located just outside Florida City, Fla. This stretch of road passes through numerous ecosystems, traveling 38 miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center, located on the Florida Bay.

BEAUTY (9/10)
The section of the Everglades from the Main Entrance to Flamingo is the most beautiful area of the Park because it is the most diverse. A few inches’ change in altitude dramatically alters the landscape. Along the 38-mile drive, you travel through a pineland forest, hardwood hammocks, cypress trees, a freshwater prairie, a mangrove wilderness, a hurricane-created coastal marsh and finally a coastal prairie. Every change is clear and breathtaking. The sunsets are spectacular whether they overlook the pastel horizon of the sandy Florida Bay keys or are through the vertical wonder of Florida pines.

The wildlife is abundant and includes many endangered species. We were lucky enough to see the rare American crocodile but did not see either the manatee or the limpkin. The Everglades are the only place in the world where saltwater crocodiles live side by side with alligators.

The Everglades are an American original. Many of the trails feel more like a zoo than a National Park. The birds, fish and massive reptiles are so close that they seem to mingle with the tourists in such a great number that you are guaranteed to see all but the rarest species.

American CrocodileHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

CROWDS (3/10)
Our crowd interaction at Everglades NP ranged wildly from good to our worst National Park experience yet. First, for chronologies sake, the bad times.

Keep away from the Flamingo campground if you spend the night in the Everglades. We found the campground overrun with rowdy boaters eager to set off the next morning from the nearby marina. Quiet hours were ignored, the vodka poured freely and the overheard conversations were so loud, aggressive and offensive that we feared for our safety.

Lowlights included one group showering expletives upon Park Rangers. The reason: they dared to penalize the man for drunk boating and illegal fishing. Another nearby group collected and chopped down wood (illegal) twice, once at seven and once at midnight while using their idling pickup truck as a spotter. Their massive bonfire party began at 8 p.m. and lasted well past 2 a.m.

We have run into obnoxious and dangerous boaters at every National Park that allows motorboats. Our experience tells us that our Flamingo incident was all too common especially since we encountered no roaming campground hosts and no patrolling Park security, a first in well over 50 National Park campgrounds. Our sleepless, fear-ridden night nearly ruined our trip to the Everglades.

Roseate Spoonbill OverheadLuckily, our spirits were lifted at 8:00 a.m. around Eco Pond. We happened upon a Ranger-led bird walk and were greeted with an advanced lesson from both Ranger and fellow bird-watchers. Everybody had high-powered individual binoculars and one couple brought a portable spotting telescope that they happily shared. We spotted over 50 species of birds in our meandering two-hour walk. The perfect way to learn about birds is to go with people who know what they are doing. Other than the Ranger, we were the youngest in the group by at least twenty-five years.

Our walks around the Anhinga Trail, near the main entrance, were wonderful and representative of the classic National Parks visit. The boardwalks were crowded with tourists amazed and enchanted at the exotic floral and fauna they were seeing. So much excitement and so many happy kids.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Everglades NP Main Entrance is located 45 miles from Miami and 11 miles from Homestead. The Florida Turnpike, Route 821, ends at Homestead. From there, Florida Route 9336 weaves its way through Florida City and into the Everglades. The road continues 38 miles to the southern tip of mainland Florida, the site of the Flamingo Visitor Center.

There are six fully accessible self-guided interpretive trails along the road through the Park. They take the visitor through six dramatically different ecosystems. The trails allow anyone to amble through the forbidding mangroves, an incredible feat in itself. All the trails are completely flat and make for easy walking. Just don’t forget to bring insect repellent, the mosquitoes are always out in full force.

Glistening Red Mangroves

CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The brightly-lit gift store in the Ernest Coe VC at the Main Entrance followed the same design as bookstores in many of the destination parks – lots of coffee table photography books, key chains, magnets, generic National Park guides and gear. The only exception to the rule was the extensive stock of books for birders.

Flamingo had both an upscale gift store operated by an independent concessionaire and a grocer/convenience store at the marina, but we couldn’t find an actual NPS bookstore in the area. Be sure to get your reading material before you start down the 38-mile road.

COSTS (3/5)
Entrance to the Park is $10 per car. A tent spot at the Flamingo or the Long Pine Key campground is $14.

Like the Gulf Coast portion of the park, much of the Everglades NP serviced by the Flamingo VC is in the water. Canoes, kayaks and fishing skiffs can be rented hourly or by the day. Prices range from $8 an hour for a 2-person canoe to $155 for a 19-foot fishing skiff. Fishing poles and ice chests can also be rented as needed.

The canoe rental fees at Gulf Coast were much more affordable. There were many more motorized boats leaving the Flamingo marina than from their Gulf Coast counterpart. A canoe excursion from the northwest might be more peaceful and definitely cheaper.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5)
The Flamingo Campground, the setting for our horrendous first night, would have been much better with a Ranger patrolling the grounds once or twice. In fact, this is the first NPS campground we have used where we haven’t had an evening visit from an NPS employee, if only to tell us about the evening slide program at the amphitheatre.

The Rangers leading the birders walk and the talk which turned into a walk at the Anhinga Trail were both excellent. Young and enthusiastic, they knew their stuff and both stayed with us long past the anticipated end of the lesson.

Stay at Home DadTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
The NPS runs an interesting array of activities from both the Flamingo (the south) and Royal Palm (near the main entrance in the northeast) areas. The Rangers are the centerpiece of the Park’s highly enjoyable educational experience.

Both areas offer $15, three-hour long, walks through the swamp. Four Ranger-led slogs through the wet leave the south every week while Royal Palm offers the difficult hike every day. Space fills up well in advance.

The Bird Walk around Eco Pond happens from Thursday through Sunday only in the South. The wonderful Ranger who led on the birding excursion also handles many of the swamp walks. She knew every bird, butterfly, tree, spider and flower. Flamingo also offers a daily Ranger-led $20 four and a half hour morning canoe trip. These tours also fill up well in advance.

Royal Palm offers a daily $15 Ranger-led bike hike through the landscape of the north. Simple auditorium-based Ranger talks also take place daily in both areas.

The Park’s Visitor Center Museum is large, confusing and not nearly as helpful as the Rangers. The recent remodeling includes a new and outsourced film. A Discovery Channel logo proves very distracting while it constantly rotates in the lower right corner. The film relies on sped-up camera tricks and nice pictures and fails to scratch the surface of the Everglades’ complex ecosystems and the man-made problems that threaten them.

If the Ranger programs are not enough, two hour long private boat tours leave 8 times a day into both the mangroves and Florida Bay from the Flamingo Marina. Adult costs range from $12 to $18. They are narrated by a professional guide. There is a lot to do in the Everglades.

Drying AnhingaFUN (8/10)

The Anhinga Trail near the Park Entrance deservedly enjoys its world-class reputation for wildlife spotting. It is as much fun as you can have on a National Parks boardwalk. And believe what the Rangers say, come back and walk the trail at night. The sounds are amplified, the walk is safe and the atmosphere is enjoyably spooky. The twin beady eyes of the alligator will appear fluorescent red if you shine a flashlight from your eye level into the water. Their silent motion is interrupted only when they creep up on other gators and thrash their tails through the water in territorial battles.

The moon and the stars were so bright that we did not need a flashlight; although a squawking Great Blue Heron did shock us when we unknowingly crept only a few inches in front of his perch. Our terrific time at Everglades NP was dampened only by our night spent in the Flamingo campground with very little sleep.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
Our two-day visit took us from one extreme to the other – in emotions as well as natural settings. We happened upon two stellar Ranger-led events at either end of the Park without even trying.

If Shark Valley VC offers the visitor an Everglades 101 course, traveling from the Main Entrance to Flamingo is the next level. If you go to Shark Valley, you pay your money, get on the tram, and are sure to see just about everything that ecosystem, a freshwater slough, has to offer.

The road on the east side of the park is long and winds through more landscapes than one should expect to see in a day, let alone along a single 38-mile stretch. Your visit here will be more self-directed; there are no guarantees and the Main Entrance is not as accessible as its name might imply. Your trip here will be more difficult than Shark Valley but could prove to be more rewarding.

TOTAL 52/80

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near Everglades City, Fla.
Visited: January 4, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Porpoises

WHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the northwestern portion of the Park; the area serviced by the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

BEAUTY (8/10)
There are two routes through the northwestern Everglades: 1) a narrow inland waterway that winds through the impenetrable mangroves and 2) one that skirts the mangroves and follows Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The inland route is mangrove monotony. The dirty brackish water never raises to levels more than five feet and the horizon stays perpetually level. Ospreys hover and shriek at every turn, wood storks fly overhead and egrets patrol the ground. We expected to paddle next to alligators but left disappointed; none appeared during our three-day canoe trip.

The coastal keys are tiny, white sand, prototypical deserted islands noted by gargantuan and intricate seashells, resourceful raccoons and porpoises diving their way through the gentle waves. We enjoyed a perfect pastel-colored Florida sunset while flocks of white ibises flew in a V-shaped formation overhead.

The route from the Keys through the Ten Thousand Islands and back to Everglades City is like being in a giant maze. The “Islands” are indistinguishable mangrove entities. Tides change the shallow waters’ navigability and create patterns and channels that differ from the published charts. Even with a map, navigation is impossible; everything looks the same. We managed to find our way home but not before paddling within yards of a perched bald eagle.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

CROWDS (7/10)
Backcountry permits are issued up to 24 hours before departure. Rangers recommend getting to the permit desk early since all sites are first come, first served and can fill quickly. Backcountry campsites are limited, but there were still several options available when we inquired.

We had planned for excess people because of the holiday season and even some gators since we are in the Everglades, but we had no idea raccoons and water rats were considerations when preparing for our canoe trip. When we returned to the VC a few days later with our newly purchased hard-sided container and duct tape, we had even less of a problem securing the campsites we wanted.

Where We SleptFour other campers shared the chickee where we camped the first night. Space was tight on the two raised wooden platforms, but our fellow paddlers were pleasant and seemed as equally vexed by the winds, tide charts and sameness of the landscape as we were. We liked them.

Four other couples pitched their tents at Pavilion Key on day two. The stretch of sandy beach was long enough to leave ample room between all of us, giving us some privacy in an otherwise exposed environment. The noises we heard at night and the footprints we spied in the morning made us thankful we took an extra day to raccoon-proof our belongings.

Canoes and kayaks share the waterways with fishermen and motorboats at Everglades NP. Unlike our time at Voyageurs NP, where we were certain our canoe would tip with each speeding sportsman, fellow boaters at the Everglades seem to move at a slower, friendlier pace and didn’t affect our experience at all.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
This portion of the Everglades is completely water-based. You cannot go out there without a boat. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent. Boat tours leave often from the Visitor Center dock. The Visitor Center is about 40 miles east of Naples in Everglades City. Everglades City is located on Florida Route 29 about eight miles south of the Tamiami Trail.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Consisting of two shelves opposite the backcountry permit desk, the bookstore is small but we couldn’t think of what else we might need. If you skip the boat tour and decide to venture into the Everglades on your own, do not leave without purchasing the water resistant Everglades nautical map. Souvenir items, postcards and some resort-priced beverages are available at the small gift shop/convenience store downstairs.

ShellsCOSTS (1/5)
There is no park entry collected at the Gulf Coast VC. This portion of the Park is water-based so you need to bring a boat, rent a boat or pay for a boat tour.

Do it yourself charges are as follows:

$5 for 7-day boat launch fee (motorized)
$3 for 7-day boat launch fee (non-motorized)
$10 for backcountry permit processing fee
$2 per person per night backcountry camping fee
canoe rentals range anywhere from $25 -$40 per day
$19.88 (tax incl.) for Everglades nautical map

An independent concessionaire located on the first floor of the Visitor Center runs two boat tours that leave the docks hourly:

Ten Thousand Islands Tour – $21 per adult, $11 per child, One hour 30 minutes in length
Mangrove Wilderness Tour – $35 per adult, $17.50 per child, One hour 45 minutes in length

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
e entered the VC on three different occasions and met with at least four different Rangers. One was even willing to answer a question while on his way to the bathroom. Michael says thanks and sorry.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Gulf Coast VC is small, existing more for issuing permits than exhibit-based education. Nonetheless, a great many panels are stuffed in the small area. A touch me table shows you the immensity of manatee ribs.

Rangers give a half hour talk everyday at 1:00 and give 4-hour long canoe explorations three days a week. Bring your own canoe or rent one.

We did not purchase a Boat Tour. That would have been a bit redundant. We saw a few leave. They looked crowded despite their amazing frequency.

FUN (7/10)
Our time in the Gulf Coast portion of Everglades NP was challenging. Vexing tide charts, shallow water, unpredictable offshore winds, pesky thieving raccoons, water rat prints in the morning right next to our tent (aaaaaah!) and 13 miles a day of paddling through repetitive landscape. We argued a lot.

The lows were balanced by amazing highs. Once we stopped paddling, our prospects improved immeasurably. The Everglades wilderness is a mysterious and wonderful place. We camped along a Gulf Coast beach, watched the sunset by ourselves and collected shells unlike any we had ever seen along any shore. Once the sun went down the absolute blackness was interrupted only by droning wave crashes and snorting porpoises.
Our night spent in the mangroves was even better, the sounds completely unknown. We camped at the Sunday Bay chickee; a raised wooden platform tucked into a small mangrove inlet. We sat up in our tent for hours trying to figure out the impossible things occurring in the near vicinity. Herons squawked and mullets jumped endlessly but other things we could not figure out.

We know this. Something definitely died. We heard water splash, high-pitched shrieks, wings flapping, and some deep growls. Was it an alligator (do they growl) or maybe a bobcat or Florida panther (how would they get into and around the mangroves)? We asked a Ranger what it was. “Could have been anything. It is the Everglades.”

SunsetWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
It is true, we did argue a lot out on the water. We were disappointed by our alligator count: 0 and a little unnerved by evening marauders on the beach. Paddling is tiring and it took about a day to lose our sea legs and feelings of slight nausea. So those are the negatives.

The plusses: spending the night on a chickee is a very neat experience, as is camping on what feels like your own island. We lost count of egrets, herons, storks, pelicans and porpoises. There is a reason why thousands of amateur artists and photographers (ourselves included) try to capture the pinks, oranges and pastels of the Florida sun.

There are other options, other than a 3-day independent journey into the maze of mangroves. Those options are affordable and frequent. A Ranger leads at least one boat trip each day. If water-bound vessels aren’t your thing, the Gulf Coast VC might feel a little limiting. Don’t worry, there are more terrestrial activities further down the road at the Shark Valley VC.

TOTAL 49/80

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near International Falls, Minn.
Visited: June 4, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 51 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Our IslandWHAT IS IT?
A boreal forest ecosystem carved by Ice Age glacial action consisting of dozens of lakes and hundreds if not thousands of islands. Voyageurs NP is a water-based park. 84,000 acres of water, in fact. Hiking trails exist, but their entry points must be reached by boat.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The waters glisten, the islands charm and the skies shine a stunning blue. Numerous bald eagles soar above while one of the continent’s largest varieties of warblers sing in the background. You comment to yourself, “this place is so beautiful”. Then another motor boat loudly speeds by and rocks your canoe.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
More so in the Park’s name. These lakes were just a traveling route for the Voyageurs, like a present-day interstate. Park videos will explain the Voyageurs to some extent, but if you are interested in the history of the French-Canadian über-trappers, go to the site of their annual rendezvous: Grand Portage NM, Minnesota.

CROWDS (1/10)
The National Park Service sites are for everyone, snowmobilers, motorists and boatsmen alike. Still, the ubiquitous presence of outboard-motored fishing boats brought our humble canoeing selves to a breaking point many a time. We wanted to experience the pathways of the voyageur, voyageur-style: in a canoe. Wrong choice on a weekend. We fought constant wakes from inconsiderate anglers. Finding a campsite was impossible given our distinct speed disadvantage, the crowded nature of the Park and the relative lack of park designated tent sites.

After entering the Park’s waterways, we slowly paddled from filled campsite to the next while our high-speed, first-come, first-served competition easily claimed the empty sites; preparing their ornate tents while we cursed our canoe, each other and motor boats in general. We eventually found a darling island, about 60 feet in diameter (not an actual campsite) where we were able to pitch the tent. Little did we know that we were in earshot of two official sites where the swearing, cribbage games (presumably), and outboard motors blocked out all natural sounds until long after 11:00 p.m.

Lest we sound too grumpy, we did have a great time. Just don’t expect peace and tranquility.

On the LakesEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Ranger-led boat tours start in mid-June for a fee. Until then you need to a rent or purchase a water going craft to experience anything.

CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (4/5)
We visited three of the Park’s four Visitor Centers. All three had terrific book selections ranging from Ojibwa legend and fiction, Voyageur books, and a large selection of birding information. We were tempted to buy an adorable stuffed moose but somehow relented. There are plenty of other kid-related items, nice T-shirts and a waterproof map of Voyageurs NP for $8.95; cheaper than the $10 version our canoe outfitter was offering.

COSTS (3/5)
The park itself is free, as is the backcountry camping pass. The boat you need to travel within Voyageurs is not. Plan accordingly. There are only a few outfitters nearby the Park. Most of the lodges offer boat rental but only if your staying with them.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
All Visitor Centers were staffed with numerous friendly and helpful Rangers. We suppose there are Rangers out on the water, patrolling the lakes but it’s hard to differentiate between all the boats speeding around you.

Our Private IslandTOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
There are three Visitor Centers at strategic shoreline points – each had unique exhibits and displays, as well as their own bookstores. At the Ash River Visitor Center, we had our choice of movies – one on the voyageurs, one on the formation of the waterways and one showcasing the park and its flora and fauna. We watched one on the park itself while we waited for our outfitter to come pick up the rented canoe.

The Rainy Lake Visitor Center was host to a Birders’ Rendezvous the weekend we were there. Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center was where we found out about the closest canoe outfitter and gaped in amazement at the photos of two bald eagles fighting in the Lake. The photos were taken by a Ranger getting ready to lead a boat tour.

Ranger-led boat tours do not begin until the middle of June so we had no opportunity to partake. There are additional fees for most tours.

FUN (6/10)
The first three to four hours of the first day were no fun at all. Once we got the hang of paddling the canoe together, overcame our fear of being tipped by the wake of a speeding motorboat and finally found a flat, semi-private place to camp, we had a blast.

We should have known better than to set off on one of the first hot weekends in June. The stress of finding a place to sleep was overwhelming – once we spotted our island, the worry dissipated and we were able to sit back, relax and really look at our surroundings for the first time. This place is beautiful. We sunbathed on our rocky shore. We watched the sun set for what seemed like hours. The next day, we slept in until the rain stopped, then paddled around the neighboring islands exploring and looking for wood for the evening fire.

That evening fire never happened – black skies came rushing toward us almost as quickly as the motorboats scurrying to get back to their campsites before the downpour. We had just enough time to collect our things and jump in the tent, which was being whipped by sudden bursts of wind. We held down the tent as water poured down and whitecaps formed on the lakes. Twenty minutes later, the skies cleared, the waters calmed and we had yet another phenomenal sunset. When we recounted our experience to the canoe outfitter he thought for a minute then said, “that actually sounds like a lot of fun.” It was.

Quiet TimeWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10)
The Lakes are beautiful, just not peaceful. The Park seems to be unique in that it caters primarily to sportsmen. Perhaps it would be better designated as a National Recreation Area. We cannot attest to the fishing quality but there were anglers everywhere. They all seemed to be having a great time in a stunning natural setting. Who knows how many walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass they were catching.

We would not recommend Voyageurs for a canoeing vacation. Go to the nearby motor-less Boundary Canoe Waters which are part of the National Forest System (under the Department of Agriculture jurisdiction and sadly, not a destination on our two-year sojourn).

TOTAL 41/80

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Grand Portage, Minn.
Visited: June 2, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 50 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Voyageur GabWHAT IS IT?
A reconstructed fort/trading village that includes a great hall, canoe building warehouse, and kitchen. Grand Portage lies at an important geographical place; the site that connected the Great Lakes and cities of the east to the fur trapping lands of the northwest.

BEAUTY (6/10)
While the monument is enclosed entirely within Grand Portage Indian Reservation it does include the 8.2 mile Grand Portage Trail which extends through the scenic boreal forest from Grand Portage Bay to the Canadian border. The forest is gorgeous as are the views of Lake Superior. The reconstructed fort is nothing if not accurate.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10)
Grand Portage NM is the real voyageurs site, as opposed to the nearby Voyageurs NP. Grand Portage NM marks and recreates the great summer fur trade Rendezvous. It also educates about the fur trade in general, canoe building and general 19th-century northwest life.

The site can be seen as a companion to the Salem Maritime NHP in Massachusetts. They both explain a similar period and experience in American life: the beginnings of international trade. Grand Portage NM, however, does a much better job.

Superior DangerCROWDS (7/10)
Given Grand Portage NM’s recent opening and remoteness, we were surprised to find dozens of tourists at the Site. The crowd was happy, interested and full of questions. Perhaps they had come from the nearby slots-only Native American casino and needed to spark their brains. It worked.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Located at the northeast tip of Minnesota. The Park is seasonal, opening on Memorial Day. We were there during its opening week.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The superb bookstore includes colorful Voyageur-style belts and hats as well as hand-made ceramics and goods imprinted with the North West Trading Company logo. The book selection is also tremendous and the store was the first to include the highly informative 2004 edition of Fodor’s Official Guide to America’s National Parks; a necessary purchase given the extreme change in Parks’ operating hours since the book’s 2001 edition.

COSTS (3/5)
The cost is $3 per adult, $6 per family. The Site is free with the National Parks Pass.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
There were Rangers and volunteers everywhere. All were dressed in period costume so it was difficult to differentiate. In the Great Hall there were three people, two dressed as voyageurs, one dressed as a North West Company businessman.

There was a cook in the kitchen and a working canoe builder in the warehouse. They all knew so much. We spent nearly two and a half hours talking to them about the voyageurs, listening to their stories (mostly told in the first person) and asking questions.

Rendezvous GroundsTOURS/CLASSES (10/10)
One of the best yet. We especially enjoyed the discussions we had with both the cook and the canoe builder. The cook taught us about the intricacies of Minnesota wild rice. He even told us where to buy the “world’s best wild rice, a steal at $6 a pound”: nearby at the Grand Portage Trading Post and Post Office, run by the local Ojibwe Native Americans.

We learned what the North West Company executives ate during Rendezvous, what herbs were planted at the time, the history of the North West Company and its merger with the Hudson Bay Company and the environmental, political and conjugal effect the voyageur had on the region.

The cook was a wellspring of information, as was the canoe builder. He explained the trade routes, the canoe logistics, the canoe making process, the Rendezvous, the voyageur class system and so much more. Our guides were very skilled. They had the unique gift of being able to combine macro and micro issues into a living organic whole.

In addition, the self guided walking tour pamphlet, which seems at first superfluous, is one of the best we have seen so far. It culls even more information than the guides provide. Among other things, the pamphlet suggests books to further your knowledge, gives a handy North West Company timeline and describes a guided hiking trail over the 8.2 mile actual ‘Grand Portage’ from the Pigeon River to the site that borders Grand Portage Bay. The pamphlet is friendly and does not talk down to the reader; subsequently it is enjoyable to both adult and child, a rare feat.

Four videos are available for your viewing. We felt our time was better spent talking to the Rangers/volunteers. The planned Ojibwe Heritage Center will be a welcome addition in a Park Service seemingly bereft of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.

The PortagerFUN (9/10)
As soon as we entered the Grand Portage fort, we stepped back in time. There is no Visitor Center, no welcome and nobody dressed as a Ranger. You immediately step into the Great Hall and must orient yourself to the year 1800. It is initially disorientating but ultimately a brilliant success.

You can touch sample pelts, dress as a voyageur, wear the beaver pelt top hats, watch a massive canoe being made, see flint lock rifle demonstrations and see an 18th-century garden.

These wonderful hands-on living history displays still take a back seat to the impressive and knowledgeable Grand Portage NM staff. Everything about the site was first rate. We had a great time.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
A volunteer staffer told us that Grand Portage NM is not a “destination site”. That is a shame but not for good reason. It is in the middle of nowhere.

There are still many reasons to come to Grand Portage NM: 1) one of the three boats that travel to Isle Royale NP leaves two miles from Grand Portage NM; 2) the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness is very close and 3) the famed scenic drives up Highway 61 and up the Gunflint Trail are nearby.

If you find yourself doing any of these three things post-Memorial Day, come to Grand Portage NM. This Site is a hidden gem.

TOTAL 61/80

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in Lake Superior
Visited: May 26, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 49 of 353
Local Website

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Click Here to Begin Our Seven-Day Isle Royale Adventure

Isle RoyaleWHAT IS IT?
The largest Island in the world’s largest freshwater lake. Isle Royale NP is a World Heritage Biosphere. Isle Royale is an incredible 99% wilderness. The 1% includes only the Rangers’ living quarters, a small lodge, two Visitor Centers and the campgrounds. The 45-mile long by 9-mile wide island boasts hundreds of moose and three wolf packs.

BEAUTY (9/10)
Spring came while we were on the Island. Wildflowers bloomed in front of our eyes; trees became a luminescent, full lime green. We thought that we had seen a newborn moose calf, but closer inspection revealed a yearling. Much of the hiking goes along the ridge and through the dense boreal forest. When the forest opens, you remember that you are in the middle of Lake Superior. Clear skies enabled us to make out the skyline of Thunder Bay, Canada, 35 miles away to the north. Nothing spoils the serene beauty here on Isle Royale. No cars, no buildings and no unnatural sounds.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Isle Royale has mildly interesting stories of unsuccessful mining operations and dramatic shipwrecks. We found the Island to be compelling because of its veritable lack of human history. Few people have ever lived here and the forests are still virgin. Moose first migrated here in the 1900’s by swimming! A few wolves crossed the extremely rare frozen Lake Superior to get here in the 40’s. That’s cool stuff.

On the TrailCROWDS (9/10)
We found solitude at Isle Royale NP. There were very few people even on the most popular hikes. The people that we did see shared with us the same sense of personal accomplishment, detachment and amazement. There was a strong kindred spirit among all visitors to the Island.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Perhaps the most remote National Park in the continental United States. You need to take a sturdy sea-worthy boat or a seaplane to get here. Once you are at Isle Royale you must use either its moderately difficult trails or travel by kayak or canoe through its harbors and lakes. Only one rustic hotel exists and even if you are staying there, you need to get out into the backcountry to see anything. You must hike (or paddle) and stay in a tent. There is no other way. This Site appeals to a very small and specific crowd, the willing outdoorsman.

That being said, most visitors come to Isle Royale NP for the isolation and the solitude. They would say the Park’s lack of access is its strongest asset. After a day of seeing zero people and six moose, we agree. But our rating system is not perfect and for continuity’s sake the score must be a 1.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Both the bookstore and the lone open food store on the Island had ample selections of merchandise but very little that we wanted. The weather effectively holed us in our shelter. There were no cheap paperbacks and no selection of games/puzzles. We wanted a memento from our trip but the T-Shirts, stickers and patches all suffered from a design deficiency. We wanted a pre-packaged meal but had to settle on the salt-drenched Zatarain’s red beans and rice. So yes there is a large selection of stuff, but nothing in that group appealed to us.

On the TrailCOSTS (1/5)
The requisite boat to the Island is not cheap at $100 or more round trip. Staying on Isle Royale costs an additional $4 per day per person. Proper gear and preparation for the whims of Lake Superior will cost even more. Because of the steep transportation fee, most visitors spend at least 5 days on the Island. In fact, among National Parks Isle Royale enjoys the longest average stay per guest.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
Plenty of Rangers at the Isle Royale’s two Visitor Centers. No Rangers anywhere else.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
Immediately after stepping off the boat, a lovely Park Ranger gave us an instructive and necessary 20-minute orientation that focused on the Leave No Trace philosophy. Everything you bring on must leave with you. She also answered all of our questions about the Isle Royale. Everyone listened intently to her “What do we do when we see a moose?” answer.

After the orientation, the Ranger issued the backcountry permits inside the Windigo Visitor Center. All hikers had to specify which campground they were to stay at on each night of their visit. We were not yet sure of our plans so the Ranger cheerfully indicated which campgrounds were the best and which vistas we should not miss. Our 10-minute talk with her was more helpful than the 175-page Isle Royale Hiking Trails book.

After leaving the Visitor Center, we felt confident in our journey. We were no longer petrified about what we were about to do. Thank you, Ranger.

Just Before the Tortellini DropFUN (8/10)
Anticipation for this particular park has been mounting for nearly a year even though we weren’t really sure what to expect. We spent over two days in Duluth and a day in Grand Marais, Minnesota preparing ourselves mentally and physically for the challenge of our first real hiking adventure of the two-year trip. This anticipation and build-up added to our fun and sense of accomplishment.

Seven days and seven nights is the longest we have ever been backcountry camping. In many ways, this was a test. Can our sedentary bodies still balance a pack? Will the novelty of pitching the tent wear out within a week? Will we get bored? Sick of each other? Answers: Yes. No. Only on a very rainy and cold day 6 and… hmm… well … No. In that order.

We felt a range of emotions on the island. Excitement, fatigue, awe, hunger (after Gab dropped the tortellini dinner), pride. It was quite an emotional roller coaster, but we laughed and smiled and dropped our mouths in wonder a lot. We nearly shed tears of joy when the sun came out on day seven and Captain Ryan arrived with the Voyageur II. Later that day we were both misty eyed as the boat sped away and we lost sight of Isle Royale.

Morning MistWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
We had a great time and were not the least bit disappointed. The beauty of the National Park was well worth the planning, the time dedication and the expense. Still, Isle Royale NP is not for everybody and Lake Superior can be a monster. You need to camp. Transportation must be done via hiking or paddling. Transportation to the Island is available only mid-April through October. Each season provides its own obstacle. If you are not fighting inclement weather, you will be fighting biting flies and mosquitoes. Our trip to Isle Royale NP was well worth it.

TOTAL 50/80

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