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Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota’

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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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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