Think Minnesota and clear lakes with tall timber come to mind. Well, after seven years in the rural southeastern corner of the state, we finally decided to give proper Minnesota a visit. We ended up in a canoe within a national park without roads, facing a labyrinth of islands scattered across the lake system called Voyageur's National Park.
When U.S. Congress designated Minnesota’s wilderness along the Canadian border as Voyageurs National Park in 1971, they sought to preserve one of the essential experiences of early American life. The said experience involved a 250 year old tradition of exploration driven by fur-trapping expeditions of great trading companies. They all came here in search of bevar pelts that were in great demand to produce felt hats used by Europe's nobility and emerging business class. In the end, the heart of the American continent was explored not in the search of gold or land, but to satisfy the demand for something as trivial as a hat.
The heyday of the fur trade took place in the 1700’s, when a great trading network was in operation in that region. Indians trapped beaver in the wintertime, when the fur was at its most illustrious. They collected small stashes of fur and transported them by their birch bark canoes to the posts in the spring. The posts were connected to company headquarters by what can only be described as canoe highways, where huge 16-person canoe "tractor trailers" of the day transported upto 4 tons of material per canoe. The paddlers manning the canoes were called voyagers, or rough outdoors men capable of paddling 16 hours a day for two months. Voyageurs National Park had been a part of this large canoe highway in those times and has been named in the honor of the men who operated it.
Voyageurs is the only national park in America without a road. It comprises of several large lakes dotted with dozens of little islands to be explored with a boat. It offers a wonderful experience of simply getting into the canoe and going wherever you want. The northern shore of the main Lake Kabetogama represents the great American northwoods, full of fir, birch and occasional beaver. The park also hosts about 150 black bears, so standard bear precautions are in order.
The plan to visit the park is simple. I would recommend visiting Lake Kabetogama, as it is the largest and the most interesting. There are two visitor centers on the lake. The Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center services the western part of the lake that is more suitable for canoeing for relative lack of motorized traffic. The Ash River Visitor Center caters to the eastern part of the lake, where people like to rent houseboats and explore some attractions such as Kettle Falls. A logical plan is to drive up to the lake one evening and camp at the Woodenfrog Campground near the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center. That only costs $12 a night and seldom fills up -- no reservations needed! The next morning you can approach any of the many cabin resprts that occupy the southern shore of the lake and rent canoes or kayaks. We rented from the Arrowhead Lodge, who were excellent hosts. They outfitted us with maps, boating gear and even a waterproof camera bag. Once you rent the canoe, the lake is your canvas. We spent the first hald day just exploring the lake and finding a campsite. Having a detailed campsite map is a must and it is a good idea to get to a campsite early, as they are on first come and first serve basis. The beauty of the northern shore is that it is totally wild. It also contains a number to trails heading further north, towards smaller, even wilder lakes. Locator Lake, one hour long hike from Kabetogama, actually has a shed with canoes managed by the park service. We rented them in the Visitor Center, obtaining boat access to even more pristine body of water, totally surrounded by thick northwoods. Mixing the hiking with the paddling was a neat way to spend the day.
Overall, Voygeur's National Park offers a quiet, peaceful way to spend a few days. Just imagine slowly paddling across perfectly still water, under the pink cover of a sunsetting sky, and with loons and wolves singing in the distance. Hard to imagine a better way to spend a summer evening.
Voyageurs National Park: