In the 18th century, French Canadian adventurers, known as voyageurs, traveled by canoe on today’s boundary waters between the United States and Canada. They were primarily fur traders transporting beaver pelts, known as “soft gold,” between the northwestern portion of Canada and Montreal. From there, the pelts were shipped to Europe, where beaver hats were the rage. Today’s Voyageurs National Park, established in 1975, encompasses 56 miles of the former trade route. In order to best experience a park whose primary access is by water, we arranged to be dropped off on the Kabetogama Peninsula and make our way into the backcountry for 50 hours by foot and paddle.
Upon arriving in Northern Minnesota, we set out to learn more about the voyageurs by visiting Grand Portage National Monument. The name refers to an 8 ½ mile portage between Lake Superior and the Pigeon River that the voyageurs made with their canoes while carrying up to 90 pound packs. Grand Portage was also the site of the largest fur trade depot between 1784 and 1803. Sixteen wooden buildings stood inside a palisade wall, including a business office, warehouse for furs, and living quarters.
While at Grand Portage, we learned more about the fur trade and the successful partnership between the local Ojibwe, the Scots who owned the North West Company, and the French traders. For example, the Ojibwe brought their expertise in building lightweight birchbark canoes to the partnership. These watercraft allowed the voyageurs to travel up to 60 to 80 miles a day. We toured rebuilt warehouse, kitchen, and Great Hall buildings, staffed with living history volunteers who made the area come alive. It was a great glimpse into history for us.
Northwest of Grand Portage, in the waterway separating Canada and the United States, lies four large interconnected lakes within Voyageurs National Park. From east to west, Sand Point Lake, Namakan Lake, Kabetogama Lake, and Rainy Lake were once routes for travel and trade. There are also many smaller inland lakes in the park. The inland lakes are primarily located on the 75,000 acre Kabetogama Peninsula, where we ventured for two nights in the backcountry, reserving both a lake campsite and the use of a canoe.
There are over 200 designated campsites throughout the park, all requiring boat access, on more than 500 islands and 655 miles of lake shoreline, as well as on the inland lakes of the Kabetogama Peninsula. Because of the boat-only access, Voyageurs receives fewer visitors. In 2016, 241,912 people visited the park, placing it 45th out of the 59 total.
After camping for the night at Woodenfrog State Forest Campground, located on the shore of Kabetogama Lake, our 50 hour adventure began at 9:00 am on Friday morning. We met Craig at the Woodenfrog Marina dock and boarded his 18 foot motor boat for a prearranged 10 minute water taxi ride across the lake. It was windy and the water was choppy, making the boat trip feel more like an E ticket ride at an amusement park.
The boat slowed as we reached the dock on the Kabetogama Peninsula and the start of the Locator Lake Trail. After confirming with Craig that he would meet us 50 hours later, at 11:00 am on Sunday, we waved goodbye and began hiking towards Locator Lake, 1.9 miles away. The trail alternated between a path through dense forest and climbs to rocky plateaus. We had our backpacks on but no walking sticks with us. This was to keep things simple in getting items in and out of the canoe that we would be using in the internal lakes.
There was boardwalk installed in several places, which kept us out of the trail’s mud, but the wood surface was rather slippery. We slowed down and took our time walking on the sections.
After a little over an hour, we reached the end of the trail at the edge of Locator Lake. To the left of us were a rack of canoes. Locator Lake is the first of a chain of four internal lakes, and to go any further we needed to unlock our canoe with a key that we obtained at the visitor center. Each of the four lakes had a designated campsite; ours was at the second one in the chain: War Club Lake.
After unlocking the canoe and carrying it to the edge of the water, we loaded our backpacks in the center and launched the boat, with Darren in the back and me in the front. We had only been canoeing a handful of times before, and we knew it might be challenging for us to paddle 1.8 miles through Locator Lake and into the adjoining War Club Lake. Fortunately, the wind was at our back so it only took us about 30 minutes to cover the distance.
While paddling, we passed thick forest on both sides of the lake, containing a variety of pine, fir, spruce, cedar, maple, birch, aspen, and oak trees. We kept our eyes on the north shore of War Club Lake to locate our campsite, about two-thirds of the way down the lake. Soon we saw a sign and a place to land our canoe.
The War Club campsite was located a few feet up from the water’s edge, providing a nice view of the lake. There were several logs in place for sitting and cooking, a tent pad, bear pole for hanging food, and an outdoor toilet.
We settled in and relaxed for most of the afternoon. After dinner we took the canoe out for a short trip around our end of the lake. A rain shower had just moved through, and we were treated to a rainbow just ahead of us as we paddled. We also saw several loons around us. Its speckled black and white body uniquely identifies the bird, but what sets the loon apart from other animals is its eerie call, sounding more like a coyote to us.
Except for three people who were locking their Locator Lake canoe back up as we were accessing ours, we had seen no one else the entire day. As dusk fell, I began to realize that we were truly alone in this remote place. Before we went to sleep that night, I asked Darren to make extra sure that the canoe was fully out of the water and tied to a tree. If something happened to it, we’d be in serious trouble, as there was no path through the dense forest to connect us back with the Locator Lake Trail.
In the morning, canoe still there, we set off on a half-day excursion to the next lake in the chain: Quill Lake.
To journey to Quill Lake we needed to paddle to end of War Club Lake, passing a couple of beaver dams, and through a small channel until the rocks impeded any further progress. From there we had to portage the canoe about a quarter mile to the edge of Quill Lake, similar to what those voyageurs of long ago would have done as they moved between bodies of water. It was not easy to lift the bulky canoe and carry it, especially in a swampy section full of mosquitoes, but we made it work.
Once at the edge of Quill Lake, we launched the canoe and paddled around the entire body of water. A unique feature of Quill Lake was an island. The campsite was located there, and because no one was staying, we landed the canoe and ate a snack while sitting on the logs. To get to the last of the inland lakes, Loiten, would require an even longer portage than to Quill Lake, so we decided not to proceed any further.
We retraced our steps back to War Club Lake, including the reverse canoe portage. As we ate a late lunch back at our camp, I mentioned to Darren that we hadn’t seen much wildlife, except for a weasel on the Quill Lake shore. A minute later, a bald eagle majestically flew above the trees on the opposite side of the lake from us. We savored the moment. Shortly after it began to rain, and we quickly cleaned up and escaped into our tent.
It rained most of the afternoon, but we had clear skies long enough to cook our dinner. Just after we got into the tent for the night, we heard a loud thud in the lake to the right of us. As we got out and tried to determine where the sound came from, we heard it again. Then we saw the source of the noise. Swimming right by our campsite were two playful river otters, who had both just jumped into the water. It began to rain right after they were out of sight, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the evening.
The rain continued to fall as we woke up early on Sunday morning. Quickly, we took down our damp tent and loaded our backpacks. We launched the canoe for the final time away from War Club Lake and began paddling towards Locator Lake. About halfway into our journey a brisk headwind came up, slowing our progress. But we made good time and reached the Locator Lake landing after about 45 minutes of paddling.
After we took the canoe out of the water and locked it, we walked a few steps to a picnic table and ate breakfast. It was still lightly raining as we began the 1.9 mile hike to the dock and our rendezvous point with Craig. The almost continual precipitation of the prior two days made the trail even muddier than before. We had allotted two hours to cover the distance, so took our time to pick our way around the slickest areas, especially since we did not have our walking sticks with us.
We were about two-thirds of the way down the trail when we reached several sections of boardwalk. It was precarious to walk on, and I concentrated carefully on every step so as not to slip. One section in the shade was especially slick, and the boardwalk had individual steps every few feet as the trail sloped downhill. As I put my right foot out to step down one of the steps, both my feet went out from under me, and I fell hard with my tailbone directly hitting the corner of the step. Darren came rushing over to help me up. For a few moments I wasn’t sure how serious the fall was, but thankfully I ended up just being really sore for a couple of days.
We were glad to finally reach the dock about 35 minutes before our scheduled pickup. With no cover, we stood on the dock as it drizzled and a brisk wind blew on us. I kept pacing back and forth to stay warm. Just before 11:00 am, we saw a small boat in the distance. It was Craig, and a few minutes later we were back at the Woodenfrog Marina. The rain had stopped, and we gladly changed into a set of dry clothes that were waiting for us in the car.
After dropping off the canoe key at the visitor center and beginning our drive south towards Minneapolis, we discussed our experiences at Voyageurs National Park. We agreed that our camp on the Kabetogama Peninsula was probably the most remote place we had ever stayed. Even though the weather had been cold (in the 40s and 50s F) and rainy, we enjoyed the challenge of paddling through the inland lakes and portaging the canoe.
While a little scary to be so alone (we saw no other people except for those three on the first day), there was also a sense of peacefulness from sitting at our campsite, viewing the vibrant green forest, and hearing the gentle lap of the water on the lake’s shore. And we got a small taste of life for those voyageurs of long ago. Our 50 hours in Voyageurs National Park by foot and paddle were a time that we (and my tailbone) would soon not forget.
Next, our travels take us south from the U.S. and Canadian border to Badlands National Park in South Dakota.