Nypan, 10, of Andover checks out the view of Namakan
Lake from the top of her family's houseboat parked
on Namakan Island.
houseboat threaded the narrows of Ash River, turned to
port at Kabetogama Lake and encountered a dazzling vista.
An enormous canvas of blue — of sparkling water and
clear sky — was cut through with a spiky line of green
formed by distant tall pines. Islands eased past, bearing
such names as Wolf, Deer Point and Pine, while loons
bobbed on the waves.
North Woods seemed to go on forever.
were motoring into Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park,
exploring just a speck of its 134,000 acres of woodlands,
84,000 acres of water, 500 islands and 655 miles of wild
shoreline. That protected expanse, much of it hugging the
Canadian border, includes four major lakes — Kabetogama,
Namakan, Sand Point and Rainy, the farthest north and
this vast watery world holds surprising treasures of
ancient geology, human history and natural splendor.
the landscape announced iconic, rugged, marvelous
Minnesota, writ large.
Congress created Voyageurs as the 36th national park in
1971, prefacing its actual establishment four years later,
it protected a wilderness of bears, moose and wolves,
where French Canadian fur traders paddled two centuries
ago, where boreal and hardwood forests meet amid lakes and
land. Then the Park Service, which turns 100 this year,
invited America to come explore.
Bill Carlson, the park’s acting superintendent, who has
worked in the park for 28 years, hears this a lot — from
Minnesotans: "A national park? In Minnesota?"
was getting my own education in that fact as I sat in a
plastic chair atop a houseboat puttering about 5 miles per
hour across Kabetogama. I was filled with joy — the kind
that can overtake anyone given the narcotic trio of blue
skies, calm waters and sunny skies. That distinct euphoria
felt familiar, from trips to other national parks that are
plane rides away. Somehow, I sensed it more keenly in my
home state, on this national land set aside for the
enjoyment of all citizens.
helped that a boat-savvy friend had gamely agreed to take
on captain duties; she was at the upper helm, steering the
boat beside me. Our two teenage daughters lolled on the
deck behind us. Their occasional laughter carried on the
plan for the day — moor at a sweet spot, swim, cook
dinner in the full-fledged onboard kitchen — carried us
halfway down the lake.
slipped into a designated houseboat site near the end of a
thin peninsula at Blue Fin Bay with plenty of time to
play. A short path from the beach led to a fire pit and
just beyond that, another beach, where dragonflies
divebombed among reeds. As we walked along the sandy shore
to a rock outcropping, a common merganser glided past with
ducklings perched on her back.
returned to the houseboat to make dinner. A beaver bobbed
his head above the water not 20 feet from the boat,
floated for a moment to eye the massive intruder and
descended below the mineral-rich waters. He came up again,
closer, to stare us down.
had chosen to land the houseboat at one of his favorite
spots, it seemed. The forest just beyond our gangplank
revealed signs of his work. Cone-shaped stumps of trees
bore tooth marks. Fresh wood chips mounded in a pile near
dinner, we lit a campfire. At the fire ring, a worn branch
lay on the ground; one end was charred, the other had been
bit. Clearly at least two previous visitors — a
fire-stirring human and a tooth-whittling beaver — had
found the wooden stick a useful tool.
the sun set, the lake turned from luminous white to pure
blue topped with orange waves to gunmetal gray. Loons
later cooed us to sleep.
RICH IN HISTORY
curious beaver at Blue Fin Bay is the distant descendant
of very lucky creatures: ancestors who survived a period
of furious fur trade.
national park got its name from the French Canadian
voyageurs who paddled birchbark canoes through the area’s
maze of lakes and streams in the late 1700s and early
1800s, forging that trade — and an epic chapter in the
American story. With the help of the Ojibwe, who were
guides, trappers, translators and more, trade goods flowed
west and animal pelts east. The Voyageurs Highway was
legendary. At the end of the American Revolution, a treaty
marked the new country’s boundary with Canada as the
"customary waterway" between Lake Superior and
Lake of the Woods. A 55-mile stretch of that border edges
signs of early settlement reveal themselves across the
region. Rainy Lake’s Little American Island, the
epicenter of a short-lived 1890s gold rush, has abandoned
mine shafts and an old winch that men used to haul rock
that they hoped, futilely, held an abundance of the
precious metal. On Williams Island in Namakan Lake, old
timber buildings nestle among giant red pines. They were
part of the I.W. Stevens Pine Cove Resort, shuttered in
the eastern tip of the roadless Kabetogama Peninsula, the
park’s largest land mass, the Kettle Falls Hotel sits
tucked between Rainy and Namakan. The white clapboard
charmer has been serving customers since 1913. The
hardwood floors of the old saloon slant dramatically,
bemusing visitors who must arrive by boat. We headed to
the hotel one day to eat lunch, firing up the little
motorboat that came tied to the houseboat for purposes of
safety and quick jaunts.
land itself harks back to the deepest history. Voyageurs
marks the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, a
continent-spanning mass of volcanic bedrock that is half
the age of the Earth. Ice Age glaciers scoured away top
layers, exposing Precambrian rock up to 2.5 billion years
old. It rises from forest floors and rims the lakes.
ART IN THE WOODS
Voyageurs crowds had gathered at Ellsworth Rock Gardens
— all 15 or so of us.
docked at this most popular day-trip spot in the park and
saw a site rare for our trip: other people. We walked up a
slope made by a granite outcropping and quickly understood
the place’s appeal. Fanciful sculptures made with native
rocks punctuated a hillside of grass and flowers. Stone
benches, a table and chair, a dinosaur, a turtle, a dog:
The figures, created with hefty rocks carefully composed,
went on and on. First, I was struck with delight. But
after seeing the fifth or sixth sculpture, something more
like awe emerged.
about the man who made this — all the work, so many
years — almost brought tears to my eyes," said
Frederique Toft, a French teacher at Benilde-St. Margaret’s
School in St. Louis Park.
1944 through 1966, Jack Ellsworth spent summers on this
hillside pursuing a singular vision of gardens, ponds and
rock sculptures. The resulting set piece is the ultimate
"outsider" art, created by an untrained
visionary — in this case, someone inspired by nature and
working with the natural world to transform an outdoor
was having a picnic of brats cooked over one of the grills
on the property with her husband and their two sons. The
boys and their father had been to the park the previous
summer, and were so impressed by what they saw that they
had to return with Frederique.
man walking the grounds from Florida shared a similar
sentiment. "This is such a special place," he
told me. "I’ve been coming for 17 years. Wouldn’t
miss it. And this time, I get to share it with my
isn’t it?" she asked.
and the wonders range from massive to tiny.
day while the girls jumped from a cliff into water so dark
it resembled coffee, I studied the ground. It held entire
galaxies of lichen. A growth that looked like
olive-colored paint chips clustered on a rock face. A
miniature forest of evergreens marched across the granite.
In a crevice, a tiny surprise: A bright red cauliflower
look-alike sprouted from a stem no taller than my pinkie.
our last evening cruise, we spied large dark masses near
the water. We pulled closer, fumbled for binoculars and
saw two bears lumbering into the woods. At that night’s
stop, a cluster of lady’s slippers hid among the trees.
Minnesota, there is no one definitive landscape. Patches
of prairie, like the ones that swirled around the wagons
of pioneers, sprout in the west. Across the north,
hardwood forests stand where earlier swaths were felled to
build fortunes and, with them, entire cities. In the east,
rivers flow past soaring bluffs and pretty redbrick towns.
Such places are honored, too, as national monuments and
Voyageurs National Park, with its sweep of history,
pristine forests and abundant waters, is the crown jewel
in the Park Service’s Minnesota treasure trove, the
largest and most prestigious of the lands the state shares
with the rest of America.
being immersed in its majesty, there is no more fitting