Water covers about 39% of Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, an area most commonly known as Boundary Waters. Voyageurs is an example of southern boreal forest – sometimes called simply the “north woods.” It contains more than 900 islands, many richly forested. This is a water-based park and the easiest way, and sometimes the only way, to get from one place to another is by water.
We quickly realized that without a boat, this 55-mile long park is next to impossible to explore. We did do several trails on the Kabetogama Peninsula near Ash River where we boarded the shuttle boat to take us up Namakan Lake to Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls hotel is the only lodging within the park itself, so we had arranged to stay in one of the villas there. The people were very friendly and accommodating but we discovered there were no hiking trails and, without a boat and not being fishermen, very little to do.
We did rent a boat for a half day and explored as far as our navigation map covered. We didn’t dare go beyond the map or we would like have gotten lost in the maze of islands and channels which look very much alike.
The Treaty of 1783 between the U.S. and Great Britain set the international boundary at “the usual water communication” through the region. But determining the “usual” or “customary” route was difficult and the final details of the boundary were not settled until 1925. The boundary of the U.S. and Canada runs right through the middle of Kettle Falls dam and, in an unusual geographic phenomenon, one can stand on U.S. soil at Kettle Falls and look south into Canada.
As early as 1891, the area was proposed as a national park. In 1975, it was actually created with its purpose “to preserve, for the inspiration and enjoyment of present and future generations, the outstanding scenery, geologic conditions, and waterway system which constituted a part of the historic route of the voyageurs, who contributed significantly to the opening of the northwestern United States.”
The voyageurs for whom this park was named actually only practiced their trading and watercraft here for about fifty years although people had been present in the area for thousands of years. Hundreds of archeological sites have been found, most temporary campsites on the shores of big lakes. Dakota, Cree, Assiniboin, and Ojibway occupied this land of rivers, lakes and islands when, in 1731, Pierre Gaultier, Sieur de la Vérendrye, was sent to establish a permanent French presence and solidify a fur trade route through Lake Superior and the Rainy River country. In 1763 the British wrested control of the country from the French and operated Hudson’s Bay Company from the shore of its namesake. Indian trappers and traders delivered goods to their doorstep. Eventually, independent traders called coureurs de bois – “woods runners” – shortcut the system, meeting the Indians on their own ground and intercepting the flow of goods. In 1779 the competition organized as the Northwest Company and thus began the era of the French-Canadian voyageur.
The voyageurs adopted many of the Indians’ tools and clothes. Unlike the independent coureurs de bois they were not freelancers but employed by a fur-trade firm. Groups of men set out every spring from Montreal with a two-ton load of trade goods bound for the interior. Their bark canoes, called canots du maître or Montreal canoes, were 35 feet long or more and paddled by about a dozen men called mangeurs de lard – pork eaters -because their primary diet was salt pork and dried peas or corn. A different breed of voyageurs took these trade goods from Grand Portage to the interior and returned to Lake Superior with furs. These were the hivernants -the winterers. If the mangeurs de lard were the apprentices, the hivernants were the journeymen, paddling 25-foot canots du nord, or north canoes, over the rugged interior routes. They routinely paddled 15 to 18 hours a day, paddle strokes beating the rhythm of their songs. Despite their size – under 5 feet 8 inches so they wouldn’t take much room in the canoe – voyageurs carried two or three packs (180 to 270 pounds) at a time when portaging.
The area now occupied by Voyageurs National Park was, except for Hudson Bay, the most important entry point to the interior of North America during the fur trade. The primary route began at Grand Portage and followed what is now the international boundary over more than two dozen portages into Crane Lake and along the park’s northern boundary. The voyageurs probably followed the border making the portage at Kettle Falls.
Beaver was prized for hat-making in Europe and was the primary fur traded. Interesting creatures, beavers have grasping hands and long buck teeth to down and limb trees, but also other adaptations. Valves in the nose and ears shut as the animal submerges and transparent membranes shield its eyes as goggles would. Its lips close behind its teeth so that it can carry branches in its mouth without drowning. Wooly underfur allows it to swim and work is nearly freezing water. The replacement of beaver felt with other materials for hat-making was devastating to the fur trade. So only a half-century after they appeared the colorful voyageurs vanished into the past.
In Voyageurs, unrestricted market, subsistence and sport hunting in the early 1900’s eliminated elk and woodland caribou and decimated the moose herd. These declines affected the rest of the ecosystem in many ways. Extensive logging began in earnest in 1909 and was carried on until 1929, during which time huge stands of virgin red and white pine disappeared. Between 1905 and 1910, a dam was constructed at International Falls for hydroelectric power and ancillary dams at Kettle Falls and Squirrel Falls were built.
Kettle Falls Hotel has a colorful past. The first section of the hotel was probably built about 1910, with the north wing added by1915. Local legend has it that a famous madam, Nellie Bly, financed the building. Written accounts affirm that ”fancy ladies” practiced their trade at Kettle Falls but the origin of the hotel had more to do with lumber than ladies. Over the years a number of colorful characters and some dubious activities made Kettle Falls Hotel a memorable place. By the 1940’s one of the most distinctive features of the hotel had developed- wavy, sloping floors. Sinking foundations threw the building off kilter and floors sloped and the middle of the 20-foot barroom was (and still is) a foot higher than the ends. This earned it the nickname of “the tiltin’ Hilton.”
At Kettle Falls, tours and private boaters arrive to take a look around, have a bite to eat and enjoy the drinks in the tilting barroom. It’s a busy place midafternoon. This is also the place boaters can portage from Namakan Lake to Rainy Lake or vice versa. Unlike the voyageurs, they don’t have to carry their boats and gear. Pickups with boat trailers do it for them. We got a kick out of seeing people sitting in their boats on the boat trailers being hauled through the woods.
Voyageurs is a beautiful national park. Our advice to really explore it would be to bring a boat and a good navigation map.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/voya/index.htm