Monday, July 31, 2017

Yoyageurs National Park

July 17 - 22, 2017:

It was a nice scenic drive from Zippel Bay on route 11 along the lovely Rainy River heading for the Woodenfrog Campground near Yoyageurs National Park.  I was following directions from the campground website, but I always like to have GPS backup when traveling for the turn by turn directions.  For whatever reason, the GPS was not seeing the Woodenfrog Campground and the old standby paper map was no help either.  Twinkles who is traveling separately then calls to tell me she is almost there and having trouble finding the campground.  I’m not liking this scenario at all, but just keep rolling along, hoping for the best and amazingly end up on the correct road.  The only issue was that the county road is under construction, totally torn up and for about 5 miles it’s a dusty dirt surface leading to the campground.  We luck out again, there are many open campsites and we found a beauty where we will spend the next six days to explore Voyageurs National Park.

One of our best campsites this year

There one enlightening mishap on this trip when I started to hear a strange sound from my rear camera speaker.  I didn’t think about it for a while and then it suddenly occurred to me that something may be dragging.  I pulled over to find my sewer hose half out of its carrier and dragging on the road. It was time to replace that hose anyway and now I know to listen and pay more attention to that audio feature.

Woodenfrog campground is part of Kabetogama National Forrest on the shores of Lake Kabetogama.  Voyageurs National Park consists of four major lakes, Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakin and Sand Point Lakes and about 26 smaller lakes.  It has over 500 islands and 655 miles of shoreline with 55 miles bordering Canada.  There are three visitor centers, Rainy Lake, Kabetogama and Ash River and we visit them all.  This is a real water park, a boat is required to really see the best parts and they can be rented, but this is a serious lake for a couple of “weenie” novices like us unless you just hug the shoreline of the lakes.  
I actually have canoed the upper wild section of the Delaware River through a few serious rapids and actually own a canoe (still in New Jersey) and have canoed several times in the Jersey pine barrens, but never in a large body of water requiring navigation.  I even canoed with a group of nudists once without incident !  However, that was a few decades ago and Twinkles will not get in a canoe with me again since she insists I freaked out on our last paddle boat ride.

This is the thing to do here

Scenic beach area near the campground

There are many strange place names here that are derived from the Ojibwe Indians that lived in this area during and prior to the fur trade era.  The Woodenfrog Campground is one of them, being named for a Chief Woodenfrog.  The name of Voyageurs National Park’s memoralizes those daring, hardy, French Canadian outdoorsmen who traversed these lakes in birch bark canoes during the fur trade period from the early 1700’s to 1840’s.

The fashion rage in Europe in the 1700’s for beaver hats and other furs created a new industry in North America where beaver were still plentiful.  As a result, several trade companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company and the American Fur Company competed to capitalize on this demand.  They established a network of trading posts where the indians sold the beaver pelts and skins and they employed teams of rugged French Canadian outdoorsmen to travel to these remote posts and transport the furs back to the east.  The outdoorsmen  eventually became know as “Voyageurs”  and they traveled long distances by birch bark indian canoes across this wild lake country.  This trade initially seemed good for the indians, but in the end, definitely not so good.  It was an exciting period in our history that lasted for nearly a century and today is the stuff of legend and now tourism.

A great painting done by Francis Anne Hopkins of the Voyageurs

The flies and mosquitos are quite aggressive and plentiful here, but unlike the voyageurs of the past we have bug repellant.  We are determined to do some hiking regardless of the bug situation and start with the 2.2 mile Echo Bay loop Trail near the campground. It was all in the forest, wet in places, cloudy and the flies and mosquitos were pretty bad.  We then drove to the Ash River area and did two short trails, the Voyageurs Forest Overlook and the Beaver Pond Overlook.  The Forest Overlook wasn’t at all impressive, but the Beaver Pond was very good.  We then went to the Ash River Visitors Center housed in a beautiful cabin built by real Nordic craftsmen.  We then hiked the 4 mile Kabetogama Lake Overlook Trail which was excellent especially the area along the lake.  The flies and mosquitos were far less of a bother on this last hike and the sun finally peaked through towards the end.
Over the course of the day we had coated ourselves heavily with “Off “ and needed to get it off.  As we have limited gray tank storage, we used our outside hand held water sprayer which worked great.

The Beaver overlook

Lots of black eyed Susans

Especially nice section of trail amidst the ferns

Great mushrooms

This guy came looking for a handout while stopped for lunch

View olong lower section of trail near lake

View from the lake overlook

The historic cabin at the Ash River Visitors Center

View behind the cabin looking out into the lake 

We expected to see big crowds here in this National Park , but it’s not really crowded at all and no one is on the hiking trails.  We are starting to think that no one else is silly enough to be here, unless they are boating or fishing.  We are also wondering if summer is actually the off season, more people may come here during other times to avoid the flies and mosquitoes ?  They are also rebuilding most of the park roads, everywhere we go, the roads are torn up for reconstruction, although the traffic is so light there are no delays.

The big area town is International Falls about 30 miles away where the Rainy Lake visitors center is located.  We explored International Falls downtown district a bit, Twinkles bought some new shoes and we checked out the “Smokey the Bear” Park.  I found a few really good murals, a great old sports stadium and the Bronco Nagurski museum.  We then went to the visitors center, checked out the exhibits on the glory days of the fur trade, the indians and the French Canadian voyageurs.  The Lumber Company is a huge complex in International Falls and is the largest employer.,_Minnesota

Extra nice mural scene

1930's era art deco sports stadium 

Bronco Nagurski Museum

The Smokey the Bear Park

Beautiful Eagles Lodge and Viking Bar

Another favorite mural in town

I also visited the nearby town of Rainer to see the old railroad depot, now used by Canadian National workers.  There is an interesting bridge there but could not find a way to get a photo without trespassing in someones backyard.  Rainer also has an interesting small downtown area on the waterfront. 

The Rainer welcome sign and woodman statue

Rainer train depot, there is a very unusual bridge down the tracks

Woody's (fairly reliable) guide service 

Across the street is Loony"s Brew

Our guided boat tour to Kettle Falls was better than expected and a bargain at half price with our senior park pass.  The weather was perfect, the guide was excellent and the boat ride was beautiful.  Kettle Falls is historic in that it was a fishing and trade site for the indians and a portage place for the voyageurs in their travels.  The falls no longer exist since the dam was installed here in 1914 by the paper company in conjunction with two other dams to regulate the water level to aid their paper plants. The “Kettle Falls Hotel” was opened for business here in 1913 to house the workers building the dam.  After dam was completed it continued as a fishing and tourist camp site.  The owners and patrons tended to be on the quirky side and the place developed much character and a following.  The building didn’t have much of a foundation and the ground settled considerably causing the building and floors to slope over the years, they started to call it the “Tilting Hilton”.  Voyageurs National Park was established in 1971 and the building was restored in the 1970’s to about it’s 1960’s appearance.  The foundation was repaired and the floors were leveled, but it was decided to retain the character of the bar room by leaving the slope in that floor.  Now that’s the kind of thinking that is needed in this country, save the old character.  The pool table on the sloping floor and the crooked pool cues were pretty interesting !  It’s now operated by a concessionaire, they have rooms, a fun bar, serve good meals and it’s a most popular place to stay.

Endless views like this in all directions

View on the boat

There were several Eagle sightings

This Eagle was sitting in plain view

There were several Loons too

The Kettle Falls Hotel

The sloping bar floor, but the pool table is level

But the pool cues are crooked

You can look south into Canada from here

As usual the photos do not do these lakes justice (not even close) and the enormity of the Lakes, the number of islands and channels is mind boggling.  Navigating through here in a boat seems pretty challenging to me even with todays navigation markers, maps and GPS.  It’s pretty amazing how the Voyageurs found their way across this country in the canoes laden with supplies and pelts paddled through here and portaged (carried) everything around the numerous rapids, waterfalls and other obstacles.  

Renting a houseboat or boating to remote reservable campsites on the various islands is the unique thing to do here.  We saw dozens of Houseboats and I suppose you could houseboat around here almost indefinitely, like an RV’er although I expect the park has a time limit.  I just don't know how they regulate this border without a wall to keep the Canadian riffriff out ? Winter seems to me (Twinkles disagrees) to be a great time to visit here as you are able to walk, snowshoe, ski or snowmobile all around this area to places normally accessible only by boat.

House boats are all over

While having lunch the other day at the Kettle Falls Hotel, Twinkles had a Leinenkugel’s beer called “Canoe Paddler” that we both liked a lot.  I thought I would get some of it and went to several liquor stores which didn’t have it .  I did however see “Grain Belt’ beer which I have been wanting to try ever since I saw a “Grain Belt” neon sign a few towns ago.  It’s amazing the stuff you can learn on the web and Grain Belt Beer was no exception.  Grain Belt was started in 1893 in Milwaukee and was a very popular beer, but like most breweries had several up and down periods and unfortunate company takeovers. Luckily, it was bought in 2001 by “Schell’s Brewery”, which is the second oldest family owned brewery in the country and continues to bottle Grain Belt.  Schell’s Brewery appears to be a wonderful old brewery, bottling several beer brands, in the town of “New Ulm”, Minnesota which Travel and Leisure magazine names as one of the most European cities in America. How did I miss this place ?

A similar thing happened recently when I did a search on the Oliver Tractor Company to see if they were still in business.  Unfortunately, they are not, but what an amazing story unfolded, too lengthy to discuss here.

We continue deeper into the north woods, the next stop is the Fall Lake Campground near Ely, Minnesota;

Twinkles and Slick

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