Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Hike ancient river portage in Northwoods

Savannah Portage Trail

Trail runs 12 miles round trip,
links Mississippi, Great Lakes

Families with older teens can experience history by walking across a portage that the first European explorers of the area hiked more than 300 years ago – and that Native Americans used for millennia before.

The Savannah Portage Trail runs six miles one-way (12-miles round trip) in Minnesota’s Savanna Portage State Park. It connects overland the watersheds for the Mississippi River and Lake Superior, one of many inland routes that allowed travelers to reach, via water, the North American interior from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s best hiked during fall when the trail’s eastern end isn’t so wet.

To reach the trailhead, from Wright, Minn., take County Road 20 (aka West Mud Lake Road) west; it soon curves north, paralleling the Savanna State Forest boundary. Turn left/east onto County Road 42 (aka 480th Street), heading into the state forest. Next, go north onto County Road 64 (aka Kestrel Avenue). At the County Road 14 (aka Lake Avenue) intersection, turn right/northwest and head into the state park. When the road forks at the information office, go left/north.

The Savanna Portage Trail crosses the road in about a quarter mile. Park in the pullout on the road’s side.

Trinkets for fur
Begin the hike by heading west down the trail to a backchannel of the West Savanna River. In 1763, fur traders arrived in this area from what is now LaPointe, Wisconsin. They traded alcohol, beads, blankets, knives and trinkets to local Indians for bear, beaver, fox, lynx, marten, muskrat, otter and wolf hides.

From the West Savanna River, these voyageurs could reach the Mississippi River and trade with Indians downstream or continue south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Once the trail stops at the river, hike back to the road, head north a little on it, cross, and continue east. You’ll have an easier go of the portage across this flat marshy area than the fur traders did. Today, a small boardwalk keeps your feet from sinking into the mud.

The trail quickly reaches a wooded upland and remains under forest cover for most of the rest of the way. Along the route, hikers cross two man-made channels of the Savanna River.

Six hours vs. six days
In six miles, the trail comes upon a fork of the East Savanna River. From this waterway, fur traders could head to the St. Louis River south of Duluth and head into Lake Superior. Usually these segments of the two shallow Savannah rivers were negotiated by poling the canoes.

After taking in the East Savannah fork, return the way you came.

The round trip hike takes about six hours to complete. Fur traders needed six days to work their way through the swamp, however.

One thing hasn’t changed from those days, though: There will be mosquitos, so be sure to wear insect repellent.

Read more about day hiking Northeast Minnesota in my Headin’ to the Cabin: Day Hiking Trails of Northeast Minnesota guidebook.