Friday, November 18, 2016

Trails explore Voyageurs NP’s history

Ethno-botanical Garden Trail
The Ojibwe had been long settled in the area that is now Voyageurs National Park when Euro-Americans arrived there. In fact, the names of many of the park’s lakes – Namakan, Kabetogama and Natasha, among them – come from the Ojibwe language. The Ojibwe mostly lived on the lakes' shores, spearfishing and harvesting wild rice, as well as trading by canoeing across the region. Park visitors can learn about the plants the Ojibwe relied on via the Ethno-botanical Garden Trail.

French-Canadian canoeman, later known as the voyageurs, soon realized the dozens of interconnected lakes made it an ideal route of travel, as they could traverse 3000 miles of waterways between Lake Athabasca in northwest Canada to Montreal.

Many voyagers paddled their 26-foot-long canoes for up to 16 hours a day as they crossed these waterways; the long days were necessary to avoid winter, as a canoe trip from Grand Portage, Minn., to the subarctic Canadian interior could take between four to five months. When they needed to walk between lakes or bypass a particularly rough stretch of water, they'd portage, or hike to the next shoreline, carrying their canoe and usually a 90-pound pack of furs. They whiled away the time in their canoes by singing, which set a rhythm to paddle by; usually their songs were about cavaliers, fair ladies, gallant captains, springtime, rosebuds and nightingales. You can get an idea of what portaging was like on the Gold Portage Trail.

Many of the voyageurs were colorful characters, and not just in their behavior. They often wore a bright blue capote with red cap and sash as well as leggings and deerskin moccasins. Some who became Nor'westers – eight-man crews who rowed canoes that could carry up to 3000-pounds and often stayed the winter – earned the privilege of wearing a plume.

In addition to trade, a search for a water route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans sent a number of explorers in the area. Among them was Pierre Gauliter de Varennes who in 1731 arrived in what is now Grand Portage. Two years later, they established Fort St. Pierre on Rainy Lake.

Ojibwe often supplied fur posts and canoe brigades with everything from food and birchbark canoes to “soft gold” – pelts of beaver and other animals that were popular in Europe.

In 1787, the international boundary between the United States and Canada (which at time was part of Great Britain) was established here between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods. Fifty-six miles of that boundary sits in the national park.

Euro-American settlers began to arrive in large numbers during the 1800s. In 1865, gold allegedly was found on Vermilion Lake just south of the park, and then in 1890s gold was discovered in quartz veins on Little American Island. On the island, Rainy Lake City sprung up, boasting a population of more than 200, but the boomtown soon went bust and became a ghost town by 1901. A giant metal winch left by miners still remains among the ruins. Those ruins can be seen today on the Little American Island Trail.

Later, during the early 1900s, loggers came to the area. More than 40 logging camps operated in what is now the park between 1907 and 1922, so there are few big, old growth trees here.

Tourism and recreation began when U.S. Hwy. 53 opened in 1922 and has been the economic mainstay of the region for well over a half-century. One of the popular tourism sights of the mid 20th century that has enjoyed renewed popularity is the Ellsworth Rock Garden Tour. Voyageurs became a national park in 1975 though the idea had been around since 1891.

Learn more about the park’s day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Voyageurs National Park guidebook.