Although not an island, think of Voyageurs National Park as Isle Royale multiplied a thousand times. A vast stretch of land nestled against the Canadian border at the northern tip of Minnesota, Voyageurs is home to four large inland lakes – Rainy, Namakan, Sand Point and Kabetogama – countless small islands and webs of waterways. This complex network of land and water is home to myriad animals and plant life. The marriage of land and water in it’s most glorious form.
The drive from Grand Portage, Minnesota to Voyageurs takes about five hours and passes through Superior and Katetogama National Forests. Colors are peaking, so around every corner nature tries to one-up herself with gaudy displays. Of course the occasional human display crops up, but somehow manages to always feel small in her shadow. Then there was the Ron Paul sign. The owner of the gas station displaying this work of art, told me they understood the election of 2012 was over, but they just loved the sign. For what it’s worth Connie, so did I.
I arrived at Voyageurs Headquarters just prior to closing, so that I could get my bearings for hiking the next day. It was a lucky stop, because I happened to meet Voyageur’s Chief Park Ranger, Ben Welch. Like most people who find out what I’m doing, Ben takes an interest and the conversation is always pleasant and informative, with me gaining much more insight than I provide. In Ben’s case, he was generous with his time, staying well past closing while outlining some of the challenges facing the Park Service. In particular we talked about the homogeneous makeup of most National Park Service employees and how this may be a contributing factor to various young ethnic groups not attending the parks in greater numbers. If everyone you see is different than you, it may be difficult to relate to the experiences they offer. Conversely, when a young person sees someone they identify with relating an experience, the impact is far greater. When I asked Ben if I could take his photo, he said, “Should I get my flat hat?” Yep – grab your hat. And he did.
Unless you are backpacking into the wild after crossing a body of water, there are no campgrounds available within Voyageurs. So Arnold’s RV Park and Beef Jerky Emporium, which borders the park, became home for the next few nights. This is where I quickly realized that each time I would call a campground and asked if they had a vacancy, they would try to stifle their laughter before saying “yes, we have a few.” Of course they have a few. Who goes camping in northern Minnesota in October? Answer – with few exceptions – no one. On my first night at Arnold’s I met an exception. Five of them to be exact.
Where are you fellas from? “Wisconsin.” “Minnesota. We work at da paper mill and dey send us wherever dey need us, eh. You?” Michigan. “Whatcha doin ear?” I proceed to tell them about TheMountCo Project and to my great surprise, they are captivated. Near the end of my explanation, the burliest of the group – and decidedly the drunkest – appears to be weeping. Not sobbing, just a bit of a tear in the eye as he approaches me. “Ear – take dis,” and he shoves money into my hand. I can’t take this. But thank you. “Take it. Fer da voyagers you know.” Jesus, this guy is pie faced. “Put it in da collection box over der.” And with that he pushes the bills into my coat pocket. “Oh yeah…have a brat. They’re good and hot.” The next day I reached into my pocket and pulled out three $20 bills. Fer da voyagers don’t cha know. And the brat was delicious.
I spent two days hiking various trails throughout Voyageurs, crossing creeks, ponds and rivers. Trying to capture the essence of a place so vast and as old as time itself is difficult. Each trail offers a new path into water and tree filled landscapes, one more beautiful than the next. It can begin to overload your senses unless you relax, sit and take in one vista before venturing to the next. Much easier said than done. Both days were perfect October weather, with blue skies, mild temperatures and clear, star scattered nights.
Along the way I met a few people. Like the gentleman from New Hampshire, I met at the Rainy Lake Visitors Center. Last year he spent several months in Alaska. He described his experience with much detail and at the end added, “My fear is that they are going to begin drilling up by the Arctic Circle. That could be disastrous for The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For forty years they’ve been trying to drill and they might just get it done this time. Sad.” Afterward he smiled – kind of a forlorn look – and walked away. Then there was the mysterious ‘couple’ I encountered on a remote trail by Kategama Lake. He was around 55, she was maybe 19. He introduced her as his daughter. Now, perhaps I was thinking of Nabokov, when I should have been thinking adventurous father/daughter trip. Perhaps I was thinking Lolita, when I should have been thinking…forget it. Perhaps I should stop reading for a few weeks. In any case, they couldn’t have been friendlier. They wanted to discuss all the parks they have been to and the ones I have visited. It was an interesting, lively conversation and I can’t wait to visit Big Bend National Park after they’re glowing review. (Authors private note: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.)
On the day of departure I was up at the crack of dawn. Ahead of me was a five day, 2,150 mile crossing of Canada, with Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia as my destination. It was 6:30 AM, I had a fresh cup of coffee and the lady in the customs booth was smiling. Good to go.