Proposed Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
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Scenic Features and Setting

Today this land of the voyageurs looks much as it did upon discovery and during the heyday of the fur trade. The natural scene is one of extensive forest, rocky shorelines, and islands covered primarily with beautiful stands of evergreen trees which extend to the water's edge. Flat bog country, excellent habitat for certain types of animal and birdlife, occasional sand beaches, and rugged cliffs add variety to the primitive scene.

These inland waterways--ranging from narrows of less than 100 feet in width to large lakes several miles across--are characteristically irregular in shape, dotted with islands, and accented by frequent rocky points and promontories. Three lakes--Namakan, Kabetogama, and Rainy--dominate the landscape. Rainy is the largest, covering 350 square miles.

Land of the voyageurs

The major scenic and natural, body of land is Kabetogama Peninsula, a heavily forested area consisting of about 75,000 acres. Most of this area is relatively undeveloped and is reached principally by water. Lovely, shimmering lakes accessible only by foot or canoe are found on the Peninsula. The north shore, which borders on Rainy Lake, is sharply irregular with many charming bays, coves, and offshore islands. The south shore bordering on Kabetogama Lake, while not as sharply defined, also has many picturesque offshore islands. Smooth glaciated rocks ideal for camping and picnicking lie at the water's edge along both shores of the peninsula. This is a land and water area of high quality, great variety and charm. In this magnificent scenic and historical setting are opportunities for a type of wilderness and recreation experience found nowhere else in the National Park System.

The area is accessible by highway, rail and air. Spur roads from U.S. Highway 53 provide access to Rainy Lake from Ranier to Island View and to Kabetogama Lake at Ash River Trail and Kabetogama. Three railroads serve the International Falls area--the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific; the Northern Pacific; and the Canadian National. International Falls is served by commercial flights and charter service is also available.

Charming intimate small lakes are found on Kabetogama Peninsula

Tree covered rocky islands add variety to the scene


There are two distinct and significant geologic stories which have played dominant roles in creating the landscape as seen today. The first of these is found in the extensive exposures of rocks which represent perhaps the oldest landmass in the world. Part of the Superior Upland portion of the great Canadian Shield, this area has passed through all earth-building eras, yet only the most ancient rocks prevail--those of the Precambrian. Included in this complex of hard metamorphic rocks are altered lava flows and interbedded rocks of sedimentary origin, intrusive dikes of various types, and parts of massive granite intrusions, all of which are so strongly deformed that geologists have often been baffled by their arrangement

Sedimentary rocks, altered to schist, slate, and other metamorphic forms, indicate that ancient seas spread back and forth over this area as many as two billion years ago, leaving thick layers of sediment. In this southwestern extension of the Canadian Shield are found some of the oldest of these Precambrian sediments. These contorted metamorphosed sediments and igneous intrusions represent the roots of an ancient highland that was eroded to a peneplain millions of years before Paleozoic times. Cambrian seas advanced upon the shores of this ancient continental landmass, but during all successive geologic periods, this land stood above the waters which time and again covered most of North America, maintaining its elevation despite the erosion of a half-billion years or more.

The second interesting story of the area's geology has to do with the erosive action of the continental glaciers. A most vivid impression of the effects of the glaciers upon the earth surfaces over which they moved is strikingly evident in this lake country. At least four times, great masses of ice ground their way southward through and beyond this area from source regions hundreds of miles to the north. They buried this region under an immense icecap which was probably a mile thick. These ice age continental glaciers and their imprint on the landscape of southern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are well known in the form of great gravel deposits, moraine ridges, eskers, and similar land forms. This border-lake region, however, has few such features for the glaciers deposited most of their residue farther south. The tremendous weight of the icecap forced it down upon the bedrock and like a giant abrasive tool, planed away rock obstructions and gouged out the basins that are now occupied by lakes.

Long grooves of considerable size, rocks rounded and smoothed by the glaciers, and the presence of erratic boulders are prime examples of how these slowly moving ice masses affected the land. The irregular shoreline of Kabetogama and Rainy Lake is considered to be the result of differential plucking of rocks by ice, the bays and lowlands being areas where softer or fractured rocks were encountered. The headlands and "reefs" of the lakes are generally composed of the more resistant metamorphic rocks and massive granite intrusions.

Glacier patterned landscape--waterways of the voyageurs


The glaciers left a barren land and even today there are exposures of rock ledge relatively free of plantlife. Most of the surface, however, has long since become thinly mantled with soil from which has sprung an amazing variety of plant forms. In the early 19th century, the area was covered by a great coniferous forest interspersed with deciduous trees. Despite extensive logging, groves of Norway, jack, and white pine still border the shorelines because of a wise policy of protection by both State and private landowners. In the low boggy areas grow dense stands of black spruce and often cedar and ash, while in higher terrain are found such trees as aspen, birch, balsam, white spruce, oak, and maple.


Pitcher Plant

A variety of mosses, ferns, and lichens cover the rocks as well as the forest floor. Wild rice grows tall in shallow bays and streams and cranberry bogs are not uncommon. Among the shrubs are hazel, dwarf birch, mountain maple, alder, and sumac, while in low places grow the usual heathers, Labrador tea, dwarf kalmia, and leatherleaf. Flowers bloom in profusion from May until October, beginning with the trailing arbutus and ending with the large-leaved aster. Twin flower, dwarf dogwood, clintonia, fringed gentian, polygala, pitcher plant and many others are seen during summer months.

This wide range of forest plants is of great interest during the growing season; and in fall, because of its diversity, contributes a riot of color against a background of startling blue water.

Bog Country: Cranberry Bay of Rainy Lake above; west end of Kabetogama Lake below

Fish and Wildlife

Wildlife in the area is typical of the northern coniferous forest. While caribou and wolverine, once common in this area, are gone, many of the original species remain. Moose, deer, black bear, and timber wolves are still plentiful for this is their natural range. Beaver are common, particularly on the peninsula where aspen and birch supply their needs. Among other species are the snowshoe hare, porcupine, chipmunk, muskrat, fox, red squirrel, mink, weasel, skunk, otter, fisher, coyote, bobcat, and Canada lynx.

Birds frequently seen are the purple martin, raven, Canada jay, blue-jay, chickadee, crow, downy and hairy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, ruffed grouse, blue heron, and various hawks and owls. Of special interest are the Arctic three-toed woodpeckers, the vireos, the crossbills and various warblers. A variety of waterfowl use the many bays and lagoons as feeding and nesting grounds--the most common being mallard, black duck, ringnecked duck, golden eye, merganser, and the common loon, the State bird of Minnesota.

To hear the haunting laughter of the loon echoing from shore to shore at dusk is a great thrill, for this sound possibly more than any other typifies the northern lake country. Other rewarding experiences are seeing bald eagles in majestic flight, watching ospreys diving into the waters to catch fish, and listening to the drumming of partridges during the mating season, the songs of the winter wren, hermit thrush, and the white-throated sparrow.

The area has long been famous for its fishing for walleye and northern pike, trout, and bass. Other fish found are crappies, sturgeon, tullibee, whitefish, sauger, perch and sucker. Muskellunge are confined to Boot Jack Lake on the Kabetogama Peninsula. Black Bay of Rainy Lake is a favorite spring fishing area for walleye. This beautiful shallow bay is fed by the bog-lined Rat Root River, dotted with dozens of small islands and encircled by an irregular shoreline. Each species of fish has its own particular type of water, and the visitor can enjoy exploring many other areas that might be as delightful and productive.

-- an interesting variety of wildlife --


The Voyageurs Route, located along the International Boundary between the United States and the Dominion of Canada, is a natural waterway which leads from Lake Superior to western Canada and the northwestern United States. "This canoe route was used for war, trade, or hunting, each section of it by its own group of Indian tribes, centuries before they guided the white men over it."1 The French were the earliest white men to visit this region. Before them the Sioux Indians had lived here. The Chippewa moved in shortly after the French appeared, and drove out the Sioux. The French traded with both, but by 1763, when the British expelled the French, " was clear that the Chippewa...were the forest dwellers who would do business with the new white conquerors."2

1Eric W. Morse, Canoe Route of the Voyageurs (Reprint by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society), p. 8.

2Grace Lee Nute, Rainy River Country (St. Paul: The Minnesota Historical Society, 1950, p. 2.

The Lake Superior region was visited by white men for the first time in 1660. These men were Pierre Esprit Radisson and Sieur des Groseilliers, in their futile search for the "Northwest Passage". Sieur de Lhut (DuLuth) explored the north shore of Lake Superior in 1679, establishing a fort at the site of the present Fort William, Canada. Jacques de Noyon explored portions of the later canoe route, or Voyageurs Route, in 1688.

In 1731, Pierre Gaultier, Sieur de La Vérendrye, his sons and a nephew, Christophe La Jemeraye, began their extensive exploration of the wilderness beyond Grand Portage. La Vérendrye wrote in his journal in 1729, that the country between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg, " the country of moose and marten while beaver is so plentiful that the savages place little value on it and only collect the large skins which they send to the English."3

3Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 91.

In 1731, La Jemeraye established a post on Rainy Lake which he named St. Pierre. From then until the end of the fur-trade era, one or more posts continued to operate at this site which appears to have been the most strategic location on the Voyageurs Route west of Grand Portage. The post here usually was the main depot under whose direction wintering houses and subsidiary establishments on neighboring lakes and streams were operated.

In 1732, La Vérendrye built Fort St. Charles on the western shore of Lake of the Woods. Using Fort St. Charles as the base of his operations, he extended his fur-trading activities westward and northwestward, building trading posts at strategic points in the region.

Canoe proceeding along rocky cliffs

From a painting by Frances Ann Hopkins
Courtesy of the Naturalist, Natural History Society of Minnesota

The extension of the fur trade from Montreal to Lake Superior, thence to the Lake of the Woods and Lake Winnipeg regions placed the French in competition with the British Hudson's Bay Company, organized in 1670. The English, from their posts on Hudson's Bay, were pushing southward. Before the conquest of Canada by the English in 1763, the French under the Vérendryes had obtained firm control of the fur trade by establishing posts at strategic points to the south and later to the north of the region from Lake Winnipeg to Lake Superior.

To transport their furs and merchandise to and from the Northwest, the French developed three "water highways" between Lake Superior and Rainy Lake. A southern route started at Fond du Lac, led up the St. Louis River to Vermilion Lake, and down Vermilion River to Little Vermilion Lake (now Crane Lake). A middle route was over the Grand Portage to Pigeon River then westward over the present boundary waters to Lac la Croix, and on to Rainy Lake. A northern route was by way of the Kaministiquia River, which passed from the mouth of that stream near where Fort William stands, to Lac de Mille Lacs, by portage to Pickerel Lake, through Sturgeon Lake, down the Maligne River, and into Lac la Croix, where it joined the middle route. In addition to La Vérendrye's posts on Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods along the canoe route, the French established posts at Basswood Lake on the middle route and at Little Vermilion Lake at the western terminus of the southern route.

Prof. Harold A. Innis states of the Voyageurs Route:

...The opening of this route ensured for the French an established control over the rich fur-bearing territory of the Northwest, and enabled them to compete with the English in Hudson Bay...A road had been opened to the heart of the rich fur country as a check to competition from Hudson Bay and a relief from the difficulties of the south.4

4Innis, p. 99.

The cession of Canada to England in 1763 introduced a new era of fur trade in the region. As further summarized by Prof. Innis:

The technique of the fur trade built up by the French remained practically intact...Bases for the production of agricultural supplies in the interior had been established and the voyageur with his knowledge of the rivers and of navigation remained. During the period of disturbance [French and Indian War, 1755-1763] supplies of beaver had accumulated and the Indian had been left without European goods. Under these conditions recovery of the fur trade was rapid.5

5Innis, p. 168-169.

To implement its operations, the North West Company established a network of posts throughout the region. On Rainy Lake, it built another principal post where the men from Athabasca, over a thousand miles to the northwest, could travel and return in one season. At this post, a special set of canoemen from Grand Portage met the Athabasca men, received their packs, and gave them their annual supplies. Along the border lakes and the Voyageurs Route were a number of subsidiary posts at Little Vermilion Lake, Manitou Rapids and Ash House, depending on the principal posts at Grand Portage and Rainy Lake.

The consolidation of interests in the fur trade which resulted from the formation of the North West Company permitted further expansion of the business. Following its organization, the company, in search of new fur-bearing regions to exploit, accomplished notable feats of exploration. There was Peter Pond, a Connecticut Yankee who, in the late 1770's and early 1780's, was one of the fur traders to explore the Athabasca and open that rich fur region. Acting under instructions from the Company, Alexander Mackenzie made his epic journey to the Pacific in 1793 and became the first white man to cross the continent north of Mexico. From 1797 to 1807, David Thompson, also in the employ of the Company, carried on extensive operations east of the Rockies as far south as the Missouri. Later, from 1807 to 1812, he explored in the Columbia River country. Each of these and other famous men of the border including the Vérendryes traversed the Grand Portage to Fort St. Charles route on their way to further discoveries. Thus, this route became a trunkline of discovery as well as an artery of trade. It was tapped by lesser routes feeding it from various directions. It was a highway of trade and exploration.

The vast wealth in the fur trade gained by the North West Company soon encouraged rivals to enter the region along the border. In 1793, the Hudson's Bay Company, which had long been quiescent on the shores of Hudson Bay, began to establish posts on Rainy Lake and Rainy River. Between 1798 and 1804, the chief rival of the North West Company was a new group, generally known as the XY Company, which had the powerful backing of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the former North West Company employee mentioned above. In 1804, the new company was absorbed by the more powerful North West Company.

As competition between the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies became more and more active, open warfare broke out between the two rivals. Finally, exhausted from the struggle, the North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. As the result of the union, York Factory on Hudson's Bay replaced Montreal as the fur capital, and the York Factory-Fort Garry (Winnipeg) passage replaced the long and costly haul the "Nor' Westers" made from Montreal over the Voyageurs Route to the Interior.

"It's when I come on the portage, I take my canoe on my back, set it on my head topsy-turvy; it's my cabin too for the night."

From the Voyageur's Song, "My Birch-Bark Canoe"

Following the War of 1812, a third rival--the American Fur Company--had entered the region. Organized in 1808 by John Jacob Aster, this company became the principal competitor of the Hudson's Bay Company and established posts at Grand Portage, Grand Marais, Vermilion Lake, Moose Lake, Basswood Lake, Rainy Lake, Rainy River, Roseau Lake, and Lake of the Woods. So keen was the competition that in 1833, the Hudson's Bay Company bought off their American rivals. The fur trade continued to be important in the region until the mid-19th century.

The International Boundary was long a controversial subject, the Quetico-Superior region being claimed at various times by France, England, and the United States. It was not until 1842 that, by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, the boundary line was definitely established as the Pigeon River route. The fur trade played a principal role in the various negotiations determining the [United States-Canadian] boundary. The International Boundary from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods is defined in the Treaty simply as "the 'customary waterway' of the voyageurs."6

6Morse, op. cit., p. 41.

The fur trade was an influence in shaping the destiny of Canada and part of the United States. It was an era that affected the culture of both nations. And all this could not have been possible without the services of the voyageurs--that hardy breed of men who, "...toiled over rough, mosquito-infested portages with packs of trade goods and furs, and paddled their canoes, forty strokes a minute or faster, sixty to eighty miles a day, from dawn to dusk, over lakes now lashed to a fury by storms, or again shimmering and still in the hot sun. Expertly, they guided their craft down treacherous rivers and through boiling rapids. In the winter they spent the short days at wilderness posts, doing their chores, often snowshoeing through white forests and over icebound lakes to trade with the Indians. They labored uncomplainingly, always obedient to their employers,"7 always gay and ready for a song.

7J. Arnold Bolz, Portage into the Past (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960), p. 23.

The overall history of the portion of the Voyageurs Route located within the proposed park area, in a sense, is the history of the entire route from Lake Superior to Northwest Angle. As each part of the total 3,000-mile "Voyageurs Highway" from Lachine near Montreal to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca is different in various ways, so it is with the history of this particular section which is probably the most important link in the Voyageurs Route. Located as it was at the western terminus of the three separate routes originating on the shores of Lake Superior, and along the main thoroughfare where, beyond Rainy Lake, various branch routes fed the main artery, this stretch was the funnel between east and west. All traffic moving both east and west passed this way--the trade goods to the west, even to the Pacific, the furs to the east, the great explorers to the west; even the missionaries, and the boundary adjusters passed this way.

By the mid-19th century, the fur trade was on its way out. Steamboats, canals, and railroads spelled doom to the voyageurs and their birchbark canoes. New industries came--logging, commercial fishing, and farming--but none left its mark on the area and the Nation as did the era of the voyageurs.

International Falls, Minnesota, right, is separated from Fort Francis, Canada, by Rainy River. Rainy Lake to the horizon beyond. Smoke rises from the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company mill.

Recreation facilities on the shoreline of Rainy Lake near International Falls.

Landownership and Present Development

Ownership throughout the area studied is somewhat complex, as illustrated by the accompanying landownership map. Approximately 63 percent of the 75,000 acres of land on the Kabetogama Peninsula is owned by the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company; 13 percent by other private owners; 14 percent by the State; 7 percent by the U.S. Forest Service; and 3 percent by the counties.

The area has two basic industries--commercial logging with primary emphasis on pulpwood production, and recreation which emphasizes water-oriented activities such as fishing, boating, hunting and their related services.

Logging is the economic base upon which much of the immediate region's income depends. Trees used for pulp account for most of the logging with lumber production playing a relatively minor part. Logging roads have opened much of Kabetogama Peninsula for this use and more are planned. The Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company has a policy of not cutting along their shoreline property for a distance back 200 to 600 feet from the water's edge and has made a genuine effort to maintain the fine wooded character of the lakefront. The State of Minnesota does not permit cutting along the shoreline on its land, and the Shipstead-Nolan Act, passed in the early 1930's, protects shoreline on Federal land.

The recreation business is becoming more important to this general area and has tremendous potential. Businesses are associated primarily with fishing; hunting; boat rental, launching, and operating facilities; summer home development; and food service. Most of these developments are concentrated at three locations: (1) Along the Southwest shoreline of Kabetogama Lake, including the village of Kabetogama; (2) Ash River Trail at the head of Sullivan Bay; and (3) International Falls and vicinity. Other vacation developments, primarily summer homes and cabins, are few in number, widely scattered and accessible only by water. At present, fishing is the primary recreation use in this area. Commercial fishing, especially on Rainy Lake, competes to a degree with sport fishing. There are many opportunities for swimming, and the water is not especially cold during summer months.

Relationship to the Superior National Forest

Just east of the proposed national park, between it and the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area, is a section of the Superior National Forest which includes Crane Lake, Sand Point Lake, a substantial part of Namakan Lake and numerous other lakes and streams. This area, which contains outstanding scenic and historical values, is also an integral part of the Voyageurs Highway and the entire environmental complex of the park proposal.

Here the three inland routes of the fur traders joined and then extended westward as one route to the Rainy River and beyond. At Crane Lake, just below the Vermilion River gorge and near its mouth, once stood a trading post built by one of LaVérendrye's men in 1736. This was the western terminus of the St. Louis River route from Lake Superior.

Due to its location the Crane Lake area will be a natural point of entrance to both the proposed national park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Because of this close relationship, it is urged that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior cooperate in the development of comparable land management programs and policies for recreational development and use including the preservation and interpretation of historic sites and other features of interest.

Outstanding scenery - Namakan Narrows between Sand Point and Namakan Lakes

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Last Updated: 03-Feb-2009