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Voyageurs National Park
Located in an area where lakes, glacial scoured rock basins, forested uplands, rocky lakeshores, grassy portages, marshes, bogs, and beaver ponds abound, Voyageurs National Park brings alive the history of the adventurous and brave French Canadian fur trading canoemen known as the voyageurs. The park protects a 56-mile stretch of the historic water route the voyageurs used to move trade goods across the region. Visitors to Voyageurs National Park can leave their cars behind to explore the lakes, islands, and forested shores of the North Woods by houseboat, motorboat, canoe, and kayak to experience them as the voyageurs did nearly 200 years ago.
In the 1700s, the demand for fur goods, hats, and coats rose exponentially in Europe prompting many businessmen to look to North America in search of furs that could be transformed into fashionable and profitable fur products. Trapping began on the east coast and eventually moved westward after the depletion of the fur bearing animals in the East. As the fur trade moved westward, fur trading companies, including the Northwest and Hudson Bay Companies, began to rely on voyageurs to move beaver and other pelts and additional trade goods between Montreal and the Canadian Northwest.
To move these goods, the voyageurs used the extensive waterways that dominate the region, becoming the first Europeans to explore the Northwest Territory and engage the American Indians of this area in a large-scale fur trading industry. Their water route became so well established that by the end of the American Revolution, the voyageurs' “customary waterway” between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods became the basis for the international boundary between the United States and Canada.
Voyageurs National Park encompasses nearly 84,000 acres of water, including 4 major lakes and 26 interior ones. The best way to navigate the area is via the water. The voyageurs paddled up to 16 hours a day and relied on American Indian tribes such as the Ojibwe for furs, guide services, clothing, food, and medicine. They used the European trade goods they carried with them to barter for furs the Ojibwe trapped. The fur trade provided a “middle ground” where the Ojibwe and the voyageurs shared and traded goods, ideas, cultural practices, technologies, and diseases, each affecting and influencing the other.
Descriptions of the voyageurs portray them as adventurous, brave, and burly men who were usually optimistic and cheerful. Their reputation for cheerfulness is noteworthy given that they would sometimes paddle large “North Canoes” for up to 16 hours a day and often dealt with intense natural elements. The voyageurs outfitted themselves in functional clothing of practical material. Their toques (hats) of red or blue wool helped keep them warm and provided a place to store their tobacco. Their ceinture fléchée (sashes) were six inches wide and six feet long, placed around their waist to provide back support and protect against strangulated hernias. Their guetre (leggings) of bright colored wool prevented chaffing and discouraged leeches from crawling up their bodies. While at the park, visitors can envision the colorfully clad voyageurs paddling along Kabetogama Lake and Rainy Lake or walking Grassy Portage, Cutover Island, and Surveyor’s island, where they sometimes stopped before traversing the large waters of Rainy Lake, and remember each carefully selected article of clothing that served an important purpose.
On land, in a canoe, or on a boat in the park, visitors can envision the voyageurs portaging around places like Grassy Portage and Kettle Falls with their large canoes. Kettle Falls in the Kettle Falls Historic District is a natural barrier in the chain of lakes and rivers between the Canadian and United States borders. Voyageurs had to circumvent this barrier to trade and transportation.
Around 1840, the demand for fur ended as silk replaced fur as the desirable fashion, making the work of the voyageurs unnecessary. After the voyageurs, people continued to use the area in and around Voyageurs National Park for logging, a mini gold rush, commercial fishing, and recreation. Kettle Falls Hotel, Ellsworth Rock Gardens, and Little American Island reflect these historic uses enlivening any visitor’s experience while at Voyageurs National Park.