As I’ve said a couple of times about Voyageurs, without a boat, you are sort of up the creek without a paddle – or a boat, or even maybe not on the creek at all! As a ranger pointed out, you can rent boats from private companies, but if you add in camping equipment, provisions, and maybe a guide, it is going to get expensive. So for most of us, the only way to see this park is by taking advantage of what the park service offers. They have several programs that include both larger tour boat cruises and smaller canoe-based experiences. We’ve taken advantage of both kinds in this park and have enjoyed them immensely. (Warning, though, they fill up quickly, so sign up for these things before you get to the park if you can.)
We even extended our stay at this park in order to take the Kettle Falls Cruise, with a reputation as the most interesting cruise they offer. We took that cruise yesterday and it was a great experience, although I’m not sure it was worth laying around Arnold’s Campground doing nothing for two days.
This cruise leaves from the third visitor center in the park, on Ketogama Lake. It is a smaller, pontoon boat that only seats a couple dozen people. It is ranger led and our guide, Tom, was very knowledgeable about the park and both the cultural and natural resources it offers. The cruise goes out to Kettle Falls, a point on the main peninsula that is pretty much at the eastern edges of the park. There you get out and explore a bit, and then return on a slightly different route. Total experience is about five hours so you have to either pack a lunch or plan on buying one out at Kettle Falls.
On the trip out, we explored a slightly younger part of the park. The rocks here, instead of 2.7 billion years old, were formed about 300 million years later as the lava shield rocks north of here collided into various masses scattered across the crust. The resulting deformations metamorphosed a lot of this rock into gneisses and schists instead of the greenstone you mostly see at Rainy Lake. So the exposed bedrock is of a different kind and color than that found further north. Still, though, there is nothing on top of it except maybe six inches of soil that has accrued since the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago.
The vegetation is pretty much the same, being an arboreal forest with lots of spruce and firs. As in much of the rest of northern Minnesota, extensive lumbering has cut the original forests, so most of what we see now is second growth consisting of large numbers of birch, aspen, and red and white pine. Eventually, assuming global warming doesn’t change the equation too much, they will be replaced by firs and spruce. One of our stops was in a bay where the lumbering activity was heavily concentrated, to the point of building railroads out into the water to pick up logs.
The major wildlife we saw were birds. And that includes multiple bald eagle nests with several nesting pairs and young eaglets just about ready to fly. Tom repeated the fact we learned earlier that within the park, there are at least 29 nesting pairs, up from just four in 1974. Voyageurs is one of the leaders in bringing the eagle back from extinction. We have pictures, but capturing the magnificence of these birds is nearly impossible.
After an hour and a half of weaving in and around a lot of these beautiful islands, bays, and coves, we finally pulled into the dock at Kettle Falls. This was an original resort hotel built in the early 1900s. The park service now owns it, but it is operated by a concessionaire and you can book stays at the 12-room resort. I use the word ‘resort’ loosely, though, as services are maintained at pretty much the same way they were more than a century ago. If you want that rustic feeling, out in the wilderness, then go for it, but don’t complain about the lack of creature comforts. (There is indoor plumbing, although bathrooms are shared.)
And there is a restaurant where you can order lunch (actually, it is open all day). They have a burger and sandwich menu, but the highlight has to be their wild rice soup and maybe their fresh berry pie. We had one of each of those, plus I ordered a Reuben sandwich which was good, but maybe not gourmet level eating. You can also order a beer.
Whether you bring your own lunch, or order from the restaurant, you have to step into the bar in the hotel, which is also known as ‘The Tiltin’ Hilton’. The reason for the name becomes clear as soon as you step into the bar – the floors are tilted in a jumble of directions. The original pilings for the hotel have sunk at different rates and the result was that the floors were completely distorted. While they fixed them elsewhere in the hotel when the park service restored the building, they decided to leave the bar as found. The result is one of those rooms where you have to walk upwards to get from the door to the bar. The pool table has had special supports built to attempt to level it, but the booth tables are at their disparate angles which means drinks can slide right off the table. I don’t know whether it is possible to get drunk in this bar because you feel drunk immediately after stepping into the room.
After lunch, we toured the Kettle Falls and the dam there which tells the story of a lumber baron who tried to control the flow of the lake waters in order to maximize his lumber industry. He was eventually stymied by other citizens who had other interests in mind, but there is still an actively managed dam here that the Park Service uses to control, to a certain extent, lake levels in order to preserve the character of the park.
Another very interesting point is that standing at the Kettle Falls dock landing, you look SOUTH across the water into Canada! Because of the way the international boundaries were drawn (to follow the route of the Voyageurs), this is one of only two points along the border where you can do that (the other is in Detroit).
We returned to the boat and began the trip back to Ketogama. Tom pointed out a couple more eagle nests, and we stopped at another old fishing camp, established long ago as tourism was just getting started in the area. An hour or so later we arrived back at the dock.
And that completed our explorations of Voyageurs National Park.