What totally inspires wanna-be voyageurs like me?
The impressive lakes of the north woods, of course.
Bill and I were fortunate to be on those amazing waters that were part of the voyageurs’ highway. We were invited to spend a September weekend on Bear Island of Crane Lake (which connects the furthest east point of Voyageurs National Park to the furthest west point of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Not in a tent on the wet ground, either. In a wonderful (also elegant, comfortable, stylish and beautifully decorated) log cabin belonging to Jackie and Warren Bradbury, long-time friends. It was our first visit to the big waters in a very long time — and my spirit leapt being there.
The weekend teemed with magic moments: eagles soaring, noisy gulls swooping, a flock of little ducks panicking at our intrusion, skittering off to find a safe harbor, pine needles dropping like rain, yellow aspen leaves swirling onto wet granite outcrops, waters lapping on slippery black boulders, rain beating on the roof and tattooing the lakes, pine and earth scenting the air, cool splashes on my cheeks, age-old Ely greenstone ledges covered with whitish lichen and bright green moss…
Jackie and Warren pointed out unique properties as well as the Canadian Customs Office, just to our right as we motored up Crane through Sand Point Lake and into Namakan Lake.
At King William Narrows, Warren slowed to show us the “face in the rock.” Suddenly there it was — one dramatic eye and one quite subtle, an eyebrow, a long nose, perhaps an ear — all part of a granite cliff. What creature watched each vessel passing by?
Further up we examined a site with ancient petroglyphs. I am trying to intuit the story of a standing figure with a bowed head looking over smaller and less distinct delicate images below it and to the right — Is a shaman (or spirit or important individual), a pair of braves, a group of four at council. And how did they make these images last so long?
Jackie and Warren told us more petroglyphs had been originally there, but pieces of the cliff had cracked off and slid into the water. Teams of archaeologists and divers determined pieces were salvageable and raised them. Those petroglyphs now reside in the Royal Ontario Museum in Ottawa.
On the southeast facing side of the same cliff is Serpent Rock — naturally formed. I can imagine the spiritual significance this site must have inspired.
They told us about Jeff’s World, a natural climbing wall accessed only by boat, which has become a destination for climbers.
Nearby was Blind Pig’s Alley. During Prohibition years, enterprising bootleggers stashed quantities of liquor on this array of small border islands until it was “safe” to sneak into the U.S. At that time in Canada, alcohol was legal.
We hiked a short portage trail to Mukooda Lake, just like Governors Karl Rolvaag, Oscar Anderson and Wendell Anderson had done, along with hundreds of guests and participants in previous years, to celebrate Crane Lake’s Voyageur Days. Fortunately this portage was not even one “pose” in length before we enjoyed a picnic lunch.
Along the way they named the massive waters that formed the voyageurs’ highway—Rainy Lake, Kabetogama and Namakan form the core of Voyageurs National Park. As we returned to Sand Point and Crane Lakes, they pointed out the bay leading to Loon River which connects to Lac LaCroix, the western end of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
We’ve made them separate entities (managed by different federal and state groups), but the voyageurs didn’t divide the area that way, but only by the number of “pipes” it took to cross a lake.
Later, Jackie and Warren showed me their collection of voyageur caps, sashes and possible bags (in them, voyageurs stashed valuables like flints, tobacco, a coin or two) from Crane Lake Voyageur Days long past.
These huge lakes are the waters of my ancestors, paddling 14 hours a day, remembering or intuiting the way through myriad islands, locating channels, avoiding — or running — rapids, portaging when no other way could get them through.
Surrounded by the scent of pines, the calls of gulls and the mist on my cheeks, I could almost hear the voyageurs’ songs, feel their powerful paddles surge through the steel-gray waters. What a gift to be there! Thank you, Jackie and Warren!
“Portage into the Past: By Canoe Along the Minnesota-Ontario Boundary” Waters by J. Arnold Bolz. University of Minnesota Press, 1960. Belva and Arnold Bolz and Harvi, their friend and guide, traced the voyageurs’ highway from Grand Portage to Rainy Lake, all the while reading from old journal entries. Read more in my blog.
- Come to my presentation for the Cold Spring Historical Society: 9:30, Thursday, Dec. 6, Rocori Community Education building, 527 Main Street, Cold Spring, 56320.
- Read more: “Waters Like the Sky” and “Treacherous Waters” are available for purchase and online. They’re also at public libraries (if not, request they purchase a copy).