|Orr-Crane Lake Area|
Winding and wild describes several scenic routes through the Kabetogama State Forest and Superior National Forest from Orr to Crane Lake near the Canadian border. A feature of the northern St. Louis and eastern Koochiching County region is the numerous waterways of lakes and rivers. Pick your p...
Voyageurs National Park/Gold Portage WMA
|Description: As far as stunning scenery and soothing serenity goes, it doesn’t get any better than a visit to Voyageurs National Park. Woods, water and wildlife are at your beck and call. As dusk gives way to darkness, loons laugh and an owl’s hoot breaks the sound of silence. Cool breezes nudge waves to lap the shore. And such starry, starry skies are a sight to behold. The moist fog of morning surrenders to birds singing as the mist dissipates and warm sunshine soaks the skin. This place is paradise.
It is a mosaic of land and water, a place of interconnected waterways that flow west into the Rainy River, and eventually north as part of the arctic watershed of Hudson's Bay. It's a place of transition, between upland and aquatic ecosystems, southern boreal and northern hardwoods forests.
A series of glaciers scoured and carved the area for hundreds of thousands of years to sculpt the foundation of the park’s landscape. The most recent glaciation ended just 10,000 years ago, exposing ancient Precambrian rocks. Forests that now drape the upland portions of the park exist on a thin layer of soil formed in the comparatively short period of time since the last glacier receded.
People entered this region following the retreat of the glaciers. Early Native Americans were the first to make use of the abundant resources the lakes and forests provided. In time, French voyageurs—hardy souls who paddled and portaged the water routes—and other native groups followed, drawn to the area during the fur trade of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Logging, mining, commercial fishing and recreational use brought more people to the region in the ensuing years, evidence of which may still be found in the park today.
The depletion of the large stands of white pine in Michigan, Wisconsin and central Minnesota through logging brought the lumber industry north into the area now designated as Voyageurs National Park. Hoist Bay is named for the machinery used to hoist floating logs out of the lake and onto a waiting train. The tracks extended out over the water to facilitate loading. From Hoist Bay the logs were transported southeast to sawmills in the town of Virginia.
Extensive logging operations at the site altered the composition and structure of the park's forests. White and red pine are now a much smaller component of the woodland, and there are fewer stands of large, mature trees.
Gold fever ran rampant following the discovery of the precious mineral in the vicinity in 1893. Prospectors, intent on striking it rich, hastily filed claims to prospects scattered throughout Rainy Lake. The feverish excitement over gold was centered on the Little American, the only mine that actively produced ore.
Following the development of that mine, several other prospects saw extensive activity during the summer of 1894, including the Lyle Mine north of Dryweed Island, the Big American Mine on Big American Island, the Bushyhead Mine on Bushyhead Island and the Soldier Mine on Dryweed Island.
As activity increased, a town popped up to accommodate the influx. Rainy Lake City was incorporated in March 1894, and soon became a bustling community of several hundred people with a schoolhouse, bank, general store, hotels, restaurants, a newspaper, hardware store, butcher shop and several saloons.
Despite numerous attempts to make gold mining a profitable activity on Rainy Lake, low production resulted in a gold bust by 1898. The "boom" was over, and the Rainy Lake City school and newspaper were closed down. By 1901 the city was a ghost town. While the miners and city residents have been gone for more than a century, there are trails and an exhibit on Little American Island telling the story of the gold rush. Nearby, the mine on Bushyhead Island is still visible from the lake.
In the late 1890s, commercial fishing of whitefish and sturgeon became a dominant industry. Over time, it too diminished.
Since the heyday, Mother Nature has reclaimed the land. Although there was intense interest in establishing this site as a national park for decades, it was not until 1975 that the U.S. Congress finally established Voyageurs National Park.
This spectacular park, binding two countries together for 55 miles, is a puzzle of water and land featuring 30 lakes and 900 islands. It beckons those craving wilderness and wildlife watching opportunities.
Wildlife to Watch: Voyageurs Country is great for warblers and many breeding birds of the boreal forest. Special species to note include golden-winged, Canada and mourning warblers, as well as gray jays, ravens, black-backed woodpeckers and Philadelphia vireos. Check the shoreline and sky for bald eagles, osprey, northern goshawks, ducks, pelicans and cormorants. Fast-flying merlins may startle you with their speed as they zip through the air. Listen for the unforgettable signature sounds of loons on the wilderness water.
Watch for white-tailed deer, especially does and fawns, foraging near roadways, red squirrels scurrying about, ever-playful otters frolicking along streams and beavers near their dams and lodges. Moose, black bears, wolves, fishers, pine martens, mink, bobcats and lynx are elusive to be sure, but may be seen if you are patient and persistent. Always check for tracks in the mud or snow too.
Any trail in Voyageurs National Park would be considered great for birding and wildlife watching. However, three trails that are easily accessible are the Kab-Ash Trail, which goes through a variety of habitats and is spectacular for warblers and other songbirds; the Echo Bay Trail, also terrific for songbirds and with an overlook of an active great blue heron rookery; and the Black Bay hiking trail, which also presents numerous species of birds and animals.
Winter wildlife watching is an option for those who really like solitude. There are ski and snowmobile trails and even an ice road to travel by vehicle (four-wheel drive). However, the only Voyageurs National Park facilities open in the winter months are the Rainy Lake Visitor Center and the Crane Lake Ranger Station.
Gold Portage WMA: This site is inhabited by migrating waterfowl each spring and fall. The mud flats are good spots to tally migrating shorebirds. Keep your eyes open for bald eagles, ospreys, double-crested cormorants, pelicans, great blue herons, common goldeneyes, American black ducks, wood ducks, American wigeons and common mergansers. You might also see mammals such as moose, deer, black bear, river otter, beaver, muskrat or mink.
Special Tips: The boundary between the U.S. and Canada runs through the middle of the Kettle Falls Dam. This unique geographic phenomenon allows a visitor to stand on United States soil and look "south" into Canada. The overlook near the Dam is a great place to do this, so bring your camera.
Within Voyageurs, is the state 900-acre Gold Portage Wildlife Management Area (WMA) located in Black Bay on Rainy Lake. This WMA has 24 acres of northern boreal forest and 776 acres of wetland consisting of emergent vegetation such as cattails and bulrushes, wild rice in season and open water. It’s not heavily used during the summer, so it’s a good place to get a primitive wilderness experience without a great deal of travel.
Voyageurs National Park
3131 Highway 53
International Falls MN 56649
Rainy Lake Visitor Center
International Falls MN 56649
DNR Area Wildlife Office
RR 8 Box 8
International Falls MN 56649
Other Activities: Echo Bay Trail is northwest of the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center; Kab-Ash Trail is between Kabetogama and Ash Lake Visitor Center; Black Bay hiking trail starts at the Ash River Visitor Center.
Voyageurs has a cool, continental climate with short, warm summers followed by long, cold winters. Average summer temperatures are 60-80 degrees F; winter temperatures range from well below 0 degrees F to 20 degrees F.
If you want a memorable lodging experience, consider staying at the Kettle Falls Hotel. The history of the inn is as colorful as its red roof. Constructed by timber cruiser Ed Rose, the Kettle Falls Hotel has accommodated and entertained travelers since 1913.
Bob and Lil Williams, who bought the hotel in 1918 for $1000 and four barrels of whiskey, operated it for 70 years. From its somewhat scandalous past, grew a long tradition of hearty home cooking and hospitality served by the Williams family. Recognized for its significant contribution to regional history, the hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. This facility was renovated by the National Park Service in 1987 so you, too, can enjoy a hearty meal, relax on the veranda or spend the night.
Kettle Falls and the hotel are accessible only by air or water, with the shortest water route being from Ash River. Shuttle service is available for overnight guests at a nominal fee.
Gold Portage WMA: You will need a boat or canoe to experience this area. It should provide some exceptional photo opportunities for nesting and migrant waterbirds. You can gain access to this site by water on Rainy Lake, only four miles from the Rainy Lake Visitor Center. Access is by snowmobile in winter.
Ownership: National Park Service; Gold Portage WMA-MN DNR
Size: Voyageurs 218,054 acres; Gold Portage WMA 902 acres
Closest Town: International Falls
Best Seasons for Wildlife Viewing: