Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park occupies the heart of the North American Continent, a checkerboard of land and water, sitting right at the Canadian/American border, a place of interconnected waterways that flow west and eventually north as part of the arctic watershed of Hudson Bay. It's a place of transition between land and aquatic ecosystems, between southern boreal and northern hardwood forests, and between wild and developed areas. It is a place created and transformed by earthquakes, volcanoes, and glaciers. The resulting ecosystem has been altered by fire, wind, logging, invasion by non-native species, and climate change.
Voyageur is French for "traveler." The voyageurs ruled these interconnected waterways 250 years ago, paddling their huge trade canoes as they established a 3000 mile route to market their furs. The park was created in 1975 but it protects 10,000 years of human lifestyle and culture, honoring the Native Americans, fur trappers and traders, homesteaders, loggers, miners, and fishermen.
The park is a predominantly a haven for boaters, paddlers, and fishermen since the park is accessible mainly via water, except in winter when snowmobiles, snowshoes, and skis reign. In fact, over 344 square miles of water are within the park.
The park does have 50 miles of hiking trails, a few on the mainland but mostly on the peninsula.
I was in upper Minnesota for a volunteer trail project in the Boundary Water Wilderness Area, so I visited International Falls, stopped in two of the park's visitor centers...
...both of which have wonderful exhibits on the history, culture, and fauna of the park...
...and managed to get in two hikes on lovely mainland trails in the park.
The first occupants arrived during the Paleo-Indian Period nearly 10,000 years ago as glacier ice receded. Hunter-gatherers roamed the area between 8000 and 100 B.C. From 100 A.D. to 900 A.D., the Woodland Period, the occupants began cultivating rice and fashioned ceramic projectile points for hunting. Over 220 archaeological sites have been documented in the area.
The earliest European exploration of this area is believed to have occurred about 1688 when French explorer Jacues de Noyon wintered along the Rainy River. The European demand for beaver pelts brought fur traders into the region. The voyageurs paddled large birch bark canoes carrying trade goods and furs between the Canadian northwest and Montreal.
The voyageurs were prompted by competition over the diminishing supply of furs in the east and were the first Europeans to explore the northwest territory and engage the indigenous peoples in the trade of furs on a commercial scale.
The Cree, Monsoni, and Assiniboin tribes were the primary inhabitants of the region at the time of initial European contact. However, by the mid-18th century they had largely abandoned the Rainy Lake area, leaving the region open for settlement by the Ojibwa. By 1780 the Ojibwe had become the primary residents of the border lakes region, and they played a key role in commerce as suppliers of food, furs, and canoes. They were also guides during the fur trade era and their intimate knowledge of the geography and resources was crucial to the European fur traders.