Grand Portage

Day 7

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mile 766 -795

Grand Portage, MN

I spent the day in and around Grand Portage, seeing the sights and attempting to relax before heading out into the wilds of Isle Royale.  Although the sun shone warmly, the wind was pretty intense, and everyone was walking around in sweatshirts.   A small reservation town nearly on the Canadian border, distinguished primarily by its casino, Grand Portage was in some ways a welcome break from the tourism of the “North Shore,” though I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a cell tower there!

I should say that the casino was the primary attraction, according to radio, billboard, and brochure advertisement.  In fact, Grand Portage is the western gateway to Isle Royale National Park, is itself the home of Grand Portage National Monument, and has some amazing scenery all around.  Needless to say, I didn’t spend the day playing poker.

My first stop, after logistics had been taken care of, was Grand Portage National Monument.  The site consists of an indoor museum and gallery, as well as an outdoor recreation of the fort (along with period interpreters) that existed at the site.  The name “grand portage” comes from the name of the 9-mile overland route that voyageurs (and the Indians before them) traveled to get from the harbor on Lake Superior to the Pigeon River, above its impassable series of waterfalls.  From there, it was possible to travel on streams and lakes deep into the north lands to seek beaver for the fur trade.  Present-day Grand Portage was used both by the English North West Company as an administrative site, and as a small Ojibwe/Chippewa settlement; Europeans and Indians got along well here.

While 9 miles is a long way to portage your gear, especially over the basalt cliffs of the North Shore, and the thought of traveling another thousand miles north into Canada for the winter is a little daunting, this wasn’t the most impressive aspect of the site for me.  I am familiar with the wilderness trials of voyageurs and the revelry of their rendezvous from southern Wisconsin history (most notable at Villa Louis State Historic Site in Prairie du Chien, WI).  But the guys up here were really hard core!  There were two groups of voyageurs up here, in addition to the white-collar company men, who rendezvous’ed every summer to trade goods, and good times.  The first, as I’m mentioned, were the ones who delved into the frozen wilderness and trapped or traded for beaver pelts all winter, hauling them back out in the spring.  The second group, though, spent the winter comfortably in Montreal, where the North West Company had its headquarters.  Then, when warmer weather came and the ice melted, they took out their 36-foot canoes, loaded them down with goods, and set out westward, through the Great Lakes, finally paddling across the entire length of Lake Superior, before landing there on the North Shore!  They dropped off the goods needed by the company and the voyageurs, loaded up the furs, and after only a short break, headed back eastward, hoping to get there before the weather got too cold.  Not an easy task…  Sure makes the route to Prairie du Chien (through Green Bay on Lake Michigan and the rivers that lead to the Mississippi) look pretty easy!

Looking out from shore, I could see Isle Royale looming twenty-some miles away, and on that windy, rough day I couldn’t imagine anyone paddling even that  distance!  So I headed up the road towards Canada to check out where the inland-bound voyageurs had been headed.  Right on the Minnesota/Ontario border is Grand Portage State Park, which currently has minimal facilities but is apparently about to open a visitor’s center.  There is a paved half-mile trail to the view of the “High Falls of the Pigeon River.”  They are indeed high – at 120 feet, the highest in Minnesota.  Also impressive and beautiful, as waterfalls are wont to be.  Farther up the Pigeon River, there is another series of short waterfalls (the “Middle Falls,” which leads me to believe that there are some more even farther along…).  Although the point of the day was to relax, I took the 3.5-mile hike up (and down, and up again) to them.  They were nice, and it was cool to see the river calm above them.  The hike was pretty, too, and offered some great views.  It also offered me the chance to stand on the border: right next to one of the cascades of the Middle Falls was a brass survey marker drilled into the basalt.  And I didn’t even need my passport…

The rest of the day and evening was spent trying to relax and get organized (both physically and mentally) for my upcoming week of backpacking on Isle Royale.  I chilled out at the campground (Grand Portage has a municipal campground at the marina, which seemed disappointingly RV-oriented and barren when I’d arrived the night before, but actually had some nice tent sites perched next to Lake Superior), cleaned out my car, and got everything packed up…


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