To the Northern Edge

Lake Rainy, Voyageurs NP, about to earn its name

The plan today was to go from Grand Forks, ND, up to the Canadian border and across Northern Minnesota on the edge to Voyageurs National Park.  On paper, that seemed like a pretty good haul.  In reality, it was over in a couple of hours.  I’ve been wrong about time to travel most of this trip — adjusting from the way out west distances to these has baffled me.  But, this is a wandering program, and by definition, the rule is adapt and revise.  So I ended up about an hour and half away from Lake Superior.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Northern Minnesota is a paradise for wildlife.  I’ve been traveling along the edge for a while now, and I’ve never run into the variety and quantity of wildlife that I saw today.  That said, the bulk of the terrain is pretty boring.  Aspen and Alder, wire grass, aspen and alder.  Out of Grand Forks, I came across my first wildlife pretty quickly after I crossed into Minnesota — and it was a doozy.  About 30 yards off the highway, galumphing through the edge of an open field was a dang moose.  Great, waddle dangling hulk of a moose.  I’ve never seen a moose live in the wild and they are just hulking things.  This was a small bull, not yet in possession of the chandelier rack that he may soon have, but he was still huge.  Woke me up and got me focused for a day that would include more deer than I counted, grouse, chukkar, eagles, hawks, multiple types of vulture, raccoons, possums and a handful of big hares.  This activity was especially welcome because from Badger, MN all the way to Voyageurs NP, the terrain is the same.  It’s wild, unmolested by industry and pure wilderness.  But it is all the same.  Alders, Aspen and wire grass with little change in terrain.  After the glorious middle of the state, I was disappointed with the North Country, but it was peaceful.  

They are so not into me

As for the edge, it’s as though there isn’t one.  For the bulk of the trip across the northern edge, the Rainy River marks the border.  Everywhere there is room, homes dot the shore on the US side.  Folks wake up and look out the kitchen window over coffee at Canada, not more than 100 yards away.  They go get the paper and look out at America — and it goes on for a three day drive to the south at least.  But there is not any sense of difference.  The Canada ground looks the same, there is no particular sense of a border or control.  If you wanted to go to Canada and you rowed your boat, you could be there in 5 or 10 minutes and I don’t think anyone would know the difference.  I never saw a border control or customs official of any sort.

There is no wall, fence or even a sign about the border.  I suspect this is a function of desire more than geography.  There is no trade bridge or “International” bridge or anything.  People in Canada are happy and busy, people in America are happy and busy.  It’s not until International Falls, MN that you get any connection and it’s just sort of a left turn to Canada, over the bridge.  I suspect during the dark ages of Prohibition there may have been some traffic across the Rainy, but all anyone there is doing now is catching Walleye.

Voyageurs National Park is a bit unique in that the entire park is basically on water.  To really see the park, you need to get in a boat with some supplies and camp around the various islands.  I didn’t have a boat, so I hiked around a bit and looked at the canoe paths and lakes from the shore.  I’d like to go back with a boat.  Voyageurs is named for the French Canadian traders who moved trade goods from Montreal to the the area and carried fur back.  There’s would be a role that started wars (French and Indian) and stressed diplomats as the French, English and new Americans tried to sort out the border.  Chiefly, they found a way from Montreal to the western edge of Rainy Lake, and managed the various competing Indians along the way.  This route would ultimately become the US/Canadian border.  They paddled big freighter type canoes, and played the middle politically.  Practically the entire North Country of Minnnesota reveres them.

From Bemidji north, for the entire middle of the state there is basically nothing.  So it’s no surprise that once you get up top, they sort of treat themselves as a separate thing.  Everything is noted as “North Country” this or that.  Insurance companies advertise insurance for “the North Country” as though it is a different thing.  The people are uniformly nice.  The cafes are full at all hours, first with farmers, then with locals for late coffee, then with lunch, then with retirees who take over the places to play cards.  Every town has multiple bars and liquor stores, but the people drink strange things like sweet manhattans with olives.  The other thing is that while it seems to be the middle of no where, there is almost constant civilization along the edge, though sparse.  I didn’t find real wilderness until I went south from Voyageurs and found the Ely/Buyk Echo Trail across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Superior National Forest

I had expected to be in the Superior National Forest (Boundary Waters) area tomorrow, but after getting to Voyageurs before lunch, I headed there today.  Mercifully, the terrain changes a good deal as you move east — large granite formations appear and the forest goes from tiresome Aspen and Alder to larger conifer (though the Aspen remain).  You also get more and more water — which helps create lovely vistas.  Lakes and streams left from the glacial retreat hold beaver and waterfowl and give the ever present gray sky something to reflect, however dully, off.  I loved Superior National Forest and would like to have stayed there.  But today is opening day of something — juvenile deer season or moose season or something — and every two track I travelled ended with a couple of trucks.  I’m happy about this.  People getting out and around is a good thing.  But when you are 20 miles from anything and you travel two miles down an unmarked road toward an un-named lake and find at the end a couple of trucks, and this happens over and over, you start to feel surrounded.  So I kept pushing east, venturing off the dirt road on the two-tracks regularly, and ultimately, I ran out of forest and ended up in the community of Ely, MN.  Which is lovely.

Bonus Superior National Forest

Tomorrow I will travel an hour and a half north to Grand Portage, then retrace my steps south along the shore of Lake Superior to Duluth or thereabouts.  I can’t predict anything on this trip when it comes to where I will be when.  I’m looking forward to the Great Gitchee Gumee and the change in scenery and, as always, I love being on the edge.  I”m forever learning to be in the present and worry less about the what and where.  The edge continues to make me better.

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