Voyageurs National Park: Come for the fish, stay for the beauty

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2013 - 11:27 PM

Minnesota’s only national park is a sparkling vista of water, woods and wilderness that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border five hours and a world away from the Twin Cities.

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My rod tip danced as I reeled in a 20-inch walleye under the watchful eyes of a bald eagle perched on a nearby island.

A loon’s haunting cry echoed across the mirror-flat lake, followed by squawks from gulls. On the rocky shoreline, the last shards of white ice left by a stubborn winter collapsed with a tinkling crash, like a crystal chandelier falling from a ceiling.

“Nice fish,’’ said buddy Jack Rendulich of Duluth as he netted my walleye. We admired it, took a photo and slipped it back into frigid Lake Kabetogama, mostly empty of humans this spring day.

Welcome to Voyageurs National Park — Minnesota’s only national park — a sparkling vista of water, woods and wilderness that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border five hours and a world away from the Twin Cities. Like most visitors, we came to fish, but we were also lured by its serene beauty, with its towering pines, 2 billion-year-old granite outcrops and pristine, undeveloped shoreline.

We found quiet sand beaches, rocky islands, wildlife — and plenty of walleyes. We released many; others we deep-fried golden brown and ate with hashbrowns and beans. We also motored along the island-dotted border waters 20 miles to the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, a former brothel and Prohibition-era bootlegging hot spot, where we stretched our legs and ate burgers.

Over four days, we shared the landscape with eagles, pelicans, Canada geese, mallards, loons, gulls and beaver. Not seen were the 46 moose that live here, as well as wolves, deer, fox, otters and bear.

And late one memorable evening, heavy milk-white fog rolled in while we fished, and we had to rely on our GPS device to navigate 7 miles back to our cabin. Kabetogama’s shoreline and many rocks and islands were hidden by a cloud so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.

“Wow, I’ve never been in anything like that,’’ said Rendulich as we finally docked our boat at dusk.

Voyageurs is the lesser-known cousin to the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Like the BWCA, Voyageurs is mostly wilderness, though motors are allowed. Rental houseboats — floating cabins, really — are commonplace. So are campers and canoeists. The park has more than 200 campsites accessible by boat. A few cabins and resorts can be found on the periphery, but motor or paddle through the park and it’s nothing but woods and water, looking much as it did when the French voyageurs and Indians paddled these waters.

“It’s the Boundary Waters by boat,’’ said Tim McMullen of Delano, one of four friends who joined me last week.

A unique experience

Our base camp was a cabin at Idlewild Resort, a family-owned resort on Lake Kabetogama for nearly 80 years. Tim Snyder, who with wife Cheryl now owns the place, has been coming to Kabetogama since he was a teen. His parents owned the resort for 20 years, and Snyder and his wife have had it for the past 10 years.

“I don’t think there’s a more beautiful lake in the state, and I’ve fished many, many of them,’’ said Snyder, 49, who also guides anglers.

The wilderness character of Voyageurs is a draw. “We have people from all over the country who want to come visit the park,’’ he said.

But this national park is unusual in that it’s accessible almost strictly by water. You can’t drive through, like you can at Yellowstone or Yosemite.

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  • Tim McMullen of Delano fished from a resort dock at sunset on Lake Kabetogama.

  • Jack Rendulich of Duluth, left, and Bob Homstad of Minneapolis tried to navigate in thick fog recently on Namakan Lake in Voyageurs National Park.

  • A Lake Kabetogama walleye, being released.

  • A secluded shore lunch spot on Lake Kabetogama in Voyageurs National Park.

  • The famous floor of the Lumberjack Saloon in the Kettle Falls Hotel slopes 18 inches from bar to door, causing wobbly moments for some patrons. The hotel is accessible only by water.

  • Bald eagles like this one are a common sight in Voyageurs National Park.

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