“This national park is unique,’’ Snyder said. “It’s a water park. If people want to visit, they have to stay at a resort.’’ Or camp. Or rent a houseboat.
Most visitors bring boats, but some resorts, like Snyder’s, rent them. And the National Park Service offers tour-boat trips to Kettle Falls and rents canoes.
“It’s a beautiful place to visit, and an even better place to live,’’ Snyder said.
The allure of Voyageurs
At 219,000 acres, Voyageurs is about one-fifth the size of the BWCA. Both have been embroiled in controversy. Voyageurs was created in 1975, and not all locals were thrilled to have a national park, with all the rules and regulations that came with it, in their backyards. The process also included the Park Service buying out existing landowners in the park, causing acrimony that lingers still.
Now, almost 40 years later, only about 900 privately owned acres remain in the park. And many locals now view Voyageurs as a positive.
“People are used to it and are starting to embrace and appreciate it,’’ said Sean Oveson, who runs the Kettle Falls Hotel, the only resort in the park interior, and only accessible via water. “The park is preserving this area, otherwise these lakes would be developed and commercialized.’’
Among the Park Service improvements: new visitor centers and a complete rehabilitation of the Kettle Falls Hotel — a major park attraction — originally built around 1913 between Namakan and Rainy lakes to serve lumberjacks, dam builders and commercial fishermen. The Park Service owns the hotel, and Oveson and his father, Rick, have operated it since 1996.
The hotel has 12 upstairs rooms and a restaurant and small bar with a famous warped wooden floor that drops 18 inches from one wall to the other.
“They put the bar floor back the way it was because everyone liked it so much,’’ Oveson said.
On Day 3 of our trip, we boated to the hotel, navigated the crooked bar floor, hiked the grounds, ate lunch and watched anglers land walleyes at the base of the Kettle Falls Dam.
Cold water, warm fishing
We arrived at Kabetogama a day after ice-out, expecting the cold water to hinder our fishing success. And it likely did, though we still caught fish. Snyder suggested we try a 50-foot deep trough off an island — deeper than we’ve ever fished for walleyes — and sure enough, using minnows and jigs we caught 12- to 16-inchers, enough for a fish fry. (All walleyes 17 to 28 inches must be released, with one over 28 inches allowed.)
But during our stay we also fished in much shallower water and caught numerous 19- to 22-inch beauties, which we released. And we hooked a few small saugers that also went into the deep fryer.
The fishing seemed to improve each day as water temperatures warmed.
As Snyder pointed out, there are endless places to fish, with more than 500 islands and nearly 700 miles of shoreline in the park. The protected slot limit on Kabetogama has improved walleye fishing, he said.
“You will remember either a day you caught limits of nice eater-size fish, or the day you caught a big fish and released it. This lake offers both.’’
Our last morning of fishing was washed out by thunderstorms, but that didn’t diminish our impression of Kabetogama and Voyageurs as we packed and headed home.