VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
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.
“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.
“I like this lake a lot,’’ McMullen said. “I vote we come back next year.’’