It’s easy to romanticize the colorful lore of the French-Canadian fur traders who traveled the remote northern boundary waters wilderness centuries ago — and for whom Minnesota’s only national park is named. But the history of the Voyageur’s Highway — from Rainy Lake to Lake Superior — is profoundly deeper and worth recognizing, say some people who’ve lived and worked in its vicinity for decades.
Bill Hansen acknowledged the voyageur story, but he said it’s important to look further back. The route’s story is “so palpable,” he said.
Hansen and his wife, Cindy, owned and ran Sawbill Canoe Outfitters on Sawbill Trail in Tofte, Minn., for 30 years. (His parents, Frank and Mary Alice, founded the business in 1957, and it’s now in the hands of a third generation: Bill Hansen’s daughter Clare and her husband, Dan.)
“I find the history of the original peoples even more compelling, especially the longevity of pretty intense human activity,” he wrote in an e-mail, referring to the artifacts dating back thousands of years that have been discovered on the eastern border lakes. “Based on the volume of finds, it has clearly been an important hub for human interaction for a long, long time. As you paddle the route, it’s inspiring to imagine the lives of people living there fruitfully 5,000 years before the Egyptian pyramids were built.”
Tim Cochrane, who was park superintendent at Grand Portage National Monument for 20 years before retiring in 2017, said an inclusive perspective appreciates a trail of border lakes that is “prehistoric and historic” and been used for thousands of years by First Nations groups like the Cree and Assiniboine people of North America. The land was the territory, too, of the Ojibwe and other American Indians, who became instrumental players in the trail’s commerce.
Cochrane said a nod to that complete history is evident in the lives and writings of wilderness gurus Sigurd Olson and Ernest Oberholtzer, whose existence was never far from the region and who championed its preservation. “We tend to look at it very differently than a lot of other folks. Minnesota has a slight different wrinkle than others,” he said.
While newcomers to the BWCA are smitten by the long views, palisades and hills on the eastern border lakes trail (“postcard” scenery, Hansen said), more experienced visitors are attracted to the smaller lakes, creeks, swamps and fens. “These smaller venues are full of interesting biology and complex ecosystems that can fascinate endlessly, long after the eye has become jaded to the long views.”
Still, Ted Young has a heart for the long views after hundreds of trips by sled dog and canoe paddle in the eastern BWCA. The border lake Rose was top of mind.
“I can’t speak for the western (boundary waters) — there are beautiful lakes, too — but it’s hard to beat Rose Lake for the beauty and the history,” Young said, mentioning its namesake waterfalls, the Border Route Trail and rocky vistas that skirt its southern shore, and the visible remnants of its logging days. Long Portage (660 rods) at the lake’s southeastern edge is part of an old rail line that reached Rose Lake in the early 20th century.
Young, who owns outfitter Boundary Country Trekking and its related Poplar Creek Guesthouse B&B with his wife, Barbara, began guiding in the region as a teenager in the mid-1950s.
Young recalled leaving his family home in Edina to spend summers on Poplar Lake. Soon, he was guiding trips, with many through Rose Lake on the U.S.-Canadian border. Young guided mostly out of Rockwood Lodge, just up the Gunflint Trail from his businesses and home on Little Ollie Lake.
Young, 81, isn’t one to readily fawn about the region, but he is steadfast in his devotion. The Youngs have lived year-round in the Arrowhead since 1974, and he is nostalgic for some things: when fewer people came to the wilderness; when there were more trout instead of bass in Rose Lake; when there weren’t complaints about the lack of cellphone coverage; when the canopy of trees included more white pines.
“We are getting a lot more people, and that is all over the Boundary Waters,” said Young, acknowledging the economic upside of visitors. “There are just more people … I loved it before when there weren’t so many.”
More than 100,000 people visit the BWCA each year, the majority during the quota permit season from May 1 to Sept. 30. In recent years, U.S. national forests have seen an average increase of about 500,000 visits per year, according to the most recent U.S. Forest Service report, which covers 2011-2016.
Hansen said he has a deeper hope for any visitor to the BWCA — that they feel “the deep evolutionary connection” to landscapes where they have a role in the ecosystem. “[The wilderness] is a place where a human feels at one with nature, instead of altering the landscape to our own convenience.”
A previous version of this story had the wrong location for Sawbill Canoe Outfitters.
Bob Timmons covers a variety of topics, from conservation to recreation, and coordinates the Star Tribune's Outdoors Weekend section content.