The argument started like any would: insults building to a spittle-flying shouting match. A man waved his tankard of ale and told high-hat superiors just what he thought of their rules and questionable politics.

Apparently life wasn't easy during the 1815 fur trade.

The feisty ale imbiber was portraying a Fort William employee in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and as he carried on, modern gawkers drew close to the hubbub while a few costumed actors cowered by the blacksmith shop and behind the well.

Like other lively history lessons throughout the fort, this fiery debate quickly sucked in our kids, ages 6 to 10. They snapped to attention when a smart-aleck 21st-century boy told officers "I know everything!" when questioned about a scandal. Constable Tate hauled him off like a sack of potatoes to a windowless slammer.

Our son laughed and begged to join him -- briefly.

It was one of many entertaining moments that made Thunder Bay the highlight of a summer road trip tracing the routes of Voyageurs from Grand Portage, Minn., to Thunder Bay, and from Canada's Quetico wilderness to Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park.

My husband, Bob, who kept falling behind to admire the craftsmanship of Fort William's 40 historically accurate buildings, said it felt on par with Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg. Fortunately for Minnesotans, Fort William's hands-on, living history is easier on the wallet and much closer at just 40 miles beyond the border.

It was that international border -- and ensuing U.S. taxes -- that led the Northwest Fur Company to build the grand Fort William in 1803 to take the place of the humbler Grand Portage trading post on the American side. Fort William actors generally portray the year 1815, by which time the fort was bustling.

We hadn't even reached the fort, with its imposing palisade fence, when our kids eagerly ducked into a tepee outside its walls. Elaine Foster-Sergeant, one of many "fort nerds" and a longtime volunteer, portrayed a Metis woman whose heritage blended Native American (or First Nations as it's called in Canada) with European, usually French. She invited them to crawl across fragrant, pine-cushioned bedding. She showed them the native way of life, from sleeping on curly-furred buffalo robes and drying food to gathering moss for makeshift diapers.

A life without Pampers boggled their modern minds, but before they could learn more, bagpipe music beckoned us to the fort's main entrance and a humble stretch of the Kaministiquia River. We arrived to see costumed dancers circling and promenading, keeping time with a lively fiddler, and visitors linking arms to give it a whirl.

A jolt of historic reality

We arrived too late for the fort's morning wedding ceremony, but enjoyed plenty of pomp as fort officials in coats and top hats and the colorful Metis residents sent off a departing officer. As he was paddled away, a cannon boomed a farewell. Smoke drifted across the water as dancers headed back to fort posts.

We followed them back to the fort, where the kids gingerly held heirloom chickens in the barn and grubbed around the garden, triumphantly yanking out a fresh carrot or two. When a fort crew pumped water from a vintage firefighting wagon, youngsters shrieked and darted away, only to taunt and beg for more.

We ducked in and out of buildings, enjoying the surprises within: a woodworker turning a bowl with a foot-pedaled lathe and a tinsmith crafting a lantern. Inside the bakery, with the heady aroma of wood smoke and baking bread, our kids eagerly grabbed rustic brooms, eager to trade a chore for a tasty sample.

We ended our fort visit with a fresh appreciation for the modern age after seeing the doctor's office with its lineup of mysterious medicinal powders and rustic surgical tools. Even gingerly testing a primitive electric shock machine didn't have the same jolt as seeing 16 ominous razor blades on a "mechanical leech." The kids squirmed as the doctor's wife explained how they were used with heated glass cups to bleed Fort William's sickest residents.

"I'm glad I don't live here," our son, Jonathan, exclaimed with sudden enthusiasm.

Feasting Finnish-style

We began the next day gorging on Finnish pancakes. Thin and deliciously crispy, they spilled across the edge of plates at Hoito's. This local institution in the lower level of the historic Finlandia Club blends Ikea-like simplicity with church-basement hospitality and timelessness.

Our waitress patiently and easily rattled off explanations of viili (clabbered milk), kropsu (an oven pancake), mojakka (beef or fish stew), and salmon sandwiches. We opted for the giant pancakes with red sausages that carry a sweet hint of nutmeg or allspice. We got a little daring, and despite having no chance of pronouncing it, ordered lohiperunalaatiko, a tasty rice pudding nestled in a moccasin-shaped rye pastry crust.

As we feasted, our waitress chattered away in Finnish with diners at the next table. Thunder Bay, it turns out, claims the highest Finn population outside Finland.

You can't go wrong with breakfast in Thunder Bay. Besides the fame of Hoito's, the city is known for Persians (a strawberry-frosted pastry), as well as 30 doughnut shops mostly ruled by Tim Horton's and Robin's Doughnuts. Anyone who grew up with these chains tends to scoff at America's Krispy Kreme fanatics.

Finding Canada's real gems

About 34 miles northeast of Thunder Bay lay the day's big attraction: Amethyst Mine Panorama. The elevation makes it a good vista point for spying Lake Superior in the distance, but it's also been a working mine since the 1960s. It's one of a few open mines that tap the vein of purples that formed in cracks of granite hills west of the Great Lakes. The Lukinuk family dynamites and drills out the best pieces to sell, including $30,000 amethyst boulders for millionaires craving something flashy for driveways and gardens.

We climbed a platform to gaze into the mine, where deep purple, lavender and white streaks ripple through brown rock. Then we joined other visitors at what looked like a gravel pile. We grabbed hoses to wash off rocks and look for flashes of purple.

"Look at this one! And this one!" we repeated, holding the best of the best up to the sun to show off the prettiest patterns and shades of purple.

We left with 15 pounds -- $45 worth of rocks -- a hefty souvenir from a gem of a day.

'Niagara of the North'

Our last stop in the Thunder Bay area -- a thundering 131-foot drop of the Kaministiquia River -- left us gasping. The impressive Kakabeka Falls curves and horseshoes, giving it the deserving moniker "Niagara of the North."

Interpretive signs were there to tell us more about the fur trade, but it was hard to pull our gaze from the sheer power of the falls. Like turning amethyst around in our hands, we savored views from every angle.

When we finally pulled ourselves away, it was with the satisfaction of discovering yet another Canadian treasure.

St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick writes about Upper Midwest travel destinations at