A friend and I had come to Voyageurs National Park to hike across the Kabetogama Peninsula, but before we could hoof it we had to paddle out there, and Mother Nature wasn't going to make it easy.
A storm had blown in the night before. When we arrived at the park 2-foot swells were rolling across the channel behind the Ash River Visitor Center. It would have been nice to wait out the weather, but the forecast said the wind and rain were going to hang around for a few days. When the thunder stopped we tucked our packs under a tarp and pushed off onto Kabetogama Lake.
We turned the canoe's nose into the waves and paddled hard, making scant headway into the east wind but slowly drifting north where we needed to go. Occasionally the waters calmed, and we could briefly turn toward our desired destination. It was during one of these mild moments that a pair of waves rose up unexpectedly and sideswiped us, nearly sending us into the drink. Eventually we made it to solid land. But we had to haul our canoe and gear over a quarter-mile portage and then paddle 3 miles along Lost Bay to reach the trailhead.
We were cold and wet enough to be a little envious of the houseboaters tied up to the shore, but the scenery kept uncomfortable from ever approaching miserable. Visually, Voyageurs is similar to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which lies just to the east. Chin-whisker pines cling to humps of bedrock along the contorted shorelines. Hundreds of small islands rise at random. Every bend is rounded in anticipation. Stunning as the shore may be, we were relieved to finally drag the canoe up the landing at the tip of Eks Bay.Our reward for our hard crossing was access to the rugged, roadless and seldom-seen interior of the Kabetogama Peninsula.
On the trail
Known to many as America's Motorboat Wilderness, Voyageurs is most often seen by houseboaters and anglers, who have nearly unlimited access to the four Rorschach-test shaped lakes that comprise 40 percent of the park's 281,200 acres. It's a horsepower heaven for those who want to enjoy nature's splendor with minimum effort and maximum comfort.
We instead craved the rewards that come from roughing it in the heart of the park. We were going to traverse the 75,000-acre point along the Cruiser Lake Trail, a 9.5-mile path connecting Kabetogama Lake to Rainy Lake. This can be an overnight trip, but we were in no rush and planned to spend two nights under the stars -- make that clouds--on the path's slender namesake.
The trail has many ups and downs, but few lung-chugging climbs. We actually looked forward to the hills because we quickly realized that just about every rise results in a glorious view of a lake, bog, or beaver pond. But, as everyone who has ever gotten out of their canoes in the Boundary Waters knows, the trail's up-close beauty is equally magnificent.
When the glaciers last bulldozed their way across Minnesota, they scraped the bedrock bare. Even 10,000 years later wide swaths of this Precambrian crust remain exposed, but no longer naked. Lichens and mosses in every conceivable shade of green cover the pink, white, gray and purple rock. A rusty trim of fallen pine needles completes the kaleidoscopic effect. In the forest, under a mix of aspen and boreal pines, petite purple violet, pale corydalis and wild strawberry were blossoming.
The rain relented late in the day, but the winds did not. Darkness was descending and we were quite chilled by the time we reached the Cruiser Lake Campsite, the only developed site on this stretch of the trail. Perfectly placed on a small island next to a beaver lodge, the camp offered expansive views of the lake and sky, so we were a little disappointed to find it already occupied. Nevertheless, 10 minutes up the shore we found a wind-sheltered spot under a grove of pines that made a fine substitute. It was a short journey to the Land of Nod.
On Day Two we woke to a mixed bag: light rain and heavy winds, but when a loon let loose its insane laugh I had a feeling that this day would also end up on the plus side. We put on our sodden boots and strolled down to the lake to find our wake-up call and its mate swimming in slow circles so close we could count the spots on their backs.
The loons didn't stay around camp very long, and, with another busy day ahead, neither did we. Our plan was to cap a 10-mile hike to Rainy Lake's Anderson Bay and back with a spin in Cruiser Lake's "BOIL" boat. (The park service's Boats On Interior Lakes program has reservable canoes lying in wait on eight of the peninsula's lakes.)
The northern half of the trail gave us more of the same splendid scenery. The Anderson Bay Trail branching off its tip was a wonderful bonus. The back end of the 2-mile loop runs high above Rainy Lake with the island-studded Canadian shoreline on the not-so-distant horizon. Voyageurs National Park follows the Minnesota-Ontario border for 55 meandering miles and it was, in fact, the French-Canadian "travelers" for whom the park is named who set the boundary.
Each summer, from the late 17th century and into the middle of the 19th, their 35-foot birch bark canoes carried 2 tons of bundled furs down this liquid highway. After a raucous rendezvous on Lake Superior they returned with all the supplies and trading goods they needed to get through the long winters. After the American Revolution it was decided that the dividing line between America and Canada would follow the "customary waterway" between Lake of the Woods and Lake Superior.
Tens of thousands of people picnic and camp on the peninsula's shore each summer, and though the method of travel has changed, today's visitors share one trait with those of yore: few venture inland.
While human visitors are rare on the Cruiser Lake Trail, there was bountiful evidence to prove that the park's wild residents are regular users: I've never been on a trip where a field guide to scat and tracks would have been so useful. With a sheath of fur and a core of crushed bone, the wolves' remnants were obvious, and we later confirmed that we had also stepped over the calling cards of bear and moose.
We struck out on actually seeing one of the big three, but overall we did pretty well in the wildlife-watching department. Beaver weren't bashful and our morning wake-up callers were just two of about 20 loons. I'm not a bird-watcher so I can't name any of the warblers we saw, but the bald eagle swooping across Peary Lake was unmistakable. A ruby-throated hummingbird even flew so close that a wisp of wind tickled my ear.
Day Three began with a drizzle, but it burned off quickly. Before long the sky was teasing us with patches of blue. With the weather nearly perfect, we took our time heading back. We stepped off the trail to take a peek at the unnamed falls coming out of Cruiser Lake. When possible we bypassed boardwalks and crossed streams on top of beaver dams -- some 100 feet long. Best of all, with the wind gone, we could laze on the hilltops and take in the vistas without succumbing to shivering.
Near the end of the trail, as we sat on a ridge watching a couple of skittish deer wade through the bog a hundred feet below us, the faint hum of a distant motorboat drifted by. It was the first sound of civilization I had heard in days, though it didn't ruin the moment for me. Instead, it made me realize just how glad I was that the people out there didn't know what they were missing back here.
Tim Bewer is the author of Moon Handbooks' "Minnesota" guide. He lives in Minneapolis.