If you are looking for an uncrowded and unspoiled wilderness area, plan a trip to northern Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park, which is part of the 200 -mile "customary waterway" between the United States and Canada. And plan to see it by canoe, because that is the best way.
Canoeing the 219,000-acre park, which is accessible only by water, will ask you to confront solitude and challenge. It demands perhaps untapped strength, a working sense of direction and the judgment to know when to seek refuge if nature presents real dangers. You are rewarded, however, by the beauty you come upon traveling slow-motion.
Though it's possible to rent motorboats and houseboats from outfitters scattered about, we chose to take a canoe, preferring the sound of a paddle breaking water to the whine of an engine shattering the air. We wanter to hear the perfect silence of the hidden coves and bays and to drink pristine water straight from the lakes. The park would give us both.
The Minnesota park was established in 1975, making it one of the newest national parks in the country. It is named for the rugged French-Canadian Voyageurs, who paddled the waters here in birch bark canoes during the 18th and 19th centuries, moving beaver and other pelts and trade goods between Montreal and the Canadian Northwest. Within the park, a third of which is water, lie three dark and cold glacial lakes -- Rainy, Kabetogama, and Namakan -- thousands of small islands, and the giant 75,000-acre Kabetogama Peninsula, whose landlocked lakes can be reached only by foot.
You may camp anywhere in the park you like. You may stay as long as you are able. There are no roads and no concessionaires. &gt;TO&gt; You need not get a permit or register with anyone or tell anyone where you are going and when you plan to return. There is no talk here about limiting the number of visitors to protect the place from overuse because there are simply not that many visitors. My journey with a friend last August lasted six days. Nobody really knew where to find us. It was foolish, I suppose. But maybe humankind needs that sort of escape now and then.
We drove to the park's northwest point just outside International Falls. The city itself is an escape from the calculated and crowded lives many of us lead every day. The city, with a population of only 6,500 and numerous sport shops still seems like a wilderness outpost.
We rented an 18-foot aluminum canoe just outside of town from a man who worked a night shift at the Boise Cascade Corporation lumber mill there. His name is Mr. Johnson and his place -- which is also his home -- is called Johnson's Canoe Rental. He and his wife and daughter came out to greet us. There were five or so canoes lined up along one side of the place; we chose the one we wanted and Mr. Johnson latched it onto the roof of may car. When the subject of the morning's chat turned to paying for the canoe, Mrs. Johnson said we could pay when we returned, if we liked. We paid them before we left, however -- old habits are difficult to break. The fee was $30 for six days.
We drove along the deserted macadam road -- Route 11 -- that takes you through the woods leading to Nell Point on Rainy Lake. When we arrived, or thought we had, we did not know where to leave the car; we saw a few places to "pull over" but nothing that looked like a place to park for a week. Finally we came upon a small dirt lot to one side of a rustic-looking restaurant. A woman who evidently had something to do with running the place said it would be all right if we used the lot there if we did not take any space for the Saturday night crowd. I assured her we would not and that was good enough for her.
We loaded the canoe with our gear, put in unceremoniously, and headed east into the wilderness, paddling swiftly, sometimes frantically, to put ourselves far from anything lamplit or whirring. We paddled long and hard, and a cool, constant wind that constantly changed directions sometimes whipped the lake into a slight chop. During the day we saw a few houseboats come and go in the distance, the only traffic except for a few boats of local fishermen. By dusk, stationed on a small, nameless island for the evening and looking over a map issued to us by the park ranger, we found that we did not know exactly where we were. But, we had no real destination so it didn't matter. We just wanted "to get away from," not "go to". As we began cooking supper on an open fire, the&gt;TO&gt; loons came out; in the distance we could hear their eerie crying sound.
Rather than set up our tent, we decided to sleep in the open, under the night sky full of stars. Much to our surprise and delight, the bugs did not materialize in the great swarms we were warned about. We had splashed on a light coat of bug repellant, but what really kept them away were the lake breezes that blow all night. And though the breezes made the night chilly, the fire and our down-filled sleeping bags kept us warm.
On our second day we paddled east, following what we thought was the rocky north shore of the Kabetogama Peninsula. The weather was fine. There were fewer boats around than the day before; evidence was that we were making good on our effort to escape. We set out looking for Cranberry Bay, at the end of which we would portage into the peninsula's landlocked lakes. If we did have a geographical destination, that was it.
But by that afternoon we saw in the distance a building which, on close inspection, turned out to be exactly the place we had left the day before. We had gone full circle because we had foolishly failed to use a compass. I wanted to turn away, but night was falling rapidly; we picked a spot to camp and went to sleep early to get up with the dawn.
The next day we paddled hard and far following the map and a compass. It was hot and sunny. At the end of the day we coasted into an anonymous cove on the northside of Saginaw Bay, 20 miles farther into the wilderness. The wind relaxed and settled down behind a row of pines on a far shore. We stopped paddling and drifted into the cove, cooled by the shadows on the waters; the trickling of our alunimum canoe echoing off the shore of glacier-sctaped rock was the only sound.
Tired now, enjoying the calm as we drew near to what appeared to be fine campsite, we saw a beaver suddenly bolt underwater. Its splash sounded as if someone had heaved a boulder into the water. But there was no one, as I looked all around and across Saginaw Bay 15 miles to Ontario. Just space -- so much space that I was tempted to put boats and people in spots where there were none.
Finally, on our fifth day we decided to head off by foot into the Kabetogama Peninsula to the small landlocked lakes. We canoed across the bay and dry-docked the canoe behind a stand of cottonwood, leaving everything but what we would need for a night.
With no guide but a compass and map, we bushwacked south through bog and thicket, getting scratched and sweating. Along the way we picked wild blueberries and raspberries, bursting with juice. We had hike two miles when we sighted a clearing beyond a rocky rise. We rushed toward it and when we reached the top of it saw one of the lakes. It was Quill Lake, we figured, sitting still and silent in the hot midday sun, hovered over by smal constellations of bugs. A bug would touch down upon the water and make tiny ripples that would presently die and the lake would be smooth again.
We sat for a long time close by the lake, speechless from exhaustion and awe. We went swimming before setting up camp and then sat on a bank of rocks by the water's edge. It was dreamlike: Each fish jump or beaver splash broke an almost surreal silence.
We found it all there. The quiet. The darkness. The peace of mind. The sense of place and time. I could picture in my mind's eye Quill Lake each summer night since the glacial retreat, being put to sleep by the clear call of a loon, and the whispering of a breeze through the pines that embrace it.