Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness


Unlike today's travelers to the Boundary Waters Wilderness or neighboring Quetico Park, Native Americans knew no limitations. Travel permits, international boundaries, and use restrictions did not hinder their travels.

The vast wilderness which encompasses the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park has been home to many different tribes. As early as eleven thousand years ago, prehistoric Indians first roamed the shores of Lake Agassiz, which at one time covered much of northern Minnesota and extended well into Canada. As Native American cultures grew and developed, Huron, Chippewa, and Cree traveled the paths and waterways. Soon those tribes were displaced by the Dakota, and finally, by the Ojibway (or Ojibwe) people. Each people left behind remnants of their heritage, which today's travelers discover and enjoy.

As symbolic reminders of past accomplishments, pictographs—reddish-brown rock paintings—depict hunting parties, Native American mythology, and wildlife. Examples of pictographs can be seen on the Basswood River, Agnes Lake, Kahshahpiwi Lake, Kewatin, Payne, Hulburt, Lac La Croix, Fishdance, Hegman, and in many other areas. A minimum of one to two travel days is required to reach the pictograph areas.

As European influence reached the northwoods, fur trappers and traders harvested a bounty of furs. Trading with the Native Americans and fellow European adventurers, the voyageurs traveled the waterways collecting beaver, mink, and other fur-bearing animals' hides to send to Europe; these furs became top hats, capes, muffs, and other desirable goods for the fashion conscious of Europe.

Voyageurs traveled the smaller inland waters in birch-bark, Northern-style canoes approximately 25 feet in length. The selection of voyageurs was intense and it was an honor to be chosen. Since the canoes had a limited carrying capacity, height was key—frustrating the hopes of any man who grew to be taller than five feet, six inches. A singing voice for passing the time was also important. Strong shoulders and legs for carrying two packs weighing over ninety pounds each was a must.

A typical season found the voyageurs leaving their winter posts in the Canadian Northwest in mid-May. Traveling the smaller, inland waters, the voyageurs typically reached their rendezvous point at Grand Portage by mid to late summer. The voyageurs carried with them their collected stores of furs.

Their counterparts in Montreal also began their travels in mid-May. Montreal traders used canoes thirty-six feet in length to carry the foodstuffs and trade goods that would be exchanged for the voyageurs' furs. After the exchange was made at Grand Portage, both parties returned to their winter posts before the winter storms set in.

Continued growth and colonization of the New America soon brought the lumber industry to the northwoods. Although much of the area was logged off during the late 1800s and early 1900s, pristine timber stands still exist. The discovery of rich deposits of iron soon brought the mining industry to northeastern Minnesota. Underground mines still exist and are located outside of the wilderness areas. To tour an underground mine, plan to visit the Tower-Soudan Mine (218-753-2245) located 20 miles south of Ely.

Present-day Ely offers a variety of adventures for all walks of life. Museums, hiking trails, resorts, and, of course, wilderness canoe trips allow visitors to experience this unique area according to their abilities and vacation desires.

Thanks to Canadian Border Outfitters for sharing this information on Boundary Waters.


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