Voyageurs National Park

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The park lies in the southern portion of the Canadian Shield. The ancient sediments that comprise the shield represent some of the oldest rock formations exposed anywhere in the world. Younger rock formations do not appear here. Perhaps they never existed, but more likely glaciation simply removed them. At least four times in the past million years, continental glaciers—ice sheets two miles thick—bulldozed their way through the area. They removed previous features, leaving mostly level, pock-marked rock up to 2.7 billion years old. Hundreds of ponds, lakes, and streams now nestle in the depressions, and some rock surfaces in the park still bear the scrape marks. The glaciers gouged out the lake and river beds and set the stage for vast forests. You might say that the Voyageurs Highway was a gift of the glaciers.

Look out across the landscape here and you will see the elements of the fur trade itself. The waters provided the "highway;" fur-bearing animals provided the goods; and the boundless forests provided the materials for the birch-bark canoe, that marvel of environmental adaptation. The canoes were constructed of birchbark, cedar boughs, and cedar or spruce root bindings sealed with pitch. It was a skill developed by the Native Americans and readily exploited by early European explorers. The canoes were light, easily navigable, and quickly repaired with native materials. For several generations the fur trade was the continent's biggest industry, returning investments up to 20-fold. It has been described by one historian as a vast empire held together by nothing stronger than birchbark.

Nature's abundance is evident in other ways here. Osprey, eagle, and great blue heron nests occur throughout the park. Be observant and you will likely see kingfishers, mergansers, loons, and cormorants. Since water covers one-third of the surface of the park, aquatic animals are common. Creating ponds, the beaver provides not only his own habitat, but also the environment needed by aquatic plants. These plants provide food for aquatic insects and some fish. The fish, in turn, support the wide variety of fish-eating birds. Beaver are fare for coyotes and timber wolves.

Perhaps nothing so symbolizes Voyageurs National Park's enduring primitive character as the presence of its wolves. The park is in the heart of the only region in the continental United States where the eastern timber wolf survives. Wolves are shy and secretive, and contrary to folklore they pose virtually no threat to humans. Their wariness and small numbers make it unlikely that you will see them during a visit, although you might see their tracks in winter. Wolves usually live in packs of two to twelve. They may kill large animals such as deer and moose for food, but more frequently feed upon beaver. The timber wolf may cover as many as 40 miles in a single night and can run several miles at 30 to 35 miles per hour. To hear the wolf's lonesome howl on a moonlit night is a rare treat.

Winter is a force to be reckoned with here. From spring thaw until freeze-up the voyageurs had six months at most to complete their travel. Their round-trip between depots at Grand Portage or Fort William on Lake Superior and the subarctic interior of northwest Canada consumed four or five months. Summer is relatively short here, but winter need not be a time of inactivity. From late December until late March, life's pulse is slowed. Ski travel is often possible as snow blankets both land and lake. And warming temperatures and crusted snow in late winter definitely invite snowshoers. However you travel, proper equipment is a must. Take a compass and map, warm clothes in layers, and carry an emergency survival kit. High winds can spring up quickly and, accompanied by low temperatures, can be dangerous.

When the waterways begin to open in spring, animals stir from a season's rest. Migratory birds return to summer in the North. It's one of the best times to observe nature here. Both spring and fall favor those who seek quiet enjoyment of nature's continuous show. For many, the display of fall colors marks a highlight of the North Country year.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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