Paddling Voyageurs National Park by Gary Moon

I’m writing from a sweet little campground in northern Minnesota, on the shore of Rainy Lake. On the opposite shore, about three miles away, is Canada. I’m here to paddle my kayak in Voyageurs National Park, where I had worked in the mid 80s.

As I anticipated, kayaking in Voyageurs is amazing, with the vast expanse of lakes, beautiful landscape in every direction, and endless variety of islands and bays, rocky shorelines, and marshy places. Part of the park is true wilderness. Accessing the park requires some kind of boat, the park begins at the waterline of the big lakes. In other words, you don’t just drive up to the “overlooks” and snap a picture; you have to get in some kind of boat.

 

Being here is great, I’ve had some remarkable trips, both day trips and overnights, plus occasional night paddles in dead calm conditions. The islands and bays in all that space make me want to keep going, to see what’s just out of view, and the going there by kayak is so satisfying.

I’m loving my boat and paddle, they were great choices.  The big concern I had about loading overnight camping gear into the hatches was gone by the third day of my first camping excursion. Now it’s simple – I know where everything fits, and there’s sufficient space for my gear.

I had bought a Garmin “eTrex” GPS for navigating the big lakes. It has been invaluable. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness just to the east where I’ve done countless backcountry canoe trips, navigating is simple with only map and compass. Its smaller lakes connected by portage trails give constant reference to the maps, so a GPS would be far less important – useful but not critical. But on Voyageurs’ big lakes, it’s all but essential. The map alone is often not enough to locate precise location based on shoreline features viewed at kayak level. The GPS pinpoints my location, which then enables me to match the screen view with the map using the shapes of the islands and bays to pinpoint my location.

The GPS also gives distance traveled, average and top speed, time moving vs time not moving etc. In one case, it said I had paddled about 16 miles from 9 am Saturday to 8 am Sunday. It also said, and I’m skeptical about this, my top speed was 5.1 mph. Maybe it was when I was really pushing for a couple minutes to avoid a motor boat wake, but that surprised me. On my most recent morning paddle, it calculated my average speed while moving at 2.9 mph over about 5 hours, most of which was casual effort.

There are motorboats at Voyageurs, and they are a concern and nuisance, but rarely. Most of the boat traffic is for fishing, albeit often involving boats with big engines moving fast, usually at a great distance. But there’s no sign of the kind of loud boat traffic we find at local lakes like Rollins or Englebright. and there’s no water skiing or jet skis here.

Weather has been an issue though. My first week was clear and calm early and late, predictably windy in the afternoons. Gradually, the windy days have increased, and there have been cold and blustery days too. One day, when I had planned to get going really early, I woke up in my van at 5 am and heard the NWS weather radio report give current temperature in International Falls as 40 degrees!. (So I stayed in bed an extra hour ;~).  I finally relented and had a great day, ending with a spectacular view from an island campsite overlooking a long stretch of lake and islands.

This is a weather pattern I had expected from all my previous summers in Minnesota: hot and calm in July, with cooler, stormy, and highly variable weather overall starting before mid August. That said, now on August 19, it’s been in the 90s and humid, but due to drop by 20-30 degrees over the weekend. The abrupt and extreme changes are giving me whiplash!

Wildlife watching has been excellent. The best came the morning of my 16 mile overnight. While retracing the route I followed the previous morning through a shallow and weedy area where an island is almost part of the mainland, I saw the same 3 otters I’d seen at close range the day before. Before they noticed me, I heard them crunching on crawdads. That changed to wary watching and a funny kind of snort they made to indicate their disdain for my intrusion. That was followed by two beaver sightings, a bald eagle flying close and landing in a tree, a huge flock of mergansers (maybe 25 of them) and finally, two pileated woodpeckers flew over…all in 20 minutes. The day before, I had seen three large turtles sunning. Their shells were probably 15-18 inches long. And of course I’ve seen (and heard) plenty of loons – that’s the best part of being here.

The bad news is that the small used camera I had just bought – small enough to have in the cockpit – has some kind of electrical problem that took a few days to recognize, appearing to affect the battery. It took two weeks to troubleshoot and solve: I have finally learned from tech support that the problem is clearly the aftermarket charger, so at least the camera should be fine …eventually. I’ve ordered the charger, but won’t have it until I get home. But for now, I have almost no pictures; I’m really disappointed of course. I really liked this particular camera, it was just right for this kind of use. A new OEM charger is on the way, but not in time for this trip. I also have my big professional camera and lenses, but that gear is just too valuable to risk in the kayak in these conditions.

Like California, Minnesota has been in serious drought, with something like 60% of average rainfall. That’s impacted bears who are impacted by lack of a primary food (berries) and mosquitoes (fewer breeding areas so much less problem for people). And lake levels are down.

I may linger around here this weekend, then explore some non national park areas in the vicinity that I’ve never seen before. Wet weather is in the forcast, so in a few days I’ll start wandering homeward, while keeping an eye on air quality in the foothills. Going west, I’ll likely stop at Mt Rushmore and Devils Tower which I’ve never seen, and maybe Theodore Roosevelt NP which I saw briefly decades ago.
— Gary & Nighthawk
International Falls, Minnesota

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