I wish that I could say that every park was inspiring, meaningful, or especially memorable. Unfortunately, I cannot. I guess that I could say Voyageurs National Park was especially memorable, but only because it kind of sucked. Maybe it was because we had just come from a much more exciting canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, or maybe it is because the park is actually not that cool.
We first pulled into the Ash River Visitor’s Center and were met with a parking lot for boat trailers. We did not have a boat, so we went and checked in about the canoe rentals at Locator Lake. They had available canoes, we were in luck…or so we thought. Locator Lake is located at the end of a two-mile long trail after one first crosses Kabetogama Lake.
‘We don’t have a way to get across Kabetogama Lake.’ We noted.
‘Oh, well then you won’t be able to make it to the canoes at Locator then.’ The ranger said.
‘Uh, how are you supposed to rent the canoe if the canoe is across the lake?’
‘I don’t know what to tell you.’
‘Surely this has happened before, how do people get to the canoes?’
‘They take their own boats across Kabetogama.’
‘We don’t have a boat, that’s why we need to rent the canoe.’
‘I guess we will camp here then. What are the options?’
‘Well there aren’t any campgrounds in the park; there are two state forest campgrounds that are nearby Woodenfrog up by Echo Bay and Ash River is nearby.’
We left the visitor’s center, and I was bummed. As we pulled into the Ash River campground we noticed advertisements at the local lodges for $13 cod dinners. Minnesota is a state that is well known for its incredible fishing. You can catch large and smallmouth bass, crappie, northern pike, muskellunge, sunfish, walleye, and perch. You cannot catch cod, because cod is a fish that lives in the ocean. Yet, the local lodges are not offering specials for the local fish, they are offering specials for cod.
By the time we were setting up our tent, I felt defeated. We had only been in Voyaguers for a few hours, we could not rent a canoe, we could not sleep in the park, and we could not even sample the local fish. Maybe the next day would be better.
It was not better; we went out to hike the Kab-Ash trail and there were so many downed trees that we decided to turn around after less than a mile, we went back to the visitor’s center and were informed that it would be like that for the entire trail. We booked a canoe trip where two rangers would canoe with us out to a beaver marsh. The rangers could not be less excited. We rowed across the lake as the complained about their job. Boats with motors powered by and we were rocked by the incessant buzz of a motor and the rolling waves. The experience was a far cry from our trip to the Boundary Waters the previous week. One of my college buddies, Adam Reitelbach, took us for a canoe trip out of Ely, Minnesota in the Boundary Waters. We saw zero powerboats, and camped on the shores of lakes where we heard loons singing at night. We canoed during the day, jumped in the lake, and ate lunch on islands between swimming breaks. The only people we saw were the outfitters at the beginning and end of our trip as we loaded and unloaded the canoe. It was obvious, the Boundary Waters needed to be the National Park and Voyageurs needed to be a National Recreation Area.
Regardless, I did the Junior Ranger program at Voyaguers and learned a little bit about the history. The story of Voyaguers reads like a real life Zoolander script. It is a story about transportation, supply chain economics, and the global economy. It is a story about fashion, our thirst for natural resources, and the near extinction of a species.
Beaver top hats were the smart phones of the 1650-1850’s. Wearing a beaver hat was a way of notifying those around you of your social status. Hats were often passed down among families, and they often would denote one’s occupation. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s History Foundation notes that ‘It was said that a beaver hat made wearer more intelligent; by rubbing the oil into one’s hair, it was possible to develop a remarkable memory.’ Smart phones are no different. Parents pass down their old versions to their kids, and they are used to denote a level of social status. Even the name of ‘smart’ phones suggests that people believe that possessing them makes the user more intelligent. I suppose it is not the metals that are rubbing off in our pockets, but the information ‘inside the computer’ that is making the difference.
In the late 17th century Europeans ran into a bit of a problem. They were on track to kill all of the Eurasian beavers, Castor fiber, that were found throughout Asia and Europe. I suppose you could say that it is fortuitous that they came to America and found Castor Canadensis, the North American Beaver, but the 10s of million of beaver that were subsequently killed for hats would probably disagree with that good luck.
Forgive my non-historical approach, but it went a little bit like this. French settlers would trade with the indigenous people of the First Nations for goods and supplies. In 1670, Great Britain chartered the Hudson’s Bay Company. Over the next 50 years they established numerous trading posts throughout Hudson Bay area and standardized prices around 1MB, or 1 Made Beaver. A made beaver was a beaver skin collected during the winter months, and by 1795 was equivalent to eight knives or one kettle. A gun could be purchased with 10 made beaver pelts. The Hudson’s Bay Company enjoyed a monopoly on trade in the region until the late 1770’s and early 1780’s when the North West Company was established. It was a good old-fashioned transportation showdown. Who could get the beaver pelts from the New World and into the hands of the European public in Picadilly and Parliament.
The beaver skin supply chain was based on trappers who would spend the winter trapping beavers. As spring melted the snow and opened up the rivers they would use canoes to steadily move east to trading posts where they could sell their pelts and restock for the next season. The tricky part, of course, is that there is no North West passage, or waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. As a result to transport the beaver pelts one would have to portage all of their supplies and beaver pelts. A portage is a fancy way of saying ‘carry’, so these trappers would canoe for several hours, unload the canoe, carry their supplies, and beaver pelts to the next river or lake, load their canoe, and repeat the process ad nauseam until they arrived to the trading post.
One of the legendary groups that grew out of this era were the Voyaguers. Voyageurs were French Canadians. They had to be short, around 5’6”, so that they could fit into the birchbark canoes. They also had to be able to carry two 90-pound stacks of beaver pelts. With 180-lbs of beaver skins on their back they would portage their supplies and canoes from lake to lake. Many Voyaguers could carry three or four stacks of beaver pelts and there are even stories of one brave soul who carried seven.
The day was monotonous. Wake up. Eat. Load canoe. Row. Unload canoe. Portage to the next lake. Eat. Load the canoe. Row. Unload the canoe. Eat. Go to sleep. They did this for 12-14 hours a day through the area that is now Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters. Unlike today there was no Google Maps, or Waze to direct them. They had to learn from others and memorize the routes. They measured lakes by smoke breaks. They took smoke breaks about once an hour, so a two smoke lake would be a lake that took about two hours to paddle across.
Most of the Voyageurs met an early grave, often with herniated discs. Besides carrying 180-pounds of beaver pelts they had to deal with ice, snow, rain, mosquitoes, bears, wolves, and moose. For the Voyageurs working with the North West Company the trip ended in the town of Grand Portage on Lake Superior. It was not called ‘Grand Portage’ because of the greatness of the town, but rather because of the distance of the portage. Imagine paddling for days, weeks, and months to arrive at an 8-mile portage. That meant carrying piles and piles of beaver pelts 8-miles to Grand Portage where they could be loaded onto boats and shipped out of the Great Lakes to England.
Arriving at Grand Portage was a bit of a party; trappers and traders would arrive from around the continent for Rendezvous. They would trade, drink, and restock before returning to their trapping grounds. Many trappers from the Arctic could only stay a day or two before making the return the trip before the northern waterways iced over.
The similarities between Zoolander are honestly striking. Several rich investors would pay for the supplies and salaries of numerous trappers. The expectation is that those trappers would then return year after year with the wares necessary to feed the European fashion industry.
What terrifies me most is how little the story has changed. In the 1700 and 1800’s European investors were financing individuals to go out and decimate the beaver populations. In the 2000’s rich American investors are doing the same in Africa. Instead of beavers, we are asking people to pull out the precious metals so that we can feed the iPhone and Google Pixel addiction of our generation.
I like to think that I am informed, that I care about the environment, and that I attempt to make a difference, but I take a break from typing this exact paragraph on my Apple computer to check my Instagram and #tag a photo, LOL. For what? To share my love of National Parks? To make others think that I’m cool?
Will our children’s children laugh at us for all of our #selfies, like we laugh at the absurdly silly looking beaver skin hats? The North American beaver once numbered at between 60-400 million animals. They are not endangered, or threatened, but currently number at 6-12 million. We killed 20-90% of the beavers that once lived in North America. Are we bound to do the same with Africa’s precious metals, just to be fashionable? I don’t know, but I can’t put my cell phone down and that’s what terrifies me.