Let me first start by saying that I derive no pleasure from writing this post. There have recently been posts on Facebook about 1-star Yelp Reviews of National Parks and while they are quite hilarious for their absurdity, the purpose of 59in59 was (and is) not to rate all of the National Parks and list them in order from best to worst. It’s a trip designed to experience the different and wonderful things that the United States has to offer. This brings me to our 3rd National Park, Voyageurs.
Nearest City: International Falls, MN
Area: 218,200 acres
Established: April 8th, 1975
# of Visitors (2014): 239,160
Voyageurs is located in Minnesota and has 3 ranger stations: Ash River, Kabetogama, and Rainy Lake. The park was designed so that you could experience the Minnesota waterways and get out onto the islands to camp and see the Minnesota wilderness. It also celebrates the history of the Voyageurs, which we will cover separately.
Now on to the part that gives me no pleasure. Voyageurs was underwhelming, but I at least want to tell you why, and how I think it can be fixed. The parking lot of the first ranger station that we pulled up to in Ash River was less of a ranger station and more of a parking lot for cars towing boats. Due to a lack of camping in the National Park, we moved to a nearby state park where we were surrounded by lodges offering $13/plate cod dinners on Friday night. I want you to think about that for a second. Cod is an oceanic fish and Minnesota is a landlocked state known as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The lodges were not offering smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, perch, blue gill, walleye, or any of the local fish that you could catch nearby. They were instead importing Atlantic cod, caught by fisherman off of Massachusetts. We did not partake in the cod—the price was a little high—but the experience is what was truly lacking. Please note that this was only one of the lodges that we were nearby, and not necessarily representative of all of them.
After a decent fail on our first night, we figured we would go for a hike on the Kab-Ash Trail during the second day. The Kab-Ash Trail is listed in the National Park brochure as a 26-mile trail that connects the Kabetogama and Ash River parts of the park. We went into the Ranger Station at Ash River to collect our Junior Ranger booklets and ask the usual questions. We were told not to hike the Kab-Ash Trail due to numerous downed trees and a lack of trail maintenance. It is the only trail more than 3 miles long in the park and it is listed on all of the park maps; did the rangers not have the resources to clear the trail?
Disappointed, we went for an afternoon run that overlooked a pretty beaver pond and made our way to Kabetogama, where they had the Woodenfrog Refectory, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) relic. We were excited to see some Great Depression history. To say that the refectory was in disrepair would be generous. The entire building was locked, boarded up and virtually unvisitable. Our only excitement came when we found a dead squirrel in the ash clean-out door of the chimney (the only door we could open on the building).
We opted for a lunch by the lake and ate our usual peanut butter and jelly tortillas with almonds, Nutella, apples and pink Country Time lemonade. The lunch was filling and we decided to nap on the rocks by the lake and enjoy the sunsine. Speedboats passing by with innertubes consistently interrupted our naps. Please don’t misunderstand. I love riding on an innertube attached to the back of a fast-moving boat. I would pretend to be friends with awful people if it meant that they would teach me how to wake board and water ski. That being said, these are all things that ruin the pristine nature of a wild and wonderful place. You go for a swim in the water that was previously occupied by a curious beaver only to find yourself dealing with the wake of someone who came into the loading dock a little too quickly.
We asked the Ranger Station about canoeing options. They had answers!! There were canoeing demonstrations where we could either go on a ride to see some beaver lodges, or they would show us a traditional Voyageurs canoe. They also had canoes out at Locator Lake that we could rent for several days to do some camping. Excellent. We asked how we could get to Locator Lake to get the canoes for rent. Their response?
“Oh, we don’t take you out there. You would have to find somebody that would be willing to pick you up and drop you off. It would probably be pretty expensive to do that too."
After another night in the secluded (read: empty) state park we decided to go on a canoe trip with the National Park Service. The ranger acting as our guide could not have been less happy that we had signed up for the ride out to a couple of beaver lodges. Everything was a travesty and it was like talking to Eeyore. We had to unload the life jackets, and then we had to move the canoes, and then we had to put the canoes in the water…
“Have you two guys paddled before?!”
“Yes, we have experience paddling. We were actually just in the Boundary Waters last week”
“Good, because I can’t stand dealing with people that can’t paddle. It takes forever to get there and back.”
Our guide led us on a zigzagging route across the lake and we quickly realized that perhaps we were the ones with more canoeing experience. We finished the tour and repeated the Eeyoresque process. Move the canoes out of the water, load the canoes back in their places, put the life jackets back.
“We noticed that there are some birchbark canoes that were made to replicate the ones the Voyageurs used, can we go look at them?”
“Well I’m not going over there.”
“Can we get in them?”
“You aren’t supposed to if no one is with you."
I don’t want to say that everything was bad. We met some wonderful and excited volunteers. We saw a Voyageurs canoeing program with actors dressed up in Voyageurs gear and playing the part as vivaciously as they could. We also talked to the gardener at Ash River for 15 minutes and he took us on a tour showing us native plants and how to distinguish them from invasive species. We also talked to numerous people who have been coming to Voyageurs for years and years and years with their family and love it. We did not have that experience. Maybe we were unlucky, maybe we caught the wrong ranger on the wrong day. Sure, we just paid some decent money to catch a boat out to Isle Royale and we could have done the same to Locator Lake.
Ultimately, for us, it came down to access. If you have the necessary toys (a boat) then you can enjoy Voyageurs. If you don’t, then pony up the cash and go to a lodge, or go somewhere else. That was what was most disappointing. National Parks shouldn’t be about paying to play. They should be about providing people with a way to enjoy wild things, and while many people disagree with that idea, I have a simple proposal to remedy the entire situation.
People love Voyageurs. They love boating, they love skiing, jet-skiing, and taking out the tubes. I don’t want to stop that fun. I want to increase it! Make the place a Recreation Area. Take away the restrictions of where boats can do specific activities and open it up. Make it Lake Tahoe, or Lake Mead. Give the people concrete parking lots and tons of them. Make more ramps, and charge entry fees for parking and boat entry. If you do that, though, then make Boundary Waters the National Park. Give the people a way to access nature unadulterated. We all get engine noise on our commute to work, and to hear it while we canoe through pristine water completely defeats the purpose. Give us a space to enjoy, a space where we can find peace of mind. More people will be happy and more people will get to do what they want to do. The boaters get their space and their loosened restrictions, while the canoers would be able to paddle undisturbed.