If the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness can be pictured as an immense scattering of lakes throughout Minnesota’s northern boreal forest, Voyageurs National Park can be comparatively described as an immense scattering of islands throughout three northern boreal lakes along Minnesota’s border with Canada.
And images that the BWCAW might conjure up about intrepid kayakers and canoers paddling the back country river to lake to portage to river and back, Voyageur National Park, to those who’ve been there, perhaps conveys myriad rocky islands, each with their own tall, limbering pine sentries looming overhead.
Campers who want to enjoy Voyageurs National Park to its fullest need to be water mobile, at least to reach those distant campgrounds within the heart of Kabetogema Peninsula that forms the broad land backbone to the park. For others, whether they are the thousands of motorized fishing boats plying the waters or the fewer, but no less serious paddlers, the isolated island campsites sprinkled throughout the park are a welcome treat to anyone who enjoys a night under the stars. Even floating cabin-sized houseboats have their own designated remote island “campsites” at which they can moor while enjoying the park.
Camping in Voyageurs, despite its remoteness, is quite cushy compared to many camping sites in state parks and even other national campgrounds. Our site on this trip, a base camp about three miles east of Kettle Falls, featured two tent pads nestled atop the exposed Canadian Shield that formed the island. A dense fill of woodchips and accumulated pine needles within the confines of the pad provided us with a firm, but forgiving base upon which to pitch our tent. Right behind the tent pads sat an exposed but unobtrusive, single-seat pit toilet.
Thus situated, we looked down over an open forest floor, carpeted in needles with islands of scrub willow and an occasional blueberry plant. The well-appointed campsite had a large picnic table at the edge of a rock bluff about 10 feet above the lake’s surface. A bear box, indicative of the precautionary threat of black bears — and other critters — sat alongside the picnic table.
Even closer to the edge was the standard issue national park service fire ring. An ideal setting with a view westward across a narrow stretch of water, over the eastern edge of Kabetogema Peninsula and front row viewing of spectacular autumn sunsets.
Outboard motors are allowed in Voyageurs and anglers have hundreds of miles of shoreline with myriad bays in which to fish for a variety of Minnesota’s most common freshwater species. Passing encounters between motors and paddles are few because there are so many back channels and shortcuts between islands that canoes and kayaks can sneak back along these narrower routes while anxious anglers prefer to scurry quickly along the major routes to get to favorite fishing holes.
Ash River Entry Best For Paddlers
Of the three main access points to Minnesota’s southern boundary to the park, International Falls, Ash River and Crane Lake, Crane and International Falls are probably the busiest with boats, trailers, and fishermen. Ash River, situated towards the middle of the southern boundary seemed to be the entry point of choice for kayakers and canoers. A look at the distribution of campsites out from Crane Lake reveals about an hour or less motorized ride from entry to camp vs. about three- to five hours of paddling for a choice of sites. Once you journey far enough into the back regions however, campsites seem plentiful for either transient or base campers.
The benefit of base camping is the opportunity to set up one camp, refine its accoutrements to your liking, and then explore the area with a light, unloaded boat and selecting day trips out in every direction from camp. Enjoying the proximity of the lodge at Kettle Falls, our group paddled the six-mile round trip one evening to dine on steaks on the veranda of the lodge.
We only ventured a few miles up onto Rainy Lake (Lake Kabetogema empties into Rainy at Kettle Falls — dropping about a dozen feet from the southern lake to the northern body). Where shorelines along most of Kabetogema’s islands are small boulders and rock shelves, Rainy’s island have more sandy segments along their shorelines.
Visit Rainy Lake
Portaging around the falls is a simple matter of about 400 yards. Larger boats can be hauled by trailer over the same route for a small fee (each way).
For a day-tripping kayak group, the visit to Rainy and back to base camp with a steak dinner and “dessert” at the lodge’s bar, this itinerary was one of many that feel just a bit more tame at Voyageurs Park.
An added treat for those who want to camp or hike interior lakes on the peninsula are the canoes stashed at several trail terminals at many of the fishing lakes hidden within the forest. Even paddlers can leave their canoes at lakeshore, hike in an average of 1-3 miles and usually find a boat available for lake fishing.
One needs to be self sufficient when boating in Voyageurs National Park. Combining water skills with camping skills is a wonderful way to couple those two activities into one great adventure. There’s free camping, free parking and you can drive right down to water’s edge (at least at Ash River) to off load boats and gear and head out. Any easier than that and you’d be bringing a valet to paddle for you!
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