Where the U.S. Meets Canada, England and France
Unit #23 / 412 - Grand Portage National Monument
During my time at the national parks along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, I've been in awe of the way Native Americans lived in these areas. As many of these parks are best experienced by boat--and the majority of time I spent on their waters included waves burdensome for modern chunks of metal--I can only imagine what it must have been like to travel a gusty Great Lake in a canoe made from birch bark.
Though many of the towns anchoring these parks are named for Native culture, none have really told their particular park's story from the perspective of Native Americans. That is, until I visited Grand Portage National Monument.
Driving to the northeastern tip of Minnesota, it was like traveling to another world. With Lake Superior constantly changing shades of blue, and iron-filled rivers depositing orange-hued run off, it dramatized the slow decline in human population from Duluth.
After three hours of this mind transporting drive, I stepped out of my van to a chilly 65 degrees (F), as if the weather needed to remind me that during this July of record-breaking heat, I was within earshot of Canada.
That multinational nudge was the perfect intro to this National Monument, not only for its multicultural history, but because it's not under sole control of the United States.
Dually administered by both the National Park Service and the Grand Portage Chippewas, Grand Portage National Monument tells its story through a well-preserved fort and an impressive Heritage Center filled with Native perspectives.
From 1784 to 1803, the British-owned North West Company ran the most profitable Great Lakes fur trade through that fort.
Providing the supplies which gave North West a product to export were the local Native Americans, who not only knew the terrain European conquerors needed guidance through, but who were also experts at trapping local animals. The most coveted was the beaver, whose pelt produced Europe's en vogue hat of the time.
Transporting these fashions to the hit runways of 18th-century Paris (and as far as Moscow) were the French voyageurs. These travelers, as the word directly translates, would either bring goods to Grand Portage from as far as western Canada, or transport them from Grand Portage to Montreal--all using the same birch bark canoes the Native Americans had perfected.
Having had the chance to take a metal canoe on the waters of Lake Kabetogama--one of the inland waters the voyageurs would have frequented--I can attest to the skill these travelers must have had. Navigating the waters was difficult, but I was doing it only worried I'd flip and sink my iPhone, not literal tons of export goods supporting my livelihood.
As impressed as I was with those canoeing these waters, what really struck me about Grand Portage was the way three distinct cultures worked together to create an economy that benefited everyone. The French earned the transport wages, the British the middleman charges, and the Natives the translator and finder's fees. The only Native history I've ever remembered has been littered with tragedy for Native Americans, and this, especially because the history I was being told was partly administered by the Natives themselves, was particularly heartwarming. Here is the story of Natives and Europeans working communally.
Sadly, this multinational, multicultural bazaar ended when the British were forced to relocate to territory not owned by the new United States, and moved their operations about 60 miles north to Thunder Bay, Ontario.
What's left of the Grand Portage is now on display for visitors who venture to the tip of Superior National Forest.
For those who do, they'll be rewarded not only with a taste of history through the active kitchen, reenactments, and period attire of staff and volunteers, but also stunning nature. The cliffs surrounding the fort provide a view of the trail voyageurs used to portage their canoes 8 miles to the Pigeon River, and also vistas of the bay that once provided a source of life for the French, British, and Native Americans who all made it their home before it became part of the United States' story.
Let Grand Portage transport you to that time.
Overview of the fort from the Mount Rose Trail
From the peak of Mt. Josephine, looking north toward Ontario, Canada, (top) and southeast to Grand Portage Bay
See the interactive Map of other parks
5 Grand Portage National Monument Highlights (You Can Do)!
1. Take a Hike!
All three of the above views came from hikes no longer than 1 hour round trip. The scope of the bay is best seen from the top of Mt. Josephine (below) and rewards hikers with cool peak breezes.
The Mt. Josephine Trail has no paved parking, so be aware of mud, especially if you have a heavy vehicle like mine.
2. Talk to a Native American
Having stopped in a few Native reservations as I drove through the Upper Midwest, I always tried to meet and ask a current tribe member what it was like being Native today--and then do more listening than talking. If you can catch a local cultural demonstration, great, but even a quick chat with someone at a Native casino can give you a glimpse into a world not often experienced in first person.
3. Touch the Furs!
With over 20 species of furs, it was a unique chance to pet these animal skins first hand (pun intended). Variants from mink to bear showcased why these pelts were in high demand.
4. Get Historical
The volunteers reenacting Grand Portage's history were a wealth of information and were giddy to share (maybe because the location of this unit dissuades visitors). The small size of this park afforded detailed encounters not always common at crowded attractions.
5. Watch the Heritage Center's Intro Video
This short video was the best explanation for why Grand Portage is a national park site. Make sure to time your visit before 5 PM so you can experience it and the other exhibits.
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Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
North Dakota to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Illinois
-Voyageurs National Park
-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt National Park
-Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
-Pipestone National Monument
-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
-Effigy Mounds National Monument
-Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
-Pullman National Monument
Here's the journey thus far: