Unit #24 / 412 - Voyageurs National Park
Andy has two bug bites on his leg which have been slower to heal than we hoped. Though I've kept an eye on these bright red dots to make sure they don't turn into some massive wolf spider wound, they had Andy's mind focusing on something different.
"I can't remember the last time I had a bug bite," Andy said. "I must have been a kid, because I've forgotten how annoying they are!"
But Andy's bug bites were a window into something bigger.
Why do we get bug bites?
Because we were outside in nature.
Why hadn't Andy had any bug bites in years?
More than just annoying itches, these bug bites were a reminder of what happens when we become adults. We lose that sense of adventure; trading it for man caves, indoor treadmills, or watching Netflix till we fall asleep.
Nothing on my trip thus far has epitomized this more than the cold waters of Lake Superior. Every beach I've encountered was filled with kids splashing in the water as if they were unaware it was 58 degrees, and adults sitting on the sand. In all my wanderlust, live-out-of-a-van-at-age-30 protest, even I couldn't find the rawness to bound into those waters like the kids.
"It's too cold to go in," I'd tell Andy. "I'll just put my feet in."
And as I write this, I'm crushed.
I do not want to be a "just put my feet in" person. It stands against every ideal about living in the moment, dancing like nobody's watching, and [pick your inspirational quote here] that I've tried to actually live in lieu of looking at it engraved in a rock.
It's why, while writing this blog from the inside of a cargo van parked in a Bemidji, Minnesota, park, I'm not going to tell you to avoid Voyageurs National Park because of the bugs. True, they were the worst I've ever experienced (as the below video will show you), but I'm going to tell you to go to Voyageurs because of the horrible bugs. Because if nothing else, it got me out of my comfortable box. That one that's used to not having bug bites, or of being able to take 15-minute hot showers, or thinking I need a big house to feel like I've proven myself as an adult.
Voyageurs made me return to the state of those kids cannon-balling into Lake Superior; even if it took bug bites to get me there.
"The Minnesota animals come for free," my tour guide, Larry, would say as his signature joke each time I complained about the bugs on our boat ride around Voyageurs. And I do not take his words lightly. I've had too many important "Larry's" come into my life since my dad (Larry) died to think that they don't cross my path for a reason.
"This park is meant to be a wilderness water experience," he also said a few times.
"Look around you at these 519 miles of shoreline. You can come here and not see another soul for a week if you want. You can camp on the edge of the peninsula with near 360-degree views of water. You can feel what Minnesota was like before we came along and changed it."
And Larry was right. When I first arrived at Lake Kabetogama--one of four lakes that surround a peninsula of land and make up Voyageurs National Park--I wondered what made this lake different than any other body of water. It had private houses, resorts, boaters, fishers.
Why did this need to be a National Park?
But when Larry took me onto the water, I got it.
Leaving the mainland, Andy and I were guided around this 219,000 acre park that is 40% water. Along the way, we were treated to up close views of the more than two hundred 1+ acre rock islands, encounters with some of the over 50 pairs of nesting bald eagles, and a docking at Voyageurs only "destination" stop: the Ellsworth Rock Gardens (only accessible by water).
It was about halfway through the tour when I realized the difference between this and other lakes:
Anywhere else, these pristine lands would be developed. There'd be a small town Dairy Queen and giant hotels. I wouldn't have the chance to float under a baby bald eagle on an island that was closed to visitors once the parents started nesting, or hear and see a mother loon protecting her baby.
And so I offer Voyageurs National Park as more than a destination to experience true water wilderness. I provide it as a place to remind you of what it's like to be a child. To chastise yourself for embarking on a too-long canoe trip in too-rough waters, to see if you can swim from your dock to a rocky island in the lake, and yes, even to hate nature as you run through a forest of bugs.
Because if it gets you to cannon ball, isn't it worth it?
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5 Voyageurs National Park Highlights (You Can Do)!
1. Stay at a Resort
As my tour guide Larry told me, Voyageurs National Park needs to be experienced from the water:
"Too often people show up without boats and they really can't do much."
Fortunately, the mainland offers an abundance of resorts that provide amenities such as canoes, kayaks, water bikes, and even fishing or pontoon boat rentals. Additionally, with the nearest hotels being in International Falls, Minnesota, a resort is your only option unless you want to camp.
Northern Lights Resort provided a stay for Andy and I which gave us a taste of this experience. With 13 different houses/cabins all sharing a communal dock and entertainment cottage, it was a chance to enjoy the park's waters while also offering the social opportunities of summer camp. I was able to casually chat with families from across the U.S., all who came here to enjoy nature and a pace different than their norm.
2. Get on the Water!
To reiterate, this park really needs to be done by water. Andy and I were naive when we arrived with Vanny McVanface thinking we could experience the park. Fortunately, we were provided a boat tour by Larry of Arrowhead Lodge--one of only two concessionaires on Lake Kabetogama offering private boat tours.
From June - September there are also public boat tours from the Lake Kabetogama and Rainy Lake Visitor Centers, but reservations should be made well in advance, as Andy and I arrived to find the boat fully-booked even days ahead of time.
3. Hike the Blind Ash Bay Trail
Even if you don't have access to a boat, this short trail--starting from the Ash River Visitor Center--is accessible by vehicle and offers both the chance to pick wild blueberries, and a walk through this stunning forest.
4. Sunset and Star Gaze
"Every night, look to the northwest for an incredible sunset," Ranger Austin told me at the Kabetogama Visitor Center. Fortunately, I had done just that the night before and Austin was right.
If you stay up past sunset, you'll be treated not only to a view of stars with little light pollution (thanks to the surrounding wilderness) but also the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights.
5. Camp One of 200 Secluded Sites
They must be reserved in advance, but if you want a chance to truly feel secluded in nature, each site comes with tent landing areas, picnic tables, a fire pit, and bear boxes to store your food.
*BONUS* - Check out a Ranger Program
Though I can't guarantee the comedy of any given program, this moment was too funny not to share.
While attending a demonstration on starting fires in the wilderness, something went wrong with the gas-powered stove and the rangers attempted to quell the fire by covering it with a metal bowl. When that didn't put out the flame, they got a little more creative.
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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
-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: