A scant 50 miles from the U.S./Canada border on the western end of Lake Superior lies Grand Marais, Minnesota, where June 1 marks the end of winter and “ya-shure-you-betcha” marks the Minnesotans as surely as their blonde hair and quick smiles.
Of course, not all Minnesotans are of Northern European descent, the true natives are of the Ojibwa Tribes. The Ojibwa culture and its role in the fur trade are celebrated in nearby Grand Portage National Monument Heritage Center. You may remember learning something about the Fur Trade and the Voyageurs when we studied our early national history. While seemingly paltry in the grander scheme of our country, they provide much of the reason we are here as a country having the borders that we do.
You may also remember something of the glaciers which scraped the rocks and stones down across the mainland of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario. These behemoths pushed over everything in their path, albeit slowly, and when they receded they left bare rock, the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, and the Great Lakes. This area all the way to Hudson Bay is the Canadian Shield and offers stark, rugged and beautiful landscapes, and as you hike along, often leaves you with the feeling you are on the very crown of the earth, with everything below you.
But back to the fur trade which was based on the pelts of beaver, fox, lynx, otter and muskrat. These were used by English and French hat makers to fashion the toppers of all manner of courtly and important folk from Paris and London. All over Europe to as far away as Moscow the fashionable upper class clamored for them. Animals providing these pelts were hunted to scarcity in Europe, and the New World suddenly provided an endless source of the raw material. So much so that even the newly minted middle class could now adorn their pates with them.
Pelts of course didn’t grow on trees. They grew on animals. And these animals were plentiful in their natural habitat. But that habitat was rugged and vast. Those seeking the pelts traveled up the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes and to their northernmost points along the shores of Lake Superior. Long story short, two of the four main outposts that arose – one in Thunder Bay drawing pelts from the north and east of modern-day Canada, and Grand Portage, drawing pelts from the northwest of modern-day U.S. and Canada – are prominent in our history, and the Visitor Center offers a glimpse into them all.
The Ojibwa tribes were befriended by English traders and trappers and came to become their guides north. They shared, or the Europeans copied, their canoe building prowess and trapping techniques, making 23-foot long canoes, which could hold 14 men and two tons of cargo.
But by far the most important contribution they made was an overland route around a monstrous waterfall and three rapids in present-day Pigeon River. This “comparatively short” eight-mile portage saved many weeks over a route the Europeans had discovered. This trek, where canoes and supplies had to be carried, came to be called Grand Portage. The downstream end of the portage touched Lake Superior where a fort was built. The upstream end was Fort Willis, a staging post where the trappers’ long canoe journeys from many points north was interrupted by the falls.
The end of the Grand Portage became a trading post, a fort, and a rest stop for the traders who came from Europe to secure the pelts brought there by trappers for trade. Traders were the privileged class who brought with them their own food, cooks and servants so that the arrival at Grand Portage would be a true respite to prepare them for the business for which they had come—to trade for the pelts.
But the Voyageurs, the European men who traveled with the traders to Grand Portage transporting wool blankets, tobacco, knives, rum, guns and tools of all kinds, along with the traders themselves and their servants, never partook of the refinery of the trading post. They hiked the Grand Portage to get the pelts which had been packed into 90-pound packs, carrying two or three on each trip. Fancy rest was not for them. They were allowed inside the stockade for protection but no closer than that to the dining hall and sleeping quarters of the post. They kept with their canoes, re-pitching the seams in the birch bark, sleeping under them on the ground until the trades were made and the canoes again filled, but this time with pelts for the return trip.
The long paddle along the Great Lakes to the city of Montreal took weeks. The woods were filled with mosquitoes, ticks, wild animals of all sorts. Ojibwa guides helped them through this also and in exchange, their tribes could trade their pelts for goods. These were good times for the peoples of the north, native and Caucasian alike.
This history and much, much, more is demonstrated by live re-enactments, restored buildings and most beautiful native art; and it is definitely worth a stop on your way to Canada or to the boundary waters. It is a federally funded historical monument and executed in the truest style of national monuments. High quality videos, outstanding displays wonderful guides and concierges all housed in a building made to last into the next century. We loved it.
And somewhere, out in the Boundary Waters Region which lies between the U.S. and Canada, there lies a Magnetic Stone. We hiked with a group to find this edifice and came up short. There was too much walking for too many in the group for one day and hence the stone and the lake named after it were undiscovered. It’s there, beckoning us back, pulling on our internal compasses like lodestones of yore. We can’t wait to return.
In the meantime when you go, bring your compass and when it starts spinning like a top you’ve found it…or one of the thousands of magnetic rocks strewn across the area. Good luck! (Just follow the trail straight out from the visitor center after you ask the Visitor Center personnel for directions.) And above all, enjoy this beautiful area.