Long before social distancing became a way of life, Quaker Mariners have always embraced nautical distancing. Unfettered and unencumbered, nautical distancing is exhilarating, exciting and humbling. Inspired by Minnesota’s original voyageurs, the intrepid French-Canadian fur traders who canoed through the vast wilderness, our fellow Mariners Melinda Nelson and her daughter India, ventured Up North, as northern Minnesota is known, to Voyageurs National Park.
Minnesota is a land of tall tales, long legends and memorable monikers. The home of Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, it’s the dairy-rich Land O’ Lakes and Hamm’s land of sky blue waters. While the license plates say “10,000 Lakes,” it’s actually more than 12,000. With so many lakes (and more boats per capita than any other state), most Minnesotans have a clear favorite. For me, it’s Lake Minnetonka, where I live. The 9th largest lake in Minnesota, Lake Minnetonka is a 14,000-acre collection of 25-plus bays dotted with lovely homes, rustic cabins and ancient boathouses. Its name means “big water” and on a warm summer evening, it can take an hour to boat from Wayzata on the north shore, to Al and Alma’s, the legendary circa-1956 supper club on Cook’s Bay on the west side of the lake.
For other folks, which is how Minnesotans often refer to each other, their favorite lake is the one on which their grandparents had a cabin and where they learned to waterski. For others, it’s where they love to fish. Our neighbor, Rich Thompson, is that guy. For years, my daughter India and I have sat around the kitchen table, listening to Rich tell stories about Kabetogama Lake (pronounced “kab-eh-toe-gama,”with the emphasis on “toe”) in Voyageurs National Park. Technically part of the Boundary Waters, the wilderness between Ontario and Minnesota, the Park allows power boats, so it’s a mecca for houseboaters and fishermen who ply the waters for nearly 50 kinds of fish including walleye, northern pike, sturgeon, crappie and smallmouth bass.
“Kab is nearly twice the size of Minnetonka,” Rich explained. He pulled out his phone and showed us a map of Voyageurs, home of four giant lakes, Kabetogama, Rainy, Namakan and Sand Point, plus 26 smaller lakes. When he delivered the punchline, “It’s the only national park in Minnesota and the only national park without a road,” we were hooked.
Kabetogama is nearly 300 miles north of Minneapolis and 30 miles south of International Falls, so we made plans to venture north in late September before the snow started flying. Serendipity led us to a bay on the south-east corner of the lake, where we found a klatch of vintage resorts with spectacular views of Echo Island, Cutover Island and others. For the full experience, we divided our week between Arrowhead Lodge, a 100-year old resort owned by a young family, and Grandview, a collection of cabins owned by a fun couple and their darling dog.
One of the highlights of the trip was a boat tour with Border Guide Service. Captain Bill picked us up at the Kabetogama Lake Visitors Center and we held onto our Nairobi hats as we voyaged east. Bill’s grandparents had a cabin on Kabetogama so he grew up exploring the lake long before it became a park in 1975. After a stop at Ellsworth Rock Gardens, where an artist-slash-carpenter named Jack Ellsworth spent two decades carving abstract sculptures out of the Precambrian rocks, we headed to Kettle Falls where we stood on the dam and looked south into Canada. Peppered with Bill’s stories, legends, tall-ish tales and old photos of long-vanished people, cabins and speakeasies, our five-hour tour was both amusing and educational.
Like all great nautical distancing expeditions, we quickly realized that Voyageurs is too vast for a single visit and we made plans to return in the winter for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and Aurora Borealis viewings, and again in September for more hiking, canoeing, kayaking and boating.