Voyageurs: 'It's all remarkable'

Fall colors
Brilliant fall colors highlight this aerial view of Lake Kabetogama, one of four large lakes that make up Voyageurs National Park.
Photo courtesy of Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park in the far northern part of the state was created in the mid-1970s. It's the country's 36th national park, and it's the only one in Minnesota.

Voyageurs is known for its vast wilderness and stunning beauty, and it's unlike many of the country's national parks.

For starters, you pretty much need a boat to get around. More than one-third of the park's 218,000 acres is water. The park includes four large lakes dotted by more than 1,000 islands. It stretches across 55 miles on the Minnesota-Ontario border.

Voyageurs National Park doesn't have a dramatic destination landmark, like Old Faithful in Yellowstone or the Twin Peaks of the Tetons.

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"It's all remarkable," said Voyageurs Superintendent Mike Ward.

Ward has been in the top job at the park for about a year. Ward says it took him awhile to put his finger on just what's so special about it.

Getting around
Voyageurs National Park Superintendent Mike Ward, left, and Park Ranger Karl Spilde use a boat to get out and about in the park. About 80 percent of visitors get around in motor boats, but Ward says there are a growing number of canoers and kayakers.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I think Voyageurs actually creates kind of a long-term marriage with most people. So it doesn't have the drama, but it has the commitment," said Ward. "People come out here and they seek some time alone. They seek some refuge. They seek some good fishing, some camping, some family experience, and they get it. And I think they... end up just kind of falling in love with the place, in general."

At the heart of Voyageurs is the huge Kabetogama Peninsula, which is ringed by water and strewn with inland lakes, rugged cliffs and towering pines.

Voyageurs officials estimate roughly 250,000 people visit the park each year. But the actual number is difficult to say. There's no real way to get an accurate count, since there are so many ways to get in and out of the park. Plus, there's no permit system and visitors aren't required to register.

Mike Ward says one thing is clear -- the park is underutilized.

Mike Ward
Mike Ward became superintendent of Voyageurs National Park in August 2008.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"There's a lot of folks in the Twin Cities and ... in Duluth that don't even know we exist," he said. "It's important for us to market the park. We haven't done a spectacular job of that in the past. It is kind of a secret up in northern Minnesota, and people don't know about it as much."

Some of the locals like the idea that Voyageurs isn't a big attraction. That's one reason the Sweney family of Warroad is here. They know they won't run into a lot of other people.

The Sweneys have driven up to the Rainy Lake Visitors Center with a canoe strapped onto their car. Dan Sweney says he brings his two kids to the park as often as he can.

"It's beautiful up here. You've got eagles and loons, and wintertime snowmobiling is fun up here and the trails are nice. You see wolves and deer and bear, and blueberry picking. It's God's country up here," said Sweney.

Sweney family
Voyageurs National Park is a favorite spot for the Sweney family of Warroad. Pictured, left to right, are Bob and Linda Sweney, their son Dan and his wife Cherie, and their children, Kylee and Robert.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Many of the people who live around Voyageurs have mixed emotions about the park. There was a lot of anger and apprehension when it was created in 1975.

Back then, there were still thousands of acres of private land within park boundaries. The federal government began aggressively buying up the land, grabbing some through condemnation.

Some sold their property outright. Many agreed to less money in exchange for a 25-year lease so they could stay longer. And a handful of cabin owners took lifetime leases.

"A lot of those people are dying off now. Their cabins have been torn down," said Woody Woods, a fishing guide and resort owner in Ranier, one of the gateway communities to Voyageurs National Park.

Woods remembers the property grab and the local protest meetings.

Island
Thousands of islands dot the lakes in Voyageurs National Park. Many have campsites equipped with outhouses, fire rings and bear-proof lockers.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"It was rather underhanded, the way that they were given a price, and take it or leave it, and we're going to take it anyway, etc.," Woods recalled. "Some of the people that didn't buy into that, of course, kept their cabins and they still have them to this day."

Today there are 54 such holdouts -- private cabin or lake home owners, mostly on the islands -- who held their ground and refused to sell to the federal government.

Park officials say they'd like to acquire those properties, but unlike what happened in the 1970s, they're not pressuring the owners to sell. And right now, the National Park Service doesn't have the money.

Locals say a lot of the anger and animosity toward Voyageurs National Park has faded. Tim "Chopper" McBride, a member of the International Falls City Council, says even the folks who opposed the park can appreciate its benefits.

Private home
When Voyageurs National Park was created in 1975, hundreds of private property owners agreed to sell their cabins or lake homes to the federal government. Still, more than 50 properties within the park, like this one, remain privately owned.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"What we have gained of course is probably cleaner water, and a shoreline that's not dotted like Lake Minnetonka, which we didn't ever want to see, but which would have happened if the park hadn't of been here," said McBride. "So it definitely was a good thing, that it is pristine."

McBride and others are disappointed, though, in the low number of visitors and the less-than-expected economic impact of the park.

"When this park was formed, the huge promise was this economic increase by visitorship, a quarter of a million to a million visitors a year, and that there'd be heads on beds, people using your town, walking your main street. Stores would open. That promise never came to fruition," he said.

Some people in International Falls say the National Park Service isn't doing enough to attract visitors. They want a more user-friendly park with fewer regulations. Some have called for more hiking and biking trails on the big peninsula.

Park Superintendent Mike Ward says getting more people to come to the park is one of his biggest goals. In fact, next year the park will begin operating a new 49-passenger tour boat that will help more people access the park.

Moose greeting
A moose sits prominently in the lobby of the Rainy Lake Visitors Center. Park officials estimate about 250,000 people visit the park each year.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Ward says people who experience the views from lakeside campsites will come back year after year.

"This one has a nice sand beach so people, on a nice warm day, will stay and recreate right on the beach, swim and enjoy it," he said.

Ward says he's also hoping the old wounds that still exist between the park and local communities will finally go away.

"My goal is to get to the point where the people in these communities are actually proud of the fact that they have a national park in their backyard, and they can boast to their friends and family across the United States that this is a great place to come and see and spend time in," said Ward. "I'm hoping to get to the point where they're proud of us some day. Some of them already are. A lot of them already are."

Voyageurs officials say there's been more cooperation lately between the park and local communities.

Just this past weekend, the city of International Falls celebrated the groundbreaking on a new park headquarters building that the city will maintain and lease to the Park Service. The building is the cornerstone of a new waterfront development in International Falls.