After two weeks at the Lake of the Woods, it was time to start the long trip south for the winter. Our first stop was close to the Boundary Waters and Ely, Minnesota. This meant traveling along the banks of the Rainy River as it flowed between Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods with Canada on the other side of the river. Once we got to International Falls it was time to turn south towards Virginia, Minnesota. We will be returning to this area during the week as this was very close to Voyageurs National Park. Just before we got to Virginia, we turned east to Vermilion Lake to our next stop at Fortune Bay Resort Casino RV Park. We don’t often stay at RV Parks located next to casinos, but it was centrally located to the things we wanted to do in northeast Minnesota. The RV Park is small and typical of RV Parks next to casinos. That is to say, it closely resembled a parking lot for RVs and the only amenities are a bathroom and access to the casino. We had just enough room between us and the other RVs for a picnic table. There was not even enough room for a fire ring. Instead they had a single communal fire pit at the end of the circle. However, it was a pull-through site with 50 amp and water hookups. TV reception was not too bad and the campground WiFi was pretty good. So we were able to quickly get set up and settled in.
On Tuesday we needed to get our prescriptions filled at Walgreens, so we headed into Virginia to get this taken care of and to go to the store. Once we got back to the campsite we checked out the casino for the first time during the week. We actually did very well at the casino coming away ahead by a few dollars.
Wednesday was to be our big day as we had made reservations for a boat tour in Voyageurs National Park at 10:00 in the morning. Since the Rainy Lake Visitor Center was outside of International Falls, this meant an early start to the day since it was over an hour driving time. We got there in plenty of time for the reservations and had enough time to check out the small Visitors Center. Voyageurs National Park is a huge area encompassing over 200,000 acres, however, over 40% of it water. It includes the American part of four major lakes, Rainy Lake – 60 miles long, Kabetogama Lake – 15 miles long, Namakan Lake – 16 miles long, and Sand Point Lake – 8 miles long. Consequently, the best way to get at least an overview of the park, which you could not see in a day anyway, is by boat. Our “Life on the Lake” tour was 2.5 hours long boat ride in Rainy Lake as it wound its way around the many islands in the lake, past some interesting historical features pointed out by our guide, and stopping for a short excursion at Harry Overson’s Fish Camp which has been restored by the NPS. Our guide gave us a pretty good history lesson of the area which started out with the Indian tribes that have lived here since the last ice age. European exploration began in the late 1600s and by the mid 1700s the beaver fur trade had moved west from the depleted areas around the Great Lakes. The Voyageurs were the hardy souls that brought large canoes loaded with trade goods from the eastern markets of Montreal to the traders and Indians along the way picking up beaver and other furs every year. The Voyageurs were actual the truckers of the day. In fact, it was this trade route from the Great Lakes that defined the boundary between the US and Canada following the Revolutionary War. Following the fur trade came the loggers as they also move east once the vast white pine forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and central Minnesota were depleted. Thus the entire park area was logged beginning in 1880s. Of course, I was aware already of this history, but I was surprised to find out about the gold rush from 1893 to 1898. In the summer of 1893, a vein of gold encrusted quartz was discovered on Little American Island at the west end of Rainy Lake near International Falls. This single quartz vein is along a fault line that runs under Rainy Lake and is the origin of most of the islands in the lake. Thus the gold was accessible only on the islands and a number of shallow mines were established. However, the gold yield was too small to sustain the efforts and nobody made it rich and the all of the mines except for the one on Little American Island was abandoned. The island is now part of the National Park and is suppose to have tours of the mine. The scenery along the boat tour was spectacular with multiple eagle nests pointed out by the guide. Kal even spotted a young bald eagle in a tree on one of the islands we passed close to and caused some excitement in the boat for a while. After an hour and a half of slowly making our way we stopped for a short time at Harry Overson Fish Camp, which has been restored by the NPS. This fish camp was a small camp operated by Harry Overson to supply white fish and walleye to the local resorts prior to the establishment of the National Park. It was one of many small operations for this purpose following the big commercial fishing operations harvesting primarily lake sturgeon for the roe, ie fish eggs. It was an interesting site, especially the large ice house which would be filled each winter with ice cut from the lake and used all summer long to pack the fish for transport. The trip back was much faster as we returned within 20 minutes of leaving the fish camp.
After the boat tour we joined a ranger led walk through their planted garden next to the Visitor Center. Here they are attempting to provide small examples of the many plants used by the native Indians for food, shelter, medicine, and transportation. While the walk was interesting it focused on the use of the trees for canoes and shelter instead of the plants used for food and medicine. I would have preferred more information about these uses of the plants.
We ate a late lunch and decided to check out some short hiking trails and overlooks on the way to the Ash River Visitor Center. The first trail was suppose to be a forest overlook, however, it tuned out to be a mile loop trail that descended through the pine/birch forests to a black spruce bog and then back up climbing over numerous glacial rocks. It was strenuous and pretty much defined our hiking limits for the day. However, the next overlook was at an active beaver pond. This trail turned out to be level and an easy walk to a nice overlook of the pond. The final overlook was another short trail to a spot overlooking Rainy Lake. Kal declined to make the trip, so I hiked the quarter mile to a very nice overlook of the lake. By this point it was after 5:00 and the Ash River Visitor Center was closed. So we used their bathroom and headed back to the campground.
On Thursday we were looking for something different and decided to check out the North American Bear Center at Ely. We have visited other wildlife centers in the past and often come away with feeling we visited an overpriced zoo. However, the North American Bear Center is a prime example of what a wildlife center should be. They did have a small group of captive black bears that were rescued animals that could not be released that made for some nice pictures as they fed them peanuts. However, the main attraction of the center was the information provided in the exhibits. They did have a stuffed black bear, polar bear, and grizzly bear to attract the eye, but my main interest was the many videos and research results from over the years. They took on one myth about black bears after another and dispelled nearly all of them!! It was a truly fascinating presentation of scientific facts and studies from the past and current research projects. I spent over two hours learning a lot about black bears!! There was also a Northwoods Ecology Room with a little information about other mammals, fish, reptiles, and birds you find in the northwoods that deserves a mention as well. This was a very fascinating place that I would visit again!
After our experience at the Bear Center, we decided to head back to Ely to check out the International Wolf Center hoping for the same kind of experience. However, the Wolf Center was more in line with our previous experiences of wildlife centers. The exhibits were geared towards young children and except for some interesting videos, was not very interesting. They did have a good movie about the wolf research on Isle Royale and we saw an excellent presentation about this long term research project where the predatory-prey relationships is very simple between just two species, wolves and moose. I would recommend this presentation, but I would skip the exhibits. They also have a captive wolf “pack” consisting of four wolves. They have a large area of windows to view their habitat and if the wolves decided to show themselves it can be fun for a few minutes to watch them sunning themselves on a rock next to the pool. Once again, it had a very zoo like feel to it. Consequently, we did not spend much time in the wolf center and decided to eat lunch at a local restaurant in Ely before heading back to the campsite. We also returned with plenty of time to head over to the casino again, where we did not do nearly as well as before.
The weekend was very quiet as we just stayed in the campground relaxing and working on this blog. We did visit the casino one last time where we are both convinced they tightened up the slot machines for the weekend crowd since we came close to losing our entire stake. A most forgettable experience!