Who Were the Voyageurs?

Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is a rugged wilderness of clear blue lakes, pine forests, and bountiful wildlife.  After glaciers scoured the landscape and carved deep valleys and waterways hundreds of thousands of years ago, they exposed rock formations averaging one to three billion years old – some of the oldest rocks on the continent!  Human inhabitants eventually made use of the abundant resources the area offered, from early indigenous peoples to the waves of European settlers who followed them.  Among these were the intrepid explorers who traveled by canoe in search of animal pelts and other goods to trade and transport. These were the voyageurs, for whom the park is named. 

But just who were they?

“Voyageurs on a sleigh on a river” by Andries Vermeulen, 1640-72

At the height of the North American fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans were clamoring for pelts of beaver, otter, mink, fox, and other fur-bearing animals.  After the New England states were mostly hunted out, businesses started looking to the deep unexplored wilderness in middle of the continent for new sources of pelts. 

Several large trading corporations – mostly based in Montreal – recruited hearty French Canadian men to transport their precious cargo over the region’s many rivers and lakes.  These canoe-bound adventurers came to be known as voyageurs (French for travelers).  A typical voyageur was a short man (better to fit in a canoe) from an impoverished background who was eager to find a calling that would pay well.  He would take to the wilderness with a group of other company recruits for months or years at a time, subsisting on rations of pork, corn, rice, and fish.

“Voyageurs” by Charles Deas, 1846

The life of these cargo haulers was a physically grueling one.  It was expected that each voyageur would work at least 14 hours a day, paddle 50 strokes a minute, and carry two bales of 90 pounds each across each portage.  To keep a rhythm for their paddling, the voyageurs sang a variety of songs. Singing also helped pass the time and made the work seem lighter.

“At the Portage: Hudson’s Bay Company’s Employés on their annual expedition” by Harry Ogden in George Monro Grant’s Picturesque Canada, Vol. I (New York: Belden Brothers, 1882)

Many voyageurs maintained good relations with local tribal nations.  In Minnesota, that was primarily the Ojibwe and the Dakota.  They learned from indigenous people how to survive in the regions they travelled, and they adopted many of the Natives’ traditional methods and technologies.  In fact, the canoe itself was a Native American invention.  

It is this historic interplay of both indigenous and European cultures that created a lasting impact on the peoples and area now known today as Voyageurs National Park.

Header image credit: “Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall” by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869

Come Sail Away with Me

When you visit Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, you’re going to want to ditch the car.  The stunning 218,000-acre park — with more than 500 islands and 655 miles of pristine shoreline – is best explored by boat.  But what if you don’t want to bring (or rent) a boat yet still want to experience Voyageur’s scenery of rugged, pine-covered shorelines and bountiful wildlife?  No worries – the park staff has you covered!

Credit: NPS

You can enjoy this watery wonderland aboard a tour boat offered by the park. With Voyageurs staff member as guides, you’ll experience incredible views of forests, rock outcroppings and secluded islands while hearing captivating stories of the park’s past.  And if you visit in the next month or so, the fall foliage will begin standing out amid the evergreens, their reflection on the water providing twice the color.

Depending on which visitor center you leave from, the park has two tour boats to choose from, each of which travels on different lakes.  The “Voyageur” cruises on Rainy Lake and the brand new “Ne-zho-dain” on Kabetogama and Namakan Lakes.  The 32-passenger Ne-zho-dain debuted this summer and features trips to areas only accessible from the water, like Kettle Falls and the whimsical Ellsworth Rock Gardens.  Visitors can view the park’s wildlife, geology, and scenery from an enclosed cabin or an open-air deck.  The new tour boat was named after Chief Ne-zho-dain, a a local indigenous leader who was reported to be the last known Ojibwe survivor of an infamous 1842 battle with the Cut Foot Sioux.

Both of the park’s tour boats are fully accessible.  If weather conditions permit, they will operate during the first part of autumn before shutting down for winter.  So if you can’t make it to the park right now, be sure to book a spring or summer tour next year.  Tickets can be booked online here.   

The Coolest Architects at Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park may owe its very existence to a furry, flat-tailed rodent.  The 218,000-acre park, 40% of which is covered by water, is the perfect habitat for one very unique mammal… the American beaver. Beavers have historically played a pivotal role there, since the titular French-Canadian “voyageurs” first came to the area to trade with the Ojibwe tribe for beaver furs. While trapping is no longer allowed in what is now the national park, beavers continue to make an impact on the ecosystem.

Credit: NPS

Beavers are the largest rodents in the United States and are one of the only animals (outside of humans) who actively alter their habitat to suit their needs.  The animals mate for life, and beaver parents raise their young in structures they build called “lodges.” These lodges are constructed on the edges of ponds and lakes and are made of mud and sticks chewed by the beavers. By locating the single lodge entrance underwater, the parents are better able to protect their babies (called “kits”) from predators. Beavers’ construction talents can alter entire ecosystems.  If there is not an existing body of water large enough on which to build their lodge, they will dam up a river or stream to create a suitable habitat for their homes.  This activity will flood the surrounding area, killing trees and undergrowth. The resulting wetland will then attract insects, fish and other wildlife, greatly increasing the area’s biodiversity.  

A beaver lodge at Voyageurs National Park. Credit: NPS

Not only are beavers great architects, but they also have some other truly unique characteristics. Beavers have two large incisors which grow continuously throughout their life.  They use these teeth to cut down trees and branches. Beavers are also known for their distinctive large flat tail. Most people would correctly assume that they use it to help with swimming, but did you know that they also use it to help balance while standing up to chew branches? They will also slap it on the surface of the water (making an incredibly loud noise!) in order to scare away any intruders.

Credit: NPS

As one of the many beloved animals that call Voyageurs home, beavers have been studied extensively by park staff. During a research project from 2006-2009, biologists tagged nearly 500 beavers. By tracking the tagged beavers over the next few years, they were able to determine that young beavers can travel up to 30-50 miles from where they were born! This mobility may be due to the interconnected lake system in Voyageurs, which allows young beavers to travel long distances without ever leaving the water (and thus avoiding predators). Beavers are adapted quite well to water. They can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes and have see-through eyelids which they use as goggles!

Credit: David Stang

Today the highest recorded density of beavers in the U.S. can be found in the protected waters of Voyageurs:  between 3,800 to 4,750 animals, based on 948 active beaver lodges found in a recent park study. If you visit Voyageurs National Park, you may be lucky enough to see a lodge or even catch a glimpse of a beaver, and there are things you can do to help protect these wonderful animals. Make sure to always keep your distance from any wildlife you encounter, both for their safety and yours. Also, do not approach, touch, or walk on a beaver lodge. This could damage the structure and disrupt or even injure the animals inside. You can learn more about the beavers and other wildlife that call Voyageurs home by clicking here.

A Rocky Wonderland in the North Woods

Most people visit Voyageurs National Park to experience the scenic splendor of its forests, view its diverse wildlife, and enjoy boating on its pristine lakes.  However, there’s one surprising attraction at Voyageurs that owes its existence not to nature, but to one very imaginative, relentless craftsman. 

In the 1940s, Chicago carpenter Jack Ellsworth spent summers with his wife on land that later became the national park; it was there that he had a vision. He began to carve complex terraced gardens on a prominent rocky outcrop near his home, using the native materials that he found on-site. 

Over the next 20 summers, Ellsworth constructed 62 rock-bordered flower beds which he connected with stone stairways, grassy paths, bridges, and stepping stones.  He filled the terraced beds with more than 13,000 lilies and other flower varieties, creating a colorful artistic wonderland now known as the Ellsworth Rock Gardens on the shores of Kabetogama Lake.

Over time, Ellsworth accented his landscape with whimsical stone sculptures ranging from monoliths and carved animals to benches, chairs and tables.  Many of his sculptures are carefully balanced rock formations, created without mortar. 

The rock gardens soon became a popular tourist destination despite its remote location.  Ellsworth continued to maintain and embellish his gardens until the mid-1960s, when his health began to fail and he could no longer visit the area.  Without his supervision, the nearby forests slowly engulfed the terraced gardens and many of his sculptures deteriorated.

Soon after Voyageurs became a 218,000-acre national park in 1975, the National Park Service acquired the Ellsworth Rock Gardens land as well.  The aging cabins and outbuildings were removed but no real maintenance was performed on the area until the mid-1990s.  Then NPS staff and volunteers began removing the invading vegetation and shoring up the historic features.  They also built a new dock where park visitors can moor their boats during their garden visit (the site is only accessible by water) and installed interpretive signs. 

Credit: NPS

If you’re planning a trip to Minnesota this summer, carve out time to visit the Ellsworth Rock Gardens.  You won’t be disappointed.

Animals Have Mothers Too!

As we approach Mother’s Day, it’s important to honor those who raised us.  But it’s also a fun time to celebrate amazing animal moms.  Look no farther than Voyageurs National Park for some great examples.

Credit: NPS

Gray wolf moms have litters of four to six pups, who remain with her in the den for six to eight weeks. Only the alpha female in a pack of gray wolves will become a mother, but all adult pack members contribute to supporting her and her pups. Young wolves will stay with their parents for two or more years before leaving to start their own territory, or they may stay with the pack and eventually replace their mother or father as alpha.

Credit: NPS

Voyageurs is a paradise for waterfowl, including the beautiful and haunting common loon.  Mother loons typically have one or two chicks per year. It is very difficult for the birds to walk on their awkward legs, so the moms do not travel far from the water’s edge during nesting; and they spend much of their time in the water once their chicks hatch. Loon moms (and dads!) are very devoted parents and occasionally even carry their chicks on their back!

Credit: NPS

Black bears typically have two cubs every other year. A mother bear gives birth while she is in her den for the winter, then spends the time until spring dozing on and off while her cubs nurse. (That is a lot more sleep than human moms get in the early days!) The cubs will stay with their mother throughout spring, summer, and fall and will hibernate with her the following winter. They finally strike out on their own the following spring, when they are about 1 ½ years old.

Credit: David Hypes, NPS

Bald eagle moms are very fortunate, as parenting duties are split evenly between moms and dads. Eagles lay one to three eggs per year, which hatch after about 35 days. The nestlings will remain in the next for 10-14 weeks, during which time both mom and dad will care for them.

Credit: Veronika Ronkos

Female moose are beginning to give birth this time of year. Typically, a mother has one or two calves, which grow extremely quickly and can outrun a human by five days old! (Can you imagine having to chase your baby five days after giving birth?) Moose calves stay with their mother for about a year.

If you are looking for an animal-inspired gift for your mom this year, check out these beautiful wolf earrings or this stunning photo book all about the amazing loon.

How Many National Park Sites Have YOU Visited?

The National Park Service system currently includes 423 sites throughout the United States and its territories.  These range from national monuments and battlefields to national historic sites and recreation areas to national rivers and seashores. 

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t visited the majority of these places (most of us haven’t!). But luckily, National Park Week is just around the corner – a perfect time to add to your NPS “life list.”

National Park Week is an annual celebration jointly hosted by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation to encourage everyone to discover our nation’s diverse historic, natural, and cultural treasures.  This year, the week runs from April 16 through 24.  Parks across the country will host a variety of special programs, events, and digital experiences, including National Junior Ranger Day for kids on Saturday April 23.  You can find out more about programs and themes you might be interested in by going here.  

Another bonus for park visitors during National Park Week – entrance fees are waived at all parks on Saturday April 16.  (Other 2022 free fee days can be found here).  Luckily, there are never entry fees at JNPA’s partner parks but each of them would be glad to see you in April, or any time!

If you’re planning to visit any of the 63 parks that have “national park” in their name, you’ll want a copy of National Geographic’s national park guide as well as the Passport to Your National Parks, which not only contains park information but allows you to collect the passport stamps from every park you visit. 

A Mighty Woman of the Mighty River

In honor of National Equal Pay Day, we are taking a look at the life of an influential woman in the history of JNPA partner park Mississippi National River and Recreation Area who never received equal pay nor recognition in her lifetime, Marguerite Bonga Fahlstrom.

Marguerite Bonga Fahlstrom and Jacob Fahlstrom. Credit: Historic Fort Snelling

Marguerite was born in 1797 in Duluth, Minnesota. Her father, Pierre Bonga, was the son of former slaves and a successful fur trader. Her mother, Ogibwayquay, was an Ojibwe woman. Her lineage was notable in that the slave trade was very much alive at the time, and while it was somewhat common for fur traders to marry Ojibwe women to establish trading partnerships, these typically involved white traders. Two of Marguerite’s brothers, Stephen and George, went on to become well-known fur traders in their own right.

Stephen Bonga (left) and George Bonga (right)

Today, Marguerite is best known for being the wife of Jacob Fahlstrom, a Swedish immigrant known as the “first Swede of Minnesota” who helped establish the Swedish community of Minnesota. But Marguerite’s role has largely been forgotten. As Haddy Bayo, National Park Ranger at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, notes in Women of the Mississippi: Marguerite Bonga Fahlstrom, “It’s unlikely that Fahlstrom would have risen to the social position, which has so captured historians and the public, without Bonga’s contribution.”

Marguerite provided Jacob with critical knowledge and social connections in order to establish trade with the native Ojibwe community. Additionally, traders’ wives did not stay home to tend the house and children like other women of the time. Instead, they were travel partners who fully participated in the work. Later, as a minister’s wife, Marguerite was also expected to assist with her husband’s missionary work in addition to raising the couple’s 10 children!

Despite her influential role in early Minnesota history, she has largely been forgotten, and very few photographs of her exist. Today, we celebrate Marguerite and all women who never received the recognition they so deserved in their lifetime.

You can learn more about Marguerite and other influential women in the history of Mississippi National River and Recreation Area by exploring Women of the Mississippi River, an NPS interactive map that highlights the narratives of women who shaped the history of the Twin Cities and the greater American Midwest.