I first heard the expression “badass” in 1998, when I was on a trip with Camp Thunderbird for Boys in Voyageurs National Park. A counselor named Twain had seen a kid my age arrive at our campsite with a bear hug full of dry firewood and congratulated him on emulating the French fur traders who’d given the park its name. In the 18th century, the traders traveled these lakes in northern Minnesota in birch-bark canoes, exploring a territory that, at the time, probably felt endless. As a kid, I looked up to them much more than I did Davy Crockett or Lewis and Clark. Despite being almost too scrawny to carry a canoe on my shoulders, I hoped that somehow the bigness and the wildness of the park would rub off on me.
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When I returned to Voyageurs last fall, I still felt that way. With the advice of a park ranger and Eric Johnson, the outfitter who supplied my canoe, my plan was to portage out of Rainy Lake and spend two nights paddling ten or fifteen miles a day between campsites, through the less visited, more sheltered waters of Kabetogama Lake. The drop-off point was so camouflaged by foliage along the waterfront, however, that I ended up missing it. This was only slightly disappointing; while my goal had been to be as solitary as possible, even in the “busier” part of the park I saw very few other boats—five over three days.
People sometimes talk about how small everything seems when they return to their elementary school or the house they grew up in. But as an adult, Voyageurs seemed, if anything, bigger and emptier. At 218,000 acres, it is larger than Zion and Acadia National Parks combined, but has less than one-twentieth the number of annual visitors. A result of this is that distances are surprisingly hard to read. On the second day, I selected one of the hundreds of rock islands in the distance for a solitary lunch, thinking it would take 20 minutes to reach. It was more than an hour. In the afternoon, paddling from cove to cove along Kabetogama’s Black Bay, I tried cutting through the waves at an angle, the way I’d been taught, but the wind repeatedly pushed me into the reeds. The entire three days went like this. I got lost, but in a good way.
On my last night, I built a fire at my campsite. After wandering a quarter-mile or so away from my tent, I picked up only as many dead tree branches as I thought I would need, taking care not to trample the blueberry bushes or brittle gray moss. I admired the pile of wood shavings and twigs, and after a few moments the tinder sticks started to crackle. I poured boiling water into a bag of dehydrated macaroni and cheese and decided Twain would’ve been pleased.
Access + Resources
When: Early May to mid-October.
How: The park is about two hours by car from Bemidji and Duluth.
Play: Voyageurs Outfitters offers canoe rentals ($30) and guided trips (from $50).
Eat: In International Falls, Sandy’s Place opens at 7 a.m. and serves walleye all day. Stock up on supplies at Stewart’s Super One.