Find your own island in Voyageurs
Find your own island in Voyageurs (Photo: Emily Pennington)
63 Parks Traveler

Staring Down Fear in Voyageurs National Park

Welcome to Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes and home to the Boundary Waters. Our 62 Parks Traveler found her own private island at her 28th stop on her quest to visit every national park in the U.S.

Find your own island in Voyageurs

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62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.

Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of herself and others. She’s visiting new parks while closely adhering to best safety practices.

My toes curled against the cool, white plastic of the waterslide as I edged perilously closer to its slick surface and a steep five-foot drop into northern Minnesota’s Kabetogama Lake. It was a hot and sticky July afternoon in Voyageurs National Park, and I was frozen in place, hands clutching the guardrails, unable to let go. “I’m scared!” I yelled down to my partner, who was laughing and filming the entire endeavor for my future embarrassment. “Just do it!” he shouted back.

I decided not to let fear dictate my fun. I released my grip, slid down the slope, and flopped feetfirst into the surprisingly warm water of the lake. Somehow I felt right at home. Swimming naked later that afternoon in a secluded cove fenced in by boreal forest and lichen-encrusted boulders was the best possible medicine for my Scandinavian soul.

The patchwork quilt of lakes and forests that stretches for roughly 150 miles from Lake Superior to Voyageurs National Park is referred to as the Boundary Waters and is a popular retreat for canoe campers and anglers. Named after the French word for “traveler,” Voyageurs once served as an important waterway for both the Ojibwa people and French-Canadian fur traders in the 1700s. Today it’s bordered by a series of neighboring natural areas, forming a wilderness preserve that straddles both sides of the international border and stretches for over one million acres, encompassing nearly 1,200 lakes.

Exploring Voyageurs by houseboat
Exploring Voyageurs by houseboat (Emily Pennington)

Since Voyageurs is one of the few water-based national parks in the system, I wanted to explore it in a new way. My partner and I rented a houseboat, loaded up on groceries, and were soon cruising around a vast expanse of sapphire water flecked with small islands. For three nights, we had our very own portable cabin on floats, a comfortable vessel perfect for getting as far away from city stress as possible.

After my run-in with the waterslide, we hopped into the motorized skiff that came with our houseboat and set off in search of Ellsworth Rock Gardens. We zoomed by islets not much bigger than suburban homes, clumsily navigating a 13-mile stretch of open water and stopping frequently to read and reread our map.

Finally, we arrived and took our time strolling through the maze of simple rock sculptures and tiger lilies built and planted by self-taught artist Jack Ellsworth during his two decades of summers up north beginning in the 1940s. Driven by the local community, the National Park Service has helped maintain this historic outdoor art garden since the 1990s, and it’s a magical place to spend an afternoon. We ate a picnic lunch on the grass near the entrance and sprawled out in the fabulous sunshine.

In the early evening, we motored back to our floating apartment and watched as the clouds lit up neon pink, like electric blossoms. I felt delicately stitched between the stars and land, full of earthen treasures that only time in the outdoors can provide. I felt alive.

62 Parks Traveler Voyageurs Info

Size: 218,200 acres

Location: Northern Minnesota

Created In: 1975 (national park)

Best For: Boating, fishing, bird-watching, stargazing, canoe camping

When to Go: Summer (49 to 79 degrees) is by far the best time to visit the park. Fall (16 to 65 degrees) brings cooler temperatures and measurable snow in late October. In the spring (12 to 67 degrees), the average ice-out date for lakes is May 3. Winter (minus 8 to 22 degrees) is best left to locals with snowmobiles.

Where to Stay: When in Rome, do as the Romans. Houseboats will give you the best the lay of the land in Voyageurs and are a great way for families to enjoy the park in comfort. Ebel’s Houseboats offers fully stocked vessels, with bathrooms and beds for groups (from $345 a night).

Mini Adventure: Go on a boat tour. If you only have one day in the park, a guided boat trip is a fantastic way to learn about the area’s unique history, flora, and fauna. Though operations were suspended for the 2020 season, the park usually runs trips out of Rainy Lake, Kabetogama, and Ash River.

Mega Adventure: Canoe-camp around Boundary Waters. Experience the park the way explorers did 250 years ago by renting a canoe and reserving one of the park’s many frontcountry or backcountry sites. Drift through lush forests of spruce and paper birch before docking near your own private island.