Portage Panorama

Midwest Traveler®

I SLIPPED MY BRIGHT PLASTIC KAYAK into Lake Superior’s Grand Portage Bay. Paddling down a line of black rock, I rounded Hat Point, heading toward Canada.

And there it was: the great wild north. To the left, the basaltic mass of Mount Josephine. And before me, the Susie Islands. The Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven certainly got it right: big humping hills of diabase, geometric blocks of somber spruce, and ethereal light dancing on scalloped waves.

If you aren’t partial to kayaks, get a look at this country by driving northeast out of Grand Portage toward the Pigeon River. Immediately the road shoots up over Josephine, providing spectacular views of the forests and ridges inland. Stop at the highway rest area just before the international border and look out over the islands and points that sweep northeastward into Canada. You can even see Michigan’s Isle Royale in the distance. For my money, it’s the best view of Lake Superior from anywhere along Minnesota’s North Shore.

But it’s more than just gorgeous natural vistas. Last summer I spent several days at the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead, kayaking, fishing swift streams, hiking wooded trails, and sitting on a rocky beach at a mom-and-pop resort. I soon realized that this was the last view of the old North Shore—the shore I visited as a kid, the shore before the mansions, townhouses, and condos, the shore before the high-speed highway with magnificent tunnels, the shore bestowed by Ojibwa Indians and Norwegian fishermen. While the rest of the North Shore from Duluth to Hovland has been suburbanized, the farthest tip of northeastern Minnesota has remained what the North Shore was like 40 years ago.

A Sleepy Town

There’ll be a bit of activity when the Wenonah and Voyageur II return from Isle Royale, 22 miles distant, and unload their passengers. And slot machines keep ringing at the tribal casino, at the eastern end of the bay, all hours of the day. Otherwise, Grand Portage, the only settlement of consequence in the Grand Portage Reservation, is a sleepy burg. Driving around town, you’ll see the white clapboard Holy Rosary Catholic Church, the Gitchi Onigaming Community Center, and the only log school building in Minnesota, which is now a museum. Maybe there’ll be someone about. Maybe not.

The tip of the Arrowhead retains the somnolence of the old North Shore partly due to distance; it is the section of Minnesota’s Superior coast that is farthest from residents of the Twin Cities and Duluth who demand summer cabins and retirement homes. But largely it’s because the tip of the Arrowhead is an Indian reservation. And the Grand Portage Ojibwa have used the proceeds from their lodge and casino to buy back land lost over the years to non-Indians and to thwart projects that would change the essential character of the place.

“I guess the band has been looking at what has been happening up and down the shore—all the development, the huge encroachment, people building fabulous homes and large cabins and demanding recreation areas,” Curtis Gagnon, the trust lands administrator for the band, told me some time ago during a skirmish over development on the reservation. “The band wanted something for the generations to come, for people to enjoy and see what it’s like, what we enjoy today.”

Over the years, the band has blocked and purchased the site of a multistory vacation home on Red Rock Bay. It has bought the site of the so-called “witch tree” (a twisted cedar on Hat Point) and built a boardwalk to it to prevent erosion. And it has restored and built spawning areas for native brook trout that migrate from the lake each fall.

The Grand Portage

It’s hard to believe, but 200 years ago Grand Portage was the busiest trading center west of the Appalachians, the crossroads of a lively trade extending from Europe to the front range of the Rockies and the northernmost reaches of the Canadian forest. Grand Portage was the meeting place of Scottish agents of the North West Company from Montreal; of French Canadian voyageurs bringing cloth, kettles, and other trade goods across the Great Lakes; of “winterers” carrying furs from Canada; of independent traders; of Ojibwa who had settled around western Lake Superior; and of African Americans who worked in the fur trade as slaves or canoeists. At the summer “rendezvous,” wrote Alexander Mackenzie in 1801, “there are sometimes assembled to the number of 1,200 men indulging themselves in the free use of liquor and quarreling with each other.”

This trade and revelry occurred on the shore of Grand Portage Bay at the North West Company post, now a national monument with a reconstructed fort. Grand Portage National Monument consists of a palisade, a handsome hewn-log Great Hall, and an adjoining kitchen with a fireplace and hearth so large you could camp inside.

In centuries past, the thick Scottish brogue of North West partners and clerks would have filled the Great Hall as they talked business over dinner at place settings segregated by rank, the quality and quantity of dishes reflecting the company hierarchy.

These days the place settings are laid for partners who never show. Samples of furs are displayed on the tables. In a room off the main hall, women from the Grand Portage band make birch-bark baskets. Behind the kitchen, other women bake fresh bread in the outdoor oven. Re-enactors in the “Ojibwa village” outside the palisade build birch-bark canoes and wigwams.

The reason for all this hubbub, of course, was the Grand Portage itself, a trail nearly nine miles long charted centuries ago by Indians canoeing from the lakes of the Boundary Waters to the shore of Superior, a shortcut to bypass the thundering rapids and falls of the lower Pigeon River. French Canadian voyageurs deepened the ruts the Indians laid, lugging trade goods such as blankets, steel axes, and musket balls up the trail, paddling off into the vast interior of Canada. Months later, they would return with furs bound for Lachine, near Montreal, and eventually, Europe.

You can still hike the Grand Portage, though it’s hardly a scenic wonderland. Wooded, occasionally swampy, lacking vistas and overlooks, it’s no-nonsense transportation. At the far end, on the banks of the Pigeon River, is the site of old Fort Charlotte, now faded by time and the forest. To get a taste of the trail, you can follow old Highway 61 (once the highway to Canada) and bisect the trail near the border, as I did.

As I strode over roots and rocks—perhaps some of the same that tripped the voyageurs—I imagined carrying a 250-pound portion of a canoe over my head, or two 90-pound packs, as each voyageur did. Then I envisioned it had been raining for three days and I was slogging up to my ankles in mud and water—and that this portage was but the first step of a thousand-mile journey.

If the Grand Portage sounds like a lot of work without much reward, follow the half-mile trail up Mount Rose behind the reconstructed fort. The 300-foot climb provides a wide view of the fort and Grand Portage Bay. For another quick hike, I drove the short distance to Grand Portage State Park, a 278-acre stretch along three miles of the lower Pigeon River. I followed the wide, smooth path and boardwalk to the park’s main attraction, High Falls, the tallest waterfall in Minnesota, with about a 120-foot drop. The falls were in fine form. Mist filled the canyon and sprayed my face as I looked at the rapids racing through the gorge below.

A Cabin on the Shore

I booked a cabin at the Hollow Rock Resort, a mom-and-pop establishment the likes of which was once common along the North Shore but is getting tougher and tougher to find.

The cabin, called Goose Down, was a tight box on a rocky point, with a kitchenette, a big bathroom, a double bed in the main room, and a view toward the open lake, which had pummeled the shore and blasted a small, picturesque arch from solid rock. Behind the cabin on the other side of the point, a cobbled bay looked toward Canada.

Hollow Rock co-owner Pat Bigelow lamented the loss of the small resorts along the shore. “A lot of them are disappearing—the properties are worth so much more than the businesses.” She and her husband, Dan, were also selling.

They talked to a couple of potential buyers. One wanted to build condos; the other, a grand house. So the Bigelows went to the band. When I visited, the tribe was in the process of closing on the property; today, they continue to operate it as a small resort.

Heavenly Trout

At once aggressive and delicate, the brook trout is emblematic of the north woods, with celestial colors—dark nebulae along its back, a sunset in its flanks, and spots of fire and moonlight, some trimmed with areolae of sky blue.

As a teenager and young man, I wasted considerable time stalking small creeks along the North Shore for the perfect brook trout hole. Hell, I’d have settled for anything better than awful—the North Shore streams are marginal trout water at best, and any really good brook trout haunts were likely to have been hammered by like-minded anglers. Nonetheless, I searched, driving back roads, battling brush, clutching my fly rod in one hand as I scaled cliffs with the other. Mostly, it was a romantic idea—to catch the most beautiful trout in the rapids and waterfalls of the most beautiful stream.

One afternoon, I set out to duplicate the futility of my past. I pulled up to a bridge not far from Grand Portage (sorry, brook trout anglers never reveal where they fish), strung up my rod, and donned my waders. I made a single cast and caught a fat nine-inch brook trout, which I should have taken as an omen—a bad one. I cast two hours more without catching another fish.

Toward evening, I cast lazily in a deep run by a grassy clearing within easy sight—indeed, within a reasonable cast—of the major road in the area. By rights, it was the hole that had been fished to death. Sure enough, after a couple of casts, I hooked a fat 10-inch brookie that got away in my fumble-fingered attempt to land it. But a few casts later, I caught another, a hair larger. I took this as a sign, whacked it dead, and slipped it into my fishing vest.

The next morning I experienced the quintessential North Shore of yesteryear. Looking out the picture window of my snug little cabin, watching crystal blue waves slap the rocky shore, I enjoyed a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh blueberries, coffee, and—a gift from heaven—the pale, delectable flesh of a brook trout.