Monday, August 12, 2013

Grand Marais

When Europeans first started penetrating into the American continent, one obvious "road" was the Great Lakes. They learned from the Indians how to make birchbark canoes and used them to transport furs back to Montréal by the ton. That got them as far as the tip of Lake Superior but to proceed west from there they had to navigate up the Pigeon River. The first few miles of the river required over a dozen difficult and dangerous portages, having to unload and carry their goods and canoes around rapids and waterfalls. Eventually their trading partners, the Ojibwa Indians, showed them a 9 mile trail that began about 5 miles south of the river mouth that bypassed all of these obstacles and was dubbed by the French as Le Grand Portage. After the seven years war, the British kicked the French out and took over the fur trade and where the Grand Portage trail met Lake Superior the North West Company established its main fur trading post. For 30 years this was a fairly major community acting as the hub of the system where furs from the entire western half of the continent were collected by Native Americans and sent off to Europe in exchange for wool blankets, iron tools and other European trade goods. Then we had this little thing called the American Revolution. It took a couple of decades of wrangling but the border between America and British Canada was eventually established to be at the Pigeon River, which you will recall Grand Portage was 5 miles south of. So rather than pay punitive taxes to us, the Northwest Company packed their bags and moved north to Thunder Bay and the community of Grand Portage fell back into obscurity. Today, this town along the Canadian border has a population of about 550, most of which are Ojibwa Indians living on the Grand Portage Reservation off the proceeds of their tribal casino.
Ojibwa condominium project
Ojibwa bassinete hanging from teepee wall
Grand Portage also has a national monument where they have reconstructed some of the North West Company trading post and have docents in costume explaining what the life was like there. When you enter the area the first thing you run into is a small collection of Indian dwellings. These are made of birchbark over wood frames in several configurations. They were similar to the teepees of the Plains Indians but instead of buffalo hides they were covered with birchbark which was actually removed from the trees in about 2 foot panels and sewn together using birch roots. Inside, the
Sewing birch bark panels
floors were covered with spruce boughs to act as a mattress and then animal hides. The trading post itself was inside a wooden palisade although there were never any hostilities between the English and the Ojibwa. Inside were about a dozen buildings of which only three have been reconstructed, a storehouse, a cookhouse and the large trading hall. All of this was interesting and, for me, quite educational and is certainly worth a half a day if you are ever anywhere near that little piece of the Canadian border.
North West Company compound

Trading this...
...for this...
...using nothing but this.

Grand Marais
We did not stay in Grand Portage (because there's nothing there), we stayed in Grand Marais, about 35 miles further south west along the "North Shore" of Minnesota. Marais is the French word for marsh, so the town's name would translate more or less as Big Swamp, but it actually is a really nice little community of about 1500 residents and, in the summertime, 1 million tourists. There is a large municipal campground in the center of town which provided

Coastguard Station
nice camping for a reasonable price. The only drawback was that everybody except us felt compelled to have a campfire so from about 5 PM until midnight the air was pretty smoky. I like an occasional campfire but this was ridiculous. The town has a small harbor (which is very scenic) and a number of good restaurants if you could manage to get a table (competition was fierce).

We took day trips from Grand Marais both up and down the coast. There are a number of rivers and waterfalls which can be reached by hikes ranging from a few hundred feet to a couple of miles. We tried hiking to the Devils Kettle Falls at Judge C. R. Magney State Park, which is a 2 mile round trip. Unbeknownst to us, at the end of the trail is a wooden staircase that you have to go down to reach the actual falls. So after walking a mile uphill I was confronted with this:
A few stairs

A different waterfall across the valley
I heard someone coming up say what I thought was "there are 78 steps" which sounded doable if unpleasant, so I started my decent. After about 70 steps I realized that there were clearly still way more steps below me than above and I must have misheard. Maybe he said 178 steps. Or perhaps 7800 steps. Either way, I had dealt with as many steps as I was willing to, so I took some pictures of a different waterfall across the valley and turned around and headed back towards the parking lot. The good news is that it was mostly downhill back to the parking lot (except for the 70 steps of course). The bad news is about two thirds of the way there it started to rain. Not heavy, fortunately. Just sprinkles. Not enough to make me hurry any faster anyway.

The interesting thing about the Devils Kettle is that the Brule River splits into two branches, one of which falls into a large pothole and… disappears. A number of studies using colored dyes and ping-pong balls in the river have been tried to determine where the water comes out but to no avail. The geology is not right for a lava tube or fissure, there are no fault lines in the area. The hole doesn't fill up, so the water has to go somewhere but where it ends up remains a mystery. I'm sure if somebody would carry me down the other hundred steps I could figure it out for them, but I guess they don't want to know the answer that badly.

Artists Point
Of the three days we spent in Grand Marais, the first two were mostly overcast but the third day was very nice and in the late afternoon and we took our chairs and a thermos full of margaritas to a little beach area on the north side of town called Artists Point and relaxed for a couple of hours with schnoodles on our laps and alcohol in our veins. We need to do more of that.

Bonus pictures:

Cross River
Tetteguchi State Park

Schnoodles are good ice breakers

Cascade River

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