We left Duluth and drove up the North Shore Scenic Drive to Grand Marais, forty miles from the Canadian border. Grand Marais, population 1,351 is a beautiful town situated on Lake Superior. It has a summer vacation destination vibe with small tourist shops, restaurants, a few hotels and tons of gorgeous scenery. There are no fast food restaurants or big stores located in Grand Marais. Like the rest of Minnesota, it is a fisherman’s dream come true.
We stayed at a city campground/marina with beautiful water views. The campground was a short walk from the small downtown area. One day we strolled downtown and wandered along the waterfront. Bill had a great fish lunch at the Dockside Fish Market where you can buy lunch or pick up fresh fish to take home. Bill had fish and chips with what he said was delicious whitefish. The only way to get it fresher was to go out with your own fishing pole!
Tuesday we drove forty miles up to Grand Portal State Park located right at the US/Canadian border. In fact when we turned into the entrance to the park we could see the border crossing just ahead and the welcome to Minnesota sign for those arriving from Canada. The state park, established in 1989, is actually located on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. The Native Americans lease the land to the state of Minnesota for $1 a year.
Our purpose for coming here was to see the High Falls, which at 120 feet is the tallest waterfall in Minnesota. To view the Falls we walked an easy half mile along a beautiful boardwalk through a forest setting.
The High Falls were gorgeous and we could see the Pigeon River which is part of the international border between Canada and the United States. Here, the Pigeon River is twenty miles of a series of treacherous cascades and waterfalls on its way to Lake Superior, making this section of the river completely unnavigable. For this reason a “Grand Portage” was necessary. In this case, the Portage consisted of a 8.5 mile foot path used to carry boats and supplies from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River. It was followed by voyageurs (French for travelers) to Port Charlotte and the boundary waters separating Minnesota and Canada. Through this portage passed all the trade goods from Montreal and furs from the Canadian Northwest. Along this 8.5 mile path voyageurs carried two 90 pound packs as well as their canoes.
Native Americans were the first to develop and use the portal from Lake Superior inland for centuries. The Ojibwe called the portage “The Great Carrying Place”. The Ojibwe people frequently traveled the portage carrying birch bark canoes and baskets of fish, garden seed, wild rice, and copper. The two oldest copper sites in North America come from the Lake Superior basin. When the French traders came in the 17th century the Native Americans showed them the portage which they then used to transport goods from large lake canoes to smaller canoes. The Grand Portage was the earliest European presence in the Great Lakes region with the first documented travel along the Grand Portage in 1731.
Next we stopped at the nearby Grand Portage National Monument. We saw an excellent movie on the history of the area, with an emphasis on the Native American viewpoint. The Visitors Center also had interesting exhibits and displays. We then walked down the hill to a reconstructed Ojibwe village and Voyageur Encampment reconstructed based on archeological excavations. The furnishings are in the 1797 style. The settlement consisted of a stockade, great hall, kitchen and warehouse.
In 1763 after the French and Indian War, France ceded Canada to Great Britain and the British took control of the fur trade away from the French. From 1784 to 1803 the North West Company, owned by Highland Scots, ran a very profitable fur trading operation in the Great Lakes area. The company’s headquarters was located at Grand Portage and was the largest fur trade depot on the continent. It was a profitable time for the Europeans as well as the Native Americans. They got along well and traded goods each needed. The Native Americans taught them how to build birch bark canoes and traded pelts and their immense knowledge of the area for glass beads, wool clothing, kettles, axes, firearms and liquor. Some of the voyageurs even married Native American women. Much of the settlement was empty most of the year as the men were out hunting, but every July they held the Rendezvous, an annual gathering when furs from wintering posts in Canada were delivered to Grand Portage.
Hundreds of vogageurs came to the Grand Portage and it was a time of great celebration for the voyageurs as well as the Native Americans. The North West Company shipped fur pelts originating from over 100 trading posts through the Grand Portage. In the 1700 and early 1800’s, fur pelts were used for fashionable clothing. Furs for hats made up more than 65% of all English fur imports. Beaver pelts accounted for over 60% of total pelts traded in one season during the height of the Grand Portage between 1785-1802. The use of beaver pelts for hats severely depleted the beaver population in North America, Europe and Russia. In 1793 alone 182,000 beaver pelts passed through the Grand Portage. Beaver was considered the highest quality fur. The Rendezvous was when the voyageurs received their pay for the past year’s work and once the celebration ended the trappers headed out for another season of travel and trade.
The North West Company left the Grand Portage in 1803 when the new United States claimed the area in a border agreement with Canada. The Company knew possibly doing business with the new United States led to issues of citizenship, licensing and import duties they wanted to avoid. Their leaving the area after years of profitable trade with the Indians led to hard times for the Native Americans in what they called “The Starving Times”.
In the early 1800’s there was an intense and sometimes violent rivalry between the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company for business. The two companies merged in 1821 into the Hudson Bay Company.
In 1958 the Grand Portage Band of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe donated the land to the United States and it became a national monument.
Here are two videos for you to select and view:
Next stop: Ely, Minnesota