Sunday, June 15, 2014

Voyageurs National Park

A couple of friends from the Urban Boatbuilders shop and I decided to take a week to explore Voyager's National Park by sailboat. This was to be a sailing expedition- that is until the wind failed to cooperate. But more on that later...

Voyageurs is a water-based park located along the Canadian border in northern Minnesota. The park surrounds 4 major lakes and contains 26 interior lakes- 84,000 acres of water! Named after the fur traders who began traveling this northern water-based transportation network more than 250 years ago, the park's campsites are accessible only by water. Adjacent to the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park contains similar terrain and scenery but is open to motorized recreation. Power boats and houseboats are the preferred mode of transportation. We opted for a homemade sailboat powered by the wind and a small 5 horsepower outboard engine. Bob and I would sleep in a tent while Greg would sleep in his finely-crafted boat, called Arcebus. We would tow a small dory restored by Greg and also outfitted with a sail rig and vintage Chrysler outboard to use for fishing and exploring areas around our campsites.

A working model of Arcebus

A bit about Arcebus. It is a custom handbuilt boat designed by Greg. He borrowed a concept of a walk-through cabin from another designer and adapted it to a hull design based on the nutshell pram- enlarged to suit Greg's needs. The boat is unusual looking but performs well in the water. The cabin proved very comfortable for long days on the water as well as for hanging out in at camp during bad weather. The prospect of designing and building such a boat is a task well beyond my imagination, but Greg pulled it off with skill and perseverance over 3 years in his backyard. You can read more about it here: Arcebus Construction

We left on Sunday morning with a scheduled stop in Hibbing, Minnesota to visit Greg's daughter and new grandchild. Then on to Greg's tree house for our evening accommodations. The tree house is another of Greg's creations, built in a nice red pine on land bought at auction near a state park. The place provides a retreat in the woods for Greg and his family. It was a pleasant diversion to fall asleep to the swaying motions of the tree, surrounded by the forest. You can read about the tree house project here: Tree House

Greg's tree house

On Monday, we traveled to Voyageurs, launched the boats, got our free overnight permit, shuttled a truck to our takeout point and set off on Rainy Lake for a week of relaxation, sailing, fishing and camping.

Weather in May in Minnesota can be variable, with extremes ranging from snow and freezing temps to summer heat and thunderstorms. Since formal "ice-out" (meaning the lake is 90% free of ice after the winter freeze-up) had occurred only a week previous, we anticipated cool temps. May tends to be a windy month in Voyageurs. We also anticipated strong winds and the need to take shelter occasionally, as the prevailing westerly wind runs unimpeded down the length of Rainy Lake and strong winds can create large waves and dangerous conditions for small craft.

We could not have been more wrong. While Monday began with cool temps, things quickly heated up. Temps reached into the 80°s all week and the wind was nowhere to be found. Our days consisted largely of motoring at a very casual pace while basking in warm sunshine and appreciating the beautiful boreal landscape surrounding us.

The overall trip took us through parts of 3 large lakes (Rainy, Namekan, Kabetogema), about 45 miles by water and 4 different campsites. The following pictures and maps provide a summary of the trip. You can click on a photo to see a larger version and a filmstrip of all the photos.

You can see all the photos from the trip on Picasa: Voyageurs Trip Photos

Overview of trip route

On the dock at Rainy Lake

View of the dock as we left.

Day 1
Greg hoisted the sails in hopes of catching some wind but alas, there was none.

I had the prime seat on the bow deck.

The dory followed pretty well.

All the campsites were full on Memorial Day so we had to make do with a bushwhacked site.

There was a nice picnic site nearby so we rowed over for our meals.
The dory beached for dinner.

Enjoying the view after dinner.
Greg rowing back to camp.
We found a good site for the tent.

Enjoyed a nice sunset...
And a nice morning.

Day 2

Day 2 was beautiful, calm and sunny.

Endless views of water and islands.

Without the sails, the day was pretty lazy.

Keeping track of our location. We traded off on piloting.

Captain Greg

Day 2 camp at Windmill Rock View

A large sloping expanse of exposed bedrock led to a nice view.

An official campsite this time- very nice.

We took the dory out for some fishing and exploring.

Dinner was chicken alfredo- tasty.

A calm evening.

We took a hike after dinner.

The trail crossed the bedrock but was well-marked with cairns.

The trail led to a large marsh created over years by beaver activity.

A large beaver lodge marked the site of their dam.

We returned to camp in time to enjoy a nice sunset.

Day 3

Day 3 took us to Kettle Falls and a very efficient truck portage for the boats around the falls.

Rowing to the dock at the portage.

the historic Kettle Falls Hotel.

We had a good lunch of pizza and beer on the very pleasant porch.

The hotel is known for its very tilted bar. The floor has settled about 18 inches into the corner.

Can't imagine staying upright after a few beers...

The Kettle Falls dam.

View from the dam overlook.

Day 3 camp.

Another nice sunset

The start of a nice campfire.

We looked for campsites with docks- they made securing the boats easy.

Day 4. We stayed at this camp for 3 nights.

Another beautiful day. My turn to pilot.

Bob tries his luck from the dock.

Greg tries his luck from the dory.

Bob caught a nice walleye. We ate it with basil pesto pasta. Yum.

Down the lake a bit from our camp was the Ellsworth Rock Garden.

Built by a retired contractor from Chicago- very interesting.

Rock walls and stone sculptures built over 30 years without power tools.

Terraces are covered in flowers during the summer.

Another attempt at hooking a walleye...

A bald eagle flew by...

One afternoon a breeze sufficient for sailing sprang up.

We each had a go at sailing the dory.

Staying for a few days allowed an investment of time in building a shelter.

Climbing a nice cliff behind camp provided a diversion.

Flowering Serviceberry above camp.

View of camp from top of cliff.

Nice pines above camp.

Friday night and Saturday, the clouds opened up.

We tried to make the best of the weather but the rain chased us in.

We found a much better pastime in the cabin of Arcebus- sharing stories and a bottle of rum.

Cooking in the rain- thankful for the tarp.

The last day provided enough wind to sail our way home.

The last day dawned cloudy with fog. With enough wind to sail, we hoisted the mast and sails. With the fog and no gps, we had to navigate with maps and compass. I was happy to have a chance to sail and we found the harbor without difficulty. Arcebus is a fun boat to sail.

We docked at the Kabetogema visitors center and loaded up the boats. A quick shuttle to pick up Greg's truck and we were off- back to the tree house and dinner at Bimbo's in Side Lake. The trip was very fun and I look forward to returning to Voyageurs again in the future. Thanks to Greg for organizing the trip and providing the boats, and to Bob for organizing logistics and providing photos liberally used here. Good times.


  1. Al -- We should have taken Rocky along.


    1. Rocky would have loved it- not sure about Bob and I sharing the tent with him though... haha.

  2. Looks like you guys had fun. I enjoyed the photos.