Wilderness exploration, high finance, and a frontier trading post are all part of the story at Grand Portage National Monument (Minnesota), and the park's big annual event is coming up later this week. Here are some tips to make the most of your visit, summer or fall.
1. What's here? From 1784 to 1803, the North West Company ran the most profitable fur trade operation on the Great Lakes, and their inland headquarters was located at Grand Portage, the largest fur trade depot in the heart of the continent.
Why this location? The Pigeon River, which flows into Lake Superior in this corner of what we now call Minnesota, provided water access to the wealth of the interior Northwest, but there was one serious glitch: Waterfalls on the lower end of the river made it impassible by boat. A portage of about nine miles at this spot provided the vital connection, and made it possible to travel by canoe to and from the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.
Key elements of the post have been reconstructed in the park, and Grand Portage National Monument's excellent living history program offers a great opportunity to learn about this slice of our nation's history. The scenic setting is a nice bonus.
2. The park's major annual event occurs this weekend. The Rendezvous Days and Pow Wow will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on August 7, 8 and 9, 2009.
National Park Service staff and over 300 volunteers re-create a lively voyageur Rendezvous at the historic North West Company fur trade depot in Grand Portage, MN. Scheduled events help you learn more about the 18th Century life of traders, clerks, and native Ojibwe. Many activities, such as a waltz workshop and a dainty voyageur contest are open for public participation, or to simply stand back, watch, and enjoy.
You can download a schedule of events for the weekend from the park website.
3. There's plenty to see and do any day during the summer and early autumn. In 1958 the Grand Portage Band of Minnesota Chippewa donated the land for the national monument to the NPS. The Historic Depot, which includes three reconstructed log buildings (Great Hall, kitchen, and canoe warehouse) and four outside areas (Ojibwe village, voyageurs' encampment, dock and historic gardens are open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., May 23-October 12, 2009.
The Great Hall is historically furnished circa 1790s, and includes a "Try-It-On historic clothing exhibit where you can fit into history." Period cooking and baking demonstrations are conducted in the kitchen, and the Voyageur Encampment and Ojibwe Village offer demonstrations of Ojibwe and voyageur life in the late 1700s. Many vegetable varieties grown in the historic gardens date back to the 1700s and early 1800s.
Ranger walks and talks cover a wide variety of topics, from Historic Tools and Their Uses to Historic Weapons Firing Demonstrations, Native American Lifeways, and Building a Birchbark Canoe.
4. The Grand Portage National Monument Heritage Center opened in 2007 and is located on a rocky hill overlooking the reconstructed fur-trading post. It features pine pillars that rise from the basement to the roofs pointing out the Four Cardinal Directions important in Ojibwe culture. The building houses exhibit galleries about Ojibwe culture and the fur trade, a bookstore, multi-media programs, park offices, archives and a classroom. Three short films are shown at regular intervals during the day. The Center is open year-round, but only on weekdays from late fall to late spring. Check the park website for the schedule.
5. For a short walk, take the Mount Rose Trail. The one-mile round trip climbs 300 feet for a spectacular vista of the depot and Lake Superior. A self-guiding trail brochure is available at the trailhead. The Grand Portage footpath from the depot to new Highway 61 offers a second option; that trail is a 1½-mile round trip.
If you want a longer hike and a hint of the trek faced by the voyageurs who hauled their furs and trade goods over the portage, you can walk either of two sections of the Grand Portage footpath: The round trip from the stockade to Old Highway 61 covers eight miles; from Old Highway 61 to the site of Fort Charlotte is a nine mile round-trip. You'll have a distinct advantage over the hardy voyageurs of old—they often hauled not one, but two bales of compressed beaver pelts weighing 90 pounds each!
6. Like to combine a longer hike with an overnight trip? Get a backcountry permit to camp overnight at the site of Fort Charlotte, at the opposite end of the Grand Portage from the park facilities. This is primitive camping, and permits are available during regular business hours from the park ranger station or after hours at three registration boxes located at new Highway 61, old Highway 61 or Fort Charlotte depending upon your entrance to the Grand Portage footpath
7. Want to picnic? You'll find a spot beside Lake Superior in the historic porkeater’s camp, named for the voyageurs who paddled from Montreal to Grand Portage.
8. To understand the need for the Grand Portage, don't miss the nearby Grand Portage State Park, located just south of the Canadian border on Highway 61. The High Falls on the Pigeon River are well-named: they're the highest in the state (120 feet) and are absolutely spectacular, especially in the early summer.
The falls are reached via an easy paved trail; once you see them, you'll have no doubt about the reason the Grand Portage exists as an alternative to a river trip! Check the state park website for important schedule information; the area is closed some weekdays in August due to work on a new visitor center.
9. Access to Grand Portage is via the North Shore Scenic Drive (Minnesota 61), part of the network of National Scenic Byways. The 154-mile drive extends northward from Duluth to the Canadian border; Grand Portage is located seven miles south of the border. In addition to Grand Portage National Monument, the drive provides access to eight state parks and the Superior National Forest. Although it's possible to make the trip from Duluth to the park in about three hours, the drive deserves a full day or more—lighthouses, waterfalls, hiking trails and scenic overlooks will tempt you to make plenty of stops along the way.
10. Where to stay: Overnight lodging is available near the park in the small town of Grand Portage. A wider range of accommodations is available in and near Gran Marais, 35 miles south of the park, and in a number of locations scattered along the North Shore Scenic Drive.