We were excited to implement our plan to visit International Falls, home to Voyageurs National Park (VNP), during our days off from volunteering at the Edge of the Wilderness Discovery Center in Marcell, Minnesota. We headed out by 8 a.m. on Maximus the Trike, traversing on MN-6. It was a lonely drive for the first 45-minutes—only a half dozen other cars were traveling on either side of this roadway. Then we reached Big Falls and the intersection with US-71. While Dad fueled up Maximus, Mom and I read the interpretive signs. Big Falls’ first European settler arrived from Scotland in 1877. The town was originally named Ripple, but its name changed to Big Falls in 1904 when the town incorporated. Its tagline is In the Heart of the Wilderness. We visited the County Park in Big Falls, which is a hidden gem. A beautiful setting overlooking small waterfalls, the Park contains 32 RV sites that have electric and water hookups. A dump station is available as well. Several of the sites are big-rig friendly, i.e., they could fit our Big Boomer/Suite Retreat set-up easily. All for just $30/night. Even better, you can book for a week ($180) or even a month at a time ($540). Furthermore, I did a full inspection of their facilities and can report that the Park has ultra clean restrooms and showers if you need/want to use them.
We drove the other hour to International Falls, arriving just as a storm was brewing. This neck of the woods has suffered from an inordinate amount of rain and subsequent flooding this year, so much so that VNP has pushed back the commencement of Park boat rides from July 9 to July 17. Bummer! Our 3-day getaway here is over on July 14! Oh well, we will do as much as we can on this visit. We sought out a place for lunch, consulting Trip Advisor. Unfortunately, 3 among the list of “best” eateries in International Falls are all shuttered and/or for sale. Seemingly, COVID lockdowns in 2020 and a drought in 2021 have severely impacted this tourist town of approximately 6,000 residents. We settled on a small café, The Chocolate Moose, at which I suffered Disappointment #2: They do not offer chocolate mousse on their dessert menu! It was while eating a rather mundane meal that I learned another disturbing fact: There are NO falls to be seen in International Falls! What! How can that be? Apparently, the local paper mill dammed the Rainy River in 1905, which caused the falls to submerge into the reservoir. And to top it off, up until 1903 the town was known as Koochiching (the Ojibwe Indian word for mist over water). This Rat feels it should be a criminal offense to call the town International Falls, knowing full well there are no falls here. Talk about false advertisement!
Fortunately, my tirade subsided when my parents brought me to Smokey Bear Park. I took my photo with the towering 26-foot statue of my favorite forest firefighting hero, with his timeless message, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” We walked along the business district, with my parents stopping to support a local shop. Mom just couldn’t resist purchasing matching hoodies for her and Dad on a clearance rack BOGO (buy 1, get 1 free) sale. Plus, Minnesota has no sales tax on clothing. Thanks, Mom, for saving some money and protecting my cheese inheritance!
|Me with my fav forest firefighting hero and his pals.|
|Last shop before crossing into Canada.|
We got to the Hilltop Lodge and Cabins for check-in just as the downpour began. We were welcomed by Ryan and Amanda, a young couple who left Corporate hospitality jobs in 2019 to operate their own lodging outfit. There are no employees here—Ryan and Amanda do it all—from cleaning to reservations. And a great job they do on all tasks. It is so nice to see people realize their American Dream. I loved our rustic cabin! It might look small, but it had every amenity we could want or need: fridge, microwave, dinette, cable TV, and Wi-Fi. Our $99/night rate even included a continental breakfast. We ate dinner that evening at The Library, an eatery surrounded by literary works. It was lighter fare, but Dad had vegan options, and all our selections were tasty and reasonably priced. I slept fitfully, with a full belly and a happy heart.
|Our little cabin--so cute!|
|An outdoor seating area for the cabins.|
|A very inviting setting at "The Library" eatery.|
Early the next morning, we headed towards VNP, stopping along the way to visit the statue of Big Vic in the Village of Ranier. Big Vic is a symbol of protest that stems from the National Park Service (NPS) using eminent domain to confiscate people’s private property to create VNP. Those property owners who did not wish to sell their property to the NPS were subjected suddenly to condemnation or limitations on the use of their lands. Vic Davis, along with others, believed this was government overreach. So, he sued the government. But the powers-that-be just printed more money, giving them unlimited resources to countersue. Mr. Davis then came up with a way to inconvenience the NPS: he purchased the island of Little Cranberry and sold small parcels to others for a mere $20/parcel, inundating the NPS with paperwork and additional landowners with whom to negotiate purchases. Furthermore, he commissioned the creation of the Big Vic statue, which once stood proudly on Cranberry Island as a big middle finger to the NPS. Eventually, the NPS won the land acquisition war, but not without a good fight from Vic Davis. We walked a bit around the rest of the historic village, but the place was a ghost town. Most of the businesses were sandbagged and the docks underwater from recent flooding.
|The Statue of Big Vic.|
|A quaint country chapel...|
We arrived at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center within VNP. I collected my Junior Ranger booklet, watched not 1, but 2 very interesting films, and enjoyed chatting with the Park volunteers. VNP consists of 218,000 acres, the majority of which are waterways. The Ojibwe Indians frequented this area, building birch canoes for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. They hunted, fished, gathered, and traded here. Furthermore, for nearly 200 years, employees of the Northwest and Hudson Bay Company traveled 3,000 miles each summer to trade goods for furs. They rowed 16 hours a day, 50 minutes each hour. That is one major workout! Then when they encountered waterfalls, they had to portage over land, each carrying a 90-pound bag for several miles over primitive terrain—and they still had to return for the canoe! These voyageurs had plenty of strength, endurance, and good spirits (both in attitude and alcoholic beverages).
|One of the Visitor Center's interesting exhibits.|
VNP is open year-round, offering a completely different experience in winter, with its trees glistening in a blanket of white and frozen waterways that become the “roads” for snowmobiles. I sure would like to see that someday!
We departed the Rainy Lake Visitor Center and walked along the paved Recreational Trail under ominous clouds. But the sun won its battle to shine. So, we continued to trek, this time along the Oberholtzer Loop Trail, sampling a wild raspberry or two along the way. Unfortunately, we could not complete this hike because part of the trail was submerged and other sections were impassible due to downed trees. So, we did some backtracking. We saw a little wildlife: a red squirrel, a gull, a few tiny tree frogs, and one Super Ant who singlehandedly moved a dead worm. We also caught a glimpse of a blue heron and eagle as they flew overhead.
|I was gonna sit at this viewing bench along the trail--but it was completely submerged.|
|Downed trees made the rest of the Oberholtzer Loop Trail impassible. Time to back-track.|
|Butterfly enjoying some nectar.|
The next day we visited the Ash River Visitor Center, hiking along its Blind Ash Bay Trail and a portion of its Kab-Ash Trail. We visited the Beaver Pond Overlook. I was told the beaver population in VNP is prolific. Though I saw many fine examples of their handiwork and lodge craftsmanship, I spotted not 1 busy beaver. Bummer!
|Inside the Ash River Visitor Center.|
|A rustic cabin on the property.|
|...but only saw their handiwork.|
|Mom's favorite: daisies!|
|Dad wished he could trailer the boat and put it in the water for us to take a tour!|
We also stopped at the Kabetogama Visitor Center, but there was nothing much to do/see that was different from the offerings at the other 2 Centers, though we enjoyed chatting with Ann/Paul, folks from the Twin Cities that we kept intersecting with over the course of our 3-day visit.
We dined each day at Thunderbird Lodge, which was just starting to remove flood-protection sandbags from its property. The outdoor patio of the restaurant had been 7 feet underwater just a week earlier. Furthermore, a section of MN-11 right near the Lodge had been washed out and a temporary road installed. With limited options, this became our go-to eatery for the rest of this trip and our subsequent visit to VNP in August. Yes, water levels receded finally, so we got to return for a Grand Tour boat ride just days before leaving Minnesota. And it was terrific! The Ranger gave a wonderful narrative over the 2.5-hour ride, touching on all aspects of the Park: its wildlife, mining history, Ojibwe inhabitants, botany, and the Voyageurs for whom the Park is named. Here’s a sampling of what I learned: American Island was the only profitable gold mine in all of Northern Minnesota; There are about 18 varieties of trees in the Park; The Tamarac is the only tree that belongs to both the conifer and deciduous groups because it drops all its pine needles once a year; Due to conservation efforts, the Park increased its mated pairs of bald eagles from 6 to 42; Maple sugar and wild rice were valuable commodities with which the Ojibwe traded. Taking this boat tour helped me complete my Junior Ranger requirements, scoring yours truly another badge!
|Some of the other guests at Thunderbird Lodge.|
|What was once the mine shaft on American Island.|
|View from the shores of American Island.|
Considering that Minnesota has the largest population of breeding eagles in the contiguous U.S., they were eluding us for the longest time. But I’m excited to say that we viewed at least ½ dozen of them while on this boat tour!
|See the nest on this tree?|
|One of the many eagles we spotted while on the boat trip.|
We could now cross touring VNP off our bucket list!
We visited several more places while volunteering in Minnesota, which I’ll tell you about in my next post. Talk to you soon!