Grand Rapids, MN August 1, 2017
Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Population 11,000 people and 1,000 lakes. Slightly smaller than last week’s city, Chicago, with 2.7 million. Chris and I are back on our hunt to visit all 76 Minnesota state parks. This trip will allow us to visit three more; our total will be 66.
It has been a gorgeous day. For those of you in hotter climes, the temperature reached a high of about 82, light breezes and mainly sunny skies. Low tonight of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. We spent part of the afternoon and evening sitting on the beach of Pokegama Lake, 6600 acres in size and about 110 feet deep at its greatest depth. Our beach front lodging is at the Green Heron Bed and Breakfast, an excellent facility Chris found on the Internet. While the B & B is named after the green heron found locally, once again it is the sound of the loon that says “Northern Minnesota lakes” to me.
Our drive up to Grand Rapids took us through small towns like Mora, population 3400 which is a county seat and home to the Vasaloppet, a cross-country ski touring event in Minnesota with ties to Sweden which is where many of the Mora European settlers originated. Another community was McGregor, population of about 350 people. We stopped in Mora and had a mid-morning break of pastries from the local bakery. Along the way, summer wildflowers lined the highways; maybe not as overwhelming as our time in Texas but still breathtaking. The latter portion of the drive frequently brought us into contact with the Mississippi River; shallower and slower moving up here than the sections we observed from the Empire Builder last week.
Savanna Portage State Park was our primary destination for the day. Lunch was in the park, next to one of the lakes. Savanna Portage has over 15,000 acres and is named after the Native Americans and the fur traders who used this area as a connective trail between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. “Savanna” refers to the open grassland on the eastern portion of the trail. “Portage” refers to the process of carrying canoes across land areas between water routes.
From about 1760 to about 1830, fur traders were an important economic engine in this portion of the country. They used large canoes on the Great Lakes to bring the beaver pelts to Montreal from Minnesota and places west. To get the beaver pelts to the shores of Lake Superior, they used smaller birch bark canoes. The portage here began with poling the heavily laden canoes through 12 miles of a twisty, shallow river. Then a canal was dug for a portion of the journey, ending with the carrying of canoes across land. The portage took five days through “swamp, bog, blood-sucking insects, and severe weather.”
While the weather was nice today, we did encounter more flies than we wished to see and our hiking was shorter than usual. We made sure though to hike the trail of the Continental Divide. This divide separates rain water coursing eastward to Lake Superior and the Atlantic Ocean and rainwater coursing westward to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. (There is a third continental divide in Minnesota which sends water northward to Hudson’s Bay in Canada.)
We arrived early at the Green Heron, knowing we would be treated to refreshments and appetizers at 5 PM. The B & B is impressive and the hosts, Johnnie and Chris Fulton, friendly. Chris, my Chris, that is, is already discussing coming back here next summer, probably with daughters in tow. At various times, we enjoyed the view of the lake from chairs outside and from the screened in patio. I used the library to do most of my work on the blog.
Wednesday, August 2
Four and a half years ago when we started serious travel, I was not excited about staying at B & Bs, nor at the homes of Evergreen Club members. Since then I have come to enjoy the friendliness of the hosts and the breakfasts that vastly surpass those we prepare for ourselves at home. This morning’s breakfast of home-made muffins, bacon, home-made quiche, and a yogurt/granola/fruit dish exceeded the standard breakfast served at a Hampton Inn or Fairfield Inn or at the Heimel-Klejbuk Inn.
Well-fortified, we headed out for the day’s activities. It was going to be a slow pace; we decided bugs would be a problem at any park and we should not attempt long hikes where I would just be cursing (not that I ever curse!!). To be fair, the bug situation at the B & B and in towns has been no hassle.
Driving the “Edge of the Wilderness” scenic byway was the first item on our agenda. The byway is 45 miles long. We last wrote about it in August 2015 as part of our Northwest MN journey. Chris enjoys the trip along a two lane road, winding through birch and fir trees nestled among numerous lakes. We detoured to several back roads, checking out resorts and homes located along the lakes. Like many other parts of northern MN, small resorts are still in business, although the competition from fancy places has got to be tough. We had to dodge a few logging trucks. Lumbering is still big business in the area with much of the cut timber headed for the Blandin Paper Mill in Grand Rapids. (We plan to tour it tomorrow, a likely rainy day.) This area is for people and families that want to enjoy nature and the outdoors; biking, canoeing, fishing, camping, hiking, etc.
The scenic byway ends in the town of Effie, population 123. We had lunch in the Effie Cafe with a dozen locals. Our waitress (the only one) indicated the cafe had been hopping the weekend before due to the annual Effie Rodeo. This year’s rodeo was their 62nd annual.
From Effie we drove to our first state park of the day, McCarthy Beach State Park. The beach has been highly rated by Highways Magazine and we wanted to scope it out. The air temperature was just reaching 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so our bodies stayed on the shore. There were only a few people on the beach being mid-week and cool. The beach is not huge but probably ample enough, there is a kiddie’s section and an adult section. Trees surround the lake shore although private residences surpass the public park portion. The water is shallow and one can walk out for a great distance. The clarity was great. We felt relaxed just sitting and watching the day go by.
At the Edge of the Wilderness Visitor Center, there was a nice display discussing clarity of lakes. While swimmers may wish to have swimming lakes with really clear water, these clear lakes do not have enough nutrients to support a vibrant supply of fish. Swimming and fishing are not necessarily mutually compatible.
For our final stop, we drove an hour and a half to Schoolcraft State Park. Schoolcraft is small, only 225 acres. We only saw two other vehicles there. Schoolcraft is named after Henry Schoolcraft, the European explorer who was smart enough to ask Native Americans for assistance in finding the head of the Mississippi River. Other Europeans lumbered around on their own without finding it.
The Mississippi River flows through the park. It is not well-advertised but there are eight dams on the upper Mississippi River in this area to help control the flow of the Mississippi downstream to keep the 9′ shipping channel supplied with sufficient water during periods of low flow. The US Army Corps of Engineers did this in the late 1800s. Of course, no local permission was sought back then and numerous Native American villages, hunting grounds, and wild rice marshes were flooded.
At the southern end of the park, the Vermillion River flows into the Mississippi. There are at least three Vermillion Rivers in Minnesota. This one. One up by Lake Vermillion and Ely. Finally a Vermillion River close to St. Paul, running through the town of Hastings. Chris and I were canoeing on the Hastings Vermillion last Saturday. We might see the Ely Vermillion on our next Up North excursion in a few weeks. In contrast to the clarity of water at McCarthy Beach State Park, the Hastings Vermillion was cloudy but the fishing was great. We also observed three bald eagles and one great blue heron on that river.
We will head home Friday but the next two days are more likely to be spent viewing logging and mining locations.
Ed and Chris. Grand Rapids MN. August 2nd.