Nix the Canoe, Hike Instead

Published: July 17th 2018
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Sullivan Bay off the Ash River
Ash River Visitor Center, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

We had signed up for the ‘Wildlife by Canoe’ ranger program out of the Ash River Visitor Center. The park has three visitor centers, although they aren’t all open all year round. Rainy Lake is the one closest to International Falls, where we are camping. Ash River is nearly an hour away back down highway 53 towards the southeast. We had phoned there several days ago to sign up for the two-hour canoe trip. The description of the trip included skirting the shores of the Ash River to see what might be visible from the water. Even though it involved some paddling, we thought it would be fun. When I signed up they said that you didn’t need to be experienced rowers, just that you needed to be able to do a little paddling. After all, we had paddled our own canoe up and down a canal in the Everglades, so we could do this, right?

Still, we were even a tad relieved when the Ranger, Chris, called us as we were on the way down there to say that he had to cancel the canoe trip because the wind was too strong. Apparently the winds were sustaining a push of about fifteen mph and Park Service rules won’t allow them to go out when its that strong, even if the rangers wanted to. (Hell, people sue the park service after getting bit from feeding the bears, so they have to have a few rules.).

After chatting with Chris on the phone and explaining that we were on the way anyway and would probably come on down, he suggested that instead of taking us on a canoe trip, he’d take us on a guided hike. Now, our experience with park rangers is that if you ever have opportunities to spend time with them out in nature, you always take it. I’ve learned that not all park rangers are equally fluent in their park, but especially if you can get with someone who’s been doing it awhile, they almost always have fun and interesting stories to tell. And if you can capture them in a small group experience, so you can hear everything they say, then it is even more thrilling. One thing we always do in a park is check out the ranger-guided programs to see if they are offering

Lake Kabetogama from the Ash River VC
anything during times we can take advantage of them. Springtime is sometimes a crapshoot, especially if the park has recently opened, but by summer, the programs are frequent and well-rehearsed.

We made it to the Ash River Visitor Center in plenty of time. This VC is a small lodge-style building that was actually converted from an old fishing camp. So it has a bunch of history packed into it already. Exhibits are sort of primitive, but they had one of the geology of the park that had copies of pages from the book I recently finished. We found Chris, introduced ourselves and asked if we needed hiking boots, which were in the car, but without socks weren’t real attractive. He said it would be an easy hike and that we’d be fine in sandals. He said another couple from the canoe trip were also interested in hiking with us so it was just going to be the five of us. I thought that was terrific.

The other couple were from Arizona and were spending a lot of time on their travels like we were. They, too, had a bucket list that included a lot of parks and, coincidentally, they were also planning on a trip to Alaska in the near future. So we had lots in common and enjoyed our time with them. We bundled back into our cars - ranger couldn’t drive us because of that liability thing again - and headed about a mile back up the road to the trailhead.

Even before we took off, Chris explained that the stand of dead trees across the road was the result of a beaver dam that had flooded the area, killing off the pines that don’t do so well in wetlands. Then off we were for a guided hike of the Sullivan Bay Trail.

Chris started with a brief history of the park, which was relevant because the trail we were taking used to be an access road used by property owners to get to their cabins in the woods. When the park was created, these property owners were made offers for their property ‘that they couldn’t refuse’, and the road and the buildings were mostly abandoned. He explained that the park service wasn’t going to do anything with those properties except let nature reclaim them, so if we were to hike down some of the ‘driveways’ we would see cabins in various states of disrepair - and fifty years of nature’s regrowth. We did see one white refrigerator, made of aluminum, that was still sitting there trying to rot away.

Apart from that, though, the hike was all about nature and it was terrific. We saw grouse and chickadees and heard woodpeckers and blue jays. Chris was quick to point all these out and even explained the woodpeckers pecking strategy while we looked at a bored out tree trunk. Along the way, he pointed out several different kinds of mushrooms, but told us that he wouldn’t say whether they were edible or not (that liability thing again). He did help us pick blueberries, raspberries, and even a strawberry or two that we found along the way. He identified at least six different kinds of ferns that made up the undergrowth. And his knowledge of trees was amazing as he was quickly able to distinguish three different kinds of maples, and several different kinds of pines, just by the shape and number of their leaves and needles.

At the end of the trail, we stood on a large, 2.5 billion year old rock made of metamorphosed basalt (called greenstone), and looked out over the Ash River. There was a boat or two on the water, but mostly it was just a quiet interlude between us and this terrific park.

We retraced our steps, observing a few more birds and trees. Returning to our cars, we all marveled at how much fun we had, shook hands and split our separate ways. Five people spending an hour together in a beautiful park. What else can you ask for?

After the hike, we drove back to an overlook and saw some wonderful views of Lake Kabetogama.

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