A wintertime trip to Voyageurs National Park is not for the faint-hearted. But travelers who venture to Minnesota’s only national park—one of the country’s least visited—are rewarded in the coldest months with some of the best northern lights viewing in the contiguous United States.
The light displays can be seen when the sun produces the ideal radiation during clear nights from the higher latitudes of the planet, where the magnetosphere weakens.
Located above the ionosphere, as high as 400 miles above the Earth, the magnetosphere is being bombarded by debris and radiation streaming from the sun. The Earth’s magnetic field deflects these detrimental rays and particles. Properly positioned in the darkest places below, Earthlings can bear witness to the bombardment called the northern lights, or aurora borealis.
Shimmering green, pink, or blue, the ribbon- and curtain-shaped lights strobe into searchlight beams or flare up into what appears to be an interstellar explosion. Sometimes, they morph into heavenly versions of a delicate cedar frond or stream water diverting off rocks. At Voyageurs—designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2020—this spectacle happens as often as 200 nights a year. The park is one of the many reasons that northern Minnesota is one of Nat Geo’s Best of the World destinations.
The Ojibwe call these lights Wawatay. To this day, traditional folklore holds that Wataway are the spirits of ancestors dancing in the sky to celebrate life and remind onlookers below that we are all part of the celestial wonder of creation.
Voyageurs National Park flanks the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, and other state and national forests. Together, these protected acres of aqua-wilderness are known as “the Boundary Waters.”
The Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa and Anishinaabe) have lived in the area since at least the 1600s, after migrating from the East Coast in search of food. The Ojibwe harvested rice around the Boundary Waters and trapped fur animals, trading their pelts to French Canadian explorers, who arrived in 1688, for ammunition, flintlock rifles, blankets, and axes.
The park is named for the French Canadian traders, called voyageurs, who traveled through the interconnected border lakes more than a century before the nation’s founding. These hearty mountain men—famous for their wilderness chorales—paddled oversize birchbark canoes, trading and freighting furs from the far reaches of North America back to Montreal.
Traveling in brigades of four to eight canoes, they pushed west in their quest for pelts. Avants (“front men”) stood in the bow navigating, while gouvernails (“rudders”) stood 30 feet back in the stern with paddles as long as six feet. Veritable iron men, the voyageurs often paddled up to 55 strokes a minute, dipping their paddles in unison as they sang about lost love, the weather, or animals.
The voyageurs relied on the Ojibwe as guides and canoe makers, as well as providers of herbal medicine and spiritual advice. But by 1900, the Ojibwe were forced onto reservations around the Great Lakes region in the U.S. and Canada. In Minnesota, the Ojibwe now live on seven reservations: Red Lake, Bois Forte, Grand Portage, White Earth, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, and Mille Lacs.
Around the same time, loggers and gold miners succeeded the long-gone voyageurs. When the short-lived mining boom ended, resident miners, prospectors, saloonkeepers and shopkeepers, and other gold rushers abandoned Rainy Lake City only years after the city had been established in the northwoods. Nearly 200 people had once lived in this wet-weather place but years later, tourists would continue to visit the silent, once bustling ghost town.
Meanwhile, logging companies flourished. Trees fell and dams were built to provide a constant water supply for the sawmills taking down the dense pine forest. Logging ended in 1940 as the trees were all cut down, but longtime resorts and commercial fishing operations (mostly caviar harvested from sturgeon) continued their operations amid a barren landscape of pine stumps, slowly growing over with new forests.
Decades later, the Park Service bought out most properties, although over a thousand private acres remain within Voyageurs’s boundaries. The Park Service now maintains the dams and more than 50 fishing camps and historic buildings, including the Rainy Lake City saloon.
Free of intrusive roadways, Voyageurs’ campsites are accessible only by boats and are thus popular with anglers, paddlers, and motorboaters. The inner lakes are closed to private watercraft to prevent the spread of invasive species, but the Park Service provides boat tours and rental boats. Fishermen—like the ospreys, bald eagles, merlins, great blue herons, loons, cormorants, pelicans, and otters found in the park—chase abundant fish.
These days, most visitors come to Voyageurs in the warmer months for the world-class fishing.
Yet, the health of the wildlife and those who dine on it remain at risk because of mercury. In the water, deposited mercury turns to toxic methylmercury as tiny plankton consume it. The small fish that feast on the plankton are in turn eaten by larger predators, including humans.
The whole circle of life is affected: Birds contaminated with mercury lay fewer or smaller eggs. Salamanders become sluggish. In all vertebrates, higher contaminations of mercury affect kidney function as well as neurological and hormonal systems.
Scientists linked most of the Boundary Waters pollution to coal plant smokestacks, which emit mercury as vapor that then drops earthward in rain. As the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments mandated “scrubbers” and other techniques to reduce emissions from U.S. power plants, researchers studying the Boundary Waters documented a 20 percent decline in mercury deposition between 1985 and 2011.
Efforts to reduce mercury in Voyageurs National Park are ongoing. However, pollution is long lasting; global emissions are increasing. In 2003, researchers learned that the dams cause fluctuating water levels that increase bacteria—enhancing mercury methylation in the lakes. As the park stabilized water levels, some of the mercury contamination declined.
By 2012, mercury in both the lake water and in yellow perch tissues decreased in two of the four lakes sampled in Voyageurs. Despite that, all park lakes sampled for mercury by the Environmental Protection Agency remain listed as “impaired.” The Minnesota Department of Health regularly posts specific warnings about what fish and lakes to avoid in Voyageurs National Park.
Although fallout from the skies appears manageable, albeit daunting, it’s not the only environmental issue confronting Voyageurs. Proposed sulfide mining projects in northern Minnesota—much like the surrounding power plants spewing mercury into the air—could further jeopardize the park’s waters.
As mining corporations exploit sulfide ore deposits to extract copper, gold, and nickel, sulfuric acid and other contaminants are produced, which can leak into the surrounding waters. Pollution flows downstream and is eventually absorbed by all waters, exemplifying how park boundaries sometimes offer only an illusory safety.
A winter wonderland
Although northern Minnesota winters can be severe, the park doesn’t shut down with the arrival of snow. Summer’s hiking paths morph into 16 miles of winter wonderlands for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Of the three visitor centers, only Rainy Lake remains open at this time (December 3, 2021-May 26, 2022), when visitors can borrow snowshoes and cross-country skis for free. Check the schedule for ranger-led treks.
Motorists can cruise more than 110 miles of marked trails on snowmobiles and even take one to favorite spots for ice fishing. Once the ice is thick enough, Voyageurs creates two ice roads across the lakes. One begins at Rainy Lake Visitor Center and runs to various locations depending on conditions. The other runs between the Kabetogama Lake and Ash River visitor centers.
A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks, which takes readers on an epic journey through the extraordinary and unique features that distinguish these wilderness areas.
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