Lake Superior Adventures: The Grand Portage Part II

September 17, 2022: continued from previous post.

Grand Portage is known as Kitchi Onigaming – The Great Carrying Place. A portage is the carrying of a boat between two navigable waters. The area of Grand Portage was one of the most important ‘portages’ and junctions for frontier trade between natives and the Europeans.

The Ojibwe are the original people are the Gichigami – The Great Lake of Superior. They often refer to themselves as The Anishinaabe – a collective group of indigenous people who have lived in the Great Lakes for over 1500 years!

Stepping into the Grand Portage area, you are on US soil, but on Ojibwe run land. This is their home and they welcome you to learn about their history and share in the beauty of Gichigami.

Today we are going to tackle a few key points of interest in Grand Portage including the Grand Portage National Monument and Grand Portage State Park. Both are must-views if you are planning a North Shore Minnesota trip.

I am a history buff and love to learn about various cultures and traditions. We are all created in God’s image and have a light and breath that is unique and wonderful. Earlier this year we learned about the Lakota during my Black Hills trip and visit to Crazy Horse Monument.

As I’ve explored different areas of the US from the Cherokee lands in my home state of NC to the Salish in Montana…I’ve learned one thing – we each have rich histories and cultures that are unique and must be preserved and shared, but our differences need not tear us apart…we are met to meet at a crossroads and share…breaking bread and telling out stories as humans.

What is interesting about Grand Portage is the centuries of confluence and the distinct nature of how the Europeans and Native Americans came together in pursuit of trade and economic prosperity. This is a crossroads of community – and a place where you can step back in time to the frontier of trade and unique community…where the voyageurs, English Northwest Company and Anishinaabe met and worked together.

Grand Portage National Monument: The crossroads of commerce and culture

Getting there: Located near the Tribal Casino and Resort, the National Monument is a partnership of the National Park Service and Ojibwe.

The rain intensified with such strength as I reached GPNM I thought Lake Superior might gain two inches, but rain aside, I was determined to explore and make the most of the day.

I started my tour of the Grand Portage National Monument at their world-class museum. The museum features interactive exhibits, artifacts and expert rangers.

I definitely recommend watching the informative video at the Visitor’s Center. It blew me away. Created by an Ojibwe film crew, it tells the story of the Grand Portage from the perspective of the ‘original people’ and the rich partnership they shared with European traders.

The European traders were reliant on the expertise of the Ojibwe and together they formed business partnerships and friendships of economic trust and a unique community. While Grand Portage resembles a fort – it was not built as a gate – but as a welcoming post for the abundant trade between west and east.

*History fact: The Grand Portage: Voyageurs carried two ninety-pound packs along the 8 1/2 mile portage between Lake Superior and Fort Charlotte – a smaller North West Company post*

The video details the history of the trade, from the French Voyageurs to the British Northwest Company.

We briefly spoke of the Voyageurs – French-Canadian fur traders who ventured deep into the heart of the North American continent on canoes and on foot in search of trades for beavers and other goods. Known as the ‘Backwoods Navy of Canoemen,” these hardy French Canadians were more at home in the birch bark canoes than on land.

They had a reputation for working energetically without complaint. They chanted nostalgic French songs as they paddled fifty strokes a minute, for fifteen hours a day. “There is no life as happy as a voyageur’s life,” reminisced one who retired after forty-one years.

But this nomadic and grindstone lifestyle isn’t for everyone (not me – I’ll admit) – in return for adventure they sacrificed comfort, health and permanent homes. Many died from disease, grueling portages with cargo on their backs or drowned in icy wilderness waters.

Their jobs in partnership with the Native Tribes fueled a worldwide economy that in its prime stretched from the far hinterland of Canadian wilderness to Russia.

Beaver hats became fashionable in Europe and beyond as a symbol of wealth and status. The beaver, unfortunately, had all but been wiped out in Europe so this ‘new world’ with a rich supply of beaver created an economic boom for the voyageurs and companies like Hudson Bay and The Northwest Trading Company.

A water network linked Montreal, capital city of the Great Lakes fur trade, with western Canada’s fur-bearing animals. When streams were unnavigable, canoemen carried boats or cargo over a portage.

The Grand Portage was a native route that became the main artery to portage the rapids and treacherous waters leading to Lake Superior. French explorers and missionaries were the first to use the ‘portage’ with Native help.

Native Americans: The arrival of French explorers in the mid-1600s began a new era for native tribes including The Ojibwe and Cree who lived at Grand Portage…From my time in Montana – I learned the fur traders who be connected with pelts from tribes including the Blackfoot and Sioux.

It is easy to think historically people could not trade easily without motor vehicles and trucks, and while modern day technology helps – Natives have had extensive trade networks for centuries. Obsidian from Wyoming has been found far as the southeast from trade. Many of our roads are modeled after Native American trade routes!

The Ojibwe gifted European traders knowledge of their superior canoe skills- teaching them how to build lightweight but sturdy canoes out of birchbark and guided them along water routes into the wilderness. Sometimes the relationship between natives and settlers went beyond business. Many voyageurs married native women.

Women were highly respected at Grand Portage – they served as interpreters and sales negotiators. As a modern day sales women in tech – I found inspiration learning about the women at Grand Portage and the trusted relationships they built between traders – Ojibwe and Voyageurs.

The Natives would supply beaver pelts and furs in exchange for life comforts from wool blankets, glass beads from Venice to decorate ceremonial gowns, kettles, fire arms, axes and traps…

The Museum has a great interactive exhibit of a traditional Ojibwe trading tent where you can play native trader working with ‘top sales women’ aka Ojibwe Negotiator and a French Voyageur. I really enjoyed this exhibit and bargaining for my ‘pelts.’

After touring the museum, I headed in the rain down a well marked path leading to the reconstructed trading post village.

In 1763, after the French and Indian War, France ceded Canada to Great Britain. The North West Company was formed in 1784 by Simon McTavish and partners. Canoemen themselves these partners accompanied voyageurs into the wilderness or back to Montreal.

From 1784 to 1803, The North West Company ran the most profitable fur trade operation on the Great Lakes. The company’s inland headquarters was located at the Grand Portage.

Grand Portage became the largest fur trade depot in the heart of the continent. They set up Grand Portage as one of their main trading posts. The depot was abandoned in 1803 mainly due to conflicts over the border between the newly formed US and the British territory of Canada. The company relocated to Thunder Bay – north by roughly forty minutes from Grand Portage.

Today you can meander through living history…Strolling through the Warehouse, Fur Press, and neighboring waterfront I imagined the bustling of a mini-city of trade and life in the late 1700s.

The Great Hall featured several excellent exhibits about ‘The Rendezvous’ –

inactive most of the year, due to weather…Grand Portage came alive in June for Rendezvous…Company partners, clerks and natives talked business in the Great Hall by day and dined in the evening. Food was prepared in the kitchen behind the Great Hall. Many of the Native businesswomen were given fine silk for dresses and everyone got involved in this party.

Grand Portage State Park:

Located six miles north of GPNM, just off Highway 61, Grand Portage State Park is the toast of Minnesota’s waterfalls. This state park is run by the Ojibwe and offers a great visitor center for US and Canadian tourists…

Did I mention we’re only a few steps from Canada, eh?

Unfortunately my passport is getting renewed as we speak, so I couldn’t pass into Canada, but I could see the Canadian wilderness in such close proximity I felt like an international traveler.

Grand Portage State Park borders Canada and provides a fairly easy 1 mile round trip path to three viewing decks of the High Falls of The Pigeon River. The Pigeon is a dividing line with the border here and the upper side of the falls is actually Canadian.

The High Falls are the largest in Minnesota, dropping 120 feet, flooding the gorge below.

The rain was steady, but I hit the trail and was able to get some AMAZING photos.

The boardwalk/paved path goes through a lush forest of pine, birch and maple that feels like something out of The Lord of the Rings. It is truly stunning. A perfect place to pray in silent wonder.

I ended my day back in Grand Marais (thirty minutes south of Grand Portage) and checked into The Best Western Superior Hotel and Suites.

I must say this is a ‘superior’ hotel. It is literally on the water and you hear crashing waves from you room.

Per the recommendation of locals I grabbed dinner at My Sister’s Place.

Known for their succulent stuffed burgers, this bar and grill has an eclectic menu from local walleye to craft burgers.

Next post we’re going to explore Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

Research from the National Park Service*

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