I have been reading the book Between The Waters, by Larry Luukkonen this fall. It details the northwest trails and the portages from Lake Superior at the mouth of the St Louis River. The first major portage for loaded canoes was the Grand Portage. The Grand Portage starts in present day Jay Cooke State Park and heads cross country seven miles to a launch site on a milder stretch of the St Louis River closer to present day Cloquet, MN.
I visited Minnesota at the end of October to explore the part of the Grand Portage that still exists inside Jay Cooke State Park along the banks of the St Louis River.
I started with a nice wild rice soup at the Streetcar Restaurant in Carlton, MN. I would recommend this wonderful restaurant for anyone traveling into the area. It sits next to the Munger bike trail that leads from Duluth to Hinckley and is only minutes from Jay Cooke State Park.
I have done several hikes over the years at Jay Cooke State Park in all seasons but I had never really explored the east part of the park. The Grand Portage Trail leads straight up the hills that create the St Louis River valley.
I parked my rental at the empty parking lot and looked around. No other hikers were around during this midweek and late October visit. A sign showed a canoe entry point into the St Louis River and another pointed the way to the trailhead for the Grand Portage. I had picked up a map at the Park Headquarters and had a plan to stay along the river until the trail cut straight up and connected with a more gradual loop trail coming from the river valley.
The area along the river was smooth and wide. Perfect for a nice paddle and I mentally added it to my increasingly long paddle wish list. I even texted the hubby pictures of this part of the river as it seems mild compared it’s upstream descent through the jagged narrows close to the State Park headquarters.
The up river area is violent. The water gushes over exposed sharp basalt rocks that push water through narrow gages as it heads towards Lake Superior. The foam from the spray hits hikers brave enough to get close enough to watch the natural water show. We have hiked that part of the river many times over the years. We know it not safe to canoe or kayak over that part of the river.
I started my hike along the river heading up river away from Lake Superior. The calm water here seemed like a entirely different river. Large trees lining the river had visible signs of beaver trying to alter their environment.
It wasn’t hard for my imagination to connect with the fur traders that walked this very path. Their packs loaded with beaver, wolf, bear, and mink skins headed out to the canoes and larger boats waiting to transport those very furs to the East Coast and Europe.
The direction I was hiking, up river, the traders would have been hauling needed supplies into the interior in preparation for the coming winter months.
My small yellow backpack weighed on my back with my camera, water, and snack bar and extra warm clothes (you never know when a fall day can turn to winter in late October in Minnesota). I now imagined it being a 90 pound pack loaded with sugar, flour, and iron pans and my body bent with the thought of the additional pack weight. A small challenge of a small shifting pack as I walked over tree limbs and small streams of water that dumped their contents into the mighty St Louis, this would have been an extremely difficult task with large packs filled with supplies in the 1700’s.
Rainy or snowy conditions?
Deer skin boots?
My respect increased with each step for the people who once walked this trail.
At one point the trail headed towards the hills that line the river valley. This was the place where the explorers and traders stopped and paused (rested) just before climbing the hill leading almost straight up.
It doesn’t seem like a strenuous climb but then when you think about the canoes, the heavy packs, and pelts they had to carry it had to be an exhausting task.
I broke a good sweat as I climbed the hill to the ridge line. The fall foliage covered the ground and when I reached the higher parts of the trail I could see through the bare canopy into the river valley and out towards the mouth of the St Louis River.
At the top, I stopped at the place where the traders had once also stopped, called the Fourth Pause. A nice open area where you could look over the entire valley. I reflected on trail I had just climbed.
Maybe not much time for reflection for the traders at this point, they knew they had at least another six miles to travel before re entry into the St Louis River close to modern day Cloquet, Minnesota.
The trail leads off in the direction of Cloquet, but I chose to continue along the ridge back towards down river and then drop back down through the woods to my starting point at the parking lot. Making this a good close to three mile loop hike.
It was hard to see the trail in places on my return as the thick leaf bed had covered the trail making it difficult to follow.
Then as the trail drops in elevation and heads back towards the river valley I crossed a stream. I felt the isolation and the calm of being in this place. I rested for a moment as I listened to the natural sounds of the stream heading towards its destination of the St Louis River.
The trail finally ends back at highway 210, I could see the parking area where I had parked the rental. A sense of relief that the weather had held while I had hiked and that I had another bottle of water tucked in the bag in the backseat.
I now had a new appreciation for the people who once paddled and hiked this land not for pleasure; but for survival, movement of goods, and westward expansion.
Places to explore along the Grand Portage:
- Jay Cooke State Park – Where part of the original Grand Portage Trail still exists. Stop at the park headquarters and ask for the map that details the portage.
- Streetcar Restaurant, Carlton, Minnesota – Always great meals, cooked fresh. Outdoor seating area that is only feet away from the Munger Bike trail and minutes away from Jay Cooke State Park.
- Thomson Dam – The reservoir area contains several islands and is a wonderful place to kayak and explore. This link contains a drone overview of the area that shows the dam and the down stream flow towards the start of the Grand Portage. In 2012 the bridge and dam were damaged due to a flood caused by extensive rainfall over a 2 day period.
- Cloquet, Minnesota – The area has a rich history of logging. The St Louis River was an important route for transport of logs to processing locations.
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