Trip to Ely, Minnesota

Yesterday I took a trip to Ely, Minnesota but unfortunately it was in a vehicle instead of a canoe. It’s a bit faster than paddling but not half as enjoyable. If a road stretched from the end of the Gunflint Trail over to the Moose Lake area then a drive would be pretty fast but such a road does not exist. From the Gunflint Trail a person has to drive back to Grand Marais, then almost all of the way down to Silver Bay and then take Highway 1 over to Ely, Minnesota. It’s a minimum of 3 hours if you’re at cruising altitude without any traffic on the road.

The purpose of the drive was to watch baseball. I’ve been to Ely during most seasons of the year and summer is not my favorite. For a moment yesterday I thought it was the 4th of July because the string of vehicles I had to wait for to get back onto the main road was so long. The Dairy Queen was beyond busy and I felt like I was playing the video game Frogger as I attempted to avoid pedestrians entering the roadway.

A hundred years ago when Mike and I were looking at buying a canoe outfitting business we were very close to purchasing one on White Iron Lake outside of Ely.  We were let down when that deal didn’t happen but it was probably one of those things that happens for a reason and I’m glad it did.  Even though Ely is on the edge of the wilderness just like us and we’re not very far away from each other it’s a different world over there.  Ely is known as the canoe capitol and I’m glad they have that title, I don’t think I want the Gunflint Trail to be that busy.

Ely has some great things and great people living there too. The International Wolf Center, the Bear Center and some nice shops but the next time I visit I hope it is by way of the paddle.


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Chik-Wauk Celebrates 5 Years

It’s hard to believe Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center has been open for 5 years already. It seems like yesterday I was visiting with Ralph and Bea but I guess it’s been a few years.

One visit to their place will most likely hold a permanent space in my memory. It was July 4th, 1999, the year of the big blowdown. I was concerned about them after the storm cleared so I drove over to check on them. Trees blocked their driveway so I parked at the end of the road and walked in.  I knocked on their door and no one came so I knocked a little harder and yelled out.  I was beginning to panic when Bea came to the door looking a little sleepy.  I asked her if everything was ok and she said, “Yes, why?” I told her about the big windstorm and she said she and Ralph had been napping and didn’t even know there had been a storm. I was glad they were fine and said we’d have someone come clear their road with the chainsaw in awhile in case they needed to get out.  Now both Ralph and Bea are gone but Chik-Wauk remains.

To celebrate the anniversary the Gunflint Trail Historical Society is having a dinner fundraiser catered by Valentini’s Restaurant in Duluth. It will be held at the Seagull Lake Community Center on July 5th and tickets can be purchased online. If you can’t make the dinner but still want to support the museum and the expansion you can do that online too. 

Happy Anniversary Chik-Wauk!


Ralph and Bea Griffis in 1976

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Office with a View

I’m not sure which is more of a constant companion, my laptop computer or Rugby my dog. My laptop sits on a table on the deck outside while Rugby lies beneath the table. Rugby sleeps at the foot of my bed while my laptop rests next to it. The laptop accompanies me on the treadmill courtesy of my treadmill desk and Rugby sits on the floor nearby. Yesterday Rugby accompanied me in my portable office so I guess he wins.

I decided to drive the towboat yesterday because a group of my friends were heading out on a Boundary Waters trip. Rugby decided to come along for the ride while the laptop stayed at home.  As I was boating across Saganaga I couldn’t help but take in my surroundings. The water was like glass it was so calm. The sky was a beautiful blue and the pine studded islands seemed to float somewhere between the water and the sky. Loons swam nearby, eagles sat perched majestically in trees and seagulls could be seen on distant rocks. Joy filled me when I thought to myself, “This is my office.”

How lucky could a person be? To live in a place as beautiful as I do and be able to enjoy the incredible scenery and serenity on a daily basis means I’m pretty lucky. I watched as dragonflies flittered above the water’s surface and wondered how many people have experienced this just one day of their life?

Our goal at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters is to help introduce as many people as we can to this amazing place at the end of the Gunflint Trail.  It’s magical and we want others to experience it. Come check out my office with a view and say, “Hello to Rugby and my laptop too.”

Boundary Waters Saganaga

Rugby enjoying the view

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Welcome to the Gunflint Trail Loon Chicks

We usually don’t start seeing loon chicks until around the 4th of July. Guests haven’t reported seeing them in the Boundary Waters yet but there are a couple of loon chicks in our neighborhood. The loon nesting platform in the bay of Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center had a pair of loons who began nesting very early this year. They successfully hatched two loon chicks at the beginning of June!

Loons are so much fun to watch with their chicks. I’ve observed adult loons teaching their chicks how to fish and it is very neat. The adult starts out by feeding the chick a minnow by placing it in the chick’s mouth. Then the adult will drop the loon in the water right in front of the chick so it has to get its beak wet. The next step requires the chick to dip it’s head into the water because the adult releases the minnow just beneath the surface of the water in front of the chick. I’m not sure how many days the adult loons have to do this but it sure is an amazing process.

We welcome you to the Gunflint Trail where you can help us welcome all the new loon chicks coming soon.

Gunflint Trail loon chicks

Loon and chicks

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Paddle the BWCA for the 4th of July

It’s somewhat of a secret that the Boundary Waters is unusually quiet over the 4th of July. It’s a perfect time to paddle and camp since the water is warm for swimming, the fishing is good and the bugs have usually tapered off.  Why don’t more people take advantage of this prime paddling time?  I think it’s because people have their 4th of July traditions they don’t want to miss out on. There are parades to attend, picnics to partake in and of course fireworks that light up the evening sky.

Wouldn’t you rather watch fireflies light up the sky or perhaps the northern lights? When I compare 4th of July festivities in a normal city with a trip to the BWCA all I can think of is, “I’d rather be paddling.” Crowds of people, traffic in the streets and time spent chatting with someone you only see once a year are what comes to my mind when I think about the 4th in the city.

A campsite on a wilderness lake, quality time with family or friends and peace and quiet is something I could really celebrate. I’m sure there are some great things to do on the 4th of July but I can’t think of anything better than canoe camping in the BWCA.

Boundary Waters canoeing

Paddling the Boundary Waters

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Gunflint Trail Wildflowers and Plants

I love to watch the northwoods plant life change as the days pass by. The strawberries, blueberries, roses, service berries, bluebead lilies and more bloom early in the summer and then transform into their mid-summer look. In place of petals pieces of fruit appear on plants like strawberries and blueberries.  As the flowers drop off of roses a fruit known as a rose hip begins to develop.

It’s amazing how quickly the process of change happens on the Gunflint Trail. Our growing season is short and weather can make a big difference to the appearance of our plants;  A little too wet, not enough sun or too many days without rain all factor in. Identifying animals or their scat is relatively easy compared to knowing what a plant looks like in its various stages of growth.

The ever-changing plant landscape is a reminder of how time flies quickly by. Don’t let it slip away from you before you’ve had a look for yourself.

Gunflint Trail wildflowers

Blueberry patch on the Gunflint Trail


BWCA wildflowers

Blue Bead Lily in the early summer

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Got Fish? Gunflint Trail Does

Fishing is always fun but catching is even more fun. Our guests and our Voyageur Crew have been catching fish and enjoying some fish dinners too. We’d love to have you come up to Voyageur Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail for a day or a week so we can show you some fishing and catching fun.

BWCA Fishing on the Gunflint Trail

Fishing fun on the Gunflint Trail

BWCA fishing trip

Fishing in the BWCA

Sarah's catch Voyageur Canoe Outfitters

Catching Fish on the Gunflint Trail

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What’s New in our Neck of the Woods

Yesterday was a rare weather day at the end of the Gunflint Trail. It rained and rained and rained some more and it never seemed to completely stop raining. We saw blue sky through the clouds a couple of times but for the majority of the day it was wet and grey. We received over a half of an inch of rain and there are no complaints of thirst from any of the trees or plant life.

Groups who were out in the canoe country wilderness yesterday hopefully stayed dry. If they were paddling then there’s no rain gear good enough to have kept them dry.  As one of my tow boat drivers said, “He was soaked to the bone.”

Today the sky is blue and the sun is shining.  The moccasin flowers are blooming in full force and so are the lilacs in Grand Marais.  We’re always behind the Twin Cities and Duluth when it comes to blooming lilacs and our growing season is much shorter up here.

The days are passing by quickly and last night I had a nightmare the trees were already changing to their fall colors.  Thankfully when I looked outside today the leaves were still green.  Summer flies by so be sure to get yourself to the Gunflint Trail and out on a wilderness canoe trip before the leaves have dropped to the ground.



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Mining Mess in Minnesota?

It would be a shame if an environmental disaster happened in Minnesota because of mining. It certainly made a huge mess in Canada. Mining Truth thinks it could happen in Minnesota if mines are allowed to be opened here and they are hoping people will oppose it.

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Water in Minnesota

Here’s a really cool article with charts of where the water in Minnesota is. Of course we know the best water is in Northeastern Minnesota, specifically at the end of the Gunflint Trail!

The waters of Minnesota, mapped

Like roads, Minnesota’s waters became a hot issue this legislative session (though unlike roads, lawmakers actually passed a bill). In the same spirit as my previous maps of all of Minnesota’s roads, here’s a few maps highlighting the water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes — starting, of course, with all those lakes:


In fact, there are 28,176 distinct lakes, ponds and wetlands on that map.

Here’s the state’s rivers:


Some of these are so small they don’t have any names. More specifically, there’s 3,768 “unnamed streams,” 2,032 “unnamed creeks” and at least 6,572 unnamed lakes and ponds.

There are actually a lot more recognized bodies of water than are on this map, but I excluded things like artificial ponds, drainage ditches, intermittent streams and lakes, underground aquifers and sewage ponds. A map with every single aquatic feature in the state is so dense as to be almost unreadable.

Unfortunately, I don’t have data about width or flow rate, so the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers are the same width on this map as those unnamed streams.

(This post was originally published on June 9, 2015. It has been updated with new, more accurate maps. See below for more information.)

Here’s the above two maps combined into a single map of every lake and river in Minnesota:


This is a lot of water. Just in this subset of permanent, natural rivers and streams, there’s 34,167 miles of water. (Counting all those ditches multiplies the length up to 117,432 miles.) That includes 13,944 miles classified as one of 970 “rivers” and 20,173 miles classified as one of 19,659 “streams,” an average length of about 14.4 miles per river, and just 1.03 miles per stream. Among the lakes, we’re looking at 5,752 square miles of water — bigger than the state of Connecticut. And this DOESN’T include Minnesota’s portion of Lake Superior, or the parts of the Lake of the Woods in Canada. The combined perimeter of all that lake shoreline is a whopping 55,035 miles.

Another facially obvious fact that’s underscored by this sort of map is is how the state’s borders are defined by bodies of water. Two-thirds of the state’s western border consists of lakes and the Red River; almost all of the state’s eastern border is the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers and Lake Superior, while most of the north is the Boundary Waters network. Only the southern border is entirely an artificial line on the map. (And in fact Minnesota’s southwestern border was almost a river, too.)

Excluding the artificial and intermittent streams made the biggest difference in the agricultural south and west of the state, which are criss-crossed with a dense network of drainage ditches.

If you’re curious, here’s what the map looks like with all the intermittent or artificial bodies of water:


Compare the two versions side-by-side here:


But we can do more than just visualize these rivers and lakes. Let’s analyze.

Here’s a pair of maps looking with more detail into how Minnesota’s rivers and streams are distributed around the state. For each, I looked at the prevalence of lakes and rivers in each county. The lake map colors each county by the percent of its land mass covered by lakes; the river and stream map is colored by the number of miles of flowing water in each county, divided by each county’s area.

(Adjusting by area makes a difference. For example, Beltrami County has the eighth-most river miles in the state with 749.1. But it’s also the state’s third-biggest county by area. So controlling for size, Beltrami actually only has the 66th-densest river network out of Minnesota’s 87 counties.)


As you can see, the Arrowhead region of the state has lots of lakes, but the most water is found following a rough line from Mille Lacs up to the Lake of the Woods, as well as an arc running from Hennepin County up to Becker County. The Red River Valley and the southern portion of the state have very few lakes.

Here’s the rivers. Though northeast Minnesota is also dense here, the rest of the state follows different density patterns:


The most striking facet to me is the difference between the south and north banks of the Minnesota River. To the south, there’s plenty of natural streams and rivers, while to the north, there are relatively few. The southeastern corner of the state is also a lush riparian region. The northwest part of the state doesn’t have much, but remember that part of that (the part with a lot of really short rivers) has a ton of lakes, which explains part of the “blank” area on the map.

Here’s another way to look at the concentration of rivers and lakes: heatmaps.



Look back up at any of the maps of Minnesota’s waters. Can you follow the Laurentian continental divide as it winds through northern Minnesota? Rivers north of that line flow north to Hudson Bay; rivers south of it flow either south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi-Missouri system, or east to the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes.

Probably not. Part of it seems apparent — the mountains of the Iron Range, where river on one side flows toward Lake Superior and on the other side does not. But that’s misleading — part of the area west of those mountains is still in the Lake Superior watershed. Similarly, it’s hard to tell in the western and central part of the state where the divide runs just by looking at the water.

This is where the waters split in the Land of 10,000 Lakes:


After the jump, I discuss a little bit about the mistake I made when I first published this post last week. You can probably ignore it if you don’t care deeply about map-making; I’m posting it primarily in the interests of transparency.

This post was originally published on June 9, but within an hour after clicking “post,” I began to have concerns. A quip on Twitter about whether there were 10,000 lakes on the map led me to check — and to my horror there were only about 4,000. Though my map showed more than 20,000 miles of river and thousands of lakes, it was clearly not “every lake & river in Minnesota” as I had branded it.

I found a new, more extensive dataset and confirmed that there were a lot more rivers and lakes that I hadn’t mapped the first time. That fuller dataset is what produced the maps you now find above.

The dataset that had made the maps below was actually just a map of bodies of water being monitored for pollution by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Streams and ponds not being monitored weren’t included. It’s still a very useful map and a good display of the state’s major rivers and lakes, but not for the purposes I was using it for.

On the left here is what I originally posted as “every lake and river”; on the right is the version I posted above:


By far the biggest difference is the Arrowhead region of northeast Minnesota, which has gone from mostly empty to a thick network of streams.

As you’ll notice along the Minnesota River, there are actually some rivers that are on the older, sparser map but not on the new one. Most of those are actually ditches, canals and intermittent streams — they show up on the map above with every single body of water but got filtered out of my map with only the permanent bodies of water.

More than just an aesthetic difference, though, this made a difference in the analysis — particularly in the distribution of rivers around the state. Here’s a before and after:


And, if you’re curious, here’s the lake comparison:


Posted By David H. Montgomery

Political reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, with a particular love for data and analysis. Cubs, Blackhawks, Bulls and intermittently Bears fan. Always looking for tips.


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