Circling Lake Superior, Part 2: Grand Portage has jewel of an exhibit on fur trade

Grand Portage National Monument's interpretive center
MinnPost photo by Catherine Conlan
The new interpretive center at Grand Portage, which opened in 2007, provides an excellent history of the fur trade in the area.

THUNDER BAY, Ontario — On the first leg of our trip circling Lake Superior, there were more surprises than I bargained for. After a boiling weekend, the morning was cool, damp and cloudy. During our planning session, I apparently missed the fact that we were stopping at Grand Portage National Monument. And once we got to Thunder Bay to file this dispatch, it was almost impossible to find public wi-fi.

Up the North Shore and over the Canadian border, the land changes dramatically. Highway 61 veers away from the lake — I didn’t know we would lose it so soon! — and climbs huge shoulders of stone that seem to loom out of nowhere, and suddenly you’re barreling down the other side of a palisade through the trees without knowing you had risen above the lake in the first place.

The Grand Portage monument opened a new interpretive center in 2007, and it is a jewel.  As a relative newcomer to Minnesota, I was a little fuzzy on the details of the fur trade and its role in bringing trade to the area. But even the Minnesota-born in my family learned a lot at the center, which is just big enough to tell you what you need to know, and small enough to be manageable with children.

Cliffs rise behind farm fields on the road to Thunder Bay
MinnPost photo by Catherine Conlan
Cliffs rise behind farm fields on the road to Thunder Bay.

On the other side of the border, the road to Thunder Bay winds through a valley, again out of sight of the lake, with the huge bluffs far on either side. Suddenly there are no towns, or tourist stops, and few houses.

The distance between Grand Portage and Thunder Bay spans miles and years. On this side of the lake, work stretches from native trappers and voyageurs to fishing villages to paper-mill workers and railroad workers.

It feels, suddenly, like a frontier, very much like another country, and so the adventure begins.

Nana Bijou
MinnPost photo by Catherine Conlan
Nana Bijou, or the Sleeping Giant, rises behind a sailboat at Thunder Bay, Ontario.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Steve Share on 06/25/2009 - 12:22 pm.

    In 1975, a friend and I bicycled the North Shore of Lake Superior, from just south of Grand Marais, MN to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We then took the bus back to Minneapolis.

    Before the trip, I imagined a winding road following Lake Superior’s shore. I did not know we were in for a heavily used route with lots of up and down–like biking through the mountains.

    The trip took us about a week. We camped along the way, usually at provincial campgrounds, sometimes just bushwacking into the woods to find a spot.

    I haven’t been back on the Candadian side since then.

    I look forward to reading about your trip!

  2. Submitted by Catherine Conlan on 06/25/2009 - 04:39 pm.

    Thanks! I can’t believe how many bikers are on the Trans-Canadian Highway. The shoulders are narrow and there are a LOT of trucks (not to mention the up-and-down). I could maybe do it on bikes in a month.

  3. Submitted by Steve Share on 06/26/2009 - 12:16 pm.

    I remember the trucks! Lots of them! Way too many to be safe for bicycling (even back in 1975). By the end of the trip, we were shaking every time we heard a truck approaching from behind us. NOT a route I would recommend for bicycling but it’s the only east-west route across Canada.

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