Boundary Waters - Voyageur Waterway

Location: Quetico, Middle Falls and Voyaguer Provincial Parks
Region: Northwestern
Character: Heritage River

Boundary Waters - Voyageur Waterway
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

Paddlers' Paradise

Along the international boundary extending from the western tip of Lake Superior to Lac La Croix in Quetico Provincial Park is a string of rock-rimmed lakes, narrow river channels and portages that once formed a main fur trade route to the west. Modern voyageurs can trace this route past rapids, waterfalls, gorges, cliffs, beaver dams and lakes innumerable. Relax on a sunwarmed rock and listen to the lonely cries of loons and wolves and... silence. Canoe country. Awesome.

In the 18th and l9th centuries, the main travel route between Montreal and Lake Winnipeg was the 'Voyageur Waterway'. This historic route, forged by the fur trade, made possible European exploration and commerce in western Canada. The Boundary Waters segment of the waterway served as the most reliable route between Lake Superior and the prairies from the first arrival of French traders in the 1730's until the demise of the fur-trade in the late 1820's.

Although heavily used by wilderness-seeking recreationists since the turn of the century, the Boundary Waters have maintained their rugged wild character. Today, the combined attraction of Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park and its counterpart, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of the Superior National. Forest in neighbouring Minnesota, have earned the waterway its reputation as North America's premiere, near-urban, wilderness canoe area. To commemorate this highly significant, 250 km segment of the Voyageur Waterway, and to further protect its natural and historical resources, the Government of Ontario nominated the Canadian side of the Boundary Waters to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System in June, 1986.

The Boundary Waters - Voyageur Waterway is located in northwestern Ontario along the international boundary between the Pigeon River mouth at Lake Superior and Quetico's Lac La Croix. Its eastern end is 58 km south of Thunder Bay and 114 km north of Duluth; its western end is only 50 km by water from Fort Frances and International Falls. Comprising both the large Shield lakes and the narrow river channels and portages which connect them, the waterway drains in two directions from an almost imperceptible height of land between North and South Lakes (474 metres above sea level), a fact which afforded the Voyageurs easy passage both east and west.

Except for private parcels of land along Saganaga, Gunflint and North lakes, the entire corridor is protected by parks on both sides of the border. These are Ontario's Quetico, LaVerendrye, and Middle Falls Provincial Parks and Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) and Grand Portage National Monument. Forestry, mining, trapping and cottaging all contribute to local economies, but the large wilderness parks are the driving force behind the region's largely tourist-oriented economy.

Natural Heritage
The Boundary Waters contain a number of significant natural features in a landscape formed over a billion years, culminating in the four major glaciations of the last two million years. The waterway's most notable natural features are:

-one of the best displays in Canada of Precambrian era geological activity, such as the 2.7 billion year old fault contact zone which formed the cliff along the north shore of Saganaga Lake;

two billion year old micro-fossils along Gunflint and North Lakes, the oldest in North America;

-steep-sided cliffs or "cuestas" and flat-topped hills or "mesas" formed a billion years ago: characteristic of the Thunder Bay region, these landforms are otherwise unique in Canada;

-the southern extremity of the continental divide which separates the Hudson Bay and Atlantic watersheds;

-a beautiful, glaciated landscape dappled with hundreds of irregularly-shaped lakes and embracing hidden bays, barren areas, boulder islands, deep river gorges, and awe-inspiring cliffs;

-three large, step-like waterfalls - the Pigeon River Cascades dropping 200 m in just over 1/2 km, Partridge Falls with a two-step, 21 m vertical face, and High Falls which, at 28 m, is the highest waterfall in Minnesota;

-wildlife typical of Canada's northern coniferous forest, but with influences of western Great Plains grassland communities and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence mixed-hardwood and swamp forests;

-breeding habitat for the bald eagle, common in Quetico but endangered in Canada and the U.S.;

-rare plants on the Fowl lakes' cliffs and at the Cascades. Survivors of an earlier post-glacial era, these species are more typical of the western mountains, arctic and subarctic regions;

-more than 400 species of plants, 13 of which are provincially rare, and a type of moss which is abundant here but rare world-wide.

Human Heritage
The Boundary Waters fur trade route, alternating between the Pigeon River (1731-1804) and the Kaministikwia River (1670-1821), served for more than 100 years as the European transportation mainline to the west. First used for almost 10,000 years by Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Laurel and Late Woodland native cultures and their Ojibwa and Cree descendents, the route later served explorers in their search for the western sea, missionaries seeking Indian souls to convert, and settlers and prospectors looking for a better life in the west. The waterway's most important historical features are:

-outstanding representation of Canada's fur trade era. The Pigeon River is the location of two posts, Lac D'Orignal arid Fort Charlotte, established by Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Verendrye between 1731 and 1749. Grand Portage, the North West Company's major fur-trade depot and stockade in interior Canada, was the site of the annual 'Rendezvous' where 600 to 800 men from the Northern and Montreal fur brigades met for revelry and to exchange goods. It is now a U. S, National Historic Monument;

-strong association with Canada's most famous explorers: Allouez (1666), DuLhut (1678), de la Noue (1722), La Verendrye (1731), Alexander Henry (1775), and Frobisher, McTavish, Fraser, Mackenzie and Thompson of the North West Company (1783);

-124 known archaeological sites, evidence of all pre-European native cultures known to have existed in central Canada. Included are the best Blackduck sites known; pre-16th century Ojibwa arid Cree pictographs and portage trails; and Paleo-Indian toolstone quarries;

-the site of British North American - U.S. disputes following the American War of Independence (1776) and the Treaty of Paris (1783); the Webster-Ashburton Treaty resolving boundary disputes (1842); and the surrender of Ojibwa lands in the Robinson - Superior Treaties (1850);

-good representation of the mining (1870s - 1900s), logging (1820's - 1930's) and railway (1882-1938) eras. Still visible are the Pigeon River Lumber Company dam at South Fowl Lake, well-preserved sluiceways on the Pigeon River, and the abandoned Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway bed between North and Gunflint Lakes;and

-a rich conservation history which saw several major parks established here, a tribute to Eric Morse who popularized wilderness canoeing in Canada and brought the Pigeon River-Grand Portage route to the attention of contemporary Canadians.

Excellent water quality, natural beauty, rich history, and proximity to major Canadian and mid-western U.S. population centres, have resulted in heavy use of the Boundary Waters for cottaging and resort-based boating, hunting, fishing, and wilderness canoe travel since the turn of the century. Today, with more than 22 million people living within a day's drive, the region attracts a million, mostly American, vacationers annually. Yet, less than 1% of the shoreline has been developed, leaving the landscape much as it was in the eras of the Indian and the Voyageur. The Boundary Waters offer:

-seemingly endless opportunities for wilderness canoe travel, backpacking, and camping. In 1985, 16,000 visitors travelled the Quetico portion of the waterway and 2,500 more, the LaVerendrye;

-several pockets of intensive recreational use: car-camping, boat-camping, canoe-camping, swimming, picnicking, power boating, sailing, hiking, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, winter camping, and fishing for yellow pickerel (walleye), northern pike, smallmouth bass, rainbow, speckled and lake trout, and whitefish;

-year-round opportunities for photographers, bird watchers, botanists and other naturalists: opportunities for studying geology and rare plants in the Fowl, Knife, Saganaga, and Gunflint Lake areas; for photographing waterfalls on the lower Pigeon River; for watching herons nesting in the large rookery on Seagull Island, eagles soaring along lake shores, and moose and deer feeding along the corridor; and, for listening to the lonely cries of the Quetico wolf and common loon;

-on-site appreciation of a cultural heritage of Canada's native people through pictographsv Indian trails, toolstone quarries and habitation sites;

-a chance to relive an important era in Canadian history, using the same portages and campsites as the Ojibwa, Cree and Voyageur.

Canoeing: Thousands of kilometres of interconnected routes in Quetico (1450 km) and the BWCA (2400 km) link up with the 250 km Boundary Waters - Voyageur Waterway, itself part of the larger 500 km route connecting Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods. Navigable in either direction, trips along the Boundary Waters route often commence (or end) at the eastern boundary, with an arduous, 13.6 km hike over the Grand Portage from Lake Superior, or with a 7.7 km hike from the trailhead on Minnesota's Cook County Road #17. The western boundary is Lac La Croix, but access or egress from here requires some additional days' paddling. From May 1 to mid-October, the Boundary Waters route offers 10 to 12 days of superb, calm-water, lake-to-lake canoeing with a few short, but exciting, fast-water gorges and almost 20 portages. Precipitation is low and summer day-time temperatures are a pleasant 22 degrees C (75 degrees F). Many areas of smooth, glaciated rock along the route are well suited for camping.

Visitor Information
Access: From Canada, road access is limited to the Hwy. 61-Pigeon River crossing at Middle Falls and to two, poorly-developed bush roads leading from Hwys. 588 and 593 to North Fowl and Mountain lakes. Access by canoe with portages is possible From Quetico's French, Beaverhouse and Nym Lakes and from Northern Light and Arrow lakes. Float plane access is restricted within Quetico and the BWCA, permissible at customs stations on Saganaga Lake and at Lac La Croix. Improved facilities are being considered for the LaVerendrye section of the Waterway. Currently, the preferred access is from the U.S. by way of roads leading to the waterway from two Minnesota highways known as the Echo and Gunflint Trails.

Accommodation and Services: The Boundary Waters are served by more than 50 resorts, lodges, campgrounds and outfitters which developed here in response to the attraction of Quetico and the BWCA. The major regional service communities are Fort Frances, Atikokan, and Thunder Bay in Ontario, and International Falls, Duluth, Grand Marais, Ely and Isabella in Minnesota. Travel information centres are located at Middle Falls, Fort Frances, International Falls, Ely and Thunder Bay. For more information, write to: North of Superior Travel Association, 1119 Victoria Ave. East, Thunder Bay, Ontario, P7C 1B7, 1-800-265-3951. For complete up-to-date information on recreational activities and opportunities, visit, or

Topographic Maps: National Topographic Series maps covering the Boundary Waters are: 1:250,000 - Fort William (52A) and International Falls (52C), and 1:50,000 - 52A/3, 4 and 52B/1,2,3,4,5, and 7. These may be purchased from the Canada Map Office, 615 Booth St., Ottawa, Ontario KIA OE9, Tel: (613) 952-7000. .(

For further information on the Boundary Waters Voyageur Waterway, write to: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Thunder Bay District, 435 James Street S., Suite 221, Thunder Bay, Ontario P7E 6S8, Tel: (807) 4751261. ( ) .

Atikokan District, 108 Saturn Avenue, Atikokan, Ontario P0T lCO, Tel: (807) 597-6971. (

For more information on the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, write to the National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. (819) 994-2913, Fax (819) 997-0835., E-mail address: or to the Ontario Member, Canadian Heritage Rivers Board, Ontario Parks, Ministry of Natural Resources, P.O. Box 7000, 300 Water Street, Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 8M5.

Further Information
Visit these sites for more information on this unique international wilderness area:
Ontario Recreational Canoeing Association ( (click on Quetico, Middle Falls, and Voyageur Provincial Parks)