DRYWEED ISLAND, RAINY LAKE — Sometimes it's okay when the walleyes you catch are too big to keep. But not this time.
This time we were jonesing for a walleye dinner, cooked and eaten at a rock face campsite on this big border lake.
Alas, it was not to be. The few walleyes caught were all over 18 inches, too big to keep under Rainy Lake’s limits. So it would be the fishless fallback plan: Ann Myers’ famous Boy Scout dinners to the rescue. And as fallback meals go, they don’t get much better than that: Potatoes, sausage, onions, carrots and peppers all combined in a foil pouch and cooked over an open fire until they are caramelized and buttery. And there’s no pan to clean up.
Then s'mores for dessert.
Welcome back to boat camping indeed.
After an 18-year absence while we were doing most of our fishing in Canada (off limits to Yanks so far this summer due to COVID-19) the Myers clan was back in Voyageurs National Park boat-camping again. This is how we spent countless trips as a younger family, loading up our fishing boats with the dog, camping gear, food (and a toddler when we had one) and heading out in the park for days, sometimes a full week.
In those days it was first come, first served. It was entirely free, with no reservations needed, no permits required and the freedom to camp anywhere you wanted. But you sometimes had to scramble to find a decent, unoccupied campsite, especially near weekends and especially if you wanted one with a picnic table, vault toilet, fire ring and bear-proof food lockers. (After a sow and her cubs destroyed a screen tent and ate every morsel of food we had on a late early 1990s trip to Lake Kabetogama, we learned to use sites with bear lockers.)
Now, you pick and reserve Voyageurs campsites online at recreation.gov. They aren’t free anymore. You have to camp in a designated site. And popular sites are filling up weeks, even months in advance.
But the park still has that full-blown Canadian Shield feel of unspoiled waters and undeveloped islands where forest, rock and water collide. And there few safer places to keep COVID-19 social distancing while on vacation. Campsites are often hundreds of yards if not miles apart.
With just a week’s advance notice we found a campsite on Rainy Lake we thought would work, based on the photos and description available at recreation.gov. We wanted a site fairly close to the boat landing to avoid any big-wind surprises; this one was just 5 miles out. That turned out to be a good choice. When we launched our boat at the park’s Rainy Lake Visitor’s Center the west wind was gusting to 32 mph. It was a good thing our route was sheltered, avoiding the lake’s big expanses of open water where frothing white caps were piling down the massive lake.
The site was beautiful, set among white, red and jack pines with a big, flat rock outcropping that stuck out into the lake, catching any breeze and keeping most bugs at bay. That’s where the campfire ring was, too, and that’s where we set up our folding chairs and spent most of our time.
There were two large tent pads, but they were well back into the woods. Mosquitoes were buzzing during setup and take-down, but we only spent time in the tent area when we were sleeping. The open-air vault toilet was another 40 steps up the hill away from the lake. (Go fast or be eaten alive.)
In a space between the lake and the tent pads we covered the big picnic table with a screen tent. That’s where we set up the Coleman stove, conveniently located between two metal, bear-proof food lockers where coolers and supplies are stashed at night and anytime you aren’t in camp.
There was no dock at the site, but there was a tiny sand beach — maybe 15 feet wide between rocks — to land the boat safely. With a little engineering and enough rope we were able to secure the boat to keep it off the rocks.
Despite high winds every day the campsite and the trip turned out well. Boat camping was more work and as much fun as we remembered.
Even if we didn’t eat any walleye.
Minnesota’s only national park was established in 1975. The park encompasses 218,054 acres, nearly half of which is water, along the route used by Voyageur fur traders centuries ago. The park consists of four large lakes — Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan and Sand Point — and 26 smaller interior lakes.
Access points to the park are all just off Highway 53 and include Orr/Crane Lake, Ash River, Kabetogama Lake and International Falls/Rainier.
Vacation opportunities range from resorts with lakeside cabins just outside the park to houseboats or camping on secluded islands in the park. Voyageurs has over 270 lake-access and backcountry tent camping, houseboat and day use sites. Most overnight sites have been developed for a single party with tent pads, fire ring, picnic table, privy and bear-proof food lockers, but some large group sites are available. All overnight sites and most day use sites in the park are accessible only by boat.
If tent camping isn’t for you but you want to experience the park, consider renting a houseboat. Houseboat rental operations are available on Crane Lake, the Ash River Trail and two on Rainy Lake near International Falls/Rainier.
Tips for boat camping Voyageurs National Park
Book early: Because Canada is not an option so far this summer, Voyageurs' lakes seem busier than usual and campsites are filling up fast. Campsites can be chosen and reserved at recreation.gov; search for Voyageurs National Park. Sites can be examined and reserved under “Build Itinerary.” The cost is $20 per night for a small site (up to two large tents) plus a $10 booking fee. Larger sites are $25 or $35 per night. Lots of information on boat-to camping in the park can be found at www.nps.gov/voya/planyourvisit/tent-camping.htm or call (218) 283-6600. There are no drive-to campsites or RV sites in Voyageurs, but there are several nearby.
Bring good maps: Navigation charts are a must on these rock-strewn lakes. Know how to read the maps and know your buoys. Don’t depend solely on GPS map chips. Paper maps never have blown fuses or run out of battery power.
Bring enough boat: These are all big lakes and can get very rough in big winds. Plus you’ll be loaded down with people, camping gear, food and fishing gear. Don’t overload your boat. Pick the boat landing/ramp closest to your campsite. Watch the weather.
Boat beached on sand, rock or dock: If you aren’t comfortable beaching your boat on sand or rock, often the options at Voyageurs campsites, pick a site with a dock. When you choose and reserve a site you can see what type of boat access it has.
Bring a screen tent. Between mosquitoes, deer flies and no-see-ums there’s a good chance something will be out to bug you no matter when you make a trip. On low-wind days in wooded areas the bugs can be unbearable starting just before sunset until the sun gets high in the sky the next day. You’ll want some place to cook, eat and hang out other than your sleeping bag. (Bug hats and bug jackets aren’t a bad idea either.)
Bring what you’ll need: Depending on which lake and which site to choose, you may be camped anywhere from 2 to 22 miles from your vehicle and the nearest road. There are no stores out there so don’t forget anything, including a first aid kit, enough ice to last the trip and plenty of boat gas.
BWCAW this is not: This is remote water, but it’s not motorless wilderness. You’ll see everything from canoes and kayaks to fishing boats and 60-foot houseboats on Voyageurs’ big lakes. Some are campers, others are folks coming from cabins or resorts outside the park for day trips. You can find solitude amid back bays and islands, and you can pick a campsite that’s out of the way. But you will run into plenty of people, especially this summer. You can find true wilderness by backpacking into the park's smaller, inland lakes.
Ann Myers’ Boy Scout dinner
No actual Boy Scouts are used in this recipe; the name comes from scout cookouts and family camping trips decades ago. It’s a simple, hearty and very tasty meal with minimal cleanup that works perfect on wood campfires, charcoal fires or even on a gas grill. Everything cooks in a foil pouch.
What you need: Heavy duty aluminum foil; russet potatoes; smoked bratwurst; onions; carrots; red and yellow peppers; Everything Bagel seasoning; butter.
Directions: Cut the veggies, potatoes and bratwurst into bite-size chunks. Place each single serving on a separate 18-inch long piece of foil. Add a tablespoon of butter and season to taste. Now wrap the entire mess into a sealed pouch of foil; try to seal tight to prevent butter seepage that causes flare up. (If you have regular foil, use two layers.) Place pouches on a fire grate or grill for about 45 minutes, until potatoes are cooked soft, depending on how hot the fire is. You can also cook them directly on mellowed coals. If your seal is good on the foil you can flip the pouch. How much bratwurst and potatoes to use depends on the appetites involved. Remove from fire, fork onto a plate and enjoy. (Can substitute bratwurst with chicken breast, Italian sausage or Polish sausage. Could add any of green peppers, mushrooms or green beans.)
Kettle Falls Hotel: An oasis of civilization in the wild
You really haven’t lived the complete Northwoods experience until you’ve played pool on the slanted barroom floor at the Kettle Falls Hotel, where getting there is half the fun.
We didn’t make it that far on this trip - Kettle Falls is a nearly 25-mile boat trip from the Rainy Lake Visitors Center — but we’ve been there many times before. The falls themselves are amazing to see and the hotel, fully restored by the Park Service 30 years ago, hearkens back to the day of loggers, commercial fishermen and early tourists.
The century-old hotel is the only formal lodging and dining available in the park (there are many resorts/lodges on the park’s perimeter however) and is accessible only by boat.
Hotel rooms will remain closed all summer due to COVID-19 restrictions. But the restaurant/bar were scheduled to reopen this past week with precautions in place. Condo-like villas near the hotel are open for lodging; boat gas is available for sale at the docks; limited supplies are for sale in the trading post; and a boat-portage service to tow even large fishing boats from Rainy Lake across land to the Namakan-Kabetogama-Sand Point system (and vice-versa).
If you don’t have a boat you can still visit and stay at the hotel by taking a boat shuttle service. The shuttle, which runs from the hotel to the Ash River Visitor Center, will only haul one group at a time under COVID-19 restrictions. The cost is $45 per person round-trip for the 13-mile ride to the hotel and takes about 25 minutes. Anyone interested in staying in one of the rental villas should contact the hotel for availability.
Call Kettle Falls Hotel for updates, details and reservations at (218) 240-1724 or (218) 240-1726.