Ye Old Menogyn Guides
Emerging Out of the Mists of Time and Place    by Arm Paulson, Camp Director 1963-67

It is important to understand the ecology of one’s experience. If people do not understand their history, they are doomed to repeat it and thus not move forward strongly into the future by using the lessons learned from the past. In addition, the strengths of the land mystically connect us with all those who came before us and who also lived on this land. Each era of people has experienced many of the same common lessons and challenges that the land provides. Thus all of the people who have lived on this piece of earth are joined together by these common experiences with the land and thus with the Creator.

Each era of human kind has been aware that there is something special going on in creation that is very powerful and that connects them with the rhythms of the created order and to an inter dependence with all living things. It is the Creator, or whatever we call this supreme force, who sets it all in motion and continues to act boldly each day through the wonders of the created order, both seen and unseen. It all fashions the ecology of our existence. So it is in our beloved wilderness of the Superior-Quetico. We have all sensed and felt this power during our travels in “God’s Country” because it creates in us responses of awe, wonder and praise. This is the story of those who came before us.

The Native Americans of the Superior-Quetico

I have often sat quietly by many wilderness lakes in my over 60 years of canoeing in the north woods and heard the wilderness around me “sing” with activity and a spiritual dimension. It is alive with life’s rhythms. I am not alone in this experience. Others over the ages have also listened to this singing and been moved by it. It happens and our best words are unable to describe the deep dimensions of this experience. In addition to the rhythms of this interconnected natural order around me, I have also sensed a common bond with those centuries of human beings who also experienced this same land and the site that I am sitting on. They certainly camped here on this campsite hundreds of years ago and resonated with its essences. My bond with them defies rational, logical thinking, but it’s very strong and the connection is too potent to ignore. Besides, history tells me that they did live here.

Thus the connection with them gives additional dimension and meaning to my existence. I am part of the family of human kind – past, present, and future. I am connected with the essences of their experiences with this land. We are connected by our human experiences with this land. As I sat one early morning at my campsite on Saganaga, I observed the mystical quality of the early morning mist. I knew that this lake was revered by the Ojibwa Native Americans. And it was as if I could faintly hear the splash of their paddles and see the outlines of birch bark canoes skimming smoothly through the waters and mist headed towards the canoe building site that they’d had on Saganaga for hundreds of years.

I reminded myself that these ancient people knew every nook and cranny of this wilderness and their knowledge helped those who would come later. The Ojibwas loved this land. They revered it. It formed the basis of their spiritual beliefs and traditions. Their spirituality and connection with God was apparent in their reverence towards and prayers to the Great Spirit. They saw all of creation as the activity of the Great Spirit. They were monotheistic (belief in one God). They were attuned to all of the rhythms of this land that they lived in because it was evidence of the daily and active presence of “The Great Spirit.” And they were thankful to the “Great Spirit” for all that was around them. They gave thanks to every living thing as they used it because it was all from the “Great Spirit”. Their reverence was deep and their drums brought them closer to this God as did their sweat lodges, dances and daily activities in the creative order.

The following translated prayer of the Ojibwa people illustrates their belief in a God whose power created everything in nature that they found around them and thus interconnected them with all of creation:

“Walk as tall as the trees.

Live strong as the hills.

Be gentle as the spring wind.

Keep the warmth of the summer sun in your head.

The Great Spirit will always be with you.” .

But where did they come from? The Paleolithic Native Americans were the predecessors of the Ojibwa. They arrived in the Boundary Waters of the Superior-Quetico region about 9000 BC having come from Asia over the land bridge on the Bering Sea from Asia to what is now Alaska. They moved south over the glaciers to seek more livable land. The glaciers began to retreat and melt about 4000 years later in 5000 BC. The retreat of the glaciers (over a mile deep) created a new landscape. The Great Lakes were created by the gouging movement and melting of the glaciers as were all the lakes in North Country. The warmer temperatures not only melted the glaciers and created the lakes; they also changed the flora and fauna.

Slowly the land turned into forests and birds, fish, animals, plants immigrated in. There is evidence of the Paleolithic Native Americans in the area through archeological digs. An area on the west end of Gunflint Lake revealed a treasure trove of artifacts left by these primitive people – the first inhabitants thousands of years ago. The plains Native Americans (Lakota Sioux) were the first to replace the Paleolithic Native Americans. They followed the retreat of the glaciers.

Then in the 1300s, the Ojibwa emigrated from the northeastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean. They drove the Sioux south and lived the life of woodland Indians. As they lived in this beautiful land of lakes, rivers, woods, plants, animals and birds, their unique culture developed. They became as one with this land that they loved. And they knew their beloved north woods like the backs of their hands. They moved to various locations at certain times of the year for hunting, fishing and winter shelter and in so doing created travel highways throughout the wilderness that they used for over five centuries.

During summer, travel was by birch bark canoe and portaging as it is today. In winter they traveled by snowshoe and dog sled. Many of their ancient portages were used by early explorers and later the French Canadian Voyageurs. These first early white explorers didn’t “discover” a thing. The Native Americans had discovered and traveled this land for centuries and they learned to live on it and take care of it. They had been using the border highway from Grand Portage to Rainy Lake and beyond for centuries. The Gunflint Trail is an ancient Indian trail from Gunflint Lake to their ancient fishing village located on Lake Superior now called Grand Marais. (The “Great Swamp” in French) Thus they were able to easily guide the early French explorers seeking to discover the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean and also the Catholic priests seeking to spread Christianity.

In the tradition of the Ojibway, Clearwater Lake was a very special place. Oral tradition speaks of Clearwater as a major gathering place where chiefs would address their people from the bluffs at the east end of Clearwater as many hundreds sat in their birch bark canoes. Sound carries well over water and thus it was a place for communicating important information and making plans.

They lost their ancient, traditional lands in the mid 1800s due to the exploitation of the lumber industry. By the 1850s, most Ojibwas had been resettled on reservations and their land purchased for little or nothing by the lumber industry. Their native lands had been stolen and their culture and traditions, so tied to the land, had been decimated. When Menogyn founder “Dad” Tripp first came into the area in 1921, there were still a few isolated Ojibway families living in the Clearwater Lake area; however, the majority had been forced to go to the reservations prepared for them by the government.

The Explorers and  French Canadian Voyageurs

I have stood on the top of the bluff overlooking Rose Lake more times than I can count. I’ve camped here often as have so many of you and all those who preceded us. I’ve always set up my tent with the door facing the view. It is a grand way to wake up. It is one of the most beautiful overlooks in the wilderness of the Superior-Quetico and it continues to inspire me and draw me back again and again see its grandeur. I know that many join me in their love of this place. Every canoeist that I’ve met has spoken of this spot, “the stairway”, in the hushed tones of awe and wonder. And each time I am there, I admire the beauty of the broad sweep of Rose Lake whose picturesque moods change by the hour and by the season. And there is something more that entices me.

When I sit quietly sensing the singing of the wilderness as I’m sure the Ojibwas did in this same place in years past, I sense another presence. I begin to almost faintly hear the lusty voices of the Voyageurs singing their songs as they paddled their 25 foot North canoes, laden with furs, across the Rose Lake. This magnificent lake was on their water highway from the interior of Canada to Grand Portage and return. I look to see if I can see the canoes. Will they paddle east to the “little Grand Portage” (very difficult) or avoid it and come up the Stairway Portage, that they originally built, to paddle Duncan, West Bearskin and Clearwater on their way east to the Pigeon River and Fort Charlotte and then down the Grand Portage to Lake Superior to the fort their established by the Northwest Company?

I look for the flash of their red paddles all hitting the water at the same time and in time with the chansons of their French Canadian songs. I hope to see their powerful arms and backs digging on every stroke and for the rippling colors of their colorful stocking caps and red waist sashes. It happens every time for me, yet I never quite see the real thing. I don’t need to. The magic of their presence in my mind’s eye is enough to remind me that they too loved this land for its mystery and beauty. “Le Beau Pays” they called it (The beautiful land) And they cut quite a swath through the wilderness with their presence in it for close to 100 years.

"Early History of Boundary Waters Area"  by    Ted Gamelin - Guide 1957-59, Trail Director 1962

Camp Menogyn provides a gateway to the Superior-Quetico canoe country, a vast area that straddles the border between the United States and Canada. On the US side of the border, the canoe country includes Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW, established in 1978) and Voyageur National Park (established in 1975,  both part of Superior National Forest. On the Canadian side, it includes Quetico Provincial Park (established in 1913). The terrain consists of a maze of lakes and rivers surrounded by woods. Portages of varying lengths connect the lakes and bypass river rapids. Until modern times, the most efficient means of transportation in this area was by canoe, at least after the spring thaw.

Camp Menogyn is significant for its location near a water route that played an important role in the economic development and westward expansion of Canada. Two centuries ago, a veritable commercial superhighway passed through Rose Lake, only a short paddle from Menogyn. Let me explain in more detail.

Historically the fur trade was important in the economic development of Canada, and fur trading routes gradually spread westward. Montreal merchants competed in the fur trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company controlled by the English in the north and with United States interests dominated eventually by John Jacob Astor in the south. The fur trade was a rich potential source of wealth, and the discovery of efficient access routes beyond the Great Lakes to the Canadian hinterland was important to the Montreal merchants. The earliest fur traders to reach beyond Lake Superior focused on the Lake Nipigon region. In the 1720’s, the route from Lake Superior to the hinterland proceeded from Thunder Bay on Lake Superior via the Kaministiquia River and Dog Lake to Sturgeon Lake and Lac La Croix, thence to Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, and Lake Winnipeg.

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye, known to us simply as LaVérendrye, was a Canadian-born military officer, fur trader, and explorer who played an important role in the development of the border route near Menogyn. In 1727 he came to Lake Nipigon to take command of the Kaministiquia fort, and in 1728 he was appointed commander of all the French forts in the West. Theoretically he was in charge of the fur trade westward from Lake Superior, and he searched energetically for more efficient routes to the hinterland. Native Americans directed him south to a route that met Lake Superior at the end of a nine-mile portage, the Grand Portage. In 1731 or 1732, LaVérendrye became the first white person to cross Grand Portage and to traverse the segment of the border route from the Pigeon River via Rose Lake to Lac La Croix, where the shortcut hooked up with the Kaministiquia River route. LaVérendrye and his sons established between 1731 and 1737 a sequence of four fur-trading forts, on Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Winnipeg River, and Red River. LaVérendrye’s grand vision was to find the Northwest Passage, a route by waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Though he never achieved this dream, he did contribute to solidifying the position of the French in the heartland of Canada. The Grand Portage route he pioneered and developed became the main access route from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg and further west in Canada. As it turns out, my eightfold-great grandfather, eleven generations back on my family tree, was involved in the fur trade and was even related to LaVérendrye.

An immense amount of goods passed through Grand Portage in the late 1700’s. Furs of a wide range of animals, including beaver, deer (in hair), raccoon, otter, muskrat, marten, bear, wolf, and buffalo, traveled eastward from the far reaches of the interior of Canada to Lake Superior. Beaver pelts were the most valuable furs on the European market, and they formed about 2/3 of the trade by value. They were packed in bundles of uniform weight, about 90 pounds each, and transported to Grand Portage in north canoes (canots du nord), which were about 25 feet long, with a 4 ½ foot beam, carrying 25 to 30 bundles per canoe, manned by a crew of four or five. From Grand Portage the furs were shipped east in larger freight canoes (canots de maître), which were about 36 feet long, with a 6 foot beam, carrying about 4 tons including a crew of 8 to 10. Manufactured goods for trade with Indians traveled westward. These included items such as pots, pans, knives, axes, hooks, chisels, traps, cloth, woolen blankets, and clothing. Guns, shot, and gunpowder were especially valuable.

The voyageurs served essentially as engines and porters. The merchants contracted the voyageurs for a fixed period of time, usually one to three seasons. In addition to paddling, the voyageurs were expected to perform specific functions, such as making three trips over each portage carrying two packs per trip. The fur traders considered various means of transporting goods over Grand Portage, including horse and oxen, and concluded that the most cost-efficient means for transporting goods was on the back of the voyageur. John Jacob Astor reportedly said he would prefer to have one Canadien voyageur to any three others.

The fur trade through Grand Portage accelerated in the 1770’s. Grand Portage became such a hub of commerce that the Montreal merchants involved in the fur trade funded out of their own pockets the construction of a stockade at the Lake Superior terminus of the portage. By 1784, the various interests formed the North West Company, an umbrella partnership for the fur trade. There were initially 16 partners in the company. Some were Montreal merchants who invested in the enterprise by buying the goods for trade, the others were “wintering” partners who oversaw the fur-trading operations at the various posts in the hinterland. Each summer the wintering partners and the Montreal partners met half-way to hold their annual meeting at Grand Portage. It was the big blast of the year!

In 1793 the Treaty of Paris fixed the stretch of the US-Canada border immediately west of Lake Superior to be the “water communication” between “Long Lake” and Lake of the Woods. The treaty was based on a map showing Long Lake as a waterway terminating opposite Isle Royale. While there was some room for ambiguity, it was reasonably clear that this waterway represented the Pigeon River, and an 1842-treaty clarified this point.

The lower portion of the Pigeon River has a number of cascades and rapids and is not navigable. Grand Portage heads inland from a point on Lake Superior south of the Pigeon River, meeting the Pigeon River upstream from the cascades. Thus the effect of the Treaty of Paris was to place Grand Portage in the United States. In competition with Canada for control of the West, the US posed a continuous threat to Canadian commercial activity along the border. When in 1800 a US customs agent arrived at Grand Portage and informed British traders of his intentions to collect duties on all goods passing through, the North West Company began laying plans to relocate its operations to Thunder Bay. It rediscovered and surveyed the Kaministiquia River route, which had been forgotten, and at great expense it disassembled its facilities at Grand Portage and moved lock, stock, and barrel to Thunder Bay. By 1803, construction of Fort William was finished and the move was complete. Traffic along the border route went into a decline, and Grand Portage never regained prominence as an economic hub. The shotgun takeover of the North West Company by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 led to further decline, as York Factory on Hudson Bay eclipsed Lake Superior as a focus for fur-trading activities and the summer rendezvous.

Time has erased virtually all signs of the voyageurs whose activities once enlivened Grand Portage. There remain only a few mounds of earth at the Pigeon River terminus of Grand Portage where Fort Charlotte once stood, awaiting excavation by archaeologists.

What near Menogyn can we point to as a concrete remnant of the voyageurs? The answer boils down to one significant portage, Long Portage between Rove Lake and Rose Lake. The original water route used by the native Americans turned north from Mountain Lake to Arrow Lake and thence west to Rose Lake. The voyageurs shortened this route by proceeding instead via Watap Lake and Rove Lake to Rose Lake, and for this they developed Long Portage. Here at the end of Long Portage, on the shore of Rose Lake and within walking distance of Menogyn, one can search for the ghosts of the voyageurs who plied the border route for a brief century. One can dream of LaVérendrye appearing at the end of the portage and peering out over Rose Lake, of the voyageurs marking the portage route and preparing it for traffic. One can relax in the quiet solitude and dream of distant sounds, gradually growing in intensity, reaching a peak with the hustle and bustle of voyageurs loading or unloading bundles from their north canoes, and then diminishing as the voyageurs move off into the distance.

With the waning of the fur trade, the next wave of economic activity was the harvesting of trees for lumber. Logging companies moved into the area around Menogyn in the late 1800’s, leaving their mark on the land. Remnants of their operations include the abandoned lumber camp on Davis Lake, and Railroad Portage between Daniels Lake and Rose Lake. In fact, one can walk from midway along the shore of Daniels Lake to Rose Lake along an abandoned railroad bed.

In the 1900’s the Northland became a focus for recreational activities, particularly hunting and fishing, and a number of commercial lodges sprang up in the area. After a protracted and sometimes bitter battle between conservation groups and logging interests, Congress established the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in 1978. Armand Paulson, Menogyn Camp Director from 1963 to 1968, has written an account of his role in the events leading to the formation of BWCAW. His story of how the Minneapolis YMCA resisted pressure from Weyerhauser Lumber to fire him from the Menogyn Directorship is particularly gripping.

Background on Menogyn

Camp Menogyn was founded in 1922 by O. R. “Dad” Tripp at the east end of West Bearskin Lake, under the auspices of the Minneapolis YMCA. It was Tripp’s genius to recognize the importance of a wilderness experience for building character in youth.

Photo Dad Tripp

The name “Menogyn” is well chosen. It stems from an Indian word meaning “growing all around.” The purpose of Camp Menogyn is to provide challenges for campers that increase self-reliance and instill self-confidence, in an environment that requires teamwork and builds esprit. Further, campers learn to appreciate the wonders of nature in a remote venue that offers beauty and tranquility.

In the late 1940’s, Camp Menogyn moved west about two miles to its current site on the north shore of West Bearskin Lake. It is situated on a point of land that runs parallel to the shore, protecting a small bay. The camp’s original main lodge and two bunkhouses stand on a hillock at the base of the point.

A large boathouse fronts on the bay, and a stairway leads from the boathouse to the lodge. A guides’ shack called “Hernando’s” is located up a trail in the woods. (The guides’ shack was named after the popular hit song Hernando’s Hideaway from the 1954 musical Pajama Game, which I happened to see on Broadway in 1956.) The Director’s Cabin is farther up the trail, overlooking the next bay.

The other structures at the camp during my time were a small residential shack called the “Icebox” a few steps behind Hernando’s, the Finn bath, the root cellar, a gasoline shack, two outhouses situated near the bunkhouses, and a third serving the Director’s Cabin.