I believe in going back to the magic of the earth and the lake, the sky and the universe. That kind of magic. I believe in that kind of religion. A religion of the rocks, the lake, the water, the sky. Yes, that’s what I believe in.
– George Morrison, Grand Portage Ojibwe, Turning the Feather Around
From 1784 to 1803, the most profitable fur trade operation on the Great Lakes was run at the Grand Portage. Located on the far west side of Lake Superior, this fur trade depot was the meeting spot for traders who came from the northwest part of Canada and those from Montreal. The depot included a business office, warehouse, storage buildings and living quarters for the many men who came and went throughout the trading season.
Like Hubbell Trading Post in Arizona, Grand Portage is a meeting place that played an important historical role in early commerce, but so few people know about it. Tucked just about six miles from the Canadian border in Minnesota, this national monument is a site you have to set out to reach, but those who make the trip are rewarded with an interesting glimpse back in time with staff dressed in period costumes and artifacts collected from the height of the fur trade.
If you make the trip, here are a few things to keep in mind to get the most out of your visit:
Talk to the staff members. Unlike some U.S. national parks where employees are available to answer questions but don’t play an integral role in the site, the staff members at Grand Portage are both interested in and a part of the experience. They are found in the visitor’s center and in each of the buildings on the compound, and they’re excited to answer questions about the time period, the site and their jobs.
This national park is free! If you’re passing through the area anyway, you might as well stop at Grand Portage because it’s free. It doesn’t cost a dime for your family to get out of the car, stretch their legs and learn a little something during the break.
Watch the film in the visitor’s center. There is a 20-minute video in the visitor’s center of Grand Portage. The site isn’t particularly busy, so if the film isn’t playing, don’t hesitate to ask if it can be started for you. This film provides a good background for your visit.
Feel the furs. This is a very hands-on site, and it adds a lot to the experience if you feel the collection of furs, which range from otter and beaver to wolf and black bear. You can touch things throughout Grand Portage for a sensory experience. Those things that are off limits are labeled as such.
Enjoy the view from the dock. After walking the path through the depot, make a stop on the dock located on Lake Superior. The water is exceptionally cold (about 40F in the summer), but the view from here is stellar.
Take a jacket. Even if you visit Grand Portage in the middle of summer and the sun is out, it’s still a bit chilly in this part of the country, especially if there’s a breeze coming off the water. Keep your body comfortable with a jacket or sweatshirt.