by David Mather
A fishing boat fights the Rainy River current but soon spins into position. From shore and boats,walleye anglers cast into the swift channel of the Long Sault Rapids. The water breaks over and around rocks and across the moving bodies of fish. They too strain against the current at this natural cataract, piling up in their annual spawning runs. Fins and backs flash into view and then are gone. Pelicans perch on rocks amid the turbulence. Today the rapids are high and strong, swollen by meltwater and spring rain. All I hear is the sound of rushing water.
This is the Minnesota spring fishing opener in Franz Jevne State Park, near Birchdale, about midway between International Falls and Baudette. Spring finally reaches the Canadian border in the middle of May. I've come to see the north woods transform, and to explore this section of the Rainy River, the old voyageurs' highway.
See more images from Franz Jevne State Park.
The Rainy is the international boundary for its entire length, as it flows west about 90 miles from Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods. At 118 acres, Franz Jevne is Minnesota's smallest state park, remote and rustic but rich in natural beauty, history, and solitude. Spring and fall are the prime seasons for visitors, but even now there are plenty of open campsites. Park manager Doug Easthouse says most visitors come to fish. The park is one of just a few public shore-fishing spots on the Rainy River.
From the park's forested vantage over the rapids, my attention is soon drawn to the Canadian side of the river. There, an expanse of prairie grass moves in the breeze, a surprising anomaly in the north woods. Luminous green sprouts emerge from areas of recent prescribed burns. The terrain forms a large natural landing, curving along the riverbank. Then the ground slopes up to a high terrace, and there I see large earthen mounds, ancient symbols of a long and continuing American Indian presence at the rapids.
There is a timeless quality here, from the river, the fish, the mounds, and the rocks. This historic gathering place, Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, the Place of the Long Rapids, is the link that connects them all.
I return to the water immediately after setting up camp. The Long Sault Rapids extend for nearly two miles through a slightly constricted, rocky stretch of the river channel. They are not a whitewater free fall, but the current here is faster and more turbulent than elsewhere along the river.
Before the logging days, the Rainy River was a superhighway for trade over thousands of years. Starting in the 1680s, the French voyageurs followed it on their route from Lake Superior west to the Canadian plains and mountains, paddling birchbark canoes on a trade network that was established by American Indians long before. The voyageurs translated the ancient name for this place (Sault, pronounced "soo," is an old French word for rapids) as a warning for their colleagues. Outside the rapids, the Rainy is generally straight and peaceful and about the width of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities.
Heading downstream, I follow a forested path along a high bank above the river. A few gnarled bur oaks overlook the rapids with their new leaves just now peeking out from the buds. A yellow warbler flits away as I descend the steep slope.
Wood frogs, tan with stripes across their eyes, scatter before my feet as I walk along the water's edge. Jumping across wet beaver trails, I eventually reach the end of the rapids. Common mergansers glide downstream.
I step from the soft bank into the channel, picking my way about 20 feet across a scatter of black and charcoal gray rocks until I'm as far out as I can get without swimming.
Anglers wave from their boat in the middle of the channel upstream. Everyone is fishing for walleyes this weekend, but the Rainy is gaining—or rather, regaining—an international reputation for excellent sturgeon angling.
Lake sturgeon have likely come to the rapids to spawn since the end of the last ice age. These giants can reach 8 feet in length, weigh more than 200 pounds, and live more than 80 years. With their ridged back of bony plates, they are living fossils, evolutionary relics of the Mesozoic Era that once swam in ancient waters while dinosaurs walked on land. Over thousands of years, their presence here and at other cataracts on the Rainy River was a predictable, life-saving resource for American Indians at the end of the long northern winters. The fish were so thick during the spawning runs that they could be harvested with barbed moose-bone harpoons or even by hand.
But sturgeon in the Rainy River were nearly wiped out about 100 years ago. In the 1890s, commercial fishermen plundered the sturgeon fishery, which was valued as a source of caviar, meat, oil, and isinglass (collagen from the swim bladder that was used for glue and to clarify wine and beer).
Efforts to help the sturgeon began decades ago, but recovery is still under way for these long-lived, slow-growing fish. While the Rainy River provides sturgeon with prime spawning grounds, it holds even greater importance as a nursery, according to DNR assistant area fisheries manager Dennis Topp. Even after the decline of commercial sturgeon fishing in the early 20th century, the population didn't recover because most fry couldn't survive pollution from paper mills and municipal sewage.
Then around 1970, a sturgeon age class survived. That's when water quality began to improve, thanks to clean water laws passed in Canada and the United States. New sewage treatment facilities and cleaner paper production processes helped filter the water flowing to the spawning grounds of the Long Sault Rapids. Those circa-1970 sturgeon are 70 inches long today.
In 1993 the Rainy River First Nations established a fish hatchery at Manitou Rapids to augment recovery of lake sturgeon on the Rainy River and elsewhere. This hatchery is the source of sturgeon fry that the Minnesota DNR has released in the Red River (See "In Celebration of Sturgeon," May–June 2008).
The next day, I have plans to visit the Rainy River First Nations community for lunch on the Canadian side of the river. The annual gathering celebrates the return of the life-giving fish to the rapids. It is just seven miles away, at the Manitou Rapids powwow grounds, but I have to drive for two hours and cross the border at International Falls. Like the rest of the Rainy River, the Long Sault Rapids are now split in two.
Standing in line by the buffet table, Chief Jim Leonard tells me that the Long Sault Rapids are the heart of a historic meeting place. Because of the sturgeon, Long Sault was a spring fishing village and major trading hub for millennia.
We're amid a large, happy crowd. Voices of Ojibwe singers rise and fall with fast drumming from the grandstand. I realize how hungry I am when I see the smoked sturgeon. Filling the platter in serving-size planks, the fish has a copper tint and rich aroma from the smoke. This is a rare treat on a special occasion. Nontribal anglers cannot currently catch sturgeon in northwestern Ontario. In Minnesota, anglers who have purchased a sturgeon tag can harvest one in early spring or midsummer, provided they register them with the DNR.
"That river is our life," Leonard says. His grandfather was born in a fishing camp at the Long Sault Rapids, and he often told about the busy spring days of catching and drying fish. Sturgeon were most important, still so thick in the river at times in the early 20th century that you could almost walk across their backs. Walleye and suckers ran at the same time, over a span of about six weeks in April and May.
Leonard says the prairie at Long Sault is a result of the area's history as a gathering place. Though the time frame is not certain, it is clear that over centuries a forest opening became a true mesic prairie. Intentionally or not, traders brought seeds of prairie plants such as oval-leaved milkweed and prairie onion to the riverbank. In the 1850s, explorer Henry Youle Hind described Indian gardens at the rapids in an "extensive area destitute of trees" presenting a "beautiful prairie appearance," with a "dense growth of grasses, nettles and Jerusalem artichokes, twisted together by wild convovulus" (vines of bindweed and morning glory).
Biological studies commissioned by Rainy River First Nations have identified dozens of plants, including five species of sedge, along with 17 species of butterflies, dragonflies, and leafhoppers (small kernel-shaped insects) that are otherwise rare or unknown in the region. Such a diversity of grassland species in one small area suggests that the prairie at Long Sault Rapids was established long ago.
The smoked sturgeon is rich and delicious, and my plate is clean too soon. Annie Wilson sits nearby, surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Speaking softly, she tells of running a trap line along the river as a young woman. She says she is proud of the tribe's efforts to preserve the fish, the rapids, and the mounds.
Being at the rapids, Wilson says, takes her back to the events of the world's creation. "It makes you feel that you're living the way they lived … there, at that time when everything was so new." Time melts away with her words. The burial mounds, once simply interesting ancient monuments to me, are alive and inseparable from the modern world. "We believe that the spirit stays to take care of this place," she says. "Life is continuing from them here today."
For more than 4,000 years, and probably much longer, the fish had sustained the large congregations of people who came to Long Sault Rapids to trade each spring. Starting about 2,300 years ago, some of the people, possibly the Cree or other Algonquian ancestors of the Rainy River First Nations, slowly built the earthen mounds here and elsewhere along the Rainy River, adding to them year by year. The mounds are cemeteries, but also sacred landmarks at the rapids and river confluences, and in some cases symbolic effigies representing ancient beliefs.
The tradition of mound building came to the Rainy River from the American Indian Hopewell Culture in present-day Ohio, through a network of trade and religious ideas that spread throughout an area from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, and west across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains.
Mound building traditions lasted into the early fur trade, by which time Ojibwe bands had migrated to the Rainy River and intermarried with members of the Cree and other tribes. Relic hunters in the late 1800s complained that Rainy River Ojibwe were fiercely protective of the mounds and would not allow digging at Long Sault Rapids.
Later I visit with Sherry Wilson, director of the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre. This museum was founded by Rainy River First Nations at Long Sault Rapids to interpret their history through exhibits of artwork and artifacts and tours of the site. Standing in the tall grass, we look down at the rapids and across to Franz Jevne State Park. The spring forest on the Minnesota side is a mosaic of pale green, gray, and brown.
Wilson exchanges waves with anglers in a fishing boat below. The wind moves her long black hair with the prairie. "I always like to wave," she laughs. "Sometimes people seem surprised to see me up here."
The mound closest to us is the largest ancient earthwork in all of Canada. It's about 20 feet tall, the size of a small building, except round and covered with prairie grass. Farther back from the river, we stop at a smaller mound that was damaged in the past. In the tradition for visitors here, we place some soil back onto the mound. In this way, over many years, the earthwork will gradually be restored one handful at a time.
Archaeological digs at the ancient village sites on the Rainy River show that the mounds were built in places that were already considered sacred—the cataracts and river confluences where sturgeon and other fish spawn in the spring. At Long Sault, the deepest archaeological layers in the village site are more than 4,000 years old, at least nearly twice as old as the mounds, and they are rich in bones of sturgeon and other spring-spawning fish—the remains of feasts long ago. Ancient sturgeon bone has also been found in the state park. Not surprisingly, the fishing village encompassed both sides of the river.
I hurry through coffee and oatmeal on my last morning at Franz Jevne, wanting to get back down to the rapids. But walking along the park road, I detour off-trail and scramble up the north face of the park's tall rock outcrop. I quickly ascend to the level of the surrounding tree canopy. Unlike the rest of the park, this dome is open to the sky. I hear birds all around me.
Through the branches of the tree canopy, the water of the Long Sault Rapids sparkles in the distance about 150 feet below. The outcrop and the rapids are part of a 2.1 billion-year-old intrusion of volcanic rock. As the Rainy River formed in a drained arm of Glacial Lake Agassiz about 9,700 years ago, it swerved north at this barrier but could not totally break free. The rocky obstruction created the turbulence of the rapids. The new cataract soon became a spawning ground for sturgeon. Before long, people colonizing the new riverbanks found the giant fish. And both have been here ever since.