The Big Fork River would still be familiar to the Indians and fur traders if they were to canoe it today. Scattered farms, towns and bridges remind modern explorers of the 20th century, but the rest of the route remains primitive.
The rapids and white-water stretches are for experienced canoeists only, although novices can enjoy this wilderness river if they portage the obstacles. Some of the portages are rough and brushy.
Planning is vital for all canoeists on an isolate driver like the Big Fork. Drinking water, for example, is hard to come by along the way. You have to disinfect and filter the river water, or pack your own. Potable water is available at the Highway 6 campsite (River Mile 74), at Johnson's Landing (RM-65) and at the few river towns that you'll paddle through. Outfitters in Bigfork and Grand Rapids can assist with your preparations.
The upper channel of the Big Fork is wide, shallow, and bordered with wild-rice beds. Frank L. Vance tried to harvest the rice by building one of Minnesota's first wild-rice processing mills near here in the early 1890s. He also invented a reaper to increase production, but he went out of business shortly after a ban was placed on mechanized harvesting. The wild rice is still harvested, during a regulated season, using the ancient methods of the Indians.
The scenery changes below Bigfork as the hardwood-softwood forest envelops the river like a green cloak. The banks become steeper, and the current picks up velocity in the deeper channel. From here to the Rainy River you'll encounter rapids of varying difficulty.
During high water, some of the rapids become challenging Class II, although most are rated Class I. (Some are impassable in low water.) There are two notable exceptions however. The rapids and small waterfalls at both Little American Falls (RM 103) and the town of Big Falls (RM 51) should be portaged. The former is rated Class IV in low water and Class III in high water, though with its 6-foot ledge and large souse holes, it's best to portage. The Big Falls rapids is a dangerous series of four falls that drop 35 feet in a quarter-mile. This rapids rates Class IV in low water and Class VI in high water, when it's filled with 6-foot back rollers and big souse holes.
The river quiets down into a meandering stream below Big Falls. The current is still steady and you'll navigate through some Class I rapids, though they may wash out in high water. This stretch of the Big Fork is popular with less experienced canoeists because of the easy paddling.
This route has a colorful history. Klondike Landing, 9 miles below Bigfork, is the site of an old logging camp. Busties Landing (RM 119) is named for an Ojibway chief, Busticogan, who was rewarded by the government for caring for surveyors stricken with small pox. An early Hudson's Bay Company post stood at the confluence of the Sturgeon and Big Fork rivers, where some campers have found Indian artifacts.
Grand Mound, at the junction of the Big Fork and Rainy rivers, is the largest prehistoric burial mound in Minnesota, measuring 40 feet high and more than 100 feet across at the base. The Laurel Indians, who lived around the upper Great Lakes some 2,000 years ago, probably constructed this monument. Stop at the visitor center to find out more about how these people lived in the northern lake-forest wilderness. This site is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.
A trip down the Big Fork is like a journey into the past. It still is possible to see most of the same species of wildlife that lived in the forest 200 years ago. The caribou are gone, but timber wolves, lynx, moose and bear wander the woods, while bald eagles and ospreys soar overhead. Walleyes, northerns, smallmouth bass and muskies inhabit the river.