By Jim Umhoefer
Carlton County. 3 miles east of Carlton on Highway 210. Highway map index: L-19
The St. Louis River, which flows through Jay Cooke State Park, has been the connecting link between the upper Mississippi River and Lake Superior for centuries. Like other rivers that spill into Lake Superior, it plunges for several hundred feet down rocky canyons in the space of a few miles, creating impassable falls and rapids. To reach calmer water above these obstacles, the Indians explorers and fur traders had to portage around them.
The 7-mile-long trail that bypassed the spectacular rocky gorge of the lower St. Louis River was called the Grand Portage. It was a rough trail of steep hills and swamps that began at the foot of the rapids above Fond du Lac and ended near Maple Island. It was divided into 19 pauses (rest stops) spaced one-third to one-half mile apart. To portage the freight, each voyageur carried two or three packs weighing up to 90 pounds each. These were supported by a portage strap, which passed around the voyageur's forehead and reached to the small of his back. Once he reached a pause with his load, the voyageur would jog back to the last stop for more packs. It took an average of three to five days for a crew to complete the Grand Portage, sometimes longer under bad conditions. It was backbreaking labor, and the voyageurs would be plastered with mud and covered with mosquito and fly bites.
Once past the portage, the fur traders paddled up the St. Louis River to the Savanna Portage, another grueling trail (6 miles long) that provided access to the Mississippi River. Or they continued on the St. Louis to Lake Vermillion and the Rainy River. These routes were used for thousands of years by the Indians before explorers and fur traders came from Europe. The Grand Portage was still in use as late as 1870, but a new railroad meant the end of the old passage.
If you want a firsthand look at the portage trail, a portion of it has been renovated for hiking in Jay Cooke State Park. Over 50 miles of foot trails and 10 miles of horseback trails await visitors who want to explore the country that the voyageurs saw. Some trails follow the river while others head into the wooded hills and valleys of the park.
At Jay Cooke, you'll see ash, maple and basswood forests as well as white pine and spruce woods. These forests support a large population of deer as well as black bears, timer wolves and coyotes. Eagles nest along the river, marsh hawks and pileated woodpeckers also inhabit the park.
A swinging bridge is the only access to the trails across the river and is a good spot to see the tangled mass of jagged rock in the St. Louis River bed. The craggy outcrops have been folded and fractured. Heat, pressure and other natural forces have tortured the rock beds so much that the river gorge is a geological curiosity studied by groups from around the country.
The mood of the St. Louis River changes from season to season. At times, the water thunders over the ancient slabs of bedrock; at other times it trickles and splits around rocky outcrops. Oldenburg Point, a popular picnic area with an open shelter, offers good views of the snarled mass of rock.
The other picnic spot is along the St. Louis by the River Inn, an enclosed shelter and visitor center. The River Inn is the gathering place for ecumenical worship services and many of the naturalist programs. The seasonal naturalist is a good source of park background information. On various outings, you might search for wild orchids or learn about the Thomson Pioneer Cemetery (a park historic site). Kids like the displays and "touch boxes" in the River Inn.
The river is not safe for swimming or boating (although it is a state-designated canoe route above Cloquet), but the fishing is good. Brown trout are taken in the St. Louis River (some walleye and northern in slower stretches) and in Otter Creek. Brook trout are found in Silver and Otter creeks. There are two dams on the St. Louis River near the park; the Thomson Dam (near the northwest boundary) and the Fond du Lac Dam (near the northeast boundary).
The park's 80-site (21 electric) semi-modern campground is located across the road from the River Inn. The group camp has two tenting sites with space for 30 people in each. Across the river in the backcountry of the 8,800-acre park are several backpack campsites that require a hike of 2 or 3 miles. Boil your drinking water at these sites to be safe. The main campground is usually busy on summer weekends and can fill quickly. The walk-in sites are becoming more popular with people who discovered the wilder side of the park while hiking and decided to backpack on their next visit.
The park road (Highway 210) is a pretty route for cars and bicycles, but heavy traffic makes biking hazardous at times. Bicyclists will enjoy the paved Willard Munger State Trail that runs from Carlton to West Duluth. The trail provides a scenic and safe biking experience for people of all ages. Maps are available along the trail and at the park office. You can also mountain bike on designated trails in the north part of the park.
Jay Cooke State Park features two unique attractions. One is the North Country National Scenic Trail. This is a 3,200-mile foot path (not yet completed) that stretches from Lake Champlain in New York to Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, crossing seven northern states along the way. Part of the trail passes through the park.
The other attraction is the National Whitewater Center, on the St. Louis River below the Thomson Dam. The Center sponsors the Champion International Whitewater Series Race in early August each year. This exciting five-race series features top-ranked international slalom racers as well as experienced local paddlers looking to compete against the best. In 1991, more than 160 paddlers from 12 countries gathered in Carlton for the event. To find out more about local white-water races, future volunteer positions, or kayak and canoe courses, contact the University of Minnesota-Duluth Outdoor Program (218-726-7170).
Jay Cooke State Park has space for long winter hikes or ski outings, and trails to challenge all abilities. The park has 35 miles of designated ski loops and several side spurs that lead to overlooks of the snowy hills and valleys. You'll have to cross the swinging bridge to ski on the trails across the river. Considering the variety of cross-country trails and the distances they cover, you might want to come back again before season's end.