How The Environment Has Shaped the State

From Sustenance to Leisure on Minnesota Land

Expert Essay: Associate professor of history Michael J. Lansing, published in Environmental History as well as Ethics, Place, and Environment, highlights the many ways people have made use of Minnesota's flora and fauna over time and reviews the state's more recent efforts at conservation.

Grand Portage Trail sign inside Jay Cooke State Park

Grand Portage sign inside Jay Cooke State Park

Grand Portage sign inside Jay Cooke State Park. This six-mile trail, not to be confused with its better-known namesake, skirts the rapids and waterfalls on the St. Louis River. Voyageurs traveling along this route, which today lies within Jay Cooke State Park, headed into the Mississippi Basin or to Lake Superior. Used by Dakota people for centuries, this Grand Portage (a section of the Northwest Trail) was adopted by the voyageurs in 1798, after the North West Company built a trading post at Sandy Lake. Photo by Jon Lurie, 2020.

Lake Saganaga

Lake Saganaga

Lake Saganaga on the “Voyageur’s Highway.” Voyageurs who paddled the Canadian interior went as far northwest as Great Slave Lake, more than 3000 miles from Montreal. Because of the vast distances involved, these voyageurs would often winter over in the field. Some weathered the long cold season in remote fur posts; others were welcomed to winter with Indigenous families. When the lakes thawed in the spring, these men returned to their canoes, laden with furs, and headed for Lake Superior. Photo by Jon Lurie, 2020.

High Falls on the Pigeon River

High Falls on the Pigeon River

The Pigeon River, which marks a thirty-one-mile portion of the US-Canada border, is the primary route by which voyageurs paddled to the Canadian interior. The lower Pigeon River, which empties into Lake Superior, alternates between navigable waters, cascades, and waterfalls. One of these, High Falls (pictured), is 120 feet tall—the highest in Minnesota. Voyageurs avoided the forbidding lower river by following the Grand Portage trail. Photo by Jon Lurie, 2020.

View of Wita Tanka (Pike Island) and Fort Snelling from Mendota

View of Wita Tanka (Pike Island) and Fort Snelling from Mendota

View of Wita Tanka (Pike Island) and Fort Snelling from Mendota. Painting by Edward Kirkbride Thomas, ca. 1850.

Two women with bicycles near Mni Owe Sni (Coldwater Spring)

Two women with bicycles near Mni Owe Sni (Coldwater Spring)

Two women with bicycles near Mni Owe Sni (Coldwater Spring), 1899.

Cover of a tourism brochure

Cover of a tourism brochure

Cover of a tourism brochure (Minnesota’s Ten Thousand Lakes: the Nation’s Summer Playground), 1918. A tourism organization printed 20,000 of these informational brochures to send to people who made inquiries after seeing newspaper or magazine ads. Forms part of “Pamphlets relating to lakes in Minnesota, 1900–” (F604.3), pamphlets collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Resort signs along a northern Minnesota road

Resort signs along a northern Minnesota road

Resort signs along a northern Minnesota road, ca. 1930.

Canoers completing a portage in the Superior National Forest

Canoers completing a portage in the Superior National Forest

Canoers completing a portage in the Superior National Forest, ca. 1930.

Map of canoe routes in the Minnesota-Ontario lake region

Map of canoe routes in the Minnesota-Ontario lake region

Map of canoe routes in the Minnesota-Ontario lake region, including those in the Quetico Reserve and the Superior National Forest. Published in Duluth by the Architects and Engineers Supply Company, ca. 1928.

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