Kettle Falls Hotel

(This column was first published in the September 6, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Geography question: When you drive the Robert Moses Parkway between the north Grand Island Bridge and Niagara Falls, you look south across the river into Canada. Away from this region there is another part of the United States where you also look south into Canada. Where is it?

    I know the answer to that question only because we visited there on our annual trip to the canoe country of northern Minnesota. Where we were in Voyageurs National Park, the Kabetogama Peninsula between Rainy and Namakan Lakes extends east several miles above a large Canadian island. When we canoed along the north arm of Namakan Lake it seemed strange to look over the forests of our northern neighbor -- into the sun.

    If you examine a map of Minnesota, you will see that its Canadian border follows a tortuous route between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods. There it takes that northward jog to pick up the Red Lake Indian Reservation before it returns to follow the 49th parallel.

    The reason for that twisting section of the Minnesota boundary is straightforward. The commission that determined the border simply marked it along the canoe route of the Ojibway Indians and the voyageurs who followed them. The voyageurs were mostly Frenchmen who paddled their frail birchbark crafts west through this country between 1730 and 1840 to gather beaver and other animal pelts for the long return trip to Montreal and eventually Europe. Where they went the border followed.

    As it happens, however, they did not always travel the same route. When the winds were severe over Rainy Lake, they took a southerly route through Kabetogama Lake. If this had become their regular passage, Canada would now own most of our Voyageurs National Park.

    On this trip we stayed near the wonderful old Kettle Falls Hotel that was built just before World War I at the last of the canoe carries between Grand Portage and International Falls. Deep in the wilderness, the hotel is reached by a fourteen mile boat (or in winter snowmobile) trip from the end of the Voyageur Trail. Its original construction was financed by a famous madam, Nelly Bly -- not to be confused with the even more famous journalist who adopted that name. That funding source suggests at least one of the hotel's early functions; rum running during prohibition was another.

    The white pine forests were being extensively lumbered then and as many as eight million logs in a single day passed over the dam constructed here in 1914. Thus lumbermen were early visitors. Since the log drives ended in 1936, the hotel has served largely as a residence for first commercial and more recently recreational fishing clientele. In the 1920s up to 150 tons of fish were auctioned here per week and it remains a prime sport fishing area for bass, walleye and pike.

    The hotel fell into disrepair by mid-century, its poorly-footed foundations sinking until parallelogram shaped windows and a sloping barroom floor gave it the local name, the "tiltin' Hilton." Fortunately, it has been taken over, extensively repaired and completely restored by the National Park Service. The architects in charge wisely retained many of the older features including the bar whose only level surface is its multi-shimmed billiard table.

    In the old hotel register, we found the signatures of Rudolph Valentino and Ginger Rogers, each of whom simply listed Hollywood, California as their home address. Charles Lindberg, Dusty Rhodes, Helen Hayes and John D. Rockefeller also stayed here.

    Eating on the broad veranda gave us a wonderful sense of nostalgia. We were back in the 1920s.

    As we were finishing our meal in the hotel one evening, four of the toughest looking fishermen I have ever seen entered the restaurant and slouched into the chairs at the table next to us. I was convinced that these were leftovers from the original voyageurs. Their appearance and smell suggested that they had approached the hotel through miles of muskeg and they even seemed to have brought with them personal clouds of miasma probably originally generated by hours of wrestling with fish guts. A waitress, clearly frightened, approached their table. "Would you like to order a drink?" she asked very tentatively. The immediate response from the toughest of the quartet was, "Do you have a mild Chardonnay?" -- Gerry Rising

    Note: Anyone interested in obtaining further information about the Kettle Falls Hotel should contact manager Marilyn Selander or senior administrator Rick Oveson at their mainland base, 10502 Gamma Road, Ray, MN 56669 or by phone at 218-374-4404 or (off season) 218-875-2070. I cannot speak too highly of these folks or their staff members. The phone at the hotel itself is 888-KF-HOTEL.

    Further information about Voyageurs National Park may be obtained from the Voyageurs National Park Area Information Center, Route 50, Orr, MN. Their phone is 218-283-9821. An Orr area information center may be reached at 800-357-9255.