A national park that speaks to the thrill of exploration celebrates its birthday today.

Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs National Park. Credit: tommigodwin/Flickr

Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota became the nation’s 36th national park when Richard Nixon signed it into creation in 1971, but don’t plan on taking in its sites in your car. This “Land of Lakes” is more than a third water and has a rich history of exploration by boat.

Named after the French-Canadian explorers who left Montreal for the promised riches of the fur trade, Voyageurs National Park has seen its fair share of treasure and adventure seekers. The area was so well travelled by the voyageurs and the Ojibew Indians they traded with that their route became the U.S.-Canadian border. The area did a brief stint as a destination for gold seekers in the 1890s, then several decades as a loggers’ paradise before settling into its current life as a national park. But the spirit of exploration never died.

Voyageurs was recently the site of an expedition of Teen Ambassadors to the National Park Service. The group of teens from the Twin Cities and International Falls was selected to help determine how the National Park Service could better reach out to youth. They were full of ideas, from a teen-focused website and classroom visits to youth expeditions. Last summer, they got to live some of their own suggestions, as they canoed in the footsteps of the voyageurs’ birch bark canoes, camped out under the stars and even had an encounter with a wolf.

As one ambassador told the National Park Service, “I think it’s important for our national parks to have Teen Ambassadors … Considering that young people are the future caretakers of every aspect of the country, you want to get them to care more about our national parks so they will always be around.” Another said, “The outdoor experience was incredible. We got to see a beautiful natural environment that I never saw before, and I’m so thankful for this great opportunity.”

The fur trade, gold rush and pulpwood logging in Voyageurs National Park may have ended, but as these Teen Ambassadors’ words show, there are even more valuable treasures waiting to be discovered there.

Meet a man who had a heavy hand in protecting the land that would become Voyageurs in our American Forests magazine feature, “A Man Saved by Wilderness.”