By LAUREL BEAGER
The Journal, International Falls, MN
As Voyageurs National Park matures, it’s mission to protect and preserve has remained the same, and expanded.
Included in the park’s 2018-2022 priorities are to preserve and manage cultural resources within the park, including historic structures and objects.
Harry Oveson Fish Camp on Rainy Lake is one of those historic structures for which the park has spent the past couple of years maintaining and improving as a visitor destination, said Eric Grunwald, VNP ranger, interpretation.
“The park wanted to open areas to the general public who weren’t necessarily going fishing, but wanted places to go by boat that tell the story,” Grunwald said. Other destinations include Little American Island gold mine, which has been completed, and soon to be developed the site of Rainy Lake City’s gold rush that started in 1894.
The fish camp, located between Cranberry and Lost bays, tells the story of Oveson, who in 1959 built the site that would serve as his base for commercial netting of whitefish and walleye that would be transported every other day to local resorts and beyond.
Original structures, like Oveson’s camp, tell an important story in the history of what is now Voyageurs, Grunwald said.
Remaining at the site is Oveson’s cabin, an ice storage house, the outhouse tucked behind the cabin, and a fish processing building.
New to the site is a crushed rock trail featuring several interpretive panels with colorful photos and stories about the man and his life on the lake, a picnic site and tables, and updated restrooms.
A new dock offers room for several boats, and makes it feasible for the park to consider using a smaller tour boat to bring visitors to the site, Grunwald said.
The story of Oveson’s life has been told by the National Park Service online and in an interview with him July 24, 1975.
“In a typical day, Harry would rise before dawn and often see the sun come up from his front window,” said NPS. “By 6:00 am he headed out on his 16-foot Alumacraft boat to lift his nets, remove the fish, and reset the nets for the next morning’s catch. At 10:00 am he would be back at the fish house to prepare and pack the fish. He removed the entrails of the whitefish, but the walleye could be packed whole. His catch of the day would be packaged in fish boxes and put on crushed ice for transport. A good day’s catch would produce around 300 lbs. of whitefish and 50 lbs. of walleye. As a bachelor, he was content with his dog Goofball and the various birds that frequented his North Woods haven. Quiet evenings and dark skys made for excellent reading and star gazing, two of Harry’s other interests.”
Today, the north facing view from the front of Oveson’s camp continues to be awesome for visitors. Grunwald said the interview with Oveson includes his descriptions of waking to the sunrises out his front window.
And some may have wondered whether Oveson experienced winters at the camp.
He did not, said Grunwald, who noted Oveson was a bachelor his entire life. He was apparently among the early snowbirds, who leave Borderland for warmer temperatures, said Grunwald.
“He spent most of the winter in Arizona, but around the time for ice harvest, he would come back, around Christmas, and clear the ice field and with friends and family harvest ice,” he said. “It would take four or five hours and he had enough ice to last two years.”
“After about four laborious hours, the ice house would be filled 16 by 10 feet and 8-feet high of tightly packed ice,” said NPS. “Harry would finish up by packing a thick layer of insulating sawdust on top of the ice. The ice house walls filled with cedar shavings and complete with a vapor seal and a layer of sawdust did a remarkable job keeping ice frozen. In fact, while most commercial fishermen would harvest ice annually, Harry’s ice house was so well insulated, his ice would last two summers.”
The commercial walleye fishing licenses held by Oveson and two other Rainy Lake fishermen were “bought out” by the the state July 1, 1985, for $17,633.31 each, noted Grunwald.
He said the end of the commercial walleye netting on Rainy Lake came following concern about the quantity of fish being taken by the three netters and sport anglers. In addition, he said the late 1970s and early ‘80s saw some conflict between sport anglers and commercial netters.
After surrendering his license, Oveson closed up camp and moved to Arizona where he died in 1990 at the age of 84.
Grunwald said establishing the camp as a visitor destination is part of the park’s mission to keep alive the stories about the time before the park was established, in 1975.
“This is another way for visitors to Voyageurs National Park to experience the park by visiting Harry Oveson’s Fish Camp,” Grunwald said. “They can learn more about what it was like to be a commercial fisherman on Rainy Lake. In the future, hopefully we will be able to have more destination sites to learn more about the different aspects on Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, Crane and Sand Point lakes as well.”