5. Laurentian Divide As the drive delves deeper and deeper into the forest, Rte. 46 crosses the Laurentian Divide, a rise in the land that determines which way running water flows. Rivers and streams north of the divide run into chilly Hudson Bay; those to the south eventually drain into the faraway Gulf of Mexico.
In past centuries Indians and fur traders paddled across these myriad waterways in handcrafted birchbark canoes. The Ojibwa Indians, a local tribe, still use the streamlined craft when harvesting wild rice, an aquatic grass that grows abundantly in the Squaw Lake area. Slowly paddling and poling among the tall stalks, they gently tap the ripe grains into their canoes—an ancient practice demonstrating that patience and harmony with nature can bring their own rewards.
6. Island Lake The forest grows thinner and the views open up as you continue to the north, where stands of aspens, birches, and balsam firs ring meadows and wetlands. Rte. 46 then passes along the shore of Island Lake, so named for the large island found rising from its waters. At Northome the drive switches onto Rte. 1, heading eastward through a mostly uninhabited realm of still more woodlands interspersed with low-lying wetlands. 7. Edge of the Wilderness State Scenic Byway At Effie the drive veers south onto Rte. 38, the Edge of the Wilderness State Scenic Byway, a 47-mile stretch that wends through a hilly, lake-splashed landscape. Reminders of the ice age—in the form of the low gravelly ridges that are known as eskers—are prevalent in this area, especially near Turtle Lake. You’ll also revisit the Laurentian Divide, where a roadside kiosk supplies information. 8. Marcell Circling the wilds east of Marcell, a 171⁄2-mile self-guiding auto tour, known as the Chippewa Adventure, showcases the rich and varied habitats of the Chippewa National Forest. Although quite primitive in places, the route abounds with opportunities for spotting wildlife: an osprey diving for fish, a white-tailed deer bounding through the forest, or even a black bear feasting on wild blueberries.
Back on Rte. 38, the drive enters a stretch that is particularly rewarding in the autumn. Throwing aside all modesty, the hardwoods south of Marcell bedeck themselves with a glorious red-gold display that can make sightseers gasp. 9. Suomi Hills Continuing south, the drive passes near the Suomi Hills and Trout Lake recreation areas. Miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails lead to out-of-the-way lakes and splendid wildlife-watching locales in these semiprimitive tracts. Off-limits to motorized vehicles, the regions also offer a golden silence broken only by the whispers and calls of birds echoing in the wild northern woods.