Ely, Minnesota (five hours north of Minneapolis), is home to the hardest of hardcore outdoorspeople—polar explorers Will Steger, Paul Schurke and Anne Bancroft, to name a few. From Ely, you can launch a dogsledding trip in winter or a multi-week canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in summer. Budget Travel magazine named Ely “The Coolest Small Town in America” last year. They said, “It says a lot about a town when there are more wildlife centers (two) than Wal-Marts (zero), and more canoe and fishing outfitters (27) than, well, anything else. In Ely, you’re never more than a step away from the wilderness.” But what if you’re made of less hardy stuff or you’re traveling with people for whom “wilderness” means that the mall is a 15-minute drive?
Ely offers plenty of opportunities for activity and a healthy dose of nature, even for outdoor novices or those who may not be physically able tackle portaging canoes or rugged hikes. On a trip last weekend, we hit the Harvest Moon Festival, complete with
crafty artisans; historic reenactors of the early settlers and trappers of the area, the voyageurs; and a lumberjack show—a little hokey, but entertaining.
My favorite comment came from one of the “voyageurs” who was cooking up some sort of stew in a giant cast iron post. I asked what he was
cooking and he said, “Camp Wander. If it wanders into camp, we cook it.”
Ely is home to the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, and some tasty restaurants such as the Chocolate Moose. You can buy great sweaters and of course mukluks at Steger Mukluk. For book lovers, there’s a nice bookstore upstairs at Piragis Northwoods Company.
One of my favorite stops in town is the Brandenburg Gallery, where you can see and buy
photos from acclaimed outdoor photographer and Ely resident, Jim Brandenburg. His photography captures the spirit and the unusual beauty of the wilderness. Check out his web site to see his stunning photos and a video, and click on this Minnesota Department of Natural Resources link for a video that features his fall photos.
On our recent trip, in lieu of a tent, we opted for a cozy cabin at Timber Trail Lodge where you can canoe, fish, or simply ponder the lake and its solitude from the dock. Famed environmentalist, author and Ely resident Sigurd Olson said
Wilderness is a spiritual necessity. An antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium. I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for the fishing or the scenery or companionship, but in reality it is something far deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls.
Olson was instrumental in the preservation of millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. He helped establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California and helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964. Looking for a little wilderness inspiration? Read his books The Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, The Lonely Land and others.
Finally, talk about “budget travel”–in Ely and the surrounding wilderness, the most amazing sights are free. Lay on your back on the dock at night and you’ll see a show of stars that you can’t see amid the lights of a city. And, if you’re lucky, you may see an even more spectacular show—the Northern Lights. We saw another amazing, though dismaying, display of
nature, the huge Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters, which is now so big that the smoke is visible as far away as Chicago. Started by lightning two weeks ago, it has burned through over 100,000 acres. Hopefully, the frost and sleet in the next few days will slow its spread.
For more northern Minnesota-inspired reading look for:
Tim O’Brien- In the Lake of the Woods
Will Weaver – Red Earth, White Earth, The Last Hunter: an American Family Album, and of the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” which was made into the movie Sweet Land.
Catherine Holm- My Heart is a Mountain: Tales of Magic and the Land
William Kent Krueger– Vermillion Drift