Hanging Out on the Edge of the Boundary Waters in Ely, Minnesota
For generations of paddlers Ely, Minnesota has been a quick stop to pick up supplies on the way to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area or a well-earned reward for a hard week of paddling with a hot meal, shower, and if they’re really lucky some ice cream from the Dairy Queen. It’s hard to express the immense joy that cold ice cream and air conditioning can bring after being roasted for a few days in an aluminum canoe.
Surrounded by clear blue lakes and towering pine trees, there’s so much to do around Ely that it really deserves to be a destination for outdoor lovers in its own right.
Maybe the Big Bad Wolf Isn’t So Scary
Sometimes it feels like Ely’s purpose in life is to make people less afraid of the woods. Home to two internationally recognized wildlife centers, the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center are dedicated to helping people understand animals that are usually cast as villains.
Whether you’re afraid of wolves or bears or are planning your entire trip around trying to see a wolf in the wild, both centers are excellent. The centers have worked with their animals to desensitize them to people so that visitors can see them up close. Seeing the wolves and bears a few feet away makes them more understandable and less intimidating. If you get the chance go during feeding time when they’re the most active.
For me, there was an ah-ha moment when I started to realize the depth of misinformation around these animals. It was watching a video of bear researchers trying to corner a bear, something I was taught to be mortally afraid of growing up. As the researchers approached the bears, the bears would turn and scamper into the woods, running wherever a guy in flannel wasn’t bothering them, making it pretty obvious that cornering a black bear takes a lot more speed and effort than your average hiker has got.
Even though there are only a couple thousand wolves in Minnesota, they fill people’s imaginations and are deeply embedded in the state’s mythology. When you see wolves in person, they look and act like big, playful dogs. Occasionally, when they’re feeding you can see how powerful they are, but it feels like a power that’s only used when it’s needed.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t be scared to come across a wolf roaming through the woods, it would be hard not to be, but the truth of the matter is unless a person does something really stupid the wolf is likely to be gone in a second and anyone who sees one should consider themselves lucky.
The Forest Seems to Go On Forever
One of my favorite things to do around Ely is to hike, especially during the fall when the leaves change color, and there’s still some warmth in the crisp fall air. Since the Superior National Forest is a wilderness area it’s a good idea to hike on marked trails; maps are available online or at the ranger station located on the edge of town. The trails range from easy as pie to I should have trained for this.
What makes hiking in the Superior National Forest so interesting is you never know what you’re going to find, the trails wind up and down through old pine forests and stands of young birch, sometimes you stumble across a beaver dam tucked into the corner of a small pond and other times you pop out of the trees on top of a cliff overlooking a stretch of forest so vast that it feels like it’s a blanket that covers the entire world.
On a recent hike, I ran into a group of septuagenarian Rhodes Scholars who proved that you’re never too old to make people feel inadequate. It was on a hot, muggy day, in the middle of a three-plus hour hike that was kicking my ass long before I ran into a group who looked like they would be more at home playing canasta before their afternoon naps than scrambling through the backwoods, but there they sat, lounging on the rocks, eating lunch on a cliff looking overlooking Ennis Lake. At least the 78-year-old admitted he preferred paddling around the lakes to hiking over the hills.
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For most people, the best way to see the area around Ely is in a canoe or kayak. Gliding across the lakes with the wind rustling through the trees and loons calling in the distance is one of the most peaceful and tranquil ways you can spend a day. And since the majority of the Boundary Waters is off limits to motor boats, the lakes there have a quiet that can be somewhat disconcerting to those of us who grew up thinking that every Minnesota lake came with the whine of a two-stroke engine off in the distance.
There’s a Lot Going on in Ely
It must be something about the early worm because it seems like every small town with an outdoor bent has great coffee shops and Ely is no different. My favorite is the relatively new Northern Grounds for its delicious scones and evening cocktails. As someone who spends a lot of time working in coffee shops, I love the idea of being able to mix coffee and cocktails throughout the day depending on how work is going.
One thing everyone should eat while they’re in Northern Minnesota is walleye. Walleye is a delicate white fish that is one of the few indigenous ingredients, along with wild rice, that regularly appears on menus. It’s usually served deep fried on a hoagie bun for lunch or pan-fried along with some wild rice pilaf for dinner. One of the best walleye sandwiches I’ve had anywhere is at the Boat House in Ely.
If you’re looking for a more refined lunch or dinner try Insula, it has a modern industrial vibe that would qualify as trendy anywhere in the country and more importantly, they have good food and solid cocktails.
For people who are into camping gear, Ely is a slice of nirvana with outfitters and outdoor stores scattered throughout town. There’s something about wandering through stores with high-tech carbon paddles and Duluth packs that make a person think about throwing it all away and becoming a modern-day voyageur.
One of Ely’s most unique attractions is the Dorothy Molter Museum, which celebrates the life of the Root Beer Lady. For thousands of paddlers a year Dorothy’s lodge was a place they could stop for some conversation and to get some of her homemade root beer. Born in Chicago, Dorothy was the last nonindigenous person to live in the Boundary Waters, running Isle of Pines Resort for almost forty years. Visiting her was such a popular thing to do that in one summer she had over 6,000 people sign her guestbook. After she passed away they moved most of her resort to town to become a charming little museum that is worth a stop. The museum has an especially powerful message of empowerment for young women.
Eavesdropping in Ely
With so many people coming and going Ely is an easy place to strike up conversations with strangers, some of whom are interesting. On my most recent trip, I spent an evening drinking bottles of cheap beer at a small resort bar with a couple from Rochester who made the drive with a truck / pop-up camper / boat combination that he swore was legal, a claim which I still find pretty dubious.
His argument was that the state troopers he passed didn’t pull him over, mine was that trains run on tracks and that writing someone up for pulling fifty plus feet of outdoor fun seems like a lot work and that most state troopers I’ve met would have a hard time figuring out if the ticket was for the camper being in the middle or for the boat pretending it was a caboose.
As friendly as people are in Ely, it’s a good idea to eavesdrop a little before striking up a conversation with strangers because the most interesting thing to talk about in Ely is something where passions and opinions run deep.
For most of us the debate around natural resources vs. tourism can feel pretty remote, the kind of thing we argue about over beers with people who already agree with us. Not so in Ely, the town originally developed as a mining town and if you listen to the locals a lot of them wish it had stayed that way.
To understand the debate, go to the edge of town and take a walk around Miners Lake. As you walk along the freshly paved trail you’ll stroll through the pines and birch that ring a lake with water so clear that it feels like you could see all the way to the bottom, of course, if you could see to the bottom, you’d see the remains of the five mines that dug the earth out that created the lake.
It’s as if the town’s past is still there, hiding in the woods, resting just under the water, waiting for the chance to come back to life.
Of course, it’s completely different when you chat with people who’ve moved to the area to run outdoor tourism related businesses. They talk about the woods and the water as if they’re sacred relics that need to be protected at all costs. I don’t pretend to know the right answer, but I do know that if you’re willing to listen you’re going to learn something.
Where to Stay
There are lots of places to stay in and around Ely, but if you’re looking for a classic Northwoods experience stay at one of the mom and pop resorts located on the lakes outside of town. Most of the resorts have small cabins and campgrounds, some have small lodges, and the really good ones have bars that serve cheap beer and have big fish hanging on the walls.
There aren’t many things better than cheap beer and stuffed fish to start up conversations with strangers. It’s so easy to say “look at the size of that one,” or “Have you ever caught something like that?”
There are high-end resorts in the area that have spas, and I’d guess they’re pretty nice to stay at too, but I’ll bet their stuffed fish are a bit pretentious and that you’ll never meet someone who pulls a boat behind their pop-up trailer.
Mark is Umami's publisher