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Northern Nature Bounty
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
The mysterious echoing call of loons, the gentle lapping of water against our island's edge produce the symphonic sounds of nature that pull us toward sleep. We listen with a mix of anticipation and trepidation--hoping to hear the wolves howl; dreading to hear them howl. Wolves howl to contact pack members or to announce their presence within a territory. Though there are no recorded incidents of a non-rabid wolf attacking a human, but those big bad wolf stories from childhood are deeply ingrained. No wolves yet. We are in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) near Ely, Minnesota. It is here, in the wilderness, where we have journeyed, hoping to see a Grey wolf in the wild.
Ely, which serves as a major entry point to BWCAW, lies at the heart of the largest remaining wolf population in the lower forty-eight states. The population is estimated to number between 2,000 and 2,200. The wolves travel in packs of four to six; each pack needs 30 to 150 square miles of territory to obtain food.
Our wilderness adventure started with a flight into Ely. The airport, which is basically a lobby with restrooms, is only open from May to September. We were met by Andy Hill of Hill's Wilderness Trips, who transported us to the Hill's bunkhouse, via a brief stop at their outfitting shop. Andy sports a reserved serious air about himself. His wife Paula's sparkling green eyes and enthusiastic demeanor immediately put us at ease. The plan was to sack-out for the night and be outfitted for our wilderness canoe trip the next morning. The bunkhouse had all we needed: cots, bathroom, kitchen, and most importantly, coffee for the morning.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness covers over one million acres in Northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. BWCAW is a place of incredible beauty; granite islands are topped with pine, surrounded by lakes that were gouged out by glaciers during the last Ice Age. In fact, there are over 1600 lakes in BWCAW and Quetico Provincial Park just across the border in Ontario, Canada, with over 1500 miles of canoe trails. BWCAW is the largest wilderness area east of the Rocky Mountains. Solitude is just a few portages away from the, at times, crowded entry points. The number of people in the wilderness area is limited by permits issued.
Select an island--your own private island--to set up camp. There definitely is a romantic element to paddling out into the wilderness, finding "your" island and setting up camp. Though not all islands are single campsite locations, it is easy enough to find one that is--just look at the map provided by your outfitter. The many night sounds remind us the area belongs to the animals. Except for the occasional drone of a distant overflying aircraft, there are no reminders of civilization.
Our kevlar canoe glided across the water's surface with little paddling difficulty. A couple of times we faced headwinds that made paddling difficult, the wind-whipped waves sent us seeking sheltered coves. The romance of it all was diminished by the sheer number of mosquitoes we encountered along the way--billions and billions of them--we mean in the eyes, buzzing the ears, flying into the mouth. It was bad. Three kinds of repellent only slowed the advance of the mechanized hellions, each, apparently, armed with an armor-piercing proboscis, easily drilling through our nylon clothing deep into the flesh, siphoning off our very lifeblood. Favorite hangouts of the mosquitoes are the portage areas--knowing that fresh blood regularly passes those paths. By the time we finished our adventure, "portage" was a bad word. To be fair, the people of Ely informed us that it was the worst year for mosquitoes in several decades, and there weren't many mosquitoes in the town--only in the wilderness.
Ely, with a population of about 4,000, is a town with its roots in mining. The town was a favorite destination of the late Charles Kuralt, whose eloquent writing in his book Charles Kuralt's America, was a primary motivation in our choosing Ely as a destination. In 1883 an extremely high-grade iron ore was discovered in the region, which led to the incorporation of the town in 1886. The mining era closed with the last mine in 1967. Ely's proximity to the BWCAW is a blessing; a town previously dependent upon depletion of natural resources now focuses on enjoying the natural environment.
The people of Ely are a friendly bunch, even if some seem a bit odd--in the Northern Exposure sort of way.
"Ely is an almost good place to come," says the wife of a hardware store owner in town.
"Tell your readers it's a bad place," said the owner, who isn't fond of tourism but finds that much of his business is done with people catering to travelers.
Back from our romantic wilderness adventure, we spent our first night in the Trezona House Bed & Breakfast. The B & B also has its history in mining; it was the home of Charles Trezona, superintendent of area mines from 1904 until 1931. The hot shower, plush bed and thick quilts were welcome amenities after our days in the wilderness.
The International Wolf Center is an Ely "must-see." The center is a nonprofit organization that supports the survival of the wolf by serving as a focal point for worldwide environmental education on wolves. The center contains a 6,000 square foot "Wolves and Humans Exhibit," and a resident wolf pack which may be observed from the Window on Wolves Theater. The center carries out study programs encompassing wolf biology, social behavior, wolf-prey relationships and northern forest ecology. An intensive week-long study course is offered (as well as many shorter education opportunities). Fees for the week-long course include the course, resort lodging, and most meals. Ely was a logical choice as home for the center; research conducted near Ely has kept the world informed on the species for the past five decades. Minnesota is the only state not to have had its entire wolf population completely eradicated through former government wolf -control programs.
Ely is home to Will Steger, David Mech, and Jim Brandenburg. Steger is a well-known polar explorer. Mech is internationally known for his expertise on the Grey wolf, and Brandenburg is a National Geographic photographer. A visit to the Brandenburg Gallery in Ely will relieve you of your cash burden. We went "just to look," and left with an exquisite print of "Brother Wolf.
While in town, pay a visit to The Chocolate Moose, our favorite place for dinner. Nightly pasta specials are modestly priced and the food is excellent. The Northern Grounds Cafe, with its hearty breakfast specials, is a good place to start the day and catch up on local gossip.
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