This is an article which appeared in a print magazine, and also online.
by Tom Hilpert
CLOSE TO NATURE
Denise Siemens spent her childhood near Ely, Minnesota, and still returns there on a regular basis. "One of the best kept secrets of Ely is the local sauna, The Ely Steam Bath on Chapman street," she says. "My dad — 72 years old now — still goes down there twice a week to sit and sweat.” The rooms are not co-ed, and Denise quotes her father as saying, “In the bullpen, the only thing you wear is a smile.” She adds, “I think that’s the reason his skin is so much better than that of other men his age."
Perhaps Denise’s father is like a symbol of this far-north Minnesota town – aging gracefully perhaps, but still strong and unblemished, still doing the things that have always worked well, and on the northern edge of civilization, still — shall we say — “close to nature.”
The volume of water close to Ely is truly stunning. Perhaps that is why in 2008, Field & Stream magazine rated Ely as number twelve on the list of the best fishing towns in America. Much of the water can be accessed with regular boats and motors. The town sits quite close to Shagawa lake. Other nearby lakes include: Burntside, Fall, White Iron, Birch, Bear Island, Bear Head,, The Eagle’s Nest Chain of Lakes, Farm Lake, South Farm Lake, Garden Lake, Cedar Lake, Gabro and Bald Eagle. And those are just the bigger ones, all them outside of the nearby Boundary Waters Wilderness. According to Mark Larson, of Border Lakes Realty in Ely, there are far more than twenty lakes within ten miles of the town. Both as a result of sheer water volume, and also because of its remoteness, the fishing here is a dream. Walleye, Northern and both Smallmouth and Largemouth bass abound. Lake trout are to be found in significant numbers. Winter and spring usually see abundant perch and crappie harvests as well. On these lakes, and others outside the Wilderness Area, you can water ski, sail, fish or even rent houseboat from nearby Babbit. Burntside Lake is one of the biggest of the very close lakes, at 7300 acres, and offers excellent, clear, water quality. Years ago, several Hamms beer commercials were filmed on Burntside.
Although even the non-wilderness lakes boast this high water quality and a rare sense of remoteness, one of the prime attractions is still the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA, or BWCAW). This includes more than a million acres of pristine forest and water. The BWCA, of course, is accessible by canoe or foot only, which, if you are either a paddler or a hardcore fisherman, makes it just that much more desirable. In many spots, even outside the BWCA, you can traverse from lake to lake without pulling your boat out of the water.
Ely is one of the best jump off points for exploring the BWCA. Barb Lyonberger, a Realtor with Caldwell banker in town, is also an avid paddler and camper. “We have outfitters in town who can equip you for the BWCA from scratch,” she says. “They’ll take care of everything, from your canoe or Kayak, to your tent, even your food.” She and her family rarely return to the same spot, because there are so many places to explore.
Ely may not be the end of the road, but you can definitely see it from there. The famed Echo Trail of St. Louis county runs north and west out of town and offers 72 miles of some of the most remote road-accessible areas in the continental US. From here you can see the rolling forests of the Vermilion Iron range; you can contemplate pristine lakes, wetlands, rivers and even — a rare treat in the land of ten thousand lakes — granite crags.
Mark Larson, who has been in Ely since 1985, first with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and then as a Realtor since ’92, is still enthusiastic about the wilds surrounding Ely. Two of his agents are former forestry workers. “This is northern boreal forest,” he says, “like they have in Alaska. And the rock ledges and rolling terrain is almost unique in Minnesota.”
Because of the massive forests and undeveloped spaces, the area is home to abundant wildlife. Whitetail deer, of course, live here in numbers. They, along with a solid moose population, support a very healthy community of timber wolves. Ely is home to a blueberry festival, and in the north woods, where there are blueberries, there are black bears too. Racoons, skunks, fishers, beavers, otters and other small mammals also inhabit the region. Bald eagles and osprey roam the skies.
Ely is definitely the place for outdoor enthusiasts. But what if you are still getting your feet wet as an outdoors-person? What if you aren’t quite ready for a “smile only” type of experience with nature? One good way to get close to nature by degrees is to stay someplace comfortable and take day-trips into the wilderness or onto the lake. The region surrounding Ely is replete with opportunities for this. There are literally dozens of lodges, resorts and motels to stay in. They range from “mom & pop” family style establishments to luxuriously comfortable modern resorts. There are cabins – from rustic and remote to modern and close to town. And there are even a few Bed & Breakfasts.
And if the peace and quiet begins to get too quiet, there is usually a lot going on in town. Ely is a regional center for the arts – in fact the home of the Northern Lakes Art Association is headquartered here. The association currently includes more than 500 members. Outdoor concerts are not uncommon (except in the winter), and indoor concerts continue all year. Although, as of this writing the movie theater is temporarily out, there is a very active local drama community. Graphic artists and crafts thrive in Ely. Like many small Minnesota towns, Ely hosts several yearly festivals and fairs.
There is at least one solid day’s worth of good shopping in Ely, and many visitors return home with furnishings, decorations and crafts that remind them of their trip to the far north.
Ely is home to both the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. Both facilities include fascinating information about the two large predators, and many activities and exhibits that will entertain the whole family, including young children. The Bear center has been open for only two eight-month seasons, and yet it has already delighted forty thousand visitors.
There are several historical museums and exhibits in and around town, including the Bois Forte band of Objibwe Heritage museum, the Dorothy Molter museum, the Soudan Underground Mine and the Sisu Homestead Heritage Settlements.
A YEAR ROUND DESTINATION
The farther north you go, the less chance you’ll find places closing down for bad weather. Ely is one of the farthest-north places you can get by road, and so as you’d expect, there is plenty to do there all year long. In addition to the summer water sports, you can hike and bike, birdwatch, and golf. The fall brings hunting and (don’t tell anyone) even more good fishing. In winter you can cross-country-ski, snow-shoe, snowmobile and ice fish. One of the more rare winter sports is dog-sledding. In fact in Ely, there are more sled-dog-trip providers than anywhere else in the world. The town’s Voyageur festival takes place in the winter, and ice & snow sculptors come from all over the world to create amazing works of art that can last up to forty-five days in the right weather.
A PLACE TO SPEND MORE TIME
Ely is about five driving hours from the Twin Cities, Minnesota. “The drive is worth it,” says Mark Larson, “and the traffic is lighter.” Life is slower, nature closer, and peace seems more within reach. “Not only is this a good area for a vacation home, but it is also a great place to retire to,” says Larson. Almost 75% of the land in the area is public land. This means that you can find property and houses in places which will never become heavily built up. Prices are cheaper here too, than further south.
If you are serious about finding peace, quiet and natural beauty, if you really want to get closer to nature, Ely is someplace you must investigate. And while you’re there, don’t forget the sauna.