Outdoor Adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota

Once we drove into the town of Ely we knew it was our kind of place.  We were up in the northeast portion of Minnesota where woods and water abound.  Here we found a small (population of barely 3,400), outdoorsy, and surrounded by public land area with lots of water and tall green trees that made our faces light up with excitement and a feeling of “belonging” and that we were going to be very busy.  The town’s main street is lined with outfitters ready to strap a canoe on your car and set you off into the land of lakes where traveling requires a paddle and life preserver.  The “Mayberry” feel of this town overcomes you when you drive by the centrally-located park filled with picnickers laughing and kids playing on jungle gyms.  Everyone comes to town on Tuesday evenings in anticipation to see what will show up at the Farmers Market then migrates through the town as the stores shake off a sleepy weekday evening with Tuesday Night Live where downtown is a buzz with live music, great restaurants, tours and shopping.  The diverse downtown has a brewery, just down the street from the store selling hand-made mukluks which is near the wildlife art gallery and across the street from a chocolatier.  Oh yes, we fell in love with this town and its’ outdoor adventure hipster vibe quickly understanding why it is one of National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Places of a Lifetime.”

The draw of this area is the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) which are overseen by the federal government. Great glaciers carved the land by scraping and gouging rocks leaving behind rugged cliffs, gentle hills, craggy rock faces, sandy beaches, and thousands of lakes and streams speckled with islands and bounded by forest. We must say that it was pretty spectacular.


The BWCAW takes up over one million acres of the National Forest extending north from northeastern Minnesota to the Canadian border.  Attracting paddle enthusiasts to this area are the over 1200 miles of canoe routes and 2000 rustic campsites ready to be explored.  The area was set aside in 1926 to preserve its primitive character further strengthened by the National Wilderness Preservation Act (NWPA) in 1964 and subsequent legislation in following years.  A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.  Wilderness is the nation’s highest form of land protection meaning there are no roads, vehicles or permanent structures.  The current amount of areas designated by the NWPA as wilderness is an impressive 757 areas encompassing 109.5 million acres of federally owned land in 44 states and Puerto Rico.  The BWCAW was one of the first parcels of land to have bestowed the designation of Wilderness.

We chose to stay at a national forest campground on Fall Lake.  Our reservation was only for three nights but knowing that they had walk-up sites extending for more days was a possibility.  The pull thru site we reserved (first picture below) was crazy tight to get into and a little short for us but we made it.  Walking around the campground, we scoped out a walk-up site that was long, right on the water, and had nice privacy thanks to the tall abundant trees.  Once we pulled in, we quickly extended for the maximum two-week stay.  To us, this place was heaven and what we had been searching for and was by far our favorite of the summer.


Being right on the lake meant our kayaks stayed in the water the entire time which was so convenient and meant we were in them a lot.  The fishing in Fall Lake started slow for us. Cast, cast, cast, and cast.  No bites.  After a few days we started talking with other campers who seemed to have success and by heeding their tips our luck turned around. It started with a scary pike that angrily came out of the water with all its teeth glaring. I knew they had lots of sharp teeth but when that thing came out of the water, whew, I really did not want that floundering in my boat with me and I was starting to reconsider wanting to catch fish.  Betsy was spurred on and set her sites on rock small mouth bass which she landed in an impressive and frequent manner.  Finally a prized walleye hit her line and we were singing the praises of Fall Lake and our helpful fellow campers.  Truthfully, we didn’t mind no catching at first because it was such an amazingly beautiful place to just float around.  Sunrises and sunsets and the wildlife were worth it alone and we do “catch and release” anyway to help the fish population abound.


Occasionally we had to set the hiking and fishing aside to visit the downtown attractions. One may not think a town in the northeastern Minnesota wilderness will have much to do in the way of museums and attractions that don’t require a Nalgene bottle or paddle.  But Ely does.

The International Wolf Center is home to the world’s premier wolf interpretive center.  The museum is a great mix of exhibits, films, talks, and demonstrations blended with live exhibits.  Feeding behavior, folk lore, evolution, and social behavior are all highlighted.  They have a very nice theater that features lots of movies and would be a great place to hang out all day. But the most popular portion of the museum is by the expansive observation windows with spectacular views of their resident ambassador wolves.  Here you can sit entertained for hours as the wolves interact with each other in the natural 1.25-acre wolf enclosure and den site.  Feeding time is especially popular as you get an up close view of canines crunching through bones, flesh and fur.  This is a wonderful museum about such a charismatic and fascinating species.


A visit to the North American Bear Center provides an up-close and personal interaction with one of the states most charismatic mammals – the black bear. Exhibits from 40 years of research educate interested visitors and dispel myths and misconceptions about bears. There are over 70 video exhibits detailing a wide range of bear behavior including mating, foraging, playing, and fighting. In 2015, the center opened a new wing – the Northwoods Ecology Hall which features many animals that black bears encounter in northwoods habitats and includes the history and values of those habitats and inhabitants.

Four bears are housed at the Center in a 2.5 acre naturally forested enclosure with a pond and waterfalls. A viewing window inside and viewing deck outside provide a great opportunity to watch these animals run, play, forage, climb trees, sleep, and do many other bear things. There are many programs during the day and we arrived just in time for a “behind the scenes tour” where we got an up close and personal look at these magnificent creatures. The one aspect that we did not like was that one of the volunteers was hand-feeding the bears with peanuts which we thought gave a seriously wrong message. Especially, since bears are common in the area and all measures should be taken to avoid human – bear interactions that will only hurt bears in the long run.


One museum you have to see in Ely is the Dorthy Molter Museum.  Dorthy Molter was a city girl who ended up being the last non-indigenous resident of the BWCAW and lived most of her 79 years alone on Knife Lake near the U.S. –

Canadian border which you soon realize is a pretty amazing feat in such a remote wilderness with the harshest of 20170810_123206conditions.  We opted for the guided tour one afternoon and are glad that’s what we chose as our tour guide was the author of Dorthy’s biography.    For Dorthy traveling from her house to the nearest road in the summer was 15 miles by water with five portages.  That meant carrying her canoe and all the goods loaded into it over land.  You quickly catch on that Dorthy was a pretty tough cookie and it was a feat to survive alone in such a rugged environment year-round.

While she lived alone, she was not alone in the north woods. Nearly 6,000 visitors a year from all over the world stopped by to visit her and enjoy a bottle of her home-made root beer (which she made and bottled some 12,000 a year), thus earning the nickname “Root Beer Lady.” When Dorthy died in 1986, a team of volunteers transported her cabins from Knife Lake to Ely where a museum was established as a tribute to her rugged lifestyle, resourcefulness, determination, and love and respect for nature.  The tradition carries on because you can still buy a bottle of her root beer after the tour!


One of the best parts of being in this area was all the wilderness, wildlife, and beauty that surrounds you.  There are moose, bear, deer, wolves, and countless other amazing species that call this area home and are more comfortable than us trespassers.  Many times I put my fishing pole or paddle down to look through a long lens and see what was really around me.  We followed a beaver for a mile and watched him disappear under the water’s surface into his lodge.  We waited quiet and still to overhear a raucous conversation among the inhabitants that sounded like someone stayed out too late and was catching flack.  Or maybe in beaver language it was “welcome home, I’m so glad to see you, did you fell that tree you have been working so hard on?”  Regardless, we have never heard beavers in their lodge before. By far the most captivating animal is the common loon.  They have this eerie call that permeates the still quiet morning air while their beautiful plumage garners stares and envy. 


We know Ely is one place we will surely return too and stay a lot longer.  It is such an amazing place made so because of our federal land management and protection system.  We should never stop protecting our beautiful natural and cultural resources that are such a part of our country and so important to the values that they preserve. 

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