Known as the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Ely, Minnesota, is world famous for its breathtaking natural beauty. It is a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts with numerous opportunities to explore the wilderness by canoeing, hiking, fishing or relaxing on the beach at one of Ely’s family-friendly resorts.
But outdoor activities are by no means the only things to do in Ely. What if you’re an artist or a crafter looking for personal development and inspiration? What if you want a whole family experience in natural surroundings, or your goal is to learn about wildlife? If those options are the case, you’re in luck. There’s an endless list of things to do in Ely, Minnesota, but here’s a secret: because of its quality of living and picturesque setting, many writers, photographers, artists and experts in natural resources and wildlife call Ely their home, and many of them host classes and workshops to share their expertise and love of the area with you!
Explore the area’s natural beauty and then paint it with guidance from one of the many talented area artists. Ely area artists host classes ranging from two hours to several days. You can take a micro-art class to learn basic brush-handling skills as you paint a scene on a keep-sake Lake Superior rock, or your “painting vacation” can be a four to seven-day art camp, which you venture into the wilderness to learn about color, light and shadow, and then return each day to apply what you learned to the canvas.
Customized classes and retreats—even on an impromptu basis—are available for a host of mediums. If your favorite art form involves a camera, a pencil, a paintbrush, fabrics, jewelry or yarn, there is a local Ely artist available to provide guidance and instruction.
The Ely Folk School encourages you to celebrate the heritage, art, traditions, culture and crafts of the northern Minnesota wilderness with classes all summer, and themed weekend events (June through January) are held for guests with specific interests. Try your hand at rosemaling, spinning or poetry writing. Create a hardbound book, weave a black ash pack basket or hunt in the woods and fields for spring edibles. You can build a vacation around the Folk School’s options, and you’ll come away with fresh perspectives and great stories to share. Classes are taught by area experts and designed to bring people together over their love for arts and crafts.
These and many other art experiences happen throughout the summer. Check out the event calendar and make your plans to tap the artist within you.
The Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely celebrates the independent spirit of Dorothy Molter, who was the last non-indigenous resident to live in the BWCAW. She lived alone, but had plenty of company as passing canoeists stopped by her wilderness home for a bottle of her homemade root beer. You can get a taste of how she lived at the museum’s “Night at the Museum” program in July. Imagine living without electricity as you tour the cabins, and then enjoy s’mores around a campfire as you listen to stories about the life and times of Dorothy.
Kids get their own events, too, by the way. At the museum’s Camp Kwitchurbeliakin, children ages 4 to 12 can attend a themed, 90-minute, daytime event with activities related to topics from fishing to birding to wilderness crafts. Camps take place on Tuesdays; enroll by phone starting in mid-June.
The International Wolf Center in Ely was founded to help the world understand and learn about wolves. Here, in the heart of the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states, the staff works to advance the survival of wolf populations everywhere by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wildlands and the human role in their future. In addition to maintaining a beautiful facility and an ambassador pack of wolves in a 1.25-acre enclosure where visitors can observe them, the Center sponsors special events for families, youngsters and adults. The Wolf Family Rendezvous takes place on weekends, overnight, in June and in September. Families learn together about wolves’ natural environment through hikes, crafts, games and observation of the ambassador pack. At the Junior Wolf Biologist Mini-Camp in June and in August, kids from 7 to 14 explore, play and learn about wolves’ social structure, their prey and their importance to the ecosystem. In August, Tracking the Pack is a two-day adventure for “wolfers” over the age of 13 (those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult). They learn about the biologists’ tools, do tracking and howling, enjoy meals together, and share their enthusiasm for wolves and the Northwoods environment.
The North American Bear Center offers another experience unique to Ely. From late May through September, visitors are guaranteed to see the resident bears in their 2.5-acre enclosure, and included in your admission are “Behind the Scene” tours inside the enclosure with a staff member. Tours take place at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. For even more fun watching these Northwoods denizens, go to the Center for “Bear Enrichment” at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., when bears are brought up close to the observation windows. Take the kids, too, because children love the hands-on “Critter Time” programs that feature small animals and insects common in the Ely area, from painted turtles and small reptiles to monarch butterflies.
The Soudan Underground Mine State Park has tours in which visitors descend half a mile into the earth to experience what the life of a miner was like. They also offer other great learning programs such as Batty About Bats, a fun, family evening filled with games, activities and bat observation.
For birders, there are few locations more rewarding than Minnesota’s northern wilderness, and birders in-the-know about the area, never miss a chance to go Birding with Bill Tefft and the Ely Field Naturalists. Every Wednesday from May through September, Bill navigates the Ely surroundings seeking great spots for bird viewing and providing his birding friends with tips on bird identification. The “early birds” session (6 – 8 a.m.) concentrates on spotting and identification. The later session (9- 11 a.m.) is a short naturalist course for more adventurous trekkers.
It’s been said that life is not about finding yourself (at least not since the 1960s), but about creating yourself. There are thousands of places to do that—but none better than Ely, Minnesota. When you pursue your dreams of exploring the outdoors, indulging your passion for art, crafts or music, or learning more about wild animals and the environment in this place of unmatched beauty and serenity, the memories and the impact last a lifetime. So begin planning your visit to Ely, where you’ll find new ways to understand the natural world—and perhaps yourself, as well.
— By Kristine Chapin for Ely Minnesota Tourism Bureau