If there's one place in Minnesota where it's likely you'll see bears, it's Ely. Bears are native to the Northwoods and when you're here, you're in their habitat. Encountering a bear in the wild is a thrilling, and perhaps frightening, experience for Northwoods newbies. But one place you can get up close and personal with these magnificent animals safely is the North American Bear Center, just outside of downtown Ely on Highway 169. It's a great place to spend an afternoon with the kids, or just by yourself.
Founded by noted bear researcher Dr. Lynn Rogers, the Bear Center is the only black bear educational facility of its kind. Its mission is "replacing old myths with facts" about bears by allowing people to learn from the four resident bears that live on the property.
One of those bears is Ted. Weighing in at more than 1,000 pounds, Ted is the largest black bear in captivity in the U.S. He came to the center just prior to its opening in 2007, from a couple in Wisconsin who had raised Ted and a sibling, Honey, from cubs.
Ted is truly a gentle giant, trusting of humans and a delight to watch. Visitors will often find him lounging on the logs in front of the center's viewing area or taking a dip in the pond. He enjoys watching the people who are watching him. Ever the gentleman, Ted makes pleasant grunts and vocalizations toward visitors as they stand on the observation deck or take a behind-the-scenes tour. His favorite foods are grapes, strawberries and peanuts.
A word about the bears' habitat at the center. It is 2.5 acres of natural forest with dens and a pond where they live much as they would in the wild — roaming about; playing with each other; foraging for food like hazelnuts, berries and greens; and sharing the space with the many wild mammals and birds that wander in and out, including chipmunks, snowshoe hares, mallards and any other woodland denizen that feels like coming in for a visit.
Ted is joined by three other bears, Lucky, Holly and Tasha, all of whom came to the center from rough circumstances.
Lucky, called the comedian of the center, is known for his playful antics and joie de vivre. He was taken from his mother's den as a cub by someone in Wisconsin who wanted to raise a bear but soon realized it was too much to handle.
Holly came to the center from a wildfire situation in Arkansas. A man found her singed from the fire and too small to even walk. She was initially sent to the Appalachian Bear Rescue to prep her for release back into the wild, but officials there determined she should not be released. So they contacted the Bear Center to find Holly a "forever home."
Tasha was raised by a man who found her on the side of the road with her mother, who had been hit and killed by a car. He cared for her for a year, but he, too, realized he should not be raising a bear. Volunteers from the center drove 900 miles one way to pick her up and bring her to her new home in Ely.
You can follow the antics of all of these beautiful bears on live cams set up in their habitat. A word of warning: You're going to fall in love. Guaranteed.