(BPT) - You're settled in front of the fire after a snowy, fun-filled day skiing, sledding or snowshoeing in the Northwoods. Beverage of your choice in hand, now's the time for some good, old-fashioned storytelling.
Legends and lore are as much a part of the Ely region as the pines, the birches and the bears. Here are a couple to tell in front of your fireplace.
Plenty of legendary characters have lived in and around Ely. One was Benny Ambrose, the feisty old woodsman who refused to let the U.S. Forest Service run him off his homestead when the area became the BWCA. After much (ahem) unpleasantness when the government came calling, he was one of two people allowed to remain in his homestead on BWCA lands.
Most everyone who has ever visited these parts has heard of the Root Beer Lady. Beloved local resident Dorothy Molter came to Ely in 1930, and lived on Knife Lake for 56 years, where she paddled, hiked and fished, skied and snowshoed until she passed in 1986. She's probably best known for her homemade root beer, which she made from Knife Lake water and sold to passing canoeists, as many as 7,000 a year! Ely's version of a drive-through!
Beware the Windigo
Other stories swirl through the forests here. Not of real-world people, but of otherworldly happenings, things you encounter but can't quite explain when you're out in the wilderness. It's the hair on the back of your neck raising when there isn't another soul for miles, or the calm lake suddenly upending your canoe with a crashing wave. It's the sound you hear as you're laying in your tent that doesn't seem to come from a living thing, or the canoeist, with no gear or supplies, gliding up to your campsite, only to vanish into the night.
One Northwoods legend, handed down from Native Americans who have lived in these forests for hundreds of generations, is about a fearsome creature called the Windigo. It is a mysterious and evil spirit that has reportedly been encountered by native peoples and the hunters, trappers and campers who came after them in the northernmost regions of Minnesota. The name is approximately translated to "evil spirit that devours mankind."
According to legend, a Windigo is born when a human resorts to cannibalism, and it has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Some people look upon the Windigo as a harbinger of doom, with sightings of the creature portending a death in the community. This is not just the stuff of campfire tales: One of the most famous Windigo hunters was a Cree named Jack Fiddler, who claimed to have killed more than a dozen of the monsters, and it actually resulted in his imprisonment in 1907.
Some modern-day lore lovers speculate that the Windigo isn't an evil spirit at all, but another legend: Bigfoot. Campers, hikers and canoeists alike have reported sightings of the creature, or say they've heard strange noises in the middle of the night. There have been so many sightings that Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot series even came to the Northwoods to talk with witnesses and see for themselves. Bigfoot experts say the Northwoods is the perfect place for a civilization-shy creature to live.
The next time you're in front of a campfire in the woods and see or hear something you can't quite explain, remember, these legends have been around longer than we have. There has to be a reason why ... right?