Ely without the sweat and bug dope

  • Article by: HOWARD SINKER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 4, 2007 - 2:36 PM
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Pat Surface, left, and Eli Bissonett joke with the audience in between songs as they perform at Shery's Homemade Ice Cream in Ely as a part of the Taste of Ely every Tuesday evening in the summer.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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ELY, MINN. -- One image of Ely is as a way station for outdoors enthusiasts, either on their way into the Boundary Waters to canoe, portage, hike and camp, or on their way back -- people in bicycle shorts coming into town for a respite, all sweaty and bug-dopey and high on their wilderness adventures.

Ely doesn't have to be that way.

You can do Ely without being in hiking or biking shape -- or attire -- and you can have a good time at it.

There are walking trails and scenic drives on which you don't feel like an interloper and places where a few hours will yield knowledge you didn't have at the beginning of the trip.

My family's recent week in Ely was such an experience, and there are things remaining on the list for next time.

Ely has become more of a destination in recent years, as opposed to being only a launching pad to the wilderness.

Its downtown is basically a two-street affair. Hwy. 169, the main road in from the west, becomes Sheridan Street, the busiest one in the town. Chapman Street is one street over and home to the Ben Franklin, Pamida and Ace Hardware. The library, where free Internet access is available, and the Post Office are both a block off Chapman.

Our son attended a five-day basketball camp for kids at Vermilion Community College while we hung out in and around Ely without him. We spent time as a family at the end of the week.

In other words, we combined an array of favorite activities -- basketball, fishing, sightseeing, staying up late (the kids), sleeping in (the grown-ups) and being Up North.

Eating and sleeping

In addition to the small motels along Sheridan Street, there's premium lodging at the northern edge of town, the Grand Ely Lodge, where all rooms overlook Shagawa Lake and the restaurant offers a nice alternative to another short jaunt downtown.

Downtown is dressed-up enough for an entertaining afternoon or evening walk through the half-dozen blocks that comprise the business district.

The Chocolate Moose, at the busy corner of Sheridan and Central Av., is both slightly hip and very family, with outdoor tables and a screened-porch area. Northern Grounds Cafe, a half-block away on Central, serves bagel French toast in the morning and morphs from an order-at-the-counter place to a sit-down restaurant in the evening.

Speaking of morphing, the Minglewood Cafe, 528 E. Sheridan St., goes from bakery by morning to tea in the afternoon to a Chinese menu at night. Vertin's and Cranberry's are traditional spots of choice, with the former serving breakfast all day and the latter a family-style bar and grill. (Who needs Perkins and Applebee's?)

This summer, Ely's Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a "Taste of Ely" on Tuesday nights. Participating stores stay open until 9 p.m. and feature area specialties.

For example, Country Simple Pleasures teamed up its own (very) hot raspberry salsa with Dorothy Molter Root Beer, a premium soft drink based on the recipe Molter brewed for her guests in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) until her death in 1986.

In-town adventure

You can walk off breakfast, lunch and dinner along the Trezona Trail, which runs 4 miles around man-made (and fish-stocked) Miner's Lake. For bicyclists, the trail also connects to the International Wolf Center, a half-mile east of town.

After that, you have to stop at Sherry's Northwoods Homemade Ice Cream, 1114 E. Sheridan St., an outdoor ice cream stand. (Order the two-scoop lemon custard waffle cone.)

On Tuesday nights, folk singer Pat Surface performs at the adjoining pavilion along with local artists and others passing through town. The concerts start at 7 p.m. and last for a couple of hours, depending on how bad the bugs are.

Cry wolf

You can spend a good chunk of the day at the International Wolf Center. In addition to a nicely detailed exhibition of the history and legend of the wolf, several classes are held there daily.

The most popular lets you watch the center's five wolves through windows overlooking an enclosure intended to resemble natural habitat. During the summer, the alphas get the best shade (and anything else they darn well please) as the rest of the pack jockeys for position.

In fact, one of this summer's sagas is the reintroduction of one of the wolves, whose place in the pecking order had been hotly disputed by the two other betas in the pack.

A couple of nights a week during the summer, the center offers van tours on the back roads of St. Louis and Lake counties to listen and look for signs of wolf activity.

Molter Museum

The Dorothy Molter Museum is down the road and features the cabin in which the North Woods legend lived on Knife Lake's Isle of Pines. The primitive cabin, with many of her possessions, was moved to the edge of Ely in 1993 and turned into a tourist site much easier to reach than in its deep-woods BWCA incarnation.

A Leo Kottke-narrated video tells Molter's story and, here, too, the guides are well-steeped in tales of her fascinating life. As the story unfolds, a visitor gets a sense of wilderness politics -- the emotional battles still being fought between visitors to the region and those who live, work and play there.

Knockoffs of the root beer Molter brewed are for sale ($6 for a six-pack), and there are old photos of Molter with visitors, including a group of campers that includes a teenage Julia Roberts in baggy rain gear.

Underground

About a half-hour west of Ely is the Soudan Underground Mine, a state park that features a 90-minute descent by elevator and train into an abandoned iron mine.

Tours are offered from Memorial Day into the fall and the mine, with its constant 50-degree temperature, is a cool escape from summer heat. There's also stuff to see above ground for folks squeamish about making the 2,400-foot descent, even with a hard hat.

Also offered there are tours of the physics lab at the bottom of the mine, which is staffed by scientists from the University of Minnesota and elsewhere. (Check out the new three-story mural completed earlier this year on the mission of the lab.) The depth of the lab shields out cosmic rays, permitting research that can't be done at ground level.

Bet on it

Once upon a time, former Gov. Rudy Perpich suggested that Ely be the site of a state-run casino. It didn't happen. But the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa runs Fortune Bay Casino outside of Tower, a couple miles west of Soudan. It's a 24-hour casino with a resort also operated by the band.

Back in Ely, a nice rest stop is the Jim Brandenburg Gallery, 11 E. Sheridan St., where the famous photographer's work is for sale in an environment that doesn't make you feel guilty for being a casual browser.

There are several galleries of lesser-known artists, and the second floor of Northern Grounds features the paintings and sketches of Jackpine Bob Cary, the colorful former Chicago newspaperman who moved to Ely and made waves as editor of the Ely Echo.

Visiting wilderness

The common way to get to Ely from the Twin Cities is to take Interstate Hwy. 35 to Cloquet and then Hwys. 33, 53 and 169 to Ely. It's a 255-mile route more efficient than scenic, at least until the end.

Once there, you can get some good wilderness views by

car. The Fernberg Trail runs east of town, starting on Hwy. 169 and becoming a county blacktop in Lake County until it dead-ends at Lake One, the first in a series of numbered lakes. The Echo Trail is a 60-mile run through the wilderness toward Crane Lake and the town of Orr.

For the trip home, try taking Hwy. 1 east for about 25 miles to County Rd. 2, which runs south to Two Harbors and hits Hwy. 61, where you have a choice of a divided highway or the scenic two-lane along Lake Superior to Duluth.

After Hwy. 1, the trip will seem incredibly quick, because the road out of town is filled with curves and views and low, posted speeds. If you have an extra hour, the drive is worth the time.

-- Howard Sinker is at hsinker@startribune.com.

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