After clumsily climbing down a birch tree, Lucky the black bear cub skirts a pond and finds his target: Ted, an ursine behemoth who weighs in at about 800 pounds. If you're 1-year-old Lucky, he looks like fun. The cub pounces on him, gets rolled over, cuffed and then is back on his hind legs doing a grapple dance with his surrogate father. The bears are the star attraction at Ely's North American Bear Center, which opened its building last summer. The bear center, on the west edge of town, perfectly complements the well-established International Wolf Center to the east in this edge-of-the-Boundary Waters town of about 4,000 residents.
"It's like bookends for Ely," said curator and director Donna Phelan. Both centers have similar missions, exploring the animals' roles in culture and history and offering up-close opportunities to observe them. "Every bear has a personality, and they can be as complex as people," said Phelan. That's part of the thrill in being here -- a chance to see those personalities in play rather than a quick flash of fur in the wild.
Why go now
Bears are most active in August; they spend up to 20 hours a day eating to store the calories they need for hibernation. (North American Bear Center, 1-877-365-7879, www.bear.org) It's also prime time to visit the International Wolf Center, which introduced two new pups this spring. Attila and Red Paw generate plenty of "awwws" while sparring over deer tails and bones during "Pups 101" programs. This year also marks the first time the 15-year-old center has had all three types of North American gray wolves: Arctic, Great Plains and Northwestern (1-218-365-4695; www.wolf.org).
If you want to sample the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- the nation's most used wilderness in the lower 48 states -- you can find help from almost two dozen outfitters. Canoes on cars are as common here as boats behind trucks in Brainerd. Many resorts also are on lakes that access the BWCA, so you can paddle in for the day or an overnight without portaging. Get oriented on 1,200 miles of canoe routes and 2,000 campsites plus permit information and up-to-date conditions at the new Lake Superior National Forest-Kawishiwi Ranger District visitor center on Ely's east side.
If your idea of fashion blends fleece, zip-off pants and layers of high-tech fabric, Ely is your nirvana. Piragis Outfitters has a great selection of outdoor gear and clothing. For locally made gear, try the hip Steger Mukluks store or Wintergreen, known for its colorfully trimmed anoraks, fleece hats and sweaters and wind shirts. There is an outlet store in Wintergreen's basement with discounts on closeouts, notions and rental gear. Ely's also home to one of the state's two Jim Brandenburg Galleries, featuring prints by the National Geographic photographer.
Take your own "Journey to the Center of the Earth" with a guided tour of Soudan Underground Mine State Park, 20 miles west of Ely. An elevator plunges a half-mile down into what was one of the world's richest veins of iron ore. A newer High Energy Physics tour explores the University of Minnesota underground laboratory, where scientists study the universe's "dark" or "missing" matter (1-218-753-2245, www.dnr.state.mn.us/soudan).
Tucked behind Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum nicely presents stories of the Ojibwe tribe, from migration from the East Coast to somber days in state boarding schools (1-218-753-6017, www.boisforte.com).
Our little secret
Head to Zup's grocery store for a grab-and-go taste of Iron Range heritage: potica, intricately layered walnut pastry sometimes stuffed with fruit; pasties, beef-and-vegetable pies that were a staple for miners; chewy wild rice and other gourmet breads made by local Plum Bun Bakery, and zinks, short for zinkrofe, a Slovenian mix of Polish sausage, ham and beef that's wrapped and fried like an egg roll.
From the Twin Cities, the most scenic route is via Interstate 35 north past Duluth and then northwest on Hwy. 1 -- pick it up just past Silver Bay. The most direct route (about a four-hour drive) is I-35 to Hwy. 33 -- pick it up just south of Cloquet. It merges with Hwy. 53 and continues past Virginia. Follow Hwy. 169 east to Ely.
Grand Ely Lodge & Resort (formerly a Holiday Inn Sunspree) has freshly remodeled rooms and suites, an indoor pool and views of Shagawa Lake with free use of kayaks and paddleboats ($99-$280/night; www.grandelylodge.com).
Places such as Timber Trail Lodge and Outfitters on Farm Lake offer not only cabins, but everything you need for a jaunt into the wilderness or big family reunion ($675-$3,400/week; 1-800-777-7348, www.timbertrail lodge.com). On Burntside Lake, Burntside Lodge appeals to romantics with its variety of frequently photographed, historic deep-orange cabins that perch on the rocky shore (From $177/night up to $2,845/week; 1-218-365-3894, www.burntside.com). Camp VanVac caters to a more rustic crowd with old-fashioned cabins and centralized bathrooms and hot water ($350-$1,400; 1-218-365-3782).
Where to eat
By far the most elegant meal in town can be found at Burntside Lodge. The whitewashed dining room's vintage bank of windows faces the sunset, as does the lounge. The menu changes frequently with items such as bison ribeye, walleye with a creamy mushroom and walnut sauce, flatbread, tiramisu and an extensive wine list. In town, head to the Chocolate Moose for sourdough cornmeal pancakes and wild rice cranberry French toast or Ely Steakhouse for smoky, saucy Bucky burgers or its signature black-and-bleu (cheese) butt steak.
Ely Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-777-7281 or www.ely.org.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a St. Cloud-based freelance writer.