ELY, Minn. – Ely has restamped its reputation as the Canoe Capital of the World. To make sure nobody forgets, it did it in style with the annual Great American Canoe Festival.
The town was awash in all things paddling, camping and exploring June 10-12. Canoe, kayak, paddleboard and hydrobike vendors lined the shore at Semers Beach on Shagawa Lake. Numerous how-to wilderness travel seminars and demonstrations were offered. Photography, plant and wildlife, and natural and cultural history were among presentations. Canoe art accented the grounds. Contests included a 19½-mile canoe race.
Downtown, scheduled exhibitions and classes featured traditional handmade canoes and paddle-carving at the Ely Folk School. A wilderness adventure film festival took place at Vermilion Community College. Six renowned explorers, Will Steger and Lonnie Dupre among them, presented on their extreme expeditions.
The festival was organized by Ely events planner Wendy Lindsay. She said the primary purpose was to bring big-name companies and presenters all to one location and raise awareness of paddling sports, with an eye on one particular age group.
“I think the big concern in Ely has been the younger generation getting involved in canoeing, and that’s definitely our focus here,” she said.
That philosophy resonated with Connor Brennan, 8, of Ely, who entrenched himself in the smorgasbord of paddling vessels visitors could take out for a test run. Until then, he had never paddled anything. His mother, Jaime, indicated he has a do-it-yourselfer spirit.
Connor acknowledged that his first try on a paddleboard was shaky, but his second go-around in a kayak was significantly improved. His initial concerns about tipping over weren’t so much because of the equipment as they were a lesson in nature.
“The first time I got a little scared since I watch shark videos and then I found out this lake doesn’t have any sharks, so I had to be brave,” he said. “When I was in the whatever it’s called — kayak — it was a better time. I realized I know how to use it,” he said.
Canoe and kayak stability has improved over time because of some of the paddling technology on display at the festival. Brian Mauer owns Crane Creek Kayaks in Denver, Iowa, where he makes Styrigger, safety outriggers for canoes and kayaks. He said that as the trend to use kayaks and canoes for fishing increases, the outriggers offer a comfort level for accessing those secret fishing holes that can’t be reached by a regular boat. They’re also great for photographers.
“Now we put these outriggers on, we can get way back in there and we’re not worried about tipping,” he said.
Hydrobikes provide similar stability and independence on the water. Ben Johnson and Michelle Moore own Heavy Metal Sports in Ely where they sell and rent hydrobikes and bicycles among other equipment. Moore said that people differ in what inspires them to get outside; it often depends on finding the right equipment. That’s why hydrobikes interest a variety of age groups and people who don’t want to get wet.
“Biking really appeals to people because almost everyone can bike … and they think, ‘I can walk right on that thing.’ It looks so stable,” she said.
Though canoes exude functionality, some people make them just to look at. Joe Baltich, canoe artist and owner of Red Rock Wilderness Store outside of Ely, broke from a 32-year artistic hiatus to paint a mural on the sides of an aluminum Grumman canoe. The starboard side portrays wilderness scenes inspired by his years as a fishing guide in northeastern Minnesota. The port side depicts the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness before it was designated as a federal wilderness.
Twenty years ago, Eric Mase moved from Chicago to Ely. He specializes in building birch bark canoes. They’re art. Most of the ones he sells now are for display and rarely used, if ever. He said those moments are special. “I don’t know how to describe it. It just feels different. It’s quieter. If you drop something, it’s not like an aluminum canoe, a bomb. It’s all organic. It’s kind of from the Earth, and the water is from the Earth, so it’s symbiotic,” he said.
Peace and quiet was by far the resounding sentiment for why visitors, organizers and vendors said they are attracted to paddling.
“Everything is quiet and serene. I have one picture this morning I took of one of the hydrobikers coming in and there was a family of ducks going right past them,” Moore said, and added, “You can kind of be one with [them] and not scare them off.”
As debut festivals go, Ely’s Great American Canoe Festival portaged its own weight. It was a five-part collaboration between the Ely Chamber of Commerce and two of its subcommittees, the city of Ely, and Incredible Ely, the downtown revitalization group.
“It’s perfect for Ely, for all that we have that’s related to canoeing or nature, you can touch almost anything,” said chamber director Cherie Sonsalla.
She added that visitors were excited about the festival and thought it was at a great time of year. The vendors also understood this was a debut festival and felt Ely is the place to have it. They’re very willing to return and help it grow.
“We hope that visitors will join us next year. It’s because of the variety of programs within the event, we think visitors will have learning opportunities on a variety of outdoor-related activities,” she said.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at email@example.com.