Wilderness guide and painter Joe Baltich Jr. had to choose between his passions. He painted throughout college but eventually stopped for 32 years to make a living as a fishing guide and operate Northwind Lodge outside of Ely. However, the great outdoors inspired him to return to painting in 2015. Then, during the doldrums last winter, he went creative. He followed both callings and turned canoe into canvas.
Baltich initially intended to paint only wildlife on both sides of a 17-foot Grumman canoe. But his employee, Jackie Hartleben, suggested he use the starboard (right) side to portray images from the current Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The panels on the port side could then represent the BWCA 100 years before 1978 when it became a federal wilderness. So he took to research, summoned family experience, and created The Painted Canoe of Ely.
Baltich explained his goal was to artistically summarize Ely-area history onto one resource that books forgot and many people don’t know: A time when what is now the BWCA was a center of commercial exploits unfettered by government.
“The big misconception is that this has been the pristine, untouched wilderness since the dawn of time,” he said. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth because the whole thing was clear-cut.”
Baltich said lumber resources were in demand during the early days of local mines for shoring timber and constructing buildings and homes. Several timber companies began massive logging operations. Twenty-two resorts, some posh and others rough, plus private cabins resided there. The canoe’s history lesson also includes stories of wolf eradication by airplane. At one time, wolf hunting was legal, common and profitable, paying a $35 bounty per wolf.
Baltich emphasized the importance of the Grumman brand canoe in establishing the boundary waters. During World War II, Grumman built the fast, efficient, Hellcat fighter plane. But when the war ended, the company retained its employees by channeling aerodynamic technology into hydrodynamics. No alternative canoe could compete. By standards of the time, a Grumman’s light weight (73 pounds) and its durability allowed average people to more easily discover the wilderness.
“That’s why my theory is that the wilderness is bigger now than it would have been if this canoe had not been invented,” Baltich said.
Today the BWCA offers less commotion and more solitude. As another way of savoring those moments, Baltich formed a nonprofit called Into the Brush, a painting program he teaches at Northwind Lodge. He paddles participants into the wilderness for a couple hours of artistic observation, then they return to paint what they experienced.
“Bay in Morning Mist”
The scene appears among the current BWCA depictions on the canoe. However, like loons, lady slippers and all the wildlife on the starboard side, it could have been painted on either side. Sunlight through jack pines burning off morning mist still remains part of the BWCA, while unbridled human activity does not. “Leave No Trace” presides as today’s wilderness ethic.
“Four-mile Portage Train — 1905”
Small and wood-fired, the Four-Mile Train hauled timber from Hoist Bay on Basswood Lake to Fall Lake in winter and summer. It dropped its load onto the ice or into the water, then returned for more. The logs were floated to the Winton Sawmill at the opposite end of Fall Lake for processing. Today, the train itself rests beneath the water at the bottom of Hoist Bay.
“Logging Horses and Sled — 1910”
Before the days of logging semitrailers and diesel engines, timber harvest in deep woods required horses to skid large loads to nearby lakes where the logs were eventually floated to local sawmills. The horses served as vital tools, and an extension of valuable employees working in rugged conditions.
“Maple Leaf Lodge — 1948”
As a result of clear-cutting, resort owners were relegated to using small regrowth trees to build their lodges after logging operations ended. With large-diameter logs unavailable for positioning horizontally, the massive resort building at Maple Leaf Lodge was one of many constructed with logs standing vertically. Its flagstone steps are all that remain after the BWCA was established and wilderness resorts were torn or burned down.
“Dorothy Molter Cabin”
Dorothy Molter was the last nonindigenous resident to live in the BWCA. She became an icon known as the “Root Beer Lady” for the homemade root beer she served to thousands of paddlers who visited her on Knife Lake. Unlike others in the federal wilderness, Molter was granted lifetime tenancy after area residents petitioned the government to let her remain. She died in 1986. Her homestead was dismantled and relocated to the Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely.
“DUKW Boat Landing — 1948”
With airplane flight banned in the 1950s over what became the boundary waters, DUKW boats, aka “duck boats,” were found to be effective for transporting people and gear into the wilderness. However, in 1964, duck boats also were banned. Consequently, Ely’s duck boats were sold and became symbols of a place without such restrictions: the Wisconsin Dells.
For online information, go to visitnorthwind.com or call 1-218-365-4512.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at email@example.com.