Recently I traveled “Up North” to Ely. This little village could be described as the “Cicely, Alaska (re: Northern Exposure) of Minnesota” due to ts quirkiness, interesting people, and since it serves as the gateway to the 1500 lake and river entries of the Boundary Water Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCAW). However, it is not fictional, its a real town, with real people, glorious nature and its own Great North Woods culture.
And yes, they even have a distinctive little radio station – WELY, the “end of the road radio show” that broadcasts to the BWCAW and the communities of Northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. The community radio station provides news, music, a wide variety of entertainment and personal messages to the hardy people of the Boundary Waters. A wild polka jam and a reggae hour maybe followed by a message for Miss Ann on Little Bass Lake to remind her to bring back a 5 lb. sack of sugar when she heads home from town.
My sister, Maria, and her husband, Karl, were visiting from New Zealand. My husband, Rob, and our 8-year old son Anil and I were determined to show them some great Minnesota winter fun. We made arrangements to stay at a comfortable cabin at the Garden Lake Resort about three miles outside of Ely on part of the Kawishiwi River chain of lakes directly connected to the BWCAW. Can you say Kah-wishy-wee?
The two-bedroom cabin overlooked the lake and offered easy access for snowshoeing and winter hiking. A nice couple own the 4-cabin lot and use green cleaning products that, because we all have allergies, was greatly appreciated by our family. Since they mentioned their dedication to eco-friendly on their website when I first checked them out, I hope they continue to work on becoming more environmentally sustainable. And, if you ever decide to stay there, consider yourself warned about the religious literature placed prominently in the living area.
We especially loved a midnight star gazing trek on our snowshoes – the sound of our thffft, thffft, thffting through the trees, laughter as we fell into moonlit snow drifts, and spectacular stellar scintillation (stars twinkling brightly) from horizon to horizon.
We rented our snow shoes from Piragis Northwoods Company for $25 a day (children’s snow shoes were $10).
The deep winter weather was challenging. The morning we were scheduled to go dog sledding we woke up to -27 degrees! We still managed to get in a ride with Jake Hway, the owner of Chilly Dogs Dog Sled Trips. Jake is an experienced dog musher, guide and instructor who introduces hundreds of kids every year to dog sledding through his work at a nearby Boy Scout camp.
One of the best parts of dog sledding is meeting the dogs. Jake keeps them tied up next to their own little houses in a large lot at the edge of the forest. A bunkhouse stands within the lot and someone stays there every night to watch over the dogs. The Hways consider each pup a member of the family. You can see the dogs on their website by clicking on “employees lounge.”
Jake encouraged us to get to know the furry creatures so we tried to individually pet all 57 of those barkin’ chilly dogs. They are Alaskan Huskies and love to run as much as they love to bark… and couldn’t wait to get hooked up to the sleds. A couple of dogs tied up near the back of the lot wailed so loudly they convinced me to tiptoe through over some frozen Husky poop in order to give their necks a good rub.
We enjoyed how Jake’s entire family came out to help orient us and encourage us to connect to the dogs, the snow covered forests, and winter trails. Jake is about as laid back as a surfer in Malibu – except its -27 degrees and he’s wearing lots of long undies and fleece. He’s tall, lanky, strong, and takes a zen-like approach – concentration, tranquility and mindfulness – to his work and his dogs.
Jake and Murdoch (permission from Chilly Dogs)
One of the first things we learned is that “Mush!” is NOT the term used to get the dogs moving. “Hike” is the preferred term. Personally, I thought the most important word to learn was “whooaaa!” Anil and I sat in the basket of one sled while Jake drove the dogs. Maria was in the other sled basket as Karl learned to drive the dogs. We were bundled up in some serious winterwear, then covered up and zippered in under the sled’s canvas. I highly recommend ski goggles and mukluks for anyone interested in dog sledding.
Jake and the dogs took us on an exhilarating ride on special trails that have been created just for dog sledding – through heavy forest, across beaver ponds and swampy areas, and over small wooded hills.
Chilly Dogs Dog Sled Trips (used by permission)
Anil’s description of the ride: “Fun, cool, trees, snow, doggy bottoms, people yelling, the sled, falling asleep on the snow ride while watching blue sky and bumping along on the wooden snow sled while its hitting one hundred thousand bumps in the forest… My mom shaking me until I started talking and feeling my toes again.” [Editor’s note: This is testimony from a hyper child who has not taken a nap since he was 4 years old. I can’t imagine what happened on that bumpy ride to put him to sleep. Maybe Minnesota winter magic?]
Kiwi Karl summed it up like this, “Dashing through the snow, on a six-dog open sleigh! It was an amazing experience to drive the sled, whizzing by trees, with beautiful Minnesota countryside all around.”
After the ride Jake’s mother, Donna, had fresh baked cookies and hot chocolate waiting for us next to the fireplace. As we sat thawing out in their rec room we got to see and learn about the family’s mounted animal collection on the walls, including a surprisingly large beaver, foxes, and several deer.
I saved one of the most special things about Ely, a visit to the Jim Brandenburg Gallery, for last. Brandenburg is one of Minnesota’s most loved nature photographers. His extensive career includes over ten years as a newspaper photojournalist, over 25 years as a contract photographer for the National Geographic Society, and commissions from such groups as the U.S. Postal Service and the BBC. His daughter, Heidi, who manages the gallery, generously gave me permission to reproduce his photo ‘Snow Forms’ here on my blog. Enjoy!
Snow Forms by Jim Brandenburg (permission from Brandenburg Gallery)
The beautiful gallery in downtown Ely is warm, open and welcoming. It was designed by Jim and expertly crafted by the same award winning team that constructed his studio, Ravenwood. We learned quickly that the ordinary becomes extraordinary through the camera lens of Brandenburg. The gallery is full of panoramas and prints of the Arctic, wolves, the Inuits of Alaska, Africa, Ireland, and the woods and prairies of Minnesota. The still images are complimented by a high definition video that plays constantly in a state-of-the-art mini-theater.
Our Kiwi relatives are now as much in love with Ely as we are. However, we’re looking forward to sharing a down-under experience with them next Christmas when its summer in New Zealand. That’s another trip I’ll look forward to and will share here on the Travel Momma blog! Stay tuned.