August 4, 2014: Ely to Tofte
On which we meet a snarling bear and a mellow wolf, learn about the “Root Beer Lady,” see a rock that’s older than dust, and find new waterfalls
Our first stop in the morning was at Chocolate Moose (one of the few moose we spotted during the trip) for breakfast en plein air. Next, we were lured in by their neighbor, Piragis Outfitters, where we found cool stuff like bags and sporks. Who wouldn’t love a good Swedish-designed spork? I’m almost as dangerous at an outfitters as I am at a bookstore or office supply shop. If I camped or canoed or kayaked, I’d be destitute.
The next stop in Ely was the North American Bear Center, where we arrived in time to see the enrichment program at work and some of the relationships between the bears in play. I supplemented my Vince Shute photos with some of the center’s youngest bear treed by its largest, and of the largest bear snarling. She didn’t seem to be in a good mood on this beautiful August morning.
Toward the end of our visit, we ran into a woman who encouraged us to drive around Shagwa Lake, which is one of the many places I’d hang out at if I lived in Ely. Judging from the family we saw on its shores, it’s as good for wading and fishing as it is for photography.
J. stopped briefly at the Dorothy Molter Museum, a tribute to the “Root Beer Lady.” She’s said to be the last non-indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Her homestead was dismantled in 1987, with two cabins restored in Ely. She made root beer and sold it to canoeists. I confess that at the time I didn’t find this as interesting as J. did, so I stayed in the car. I’m still haunted by all the stops made during last year’s trip, the long drives between destinations, and the resulting 1 or 2 a.m. arrivals. I have to get over that.
At the International Wolf Center, a lone wolf posed for photos, although I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of him while he was moving.
Both the bear and the wolf centers offer a great experience, with lots of information for the interested adult and activities for children. While resting my feet at the Bear Center, I watched videos of Alaskan brown bears catching salmon and strutting off with their victims. I also posed with a late member of the elusive moose species and compared my size to the that of several North American bear species (at best, I’m the height of a juvenile or female black bear). At the Wolf Center, we walked through an exhibit of aurora borealis photos — the northern lights that in nearly three weeks of travel in 2013 and 2014 we were destined not to see even once.
After all this activity, we went to a café I’d found on Yelp!, the Front Porch, which is as comfortable as a café can get. It’s in a house with a lot of porch space in addition to roomy interiors. The food and coffee were good, and so was the cheesecake we bought for later. The Front Porch ranks high on my list of places I didn’t want to leave and that I wish were nearby. That’s even without having seen the live music offerings they have on some evenings.
After tearing ourselves away from the Front Porch, we began our hunt for the Ely pillow rock, which I’d spotted on a whimsical tourist map of Ely I’d picked up at Fortune Bay. From waymarking.com:
This historic 15’ rock outcrop is a wonderful example of Ely greenstone, a “rare ellipsoidal lava flow formed beneath primeval seas 2.7 billion years ago.” It is volcanic in origin and there are very few specimens like this in the world. It is easily accessible 24/7 and can be seen on the north side of Main Street in the northeast part of town.
Ellipsoidal lava is also known as “pillow laval” and is any lava characterized by pillow structure and presumed to have formed in a subaqueous environment.
When you have a chance to see a 2.7 billion-year-old lava rock in the Midwest, you can’t miss it. We almost did, however, because it was hard to find. A pair of cyclists tried to help, but I’m not sure they agreed on where to send us. After we drove around a while and ended up downtown again, one of my map apps finally gave me a clearer picture of where it should be on Main Street, which, despite its name, proved to be a gravel road.
When we finally got to what looked like the right spot, we didn’t see it at first because it was down the road a bit. This ancient piece of lava, formed when the area was underwater, is on the edge of a wooded area across from some typical houses. Most likely the residents who see it every day are over its charms, but I would find it amazing to pass such a relic of the past every day. I would feel more connected to the world that was than to the world that is.
During all this driving through Ely, we’d seen a custard place, Red Cabin Custard. It was a warm enough day for it, and stopping there gave J. a chance to get a Dorothy Molter root beer, while I had a PMS sundae (I recommend it whether you need it or not).
After packing up and checking out of Silver Rapids Lodge prematurely, we stopped at Kawishiwi Falls, which is a relatively easy short walk. The falls seem to be downstream from a dam, but that didn’t detract from their beauty in the early evening.
Leaving Ely behind, we set out at last on Highway 1, which was a long, lonely drive that seems to be used primarily by mining and logging vehicles. We saw very few cars, a few trucks, and no moose, although there may have been a white-tail or two. Even the towns seemed tiny and remote.
At least we reached Highway 61, the scenic road that runs along the western shore of Lake Superior. To our surprise, Highway 61 was under construction. Whether it was northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, the Sauk City area, or now Highway 61, we couldn’t get away from construction. In this case, long stretches were gravel only, and some parts were down to one lane with long red lights to control traffic. Gone is my original memory of 61 as a misty, lightly traveled wonder (which it still is, in parts).
After bumping along for miles of torn-up, gravelly road, we arrived at the Americinn in Tofte, perhaps another sign of a growing tourist trade along the North Shore, to get ready for the next day.