Weekend Tourist: Summers not quite over in Ely

For several years I’ve been battling a personal conflict — how can I consider myself a Minnesota aficionado having never dipped a paddle in the Boundary Waters? I’ve been all over the state, from Grand Marais to Pipestone, Winona to Crookston, and once ventured out to that geographic blip jutting into South Dakota just so I could say I’d been there.

Growing up in Minnesota I’ve been on sailboats, waterskis and in Fourth of July pontoon parades, but camping and canoeing evaded my family. So this summer I decided to get as close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a cabin lover can stand. And that meant Burntside Lake.

Stretching 12 miles long, Burntside Lake’s western shore hugs the Boundary Waters. Massive outcroppings of Ely greenstone, one of the oldest rocks in the world, rise out of sapphire-colored waters forming 150 islands — many with quaint log cabins passed down through generations of families. Smaller uninhabited islands may be climbed upon by your own risk. Red pines and weathered cedars seem to grow straight out of the rock. In the distance, a loon’s call. Burntside Lake was home to Sigurd Olson, the conservationist credited for saving this wilderness area. Even though today there are a few motorboats, this was the least populated lake I’ve seen in Minnesota. A few canoes and kayaks plyed the waters, but just one waterskier and no jet skis.

Since this was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we decided to splurge and stay at legendary Burntside Lodge. This 99-year-old, family-run resort is so popular they don’t advertise. Make your reservations now for next year! Many of the 20-some cabins were built in the early 1900s; the main lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places. Our 1920s cabin was a one-bedroom suite with a living room, fireplace, full kitchen, sprawling deck and sunrise views of the lake. You get what you pay for in Minnesota cabins, and usually I get a lot less. This was like a Hollywood movie about how a cabin up north should look: knotty pine walls, hand-carved tables, wicker furniture, framed antique postcards, uncluttered, natural and stocked with Pendleton wool blankets. Boats, kayaks and canoes were available to rent along with our new favorite watercraft — made-in-Minneapolis hydro bikes. Just like a real bike, but on pontoon floats. We actually biked across the lake!

It’s a 243 mile, five-hour drive to Ely so make sure you stay at least three nights. Reserve one day for the water and one for town. Every other car on the road is topped with a canoe. An Ely tourism brochure lists 23 outfitters. We didn’t need a tent repair kit, organic bug spray or mini French press coffee pots, but it was fun to look at all the camping gear, outdoor clothing and up-north souvenirs. Sprinkled among the town’s many giftshops are several galleries, ice cream parlors and coffee shops. Patti Steger’s made-in-Ely mukluks, “the warmest winter boots in the world,” are sold on the main street. A few doors down is Jim Brandenburg’s gallery showcasing his photos from both this area and those shot all over the world that were often seen in “National Geographic” magazines.

At either end of town are opportunities to get up close with two of nature’s most revered animals. North American Bear Center has extensive exhibits and movies as well as two viewing platforms to watch resident bears lumber around in a native habitat. Page through photo albums of Hope and her mother Lily — who has more than 130,000 fans on Facebook (open through November). The one wild wolf I saw years ago was more scruffy and skinny than those in residence at International Wolf Center, but getting within a few feet of these caged animals is intense (open daily through Oct. 14, then Fridays and Saturdays until May).

On our last evening in Ely I sat on a rock ledge and read through Sigurd Olson’s book “Listening Point,” named after his home just down the shore. In 1958 he wrote that the rocky islands here were like “the bare bones of the continent showing through.”

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