Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Trip to See Wolves and Bears

I was going to a 40th annual college reunion with a group of guys I have stayed connected to for more than 40 years. Wow, time flies. Eleven of us were renting a house boat on Birch Lake in northern Minnesota for a long weekend of cards, fishing, hanging out and reminiscing. Kathy and I decided to head up early to do some camping and site seeing in the north woods.

Our destination was Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely, Minnesota. Ely is a small town known as a gateway to the famed Boundary Waters/ Quetico Canoe Area Wilderness which straddles the U.S./ Canadian border in Minnesota. Ely has a long, contentious history in the story of timber and mineral extraction, the eventual creation of the wilderness and now in a fight over sulfide mining. It is also a charming town with interesting businesses catering to those drawn by the wilderness and north woods.

Along the way we checked out a small forest service campground on Sand Lake near Isabella for future reference. It was on our list because it has only 2 campsites adjacent to the lake which is largely surrounded by forest land. Unfortunately, the campground was overused and looked more like a local party spot than the remote camp we were seeking.

Our rig at the Sand Lake campground (click photos for a larger version).

It turns out that The Great Lakes School of Log Building is also located on Sand Lake.

We checked it out a bit. The enterprise runs courses in log building and stone masonry. Over the years, quite a few log structures have been built by students of the craft and now are used for lodging  and a rustic resort. Looks like an interesting place to visit again and maybe rent a log cabin for a winter weekend retreat. More info here:

One of the attractions that drew us to this locale was the International Wolf Center.  Located just outside of Ely, the Center houses exhibits on wolves and has a resident wolf pack which can be observed through a glass wall in the museum when the wolves cooperate and make themselves visible (which is not all that frequent). We enjoyed the exhibits, including a recreation of Sigurd Olson's writing studio. Olson lived near Ely and was an influential writer in the movement to create the BWCA and other wilderness preserves.

A diorama at the Wolf Center showing various wolf behaviors.

A sculpture depicting wolves on the chase.

The wolves, however, were not in evidence. One of the staff members told us to return around 4 pm when they would be calling the wolves in for some medications that one of them needed so we decided to make a quick trip into Ely and then return. When we did return, the wolves were hanging around as promised and we enjoyed seeing them up close and watching them interact. Although they are captive, they are still obviously quite wild.

We reached the campground in late afternoon and made a quick camp. On the way there, a young black bear crossed the highway in front of our truck, foreshadowing our field trip of the next day. Dinner was wild rice/ wild salmon croquettes with a salad and toasted baguette slices. Very tasty.

Wild salmon and wild rice croquetts- yum.

We enjoyed a nice sunset and a campfire and went to bed.

The next morning we had a lazy breakfast and then set off for our next field trip, this time to the North American Bear Center located on the other end of Ely from the wolf center. Very similar in concept to the wolf center, the bear center features exhibits and some resident bears which can be observed from the exhibit area. It became famous for its webcam inside a bear den which showed a bear giving birth to a cub. The webcam became a worldwide sensation.

Taking a morning walk in the woods by the pond.

While less polished than the wolf center in its execution, the material presented was very interesting. Lynn Rogers, the principal researcher behind the Bear Center, has been been in a public spat with the DNR over his research methods. His approach is similar to that of Jane Goodall with the chimps- go out in the woods and hang out with bears. He has become controversial due to his approach of feeding the bears in the wild by hand to build trust and gain familiarity with them. Some people fear he is habituating bears to human food and interaction, thereby potentially creating problem bears. There really isn't any research to support the fears, but the DNR at one point cancelled his research permit in response. It has since been reinstated after some negotiations.

Because the researchers spend so much time with bears in the wild, the center is able to show many videos of bears doing their thing. We found the bear center to be much more engaging and interesting than the wolf center as a result, although the resident bears seemed more tame than their canine counterparts. Maybe it's just the difference between black bears and wolves. Wolves remain a bit of a mystery, since people don't get to hang out with them in the wild for extended periods. I admit to being influenced by the bear center to think more about the possibility of having deeper relationships with wild animals, rather than seeing them as somehow separated from humans in all aspects.

After the bear center visit, we returned to our campsite for an afternoon of exploring the park on foot and some relaxation.


Large Leafed Aster

Red Pine seedling

White Pine seedling

For dinner we made a wild rice and vegetable stir-fry. We cooked the rice at home before the trip and took a big container with us. It made a great meal. The skies were threatening rain so we cleaned up our camp in the nick of time and spent time in the camper reading and listening to the rain and distant thunder. When the rain had passed, we emerged to have our typical evening campfire.

Wild Rice and Vegetable stir fry- and the best wine you can get in box.

The morning dawned clear and chilly with temps in the low forties. We made breakfast and decided to explore the lake by canoe. Bear Head Lake is entirely within the state park and provides a canoeing experience very similar to the boundary waters wilderness where we have spent countless days over many years.

We came upon a large beaver lodge with evidence of active beavers present.

Large beaver dam and lodge

A full larder

This stick was stripped clean of bark- a tasty beaver meal.

We saw fish swimming but didn't catch any (didn't try very hard). We returned to camp for another hike to stretch our legs and let Rocky have some exercise. Evening brought a pasta dinner, a walk and a final campfire for this trip. Skies were clear and it would be a chilly night.

Tried and true pasta with baguette croutons.

Is that a red wolf?

In the morning, we packed up and drove to Ely for a good breakfast at the Taste of Ely- good food, pleasant service and a great soundtrack, a fine ending to our visit in the north. We had had an enjoyable time and learned a lot about some of our north woods wild neighbors.

After breakfast, we drove to Birch Lake where I was to meet my college friends for the houseboat adventure. Kathy dropped me off and headed home. The boat trip was a fun time capped by a memorable group golf game (a reunion tradition) on the way home.

Home for eleven guys for 3 nights- an RV on water!

Incredible sunrise in fog.

Another sunrise shot.

Sunrise panorama.

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