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Mike Maddock, General Manager
2011-10-28 / Society

The Coolest Small Town in America

By Jackie Perrone


Jackie Perrone canoeing with her granddaughter Kate Ford, daughter of Bob and Betsy Ford Jackie Perrone canoeing with her granddaughter Kate Ford, daughter of Bob and Betsy Ford They don’t call it “The Coolest Small Town in America” for nothing. Forty degrees below zero in midwinter qualifies. So does a population of 3,500 which includes an award-winning French chef, a famous National Geographic photographer, and a dog-sledding resort whose owner organized and carried out a trip to the North Pole, on foot. Did I mention the oldest rock in the world?

Ely, Minnesota, proclaims that it is at the “end of the road.” No joke. Five hours north of Minneapolis, two hours from Duluth, Ely’s bragging rights start with the Boundary Waters Wilderness area, one-million-plus acres of unspoiled water spanning the US-Canada border.

Ely is worth the effort of getting there. My daughter Betsy Ford and I had the added incentive of visiting her daughter Kate Ford, who now lives in Ely and works as a guide for the outdoor experiences at BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness).

Laid-back, friendly, and definitely quirky, Ely is said to be “the most visited wilderness in the United States.” We came away describing it as the closest thing to the small Alaskan town depicted in the past television series called “Northern Exposure.” All that was missing was a moose walking down the main street.

Our plane deposited us at Duluth, where Kate met us and showed us around. A lovely waterfront park on Lake Superior, the western terminus of the St. Lawrence Seaway, provides walking trails, picnic tables and benches, flowers and a lighthouse. One landmark definitely new to me: an H-shaped Lift Bridge. Our part of the world employs drawbridges to let tall ships through, but at this point on Lake Superior, the Lift Bridge elevates the entire roadway to provide passage.

Before leaving Columbia, we had some uneasy moments pertaining to the huge forest fire raging in the BWCAW. The Pagami Creek fire was sparked by lightning on September 13 and spread quickly to devour more than 100,000 acres of trees. Homes and other buildings were threatened, hundreds of fire-fighters from all over the U.S. and Canada descended on the area, and worry prevailed for a while. But Mother Nature stepped in with saving rains, and containment was pronounced to be at 90 percent. We arrived on schedule October 11.

Ely boasts a number of outfitting companies, which sell and rent equipment, clothing, and supplies to the hordes of visitors. The summer traffic is focused on canoeing, fishing, and camping. That season closes in September. Then, beginning in early December, the winter outings begin: dog-sledding, ice-fishing, skiing and skating. Outings range from one day to a week or more as the mercury plunges far below zero.

The deployment of the large numbers of fire-fighters proved to be a boon to outfitters in the usually off season of September and October. This year, the outfitters found themselves in demand to sustain the firefighting contingent. The state and federal authorities in charge of the fire-fighters lined up all the local outfitters to accept assignments such as providing food for 21 people for four days.

Often the assignment would come late in the afternoon, to be assembled and furnished in time for the next day’s breakfast. The firemen cooked their own food, but the kits had to be packed individually. One specification: each person was to receive 5,000 calories a day. Like the fires they were battling, these guys consume a lot of fuel. If you think your teen-agers are eating you out of house and home, just be glad you aren’t responsible for firemen around the clock.

Conclusion: next week

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