Sunday, August 26, 2007

Lake Superior Circle Tour -- Day 10


We left Silver Bay completely pumped about going to Ely. The route was supposed to be laden with moose, and one book even said that if you drove along it at dawn or sundown, you were guaranteed to see a moose. This was our day for exciting wildlife, we decided.

Well, the road was under construction. We were rerouted down dirt logging roads through the forest, for about 25-30 miles. Though the speed limit was 35 mph, I couldn't do more than 20 with confidence due to the narrow road and utter invisibility through the trees. Any twist or turn in the road could put me face-to-face with an animal, another car, or worse, a logging truck, and I wouldn't see it coming unless it was directly in front of me. These were some of the darkest, densest forests I've ever seen. And the road was a wreck too. The one-hour drive took 2½ hours! It was very irritating and I had to pee! Plus, we saw nothing more than the ever present chipmunks.

When we finally got to Ely, we were exhausted. We checked into our motel, which was actually a half of a cabin, and tried to decide what to do. We didn't have much of the day left.

Given that the North American Bear Center closed earliest, we chose to go there. The NABC has only been open since May of this year, and while I didn't know what to expect because the website isn't exactly jam-packed with information on their exhibits, I hoped for some bear sightings. Hoped. I had no idea what we'd see.

We walked into the front door and were awed by the size of the building and the vastness of the exhibits. It didn't look this big on the outside. Before my eyes could take it all in, I saw movement in front of a large window wall and immediately recognized a gigantic bear butt right in front of the window.

I couldn't speak in sentences. All I could squeal was, "Bear butt!" Eventually B.E. figured out what I was talking about. I could not pay the admission to enter fast enough. The woman tried to tell me about the two adult bears and the bear cub wandering around the outside exhibit, but I didn't hear much of what she said. There was a big bear nearby and I wanted a closer look.

By the time I got over there, the big bear had wandered off, but the cub was still frolicking around with the woman in charge of their exhibit.

Meet Lucky. Lucky is a 6-month-old black bear cub found in the wild, orphaned and far too comfortable with people to ever be safe, so unexpectedly the NABC took in this cub. He's too cute for words, and I snapped this shot of him rolling around in the sunflowers.

Lucky is still afraid of the other bears, Ted and Honey, but he loves human companionship.

Then Ted lumbered back into view. What a huge bear! 700 pounds! And cuddly!

When Ted was around, Lucky found other places to play, allowing Ted to have some quality time with his human playmate.

Look at those bear toes!

Later on, we were able to chat with the woman who played with the bears, and she explained that Ted likes to give bear hugs. Harmless and affectionate to him, but potentially deadly to the person he likes. They've trained him to sit and touch hands with the handlers. Evidently the only person who can handle a hug from Ted is Lynn Rodgers, the man who created this wonderful place.

Ted is a total ham. He loves attention and will spend hours in front of the windows interacting with and posing for the visitors. He's the star of the show!

There is a balcony you can walk out on that goes over the bears' exhibit, and we spent quite some time out there watching Ted and listening to him grunt and groan.

What a face!

Lucky scooted up a tree and fell asleep about 15 feet up, so Ted was easily the bear of the hour. And he knew it.

After relaxing in the wood chips for a while, he got up to take a drink from the pond. Bear butts are even cuter when they're dirty!

I was in love. I wanted to take Ted home with me. I wanted one of his bear hugs and I wanted rub my face in those cute little round furry ears. How could you not love this guy?

And then he started rolling around props in his exhibit. By "props" I mean tree trunks. Tree trunks that I couldn't move to save my life, he effortlessly started tossing them around the place. Okay, so maybe he wouldn't make such a good roommate, but he's still the cutest bear around!

And, I will always love him.

The exhibits at the NABC were really interesting and informative, not presented in the bland and educational way many wildlife exhibits are. There were bear comics, newspaper articles and actual bear videos playing on a loop constantly, at about a dozen different places. We learned about body language, what they eat, how to identify their scat and tracks, the sounds they make and the meanings, and we learned about many bear myths that have perpetuated, despite attempts to educate the masses. There was even an entire section about the real life "Grizzly Man" and his wife/girlfriend who were killed by bears while they shot a documentary about them. The exhibit explained what many weren't aware of, and that was all the mistakes this unprepared couple made around wild bears and what eventually led to their deaths. It really made me want to take everything I learned and share it with everyone. However, the truth is that you need to experience it yourself. I was thoroughly impressed, and though the exhibits are incomplete and still in need of sponsorship, what I did learn in the time I was there far outweighed everything I knew about bears up to that point. They've done a very good job at the NABC and I hope they're around for a long, long time.

The NABC closes at 6 pm and we had to force ourselves to leave at 6:10. Ted was still sitting in front of the window rolling around and it was difficult to leave him, thinking I'll probably never get this close to another bear in my life.

We did somehow tear ourselves out and half-heartedly found a decent Italian restaurant in town, Sir G's and then returned to our half-cabin.

The half-cabin was one cabin that was turned into two by walling up the center, so having only one neighbor was cool. We were also next door to a Dairy Queen, and after the sun set and things got quiet, we walked next door for some ice cream.

Ely is a great town and seems to be thriving thanks to the Boundary Water and Canoe Area, which was hopping. It seems canoeing and kayaking have made some kind of humongous resurgence in popularity and half the cars we encountered on the trip had some kind of canoe or kayak on the roof. Really amazing. Or maybe I'm just out of the loop and it's always been popular. Whatever.

Though it's quite a trek from just about anywhere, I do recommend Ely as a really cool place to go.

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