Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ely, Minn.

Summer. Ah, summer. I got Steve to take a 48-hour vacation (actually, three days, but we were at our destination for 42 hours, which-- can I say?-- was not long enough for me).

On Friday we drove up to Ely, Minn., the gateway to the BWCAW. That's the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and when people refer to it they actually say all the letters, which is not actually shorter or easier to say than, The Boundary Waters. People up there seem to refer spelling it out. I have to say, I wasn't totally excited, although I've heard people rave about the Boundary Waters pretty much since my 20s. But, although they said it was amazing and beautiful and remote, they also said it was chock full of mosquitoes and deer flies and black flies. I really, really do not like bugs that bite and whir around your ear before they do. There's also some storytelling about portaging canoes a mile or so through mud up to your knees that didn't thrill me. Sounded like something more for Outward Bound.

We stayed at a cabin on Burntside Lake, which is 11 miles across at its widest point. The only thing that keeps it from being 11 miles across for countless miles are the many little islands. I didn't realize this, so when we got to Burntside Lake, although we were told this fact and the size of the lake, I found it much like any other Minnesota lake to look at. Which is to say, really pretty-- and I appreciated how clean it was to swim in-- but not in any way spectacular as in drive-four-hours-when-there-are 11,000+ lakes-in-this-state-spectacular.

The cabin, however, was pretty spectacular. It belongs to Steve's longtime friends Sy and Vera. The place is steep and rather inaccessible and the base of everything is granite. There's basically no soil to speak of in the Boundary Waters area, though that's not entirely true because there are lots of trees (not amazing trees, just scrubby youngish pines and occasional birches, since the whole area was deforested by the timber companies in the 19th century up through the 1920s when they left it bare). The main cabin is perched atop its granite shelf, and they'd built on two major additions and a wide porch/deck that had to be stilted and supported. Drinking water is piped in from town, though other water is piped up from the lake. All waste is piped up to a 1500 gallon tank and emptied 3x each summer. Not human waste, which goes into the two outhouses or the composting toilet.

We had the composting toilet in our room, which was an addition to the fire-heated sauna and basically right on the water. These days you can't build within 100 feet of the shoreline, but Sy and Vera's place is grandfathered in, with a boathouse and the sauna/cabin down there. Our place was a room with windows on two sides looking out on forest and lake and the "ecolet" in its little cabinet, and a cold-water tap for washing your face (not potable).

Sy is 85 and he goes up and down the 40 stairs between the shoreline and cabin many times a day. He and Vera also swim quite a bit. The lake was cold but not unbearable at all, because there had been a 3-day hot spell after a cold summer. Their sons Bruno and Carlo were at the cabin. Also visiting was their charming 13-year-old grandson Tanner, and Monica Cofell, who was one of Vera's French students in the 1980s, and her three wonderful daughters, ages 9-16. The Cofells were staying in the large yurt Sy and Vera built the previous year, electrified (at great expense, according to Sy who thinks a tent doesn't need electricity) and sitting above the cabin on the next ridge deep in the woods. This was not a full house, however, compared to the 20 they had a couple weeks before. Sy and Vera have nine children with beautiful names: Paul, David, Bruno, Carlo, Sylvia, Clara, Marcel, Andre and Julia). Vera is originally Vera Castelli from Italy, who met Sy when he was in Europe after World War II. Sy is from a large family up the road in Cold Spring, and one of his sisters was a Benedictine nun.

Vera is an amazing cook, and we ate very well. Unfortunately, we did not exercise as much as we ate. I only understood the beauty of the Boundary Waters area late on Saturday. We went in to Ely on Saturday and wasted time (I see now) at the shops, though we did have an amazing tour of the one big site in town (some may argue for the Wolf Center and Bear Center, but no), the Dorothy Molter Museum. Dorothy Molter, aka the Root Beer Lady, lived in the BWCAW from 1933 until she died at 78 in her cabin in 1985 (instantly, of a massive heart attack, bringing in wood for the stove). She lived mostly in a winter cabin and a summer tent, and cut ice and ran a 4-cabin primitive resort for trout fishermen. When the govt., in an attempt to get her out of the wilderness area, outlawed her doing any commercial business in the area, she made her own root beer and served it to canoers, who left her donations that supported her. To see a photo of her in her 50s leaving for the 14-mile canoe trip from Ely in winter-- with five portages-- with a backpack of supplies on her front and back and a canoe over her head, is to realize what legends are made of. And she is a legend. The painting of her at the museum is rather like George Washington crossing the Potomac but holding an oar out front. She even looks surprisingly like George Washington in that painting, done by one of her champions, Bob Cary, a columnist in Chicago.
However, Dorothy Molter, though interesting, we learned from Sy, is not a hero of the BWCAW. That privilege goes to Sigurd Olson. And it wasn't until I saw Sigurd Olson's Listening Point and cabin, and walked around there and took a little trip with Carlo in the powerboat that afternoon, that I understood the beauty of the area.

I took these photos from the dock Friday night. Saturday night it was too cloudy for a sunset. Though, oh my, the glorious storm that night...

But that will have to wait.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I spent most of my summers as a child camping in Ely, Minnesota. Tent, 5 kids, outhouse, baths in the lake, cold mornings with oatmeal and tang...great memories. Thanks for bringing them back!

Nancy G.