AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto
On any given day around Ely, Minnesota you could meet Arctic explorer Will Steger heading to his environmental school, biologist Lynn Rogers stocking up to tour bear dens, or musher extraordinaire Paul Schurke buying dog kibble. Ely (pop. 3,595) just might have the continent's highest per capita concentration of world-renowned naturalists.
The town is set within three-million-acre Superior National Forest and surrounded by more than a thousand interconnected lakes in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A refuge for wolves, bears, eagles and moose, it is the most visited wilderness in the U.S.; from May to October over half a million tourists pass through Ely en route. And some keep going--it's possible to paddle all 2,800 miles to the Arctic Circle.
But March is one of the undiscovered months. Only a handful of visitors trickle in, and it's peak season for dogsledding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and what Schurke calls the Northwoods' best kept secret: "The frozen lakes become a skate-skier's paradise," he says. "With a bit of a tailwind you can schuss your way right into Canada." When you get back, warm up at the 93-year-old Ely Steam Sauna, a sacrosanct vestige of the town's Finnish roots.Want to Live Here?>
REAL ESTATE LOWDOWN: Prices have held firm despite the national dip. Most homes run $75,000, but snowbirds are pushing lakefront properties toward $600,000.>
THE LOCAL ECONOMY: Founded on timber and taconite iron, Ely now subsists on tourism. To thrive: Relish the low cost of living, enjoy the summer buzz and live frugally when temps dive and visitors clear out.Weekend Scouting Trip
PLAYGROUNDS: A bit of bait and maybe a handle of whiskey are all it takes to catch trout--and the northern lights--in a heated ice-fishing hut on Snowbank Lake ($70 a day; smittys-on-snowbank.com
). Mushers heed the call with Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge; overnight runs pass spruce bogs, pine stands, and frozen lakes ($775 for three nights; dogsledding.com
). When the weather warms, there's no better place than Ely to launch a canoe trip; ply the quiet coves of nearby Shagawa Lake or strike out into Boundary Waters (rentals from $22
a day; wildernessoutfitters.com
THE SCENE: Many a Boundary Waters expedition begins with homemade cinnamon-raisin bread and stuffed hash browns at Britton's Cafe (218-365-3195). For dinner, locals swear by Ely Steakhouse, where resident raconteur Mike Hillman often spins yarns over a game of pool (218-365-7412).
WHERE TO STAY: Timber Trail Lodge is a cozy base along the Tomahawk snowmobile trail ($150; timbertraillodge.com
). In town, A Stay Inn Ely has handcrafted white-pine-paneled rooms with fieldstone fireplaces ($60; astayinnely.com
There's a good spirit here. People are upbeat and tolerant because they love living in Ely. Even when I arrived in the '60s, they accepted my long hair." --Will Steger, polar explorer and environmentalist