Life on the Boundary
A Superior place in the Northwoods
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