On the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a secluded state park called Bear Head Lake. It's not a huge place, but here one can experience the Northwoods wilderness and the beauty of two undeveloped lakes.
Undeveloped. It feels good just to say it.
The campgrounds is located on Bear Head Lake. Again, it's not a large area, but if seclusion is your fancy, this is the place. Richard and I enjoy camping during the week, and it's especially nice to do so in autumn. When we arrived at Bear Head, we practically had the place to ourselves. The afternoon sun was warm and slanting through all the pines. And as I stepped out of our truck, the first sight to greet me was an Osprey winging slowly across the water. In a place like this, one can easily imagine moose, bear and wolves darting in and out of the trees at any given moment. It's wonderful!
Some logging was done here in the late 1800's. But between 1911 and 1913, several fires swept the area. These fires consumed the forest inside the park . You can still see the many old, charred pine stumps along the hiking trails. After the loggers left, little is known or recorded about this area. At one time a few backwoods cabins were built on the lake, but no one knows who lived there. For forty years the Bear Head and Eagle's Nest area were left to nature. Then in 1961 the Minnesota legislature created the park.
On our first evening, a full moon rose over Bear Head lake as we sat by the campfire. The wind, still warm from the day, blew softly across the clearing. Flames danced around the small piles of sticks as it passed. Overhead, stars twinkled, ringed in by a fringe of towering pine.
Beyond the yellow light, the night seemed darker, making indistinct the shadowy shapes of trees and brush. I wanted badly to hear wolves (this is their territory after all), but it was like dragging the lake to find the moon. There is a silence in the Northwoods in autumn that is hard to describe. It doesn't frighten. It beckons. The wild loneliness of it calls to what blows wild and empty and lonely within a person. Perhaps, there are some spaces within the soul that can never be filled.
A heavy dew, almost like soft rain, fell during the night and the grass along the water sparkled with a million jewels. Richard got up early so he could catch the lake at first light. An hour later, after dressing and stretching away a night's sleep, I opened the door. The air was sweet as cider.
After breakfast, we took a hike along some of the park's trails. We were halfway when we ran into an area marked off by bright orange tape. Somewhere beyond was a tree with an eagle's nest. Apparently the nest had been active that summer, and tourists had been prevented from disturbing the mated pair and their offspring. After looking for the nest from our restricted spot, we came up empty and moved off to enjoy the rest of the trail.
Our stay at Bear Head Lake was quiet and refreshing. We find it healthy to get away from civilization now and then, so a person can just think in peace.
The second stop on our trip to Northeastern Minnesota was Ely. Ely is the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It's a laid-back place where people wear fur hats and beards and smoke pipes, and ride around in pickup trucks with canoes strapped to the top. It's like the TV program Northern Exposure.
In Ely there are outfitters on every block. The local bookstore is loaded with wilderness books and maps, and you can go upstairs to a small gallery and view the famed area-resident Jim Brandenburg's wonderful photos of the arctic wolf. Polar explorer Wil Steger lives nearby also and has his own shop where he sells his homemade mukluks. His residence is where he teaches dogs and fellow-explorers the knack of mushing across the tundra.
Yet one of the most interesting stops in Ely is the International Wolf Center. The building is beautiful and hosts a museum, bookstore, and movie room. The best area, however, is the place where one can view real wolves in the wild. A room with floor to ceiling glass allows visitors to look for wolves in the woods and clearing beyond. Every hour, naturalists step outside and do their best to lure the animals closer to the viewing glass for visitors to observe. Then they spend a half hour talking about wolves, especially those at the center.
It isn't an accident that wolves are, and have been, a very popular item in this country. Through marketing and education, conservationists have taken "the big bad wolf" and turned him into one of America's most beloved mammals. Not a small feat when the animal was extinct everywhere but Alaska, Minnesota and Canada. Because of the change in attitude, wolves now roam free in Yellowstone National Park, and there are plans to reintroduce them to several locations around the United States.
Reintroduce. I like the sound of that. Don't you?
Copyright ©1997 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
March 7, 1997