Ely, Minnesota

February 20, 2006
Filed under Travel

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My choice of Ely was not by chance. I had incentives — an invitation to do some
dog-sledding. I also had a personal reason — Ely was one of Charles Kuralt’s favorite
places, albeit his visits were in the summer when he could paddle a canoe on any of a
thousand lakes. Kuralt, a wanderer by temperament and a road scribe by profession, has been
my hero for many years. Kuralt hosted the CBS Sunday Morning series for 30 years.
But we RVers who remember him relate more to his books and his “on the road” reports for
CBS News. Traveling in a motorhome, he told us — with unique insight — about the
out-of-the-ordinary people and places that make up the back roads of our country. Kuralt
died in 1997, on July 4. In Charles Kuralt’s America, he said, “Ely’s main street
has the shops and cafes you’d expect at the place where the road runs out, but it would be
a lonesome street without the outfitters. You can arrive in Ely in a coat and tie with no
baggage and push off in a canoe an hour later, properly dressed and fully equipped for two
weeks in the wilderness.” I’m here to tell ya: The same is true when the canoes are buried
in snow and the lakes have ice thick enough to drive a car on. I arrived with winter garb,
but found that technology has made refinements in outerwear since I was a kid in Duluth.
Primarily, it’s lighter and warmer. Whatever I did outside, someone had pulled from
somewhere what I needed to keep me comfortable and dry. When it comes to winter clothes,
Minnesota people always have extras. The challenge of keeping feet warm in sub-zero
temperatures has been solved — not with high-tech — but with low-tech, age-old Eskimo
gear. Patti Steger here makes moose-hide mukluks. Most of the people I met were wearing
them. They are warmer, and half the weight of boots. Soft and loose fitting like a
moccasin, it’s impossible to develop a blister wearing them. Interestingly, there is no
difference between the right mukluk and the left one; in fact, owners rotate them like
tires. Patti learned how to make them in the Arctic on a dogsled expedition in 1982. She
began making them in her home, hand-sewing them. Now she employs 40 people making mukluks.
The week before I got here, they had some record cold days, 40 below 0 degrees F. “We found
three frozen owls on the ground last week,” a dogsled musher told me. “Apparently, they had
frozen in the tree and just dropped out.” A waitress said that she threw some coffee off
her porch onto a sidewalk; it was frozen before it hit. “It sounded like icicles breaking,
like when they drop off your roof.” The day I was dog-sledding the temperature was 30
degrees F, a 70-degree difference from the week before. “All they want to do is run. That’s
what they’re bred for,” Julia Harry was telling me as she hooked the dogs, one by one, up
to the sled. Julia is 36 and came here from North Carolina to run dogs, to be a musher. The
dogs barked and yelped; patience is definitely not a trait of sled dogs. Julia gave me a
quick lesson on mushing. “They are directed by voice commands. But don’t expect them to
stop when you yell “Whoa.” You have to step on the brake. In fact, if the driver falls off
the sled, no amount of yelling will stop the dogs. They’ll just keep on running.” Julia and
I traded off being the musher, which involves standing on the back runners of the sled and
applying the brake going down hills. When running, our team of eight dogs made no noise.
Other then the sled runners on the packed snow, dog-sledding is silent motion. It’s that
stillness, the serenity, while moving through woods and across snow-covered lakes, that
makes dog-sledding such a unique experience. We stopped on a lake for lunch. It was noon;
still our shadows were long. The sun was not far off the horizon. Julia tied the team to a
couple trees. The dogs appeared unhappy about having a forced rest. Bill’s e-mail address:
roadscribe@aol.com

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