Ely, Minnesota(2)

November 29, 2006
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“Wolves are probably the most feared and vilified animals in the world,” Jennifer Westlund
was telling me. “But they really get a bum rap. “Most people are scared to death of them.
Much of it based on myth. Remember the Big Bad Wolf — ‘what big teeth you have?’” Jen is
an authority on wolves and, I believe, their absolute best spokesperson. As program
director for the International Wolf Center here in Ely, Minnesota, Jen spends her days
educating people about wolves — both the good and the bad. “Those teeth, that’s how they
survive. They kill other animals, mostly large hoofed animals, wild and once-in-a-while
domestic. But we have never heard of, or found a record of, a healthy wolf in North America
killing a person. In fact, wolves are a lot less interested in approaching us than we are
in approaching them. But approaching one, especially if he allows it, is a really bad idea.
“Canada has 50,000 wolves. We have close to 3,000 here in Minnesota. A person in wolf
country has a better chance of being killed by lightning, a bee sting or in a car collision
with a deer than being injured by a wolf,” Westlund said. The Wolf Center, located in the
heart of the Superior National Forest, has large windows in the back so visitors can look
out on their “resident pack of ambassador wolves.” Lucas, Lakota, MacKenzie, Malik and
Shadow have more than an acre of wooded territory to themselves, including a waterfall and
a pond. I took pictures as one wolf finished up scraps from an earlier feeding. Ravens
hovered around waiting for what might be left. One wolf chased a raven, but it appeared as
a half-hearted attempt at a game they play. Jen grew up in Virginia, Minnesota, which is on
the same latitude as Ely. In other words, the two cities are equally distant from the North
Pole. She is used to cold, snowy winter days. Today is one of them. “A lot of people here
live out in the woods year-round. They tell of hearing wolves howling at night. But, it’s
not the moon they howl at — that’s just another myth. It’s the way they advertise their
presence or maintain contact with their pack.” Jen said that a few hundred people out there
“live off the grid.” They have no utility-provided power and no phone. They get their
messages from the local radio station. Four times a day WELY broadcasts personal messages.
At the office and closet-sized studio of WELY, I met Bill Roloff and Joany Haag. Bill
explained that they repeat the messages for a couple days. “They are messages like ‘the guy
who was to plow your driveway has got the flu; he’ll come by when he can.’ Or maybe, ‘Joe,
you got the job you wanted.’ If it’s an emergency message, someone will go out there with
it.” Joany and Earl Bulinski are on the air every morning for three hours beginning at 6 am
local time (you can listen at wely.com). “This is true small-town radio. When our local
girl scouts sell cookies, they come here and record their own commercials. And the seniors
know in the morning what’s for lunch at the senior center, because we tell ‘em.” CBS’s
Charles Kuralt once owned WELY. His estate sold it after he died in 1997. A frequent
visitor to Ely, Kuralt told Linda Fryer, director of the Chamber of Commerce, that every
town should have a voice. “He said that more than once,” Linda said. “I knew what he meant,
but I didn’t know how strongly he felt about it. Next thing I know, he had purchased Ely’s
only radio station — saved it really, as it was going under as a hometown station.” Unlike
the other storefronts along East Chapman Street, WELY has a porch. There is a barbecue on
it from which they serve “breakfast on the porch” occasionally during the summer. Piled in
front today is a lot of snow where Joany and Bill have “planted” a row of plastic flowers.
“We’re having an early spring,” Joany explained. Bob Cary knew Kuralt well; which one might
expect, because I discovered that everybody here knows Bob. He was a journalist — Chicago
Daily News and later editor of the Ely Echo — and is a musician, sportsman, author and a
watercolor artist. I didn’t know any of this when I met him. He was introduced as an
83-year-old guy who has a passion for skiing. One morning, we headed out on a cross-country
ski trail. The trail paralleled a road where a snowplow went by, snow curling off its
blade. “Those guys work all the time, not just when it snows,” Bob said. “If they are not
clearing today’s snow off the road, they are pushing a previous day’s from the shoulder to
make room for more. If they didn’t, the snow banks would close in, and by spring we would
be down to one lane.” Finishing lunch at a sandwich shop, Bob talked about his days as a
Marine in the Pacific during World War II. “The Japanese Army was brutal and uncivilized.
Remember the Bataan Death March? We had seven guys from Ely who survived it. I knew those
guys.” Bob’s voice halted and his face turned away toward a window. “Their names are on a
plaque under the VFW flagpole.” After lunch, we walked to the flagpole. Bob mushed through
the snow and pushed aside the crust of snow that covered the names. With his gloved hand,
he brushed it clean. “Now, that’s better,” he said. Note: I am home now, and I just heard
that Bob Cary has passed away. His obituary said that he ran for President in 1980 on the
ticket of the Independent Fisherman’s Party, losing to Reagan. It said, “Bob was always
quick to note that he lost by only 63 million votes.” Bill’s e-mail address:
roadscribe@aol.com.

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