A grey-and-white wolf tilts back his head to the sky, letting loose a long, wailing howl. The ancient sound can ripple through your spine and carry across the northern Minnesota woods, especially when another member of the pack joins in the howl.
It could be a little eerie in the wild, but this is the International Wolf Center’s glass viewing area, where guests can see the resident pack of four wolves up close and watch their social interactions.
The Wolf Center, as well as the North American Bear Center, can be found in the outdoors-focused town of Ely, a community on the cusp of the animals’ natural habitats and the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They’re two of four nationally known Minnesota centers focused on bears, wolves and eagles in a state rich with wildlife, thanks to a convergence of diverse habitats, an abundance of lakes and rivers, and vast tracts of national forests, refuges and parks.
At the International Wolf Center, open year-round, exhibits, talks, documentary films, artwork and hands-on, family-friendly programs all demystify the role and myths of wolves in the wild. The center also offers in-depth overnight and weekend programs for families or adults who want to learn more about wolf research, go behind the scenes with the resident pack, or head into the woods to learn about and practice wolf vocalizations in the wild. If they’re really lucky, they might hear a wild pack howl back.
On the other side of Ely, standing on the observation deck or in the inside viewing area at the North American Bear Center, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Ted, who tips scales at close to 800 pounds, thought to be the world’s largest black bear. Visitors watch him interact with Lucky, a playful younger male, female Honey and an orphaned cub named Holly in the 2.5-acre landscaped habitat with a pond and waterfall. They forage on wild foods, swim, climb trees and tussle for fun. During the winter, den cams show the bears sleeping through the winter.
Like the wolf center, the American Bear Center gets visitors up close to wild animals while sharing facts, dispelling fears and common misperceptions, and teaching about the animals’ strengths, skills and individual personalities. Exhibits include mounts of other North American bears to show how much larger grizzlies and polar bears can be. A hands-on Cub Room lets kids duck in and out of a bear’s den and explore a variety of interactive displays.
You can expand your Minnesota bear experience with a trip an hour and a half northwest of Ely to the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr. Buses pick up visitors every 20 minutes between 5 and 8 p.m. at the parking lot and shuttle them to the site, which is open summers only. From an open-air observation deck overlooking woods and meadows, visitors can watch and photograph wild bears that come to eat natural foods left for them.
Volunteers are happy to talk about individual bears that wander through, help visitors spot bears tucked up into trees, and discuss how important late-summer feasting is to surviving the winter in hibernation.
Some of Minnesota’s best wildlife watching can be done during the winter months when it’s easy to spot trumpeter swans along the Mississippi River in Monticello or bald eagles that hunt in the open waters near Red Wing and Wabasha.
If you’re not used to spotting eagles as they seek fish in open water, head to Wabasha’s National Eagle Center and listen for the sharp, piercing cry of its resident eagles. Instinctively territorial, they will call out if another eagle flies by—even if it’s miles away on the far side of the Mississippi. The term “eagle eye” rings true.
Staff offer several daily programs that introduce visitors to eagles and explain the strength of their talons and power of their wings. There may even be a chance to pose with one, nose to beak, for photos.
The eagle programs also explain the quirks of resident eagles that have been rehabilitated from injuries that prevent them from returning to the wild. Interactive natural history exhibits are family-friendly. Displays on the symbolism of eagles to American Indians bring together history and cultural lessons.
You can use spotting scopes and outdoor terraces to look for the distinctive white feathers of bald eagles year-round, but March ranks as the best observation month as eagles migrate back north, feasting along the river and courting until lakes open and they can lay eggs in massive nests spread throughout the state. Special interpretive programs also run on the weekends throughout March.