Close up of an oar and side of canoe in the Boundary Waters

Where to Paddle and What to Do While You're in Ely

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Paddling adventures aplenty await in Ely / Paul Vincent

Where to Paddle and What to Do While You're in Ely

By Eric N. Hart

There's something about sliding a sleek canoe or kayak into water early on a calm morning, shoving off from shore and knifing through the glassy surface, making waves. It's a thrill that still yields chills for those who've been doing it forever and launches smiles across the faces of those making their first few trips.

Ten-thousand-plus lakes in Minnesota welcome the daily splicing, late spring through early fall, from the first launch at dawn to the last take-out at dusk. The paddles in hand churn, calories burn, ripples rage and drips of water spray. Fish splash, ducks quack, deer wade and loons serenade. The exploration offers a welcome escape from the stress of a day.

Restrictions on noise, watercraft size and crowds have made the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness the most popular paddling getaway in the state. It seems every other car or truck you pass as you get close has a boat or two strapped to it. Area lakes splinter into manageable streams, with step-over waterfalls and islands primed for camping. You never know what you might catch on a cast, or if by some chance you might see a moose. There's always a reward of one sort or another, but you don't need to portage into the BWCAW to find your remote. You don't even need to go that far north, not quite, because paddling adventures aplenty await in Ely.

A gray wolf rests on a rock at the International Wolf Center

Axl rests on a rock at the International Wolf Center  / International Wolf Center

Ely is on the Vermilion Iron Range in northern Minnesota, surrounded by lakes, lapping luxury. Home to the International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center, as well as the world headquarters of Crapola (granola made with cranberries and apples), it is an easy-access gateway to the Boundary Waters. Minnesota author, Ever N Hayes, whose "Emergency Exit" adventure novel begins in Ely, describes the oft-acclaimed American town as "the little launching point for a lifetime of big lake memories."

To that point, Ely is a magnetic vacation hub loaded with experienced guides and outfitters prepared to direct the experienced and lead the novices, and equipped with everything needed for day trips, weekend sojourns or longer excursions. A walk down the town's main thoroughfare, East Sheridan Street, will take you past several stock-up and souvenir spots, from Piragis Northwoods Company to Ely Outfitting, Canoe Country and Voyageur North Canoe Outfitters. Even if you don't know anything about boats, they'll rent you one and help you learn the ropes.

A minivan with canoes parked in front of the Ely Outfitting Company

Ely Outfitting Company / Lacey Doboszenski

Although you'll find to lots do with your days, you won't always want to be on the move. You'll want to settle in at some point, turn a day's play into an overnight stay. Options include campgrounds at Fall, Birch and Fenske Lakes, in-town resorts such as the Grand Ely Lodge and rural havens like Moose Track Adventures near the popular Kawishiwi Falls Trail. Or you could stay at Bear Head Lake State Park, in one of five camper cabins or your choice of 73 drive-in sites for tents and RVs. Nearby Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park offers 32 campsites (all with electricity) and eight new camper cabins, with spectacular underground mine tours for rainy days.

Ask around for a favorite lake and the answers vary. Some people like the ones with wide-open expanses. Others, the lakes with the nooks and crannies. Some folks seek the fishing spots, others prefer the birds and locations where you never hear words. You'll learn about places to see couples afloat on romantic cruises, groups in canoes and kayakers churning up new-to-them passes. Here, see grandparents baiting hooks for grandchildren, sunbathers soaking and happy commotion. There, see food being eaten, games being played and sticks being picked up for a fire whose light will be dwarfed by the brilliance of that starry night's sky.

Canoeing in Superior National Forest

Canoeing at sunrise in Superior National Forest / Alyssa Hei

Nothing beats being out on a boat, whatever the purpose—drifting carefree or with specific explorative intentions—particularly on a bright and beautiful day. The only downside to disappearing into the Superior National Forest wilderness is having to come back out, resentful that the time went by too quickly. Luckily, Minnesotans can venture Up North again soon for a day trip or weekend, accompanied by family and friends and appreciative that they don't have to go elsewhere in America to find such immaculate splendor…such pure, unadulterated, natural spaces for fun.

Eric N. Hart

Eric N. Hart is a public relations manager in Minnesota, charged with promoting many of America’s greatest golf courses and resorts. His passions include writing, photography, marketing and exploring the world with his wife and four kids.