Examining Ely - The Man Who Biked To Canada (With No Complaints) - CycleBlaze

June 8, 2016

Examining Ely

Superior National Forest--Pfeiffer Lake Campground

Ely is an interesting wilderness outpost.  As a major embarking point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, it seems like one out of every three or four businesses on the main street is either a canoe trip outfitter or in some way caters to the canoeing community.  It looks like there are quite a few ex-hippies around town; some of them are bums and some of them are running what appear to be successful businesses.  There are also many curious tourists which, I'm still having a hard time admitting, includes me.

First and foremost, however, Ely is a canoeist's town and they're all over the place.  Most of them are easily identified by their three or four day old beards, high tech clothing, Gore-tex boots, and gaiters (for the portages.)  The equivalent to Ely that quickly comes to mind is Moab, Utah.  Ely is to wilderness canoeing what Moab is to river rafting, and, more recently, mountain biking.  (Ely is just starting to get into the mountain biking niche as well.)

At the little motel where I was holed up last night, almost all of the other guests were canoeists.  A bunch of them were sitting outside in a big circle, drinking beer and exchanging canoe stories when I exited my room some time around 7:00 p.m.  I was bound for the grocery store.  I had three days of facial growth of my own (which, as an aside, was not very impressive) so I must have been misidentified as being a member of the canoeing fraternity.   As I walked past the group, one of them said:

"Hey man, ya going in tomorrow?"


"Are you getting ready to go, or are you done with your trip?"

It took me a minute but I realized he was talking about canoeing so I said, "No, I'm on a different kind of adventure.  I'm riding my bike . . . my bicycle . . . from the Twin Cities to Winnipeg and back."  (I always feel like I have to correct myself so people don't think I'm on a motorcycle trip.)

A couple of people said things like "Oh, that's cool," but the conversation quickly returned to canoeing so I continued on to my original destination.

That's how it is here.  The big three questions from both the canoeists and the locals are:

  1. Are you heading into the Boundary Waters?
  2. WHEN are you heading into the Boundary Waters?
  3. WHERE are you going in?  (There are many entry points in the Ely area and the number of permits for each one are strictly limited in order to keep the Boundary Waters as wilderness-y as possible.)

In a day-and-a-half, I was asked at least one of those questions by the owner of the motel, by a convenience store clerk, by two different people at the laundromat, by the group outside the motel, and by a coffee shop barista. 


I set out late in the morning.  Truth be told, it might have been noontime.  Highway 1 leveled off west of Ely and, as I predicted, the remaining hills were more fun without the just and benevolent headwind.  I enjoyed a good ride past more pretty lakes and another billion trees.  In addition, I got a short thrill from seeing another big doe race across the road less than 100-feet in front of me.  I continue to be amazed at how high and far deer can leap.

Not many cars. Billions of trees.
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There was one quarter-mile long hill where I noticed hundreds, if not thousands of caterpillars. I hate stopping for a picture on an uphill, but in this case I thought it was necessary.
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I know that last picture is another example of my bad photographic skills.  And I know you can only see two or three caterpillars.  And I know I should have stopped to take a picture halfway back down the hill where the caterpillars were far more abundant.  And I know I could have turned around for a second chance at that great caterpillar photo, but I didn't do that because I was positive I'd have many more opportunities.

After pedaling over the top of the hill I never saw another caterpillar. 

I went off-route for a couple of miles to a National Forest Service campground. As I negotiated the gravel road and steep hills, I kept thinking, "This better be worth it."
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It was. Clouds above and on the surface of Pfeiffer Lake.
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Today's ride: 32 miles (51 km)
Total: 350 miles (563 km)

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