My trip to Ely was not planned. I hadn’t anticipated spending nearly a month living and working at Sustainable Ely on the famed East Sheridan Street. Had it not been for my brief stint volunteering at the Minnesota State Fair with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, I might have missed this small gem of a town. Having only traveled through it on my way to the North Shore of Lake Superior, my knowledge of Ely was limited. During my stay, several things left a lasting impression on me. The most prominent was the fervent passion for the land expressed by Ely’s citizens and visitors.
I knew that Ely was a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but I didn’t realize the sheer volume of tourists that flock from across the country to see it. I couldn’t believe the shops and storefronts that cater to this crowd either. From the Brandenburg Gallery, sporting stunning prints of the Northwoods, to Piragis Northwoods Company’s sprawling eclectic variety of everything outdoors. From the spa advertising pedicures for the weary paddler, to Steger Mukluk’s mystical front window display and Wintergreen Northern Wear’s classic sub-zero apparel.
Ely isn’t an ordinary small town; the dynamic is truly eclectic. Many have been visiting for generations, others stumbled across it on a whim and never left. Never before had I met such passionate people committed to tradition and history. Ely is a community with deep roots in both wilderness preservation and mining. It is often talked about in polarized dichotomies and animated discussions about the issues that have faced the area, but despite the contrasting opinions, it was clear that people are drawn here for the land and its wealth.
Either in the utilitarian sense of the word, through its timber and mineral resources, or through its inherent intrinsic value; its waters, vast landscapes, ancient sprawling white pines, lichen covered rocks, and diversity of flora and fauna, people can connect to the land. It is the landscape that binds Ely together. There is something inherently powerful and intriguing about this massive network of lakes laced with boreal forest.
Following my summer at Sustainable Ely, I was inspired to continue to help the Campaign gain permanent protectionof the Boundary Waters watershed. I began working as a full time employee for the Campaign in the beginning of October. It has been clear from the beginning that this is truly a motivated and proactive group of passionate individuals working for a worthy cause. I am proud to be a part of the effort to protect this unique place and the communities that thrive because of the wilderness.
Piper Donlin is the Campaign's administrative coordinator and has a degree in environmental science and policy. She took her first trip to the Boundary Waters to Brule Lake at age 7.