Ely Part III: In the Presence of The Gods

If I had a blog, today I would write about my life with wolves.

Grizzer

Grizzer

Wolves have been part of my life as long as I can remember. As with many children, thanks to the work of the Brothers Grimm and other authors, I first experienced wolves as villains: Snarling, wicked, green-eyed monsters whose greatest delight was dining on unwary children. Wolves haunted my nightmares and lurked in the shadows of my imagination on camping trips and evening walks in the woods. Fortunately, I had wise parents who saw my distress and quickly intervened. Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs were boxed up for good and out came National Wildlife magazine. In those glossy pages, Mom and Dad read to me stories of an animal that mates for life, loves its children, and fears humans far more than we fear its undeserved reputation. I also learned that humans, not wolves, were the murderous, nightmare beings that nearly wiped the species off the map. I wept for the needless loss of life, the brutal destruction of a breathtaking creature. Within a few weeks, I went from frightened child to junior wolf-activist and my dedication to assuring the survival of the wolf has never waned.

In college, I discovered my version of Mecca: The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. It was then that I set my sights on visiting Ely and seeing a landscape where wolves had been allowed to flourish. I knew the experience would be one to remember, but I had no idea what lay in store.

October 2, 2006

This evening we attended a program at the Wolf Center. They feed the wolves once a week, to mimic their natural eating patterns, and to give visitors a chance to see the wolves interact at close range.

Maya

Maya

We arrived early and spent almost half-an-hour alone watching the wolves before the other visitors arrived. I have been around many types of animals in my life, but none humble me like the wolf. In their presence, I am compelled to kneel in reverence and awe. Sitting in the viewing window, Maya, one of the Great Plains Grey Wolves, came up close to see what was going on. Her face was inches from mine and she held my gaze for a long time. My heart was racing, but this time, not from fear. In the quiet of that autumn evening, I found myself in the presence of The Gods; beings far older and wiser in spirit than any human has ever been. I was being weighed and measured by this beautiful creature and I prayed I would not be found wanting.

I felt a catch in my throat as I thought of the litany of sins my species has committed against the wolf and I said a silent confession, reciting a poem written by O. Fred Donaldson:

Grey Wolf,
We are sending you to that Great God.
Tell Him that we who invented forgiveness do not forgive;
That we, who speak of trust cannot trust;
That we, who invoke faith would not believe.

I write as though you could read.
But I know you understand.
When you have left the forests and tundras
and no longer leave your sinewy trails within the snows,
Tell Him that you were made on a different day.

Your howls of bewilderment will echo
with the mountain winds.
And your songs will join those of the whales.
Tell Him for me,
“Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” 

Shadow - Arctic Wolf

Shadow – Arctic Wolf

I do not know what conclusions the wolves came to in our brief encounter. Perhaps I was no more than a shadow on the other side of the glass, a likeness of those who haunt their nightmares and lurk in the shadows of the forest as a spectre of doom. If so, I would not blame them. My only hope lies in knowing their spirit is unfettered by the ego-driven concerns of humanity and perhaps that gives them the wisdom to know not all humans are alike. I hope they can sense the spirit of those, like me, who see them as the miraculous creatures they are, who know that in their company, we stand in the presence of The Gods.

Ely Part II: Holy Ground

If I had a blog, today I would continue my stories about my journey to Ely.

September 30, 2006

Our Breakfast Table

Our Breakfast Table

By all accounts, this should have been a lesser day on our vacation: Rainy, in the 40’s with, a howling north wind, but for us it was perfect. We let our morning start slowly – with coffee and scones, shared beside the fire. Our cabin is paneled with knotty-pine and on a blustery morning like this, it seems to generate its own golden light. As we basked in its glow, Mom, Kindra, and I talked and laughed and reveled in the luxury of free time.

Jim Brandenburg's "Brother Wolf"

Jim Brandenburg’s “Brother Wolf”

Around noon, we braved the gale and made a trip to town for groceries and a little shopping. We’ve been to Ely so many times, visiting the stores that line Sheridan Street is like catching up with old friends. My favorite haunt is the Brandenburg Gallery – the storefront for nature photographer Jim Brandenburg. Jim made his mark on the photography world through his twenty-year tenure with National Geographic, but when he retired, he came home to Ely to indulge his real passion: Photographing the elusive timber wolf. I could spend hours sitting in rapt silence, contemplating the extraordinary work displayed at the Brandenburg Gallery. It is work like Jim’s that inspired me to become a nature photographer and an afternoon in the Gallery refreshes me more than week in the finest spa and I leave with my creative energy renewed.

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

The rain slowed late in the afternoon and we drove north of town on Highway 169, “The Fernberg” as it is called by locals, to reconnect with another old friend: Ojibway Lake. When we first visited Ely, in 1997, we rented a cabin for Christmas and Ojibway Lake was our “jumping off point.” Our host, Steve Lampman, took our gear to the cabin by snowmobile, but we made the 4-mile trek on foot. Dressed in down coats and Steger Mukluks, we walked across the frozen waters of Ojibway and Triangle lakes to Lark Lake, where our cabin was nestled among the balsam and spruce trees. It was a trip to remember and the beginning of our love affair with The North, so it was fitting that we pay homage to the place where all our adventures began.

The Uncommon Common Loon

The Uncommon Common Loon

Ojibway Lake is about twenty miles from Ely and The Fernberg winds along like a chain, connecting the jewels of lakes and forests. As we drove along, we recited the names of lakes and side-roads – a rosary of sorts to honor the places we hold dear: We passed Fall Lake, Otter Road, Tofte and Garden Lake, Black Wolf Road, and, at last, Ojibway. The gravel road to the lake was exactly the same as it was the first time we came; even the two dead birch trees I photographed so long ago still stand like sentinels watching over the lake. We parked the car and walked to the end of the long dock and gazed down the waterway towards Triangle and Lark Lake. The wind still blew a gale and our rain jackets weren’t enough protection from the cold. We had just turned to leave when we heard another sound, a tremolo, high and clear as a bell: The call of a solitary loon. He was here past his time, the others of his kind had already gone south to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter, and his clarion call brought tears to my eyes. It was as if he waited for us, to give us welcome before he too took flight to warmer climes. We thanked our intrepid friend and said good night to Ojibway. Warmth was calling us home too.

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

Sitting on my bed tonight, listening to the rain pattering on the fallen leaves, I wonder if I’ve ever been so much at peace. The cares of the world seem a thousand miles away and I am grateful for the release. I want to hold this feeling in my heart as long as I can and perhaps take it back with me when I return to outer world with its burdens and cares. There is magic at work in these primeval forests, a mythic force that comes from the Earth Herself. This is one of the “Thin Places” where the veil between the mortal and spiritual worlds can be transcended. This is Holy Ground.

 

Coming Home

If I had a blog, today I would tell you about the place my spirit calls home. Today I would write about Ely.

Welcome Home

Welcome Home

Thirty miles south of the Canadian border is the town of Ely, Minnesota. Although I’ve never lived there full-time, I this little burg of 3500 people my home because it is the place my spirit dwells most of the time. Ely is sacred ground.

Chilly autumn days make me long for that wild country because once upon a time, Mom and I visited Ely every fall. We would go in September or October and spend a week in the same rustic cabin on White Iron Lake, shedding our worldly cares as we were filled by the spirit of true wilderness. Obligations here on the farm have kept us from our annual pilgrimage for three years now and when the sun grows mellow and the nights are cold, the need to head North is almost more than I can bear. I know we will take up our journey again when The Greenwood needs us less and in the meantime, I can relive adventures past by returning to the journals I have kept in years gone by.

This morning I was reading about our trip in September 2006. That trip was a return after an absence of almost ten years and it gives me hope that Ely has not seen the last of us yet.

September 28, 2006

The Ely Water Tower

The Ely Water Tower

We made it. We are in Ely! It took two days and 16 hours of driving, but what a small price to pay for a week in the arms of the North Woods. When we saw the Ely water tower rising above the trees, tears came to my eyes. When I die, I will not see the Pearly Gates, but instead it will be this snow-white tower, painted with the sunrise over the trees, that will lead me home.

Coming into town on Sheridan Street, I felt as though I’d never been away. A few stores had changed location since we’d been here last, but other than that, Ely remains the same. In a world that changes by the minute, there is comfort in a place where things remain the same year after year.

Sheridan Street

Sheridan Street

Until I came to Ely, I didn’t know it was possible to be friends with a town, but I am sure Ely brightens just a bit when Mom and I return. To prove my point, just as we passed Basswood Trading Company, a jet-black raven sailed across the street and landed on the roof of the store, looking right at us as he made his loud, croaking call. It was a wonderful welcome home.

Our Sun Porch

Our Sun Porch

Our cabin is located about six miles from town, down Highway 1. We met Liz (the owner of our rental cabin) around noon and spent two hours visiting with her. We’ve known Liz and her husband Steve since we first came to Ely in 1997. They own a number of remote cabins in the area and we always rent from them. Consequently, we’ve become good friends over the years and it is always a pleasure to have our catch-up with Liz when we arrive.

The Path to the Lake

The Path to the Lake

The afternoon was waning by the time we got settled in and we walked down to the dock to greet the lake before evening set in. Birches, maples, alder, balsam, and spruce trees line the path to the lake, interspersed with huge greenstone and granite boulders that were brought here by the last ice age. The maple leaves are stunning this year, bright tongues of flame in the fading light. The slender reeds at the lake’s edge hold bright leaves among them, afloat on water as black as obsidian. Water ousels dart among the reeds and rocks along the shoreline and juncos flit among the trees at the forest-edge. In the distance, we heard the song of a white-throated sparrow rise through the silence and just at dusk, a flock of mallards sailed overhead then landed in one of the coves to settle in for the night.

Roads Go Ever On

Roads Go Ever On

Loathe to give up even a moment of daylight, I took a walk down our road before coming in for dinner. With every step I sank deeper into the flow of The North. I drank in The Great Silence and reveled in the cold, balsam-scented air. This is home. In these forests, I feel as one with the heartbeat of the Earth. I am Earth. Earth is me. Like a child in her mother’s womb, I am cloistered by the trees, the lakes, the sky. I hold out my hand and I touch my own being. In this place there is no distinction between sacred and secular. Here, all things are holy.

As darkness fell, grey, folded clouds settled over us for the night. Winter is just around the corner here. Dreams of snow are close at hand as the land settles in for its long, nine-month rest. All around me is silence. Echoing silence. This is the place I was meant to be.