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Dylan and Wolves and Bears, Oh, My: Northern Minnesota

Bob Dylan’s Home Town

Bob Dylan left his childhood town of Hibbing, Minnesota more than 50 years ago. But this remote mining town of 16,287 remembers its most famous son. 7th Avenue East, where he grew up at #2425, is also known as Bob Dylan Drive. And the Hibbing Public Library, 2020 5th Ave E, has put together a small but fascinating permanent exhibit in the basement, featuring photos of the very young Dylan, his friends, his earliest musical collaborators, and the places he hung out—some of them on a beautiful quilt…posters of Dylan album covers, both famous and obscure…a small shelf with a copy of every Dylan book they’ve tracked down…memorabilia such as concert posters and a list of the acts performing at the 1957 school talent show where young Robert Zimmerman (as he was then known) gave his first performance, as part of a trio doing Little Richard covers! There’s also a binder with a Dylan timeline and a key to all the photos, most of which are otherwise uncaptioned—which means if you go with a group of friends, you’ll all have to take turns reading the binder in order to make sense of the pictures, but you’ll also get to enjoy the timeline that accompanies them.

The collection has a back room with an extended archive of Dylan documents, and during our visit a researcher was poring over boxes of letters for a book he was writing on Dylan’s religion and politics.

The library also put together a walking tour of Dylan haunts (search the brochure rack near the front desk for the brochure or get the map online to get information on his family owned, the schools and synagogue he attended, his first performance venues, his house, even the bowling alley where his team of six won a championship in 1956.

Soudan Mine

About an hour farther north, near the town of Tower, you can tour a former iron mine—not just any old mine but the “Cadillac of mines,” with both higher quality ore and a far more pleasant working environment than many of its smaller competitors. The first iron ore mine in the state, it opened in 1882 and operated until 1962, when pressure from the cheaper taconite mining industry nearby had made it too uneconomical to use the blast-and-drill methods at Soudan. Since US Steel still had to pay taxes on the considerable amount of ore that hadn’t been extracted, the company gave the mine to the state, which now operates it as part of a park.

Following a ride in the shaft elevator that felt like a subway going 40 miles per hour or more (it was actually only about 12), we emerged at the 27th (and final) level, 2341 feet below the ground. Our very knowledgeable guide, Charlie, walked us through the various processes involved in blasting, drilling, removing the ore, and getting it to the rail cars—and a bit about what the (mostly immigrant) workers’ lives were like in the early days, grouped in threes of different languages to discourage unionization, working in the pitch-black cavern by the light of a single candle, rolling the heavy ore slightly downhill to the huge holes where they crashed down toward the railcars, building up the floor so the ceiling stayed within reach.

Outside, we visited the massive engine house and some of the other outbuildings and hiked a beautiful trail that starts near the original open-pit surface mine (which is slowly reverting to a lovely canyon) and then heads a magical, lichen-covered forest walk that reminded me of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

There’s actually a second, less expensive, tour at the bottom of the shaft, of a high-energy physics lab that’s currently running both a project on nutrinos flung from Chicago underneath Wisconsin to here, and another on dark mater. Unfortunately, I was outvoted by all three travel companions and didn’t get to see it.

$12 for adults, $7 for children. More information: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/soudan_underground_mine/index.html

Tour reservations: https://reservations1.usedirect.com/MinnesotaWebHome/Activities/ProgramsAndTours.aspx

Ely: Bears, Wolves, and More

Choose your reason to visit Ely (pronounced “eel-ee” with the accent on the first syllable), a hopping little town of 3471 residents:

  • Outfitters and launching pad for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Minnesota, US) and Quetico Provincial Park (Ontario, Canada)

  • Major research and interpretive centers for bear and wolf studies (http://www.bear.org and http://www.wolf.org, respectively)

  • Cute little downtown with fun shops and galleries, and lots of signage telling what many buildings used to be in decades past

  • The Dorothy Molter Museum, honoring one of America’s premier birdwatchers, who also made root beer

  • Museums of Ojibwe (indigenous), Finnish, and white settler culture

  • Hiking, fishing, golfing, boating, etc.

Our reason was the bear and wolf centers, and we’d hoped to do both. But our early hike gave us a later start than we’d hoped, and we had to choose between them for our single afternoon in Ely. Since two of us had already been to a wolf interpretive center, we’d miss the last “meet the wolves” session, and the bear center stayed open later, we chose the North American Bear Center. The International Wolf Center will have to wait for another time.

This was a wise choice. Numerous illustrated informational signboards and more than 60 short videos provide windows into bear lifestyles (many of them posted on the center’s website). A one-hour film follows the main bear researcher, biologist Dr. Lynn Rogers, as he monitors radio-collared wild bears through loving, fighting, hunting, being hunted, and more. He’s been observing bears for 41 years as of the movie’s production, and the bears are not only so comfortable that they ignore him, but they don’t seem to be bothered at all that he’s accompanied by a film crew.

And since we didn’t make it to the wolf center, I was glad to see a beautifully shot video of wolves and bears competing for carrion.

We learned a lot. Bears are among the most misunderstood of all animals, and much of the exhibit was debunking common myths.

On diet: It turns out that bears prefer nuts and berries, will only eat meat or fish if there’s nothing they like better, and don’t actually like honey very much. They do eat animal protein, most of it insect-derived, and what they actually eat when they get into a beehive is more likely to be the larvae, pupae, and eggs.

On relationships with humans: Bears are shy, will let themselves be chased away by dogs and cats, and brown bears at least will almost never attack a human even if they have cause. Feeding them doesn’t seem to encourage dependency or bad behavior.

Even better, we got to spend half an hour watching three bears that can’t be released into the wild, up close and personal.

Our base was the charming Northern Comfort B&B, a historic farmhouse in tiny Embarrass. Kathy and Pam, the friendly proprietors, maintain an immaculate antique-filled 5-room hostelry, with a full (yummy) breakfast, sauna and game room privileges, and a wealth of knowledge about the area.

Have a bit more time? Add a few days to  explore the North Shore of Lake Superior, easily accessible from Hibbing or Ely.

Shel Horowitz, editor of Global Travel Review, is working on ways business can solve problems of hunger and poverty, war and violence, and catastrophic climate change: http://business-for-a-better-world.com.


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