We Faced Down a Wolf and Got the Shaft

Thursday, August 30, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Highways and Byways, Day 16:  Grand Marais, MN to Mountain Iron, MN

When we were planning this trip and decided to make our way to northern Minnesota to visit Isle Royale (and seek cooler weather), we researched other places to visit nearby.  After hearing so often over the years that the coldest temperature in the nation was at International Falls, MN, that town definitely made our agenda.  We also came across Soudan, MN, where you could tour an underground mine.  Sounded interesting, so we put it on our list, too.

Leaving Grand Marais this morning, we fueled up and headed south on MN-61.  Near Little Marais, we turned west onto MN-1 toward Mountain Iron (pop. 2,869), a town where we had reserved a hotel room to serve as our base for exploring the area for a couple of days.  Driving through this area, we were reminded why Minnesota is known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes."  There really are lakes everywhere in this part of the state. 

Between the towns of Isabella and Ely, we came upon a spot where part of MN-1 was being resurfaced.  While we waited for the pilot car (which turned out to be a road grader) to lead us through a controlled access section of the detour, we chatted with Erin, a student at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.  She was finishing up the final day of her summer job working for her stepdad's company as a traffic controller.  For the fifteen minutes or so we waited, we chatted with Erin about the interesting contrast in our lives.  We amazed each other with stories about weather in our respective areas.  She was agog when we told her of a city-wide shut down in Atlanta with cars abandoned along the highway after "only" four inches of snow.  She in turn shocked us with her nonchalance over -20° temperatures ("-10°is nothing!" she assured us).  We thoroughly enjoy these chance encounters that give us the chance to learn more about the way our fellow Americans live.  Yes, we're all very much alike, but we certainly experience a wide variety of circumstances that we come to identify as "normal."

On the way to Mountain Iron, we stopped at the town of Ely (pop. 3,460), and were we glad we did!   In looking at information about Soudan last night, I came across a reference to the International Wolf Center in Ely.  It was right on our route.  I had heard of this center at the last school where I worked before retirement.  The school's mascot was the wolf, and our student council participated in an adopt-a-wolf program with the center.  It certainly never occurred to me at the time that I might visit the place, nor did I think of it when we began making Minnesota plans.


The center's mission is teaching about wolves, their relationship to wildlands and the human role in their future.  We found the $7.50 senior admission very reasonable and eagerly paid our way to learn more about wolves.  As it turned out, we could not have arrived at a better time.  Not only was a "Pups 101" presentation about to begin in ten minutes, there was also a rare wolf stimulation event scheduled during the educational activity.  

Liza teaches about the center's wolf pup program.
The classroom where the educational program was scheduled was lined with large windows that afforded a view into the observation area where the center's exhibit wolf pack resides.  Due to the unusual heat in recent weeks, the center's staff has been concerned that the wolves have not been active enough.  To promote activity, a couple of staff members took a bucket of minnows into the wolf area and poured the minnows into a pond to encourage the wolves to go into the water after the fish.

Denali thinks about fishing
As soon as the staff members entered their area, the four wolves who reside in the 1.25-acre enclosure came out of their den to see what was happening.   Fortunately, Liza, our wise presenter, completely understood that visitors come to the center for the opportunity to see the wolves, so she invited people to go to the windows to watch and take photos as she spoke. 

Aidan and Boltz
As we learned in the presentation, orphaned pups are brought to the center at a very young age (5 to 6 weeks) so that they can be acclimated to human contact and merged successfully into the center's existing pack.  Staff members continue to conduct ongoing research on the animals and promote the survival of wolves in their traditional range as well as the co-existence between humans and wolves.  When we left wondering why wolves have such a lousy reputation (yet another Disney-propagated misconception), we had to believe the center is on the right track.  

Aglow from our "encounter" with the wolves, we drove another 20 miles southwest to Soudan Underground Mine State Park, about halfway to Mountain Iron.  Minnesota's first venture into iron mining, the Soudan mine opened in 1882 and closed in 1962 when advancing technology made its continued operation too costly.

Soudan Underground Mine State Park
After paying our $12 admission for the tour, we donned our hard hats and were given a tiny taste of life as a mine worker (without the backbreaking labor).  First, all the visitors on our tour were jammed like sardines into a cramped, dark elevator car that plunged us into blackness and down a half mile into the earth.  

Our chariot awaits
When we exited the elevator cage, we boarded an open-car train that transported us three-fourths of a mile west to the last area where mining was conducted at Soudan.  Our guide, a geologist, was very animated, even keeping the few young children on the tour engaged.  Vignettes of miners at work in the semi-darkness and sound effects of drills further added to the experience.

Deep underground
We were relieved to learn that the earth in this particular mine is extremely stable, so there has never been any concern about cave-ins.  The guide demonstrated how early miners worked by candlelight, using sound to identify the most productive veins of iron.  Both he and other workers at the park brought a personal interest and enthusiasm to their jobs, as many had family ties to people who had worked in the mines. 

Once you blocked out the idea that you were a half mile below ground and 3/4 of a mile from the shaft you came down in, the 1.5-hour tour went by pretty quickly and gave us a much better understanding of what life is like for underground miners.  With a year-round temperature of 50°, the mine even afforded a respite from the continuing heat of the day.

It was a great day.  We faced down any fears of "big, bad wolves" and closed-in spaces and found two awesome reasons to visit northern Minnesota— Ely's International Wolf Center and Soudan Underground State Park.  Check them out for yourself.  See the Wolf Cam here or take a virtual tour of the mine here.

More Photos from Today
One of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes
Scan the QR code as you drive by?
Boltz, the youngest male of the exhibit pack
Boltz watches raindrops fall
Denali, one of the older males
Soudan's Crusher House
Soudan Mine
Shaft for the elevator cage
Amtrak, it ain't, but it sure beats walking that 3/4 mile.
Our enthusiastic guide