During my recent pilgrimage to the northern part of the state, I had the pleasure of going home to a place I’d never been before.
The North American Bear Center in Ely is a jewel. It combines education, entertainment, and art, and for someone like me, it creates an instant feeling of belonging.
The center has been on my bucket list since it opened in 2007, and I have followed its developments on Facebook, but this was my first opportunity to visit the place.
From the moment I turned off of the highway into the parking lot, I had a strange sensation of coming home.
The images of bears on the wall seemed like old friends.
Inside, the staff and volunteers were welcoming and friendly.
The first woman I encountered gave me an overview of what I could expect to see, and a summary of the day’s events.
From there, I immersed myself in the exhibits.
Some museums can seem sterile and impersonal, but the way information was presented at the bear center seemed more engaging and alive. It was as if the information had been written by real people for other people, rather than by some stiff academic.
It was like hearing a science lesson while on a nature hike or sitting around a campfire, versus listening to a lecture in a stark auditorium.
Many of the displays depicted familiar scenes, such as a black bear investigating a campsite in canoe country.
Others focused on history, and how these remarkable creatures have evolved over the years.
I saw black bears, grizzly bears, polar bears, and more.
I’ve been soaking up all the information I could find about bears, both fact and fiction, since I was old enough to read.
The bear center combines much of that information in one fascinating place.
Perhaps one of the most important things the center does is to provide facts to offset some of the myths and misinformation that have clouded people’s understanding of bears for decades.
I especially enjoyed a display of some of the magazine stories that have appeared over the years that portray bears as bloodthirsty predators that spend most of their time hunting innocent humans.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I had read a number of these stories in the past, and, while they make entertaining reading, they do a disservice to the creatures which they so grossly misrepresent.
They also contribute to people’s unreasonable fear of bears.
The number of people who have been injured or killed by bears is minute in comparison with the numbers that have been killed by many other sources that we scarcely consider.
One of the highlights of visiting the bear center is meeting the facility’s resident ambassador bears.
Ted, 19; Lucky, 9; Holly, 3; and Tasha, a yearling, are tremendously popular with visitors. Watching the bears go about their business in their wooded enclosure will no doubt help change people’s perceptions of these wonderful animals.
Tours are available to give visitors an opportunity to see the bears in their individual enclosures, as well.
Those who are unable to make the trip to Ely can see the bears on the center’s website, www.bear.org. Several live camera views are available.
There is much more to see at the bear center than bears, however.
There are numerous photographs of bears and other animals, as well as wilderness scenes. Most are available for purchase.
There is a new room devoted to other Minnesota creatures. It is home to frogs, toads, snakes, turtles, and fish.
Displays feature a variety of subjects from butterflies to bobcats.
The center also has a gift shop at which visitors can find items to help them remember their visit, while supporting the work of the center.
It would be nearly impossible for a visitor of any age to spend time at the bear center without gaining a better understanding of bears, the environment, and Minnesota.
I felt very much at home during my visit to the North American Bear Center, and my first visit to the facility will definitely not be my last.
It takes a special kind of place to make such an immediate impact on those who visit it, and the North American Bear Center is one such place.
The bear center is in the midst of a significant renovation project, and no doubt it will be bigger and even better in the future.
Anyone who has an interest in bears or Minnesota will find much to see and learn at the North American Bear Center, and will walk away from the experience richer than when he arrived.
I found myself smiling for the rest of the day, which is a rare experience for a curmudgeon.