The North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota is an ursine Eden, two and a half acres full of everything that black bears like. They’ve trees to climb, clover to loll on, and a pond to go sploosh in. There are bunchberries, chokecherries, and hazelnuts, and plenty more exotic snacks doled out by the caretakers. There are even other bears. To see the bear getting along exactly how it would most like to, you couldn’t visit any place better.
The Bear Center is home to four black bears. Ted is the most senior, and perhaps the most vocal — he regularly climbs the tree by the observation deck to treat guests to his inimitable, warbling gruntulations. Holly, who survived separation from her mother and a nasty singeing following a forest fire in Arkansas, apparently seems to most enjoy Lucky. Lucky (whose name is a touch ironic given the operation he underwent that prevents him from enjoying Holly’s company in its fullest) is the Bear Center’s resident comedian. He especially likes picking up a heavy branch and flinging it around over his head like he’s spinning a pizza dough. Finally there is Tasha, the youngest of the lot, a spunky little rescue from Kentucky who in only three years has overcome her initial wariness of her companions to make good friends with them.
Bear antics are spectacular. Watching a 400 pound creature launch itself up a tree to perch on a branch, its legs dangling on either side like the weights of a cuckoo clock, never gets old. They are affable with one another, but crabby when it occurs to them to be so, so they often wrestle, swat at, and get mouthy with each other. A bear in search of fun may launch itself kiester over teakettle down the embankment, or take a flyer into the pond. Even while in repose its pose is amusing, like a Steinbeckian manchild slumped over on his haunches after a long day of bucking hay bales.
To better emulate the bears’ natural environment, the caretakers continually enrich the enclosure with foods that are hard to get at. Long PVC pipes are filled with red grapes, hollows in trees become troves of romaine, and boxes riddled with holes hide peanut butter that the bears must snake out with their supple tongues. This lets the bears do what they most enjoy, which is finding treats and eating prodigiously.
While the nearby International Wolf Center can stay open year round, the nature of the bear warrants the Bear Center’s shutdown during the winter. Guests would not find very much interesting about the snow covered dugouts in which the bears hibernate anyway. Once in a while one will emerge to sniffle around, eat some snow, and piddle, but that’s too infrequent an occurrence to stay open for.
The Bear Center’s mission is to dispel misconceptions about black bears by presenting the facts about the playful guys. Visitors will learn they’re a far cry from the brutish, campsite marauding, pic-a-nic basket purloining ruffians that popular culture has made them out to be. A wild black bear is far more afraid of you than you are of it. (An attitude not to be confused with the grizzly bear’s, which is absolutely unafraid of you and will treat you like a festive piñata if it feels like it.)
Inside the Bear Center features several exhibits including mounted representations of the Ursidae family, the Cub Room where kids can better delve into the world of black bears, and the Northwoods Ecology Hall with a 660 gallon aquarium, terrariums housing local cold-blooded things, and other taxidermied northwoods creatures. It’s a marvelous museum in its own right, and the perfect educational denouement after having witnessed Ted, Holly, Lucky, and Tasha act as ambassadors to their whimsical species.
If you’re heading up toward the Boundary Waters this summer, stop a spell at the North American Bear Center to say hi to the big boys and girls. You can visit bear.org to learn more about what’s there.
By David Scheller