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A shocking sight over Birch Lake

We were quietly eating dinner by propane gas lamp when I glanced up at the large picture window across from the table. I was dumbfounded by what I saw. A huge orange circle was emerging from behind the black pointed treetops. My first thought was UFO. It took me several seconds to realize that I was actually looking at the full moon. The brilliant disc shuffled and reshuffled itself into dozens of orange slices in the water below. Our house boat rocked lazily against the shore as Cristina and I turned toward each other with identical looks of moronic glee.

Full moon rising over Birch Lake near Ely, Minnesota

Full moon rising over Birch Lake near Ely, Minnesota

We quickly washed the dishes and climbed into the cozy capsule of a bed. The strange orange glow spread through the tiny window in the center of the side wall. Wriggling my toes excitedly, I shifted downward to align my head with the view. I felt Cristina snuggle up behind me and peer over my shoulder. The only sound was the tiny humming chorus of voracious mosquitoes testing the window screen. We watched the rising moon in awe, hopeful. Suddenly we heard it: that lonely, mournful cry of the loon. We had officially arrived in the north woods.

A Common Loon bobs on the surface of Birch Lake near Ely, Minnesota

A Common Loon bobs on the surface of Birch Lake near Ely, Minnesota

How did we end up in Ely, Minnesota?

When Cristina was a teenager growing up in Barcelona, Spain, she sent off by mail to become a member of a new organization across the ocean in a tiny town called Ely, Minnesota. The organization’s goal was to educate people about a creature that prowled its local woods: Cristina’s favorite animal, the wolf.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I was accompanying Cristina to this same mythical town with the sole purpose of visiting that very organization: The International Wolf Center. Our American Safari lead us from North Carolina to Manitoba, so Ely wasn’t too far out of the way. We contacted Ely Tourism to find lodging in the area and learned (thanks to a tip from Jessie of Wandering Educators) that we could stay on a houseboat in the nearby town of Babbitt. This prospect was even more exciting to us than visiting the center itself, as we would be able to tie up at night on the shores of Birch Lake surrounded by wild state forest in the center of gray wolf habitat. We had the chance of actually hearing a howl or catching an image of one on our camera trap.

Luna, one of the ambassador wolves at the International Wolf Center

Luna, one of the ambassador wolves at the International Wolf Center

Staying on a house boat

When we arrived at Timber Bay Lodge and Houseboats we received instructions to head down to the dock. After a quick briefing we stepped onto our new 38-foot floating home. I admit I was a quite nervous as I revved up the engine and threw it into reverse. I just knew I was going to smash it into a rock right in front of the friendly dock attendant. But all went smoothly and after an hour of cruising the lake, we chose a remote spot near North Bay to tie up to shore. We spotted bald eagles flying over head, while delicately painted loons bobbed on the surface.

Lounging on the roof deck of our houseboat next to a remote campsite

Lounging on the roof deck of our houseboat next to a remote campsite

We lounged on the top deck and breathed in the intoxicating air. It felt as if we had the whole lake to ourselves but we soon realized we were far from alone as a thousand tiny winged vampires arrived to sip our blood. We made our way indoors, prepared our supper and that’s when the astonishing July moon caught us off guard.

I awoke the next morning to the gentle lapping of waves. In my pajamas I walked the plank to shore and unstrapped our Bushnell NatureView trail camera that I had fastened to a nearby tree. Imagining a large wolf staring into the lens, I crawled back into bed and woke Cristina so we could scroll through the photos together. There was nothing but pictures of us wandering the shoreline, so it seemed our only chance of spotting a wolf that day was to head up to the International Wolf Center. We motored back to the dock and drove the fifteen miles up to the hallowed halls of the institution that hosts the world’s most eminent wolf biologist David Mech. We did indeed watch wolves that day and learned a lot from the impressive exhibits, yet we found ourselves anxious to return to the peaceful lake and our houseboat. So after a quick visit to the Front Porch Coffee Shop in Ely, we¬† hurried back to Timber Bay Lodge.

Staying on houseboat on Birch Lake near Babbitt, Minnesota while the loons call in the night. (Timber Bay Lodge & Houseboats)

Staying on houseboat on Birch Lake near Babbitt, Minnesota while the loons call in the night. (Timber Bay Lodge & Houseboats)

The Details

Would I stay on a houseboat again? In a heartbeat. It was without a doubt one of our favorite lodging experiences ever. Though the boat we stayed on seemed a bit outdated, the bed was very comfortable, the kitchen extremely functional, the water in the shower was nice and hot, and everything worked as it should. The map of the lake was clearly marked with dozens of beautiful campsites, and even a novice like myself felt comfortable behind the wheel almost instantly. A supply boat will even come out twice a week to fill you up with gas, bait, ice or whatever you might need. Kayaks and canoes are available to rent and you can bring them out with you on the lake. My only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer. (And I wouldn’t have minded some hot weather so I could try out the cool slide attached to the back.)

If you’re heading to Ely for an outdoor adventure or looking for lodging near the International Wolf Center, we highly recommend you try out Timber Bay Lodge and Houseboats. For rates and more information visit the Timber Bay Lodge website.

Disclaimer: Free accommodation was provided in exchange for this article but the opinions expressed herein are all our own. We loved this place.

Follow our 3-month American Safari! 14th of July til 16th of October ’13