“A generous sugaring of snowflakes blankets the forest. The deep green pines, with their outstretched boughs, herald the season in their silent way, the wind merely a baby’s breath. Slabs of iron rich basalt form harsh edges next to the snow lace that’s sifted into the cracks. I stare at the northern sky; its light is the palest ghost of blue, crystalline and transcendent, hypnotizing my spirit. The light fills me with longing and calm acknowledgement the northern wood is both a sublime and wild place.”  –J. Wilder

Ely Folk School signage on top of Sheridan St., Ely, Minnesota.

Dear Friends,

Never having been to Ely before a month ago, the town didn’t seem to have a pretense to match its lore as outfitter and base camp to over a million square acres of primitive forests, glacial lakes and streams in the adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  Winter in Ely is when the town shows its grit, after all, the place is home to two of the most well-known Arctic explorers on the planet in Will Steger and Paul Schurke. They made their sleds for their epic 1986 55-day dogsled adventure in the Ely Memorial High School industrial arts shop. In March, 2016, they marked the 30th Anniversary of their famous expedition to the North Pole. People embrace winter around here. Besides, anyone can spend a summer at the lake, but can you shrug off 30 below?

People asked us, “Do you live here?”  I was flattered as I’ll freely admit that I cannot make any claim to outdoor adventures. Plus I was swearing a long charcoal grey ‘city’ looking coat so I chalked it up to a Minnesota-nice opening line. After establishing home locale parameters, we swapped reasons for being there. With few exceptions, the adults I spoke to came to Ely a while back or a long while back (the old-timers) and stayed. Down to earth and going about their business, the people we met are ‘just folks’. Ely is not a town of transients; it’s a place people find, take a look around and settle in.

The Ruff Class

As the guy dashed out the front door and dove into the snow-covered Subaru, I noticed he was wearing flip-flops. Bearded, shoulder-length straight hair, he pivoted and with two long strides was back in the building. My thought was, “he’s the teacher.” Paige May didn’t elaborate on why he came to Ely from Nebraska eight years ago, but I think the storyline goes something like “How to Fully Embrace Outdoor Living”. The fact that he runs sled dog tours and expeditions in all depths of thermometer readings is a clue to the necessity of wearing acclimatizing footwear around town; not to mention the “Inuit Sunburst Ruff” class he taught at Ely Folk School this last weekend. So, you want to make an authentic, hand stitched, fur-trimmed ruff that will block wind, snow and look super cool? Paige is your guy.

The class supply list ran along the same lines as a quilt retreat–sewing machine, needle and thread, scissors, measuring tape, thimble(s), pins, clips and of course, the parka—well maybe not the parka. Rob, my husband, loves winter and all aspects of manipulating his environment to enjoy the frigid temps, crunchy snow and outdoor activities. His own winter camping forays in the Porcupine Mountains have earned him gravitas within the winter outdoor crowd. So here we are—me along for the ride and Rob to learn how to construct a wolf ruff in the Inuit way. Thanks to Ely Folk School for running the class as only two students registered. We’d like to think we convinced Paige and Jamie at the Folk School by our persuasive (begging) phone call just before Thanksgiving.

Setting up in the school’s back room, students and teacher each had a table that accommodated both sewing and cutting. I would like readers to note Rob’s gold and cream vintage Sears sewing machine. Not really inherited, more sort of picked up among the dendrites of closing down his parent’s household, he uses the sewing machine for his big projects that include parka ruffs, winter camping tents and sails. The little machine has a strong heartbeat.

Rosemary Wilder’s vintage sewing machine.

The first part of Saturday was spent discussing the pros and cons of different animal pelts. This class used wolf with beaver trim. (I have it on authority from Ely Folk School that the animal pelts were acquired within the requirements of all governing bodies.) Across the back of the pelt, the fur is long (about four to five inches) with characteristic coloration of cream undergrowth, brown and gold outer fur with black tips. It’s thick, has a lot of drape and very soft. It will do an amazing job of cutting the wind and creating a warm air pocket around the wearer’s face.

While I’m not going to parse out the details of the Inuit Sunburst Ruff class curriculum, the following images will give you an idea of the process. (You’ll just have to go to Ely Folk School and take the class!) Previously, Rob made a ruff using coyote fur so this was not uncharted territory but he said the details learned in the class made all the difference. As you can see, the ruff is not one big, long piece but made up of smaller, geometrically appropriate pieces. This process gives the finished piece height and makes the fur stand up in a sunburst!

Before the ruff gets stitched to the jacket hood, it needs a backing. All the pieced edges need to be tucked in and covered up for wear and comfort. While the seams are ¼ “ or less, it’s still animal hide so they’re  a bit bulky. The students were given choices of several soft, pliant hides to use as a backing. Rob chose deer. This is the first hand stitched part of the process. Visualize moccasin stitching rather than embroidery. Rob used a heavy poly thread that he’s used in sail and tent making. We had a bit of discussion about hand stitching needles. Going through two hides on each stitch is finger numbing. Paige swears by the ‘glovers’ needle. They are specially made with sharp, triangular points that are very effective at piercing leather.

Two fur pieces are attached to the parka using a hand basting stitch. They’re sort of like an inner lining and an outer lining. The inner lining is made of a strip of beaver fur. It’s sewn on the hood to close any gaps around the face. Then the ruff is sewn to the beaver and together they make up the Inuit outdoor weather protection system known as R U F F (RingUrFacewithFur). (I made that part up.)

I have to tell you about the food and patrons of Britton’s Café on Chapman Street. Chapman Street is one street off Sheridan St (the main drag that runs through town). We heard it’s a good place to scarf a hot breakfast. Did they say huge, hot breakfast? We’re both breakfast eaters from way back, but even we were hashbrowned into submission. You’re looking at veggie stuffed hashbrowns, scrambled eggs and d.i.v.i.n.e. homemade wheat toast. This was on my plate—Rob had his own breakfast bonanza of Eggs Benedict. We did our best to ride the fine line of consumption versus coma. On Sunday, we split an order. Both days, the Cabinet convened at the counter. I imagine the fire department, city council, chamber and a couple of business owners talking about the way it is. We’d highly recommend Britton’s and Sammy, the waitress who handled the entire room with grace at breakfast serving speed.

Ely Folk School

So, how did we hear about Ely Folk School? Partly, my visit to the area in early November put me on the street in front of their door and having taken classes at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, this type of learning centered activity is on my radar. Located on the top of the hill on Sheridan St., Ely Folk School opened for business in June, 2015. Here’s some info, but please click through to their website for more info, classes, etc.

Our mission is to build community by providing learning experiences that celebrate the wilderness heritage, art, history, culture, and craft of the people of northern Minnesota.

The Ely Folk School – a DIY Antidote to the Digital World
EFS is a do-it-yourself place for learning traditional crafts; skills associated with Ely’s cultural heritage; wilderness legacy. Our school is on the vanguard of a growing movement that launched in Scandinavia over a century back. The movement continues today with over 200 folk schools in Scandinavia and Europe, though the thrust is now low-tech, high-touch learning rather than educational reform. Nearly 50 folk schools exist in the United States and Europe and the numbers are growing, each has an identity linked to its geography.

Work with Your Hands – Learn from Your Peers – Create Something Lasting
The Ely Folk School offers classes, workshops & events for folks of all ages involving hands-on, cooperative learning. People are geared to create. Our ancestors survived by procuring or crafting all of life’s essentials. That hard- wired propensity for creation may no longer be critical for our survival, but it enhances our well-being. The contemplative nature of handwork skills still provides an enormous sense of satisfaction that allows people to lose themselves in time – an increasingly rare experience in today’s fast-paced lives.

Interactive Learning Experiences Serve to Build Community
Tilling the soil to grow your own food, carving a paddle to propel your own canoe, notching the logs to craft your own home — these activities connect hand to heart. And by learning these skills from one’s peers they connect people to the cultural context of their communities. In fact, a key & cherished component of folk schools is nurturing community. When you partake in a folk school class or event, you join other curious individuals to share interests & ideas. In our modern digitized culture where direct human contact is diminished, folk schools offer interaction, dialogue & shared experience. Coming together through learning and conversation enhances our individuality, dispels isolation and reinforces connection to community.


Range Fiber Arts Guild

My early November talk at the Range Fiber Arts Guild in Virginia, Minnesota spawned our adventures in Ely. Many thanks–I enjoyed meeting all of you very much! When I asked about local fiber artists who might be interested in doing an interview. Barb Leuelling, a weaver in the Guild, told me about Old School Lives in Cotton, Minnesota. It’s a re-purposed school building that’s become a community center hub, retreat center, arts space complete with a textile studio with six floors looms, some of which came from the now defunct University of Minnesota–Duluth Fiber Arts program. A pottery studio with two kilns now occupies the old Industrial Arts space. The non-profit converted several third floor classrooms to ‘loft’ style apartments complete with bathrooms which are available for a nominal monthly rent.

Community members come there for meals; families in transition come for needed rest. There are second-hand shops that generate income and the kitchen feeds community members and holds cooking classes alike. The Executive Director, Ginger Kinsley, is a local activist who knows how to work the room. She gave me an hour or more of her precious time and we toured the sprawling facility. It is truly answering the call of community relationship. Of course, I focused on the textile studio. A number of the looms need warping or re-warping as they’ve been idle for many years. The new program includes weaving classes and is ready to sync up with the strong northern Minnesota weaving community. Barb Leuelling told me about Minnesota Discovery Center’s online weaving exhibit. The online exhibit offers viewers a glimpse into the deep tradition of weaving on the Iron Range. Here’s a bit about the exhibit itself.

In 2012 the exhibit Standing on Tradition, Rag Rug Techniques was created in partnership with the Minnesota Discovery Center and the Range Fiberart Guild, through funding in part from the Minnesota State Arts Board through an appropriation by the MN State Legislature, (Legacy Fund of MN). When Carol Sperling of the Range Fiberart Guild first had the idea of a rag rug exhibit she envisioned a display of all techniques for making rugs with rags or cloth. Mai Vang, Discovery Center Curator, along with Sperling, Barb Leuelling Mary Erickson, Alana Maijala and members of the Range Fiberart Guild worked to bring together elements of rag rug making on the Iron Range and Minnesota.

This special supplemental online exhibit features videos capturing an oral history of the rag rug tradition in the Iron Range Region of northern Minnesota.  It honors the artists and the rugs, as well as the looms they were woven on. On display are many examples of several techniques used to make rag rugs such as weaving, looping, hooking, sewing and more.

The Range has a special place in the heart of Minnesota history and Minnesota northern lore. Both geographically and culturally distinct, the huge iron reservoir buried in the Mesabi Range fueled our economy for over a century by providing the raw material that built our nation. Today, the open-pit mines cast rectilinear shadows on the horizon. From above they look like highly terraced canyons. Farther north in the forested, rocky hills between Soudan and Ely, workers mined iron ore from underground. Today, visitors can go underground in the Soudan Mine State Park. It’s been a state park since the mid-1960s. I’ve read that when iron mining was in its heyday; the area was as ethnically diverse as New York City. Even though the Iron Range is 80 miles from Duluth, it’s considered a part of the Duluth metropolitan statistical area.

In addition to rich mineral deposits, the geography of Minnesota includes three continental divides. There’s a spiritual Ojibwe place called The Hill of Three Waters in Hibbing, Minnesota, which is a Range City located south and west of Virigina. It’s one of five triple divides in North America. The waters flow north to Hudson Bay, east to the St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes and south to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not accessible to the trail climbing public because of its spiritual connection to the Ojibwe and its location in the middle of the Hibbing Taconite mining area.  Aaron J. Brown wrote an account of his visit.

On both my visits, first in November and this past weekend; crossing the Laurentian Divide spurred reflection in me. I swear the air is different on the north side of that line. Having said that, the BWCAW, camping, canoeing and communing with the wilderness is only part of the picture. Economics play a big role and the people who live in the area hold different views on what’s best for their own towns and livelihoods. Here’s an article from the Star Tribune written by a local man. It’s written to all of us who don’t live in Northern Minnesota.   http://www.startribune.com/mining-opponents-you-think-you-know-ely-s-needs/221866181/

“A generous sugaring of snowflakes blankets the forest. The deep green pines, with their outstretched boughs, herald the season in their silent way, the wind merely a baby’s breath. Slabs of iron rich basalt form harsh edges next to the snow lace that’s sifted into the cracks. I stare at the northern sky; its light is the palest ghost of blue, crystalline and transcendent, hypnotizing my spirit. The light fills me with longing and calm acknowledgement the northern wood is both a sublime and wild place.” —Jennifer Wilder