Watch bears and wolves in Minnesota

Ginormous Ted, possibly the world’s largest black bear, lives at Ely’s
North American Bear Center.

Here’s a little-known fact: Not only can you watch black bears in the wild in Minnesota, but August is the best time to view them. Why? They’re packing on the pounds for the winter, foraging for enough to get them through long hibernation.

The tiny town of Orr, Minnesota, on the cusp of Voyageur National Park vacation territory, is home to the 360-acre Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, a one-of-a-kind wildlife stop. The late Mr. Shute, a former logger, used to shoot scavenging bears before he finally decided to  feed them and became known as “The Bear Man.”

The platform at Vince Shute Sanctuary.

These days, dedicated volunteers bus visitors into the woods each evening, letting them off on a spacious elevated boardwalk where you can watch the bears climb trees, wrestle if they’re feeling playful or eating at logs and other places around a meadow that the sanctuary staff loads up with seeds, fruit and juice.

A hub for hungry black bears
Up to 80 bears come here seasonally, with 15 of them featured on the web site with clues into their character and interesting individual histories. Schwinn, for example, has survived with just three legs and is a favorite for the way he sits Buddha-style in the meadow. Uuno, with his almost-comical woe-is-me look, was tracked covering 232 miles when he was 4 years old.

You can stay all evening to watch the bears and hear about them from volunteers, or keep it a short visit and hop the bus back. We saw a few adult black bears and a cub while we were there one June. Volunteers did a great job keeping younger kids busy with bear-themed coloring pages and naturalist activities. Newer programs include photography workshops, yoga workshops or spending the night and learning how to safely camp in bear territory.

You’ll leave with a whole new appreciation–and affection–for these gentle giants of the woods.

Playing at the North American Bear Center.

See more bears or watch wolves in Ely

It’s about a 45-minute drive to Ely, where the International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center bookend this chic outdoorsy town. It’s an ideal place to learn more about bears and all about wolves.

The Bear Center, which opened in 2007, has displays and videos that demystify bear behavior and seating that faces the backyard where the resident bears hang out and tussle for fun. You can also stand outside on the deck to watch the bears in action.

Talk to staff, and they’ll give you the affectionate low-down on the quirks of Ted, Honey and Lucky’s personalities. Honey can be impatient with the boys and Ted’s usually sweetheart, especially when Lucky wants to play.

While the bears hibernate in the winter, the center remains open. You may be able to watch at least one of the bears in hibernation. Last winter and spring the center’s groundbreaking in-the-den webcam on Lily, as she gave birth to Hope and got the new cub used to the world.

Howl with the wolf pack

Resident wolves at Ely’s International Wolf Center.

Interactions get even more complex at the International Wolf Center with the resident pack’s chain of command and intricate social roles.

And while the bears go into hibernation by late fall, winter is one of the more intriguing times to visit the wolf center. The wolf center has several excellent family learning vacations throughout the year. There’s a Halloween-themed slumber party the weekend before trick-or-treating. Winter events may include dogsledding and listening for howls in the wild. There are even  grandparent-grandchild programs, which is an excellent option for those once-in-a-lifetime vacation memories.

We were lucky enough to visit the International Wolf Center in 2008 when two new pups were being integrated into the pack. The adults were anxious and eager to meet the little ones, and started howling like that come-and-go sound of a tornado siren. It was both chilling and thrilling to hear primal howls up close. It’s an experience that stays with you.