Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Thursday, August 19, 2010

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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Family travel on a budget? Try a camping workshop

Nine-Mile Lake in Superior National Forest.
If families are looking for the best vacation deal around, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, teaming up with REI, has been offering I Can Camp! workshops around the state this summer. The new program teaches families everything they need to know for only $55--that's with equipment provided. It's one of the best investments you can make in affordable vacations. Even better: you're teaching kids an appreciation for the outdoors and letting all of you unplug from the daily hubbub.

If teens aren't sold on the idea, remind them camping may be their best bet for frugal vacations during cash-strapped post-grad years. They can acquire cheap camping supplies at garage sales, Goodwill or invest in a few good pieces. There's even a new tent you literally throw into the air and watch it pop up and assemble itself. Seriously. We saw a demo at a neighbor's house last night. As someone who's tried to pitch a tent in the dark (not by choice), I can vouch that this is an amazing leap forward. Kudos to the creator.

Learn camping basics
The guidance of a camping expert can do wonders. Knowing the proper way to put a tarp under the tent, for example, can make all the difference in staying dry if it rains. And learning how to make a good fire will prevent frustration, conserve firewood and speed up campfire dinners and treats.

There are four I Can Camp! workshops left on Aug. 19 and 20.  Keep the DNR site handy next spring if those dates don't work out.

Picking a state park
My recommendation among remaining workshops: Flandrau State Park in New Ulm. The man-made, sand-bottomed pool is marvelous. Plus you have vintage WPA buildings at the park and charming New Ulm nearby. You can't ask for a better place than this German community to pick up tasty sausages to grill and locally brewed beer or root beer. Lake Carlos near Alexandria is another solid choice for campsites near its nice clear lake and sandy beach.
Flandrau State Park's man-made
beach the day before it opened.

Glendalough State Park sits in Minnesota's glacial lakes area near Fergus Falls. Wild turkeys and deer are easy to spot in this uncrowded park. Lake Maria State Park is the closest to the Twin Cities, but is more rustic.

More camping resources
If you're looking for more tips on beginning camping, check out a feature I wrote for  Suite 101 about learning to camp and participating in the annual National Wildlife Federation's Great American Backyard Campout.

Glendalough State Park
Also head to the library or bookstore for nature guides and Lynn Brunelle’s Camp Out! book (Workman Publishing, 2007). It's our favorite resource with a little of everything: advice on setting up camp, tying knots, telling ghost stories, playing night games, star gazing and creative cooking. It even has a guide for animal tracks and figuring out who pooped on the trail.   

Cooking on a Stick by Linda White (Gibbs Smith, 2000) is more narrowly focused but fun for its kid-focused campfire recipe. Snail on a stick anyone? (It's bread--don't panic.)

For more family fun, read on to other features, including free Jelly Belly tours in Wisconsin or Devil's Lake State Park and train rides near Wisconsin Dells.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Garlic ice cream, mustard custard or an organic creamery?

You'll be amazed at the number of garlic varieties.
Celebrate all things garlicky and good at Garlic Festival
When it comes to bizarre food festivals, the Midwest is catching up to California. You no longer have to go to Gilroy's famous Garlic Festival to taste garlic ice cream. You can do it right in Minnesota's Hutchinson at the 5th Annual Garlic Festival Saturday, Aug. 14.  I dare you.

I can't say I liked the tiny bits of garlic in my ice cream last year, but the taste was pretty good. I can check it off my life list and say I tried something new.

It looks deceptively innocent.
The best part of this festival is realizing there is a huge world of garlic out there, and these mammoth, homegrown, delicious bulbs are nothing like the garlic you'll get in the grocery store. Armenian garlic's big bulbs turn to savory, mellow, tender chunks you can spread beautifully when roasted. Music, another variety, also has a delicious aroma and a little more kick, as does German red.

Garlic Fest founder Jerry Ford had me so hooked on better garlic two years ago, I bought enough to get us through the winter and had to hit Garlic Fest last summer to restock.
This year's Garlic Fest is Aug. 14
Besides the chance to see, buy and taste a wide variety of garlic--from mild to knock your socks off--they keep the mood playful here. There are plenty of kids' activities, such as kite-making and flying, plus live music and entertainment.

The biggest draw is the Great Scape Cafe using chefs from some of Twin Cities' best restaurants, including Birchwood, Lucia's and the Modern Cafe. They know the value of a superior garlic bulb and will be preparing braised pork with fruit compote and aioli, a tangy cashew wild rice salad, heirloom tomatoes with poached garlic and honey vinaigrette, and more.

As Jerry puts it: "If that doesn't make your mouth water, you must be a vampire."

Admission's $5 for adults, $3 for kids under 12. If you miss this year's event from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., it's always the second Saturday in August.

National Mustard Day: Celebrate America's No. 2 condiment
Not up for garlic ice cream? How about mustard custard? Wisconsin's Mustard Museum with its famously hilarious sense of humor has moved to Middleton (by Madison) and hosts its annual National Mustard Day this Saturday (August 7). I'm tickled to see they're adding chocolate pretzel crunch to the custard. I jokingly suggested pretzel bits to founder Barry Levenson about four years ago, but never thought about chocolate. Sounds rather good.

The party runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with entertainment by the Poupon U accordion band and other entertainers. It's almost worth the road trip just to get the Poupon U T-shirts. Take a spin through the museum, though, and you'll never snub this condiment again. The medicinal uses are fascinating, as are the antique mustard pots and other oddities. Be prepared to sample a lot of mustard and crunch a lot of pretzels.

Plenty of artisan Wisconsin cheese and juicy, smoky brats are a given.

It's all good at Pumphouse Creamery

If you're not that adventurous, check out the Discoveries section of the June issue of Midwest Living with the Sundae Best feature.

I was lucky enough to test Pumphouse Creamery in Minneapolis for them. There are 20 handmade, organic flavors with many ingredients grown here in Central Minnesota. These are all dreamy combinations: buckwheat honey; sea salt, caramel and praline pecan; and brandy-soaked cherry with brownie bits. Get them scooped up on their homemade multi-grain cones.

OK, time to wipe the drool off my keyboard.
Right: Owner Barb Zapzalka with her ice cream. Good luck deciding on just one flavor. She smartly offers a multi-scoop sampler for customers and lower-sugar, lower-fat ice cream cups for their pampered pets.