Fish & Visitors


Benjamin Franklin once said, “Fish and visitors stink after three days.” But I’m guessing he’s never been to Ely, Minnesota. Ely’s economy thrives on inviting visitors to fish here for days on end.
In many tourist towns, the early season percolates with excitement. But depending on the town, Franklin’s quote becomes gospel as days wear on and the atmosphere turns ripe. I know of a popular destination one state over whose food and beverage servers practice an annual tradition. On Labor Day Sunday, they hurl God-awful insults at leftover patrons to chase them off for the season. In that sense, tourists can be likened to wolves: they get blamed for whatever goes wrong even though it isn’t their fault. If Wall Street crashed, wolves and tourists would take the heat.
I live in Ely year-round and I’ve experienced tourism from both sides of the counter. I’ve served beer and cocktails to our guests, and I continue to shuttle paddlers to wilderness entry points because the stories they tell are so rich. I think it’s made me a better tourist whenever I visit places. For the most part, though, the place where I live is also where I want to vacation.
Let me get this out of the way. I won’t pretend that the summertime congestion can’t get to me. By late-August, cramped grocery stores and snug parking spaces test my temperament. And face it, there are the few snobs whose sense of entitlement exceeds their sense of civility. I find outlandish driving far more interesting.
I’ve trained myself to never flip-off shoddy drivers primarily because I might know them personally. U-turns at the stoplight by our grocery store seem to be a popular adjustment for out-of-state motorists who have lost direction. All traffic freezes like frightened rabbits until the ensuing roundabout finds closure. But I’ve also watched a local acquaintance one-up that maneuver. He wheeled his car in the opposite direction, jumped the curb, drove down the sidewalk behind parked cars and reentered traffic between two trucks idling at the stoplight. Pedestrians didn’t reappear until the light turned green.
Similarly, boat landings can incite random acts of rudeness. The angler with nonresident license plates who parked their truck and trailer in the shoreline turnaround was rather irksome.
But I’ve also come across locals who use boat landings as a beach. They commandeer parking spots with small sedans in areas designated for boat rigs. Then they clog the water access with bodies, coolers and inflatable toys. Backing a boat trailer through a sea of beach bums is a tight fit. Spotting snorkelers oblivious to the powerboats above water is downright dangerous.
Overall, I’m inclined to believe that most civil transgressions aren’t intentional. They’re just oversight or lack of awareness.
Several years ago, a couple sat down at the bar I was tending after the lunch rush. We were the only ones in the place, so we shared stories. They worked in a metro area and their vacation to the wilderness was a bucket-list junket. They were intelligent, had a good sense of humor and were highly complimentary. “It’s so beautiful here, I can’t even look,” the woman said.
Both acknowledged they’d love to live here year-round, but questioned what they’d do for employment. When she found I was formerly a magazine editor, she asked how I felt having been an editor and now I was a… then she cut herself off.
I knew what she meant and wasn’t offended. I reminded her of where I get to live, then I added I’m not the only one who feels this way. Many residents have degrees, even advanced degrees, in fields completely unrelated to their employment here. An attorney is an outfitter. A chemist heads outdoor education programs. Self-employment is an option. The lifestyle isn’t for everybody. Some people need multiple jobs to survive. But living here is more than a backdrop—it breathes life.
I don’t know if we ever met again or of any decisions they made. But we wished each other well when we parted.
Like folks from anywhere, the travelers I’ve met take pride in swapping stories about their home turf and what they’re about. Riding together in a wilderness shuttle gives us time to learn from each other. We compare climate, outdoor recreation, wildlife, wildlife regulations and game recipes.
While the wolves, bears and moose up here might be scary to some visitors, they tend not to kill people. But I’ve discovered that those north woods’ icons have nothing on the gators and snakes in southern states. A shuttle passenger from Oklahoma told of a water moccasin that chased him down in waist-deep water. He managed to club it with a tree branch before its fangs hit paydirt. From this, I learned two things: water moccasins are aggressive; and if I’m ever in that predicament, I’ll never outswim them.
For one woman embarking on a solo canoe trip, moose-enchantment seized her attention. As our shuttle and conversation trundled along the gravel to her entry point, I mentioned we were approaching a logging road where I had seen moose droppings a month before. Such was her rapture at the chance to experience real moose poop, she happily delayed the remaining drive. We located the droppings and she took a picture of them with her phone, placing her thumb directly beside one to give it scale.
Sometimes wilderness visitors with the least experience embody the most sincerity. A member of a group I transported discovered a tick on himself. The group talked about it and he said he’d take it home for a friend to see. I began thinking that maybe none of them had camped or fished before. Then another group member confirmed my suspicions. He was intent on proper care for the leeches in the plastic locker, but not to ensure fresh bait. He asked about what they should eat and how much water they required.
I just can’t find fault with such concern for other beings.
The more we learn about the wilderness, the more we learn about each other, the more we’ll respect all of it. Call them what you will: visitors, travelers, sightseers, strangers or something less complimentary. Welcome, you tourists. Glad to have you.


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