Several months ago, as I was skimming my inbox—checking email these days feels like the digital equivalent of skiing ahead of an avalanche—I came across a message with the subject “Ely TV.” That’s as far as I read before reflexively forwarding the email to writer Tim Gihring, who had recently spent time in the area doing research for a story about the town’s transition from taconite to tourism. Had I bothered to open the attachment, I would have seen shows named Iron Range Chef and Scat Tracker, and that the new, nationally broadcast channel was supposedly launching…on April 1.
But even if I had read the email, I’m not sure I would have been tipped off to the joke. Because in the gateway to the BWCA—a place so quirky and remote that some consider
it Minnesota’s last stop for those on the way to Alaska—a truck at the gas station might have a dead moose strapped on top, and you can watch a pack of wolves tear through a pile of skinned beavers. You also might strike up a conversation with Iron Mike, a former-miner-cum-town-raconteur, who once slept outside when it was 72 degrees below zero. As Gihring puts it: “Nothing about Ely seems inconceivable.”
Subsequent (Google) investigation of Ely TV revealed this shocker: It already exists! And the truth is just as strange as fiction.
Ely’s 24-hour public-access station has shown everything from city-council meetings to hibernating bears (perhaps a tossup as to which attracted the most viewership). Elyites have screened their own home movies of birthday parties and created outdoors programs (a small log cabin set was built for in-studio tapings). Polka shows are regularly aired three times a day, attracting a loyal following from older viewers. A 2009 article in the Mesabi Daily News quoted the station’s head producer as saying that new leadership had managed to make a public-access channel “cool.”
Indeed. Winter in Ely is just as cool as its television: After reading about Gihring’s adventures, I was ready to throw the skis in the car and head north. But it was a Thursday night, after 10 o’clock, so I figured I’d have to settle for living vicariously and checked the Ely TV schedule instead.
Methodist Pasty Making was playing, followed by Lumber Jack Off Truck and Erected in Winton (a title I wasn’t sure how to interpret). The next day’s lineup included a rerun of Ely 5th-and 6th-Grade Track and Field Day, the double-header of Mikey’s Deer Footage and (the perhaps undersold) Uneventful Fishing with Mikey, as well as the inexplicable Ben Lundquist Fish Tank Installation. If you included Ron Setniker at Moose Lodge Polka, scheduled for 12:07 a.m., there were actually four polka shows on the docket—that or I’d just been fooled again by some elaborate prank.