On a recent day at the new North American Bear Center in Ely, visitors could see two remarkable things. One is Ted, an 800 pound black bear - possibly the biggest black bear in Minnesota.
And the other was what Ted was doing - happily lapping at the face of the grey haired man with the stubble beard.
That man is Lynn Rogers, an internationally respected researcher who's rewritten the book on what we know about bears. Rogers passion for bears has attracted some controversy. To some he's best known as the "man who walks with bears," which is exactly what he does with the wild bears he's studied for years in the Ely area.
"When I learned their language, that's what helped me to understand them," Rogers says.
Years ago, Rogers was pretty much like the rest of us. He was afraid of bears. After all, they're often portrayed as man-eating monsters, mouth wide open, always growling and roaring and attacking. For most bears, Rogers says, that's completely wrong. We terrify the bears.
"Their lives are ruled by fear and food, actually in that order," Rogers says. "What we find in walking to get so we can walk with these bears, is to overcome their fear."
Rogers was a young biologist some two decades ago when he helped create an expensive and popular bear exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Since then he's worked with, walked with, and crawled into dens with the bears around his Ely Wildlife Research station. Some 17 years ago it came to him. Why not build a center to share all that research with the public? That was the seed that's now become the bear center.
An early attempt to buy the exhibit from the Science Museum fell through. While that was a big disappointment, Rogers says, it was also something of an epiphany.
I just want people to know more about bears. There are so many misconceptions out there.Lynn Rogers
"And then we started to realize, this is actually a benefit, because 40 percent of that exhibit was grizzly bears, and it wouldn't fit this area very well," Rogers says. "This is black bear country."
So he set off to build a center from scratch, with money raised mostly in the private sector, and displays based on his films and research in the Ely area.
"I just want people to know more about bears," says Rogers. "There are so many misconceptions out there. Like, I grew up afraid of bears because I read the outdoor magazines all the time, saw the ferocious - unnatural - images of bears drawn by artists, to be the most terrifying images they could come up with. And bears just don't do the stuff you see on there, reacting to people with an open-mouthed snarl. Bears don't even snarl."
Inside the center, visitors are greeted with a massive skeleton - an exact replica of a short-faced bear which roamed North America just 10,000 years ago. Thirty DVD players show high definition videos of real bears doing what bears really do, eating, vocalizing, hanging out in the den.
"This will be my fourth summer, out in the woods, walking with bears, video-taping bears," says bear researcher Sue Mansfield. She shot most of the images.
"And, up until now, many people haven't - I haven't been able to share this with people," says Mansfield. "And, here, at the bear center, I'm able to share these intimate moments that I've had with the bears, with the public. And I'm really looking forward to that. I want to be a fly on the wall here, and see people's comments."
The Bear Center and the Wolf Center serve as something of bookends, with the little town of Ely in between. Mayor Chuck Novak says the new bear center won't take anything away from the well known wolf center across town.
"It's just great for the city, and I think this will cause more people to come up, because, what I hear nationally, there's a lot of excitement about this bear center coming up," Novak says.
A big crowd turned up for the opening. With the summer tourist season about to begin, locals are hoping the new center will keep packing them in.