Painted Canoe of Ely

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Hometown Focus Article – Into The Brush

Into the Brush: Combining art and adventure in the wilderness
By Jody Anderson
HTF Columnist

Joe Baltich and his painted canoe. Photo by Jody Anderson.
Joe Baltich and his painted canoe. Photo by Jody Anderson.
ELY – Just five miles from Canada, and 15 miles northeast of Ely on the Fernberg Trail, stands Red Rock Wilderness Store and Northwind Lodge, formerly known as Jasper Lake Resort. It is a place that holds generations of memories like pitch-black nights with shimmering stars while gathered around a campfire, the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis, and midnight wolf operas. The resort, now managed by Joe Baltich, Jr., has been in the Baltich family for three generations. Surrounded by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), and deep in the northwoods boreal forest, the resort offers something unique from others in the area. It is liking walking into the past with its rustic charm, while still offering today’s modern amenities such as wireless service. It just might be possible that Northwind Lodge is the oldest family-run business in the area. The resort, which is over 70 years old, dates back to 1944.

The Red Rock Wilderness store, which doubles today as Joe’s art studio, has the largest selection of fishing tackle in the area. Some of the locals callRed Rock the “Cabela’s of the North.” Today Joe’s store also has his artwork for sale – wine glasses, mugs and canvases displaying beautiful northwoods scenery. You could say that he has come full circle when it comes to his art. It was there at the resort on Jasper Lake, at the age of 13, that he discovered he was not only an outdoors enthusiast, but also an artist. The resort has seen and weathered a lot of changes over the years. Change within the resort industry is common, and calls for innovativeness at times. The resort was once known for skiing, and had its own Nordic ski trails. It was on one of those snow-covered trails that Joe met his wife Annette. Skiing under a canopy of pines however, is now a part of the resort’s past. But innovativeness and creativity is what Joe is all about, and it is his passion for painting that is the inspiration behind his most recent resort venture.

This past week I made the drive to Red Rock to see “The Painted Canoe of Ely,” Joe’s latest masterpiece. It is a symbol of both art and adventure in the wilderness. Joe spent over 400 hours last winter painting on the unique aluminum canvas! His original plan was to paint the animals of the BWCAW but instead, at someone’s suggestion, he painted the history of our region. He chose to depict the wilderness area in the 100 years prior to its federal wilderness designation in 1978 on one side, and the wilderness area how it exists today on the other. The canoe is a Grumman canoe which is symbolic in itself. Grumman originally was a leading producer of military aircraft. If you look close, Joe included a painting of a Grumman Hellcat F6F fighter aircraft used in 1943-1944 during the war. After World War II wound down in 1944, the company began to produce Grumman canoes which replaced wooden canoes that were mostly being used at that time. The Grumman canoes, being lighter and stronger, made portaging and canoeing in the wilderness easier. Grumman canoes are a significant part of our BWCAW history.

At age 13, Joe’s first experience with art began when he experimented with his father’s wood burning kit. Tiring of the kit’s designs, he began to draw his own – deer, moose, and squirrels. Soon he was selling the wood plaques to resort guests in the store. One day one of the guests, who happened to be an art teacher, told him he needed to learn to paint. He couldn’t even imagine that. The woman left and came back two hours later with a rock she had just painted. It had a wilderness scene with a deer and a sunset. He thought it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. She sent him to town for the basic painting supplies he would need. He painted his first rock that night at the dining table while his family gathered around him. He sold his third rock. The money he made from his artwork allowed him to purchase his first art studio –a small 8×10 shed from Sears. Headded stools, an easel, and a fluorescent light. The resort kids would gather in there each night and watch him paint. He would take orders from guests. He sold many blue herons on canvas. While attending UMD in college he was often commissioned by students to paint gifts for their parents. His dorm room walls were like an art gallery.

After college in 1983, he returned home feeling discouraged by the present job market. He returned to guiding at the resort, which he had been doing since he was 14. He also became involved in politics and served as Ely’s mayor and on the city council for a time. It was upon returning to resort life after college that Joe discovered his studio had been damaged by the elements. He attempted to fix it, but it was never quite the same. Joe lost his mojo. For 32 years Joe took a sabbatical from art. That is until he decided to paint an Adirondack chair last year forIncredible Ely’s fundraiser – Chair-ish Ely. And guess what? Joe the artist was back! Joe describes this past winter painting the canoe as “an adventure into art.” Painting the canoe, Joe said, was something he needed to do for a couple of reasons. He needed a demonstration piece for his new program “Into the Brush,” and he needed something cathartic. It was a slow winter for his business, and he needed something to keep him busy and that was good for his psyche. “Into the Brush” once just an idea, is now a reality.

There’s a lot of conversation these days about saving our local wilderness. Many are concerned about preserving it for future generations. They are worried about the environment. Others are concerned about what may appear to be a bigger threat. It seems that with each passing year, the number of people traveling to Ely to spend time in the wilderness is declining. A decline in tourism means a decline in local business. Joe has seen the decline. He believes there are various reasons for the drop in numbers. One is that we have a large aging population that either is no longer able to venture out due to health issues, or they feel they have “been there, done that.” Digital distractions have also impacted interest in both the young and the old. Today’s generation is also more concerned about safety, and feel uncomfortable about being unplugged from civilization for any length of time. With this in mind, Joe came up with a new idea to introduce people to the wilderness. His idea combines wilderness adventure and art through his new endeavor “Into the Brush.”

“Into the Brush” ( is in the process of becoming an independent 501(c) (3) nonprofit. Through “Into the Brush,” Joe is offering a new and adventurous program at Northwind Lodge. The program offers an “art camp like experience” where guests can learn the basics of painting by adventuring in the wilderness, and then coming back and putting it on canvas, wood, stone, or glass. At “art camp” you can stay in one of the resort’s housekeeping cabins with friends or family. Each day you will spend two hours in the morning, and two hours in the evening learning how to paint. Inspiration will come from the 2-3 hours spent hiking or canoeing each day independently, or under Joe’s guidance. The program offers 4- or 7-day classes. The classes are designed for the beginner with no experience necessary. Joe also offers 2-hour micro classes on occasion to anyone, not just resort guests. Joe has a lot of plans for the future of “Into the Brush.” He envisions an art gallery someday, and even internships and visiting artists. He is also thinking about expanding his art program to include photography and other mediums.

Through his new venture, Joe hopes to introduce a whole new group of people to the wilderness. Perhaps even those who would have never imagined themselves adventuring in the heart of Minnesota’s northwoods. The truth is, people are increasingly seeking out adventure. Many, though, want something just a little bit different than what has been the tradition.

If you are looking for something to do this fall, I encourage you to take a drive up the Fernberg Trail and see the canoe for yourself. It is breathtaking. Joe will give you the history behind each of the scenes on the canoe because Joe isn’t just an artist, he’s also a storyteller, and what some call a wordsmith. Perhaps you will find that one of the scenes is related to your family history. For me it was the panel with the logging camp scene, because my grandfather ran a logging camp on the Echo Trail. Don’t forget to ask Joe about the panel that contains his own family’s history. What an adventure that was!

“The Painted Canoe of Ely” is the canoe that tells a story. It’s worth the drive, and the drive up the Fernberg is beautiful in the fall. Take the time to visit Kawishiwi Falls along the way, and stop at the Rookie Lake overlook also. If you are lucky, you just may spot a moose!

Jody Anderson lives in Embarrass, MN.

Our Purpose with Into The Brush

The times, they are a-changin’ – and not always for the better
Actual wilderness usage is declining in Ely, Minnesota.  It is down from 250,000 visitors per year in the mid 90’s, to a mere 107,000 users in 2015 as per US Forest Service Boundary Waters Canoe Area permit records.  That’s over a million acres of land Wilderness Painting Class - Ely, MNand water with 5 major access areas dividing up 107,000 people.  It’s a substantial dropping off of people interested in Ely’s wilderness.   Wilderness usage is being usurped by digital distractions, unrealistic fears of bugs and animals driven by media and ignorance, and a general lack of knowledge about our fantastic wilderness right next to Ely, MN.   I feel the digital world has taken young people on a fantasy ride and many are now completely out of touch.

In 2014,  a consulting group of “city-folk” professionals came to town to consult and offer guidance to improve the economic health of Ely.  After considering the modern needs of today’s markets and declining economic activity in Ely, they recommended (among other things) that Ely build “pocket parks” around the downtown area to attract people to Ely.  Such little parks were to be with trees, groomed vegetation, benches, and free WIFI to give a warm, inviting, “wilderness-like feel” to downtown Ely for people to enjoy.

Sounds great, right?  Every pseudo-wilderness should have free WIFI.  That way you can watch Youtube videos about taking a canoe trip outside of town while you sit in a pocket park enjoying a premium coffee beverage.  It’s JUST like being there.

For the record, Ely has always been surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and water only 5 minutes from town in any direction.  We have a gargantuan, fabulous “pocket park” right next to town!  It requires no landscape architect or construction firm.   That’s the REAL thing, not some professionally designed, mini park to allow one to escape the stresses of the concrete jungle of downtown Ely.   OMG- we’ve become so jaded in our digital distraction needs, that we are actually building “wilderness with WIFI” inside of a town that sits on the very edge of the most famous, canoe-only  wilderness in the world; the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  The rise of  digitally distracted enthusiasts explains why the average age of Boundary Waters visitors is now 58 – up from 55 just a few years ago.

To me, that is really messed up… and sad.

With Into The Brush, we want to buck the trend instead of following it like the outside world is pressuring us to do.  That is why we built a new experience to get people “into the brush” once again.  We’re getting back to basics with a twist of sorts.

Unique Educational Experience
We are offering a unique, non-profit painting program where we take participants (who stay in housekeeping cabins in the real woods) “into the brush” via water and foot to guide them in artistic observation.   Such observation opens up a whole new world with a far deeper understanding than would be acquired by just taking a canoe-camping trip due to all the other required distractions associated with wilderness travel in such a trip.  There’s not enough time to effectively spend on artistic observation on a canoe camping trip, I feel.  But when staying in a cabin in the woods, it becomes easier and more effective to do, and then later, apply.

After a few hours outside, figuratively deconstructing rocks and sticks and water,  we then head back to the studio to get “into the brush” once again.  We reconstruct what we observed layer by layer, stroke by stroke, applying paint to canvas, stone, glass and wood depending on the program parameters.  Believe you can do it – painting is not like drawing or sculpting.  It is more achievable for more people.  You just have to take your time and give it a shot.  There is no wrong way to do it.

Into The Brush is designed to re-introduce wilderness – real, actual, tangible wilderness to real people in smaller, comfortable bursts through painting.  Because we will be in studio mornings and evenings, wilderness outings will be limited in duration usually to two or three hours at the most.  During the day and free times, participants come back to their cabins for their own meal prep and relaxation time.  They can enjoy self-guided kayaking, swimming, going into the concrete jungle of Ely, or relaxing in the Adirondack chairs at the beach.  They can even spend more time in the studio with independent study.   It’s far more comfortable than spending a 5 day canoe-camping trip in the woods and weather elements.  It is also quite necessary to stay in cabins because we do actually want to learn how to paint.  I love painting and you will, too – at least that is my hope.

At program’s end, our painters should have basic-to-intermediate painting skills exposure, and a sufficient knowledge of artist paints and accessories to allow them to go home and continuing painting with confidence.  They should also have a newfound appreciation for wilderness cabin living, as well as canoeing exposure and hiking in the woods.  Northwind Lodge is an unbelievably beautiful back drop for any artist and inspiration is everywhere.

As opposed to eating ice cream (which, don’t get me wrong, is always fun) in a manicured pocket park in downtown Ely,  it is our hope that our artists would find their real deep-woods adventure so positive that they would share it with family and friends back home both by their works and word of mouth!  The icing on this great-wilderness-experience cake is coming home knowing how to paint!

That is our purpose at Into The Brush.

Promoting wilderness appreciation and experience through art education
Big Buck in the swamp




Paint about it – Into the Brush

Into The Brush – How I Started Painting

Into The Brush – I believe you CAN!

Into The Brush – Painting & Wilderness

Into The Brush – Goals

Into The Brush Rates & Dates

The Painted Canoe of Ely

Welcome to Into the Brush!

Welcome to Ely, Minnesota’s first-and-only, non-profit organization dedicated to wilderness appreciation through art education.

Into The Brush

It is our belief that everyone can paint artistically.  If you haven’t picked up an artist’s paintbrush and would like to try it for real, Into The Brush is the art program for you.

Artistic observation in a subject-rich environment like the wilderness northeast of Ely, Minnesota (the Boundary Waters Canoe Area), is a visual delight that can be observed and enjoyed.  Then, painting what one saw, becomes the real goal with Into The Brush.

Yes, everyone can paint and have fun while doing it.  Unlike the instant nature of today’s photography which can be quite gratifying as well, putting colors to canvas warms the soul in a different (deeper) way and offers far more freedom for creativity to the artist.

This website, while we hope it to be interesting and helpful, is but a mere shadow of the real program Into The Brush where we experience hands-on art education together and with much more detail, discussion, observation, and implementation.

We hope you will find Into The Brush inviting, interesting, and helpful as you explore the possibilities of painting for the first time or extending your artistic abilities and talents.  We also invite you to join us in at our program base northeast of Ely, Minnesota.