FURTHER NORTH: Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary

The Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary promises more bruins per foot than a Care Bear Convention. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

“Further North” is an occasional series by Aaron J. Brown of MinnesotaBrown.com reviewing a travel destination or special place in Northern Minnesota. Today’s post is about the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr.

A yearling black bear sits in a tree just above the viewing stand at the Vince Shute Wildlife Refuge. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

You’d think the tour guides at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary would be better prepared for bear puns. After all, this deep woods outpost near Orr, Minnesota, provides an opportunity to see more bears at once than most people would normally see in a lifetime.

The young woman giving the introductory talk on the short bus ride over to the viewing stand asked, “How is everyone today?” I couldn’t resist. My answer: “Bear-ly getting by!” A bus load of tourists groaned appropriately, but the woman just stared blankly. Initially she worried that I was not well. “Oh,” she realized after a moment. It was almost as if the staff was somehow inoculated against bear puns, which would probably make sense given the hazards of the job.

(Later I regretted the torrent of bear puns I unleashed from the masses but, again, the staff remained unfazed).

Living in Northern Minnesota means living closer to nature than most of the nation. Even in our small towns, wild birds, deer and woodland critters are regular sights. But one creature that remains a rare mystery is the North American black bear. Unless you spend hours looking for them, or baiting them, you might only see a bear once in a while. Though bears most certainly dwell in the woods where I live, I’ve only seen two in the time I’ve lived here in rural Itasca County.

That’s why in the summer of 2017 my family decided to take the rustic drive up through Togo and Greaney to check out the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary.

Operated by the American Bear Association, the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary is located on the site of an old logging camp. The logger Vince Shute was a well known figure in the local communities of Cook and Orr. And, as staff members at the sanctuary labored to stress, he did something you should never do.

Vince Shute fed the bears.

A mother and her cub at the Vince Shute Wildlife Refuge near Orr, Minn. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

You should never feed the bears.

But if you’re going to feed bears (don’t), Vince Shute did a pretty good job of it. The bears grew to trust him, so much that they’d casually dine upon his homemade pancakes while sitting just a few feet from him. It went on like that for years, until Shute realized that he was getting older and worried about what might happen to the large community of bears that now relied on him.

He connected with the American Bear Association, a research group that reminds everyone *not to feed bears.* But since Vince Shute had already been feeding the bears for a long time, they saw it as an opportunity to research bears and teach the public about one of nature’s most amazing creatures.

Arriving at the wildlife sanctuary, you’ll park in a gravel lot and pay your admission. A bus will take you about a mile further into the woods where you’ll be let off directly onto a very large viewing stand, complete with a gift shop and numerous angles from which to take pictures.

Surveying the panoramic view, you will see dozens of bears feeding at one of a few dozen spots. Some of the bears may be seen just feet away, climbing in trees or sitting down below the viewing stand.

While all that is going on, several staff members remain on hand to answer questions and periodically present information about bears. Remarkably, the trained staffers walk among the bears to feed them, reminding all of us — again — to *never feed the bears*.

My sons look at some bears while a young bear looks at them from a tree. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Our oldest son took up photography as a new hobby after getting a camera for his birthday, so he was enthralled with the opportunity to snap pictures of so many bears.

The rest of us learned things we never knew, including specific nonverbal behaviors of bears and what they mean. And yes, if you’re wondering how to survive an encounter with an angry or threatened bear, they’ll tell you. (Hint: Don’t play dead and don’t run.)

Many other wild animals thrive in the sanctuary. Most notably, we saw many birds close enough to the viewing stand to identify. They include the very pretty American Goldfinch and a number of different woodpeckers. Staff said wolves are occasionally seen. A number of small mammals make cameo appearances time to time.

Coming from Highway 53, the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary is located just over 13 miles down County Road 23 (Nett Lake Road).

Admission to the sanctuary costs $10 for adults; $8 for seniors 65 and older; $5 for 6- to 17-year-olds, and free for children 5 and under.

The sanctuary opens the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and closes on Labor Day. The hours of operation are 5-8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Tripods, scooters, pets, video recorders, smoking, food and beverages (other than water) are NOT allowed on the viewing platform. You are also asked to keep your voice down, as excess noise from as many as 50 tourists at at time could disturb the bears.

The Vince Shute Wildlife Refuge might seem like the kind of place best suited for tourists who never see animals in the city (and it works well for that audience). But even these rural folks who live among bears every day appreciated the chance to see them up close and learn new things about them. Plus no matter where you’re coming from you’ll drive on long roads you rarely travel in the wide and wonderful forests of Northern Minnesota.

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