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Bear fans still hooked on Lily and Hope

Bear researcher Lynn Rogers uses food to lure Hope the bear cub out of a tree near Ely in May. Hope had been separated from her mother, Lily. (File / News Tribune)

A few of Lily and Hope's closest friends are coming to Ely at the end of the month.

Lily and Hope, in case you've been hibernating for the past six months or so, are the mother bear and her cub who became an Internet sensation when their activities in the den were shown live and uninterrupted during the past winter via the North American Bear Center in Ely.

A "Lily the Black Bear" page on Facebook had 105,364 fans as of Satur­day. The bear center's Web page, which had about 460,000 visits in 2009, is on track to get 14 million visits this year, said Lynn Rogers, the patriarch of the bear center. A small group of Lily's fans gathered at the Ground Round in Duluth last month. Another group gathered in North Carolina over the weekend, Rogers said.

And on July 31, 300 bear boosters will meet at the South Kawishiwi River Recre­ation Area, 10 miles south of Ely for a picnic.

You're not invited, by the way. It's nothing personal -- there simply isn't room for more.

"Nothing's big enough for the numbers that want to come," said Peggy Meisch of North Branch, Minn., part of an ad hoc committee that came up with plans for what's being called the Lilypad Picnic.

Meisch said she and the other organizers -- from Ontario, Ohio, Wisconsin, the Minneapolis area and near Ely -- envisioned an event for a small group of people. Instead, they've had to turn away people who have sought to register on a website they built for the event. "We have had a few cancellations, but they get filled up again."

The original plan was to have the picnic in Ely, but Ely Mayor Roger Skraba said the city had to turn down the group's request.

"When you have an event on public ground, part of our prerequisite is you have liability insurance and you have to identify us," Srkaba said. "They said it's too expensive."

Meisch confirmed that. "For $900 to $1,200?" she asked. "Uh, no."

The group won't have liability insurance at South Kawishiwi River Recreation Area, which belongs to the U.S. Forest Service, Meisch said. Instead, participants will be asked to sign a waiver absolving organizers and the Forest Service of responsibility.

Although the picnic is the centerpiece of the event, activities also are scheduled for July 30 and Aug. 1. Besides allowing Lily and Hope fans to get together and perhaps see some bears, the event is a fundraiser, Meisch said. In addition to the catered picnic, money will be raised through a Sunday brunch at Grand Ely Lodge, a silent auction, a Saturday morning scavenger hunt and drawings. They'll have exclusive access to the bear center on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Meisch said she hopes it will raise $10,000 for the bear center, which is $340,000 in debt.

But not just the bear center will benefit, Rogers said. "They'll come to the North American Bear Center, and that will help us," he said. "But they'll also go shopping, use outfitters, stay in resorts, eat in restaurants."

Still, anticipation about the event in Ely seems tepid.

"The chamber hasn't been too involved in that," said Ellen Cushman, a representative for the Ely Chamber of Commerce.

Anne Swenson, publisher of the Ely Echo newspaper, said the event could provide a needed boost to area resorts. "Most of the resorts actually are down quite a bit," she said.

But she admitted to a lack of enthusiasm about the Lily and Hope phenomenon.

"People who have a great interest in wild animals -- at some point they forget that these are wild animals," Swenson said.