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West End News

Bill Hansen

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Bill Hansen

Bill Hansen runs Sawbill Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail with his wife Cindy. Bill grew up in Cook County and knows the West End community well. The son of beloved WTIP volunteer and long-time West End News columnist Frank Hansen, Bill enjoys following in his father's footsteps.

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.

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Townsend's Solitaire

West End News: April 28

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then North House Folk School in Grand Marais should feel very flattered. North House was cited in the first sentence of a Duluth News Tribune article announcing the formation of a new folk school starting up in Duluth.

A few years ago, Ely started a folk school, also based on the success of North House. The Ely Folk School has succeeded beyond all expectations and I fully expect the same for the new folk school in Duluth.

Although the folk school movement seems like a new phenomenon to us, it has actually been well established in Scandinavia since the early 1800s. They were a reaction to the idea that education was primarily for the elite members of society. The folk schools were a "small d" democratic idea to connect all members of society to a lifetime of learning, with an emphasis on practical and useful skills that helped connect communities into a more cohesive society.

In the Nordic countries today, almost every town has a folk school, where they are a routine and accepted part of life. While North House wasn't the first folk school in America, it was a bit unique when it started 20 years ago. Hopefully, folk schools will be established in every town in the United States, too.

I've been thinking for awhile that it would be nice to have a folk school here in the West End, perhaps affiliated with the Commercial Fishing Museum and/or Birch Grove Community Center. Obviously, it would make sense to organize it as an add-on to North House programming, as they are such a strong part of the Cook County community.

Speaking of the Commercial Fishing Museum, the most recent newsletter has a very nice article about my mom, Mary Alice Hansen, and the key role she played in founding and developing the museum and the Tofte Historical Society. Mom is pleased by the recognition, but being the true historian, she was very concerned that the article get the details correct and accurate.

Congratulations to Split Rock Lighthouse on receiving a $68,000 grant to put toward developing a long term plan to preserve and interpret this important and iconic historic site. I would argue that Split Rock is the most unique and recognizable image from the North Shore.

The grant actually came from the National Park Service, in partnership with the Maritime Administration, according to Senators Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken and Congressman Rick Nolan. The money passes through the Minnesota Historical Society, who operate Spit Rock and is part of a $138,000 cultural landscape report.

Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center in Schroeder has a deal for you if you plan to plant trees on your North Shore property. They are making available low cost fencing to protect your saplings from the deer. This is actually offered by the North Shore Forest Collaborative, based at Sugarloaf, which is actually a group of many partners, working on a very long term plan to restore the forest along the North Shore. Visit the Sugarloaf Nature Center website for details and contact information.

I'm pleased to report that the elusive bird known as Townsend's Solitaire has been a regular visitor at the Sawbill bird feeders this week. It is a common bird in the mountain west, but quite rare in Minnesota. Although this is exciting news for bird watchers, I must admit that the Solitaire is one of the most nondescript birds that I've ever seen. We also have a black-backed woodpecker hanging around. That, along with all the migrants coming through, makes us a birder's paradise at the moment.

At this writing, Sawbill Lake has 8 inches of ice that is too degraded to stand on. Many of the smaller lakes and ponds are already open and Sawbill will be clear in a few days. The birds, the lake ice, the fabulous rushing rivers and waterfalls, and people already using the golf courses - along with downhill skiing still happening this weekend at Lutsen Mountains - all contribute to the magic that is Cook County's West End.

 

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West End News: April 21

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune issued their annual “Best of Minnesota” article last week and the West End made the list twice. The Lutsen 99er was named as Minnesota’s best mountain bike race.  Minnesota’s best resort spa was awarded to the Waves of Lake Superior Spa at Surfside Resort in Tofte. Neither of these are a surprise to West Enders. Of course, almost everything we have is the best in Minnesota, but we’re too cool to be conceited about it.
 
For instance, we have Minnesota’s best community school, in my humble opinion, at Birch Grove School in Tofte. At the moment, Birch Grove Community School is looking for three new school board members. Current board members Sarah Somnis and Rae Piepho were recently elected township supervisors in Tofte and Lutsen, so they are required to resign from the school board to avoid a conflict of interest. The third opening is to replace Jessica Cameron who moved away when her husband was transferred by the Forest Service.
 
The Birch Grove School Board has nine members and meets monthly on the fourth Tuesday. The board expects that members attend at least 80% of the meetings. There is a simple application form that is available from school director Caroline Wood. Stop by the school or give Caroline a call if you would like more information.
 
There is a fun, informal social gathering of dog owners in the Lutsen township park every Sunday at 3 pm. There is nothing organized about this, but it is a chance for some of the outstanding community dogs to spend some time playing and getting to know one another. I suppose there might be some socializing among the owners, too.
 
Matt and Mary Beth Farley, of Lutsen, will be traveling soon to visit their son Andy, who is now stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Andy has completed his basic training and is now training as a combat engineer for the 82nd Airborne Division. Matt said that Andy recently broke his collarbone, which put a short glitch in his training, but will soon be back to full speed. Andy is, of course, a proud graduate of Cook County High School.
 
I was sorry to hear about the dust-up that occurred when the Cook County Board of Commissioners proposed a resolution recommending that the BWCA Wilderness watershed be protected from the pollution that inevitably follows the mining of sulfide-bearing ores.
 
Like the silly banning of Bent Paddle Beer from the Silver Bay Municipal Liquor Store, it strikes me as a misguided attempt to intimidate people who want to express their honestly held political opinions.
 
The threat to remove Cook County from the Taconite Assistance Area strikes me as a particularly empty and unnecessary threat. The rail line between Taconite Harbor and Hoyt Lakes is still owned by a mining company. That railroad and the Taconite Harbor power plant may well end up being key parts of Minnesota’s mining efforts in the future.
 
Details aside, I believe that open and honest political discussion is always a good thing and coercion and threats are always a bad thing. Talking important issues through will ultimately result in a more vibrant and prosperous West End.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 

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West End News: April 14

I’m reporting the West End News this week from the far west end, all the way out in Bozeman, Montana. I’m here on tour with the Plucked Up String Band.

Everyone knows that touring bands live a life filled with wild parties fueled by crazy substance abuse and excesses of every kind. Well, I’m happy to report that is not the case for our current tour.

We chose Montana for our tour because my son, Carl Hansen, a proud West Ender, lives in Bozeman, where he is a freelance filmmaker. Carl’s boyhood friend, Beau Larson, originally from Lutsen, also lives in Bozeman, making his living as a wildlife photographer. So, this is really more of a combination band tour and family visit.

The band has been warmly received in Montana, with appreciative crowds at every show and many invitations to return. In our down time, our activities have tended more toward hiking, disc golf and many hours of playing music while soaking up the unseasonable 70-degree sunshine that Montana has been experiencing. Other than a pleasant overall tiredness and some sore fingers, the tour has been fulfilling and fun.

We’re ending the tour in Ashland, Wisconsin, where we’ll be headlining the Ashland Folk Festival, the oldest folk festival in Wisconsin.

I’ve been reading, with interest, all the recent news about economic diversification on the Iron Range. Although the West End is not generally considered part of the Iron Range, we are directly affected by what happens in our greater region.

I’m no expert on the mining industry, but it seems that the experts are thinking that mining may be in a more serious decline that just the normal ups and downs of a commodity-based industry. Long story short, the situation is a symptom of the global market place.

Just in the last few weeks, the conversation around economic development in northeastern Minnesota has changed. Governor Dayton came out with a strong message about protecting our wilderness. The IRRRB held a conference on how the region can attract young residents by being “cool and creative.” The IRRRB also announced plans to reform their governance and move their grant and loan programs more toward quality of life projects and away from trying to attract smoke-stack industries. Minnesota Public Radio has hosted an event focused exclusively on diversifying the Iron Range economy and the Minneapolis Star Tribune is running a series of articles on the same subject. Aaron Brown has continued his well-written efforts to inspire economic diversification on his popular blog, “Minnesota Brown.”

All this news is very encouraging, with the obvious caveat that it must lead to some substantial progress and not just exist as a flash in the pan. It is also encouraging because it is driven by community members who are rolling up their sleeves and asking themselves what kind of community they would like to live in and leave to their children.

Unfortunately, it’s a case of the people getting out ahead of at least some of their leaders, who seem to be stuck in the old thinking that economic development will come from giant industrial development. I’m also afraid the influence of money in our politics is moving our leadership away from the wishes of the actual voters. I hope our political leaders are paying close attention to this new regional spirit and will get on board before the train leaves the station without them.

I am proud to say that Cook County is providing leadership in this new regional mood. In my opinion, the West End is in a particularly good position to take advantage.

As we toured around Montana this week and told people we were from the North Shore of Minnesota, the most common response was along the lines of “Oh, I love the North Shore” or, “I’ve been to the Boundary Waters” or, “Grand Marais is a great town.” I believe this is because Montana and the North Shore share a quality of life based on outstanding natural beauty and a largely unspoiled environment. But, for whatever reason, the wonderful West End seems to be well thought of, right across this great United States.

 

 

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Plucked Up String Band is going on its first national tour

West End News: April 7

I was saddened to read about the passing of Frank Dvorak, a long-time seasonal resident of Tofte. I knew Frank through DFL politics and was surprised when he wasn’t in attendance at the Tofte precinct caucus this year. He and his wife, Barbara, were faithful precinct caucus goers, even in the years when hardly anyone attended.
 
Frank was retired from a long, distinguished career as an attorney in Minneapolis. He was a law school classmate and good friend of Skip Humphrey, who went on to be Minnesota’s attorney general. Skip’s father was Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Frank said that he and Barbara helped the younger Humphreys move into their first home in Plymouth, right after they graduated. It was a low budget affair, with a bunch of the Humphrey’s friends making multiple trips with cars and pickup trucks. 
 
The Humphreys rewarded their helpers by throwing a party at the house after all the moving was done.  They were pretty broke, so it was a potluck and bring your own bottle. Frank said the party was in full swing when they heard approaching sirens and looked out to see a long black limousine pull up in front of the house. Stern secret service agents swept through the house to check for weapons. Close on their heels was Vice-President Hubert Humphrey with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. He announced to the stunned group, “I hear there’s a party and I hear it is BYOB!”
 
Frank spent his entire life working to bring justice to ordinary people and you can’t really do better than that. He will be missed and remembered by many.
 
Congratulations to Lynn Rose for her appointment as the newest Lutsen Township Supervisor. As everyone in Lutsen knows, Lynn is as close as you can get to a saint in this earthly realm and certainly knows the Lutsen community well. She’ll be a great Supervisor.
 
It is good to hear that a new initiative may be coming to Lutsen that will allow people with modest income to receive grants to improve their houses. The Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, better known as the A.E.O.A., is applying for a state grant that will provide tens of thousands of dollars to individual homeowners who qualify. The grants take the form of deferred loan over ten years. So, if you stay in your home ten years after accepting the grant, you pay nothing. If you sell the home before the ten years are up, you just pay back the remainder of the loan.
 
The program is to replace or refurbish roofs, doors, windows, or anything that makes the home more efficient. It cannot be used to increase the size of your home. Many people in Lutsen will qualify, even if they earn a fairly normal income, so if you are interested, go to the AEOA website to learn more.  This is literally too good of a deal to pass up.
 
I was ten years old when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Along with millions of other American kids, I resolved that day to be a rock and roll star, touring around America, playing and singing to adoring audiences. I even started a band with some buddies, but it came to a quick end when we discovered that playing and singing like the Beatles was hard.
 
Now, more than 50 years later, my dream is finally coming true, with the possible exception of the adoring fan part. Cook County’s own Plucked Up String Band, of which I am lucky enough to be a member, is heading out on its first tour this week.  Basically, we are driving to Montana where we have at least four appearances lined up, then we’re driving straight through from Montana back to Ashland, Wisconsin, where we are head-lining the Ashland Folk Festival, the oldest folk festival in Wisconsin.
 
It’s way too late, in more ways than one, for me to wind up in front of millions of people on the Ed Sullivan Show, but it should be fun, nonetheless.  And, I’ll be glad to be living my teenage dreams, however modestly, in my 60s.
 

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Huckleberry inspects hole where 19” of ice was measured on Sawbill Lake this week

West End News: March 31

I was thrilled to hear that Mary Somnis is very likely the new Director of the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority.  Mary considers herself a West Ender, even though she has lived on the Range for the last 20 years. 
 
Back in the day, Mary lived in Tofte and was hired by the newly organized Lutsen-Tofte Tourism Association as a secretary.  The LTTA was formed to administer the newly passed bed tax, charged to tourists who rented rooms in the townships of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder, used to promote and market the area. 
 
Mary was hired with the idea that she would answer the phones, open the mail, take minutes at the board meetings and that type of thing.  Very quickly Mary’s competence and work ethic had her taking on greater and greater responsibility. A misunderstanding of the law created some confusion that made it look like Mary could not be paid in keeping with her actual skills, but after that was straightened out, Mary was named the full time Executive Director of the LTTA.  Under her leadership, the Lutsen, Tofte, Schroeder area had the fastest tourism growth in the state for several years in a row. In fact, Mary did such a great job, that she was hired away from us by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to run their regional tourism program, which she has done with distinction for almost 20 years.
 
All through those years, Mary kept ownership of her home in Tofte, visited frequently and took a keen interest in local goings on.  She always maintained that her heart was in Cook County and that someday she would like to move back here.  Well, that day has come and we will all be the better for it. Welcome home, Mary.
 
Everyone who loves speed and excitement will be glad to know that the Midwest Extreme Snowmobile Challenge will be returning to Lutsen Mountains April 15th through 17th.  This is a huge event that will attract more than 500 riders, including some of the best racers in North America.  The Lutsen event is perhaps best known for the hill climbing competition, which provides a thrilling experience for spectators.  The purse this year should be around 40 thousand dollars, so you can be sure the riders will be taking this seriously. 
 
A few people have questioned if Lutsen Mountains will have enough snow for the event and the answer is an emphatic yes. The Mountain management plans carefully for this event and with their ever-expanding snow making capability, they have plenty of snow for a great event.  You can go to Lutsen.com for details.  As I always say, “be there or be square.”
 
Speaking of snow, there is still at least a foot of snow still covering the ground once you get a few miles back from Lake Superior.  Even though it’s melting fast, it is not unusual at all to see significant snowfalls in April and even occasionally in May. In spite of a very warm winter overall, the snowfall back in the woods was pretty hefty.  As of this writing, I’ve recorded 85 inches of snow this winter here at Sawbill.
 
The warm weather, combined with early snow did do strange things to the lake ice this year.  The ice never got more than two feet thick, which is at least a foot less than normal and half of what we’ve seen in cold years.  The average ice thickness right now on Sawbill Lake is 19”, but some of the narrows are already opening up, making lake travel treacherous already.  I can’t recommend going out on the lakes anymore this season, but if you do, go with a friend, take your rescue picks, a throw rope and enough dry clothes in a waterproof bag for a complete change from the skin out.  As my dad always used to say, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 

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West End News: March 24

Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen will be presenting information regarding scams that are being perpetrated on local citizens, especially senior citizens, in a talk at the Cook County Senior Center in Grand Marais on Wednesday, April 13th starting at 12:30 pm.  He’ll share information on what the most popular scams are, how to recognize them and how to avoid being taken in.  There will be time for questions after the presentation.
 
I just finished reading a fascinating book called, “The Confidence Game” by Maria Konnikova.  Ms Konnikova delves deeply into the psychology of scams, why they’re so common and why they are so successful.
 
Although the term “confidence game” only dates back to the mid-1800s, the technique of swindling people by gaining their confidence goes back to earliest recorded human history and most likely quite a bit farther back than that.
 
“Confidence game” was coined by a scammer in New York City who would approach strangers on the street, strike up a friendly conversation and then ask them if they had the “confidence” to loan him their watch until the next day.  By appearing reasonable, friendly and trustworthy, he had a nearly perfect record of talking people into loaning him their watches, which they never saw again.
 
The stages of a successful swindle are pretty standard.  It starts with careful observation and gathering information about the victim or mark.  The victim is approached in an innocent and friendly way, to establish a small kernel of trust.  Then the victim is invited to participate in an activity that will benefit them in a small, but certain way.  The scheme quickly and easily earns the mark a little money, further cementing the trust between the new friends.  This step is often repeated, with the payouts getting slightly bigger each time.  The next step is a manufactured crisis, seeming to put both the scammer and mark in serious danger of losing everything. The biggest step comes when the scammer miraculously finds a way out of trouble for everyone.  All the mark has to do is temporarily put up a large sum of money, which the scammer often will match, promising a way out of the dilemma, with a huge payout as a bonus.  Of course, the money and the scammer disappear forever, leaving the mark much poorer and very embarrassed.  Many scammers add an additional step, called “the fix” where they manipulate the mark into the decision not to report the crime. By some estimates, more than half of criminal scams are never reported.
 
It turns out that confidence swindlers are actually taking advantage of some nearly universal quirks of the human brain.  Although effective scamming was no doubt developed by trial and error, it has long become so sophisticated that it is nearly impossible to resist. 
 
Think about magic shows that you have seen.  Magicians, or illusionists as they are sometimes called, can make you believe that they are doing impossible things before your very eyes. They are exploiting the same brain quirks and bits of human behavior that the scammers do.  The difference is that illusionists do it for entertainment and acknowledge that they are fooling you.  Scammers take your money and ruin your life.
 
I am personally amazed that someone can be so cold as to make their living by taking advantage of others, especially the most vulnerable members of our society.  As it turns out, one of the major traits that define a psychopath is a complete lack of empathy for others.  While not all psychopaths are scammers, all scammers are, at least to some degree, psychopaths.
 
Of course, Konnikova’s book goes into much more detail, especially in looking at how modern brain science is revealing how the hard wired parts of our nature allow the con artists to take advantage of us.
 
All of this leads me back to Sheriff Eliasen’s important upcoming presentation.  The only effective way to avoid being scammed is to educate yourself about common scams and the methods behind them.  Armed with that knowledge, you are not only less likely to fall for a scam, but the con artists will recognize your knowledge in the early stages of their game, which makes you a risky mark for them. They will likely move on to another, more naïve victim, before you even know that you’ve been targeted.
 
I hope Sheriff Eliasen will repeat his talk in the West End soon.  If you want more information about the April 13th session, call the Sheriff’s Department or WTIP.
 
On a more pleasant subject, the word is out that conditions are quite good on local snowmobile and ski trails.  Inland lakes are also in good condition for recreation travel right now and will probably stay that way for a couple of weeks.  Downhill skiers are reporting nearly perfect conditions at Lutsen Mountains.  With the longer, warmer days ahead, it is the perfect time to get outside and enjoy the fabulous West End.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 
 
 

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When not chasing rabbits, pine martens can sometimes be found eating bird seed

West End News: March 17

 
Everyone was pleasantly surprised this week by the announcement from Cliffs Natural Resources that they would re-open Northshore Mining in mid-May.  The plant in Silver Bay has been in shutdown since December, causing the layoff of 540 employees.  The good news came because the domestic steel market has picked up a little faster than many industry experts were predicting. Even the threat of curtailing sales of below cost steel from foreign producers seems to have perked up the market, along with a number of other factors.
 
The bottom line for the West End, though, is that many of our immediate friends and neighbors will be back to work full time – and that’s a relief.
 
I was a little distressed to hear that the Silver Bay city council banned the sale of Bent Paddle Beer in their municipal liquor store. The reason given was Bent Paddle’s membership in the Downstream Business Coalition, which is a group of about 80 regional businesses that support clean water and sustainable economic development. Full disclosure: I’m a member of the coalition, so I’m biased on this subject. However, I think the city council would reconsider if they could have a good conversation with the fine folks at Bent Paddle Brewery. The coalition is very supportive of iron mining and doesn’t even oppose sulfide mining. It is just opposed to the risk of water pollution that historically accompanies sulfide mining.
 
It’s all a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but I would like to point out that the only purchase that I made in the Silver Bay liquor store this year was a couple of cases of Bent Paddle Beer. I do think, no matter where people stand on the sulfide mining issue, that spirited discussion is healthy for our communities and people should not be threatened with business retaliation for their honestly held political opinions.
 
Mining news continued last week with a couple of serious setbacks for the proposed Twin Metals mining project near Ely. Governor Dayton wrote a public letter to the company expressing his grave concerns about sulfide mining directly upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  The Governor said he was unwilling to allow the risk of pollution in the wilderness, calling it “a crown jewel of Minnesota.”
 
Just a few days later, the Bureau of Land Management denied automatic renewal of two key federal mineral leases that have been held by Twin Metals for decades. These two developments, along with a depressed global metals market, may well spell the end for the Twin Metals project, at least for the foreseeable future. Time will only tell.
 
The 2016 Great Place Project is accepting applications until the end of March. The Great Place Project a collaborative effort of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce and the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic’s Moving Matters initiative. The Great Place Project is a friendly, local opportunity for funding of high impact, low cost ideas to create great places in our communities. Funding amounts range from $250 to $1,250 per selected project. This year, the Minnesota Power Foundation has joined as a major sponsor of the Great Place Project.
 
The theme for 2016 is “playability.” Projects that enhance or create a place that welcomes people with a playfulness or whimsy, especially for children, will be favored. You can find more details, examples and some really fun and well-produced videos by googling “Great Place Project – Cook County.”
 
It was a good week for animal viewing on the back roads. I saw a pine marten chasing a snowshoe hare down the road. The pine marten ducked into the woods as I drew near, but the exhausted rabbit could barely climb over the snow-bank. Moments later I passed a second marten that was closing in on the rabbit from the other direction. I have little doubt that the rabbit became lunch not too long after I passed.
 
The next day I saw three lynx on the road. The largest of the three cats stayed on the road, but kept glancing toward the woods, where I spotted two adolescent kittens. Once the kittens ran off, the adult followed, disappearing with two effortless leaps.
 
It’s always a thrill to see wildlife in the woods. It reminds me why we love living here in the West End.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Sarah Somnis

West End News: March 10

Another year and another set of West End Township annual meetings is in the record book.  On Tuesday, Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen all held township elections and the grand meetings where the township budgets and tax levies are discussed and settled.
 
This was a pretty harmonious year for the townships in the West End, with very little in the way of hot topics. Congratulations to all the candidates for supervisor, clerk and treasurer, who ran unopposed and won overwhelmingly. 
 
The only contested election was for township supervisor in Tofte, where Birch Grove Community School Board member Sarah Somnis defeated six-year incumbent supervisor Jim King by a nearly two to one margin. Both Sarah and Jim gave heartfelt speeches when the results were announced, expressing their admiration for each other and wishing the best for Tofte. Jim said that he is turning 76 soon and is looking forward to having a little more time to enjoy retirement. He also mentioned his pleasure in seeing younger members of the community, which he defined as under the age of 50, stepping up to take leadership roles.
 
Sarah wanted everyone to know that she had nothing to do a somewhat negative political cartoon that was put in some mailboxes in Tofte just a few days before the election. The cartoon, which was based on the Angry Birds smart-phone game, was pretty mild by today’s political standards, and did show some real creativity. But, it’s unfortunate to see any negativity when the two candidates are so friendly and respectful to each other.
 
I would like to join the entire community in thanking Jim for his service and tireless work on behalf of Tofte over the last six years. I know he will be helping as much as he can in the future, too.
 
Congratulations to Julie’s Hardware in Silver Bay for the major store renovation that is nearing completion. Owners Faron and Angie Meeks had been thinking about upgrading their already thriving store for a couple of years. When they heard the news that Cliffs North Shore Mining was shutting down for an unknown period of time, they considered putting their own plans on hold.  But, after thinking it over carefully, they decided to demonstrate their faith in the Silver Bay community by moving forward with a significant investment. Do stop by to see their impressive hardware store the next time you are in Silver Bay.
 
Finland’s own virtuoso guitar player, Gordon Thorne, is offering a couple of cool community events in the near future. Starting last week, Gordon will be hosting a guitar workshop at the Clair Nelson Center in Finland every Tuesday night from 6 to 7 pm.  On April 8 and 9, Gordon will be hosting the 6th Annual Fingerstyle Masters Weekend at the Bluefin Grille in Tofte. This year’s masters will be guitarist Pat Donohue and fiddler Tom Schaefer. Pat is a longtime member of “Guy’s Shoe Band” which is the house band for the nationwide radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” Tom is a well respected Twin Cities musician who plays in many groups, including the Mark Krietzer Band and Cousin Dad. In an interesting bit of West End trivia, the band known as Cousin Dad was actually given their unusual name here at Sawbill back in the 1980s.
 
You can find workshop registration information at the WTIP website. You can buy tickets to the April 9 Saturday night concert at Bluefin Grille at the door or instructions for getting them in advance are also on the WTIP website. As I always say, be there – or be square.
 
Dan and Clare Shirley, who have recently returned to make their home in Tofte, were alerted to good northern lights last week by a Facebook post from Amy Freeman, who has been camping in the BWCA Wilderness, without coming out even once, for the last six months. Clare reported a decent display over the north end of Sawbill Lake that was made even more special by the repeated calls of a nearby Barred Owl. Clare and Dan did their best imitation of howling wolves, but weren’t able to raise a response from the real wolves.  The whole experience took place under remarkably clear star-filled skies with temperatures in the comfortable lower 40 degrees with no wind.…just another night of routine entertainment here in the remarkable West End.
 
 
 
 
 

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Cascade River

West End News: March 3

Birch Grove Community Center was hopping on Tuesday night when 88 people showed up for the Democratic Farmer Labor Party caucus night. In Cook County as a whole, 462 Democrats participated in their party caucus. I’ve attended the caucuses pretty reliably for my whole adult life and I’m pretty  sure that this year set the all time participation record. It even beat 2008, when Senator Barack Obama was causing a lot of interest in the presidential race.
 
I couldn’t find specific numbers for the four Republican precincts in the West End, but county wide, 109 Republicans participated in their caucuses. Best guess is somewhere between 30 and 40 West Enders caucused with the Republicans, which is also a very good turnout.
 
One of the most interesting outcomes on the Democratic side was a resolution opposing the sulfide mining in Minnesota that passed easily in the precincts from the North Shore all the way through the greater Ely area. New polls are showing growing resistance to this new form of mining across the northland and around the state. The resolutions were careful to distinguish the difference between mining sulfide ores and the existing taconite mining, which is supported by the DFL Party.
 
The Birch Grove Community Center sure is looking busy and successful these days. It was great to see it bursting with happy and engaged community members, cheerfully engaged in making their community and country a better place for all.
 
As always, it was fun to see the students’ artwork on the walls. One especially eye-catching display featured the students work in a slide show displayed on computer tablets mounted on a hallway bulletin board.
 
Birch Grove Community School Board member, Sara Somnis called to tell me about ten computer tablets that were recently purchased for students to use. This is part of a major trend in education as sophisticated learning apps are becoming cheap and commonplace. This trend works especially well for small, but highly motivated rural schools like Birch Grove. Sara also reported that new laptops were purchased for each teacher, making their work easier and more efficient.
 
Birch Grove is selling its old desktop computers and accessories to community members. So far the sale has raised more than $600, which will be used to buy more tablets. Much equipment remains to be sold, so if you’re looking for an old, but serviceable desktop computer, or other computer furniture and equipment, call Caroline at Birch Grove to schedule a shopping trip.
 
In a not-unrelated item, remember that the annual meetings for the Townships of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder are on Tuesday, March 8. Voting stations at the town halls are open from 5 until 8 pm with the annual business meeting starting right away at 8. 
 
Township annual meetings are the essence of the old saying that “the world is run by those who show up.” The annual budget and the priorities for the coming year are literally proposed and voted up or down by the residents who attend the meeting.  It’s also a great way to meet your neighbors and eat a few cookies together.
 
I urge everyone to attend their township annual meeting and I especially urge all to vote in favor of significant township investment from all three towns in the Birch Grove Community School and the Birch Grove Community Center. In my opinion, it is money very well spent and provides tremendous benefit to the entire West End.
 
Word is out the Cascade River is in great shape for skiing. You can hike up past the falls from the highway to ski up the river, or you can get dropped off at the Pike Lake Road Bridge and ski down to the highway. My sources said the trail is solid, smooth and well broken for both ski and snowshoe travel.
 
The Temperance River is also looking good. When we get into the warm/cold-night cycle next week, it is likely to develop a good crust, which will make it an ideal track for skate skiers. Of course, any time you travel on a river you should travel in a group, stay alert for hazards and carry rescue ropes and dry clothing.
 
My motto is, “When the river skiing is good, drop everything and go!” I doubt that anyone ever lay on their deathbed and regretted too many river skis. It’s just one of the perks to living in the beautiful and ever-changing West End.
 

(Photo courtesy of Cascade Property Rentals)

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Snow fleas

West End News: February 25

I was very excited to see a healthy looking cow moose on the road the other day. It seemed to have a thick winter coat and was not wearing a collar.  Why was I excited? Because I drive the back roads of the West End as much as anybody and I almost never see a moose anymore.
 
When our kids were in school, which was less than 10 years ago, we saw many moose – so many that the kids became blasé – barely willing to be roused from their reverie to take a look at even the most magnificent moose. It was so routine as to be bordering on boring.
 
Everyone knows that the moose are disappearing from Minnesota, but no one really seems to know why. In the last year, I’ve read conflicting expert opinions, including too many wolves, too many ticks, too much hot weather in the summer, not enough cold weather in the winter, climate change in general, over-hunting, habitat loss, viruses, not enough logging, too much logging and most recently, too many deer.
 
With all due respect to wildlife biologists, it really seems that nobody knows. And, none of the expert opinions strike me as being completely objective and non-political, no matter how well intentioned.
 
I certainly don’t claim to know what the problem is, but I’m beginning to suspect that it may be unknowable. It may be the case that the sheer complexity of a functioning ecosystem is beyond the ablility of the human brain to fully understand. In other words, life in the forests of northeastern Minnesota may be connected in so many subtle and intricate ways that it may not be possible to tease out the one, six or a dozen causes for moose population decline. It is at least possible that the there are hundreds, if not thousands of ecological relationships that can alter forest dynamics resulting in the simple fact that the moose can no longer survive here.
 
The moose are not the only species that is in flux during the last decade. All over the world, animal populations are declining or growing in unexpected ways. Even a casual observer here in the West End can tell you that there have been many changes over the last half century – literally dozens of species that used to be common and are now rare, and dozens more that were never seen here and are now common. It could be reasonable to conclude that whatever is causing this general trend may be causing the moose decline.
 
Switching from large wildlife to tiny wildlife, I was delighted to see a large outbreak of snow fleas this week. Snow fleas are tiny black insects that mysteriously appear on snowbanks in the middle of the winter.  They are called snow fleas because, although they are no larger than a speck of dust, they are prodigious jumpers. They appear in flocks, or perhaps swarms might be more accurate, and as you draw near to inspect them they jump so fast and far that they give the illusion of just abruptly disappearing.
 
I should point out that they are not actually fleas and do not bite. Their taxonomic name is Collembola, and while they are in the group that includes insects, they technically are not classified as insects. Their eyes are not proper compound eyes, their abdomen has fewer segments and some special extra appendages that insects don’t have. They are commonly known as springtails, due to a couple of appendages that look like tails that play a large role in their incredible jumping ability.
 
The sources I read are a little vague about why the snow fleas emerge on the surface of deep snow during warm late winter days. I feel like they are more common when the snowpack is deeper. It is a fact that they are cute and interesting, occupying one of the more unique ecological niches in the woods.
 
There is plenty of snow over the hill this year for the snowfleas and everyone else who enjoys snow. I measured 32” on the deck this morning. That is down a little since the rain we had last week.

Slush remains a serious impediment to travel on the lakes, at least in the Sawbill area. The slush has been bad all winter, but finally started to freeze up during the last cold snap. Sadly, just a day or two later the rain brought it back with a vengeance. It has been common this year to see camping parties head out on Sawbill Lake with full camping gear only to see them return a few hours later, get in their cars and leave.
 
Hopefully, the late winter cycle of freeze and thaw will soon create a crust on the lakes and rivers that will make travel a joy and the epic slush of 2016 an unpleasant memory.
 
 

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