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West End News

Clare Shirley

Clare Shirley

Clare Shirley owns and runs Sawbill Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail in Tofte with her husband Dan. Clare was born in Grand Marais and grew up in Tofte. Clare is a third-generation Outfitter, and third-generation West End News writer. Clare follows in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Bill and Frank Hansen, long time West End News columnists.

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.


What's On:
Fires grate, latrines and boardwalks waiting to be transported into the BWCA Wilderness by dog team.

West End News: March 7

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The Tofte Post Office is officially cutting its window hours starting Monday, March 11.  From that day forward, the window will be open from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m. and then again from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.  The post office boxes will be accessible from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., six days a week.  Saturdays will have the same morning window hours that are currently in place.
In the future, the post office is aiming to change the front door locks so box holders can access their boxes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  That change will obviously require some security measures to be put in place but, in this day and age, that should be an easy problem to solve.  That change would be a nice convenience to help make up for the cuts in window service.
The postmaster’s job in Tofte has been technically unfilled since Priscilla Reviere retired a few years ago.  All the postmasters since then have been temporary replacements.  The new window hours will change the postmaster position from a full-time job with benefits to a part-time, six-hour-a-day job without benefits.  This change is a double-edged sword because it eliminates a well-paid full-time job from the West End.  On the other hand, it will still be a desirable part-time job.  The two-hour break over the lunch hour, though, will essentially guarantee that the job will go to someone who lives near by.  No one will want to commute to the job and be forced to kill two hours every day with no pay.
The new postmaster position will be offered soon.  Anyone interested should watch for the posting to go up in the Tofte post office.
Our local Forest Service wilderness rangers are in the midst of an interesting project that occurs annually at this time of year.  They are using a dog team to transport heavy fire grates, latrines and boardwalk timbers into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  The items are stashed in central locations that can be accessed by their maintenance crews during the summer as needed.
Here at Sawbill, the team of friendly huskies is being wrangled by Nancy Mondalexis from Ely.  Local wilderness rangers, Tammy Cefalu and Dan Disch, are working with her to get the materials situated before the warm weather arrives.  It’s a great example of smart and efficient government work, providing a service that ends up creating a lot of economic benefit to the West End communities.  On top of that, it looks like a lot of fun.  Somehow, it just seems right to see working dogs doing a significant job in the wilderness.
Congratulations to Tess Dornfeld on her triumph at Sven and Ole’s world championship joke telling contest recently.  Tess won the “Best Scandinavian Accent” category at the event and took home a $25 gift certificate to Sven and Ole’s and a plaque.  I am proud to say that Tess is one of the many fine Cook County residents who first came to the county as a Sawbill Outfitters crewmember.  She currently works for Waters Edge Trading in Tofte and at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op.  Her mother, Carol Winter, was also a Sawbill crewmember back in the ‘70s.  Her parents own land near Grand Marais and are planning to start building a retirement home here this year.  Tess gets her accent knack from her mother, who also can tell a good joke in a perfect Scandinavian accent.
I highly recommend the cover article on the Feb. 20th issue of Time Magazine.  The more than 30-page article by Steven Brill is entitled: ”Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.”  Brill’s in-depth analysis of how health care is priced, charged and paid for in the United States should be required reading for every American. It’s a great example of how careful, objective journalism can serve our society. But, for those of us in Cook County, it serves another purpose. It reminds us how lucky we are to have our local clinic and hospital.  Both the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic and the North Shore Hospital work hard to provide us with high quality, personalized care at reasonable prices.  I have no doubt that health care professionals across the country are, with few rare exceptions, dedicated and sincere in their efforts.  The system though, especially the payment system, is absurd and out of control. In my opinion, it reflects more poorly on our political system than on our health care system.  Read the article and see if you don’t agree.

Ellis "Bud" Tormondsen - photo by Terry Backlund.

West End News: November 28

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I am always sad when I hear that we’ve lost another member of “the greatest generation.”  Last week, World War II Marine Corps veteran Bud Tormondsen passed away. His parents were North Shore pioneers Chris and Metelda Tormondsen.  Bud was a popular and well-respected Tofte resident for his entire life. I know many people who made a point of stopping to visit Bud each time they traveled up and down the shore. 
Just before his death, the young Norwegian filmmakers who were working around the county recently discovered Bud.  They were particularly charmed by him and hoped to feature him in their film project about Norwegian Americans.  I’m afraid that his illness and death kept that from happening, at least in the depth that they were hoping for.
I join the whole community in offering condolences to Bud Tormondsen’s family and friends.
Cook County Higher Education is offering a three-day advanced welding course March 23 though March 25.  The instructor is Don Hammer, an amazingly skilled and experienced welder, artist and renaissance man.  I can vouch for Don’s teaching skills because I took his basic welding course a couple of years ago.  He was good at giving clear instruction and very encouraging, even to those who were among the welding-challenged, a group in which I was clearly a member.  When Don met with me at the end of the course to critique my project, he inspected it carefully, gave constructive criticism, and concluded by saying, “You did OK, but when you show this to people, please don’t tell them that you made it in my class.”  He was joking… I think.
Skilled welders are in great demand in today’s world. Contact Cook County Higher Education in Grand Marais at 387-3411 for more information.
Cindy Hansen and a friend from the Cities went for a snowshoe hike on Sawbill a few days ago and discovered a dead otter.  Otters keep holes open here and there along the lakeshore so they can get under the ice for feeding.  This otter was lying just a few yards from an access hole.  The snow was beaten down for about 15 feet all around the carcass.  Unfortunately, it had snowed that morning, so Cindy couldn’t tell what tracks were at the scene.  The ravens had been feeding for a little while, but the body was surprisingly intact.  Only the major organs had been removed.
I did some research and couldn’t find any mention among otter experts about otters killing each other, so we think it must have been a larger predator.  I figure that a wolf would have been inclined to eat the whole thing if it had the chance.  One local expert guessed that it might have been a bobcat or lynx.  He said that he has heard of the big cats waiting by the access holes to grab otters when they pop out.  In any case, it was an interesting find.  Nature isn’t always pretty, but it is always interesting.
A couple of quick reminders: First, remember that the bloodmobile will be at Zoar Church in Tofte in the afternoon of Monday, March 4.  Call Carla Mennson at 663-0179 look for the Duluth-based Memorial Blood Center online if you would like to donate.  Second, remember that AARP volunteer income tax preparers will be at Birch Grove Center every Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. between now and tax day.

Boreal Owl

West End News: February 21

The boreal owl is a very small owl that used to be fairly common around here, but has mostly disappeared in recent years.  At the moment though, there is a well-documented irruption of boreal owls occurring in northern Minnesota. 
The word “irruption,” spelled i-r-r-u-p-t-i-o-n, is often confused with the word eruption, as in the eruption of a volcano.  Irruption with an “i” means the influx, in unusually large numbers, of a species into an area where they normally aren’t seen.  Biologists are guessing that a lack of prey farther north is driving the little owls south this year.
Most people probably haven’t noticed this latest irruption because the boreal owls are nocturnal and are silent when they aren’t breeding, so they are rarely observed unless you’re looking for them.  It’s only when they make a rare daytime appearance, or when they die in a place near humans, that they get noticed. 
Here are Sawbill, I found a dead boreal owl while plowing our canoe yard after the most recent snowfall.  It’s fun to see such a rare bird close up, but sad that it had to die for me to be able to inspect it.  It’s always a surprise to pick up an owl.  The one I found was about the size of a small grouse, but only weighed about four ounces.
Another phenomenon that may be occurring this year is bobcats appearing at bird feeders.  When the snow gets deep but hasn’t developed a crust, which is the case right now, the bobcats have a hard time catching prey.  When they get hungry enough, they start to show up at bird feeders, especially if there is a suet feeder that can be robbed.  I’ve heard a few reports of bold bobcats around the West End this week, but we haven’t seen one here at Sawbill yet.
Recently, I’ve noticed that there are a large number of job openings in the county.  I don’t know if this is a good sign, or a bad sign.  It could be the result of the improving economy - or it could reflect a migration out of the area by the people who formerly held the jobs - or it could just be a coincidence. West End visitors often ask me about job openings in the area.  It seems many people fantasize about moving to our wonderful community, and who can blame them?
The new water pipeline, erosion control projects and high-speed ski lift at Lutsen Mountains will surely mean many construction jobs in the near future.  The ski area is also looking into replacing its 50-year-old gondola soon.  Superior National golf course is planning a large upgrade too.  With the continuing fiber optic project and Highway 61 construction, things should be hopping around Lutsen for the next few years.
If you know somebody who has always wanted to move up here, now might be a good time.
The Bloodmobile is returning to Zoar Church in Tofte Monday, Mar. 4.  It’s important to maintain a good blood supply, but even more important is the chance to hang out with your neighbors and catch up on what everyone is doing, while drinking juice and eating cookies.  New donors are always needed, so if you’re interested call Carla Mennsen at 663-0179.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons. This image is a work of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.)

West End News February 14

West End News February 14

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Logging has increased along the Sawbill Trail over the last couple of years.  Almost every month a new logging site or road appears, along with the commuting loggers, heavy equipment and - of course - logging trucks.
The industry has come a long way since the horse logging days.  It is now almost entirely done with big harvesting and processing machines.  Like many modern industries, this has drastically increased productivity, but reduced the number of workers.
Back when I first came to the West End, there were temporary logging camps where the lumberjacks lived in shacks that were dragged from one site to another. The lumberjacks used chainsaws to fell, limb and cut the trees to length.  Rubber-tired skidders pulled the trees out to a landing where they were typically cut to the 100” length required by the pulp mills. The lumberjacks were a colorful group of mostly older men who worked incredibly hard, played hard and often drank hard. Now, lumberjacks are skilled machine operators who live in town and are respected members of the community.
This week a new logging road appeared along the Sawbill Trail, cleared out by two cats in just a day or two. The road is actually a section of the old Sawbill Trail that was abandoned back in the mid-1990s when the Sawbill Trail was reconstructed from the end of the blacktop on the Tofte end, to the Grade Road, six miles south of Sawbill Lake.  When that project was in the planning stages, an alert engineer noticed that the Sawbill Trail and the Grade Road were parallel to each other for a little over two miles.  The county was planning to rebuild the Sawbill and the Feds were planning to rebuild the Grade, so they combined the two roads along the route of the Grade and abandoned a couple of miles of the old Sawbill Trail.
Not only did the scheme save everyone money, but it eliminated the most twisty and dangerous section of the Trail.  That stretch ran over a series of eskers, which are steep ridges of gravel that were deposited by the receding glaciers in the last ice age.  When the road was built, back in the ‘20s, the easiest thing was to put the road on top of the eskers, resulting in a narrow, twisting road with steep drop-offs on both sides.  You can still see this phenomenon in the West End along the Honeymoon Trail, among others.  On the Sawbill, the curvy section included one notorious bend that was widely known as “Dead Man’s Curve.”  I never heard if anyone actually died there, but many cars and trucks wound up in the woods at the bottom of the steep slope.
Right after the road was abandoned, it was a favorite for grouse hunters, but it only took a few short years before wind fallen trees and new growth made the old road impassable, even for hiking.  Sometime this week, I’m going to go in to see how far the logger has cleared the old road, and revisit that stretch of eskers. With a little luck, I may even get to visit my old friend, “Dead Man’s Curve.”
Back when the Sawbill Trail was rebuilt, the county planned to pave it. It was very controversial at the time. Eventually, a compromise was reached that resulted in a complete rebuild, but left the surface gravel and the road as narrow as possible.  Now, 20 years later, it seems that the paving is on its way, probably in 2014. 
Paving the Sawbill Trail somehow just feels wrong, but the engineers make very convincing arguments for the safety, maintenance, and environmental benefits of paving.  There is less gravel mining needed, no dust to kill roadside vegetation, less sediment washed into trout streams and far better braking distances and vehicle control. In addition to all those benefits, the traffic on the Sawbill Trail is busy enough in July, August and September, that the gravel forms terrible washboard that literally shakes vehicles apart.  Paving has become unavoidable, but the county plans to keep the road to its current width with no new construction.
There is good news and bad news considering the current amount of snow back here in the woods.  The good news is that right now there is 28” of snow on the ground.  The plowed-up snow banks here at Sawbill are over 6 feet high and impressively deep.  The trees are also loaded with snow, so it really is a good old-fashioned winter scene at the moment and ideal for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The bad news is that if it snows again, I’ll have to shovel the roofs of several large buildings here on the property. Shoveling roofs used to be a routine chore, often needing to be done twice a winter and even three times in a snowy year.  In the last 10 years, I’ve only had to shovel twice.  Shoveling roofs is the kind of job that is only fun for about 15 minutes.  After that it is just hard, boring work.  The invention of the iPod has made it slightly more interesting, but does nothing to prevent aching arms and a sore back.
As I’ve said many times before, though, it’s the price we pay to live in paradise.

Airdate: February 14, 2013

Moose capture - photo courtesy the Minnesota DNR.

West End News: February 7

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Two of the young Norwegian film makers who where around the county last summer have returned for the month of February to finish their interactive, multimedia project about Norwegian Americans on Minnesota’s north shore.  They are part of a collective of young Oslo area photojournalists who call themselves “Lutefisk Hotel.”  Their north shore project is called “The Norwegian Riviera.”
When they arrived in the county, Kristian Bålsrød and Anton Ligaarden advertised a request for housing, so we let them stay in our crew house here at Sawbill.  It was fun to have them around for few days.  They are certainly skilled photojournalists, which you can see for yourself by looking at their website at  Also, Anton received word while here at Sawbill that his work has been nominated for “picture of the year” by the Norwegian Nation Photojournalism Association.  That is a high honor to earn at the tender age of 22.  Congratulations Anton.
Like all young Norwegians, they speak English very well, with only the occasional humorous translation error.  While having coffee at our kitchen table, Kristian exclaimed, “Oh look, there is a woodchuck on your bird feeder!”  Seeing the look on our faces, he quickly said, “no - a woodchuck is a small mammal. I mean woodpecker.”  He followed that by asking what the large red bird on feeder was called.  When we replied that is was a pine grosbeak, Kristian responded, “What? Pine roast beef?”  It was good for a laugh, but I must admit that I can’t even pronounce the four Norwegian words that I know correctly, so my hat is off to Norwegian language education.
Ann Rider, who lives in Lutsen, is a well-respected and successful editor of children’s books.  She works for Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  She is one of a number of Cook County residents who have successful businesses that operate in the larger world, but fly under the radar here in the county. 
In the world of children’s books, the highest honor you can receive is a gold or silver medal from the American Library Association.  The Caldecott Medal is awarded for the best illustrations and the Newberry Medal is awarded for the best writing.  A book that Ann edited, “Sleep Like A Tiger,” illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski and written by Mary Logue, just received this year’s silver Caldecott Medal.  This is a big deal, but almost routine for Ann.  Her books have previously won two gold Caldecotts, two silver Caldecotts and a silver Newberry.  The awards go to the illustrators and authors, not the editor, but Ann is invited to the ceremony and is the recipient of high praise from the winners.
The DNR moose collaring operation has moved out of Cook County.  They are working now in the western end of the Superior National Forest, but are very close to completing their task of collaring 100 moose.  They have some dramatic pictures of shooting moose with tranquilizer darts, installing the collars and taking various biological samples.  You can easily find their pictures and daily updates by going to the Minnesota DNR website and entering the key word “moose.” 
While I’m supportive of the research and the results will be fascinating, there is a small part of me that feels sorry for the moose.  It can’t be much fun to be chased by a helicopter, shot with a tranquilizer, subjected to numerous humiliating probes and pokes and then be left with a ear tag and a collar to wear until you die.
It also seems obvious to me that the moose decline in northern Minnesota is just one of hundreds of signs that the climate is changing and the ranges of all species are moving north.  I wonder sometimes if it isn’t easier to study the problem than to get to work solving the problem.
Speaking of climate change, Minnesota Power announced last week that they are shutting down one of the three coal-fired turbines at their Taconite Harbor power plant in Schroeder.  Unit three at Tac Harbor is actually the newer of the three units.  The power plant was actually designed to have six turbines, to be built in stages as needed.  Unit 3 was added to the plant a few years after the original two units were built.  Being a few years newer, it was the most efficient and least polluting unit at the plant until a few years ago when extensive pollution control equipment was installed on Unit 1 and 2.  Minnesota Power figures that it wouldn’t pay to put pollution control equipment on Unit 3 in the face of impending federal limits on CO2 production.  CO2, especially from coal-fired power plants is a major cause of climate change.
Minnesota Power didn’t say when Unit 3 would be closed.  I notice when I drive by that it is still going strong.  The good news is that they don’t expect anyone to lose their job due to the closing.  The bad news is that the handwriting seems to be on the wall for the eventual closing of the whole plant.  That will be a serious economic hardship for Cook and Lake Counties, if and when it happens.  On the other hand, climate change is now obvious for all to see and I would sure hate to lose the moose in our woods.


Art Wright being interviewed by Mary Alice Hansen - photo by Bill Hansen.

West End News: February 1

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Last week I visited with Art Wright at his home in Duluth. Art was born in Duluth in 1913, but lived in Grand Marais for a time when he was a young boy.  He’ll be turning 100 in a couple of weeks. Art’s father was the purser on the steamship America.  His mother was the teacher at the Maple Hill School just north of Grand Marais.  She received her teaching certification when she was 16 years old.  Art’s parents met on the America when his mother was traveling to her new job.
During the visit, my mom, Mary Alice Hansen, and my son, Carl Hansen, filmed an interview with Art about his boyhood memories in Grand Marais and his time growing up aboard the America.  They did the filming on behalf of the Cook County Historical Society.
I knew that Art was an avid wilderness canoeist for his whole life, so I asked him when he took his first canoe trip in the BWCA Wilderness.  He said his first trip was in 1928 when he and some friends went to Kekekabic Lake.  His first trip starting at Sawbill Lake was in 1930 or ‘31. 
Art recalled around that time that he and a friend were returning to Sawbill from a long canoe trip and encountered a large floatplane at the Sawbill boat landing.  As the young men approached the landing in their canoe, the pilot taxied away from the landing, right past their canoe.  Floatplanes make a huge wake when they taxi at slow speed and it caught Art and his friend off guard and they were dumped, with all their gear, just a few yards short of their take-out point.  Art commented mildly that they were “not too happy with the pilot.”
If you’ve driven through Tofte lately, you can’t help but notice the beautiful new building that has gone up at Sawtooth Outfitters. The owners, Jeff and Sarah Lynch, had the building designed by an architect to mimic the look of the Sawtooth Mountains. The beautiful custom windows pick up the motif of the trees on the hills.
The old Sawtooth Outfitters building was quite small, especially considering that the owners also live in the building. The new building still includes the Lynches’ home, but they will have more room for themselves as well as expanded space for their retail store, along with their existing ski, bike and canoe and kayak rental business.  For the first time, they will have a public bathroom for their customers.
The Lynches made a point of hiring local contractors for the big job.  The primary builders are Tyler Norman and Jared Boen.  As all buildings should be now days, the 3,200-square-foot building is highly energy efficient and utilizes off-peak electric heat, a wood stove backup and passive solar heat from the south-facing windows.
They are fully open for business now and will have a grand opening celebration in the spring.
The moose capture and radio-collaring project was active along the Sawbill Trail last week. The researchers, their mobile laboratory and helicopter were set up at the Moose Fence ski trail parking lot for a couple of days. DNR wildlife manager, Dave Ingebrigtsen, reported 31 moose had been captured and collared so far, including five cows and four bulls along the Sawbill Trail.
Their goal is to collar 100 moose. When a collared moose dies, the researchers will attempt to get to it as soon as possible to conduct an autopsy and ultimately try to answer the question of why the moose population is declining.
The team had cleared a helicopter landing spot here at Sawbill, but finally decided not to collar moose that might wander into the wilderness before they die, which would complicate the access for autopsy.  I understand the thinking, but we were disappointed to miss out on the excitement.  We are easily entertained at this time of year here in the backwoods.
Jerry Gervais, the famous Snowmobile Doctor from Tofte, had a man walk into his yard the other day.  The man had quite a story to tell.  He was staying at Temperance Landing in Schroeder with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and 1-year-old grandchild.  The family decided to have dinner at the Trestle Inn, with the younger couple snowmobiling there and the older couple taking the baby and driving.  They looked at a map and decided to drive to the Trestle by going up the Sawbill Trail and then cutting across the 600 Road, not knowing that in the winter the 600 Road is actually a snowmobile trail. 
They managed to get their Honda Civic onto the 600 Road and drove for quite a ways before they realized their mistake. By that time, they were afraid they would get stuck if they tried to stop or turn around, so they decided to keep going. 
After driving five miles on the 600 Road, they came to the intersection with the Tofte snowmobile access trail. Seeing the sign that said, “This way to Tofte,” they decided to head down the actual snowmobile trail to Tofte. They made it another five miles before they reached the snowmobile bridge across the Temperance River and became hopelessly stuck. 
The grandfather left his wife and grandchild in the car and continued walking down the trail. He followed the signs for almost another five miles to the Snowmobile Doctor, figuring correctly that he would be a good person to help them. Jerry quickly rounded up some help, two snowmobiles and a sleigh and rescued the grandmother and grandchild.  The next morning, Paul James, from Tofte, pulled the car out using the Tucker Sno-cat that he uses to groom the local snowmobile trails.
It’s actually fairly common for people to attempt driving their cars on groomed snowmobile trails and getting stuck, but they usually don’t get very far.  The Sno-doc says that he’s no fan of Honda Civics, but he had to give some credit to the little car that became a fairly functional snowmobile for at least 10 miles.


West End News: January 24

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The most common question that we hear from our customers here at Sawbill Outfitters is, “What do you do in the winter?”  They seem to feel that when the canoeing season ends, there must not be very much to do.
I thought about this as I struggled to cope with the brisk West End weather that we had this week. The first chore was to plow and shovel the eight inches of snow that fell over the weekend. As I stepped out of the plow truck a wind gust almost knocked me over. The blowing snow created a total whiteout and branches were flying sideways through the air. 
By morning, the temperature stood at 22 below zero. We make our own electricity here at Sawbill and the first thing I noticed was that our diesel generator hadn’t started during the night when our battery bank triggered the automatic start circuit.  The batteries were still providing power, but just barely. 
The last thing I wanted to do before breakfast was to trudge through the squeaking snow to the diesel shed to diagnose the generator failure.  It turned out that the propane tank heater on the big diesel engine had been blown out by the strong wind gusts the night before. With the heater re-lit, it only took about half an hour before I was able to get the rig running.
The next thing I noticed was that our backup propane furnace was off line. The wood-fired boiler was keeping us plenty warm, but I’m always nervous when there is no backup for a critical system. I had to work my way through five levels of the troubleshooting guide before I discovered that the fresh air intake on the furnace had been packed with snow by the same pesky wind gusts the night before. 
Relieved to have everything working again, I headed back to the house for breakfast, only to discover that our radiotelephone system was not working. At first I suspected a power outage in Lutsen, where our base station is located. But after some checking, I found that the electric light bulb, that provides just enough heat to the little radio shed to keep the radios working, had burned out.
After replacing the bulb, I was happy to head back toward the house to warm up my cold fingers and finally eat breakfast. But before I got there, I noticed that the diesel had shut itself off. So I passed right by the warm house where breakfast was waiting, and headed back to the diesel shed.  The diesel fuel, which is supposed to be fine down to 40 below, had gone from a liquid to a solid in the fuel lines. By that time, the sun was high enough in the sky for the solar panels to start charging the batteries, so all I had to do was wait for the air to warm up to a balmy 16 below and the fuel thawed itself out.
Breakfast was really more of a brunch by the time I got around to it, then the normal daily chores began.  It’s just the price we have to pay to live here in paradise.
I’d like to express my condolences to the family and many friends of my friend, Jim Johnson, who passed away this week.  Jim made many contributions to the community, but over the last eight years he served very honorably as a Cook County Commissioner.  Jim always led by example.  His calm and friendly demeanor belied the passion he felt for public service.  He did more for us than we will ever know and did it with dignity, patience, respect and a good sense of humor.  He will be sorely missed.
Eight teams eventually signed up for the Birch Grove January boot hockey tournament.  I look forward to reporting the action and the results next week.
Remember that Birch Grove is looking for members to join their “Keep It Moving” team for the month of February. All you have to do is go to the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic website, sign up for the Birch Grove team and log your walking, skiing, running or biking miles, or minutes of other exercise. You are also cordially invited to Birch Grove on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. for gentle exercise or walking.
If you are of pre-school age, save the date for the “Winter Wonderland” event at Birch Grove on Feb. 4. This is the annual fun day for pre-school children, their families and caregivers.  More details will become available as the date draws nearer.

Canada Lynx caught on West End trail cam.

West End News January 17

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It looks like a part of the new moose research project that is being coordinated by the Department of Natural Resources might come to Sawbill.  DNR wildlife biologist Dave Ingebrigtson, from Grand Marais, stopped by recently to let us know that public parking lot here at Sawbill might be used as a helicopter landing pad starting this week.  It may include a fuel tanker, support crew and a heated trailer used by state veterinarians as a portable laboratory.  He even mentioned the possibility of a moose being brought into the parking lot in a sling under the chopper.
Dave said the activity, or lack of activity, here at Sawbill will depend on where moose are found and many other details related to the research.  I sure hope they end up here because it would be fun to watch the research at close range – and it’s always entertaining to have a helicopter in the neighborhood.
About 15 years ago, the DNR was doing a project near here that involved using a helicopter to spread tree seeds.  The pilot, who was a private contractor, landed here at Sawbill a couple of hours before his fuel truck arrived, so we invited him to kill time by joining us for lunch.  At the end of the meal, he pushed his chair back, looked at our two younger children and asked if they would like a ride.  He insisted that we all go, two at a time.  He had spent years giving rides at county fairs, so he really knew how to show the yokels a good time.  It is one of our family’s favorite memories, all the more so for being so unexpected.
I don’t reckon we’ll be so lucky this time around, but it sure would be fun to be in a helicopter that was flying close enough to a moose to shoot it with a tranquilizer gun.
The new skating rink and warming house at Birch Grove is now fully open for business. With this extended cold snap that has settled in, the skating should be ideal.  The lights are on until 10 every night and the warming house is open most of the time.
The popular boot hockey tournament held at the Birch Grove skating rink already has four teams signed up for the contest scheduled for Friday, Janu. 25.  If you want to get in on the January tournament, you should email right away and you can probably still squeeze in.  A second tournament is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 9 and it’s not too early to register for that. A team consists of five or six players who are at least 12 years old.  Each game is 25 minutes long and the tournament runs until a champion is crowned.  Regardless of their win/loss record, each team will receive a complimentary Sven and Ole’s pizza, thanks to Sven and Ole’s and Grand Marais State Bank.
Birch Grove is also recruiting West End residents to its Keep It Moving team.  This is part of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic’s program that has businesses and organizations in Cook County tracking how many miles they have walked, run or biked to be plotted as distance around Lake Superior.  The idea is to see how many virtual circle tours your team can make around the big lake and compare that with your friends and neighbors’ efforts.  You can join the Birch Grove team, log your miles and keep track of the progress on the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic website.
Even though it is rare to see a moose these days, lynx sightings continue to be fairly routine here in the West End.  I saw two lynx on my way to Ely last week, and another West End resident shared a lynx photo that their trail cam captured.  It’s sure good to have the big cats around again and it looks like there are plenty of snowshoe hare for them to eat at the moment.
I drove over to Ely because I was invited to a meeting with Sen. Al Franken on the issue of the state owned school trust lands in the BWCA Wilderness.  The issue of school trust lands goes all the way back to when Minnesota was declared a state.  Over the years, this has been a political football that has been kicked all over the field and even occasionally out of bounds.  The meeting I attended was made up of business owners whose businesses are directly tied, in one way or another, to the BWCA Wilderness. 
The issues surrounding these state land holdings are unbelievably complex, detailed and arcane.  I couldn’t begin to go into them here without causing a quick and sharp drop in listenership.  But, I will say that I was very impressed with how thoroughly Sen. Franken is striving to understand the issue.  He is meeting with federal, state, county, township and school officials, mining concerns, business people, environmental interests, hunting and fishing interests and anyone else he can find who cares about public lands and/or public education.  He likely now knows more about the issue than any other living person and will be using that knowledge to guide the drafting of any future legislation.  It was a pleasure to see a politician doing his homework so thoroughly and thoughtfully.
While on the subject of politics, I hope my fellow gun owners will join me in supporting some long overdue common sense regulations.  The scorched earth politics of certain gun advocacy groups have long annoyed me. It’s time to set aside wild fantasies of government conspiracies and do what we need to do to protect our children from guns that are manufactured for only one purpose – to kill lots of people very quickly. The time has come.
Airdate: January 17, 2013

Geologist John Green and Forest Service employee Mary Igoe install the new geology display at the Gunflint District Office.

West End News: January 10

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Back in the woods, winter is holding its own a little better than in the rest of the region.  Here at Sawbill, as of Jan. 9, we’ve had a season total of just less than 30 inches of snow.  Between normal settling and a couple of heat waves, there are 10 inches left standing on the ground.  It’s kind of sad, and a sign of the times, that we now welcome every inch of snow as a big event.  Not too many years ago, a four-inch snowfall was barely worthy of comment. 
Joe Fredrickson, from Silver Bay, who was injured in an accidental explosion at the power plant in Schroeder way back at the end of October, came home from the hospital on Christmas Eve after more than two months at the Miller-Dwan Burn Unit in Duluth.  His recovery has been painful, slow and difficult, but when he rolled into Silver Bay, the town’s people lined the streets to cheer and welcome him home.  Although it is a little hard to read, you can follow Joe’s progress at his Caring Bridge site by searching it for Joseph Fredrickson.  His steady progress and hard work will eventually bring him to full recovery, but it is a hard road that he has to walk.
I just received word that my friend, Tom Parent, originally from Schroeder and recently from Silver Bay has passed away at age 57.  The Parents are pioneers in Schroeder and trace their regional roots back for countless generations.  I’m sure I join the whole community in offering my condolences to Tom’s family and friends.
I’d like to add my congratulations to Art and Lavonne Anderson who were recently named Schroeder Citizens of the Year.  Their kindness toward their neighbors was mentioned in the recognition.  I can only say that they probably should have been named Citizens of the Decade, but otherwise the honor couldn’t be better placed.
The BWCA Wilderness overnight permit reservation system is slightly different this year.  All reservations for the entry points in Cook County can be reserved on a first come, first served basis starting at 9 a.m. Jan. 30.  Each entry point has a daily quota on the number of parties that can begin their trips that day.  The reservation system used to be a little more complicated, but now that almost all permits are reserved online, it has been streamlined and is really very easy and convenient.  The website is, which is the main portal for all federal facilities.  Once there, it is easy to find the BWCA Wilderness and follow the simple steps to reserve the permit for your canoe trip.  You only need to know for sure which entry point you will use and the date you will actually enter the wilderness.  Where you travel in the wilderness, how long you stay, how many people in your party and where you exit the wilderness can all be flexible right up until you actually start the trip.  If you don’t like booking things online, there is still a toll-free number available.  You can get it by contacting any U. S. Forest Service office.
The forest service office in Grand Marais has recently installed an interesting lobby display on the geology of Cook County.  Well-known geologist John Green created the display, which tells the rich and fascinating story of Cook County’s 2.7-billion-year geological history.  John’s credentials as an expert on our geology include a full career teaching at UMD, an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. from Harvard.  I can’t wait to see the display.  I’ve always wanted to know more about our geology, but could never make it through the geology textbooks.  Honestly, reading a geology textbook puts me to sleep faster than being hit over the head.  A lively display with actual rocks to pick up should save me from the embarrassment of keeling over and snoring right in the forest service lobby.

Sawbill Crew Reunion on Sawbill Lake at Midnight on New Year’s Eve.  Photo by Carl Hansen, Hansen International Productions.

West End News: January 3

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It is always hard to find news for the West End immediately after one of the annual peaks in the tourism industry.  It really is kind of a “no news is good news” situation.  When things are going well, as they did last week during that magic time between Christmas and New Year’s day, it seems like all West End residents are either working or enjoying the company of their own visiting friends and family.
This year, the weather cooperated with the holiday season to give everyone a wonderful winter experience.  Based on what I saw around the area, it was busy, busy, busy.  I think it’s likely that it was busier than last year, which continues a multi-year trend rising out of the recession that began back in 2008.  The county-wide lodging tax figures through November confirms the trend of a slow but steady increase in business.  Comparing apples to apples, May through November lodging revenues rose 6.5% compared to last year.
Speaking of tourism, the Los Angles Times recently published a story about the declining moose population in Minnesota.  The article was generally pretty favorable to our area, even though the focus was on kind of a sad subject.  The reporter, Andrew Khouri, contacted Sally Nankivell, who directs the Cook County Visitors Bureau, for background information as he was writing the article.  Sally found herself in the awkward position of trying to describe the annual moose rut to a thoroughly urban reporter.  Sally tried to use gentle euphemisms, but when it became clear that the reporter was just getting more confused, she had to give it to him straight.  The conversation caused a few uncomfortable silences, but eventually professionalism on both sides carried the day.  In the article, Kourhi refers delicately to the “moose mating season” and leaves it at that.
If you are fascinated by the habits of moose and all the other flora and fauna of the West End, the North Shore Stewardship Association is offering a Northwoods/Great Lakes Master Naturalist course at Sugarloaf Cove in Schroeder.  The course consists of six Saturday sessions, starting in February and ending in May. You will study the fascinating geology, plant and animal communities, inland lakes and bogs, ecology and human interactions of the Northwoods and Lake Superior.  Field trips are a key part of the curriculum.  At the conclusion, you will be a certified Minnesota Master Naturalist by the University of Minnesota Extension service.  You can register at the Minnesota Master Naturalist webpage.
Here at Sawbill, we host an annual reunion of our summer staff, both current and former, over the New Years holiday.  This year we had about fifteen young people here, playing broomball, skiing, snowshoeing, eating and generally celebrating the time between canoeing seasons.  We are lucky to attract very accomplished and interesting employees who quickly become honorary family members during their summers at Sawbill.  A number of them are living in the region now, scattered between Duluth and Grand Marais.  Over the years, at least a dozen of our summer employees have settled permanently in Cook County.  I’m pleased that they are all productive citizens of our beautiful community.  Who knows how many of next year’s crop will end up here as well?