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West End News

Bill Hansen

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.


What's On:
Jacob Schmidt sings the National Anthem

West End News: October 11

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Our local rock and roll legend, Jacob Schmidt, who also goes by Cobi Mike and Jacob Michael, is already pretty famous as the singer and lead guitar player for the band Gentleman Hall.  Gentleman Hall tours widely, but is based in the Boston, Massachusetts area, where Jacob formerly attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music.  Last week, his national fame went up another notch when he sang the national anthem at the New England Patriot's Gillette Stadium before their sell-out game against the Denver Broncos.  The national anthem is notoriously difficult to sing and many good singers have embarrassed themselves while performing it.  I'm proud to say that Jacob represented the West End well with his powerful, expressive and mistake free version. And it drew an enthusiastic response from the huge crowd.  Jacob's mother is Carol Perkins, from Lutsen, and his father is Jim Schmidt, from Grand Marais.  I suppose it won't be too long before we see Jacob accepting an Emmy Award!
Among the other important political races that are being run in front of next month's election, is a proposed constitutional amendment to require voters to present a piece of photo identification to be eligible to vote in any election in Minnesota.  In my view, this is the most cynical, anti-democratic and un-American political effort since the dark days of segregation and legal discrimination.  The effort is all the more insidious in that it sounds perfectly reasonable on its surface.  For most of us, showing a photo ID is not a problem and who could oppose a measure to prevent voter fraud?  The reality is that there is no significant voter fraud in Minnesota elections and this Voter ID amendment is a deliberate attempt to prevent certain people from voting.  It is not coincidence that the people who will have trouble voting under the new system are more likely to vote Democratic and those that support the amendment are more likely to vote Republican.  I strongly believe in strict election standards, but resorting to trickery and confusion to gain an electoral advantage is deeply un-American.  They are essentially saying that some Americans have more right to vote than others.  This is just plain wrong and we should send a strong message from the voting booth that all Americans have the right to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice.  I urge everyone to support the concept of one person - one vote, and vote no on the Voter ID amendment.
We were deeply saddened last week when a couple of canoeists lost their lives on Alton Lake.  They apparently died of hypothermia when there canoe overturned in high winds.  Although the couple embarked from Sawbill, we did not know them.  They were, by all accounts, experienced and careful campers who were properly dressed and equipped. They were found floating in the lake, near their overturned canoe and were wearing their life jackets.  We may never know why they weren't able to swim to shore and save themselves.  Our hearts go out to their family and friends.
I must say that the quick response and professionalism of the Cook County Sheriff's Department, the Cook County Sheriff's Rescue Squad, the Minnesota Highway Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service was impressive.  Even though this was a recovery effort and not a rescue, it was heartening to see such a high level of preparedness and competence.  My sincere thanks to these public servants who perform such difficult jobs on our behalf.
This was the week when I performed the annual resort owner’s ritual of draining down the summer water system.  In the past, this chore was traditionally done in September, ideally a few days ahead of the first really hard freeze.  The goal is, of course, to keep the pipes from freezing and bursting.  In recent years, we've been able to keep the water flowing well into October.  Of course, nearly every year, once the pipes are drained, a bit of summer returns with a week or two of balmy weather.  So you heard it here first, I predict the next week or two will be warm and sunny.

Alton Lake at the rise of the full moon.

West End News: October 4

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It was a golden week in the West End – in more ways than one.  The weather was nearly perfect and the colors were at their peak.  As a result, there was a perfect storm of tourism as people flocked to the area for the beauty, hospitality and culture. 
All of the events that happened in the West End last week came off with no hitches and all had good attendance.  The Birch Grove Community Center celebration was very well attended and Birch Grove Foundationa Director Patty Nordahl wants me to thank everyone 0n her behalf.  She singled out Matt Kartes, Bill Huggins, Eric Frost, Doug Nordahl and James Coleman for their hard work getting the new wood-fired bread and pizza oven finished and cured in time for the ribbon cutting.  She also thanks Roger Michaelson for cutting the ribbon on the oven, a memorial to his wife Muriel, and Ginny Storlie, who cut the ribbon on the new skating rink and warming house, dedicated in memory of her husband Derald.  Finally, Patty gives special thanks to all the volunteers who got the playground installed.  A couple of former Birch Grove students commented that they would like to re-enroll in elementary school, just so they could enjoy the new playground and tennis court!
Patty is also gauging interest in the possibility of a beginning T’ai Chi class at Birch Grove.  Give Patty a call at 663-7977 if you are interested.  Patty also mentioned that several classes are being considered for exploring the various uses of the wood-fired oven.  Let Patty know what your ideas are for the oven – whether as a student, or an instructor.
The Sawtooth Mountain Clinic office at Birch Grove will be open one day a week throughout October.  Call 387-2330 for appointments.
Before we leave Birch Grove, mark your calendar for Zoar Church’s annual Lutefisk Supper, scheduled for Saturday, November 10th at Birch Grove.  This is a time-tested community event with deep cultural roots that run all the way back to Scandinavia.
Another long-standing community event is the North Shore Health Care Foundation Golf Tournament, held at Superior National in Lutsen, on Sunday, October 7.  The traditional 19th hole reception will once again be hosted by the ever-generous Lutsen Resort.  As always, be there, or be square.  You can find details at the North Shore Health Care Foundation website.
There are two really cool historical presentations coming up. Cook County Higher Education is collaborating with the Cook County Historical Society to bring up Todd Lindahl, from Two Harbors, who will present “Passenger Boats of the North Shore” on Thursday, October 18, from 7 – 8:30 p.m. at the North Shore Campus in Grand Marais.  I know Todd and he is an interesting and entertaining expert on North Shore history.  Call 387-3411 if you have questions.  Of course, treats are provided.
The second historical gathering is the annual story telling dinner, sponsored by the North Shore Fishing Museum in Tofte and held at Lutsen Resort.  This year the event will feature Adolph Ojard, who is Executive Director of the Seaway Port Authority in Duluth.  Adolph is a Knife River native, who grew up commercial fishing with his grandfather on Lake Superior.  His mother is Marion Torgerson, from the Isle Royale Torgersons.  December 1st is the date and reservations can be made by calling Lutsen Resort at 663-7212.
Almost every party returning from the BWCA Wilderness last week reported hearing wolves howl.  We’ve heard them almost every night here at Sawbill as well.  One couple from Michigan heard the wolves howl so close to their campsite, that they were also able to hear the brush rustle as the pack passed by and the sound of them lapping up water from the lake. 
Hearing wolves and seeing their sign is one of the signature experiences that draw people to the forest and wilderness.  Sadly, many wolves will be killed next month when the wolf hunting and trapping season begins again after many years of wolves being strictly protected.  I have no objection to hunting or trapping, but I feel strongly that the wolves have more economic value to the local community when they are alive, rather than as a trophy in someone’s den.
I always enjoy asking our outfitting guests about what they do for a living.  At an outfitter, it is nearly impossible to guess what people do by looking at them.  One customer, a few years ago, was returning from her trip and was extremely dirty.  Her clothes were filthy, her face was covered with soot and, frankly, she smelled bad.  She was an interesting conversationalist, so I asked her what she did for a living.  She informed me that she was a federal judge.  I was surprised and did a little double take.  She caught it and said, “Does it surprise you that a woman is a federal judge?”  “No”, I replied, “It surprises me that someone so dirty is a federal judge.”  She laughed and said, “You should see me in my robes!”
This spring, we had a customer who is an accomplished and well-known trumpet player.  Last week, we had a customer who is an accomplished and well-known trumpet maker.  Besides being genuinely interesting people to meet, I was able to connect them as friends on Facebook and who knows what beautiful music might be the result.  It’s a small world here in the West End.

Photo by Tom Spence, Tofte. 

Tyler Campbell and Carl Hansen are successful grouse hunters.  Photo by Anna Larson.

West End News: September 27

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It is always a joyful time when a baby is born in the West End.  This week, it was particularly fun to welcome Brookstyn Candice Nordman-Nelson to the community.  According to her grandmother, Lisa Nelson, manager of the Tofte General Store, Brookstyn is already showing extraordinary beauty and intelligence in her first week of life.   Brookstyn has deep roots in the community.  She lives in Schroeder with her parents, Carah Nordman and Dusty Nelson.  Her grandparents, besides Lisa, are Randy Nelson, of Tofte, Sue Nordman, from Grand Marais and Mark Nordman, formerly of Grand Marais.    Most notable of her many other local relatives, is Eileen Netland, of Tofte, who is Brookstyn’s great-great grandmother.  It is not too often that you hear of someone who gets to meet their own great-great grandchild.  Congratulations to all the families involved and a very special congratulation to Eileen.
Speaking of the Tofte General Store, it is good to hear that they are almost through the paperwork required to participate in the SNAP program.  SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is a very important federal and state program that includes food stamps and the women, infants and children program that provides nutritious foods, at low cost, to hard working people who have low incomes.  The SNAP program helps 46 million people every month receive the nutritious food that they need to thrive.  Having the program available in the West End is crucial to the well-being of our residents.  Without a local grocery store that offers SNAP, people are forced to drive long distances or shop at convenience stores that don’t offer much in the way of nutritious staple foods.  If you are interested in SNAP, talk to Lisa at the Tofte General Store.

Saturday, September 29th is a big day in the West End.  Birch Grove is holding a grand opening for the various construction projects that have been going on for the last several months, starting at 2 pm.  There will be speeches, of course, and treats, and lots of opportunity for conversation.  I was particularly pleased to learn that the new wood-fired bread and pizza oven will be dedicated to the memory of Muriel Michaelson.  The skating rink and warming house will be dedicated in honor of Derald and Ginny Storlie.  Derald loved ice-skating with a passion and used to spend a lot of time struggling with the old skating rink to make it usable.  He was actually skating when he died, much to young, from an aneurism. 
The Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder is having a wonderful program about the Hall and Lyght logging families of Lutsen, starting at 1:30 on Saturday the 29th.  If that wasn’t enough, the Superior Cycling Association is cutting the ribbon on the new Britton Peak mountain biking trails at the trailhead, two miles up the Sawbill Trail, in Tofte at 4 pm.  If you plan carefully, I think you could make it to all three events.  In any case, it is wonderful to have so many healthy community events going on at once.  The West End is a great place to live and getting better all the time.
While on the subject of a healthy community, remember that the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic is providing flu vaccines in the West End on Wednesday, October 3rd.  The first clinic will be at Moon Dance Coffee Shop in downtown Lutsen from 8:30 until 10 am and then again at Birch Grove from Noon until 1 pm.  There is a small charge for the vaccination.  If you want it charged to your insurance company, bring along your insurance info.
Finally, if you want to see beautiful fall foliage, now is the time, as long as you get back in the woods away from the big lake.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the color this year.  For a while it looked like the leaves would just dry up and fall off without offering much of a color show.  I’ve seen better years, but the color is really quite vivid right now.  If you like grouse hunting, throw the shotgun in the car because hunting has also been pretty good.

Photo courtesy: The Sugarbush Trail Association

West End News: September 20

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Construction is winding up at Birch Grove School and Community Center in Tofte.  The new playground is mostly done, thanks to the efforts of many volunteers.  The wood fired bread-baking oven is also nearly done, except for a few finishing touches.  The warming house has a little way to go, but won’t be needed until the rink freezes.  The way it’s felt lately around here, that could be next week, but more likely in early December.
All the Birch Grove projects will be celebrated at a grand opening on Saturday, September 29, starting at 2 p.m.  There will be wood- fired pizza served along with the cutting of the ribbon.  The Cook County Community Fund will be holding their board meeting at Birch Grove at the same time.  The Community Fund has long been a generous supporter of Birch Grove, along with many other important community efforts.  The Fund will be announcing their latest grant recipients at the celebration.  Again – it starts at 2 p.m. and you can call Patty at 663-7977 if you have questions.
There will be another grand opening celebration in Tofte the same day, September 29, at 4 p.m., for the new single-track mountain bike trails at Britton Peak.  Meet at the Sugarbush parking lot, two miles up the Sawbill Trail.
West End residents, remember that there are some interesting courses being offered soon by Cook County Higher Education.  Mark Abrahamson will be leading a course in outdoor emergency care.  This 100 hour course is offered through the National Ski Patrol and is a combination of online lecture and onsite skill training.  The course begins on October 12 and takes place on Fridays and Saturdays.  Classes will be held at the North Shore Campus and at Lutsen Mountains Ski Area.  
Don Hammer will be teaching his excellent Basic Welding course.  I took his course a couple of years ago and can personally vouch for Don’s skill as a welder and a teacher.  I passed the course, but when Don was critiquing my finished project, he asked that when I showed it to people, I not mention that I made it in his class.  I think he was kidding…
The Minnesota Office of Tourism has confirmed the feeling we’ve had here in Cook County that tourism business was up a little bit this year.  Their research is showing that lodging is up 3 to 5 % statewide.  Most of the other tourism related businesses are reporting a strong year as well.  A couple of other positive indicators include increased visitor counts at the tourism information centers across the state and increased inquiries to the Office of Tourism.  My own indicator of statewide tourism related to fishing is that the DNR ran out of fishing regulation booklets, that are handed out with each fishing license sold, about a month ago.
I’d like to add my condolences to the Pavelich and Burmachuk families for the tragic and untimely loss of the wonderful Kara Pavelich.  Kara was a life-long resident of Tofte and Lutsen and had roots in the county that go back to the pioneer days.  She made many contributions to the community, but a whole generation of West End residents of a certain age will always remember her as their talented, patient and lovely piano teacher.  She will certainly be missed and remembered fondly by all who knew her.

Moose with tree.  Photo by Charles Petricek

West End News: September 13

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Cindy and I were watching the Twins game last week, when she suddenly said, "Wait, pause, go back!  I think I see our friend Walter in the crowd behind the batter."  I quickly rewound a few seconds and she said, "No, I'm sorry, it's not Walter."  At which point I said, "That isn't Walter, but look on the other side of the batter and you'll see Kyle Nelson and Diane Blanchett."  Sure enough, there were the two West End residents, big as life, at the Twins game.  They looked like they were having a good time.  All I want to know is how did they get those great seats and can they get them for us!
John Groth, from the Lutsen Fire Department and the Lutsen post office, called the other day to remind me of the 17th Annual Lutsen Fire Department Pacake Breakfast Fundraiser.  This year, it is being held on Sunday, September 16th, from 8 to 11 am, at the Lutsen Fire Hall.  The Fire Hall is located on the corner of the Caribou Trail and Highway 61 in Lutsen.  This isn't just your ordinary pancake breakfast.  The pancake recipe is a famous secret, if that's not an oxymoron.  The syrup is donated by local maple syrup producers, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that it is the best in the world.  The syrup alone is worth the price of admission.  Also, the new fire truck will be on display and you can also observe the progress in the construction on the new fire hall, although only from a safe distance.  Again, that's Sunday, September 16th from 8 to 11 am.  Call John at 663-7702 if you have questions.
As always, there is a lot going on at Birch Grove.  The new playground equipment is being installed by volunteers.  More volunteers are needed.  There is a work session scheduled for Friday, September 14th at  3 pm and Saturday, September 15th at 9 am.
The Birch Grove Community lunch is back with the return of the school year.  It is held on the second Tuesday of every month.  It starts at 11:30 and there is a small charge.  Everyone is welcome and the food is delicious.
The new wood fired bread oven at Birch Grove should be done by the time you hear this.  It was built in cooperation with North House Folk School and should provide us all with yummy bread and pizza for many years to come.  Thanks to the students, volunteers and North House for making this happen.
Tim and Charles Petricek from Racine, Wisconsin are frequent campers in the area.  They are amateur photographers and have a real knack for finding interesting wildlife.  Over the years they have photographed just about every big animal that we have in the woods.  Last weekend, they were fishing on a local lake when they saw a cow moose swimming across the lake.  They were too far away to get a picture of that moose, but within minutes a giant bull moose entered the water in pursuit of the cow.  The bull, which has one of the biggest racks I’ve ever seen, swam right past Tim and Charles and they were able to get good pictures.  The really interesting part was that the bull had a small tree stuck in it’s antlers.  Some people have all the luck.

Noah Horak - on the road

West End News: September 6

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Noah Horak is a native son of Tofte. His parents are Jan and Kathy Horak, who own Cobblestone Cabins. Noah, who is 28, quit his job as an electrical engineer several months ago and is riding his motorcycle around the world for at least the next two years.  He spent the first few months exploring Canada, Alaska, and the western United States.  He was home in Tofte for the month of July, then headed for Europe.
After being in Europe for just a short time, his motorcycle was stolen, in broad daylight, in Dublin, Ireland.  What could have been a disastrous ending to his adventure turned into a real blessing when he was adopted by the motorcycle community in Dublin.  He was not only given outstanding hospitality, but they arranged for a replacement cycle and gave him shop space to put it into condition to continue his trip.  They also pulled out all the stops to find his stolen cycle, and eventually the bike was located and recovered.
Noah is now back on the road, currently in Scotland where he reports great scenery, friendly people and good trout fishing.  He is writing a blog and posting many spectacular pictures documenting his adventure.  You can find it by googling "rtw with noah," as in “round the world with Noah."  It’s clear from his blog posts that Noah’s outgoing and friendly personality is serving him well in his travels. The only really bad part of this story is how jealous I feel every time I read his blog…
Speaking of big adventures, Dave and Amy Freeman, from Lutsen have just passed a major milestone on their epic journey around North America.  Dave and Amy technically live in Lutsen, but in reality, they live on the trail, while they complete a 12,000 mile trip by kayak, canoe and dogsled through the U.S. and Canada.  They started out from Seattle in 2010, traveled by kayak to Alaska, hiked over the mountains, paddled a canoe up the Yukon River – yes, you heard that correctly, they paddled upstream on the Yukon - then dog sledded across the Northwest Territories and canoed from Great Slave Lake to Grand Portage.  That would be enough for most people, but Dave and Amy headed east down the Great Lakes in kayaks this spring and just this week they entered the Atlantic Ocean between Maine and New Brunswick.  They have turned south and will wind up in Key West, Florida eight months from now.
This is not vacation for them.  They do it as part of a web based curriculum that they offer to schools all across the country.  They now have hundreds of thousands of students that follow their travels in real time.  The students become quite involved in the trip and learn a variety of valuable lessons along the way.  Right now, the trip is scheduled to end in Key West, but the last time I talked to them, they were toying with the idea of continuing around the Gulf of Mexico and on down to Central and South America, with the possibility of ending up back in Seattle a few years from now.  You can follow Dave and Amy’s adventure online at  Again, the sin of jealousy arises every time I read their blog, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying their adventures vicariously.
For those of us holding down the fort here in the West End, there is a wonderful opportunity to pursue higher education without having to travel outside the county.  Cook County Higher Education, based in Grand Marais, has been quietly helping people achieve their dreams by going to college right here in Cook County.  In the last fifteen years, more than 500 people have completed college degrees or certifications through this innovative program.  The wonderful staff at Cook County Higher Ed will help you form your education plan and will support and encourage you while you complete your studies.  They charge nothing for their services, as they are a non-profit supported by public funds as well as considerable foundation and private support.
I especially encourage any West End residents who would like to go, or go back to college, to check out Cook County Higher Education.  They are especially skilled at helping people who have been out of school for a long time, or people who didn’t have a good experience with school in the past. They will do whatever it takes to make sure that you are successful.  There are many other interesting things happening there, but they are too numerous to mention here.  You can find them on the web by searching Cook County Higher Education, or call them at 387-3411.
The recent holiday weekend was noteworthy for its great weather and great fishing.  The weather was essentially perfect, which usually isn’t good for fishing, but contrary to tradition, fishing was excellent.  In the more than 50 years that I’ve been in the Cook County tourism business, I’ve never seen a holiday weekend that was so ideal.  It’s so unusual, that it makes me worry that it might be the first sign of the coming apocalypse.  Mark my words, within the month it will be raining frogs around here.   Or maybe we just get lucky once and awhile.

Sauna - photo by Pete Kratochvil

West End News: August 30

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For a couple of days this week, the pace of the summer tourism slowed down and all West End residents took a collective deep breath.  I had lunch at a local restaurant and the staff was commenting that it was slow that day.  Looking around, I thought that in any other restaurant, it would have been considered a busy day.  All things are relative.  Of course, the few slow days before the Labor Day weekend are just an illusion, blown out of the water by the slightly crazy holiday weekend.  We'll have to wait for the sales tax figures to confirm it, but it feels like this was one of the busiest July and August seasons in many years.
My mom, Mary Alice Hansen, was going through some old boxes recently and came across my kindergarten and first grade report cards - or "growth records" as they were called in the late 1950s.  I was relieved to see that my growth back then was satisfactory to my teachers.  They both described me as "cooperative and well groomed."  My kindergarten teacher, Miss Pedersen, wrote a nice little paragraph about my interest in music. She noted that my singing was enthusiastic and on key.  She added that I was particularly interested in listening to music.  I guess it's true what they say about everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten.
My first grade teacher was named Miss Eich and she was well into her 70's when she taught me in 1959.  I distinctly remember her telling us that she started teaching when she was 18 years old.  That meant that she started teaching right at the beginning of the 20th century.  Back then you could get a teaching job with a high school diploma.  She was an excellent teacher, commanded the absolute respect of her students and had high expectations.  Her methods were definitely old school, but effective.  I wasn't exactly scared of her, but I made sure to never get on her bad side.
The reason I bring all this up is that a customer came in this week and in the course of chatting, we discovered that she too had been taught by Miss Eich at Endion School in Duluth, although several years earlier than I.  I ran to my mailbox to retrieve my old report card and we reveled in the nostalgia of seeing Miss Eich's beautiful, flowing cursive again after all these years.  We both were slightly shocked to see her first name, Estelle, because we never would have dreamed that she actually had a first name.  She was, and always will be, Miss Eich to us.  It is a testament to good teachers everywhere that we both remember her so clearly and favorably more than 50 years later.
The construction projects at Birch Grove School and Community Center are progressing nicely.  Although much work remains, the basic elements are now clear.  Next week, the HOBBITs invade Birch Grove to start construction of the community, wood fired bread-baking oven.  If you are passing by, stop in and take a look at all the progress.
Mark your calendar now for the Cross River Heritage Center's wine and beer tasting gala on Thursday, September 20, from 7:00 - 9:00 p.m.  Also keep in mind the upcoming program titled: Lutsen Lumbering: Hall and Lyght Family Lumbering Operations, on Saturday, September 29 at 1:30 pm.  This should be a fascinating presentation on two of Lutsen's most respected pioneer families.  Both sound like a lot of fun and details can be had by calling Suzanne at 663-7706.
Finally, you can catch Arnold Alanen speaking about his book "Finns of Minnesota" at the Silver Bay Public library on Tuesday, September 4 at 6 p.m.  The talk will highlight the the culture of Minnesota Finnish Americans, including their history of cooperative ventures, political involvement and, of course, saunas.  The program is free and sponsored by the Friends of the Silver Bay Public Library.  Maybe the whole audience can adjourn to one of the fine local saunas after the show!

Mink Frog

West End News: August 23

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I always love reporting on the activities of West End entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are the engine of our economy, so it gives me great pleasure to report that the business formerly known as Nelson Towing in Tofte, is growing and thriving.  Pam James, from Tofte, along with her husband Paul, bought the towing business from the late Bud Nelson several years ago.  Recently, Pam has significantly grown the business.  The new name, Cook County Towing, reflects her expansion of the business to cover all of Cook County.  She purchased new equipment and now has service based in Hovland in addition to Tofte.  Jay Messingbring will be manning the Hovland tow truck, bringing his valuable mechanical knowledge and excellent reputation to the business.  Cook County Towing has been also now been authorized to offer AAA towing in all of Cook County.  We use Pam's services fairly often here at Sawbill and I can vouch for her professionalism and quick response times.  Congratulations to Pam and Paul on their continuing success.
I was driving into Tofte late at night last week, when I was startled to see a number of unidentified flying objects out over Lake Superior.  I've seen several strange lights out over the lake during my lifetime and almost every West End resident seems to have had similar experiences.  This time, the mystery was quickly solved though.  As I drove by the beach near Bluefin Bay Resort, I saw that a group was launching small, home-made hot air balloons, made from plastic garment bags and birthday candles.  I've seen this done before, but the difference this time was the sheer number - there must have been 50 or more of glowing orange objects in the air.  It was a breezy night, so the balloons were quickly swept out over the lake as they gained altitude.  While I was watching, some of them even disappeared into the clouds.  It was undeniably a beautiful sight to behold, but it may raise some questions about safety and littering.
Tom Berg, who is a part time resident of Schroeder, and an all around good guy, has written a book that will soon be published by the University of Minnesota Press.  The title is "Minnesota's Miracle" and is a political history of a time when Minnesota's state government was famous for it's efficiency and effectiveness.  Tom was an influential member of the legislature during those years and had a hand in creating a lot of well-respected legislation.  He describes the book as a "highly readable political science text book."  The book will be available in bookstores around October 1st and hopefully Tom will be doing local book signing events shortly after that.  For a political geek like me, this is big news indeed.
The big cell tower that AT&T wants to construct near Ely will now be built after a law suit has run its course through the courts.  The 450-foot tower, equipped with flashing lights, is controversial because it will be visible from some lakes within the BWCA Wilderness.  While some people view this as a wilderness issue, I see it more of a cell tower issue.  I feel like most people don't want a huge tower visible from where they live, work or play.  In my opinion, it would be better public policy to have more shorter towers that are sited and/or disguised so they have the least possible impact on the local scenery - especially in places of outstanding natural beauty.  For the phone companies, it is an issue of cost, with the taller, uglier towers being cheaper and quicker to amortize.  As I look at my monthly cell phone bill, I quickly lose sympathy for the phone companies' cost argument.  With the money they are making, they could easily absorb the slightly higher costs for the good of the community. 
That said, I am becoming increasingly annoyed by the lack of cell service in Cook County's West End.  It is long past time for reliable cell service to be available here, not to mention all of northeastern Minnesota.  It's an embarrassment that we as so far behind the rest of the world in this important part of modern life.  With all the traffic that passes through here, it has got to be profitable for the phone companies to offer service.  In any case, cell service should be universal now in American society, in my opinion. 
Has anyone else been seeing more frogs this year?  On a recent overnight camping trip, we witnessed a minor infestation of mink frogs on our campsite.  Since then, I've been noticing more mink frogs and wood frogs than I've seen in many years.  I've even seen a couple of leopard frogs, which I haven't seen for a long time.  Several frog species have all but disappeared from our woods over the last 30 years or so.  I'm hoping that my observation of more frogs this year signals a reversal of that trend.

Mink frog photo courtesy

Clear skies have led to happy visitors this week!   Photo by Carl Hansen.

West End News: August 16

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The train that is summer in Cook County is continuing to roll on down the tracks.  From my informal poll of business owners at the Cook County Visitors Bureau meeting last week, it sounds like business is booming for everyone.  Of course, the weather has been nearly ideal, and so far we’ve managed to avoid the drought that is plaguing most of the country. 
I was able to sneak out for a one night campout in the BWCA Wilderness with current and former West End residents Corey Belt, Andy Keith and John Oberholtzer.  I can see why the visitors are all happy right now.  The temperature was perfect, the bugs were non-existent, the scenery was sublime and, of course, the company was excellent.
The Oberholtzers, who live in Lutsen on Deeryard Lake, and a number of other West End residents, have been busy working as models for renowned photographer Layne Kennedy.  Layne, who is no stranger to Cook County, has been hired by the Cook County Visitors Bureau to provide photographs and video for a new, comprehensive web site that the CCVB has in the works.  The crew descended on Sawbill recently to shoot campfire scenes in the Sawbill Lake campground.  They chose to use the existing campsite of Kristin Lundgren, who worked at Sawbill with O.B. a number of years ago.  It was the usual chaotic West End scene with old friends reconnecting, marshmallows being roasted, camera shutters clicking, stories and jokes being told – with everything happening at once.  When darkness finally descended, the film crew rushed off because they had to be up before dawn the next morning to catch the sunrise at Paradise Beach.  Never a dull moment here in Cook County.
Attention all West End parents.  If you have pre-school or Kindergarten through 5th grade aged children, then mark you calendars for the Birch Grove Community School and Saplings Preschool “Dress to Play” Open House on Friday, August 24 from 4 to 7 p.m. and again on Saturday August 25 from 11 am until 2 p.m.  Fun activities will include bouncy house and maze inflatables in the gym, an outdoor water balloon battle, free hot dogs from the grill and cold beverages.
Oh, and by the way, it’s your chance to tour the beautiful school facilities and meet the friendly and competent staff.  You can also check out the brand new outside facilities including a new ice skating rink, warming house, tennis court, playground and pavilion.  Registration materials will be available both days.   You don’t have to be the parent of a prospective student to attend.  Everyone is welcome.  Just remember to come dressed to play!  You can call Diane Blanchette at 663-0170 or email her at if you have questions.
I see that the Cook County Historical Society is soliciting ideas and items to be placed in a time capsule commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Cook County Courthouse.  The items must fit through a 12” diameter opening and the interior dimensions of the capsule are 12” by 12” by 20”.  The Historical Society is specifically asking for items that represent the different parts of the county, so let’s try to get something meaningful in there from the West End.  Maybe a Lutsen Mountains lift ticket or bottle of pickled herring?  The possibilities are endless.  It’s always important to remember that current events are tomorrow’s history.  Submit your ideas by email: or by calling 387-2883.
I’ve been interested to see the effort of some folks in Two Harbors to start a low-power community radio station.  They’ve given it the working name of radio station KTWO. The Federal Communications Commission has changed some licensing rules resulting in the possibility of starting many more small, low powered radio stations.  The KTWO group is hoping to broadcast local meetings, sporting events, new, weather and local music.  Their early organizing meetings have drawn interest from Silver Bay and Finland as well.  With the new broadband technology on the horizon, it’s possible that they could even construct a cooperative service among all the communities in Lake County.  The possibilities are exciting and I wish them the best of luck.

The Ross Sisters: Michelle, Jill, and Julie - photo by Christine Ross.

West End News: August 9

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One of the great joys of being in the tourism business is renewing the annual friendships with the faithful customers who return year after year.  I’ve been around long enough that I’m starting to become acquainted with the fourth generation in some families.
The Ross family from Merrillville, Indiana are well into the third generation camping at the Sawbill Lake campground.  Their three daughters are kind of unusual because they still like to go on vacation with their parents, even though they are now 21, 19 and 17 years old.  The reason is that they are self professed fishing addicts.  They are ferociously protective of their fishing spots and extremely skilled in their techniques. 
This year they told me that they suffer from the common affliction of sibling rivalry and often have spirited arguments.  But, they never fight when they are fishing, because it is too loud and would scare the fish.  This further reinforces my theory that fishing is the answer for world peace.
John Schroeder Day is fast approaching in Schroeder.  Saturday, August 18, is the big day, with a full slate of fun activities planned.  It all starts with the Fire Department’s pancake breakfast at the town hall from 8 to 10 in the morning.  At 10:30 and again at 12:30, Skip Lamb will lead his popular and interesting history walk, starting at the Cross River Heritage Center.  At 11:30 and again at 1:30, Tony and Dion Cicak will demonstrate their sawmill at their house across the river from the Heritage Center.  At noon, a movie will be screened at the Heritage Center.  It’s called “Long White Boards” and is a look a the history and current state of logging in northern Minnesota. Jim Norvell will speak about the history of Father Baraga’s Cross at 1 p.m.  Meet him at the cross.  Zoar Lutheran Church will have a brat booth going all day, along with several other food and craft vendors.  As always, be there or be square.
My good friend, Steve Wilbers, will be in the area on Saturday, August 11.  Steve is a prolific professional writer and a dedicated canoeist in the BWCA Wilderness.  His last two books are personal histories of the BWCA Wilderness.  The first book is organized around Steve’s experience with his father and the second around his son, Eddie.  Published by the Minnesota History Press, the books are very well written and engaging, especially for anyone with a personal history in the wilderness.  Steve will be having a book signing at Drury Lane Book Store in Grand Marais at 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 11.  Yours truly, who wrote the forward for the first book, will be joining him.  Steve is one of the nicest people that I know, so stop by and meet him if you have the chance.
The North Shore Stewardship Association will be presenting a program called: The Storm of the Century and the Building of Split Rock Lighthouse on Saturday, August 18, at 10 a.m.  Jennifer Niemi, program manager at Split Rock Lighthouse, will present the amazing story of the construction of the light station and the lives of the light keepers and their families who have made it their home.  The program is free, open to the public and is at the Sugar Loaf Interpretive Center just off Highway 61 on the Duluth side of Schoeder.
Fishing has remained remarkably good in the West End for this late in the season.  The conservation officers report good catches on Lake Superior and the stream trout are still biting due to higher than normal water levels.  Small mouth bass are downright suicidal right now and even the walleyes are biting in the evening.  I saw a picture of a 29-inch walleye that was caught and returned to an area lake by a ten year old visitor this week.