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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:
Bill and his daughter Clare found this freshly shed moose antler while out grooming the ski trail at Sawbill

West End News

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It is certainly good news that the wolf population in Minnesota has recovered to the point where it no longer requires special federal protection. I’m distressed, however, to see some legislators already whipping up the old prejudices and fears about wolves for their own political gain. Wolf management is a very complex and intricate issue, with many, many stakeholders and dozens of competing interests. I would urge the legislature to listen carefully to the professional wildlife biologists both within and outside the Department of Natural Resources. Everyone will be better served in the long run by a carefully considered, scientifically-based plan that balances all the interests.

A few weeks ago, my daughter Clare and I found a freshly shed moose antler while grooming the ski trail here at Sawbill. It is always fun to find an antler, but especially now when the moose population is at low ebb. A found antler, especially one that is recently shed, always tells an interesting story. This antler was large, but not huge – suggesting a mature bull moose, but not a giant. The base, where it attached to the head, was still bloody, so it hadn’t been long since the owner lost it. One paddle on the antler had been broken off, but the broken edge had healed over. I can picture this moose crashing headlong into a larger rival and regretting it later. My favorite thing about newly shed antlers is their smell. As the moose wanders through the forest, it drags its antlers through the brush and low tree branches, packing the little crenulations along its leading edge with rich mixture of sap, bark and leaf material. If you scratch and sniff, you get a heady whiff of the entire forest in aggregate. Balsam, mixed with birch, mixed with hazel, mixed with spruce and so on. There is just the faintest undertone of bull moose smell present too, leading Clare and I to hatch a scheme to bottle the smell and market it as men’s cologne. We thought up some names, but they mostly too tasteless to repeat on the radio, so I leave that to your imagination.

Speaking of the ski trail, I don’t want to be seen as gloating, but there is really a pretty decent snow covering up here at the end of the Sawbill Trail. As I speak, there is 17 inches of snow on the ground. Our little 7K cross-country ski trail is in perfect shape. I only mention this because people on the North Shore are amazed to hear that there is so much snow so close by. The Sawbill ski trail isn’t marked in any way, so if you come up, or send someone up to ski, just go to the bitter end of the Sawbill Trail, step over the snow bank and you will see the trail. It’s a loop, so you can go either way and it will bring you back to the same spot 7 kilometers later. It is a narrow trail, groomed for classic style skiing and is suitable for beginners.

There is a fun thing going on every Monday night at Papa Charlie’s nightclub at Lutsen Mountains. Every Monday, at least through the middle of March, they are presenting some of Minnesota’s best songwriters in an intimate, mostly acoustic session between 8 and 10 p.m. The shows so far have been excellent and the acts that are coming are top notch. The crowd is much smaller than the typical weekend crowd and much more local. For the local folks who work in tourism, Monday night is much more of a weekend night than Friday or Saturday and it gets you home early enough to get a good night’s sleep if you do have to work on Tuesday morning.
I’m thrilled to see the announcement of a new cell phone tower at Taconite Harbor in Schroeder. I know some people don’t like them, but cell phones have become an important and useful tool worldwide – and it’s high time we had decent coverage in the West End. I hope the new Tofte tower won’t be far behind.

Taconite Harbor Energy Center

West End News Jan.19

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A few days ago, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder. The Energy Center, owned and operated by Minnesota Power, is the home of three 75 megawatt coal fired turbines that provide electricity to a number of major industrial plants and over a hundred thousand residential customers in northeastern Minnesota. In a highly simplified nutshell, they bring in low sulfur coal from Wyoming by ship, burn it to produce steam and use the steam to turn the giant electrical turbines. Forty-five people are directly employed at the plant, along with a pretty constant flow of contractors, especially in recent years.

I toured the plant once before, I think it was in the early ‘70s. That was a personal tour for me and my dad conducted by Floyd Maxfield, a good family friend who was chief electrician there at the time. The basic structure of the plant is the same now as it was then. It was built in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the basic technology is still in place.

Two parts of the plant are quite different now. The first is a new building, constructed circa 2007, that contains modern pollution control equipment. Because it was built in the ‘50s, the Tac Harbor facility is exempt from much of the Clean Air Act. When the act was passed under President Nixon, the utilities argued that the old plants would soon be obsolete, so it was foolish to require them to upgrade their pollution equipment. It turned out, of course, that the old electrical plants are still needed and the majority are still up and running. Minnesota Power, being a good corporate citizen, and seeing that the old plants would eventually be required to meet modern pollution standards, decided to invest many millions of dollars in up-to-date pollution controls, voluntarily. The power plant now operates well below its allowed pollution levels, but even more pollution controls will be installed this year to bring the pollution levels even lower. All of the recent equipment has been focused on air pollution. Their water and solid pollutants have been treated under a zero release policy for quite a while.

The other big change at the plant is the control room. Back in the '70s, it was a packed with gauges and dials. I vividly remember that when we entered the control room, Orton Tofte, Senior, was on duty, reading the Duluth newspaper while keeping one eye on the gauges. Now, the control room is almost all flat screens with clear, colorful displays. Operations superintendent, Dave Dilley, explained that the control room operator can watch and manage every little part of the complex with just the click of a mouse.

I’d like to express my thanks to Dave Dilley for the fascinating tour, plant manager Dave Rannetsberger for arranging it, and Minnesota Power for being proactive and diligent in their pollution policies. Of course, large power plants like this are big producers of carbon dioxide, which is clearly contributing to climate change, but that is a larger issue that the country and world are just starting to struggle with. Minnesota Power is aware of this problem and is working toward making more of their electricity from renewable, low pollution sources like wind and hydro.

I noticed on Boreal Access the other day the Darrel Smith is retiring from ambulance duty. Darrel doesn’t live in the West End, but he has sure been here for us over the years. More than once, I’ve been happy to see his friendly, calm and competent face in the middle of a medical emergency. Darrel is one of those quiet heros among us that we rely on but can never thank enough. In recent years, little old Cook County has had more than its share of big emergencies, so congratulations and thank you to Darrel and all the emergency responders who have helped us through. Your efforts are truly appreciated.


A pack of wolves stopped by Sawbill in the wee hours

West End News Jan. 12

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Election filings for township officers are currently open. The township system of government in Minnesota is the closest form of government to actual people. It is truly where the rubber meets the road. As a former township officer, I won’t lie to you - it’s quite a bit of work and responsibility. On the other hand, it is crucial to our civil society that thoughtful, committed people fill these positions. The townships have a real impact on our lives. Service on a township board can be very fulfilling.

In contrast to hotly contested national, state and county elections, the township elections are really more of a confirmation of those willing to serve, especially the clerk position, which arguably requires the most work and brainpower. In township government, if the supervisors are the head, then the clerks are the heart of the town. I would like to take this opportunity to directly thank all the township officials for their service to the community.

One of the unique aspects of township government is the annual meeting. Everyone in town is invited to the annual meeting and many of the big decisions, including the annual budget, are made by a direct vote of the people present. This is a wonderful example of grassroots democracy in action. The meeting isn’t even chaired by the township board members. Anyone in the room can be selected to run the meeting.

Years ago, I was selected to run the annual meeting in Tofte, which is normally a pretty straightforward task of inviting motions, facilitating discussion and calling for votes. In this particular year, a township supervisor seat actually had two candidates. Steve Krueger, who had helped establish the township and served as supervisor for many years, was being challenged by a young whippersnapper, Tim Norman. The votes are cast throughout the day, just like any other election, but they are counted and the results announced in the evening during the annual meeting. This time, the election judges headed off to count the ballots and were gone for an unusually long time. When they returned, they announced that the election was a tie. Suddenly, my responsibilities as the meeting chair became more serious and complicated. After consulting with the candidates, it was agreed that the election would be decided by the flip of a coin. Steve Krueger won the flip, which seemed to please everyone, including Tim, who saw the close vote as an affirmation of Steve’s long service. In the next election, Steve chose not to run and Tim was easily elected. I was later told that flipping a coin was not the legal way to solve the problem, but nobody complained, so all was well.

Last week, my wife Cindy and daughter Clare talked me into walking out on Sawbill Lake late in the evening to howl for wolves. Sometimes, if wolves are close by, they will start howling in response to human howling. If nothing else, it’s good for a few laughs to see three adults standing in the dark howling like banshees. Cindy has an acknowledged knack for getting the wolves to answer, so we let her go first. But on this particular night, in spite of a full moon, we got nothing but silence in return. That night, just before dawn, a light dusting of snow fell. When we ventured outside early the next morning, we were surprised to see wolf tracks all over our property, including right up to both doors of the house, the doors to the store and all over the driveways. It appeared as though a large pack had come through and checked us out just before dawn. She may not have provoked them into howling the night before, but we’re giving Cindy full credit for calling them in.

We’ll be hearing a lot more about wolves this year as the state takes over responsibility for their management from the feds. Personally, I like having wolves around, even though they do present some danger to our pets. I hope the DNR’s determination to have a wolf hunting and trapping season won’t run them back to near extinction. Like all of the predators, I feel like they are more valuable to our economy loose in the woods than as a rug in someone’s den.

Late night broomball at Sawbill Outfitters

West End News Jan. 5

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I was pleased to read that Tofte Township was moving ahead with plans for a new cell tower. The same article mentioned that a new cell tower is also being planned for Taconite Harbor. Hopefully, the two new towers will finally bring reliable cell service to the West End.

When I was in Africa last year, the village I visited had no electricity, no running water and most people were subsistence farmers living on less than $300 per year. But, they had excellent cell service, with a choice of three providers and good service everywhere. Almost everyone I met had a cell phone. They had to take them to a shop with a generator to have them charged and bought their minutes in small quantities on scratch-off paper slips, but they used them constantly, including a clever system of transferring money between people by cell phone. My African hosts were shocked to hear that I did not enjoy reliable cell service at home. They think of the United States as being technologically advanced and they also wondered how I could possibly live with the inconvenience of no cell service.

Seven or eight years ago, I had a chance to visit Norway House, Manitoba, a town about the same size of Grand Marais, located way up at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. Everyone in Norway House seemed to have a cell phone and used it frequently. Everyone seemed so comfortable and adept with cell phones that I was moved to ask how long they had enjoyed cell service. To my surprise they informed me that it had only been five months and they couldn’t imagine life without it.

Here at Sawbill we have a long-standing tradition of inviting our crewmembers back to enjoy the New Year’s holiday with us. We get a good crowd every year, mostly current crewmembers, but also a few who have moved on to what they call “the real world.” They are a very easy group to have for company because they have all lived here, so they just move back into their old rooms and pitch in with the cooking, cleaning and daily chores. They also entertain themselves, making music, playing games and especially playing outside. Every year, they adapt themselves to whatever the weather offers them. Some years it’s been ice fishing, other years it’s been skating, skiing, sledding, fox and hounds, snow cave building and even a polar plunge through the ice. This year the highlighted activity was broomball. They spent half a day shoveling and resurfacing a rink on the lake. The main game started late on New Year’s Eve and ended with champaign on the lake at the stroke of midnight. Cindy insisted that they all wear helmets for safety, so we scrounged every bike and ski helmet that we could find. We didn’t have enough, so one fire fighters helmet and one antique motorcycle helmet were pressed into action. The brooms were also a ragtag collection of whatever could be found. It would have been a strange sight for any passing fox or wolf to behold.

I was very distressed to observe the level of spending - and the effectiveness of that spending – by the so called super-PACs leading up to the recent Iowa caucuses. In a nutshell, the United States Supreme Court ruled on a case last year that now allows corporations to campaign independently for or against political candidates with no limit on spending and no disclosure on who is contributing to the campaign. Judging by the millions spent by super-PACs in Iowa, we are in for a barrage of negative advertising this election season, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. In my opinion, this is a terrible development for American democracy. Already corrupt politicians now have a virtually unlimited source of money. Even honest politicians will be forced to play this big money game, making them beholden to the money, rather than their constituents. I don’t want to be cynical, but I can’t imagine that foreign governments and corporations, who now are prohibited by law from contributing to American campaigns, will abide by that law when they have an easy and untraceable conduit to pump money into our elections. In the face of this terrible decision, we are in real danger of losing the democracy that the founders dreamed of. History clearly tells us that the founders specifically wanted our public policies to be driven by the concept of one voter, one vote, rather than one dollar, one vote.

The Owiny Sigoma Band

West End News Dec. 29

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It is truly a small world. Recently, I was listening to Sidetracks on WTIP when DJ Matthew Brown announced that he was playing a song by the Owiny Sigoma Band. I was stopped in my tracks by that band name and a big smile appeared on my face.

Here is rest of the story. Back in 2001, my son, Adam Hansen, traveled to the African country of Kenya to study for a year at the University of Nairobi. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and is a city of over three million people. Adam's program included living with a Kenyan family for the year. The very first day, on the advice of his host mother, he visited the Kenyan National Theater in the heart of Nairobi. Just outside the National Theater there is a lively street scene featuring musicians who play for tips from tourists and residents alike. It's a common spot for exchange students to visit, because they can check out authentic culture, yet it's within easy walking distance of the university campus. Adam was immediately attracted to one of the musicians playing a tribal instrument called the nyatiti. It is a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a small harp. The nyatiti is played while squatting on the ground and features slinky, poly-rhythmic melodies plucked with both hands. As crazy as it sounds, the player wears a heavy brass ring on his or her big toe, which is used to strike the instrument to provide syncopated accompaniment. The player also wears a bunch of small bells on the calf of the same leg, providing more rhythmic interest. On top of all this, the musician sings, sometimes with composed lyrics and sometimes improvised lyrics.

The nyatiti player that Adam stumbled across that day was an incredibly accomplished musician named Joseph Nyamungu. He had only recently moved to Nairobi from his home village of Uranga, which is clear across Kenya near the Ugandan border, just a few kilometers north of Lake Victoria. Nyamungu was orphaned as a baby and was literally raised by his village, which is basically a large extended family. He never attended a single day of formal school and, for most of his life, only spoke the language of the Luo Tribe, although by 2001 he had picked up the Nairobi street dialect of Swahili, which is the common language of east and South Africa. To this day he speaks only a few words of English. Some of the other street musicians were fluent in English, so Adam was able to ask questions using them as translators.

Long story short, Adam began taking nyatiti lessons from Nyamungu and the two soon became fast friends. Nyamungu is a master musician, with same intensity and depth of knowledge that a top concert violinist would have in American culture. He is a demanding teacher and Adam soon found himself deeply involved with the nyatiti, meanwhile becoming fluent in Swahili and the culture of the Luo tribe. Before the year was over, Adam had graduated as a journeyman nyatiti player, which included a couple of extended visits to Nyamungu's home village and finally a formal ceremony of acknowledgment from the village, which included the gift of a piece of land where Adam can build a house if he so chooses. It was a profound experience for Adam and he kept in touch with Nyamungu, and many other Kenyan friends, after returning to the U.S. to finish his college education and start his career.

Fast forward to last year, when Adam was able to carve out three months of free time between jobs. He spent the time in Kenya, renewing his friendships and particularly spending time with his great friend, Nyamungu. Adam invited me to join him for a couple of weeks, which I eagerly did. On my first day in Nairobi, jet lagged and culture shocked, Adam took me down to the National Theater to meet Nyamungu. By now, he has become quite a fixture and has the formal support of the National Theater. He has an "office", which is a quiet, shady spot in front of the theater and a closet in the theater where he can safe store his instruments and tools. He was very welcoming to me, mostly because he is just a great guy, but also because in Kenyan culture, parents are highly respected. I quickly had to learn my new name - Baba Adam - Adam's father.

Before I had arrived in Kenya Adam and Nyamungu had decided to start a commercial fish farm on Nyamungu's land in Uranga. I actually brought 180 pounds of solar panels and pumps with me on the airplane, which was an adventure in itself. The three of us spent the next couple of days rounding up parts and equipment for the fishpond and then rode the chaotic country bus for 15 hours overnight from Nairobi to Uranga. I spent most of my time in Africa living deep in the bush working with Nyamungu, Adam and their partners getting the fish pond up and running. We had many adventures and treasure my memories from that great time. I grew to have great respect for Nyamungu's musical skills and enjoyed his outgoing personality. He is quite a celebrity in Uranga and, of course, knows everyone. I remarked to Adam that walking around Uranga with Nyamungu reminded me of walking around Tofte with Jan Horak. You have to stop and talk to everyone.

Shortly after I left Africa, Nyamungu formed a band with a drummer friend and some young British musicians who had traveled to Kenya to experience tribal music. As Nyamungu put it, "We jammed and there was good chemistry, so we formed a band." With Adam's help, the British musicians arranged for Nyamungu and his English-speaking drummer to travel to Britain for some gigs. The band, with Nyamungu taking the leadership role, was an instant hit in London and they went on to play around the festival circuit in Europe most of the summer. They shared the stage with some of the biggest names in the European rock scene and garnered rave reviews. Their name is The Owiny Sigoma Band and the recording of their song; "Wires" made its way, with no help from me, all the way to WTIP in Cook County, Minnesota.


Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder

West End News Dec. 22

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Minnesota Power, a division of the Allete Corporation based in Duluth, owns and operates the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder. The Energy Center is a low sulfur coal powered electrical generating station that runs three 75 mega-watt steam turbines. The power is sold to MP’s 144 thousand customers in the northern half of Minnesota, including municipal power systems, residential customers, and several very large commercial customers including taconite plants and wood product plants. Ironically, Minnesota Power does not sell power to the West End, or anywhere in Cook County. They also buy and sell electricity on the greater electrical grid. The Taconite Harbor power plant directly employs 45 people, roughly a third from Grand Marais, a third from the Schroeder, Tofte, Lutsen area and a third from the greater Silver Bay area.

Recently, Minnesota Power has established a Community Advisory Panel made up of people from the local area. There are almost 30 people on the panel, including elected officials from the counties, cities and townships, business people, tourism representatives, school officials, emergency services, regular citizens and management and staff from the power plant. According to Nancy Norr, Minnesota Power’s Regional Manager, the idea is to open up better lines of communication between our area’s largest industrial facility and the communities that surround it.

So far the panel has met twice and spent most of its time learning the history and functions of the Tac Harbor facility. The power plant was originally built by in the 1950s by Erie Mining strictly to power their taconite plant and mine in Hoyt Lakes. It was expanded in the mid ‘60s and shut down in 1982 when Erie Mining went out of business. LTV Mining reopened the plant in 1991 and ran it for ten years before they shut down. Minnesota Power bought it shortly after that and started it up again in 2002. It is just one of several power plants that Minnesota Power owns, including other coal burning generators, along with wood, hydro and wind generators. A few years ago, extensive pollution abatement equipment was installed at Taconite Harbor, significantly reducing pollutants that contribute to acid rain and other problems. They are currently working on a system that will also deeply reduce the amount of mercury that the plant emits and expect that to be done very soon. The plant was already in compliance with all pollution regulations, but the company voluntarily reduced their pollution footprint.

The people on the advisory panel have indicated that they want to know much more about the environmental issues that surround the Taconite Harbor facility along with the industrial plants that it powers now and might power in the future. They are also very interested in how the power plant can be more connected to the community, especially in the area of education and building strong, livable communities. They identified many other issues as well, that will be addressed as time goes on.

One panel member joked that they wanted Minnesota Power to contribute a million dollars to Cook County’s schools. While that provided a good laugh, it does seem like a good idea to get the schools and the company connected on a number of levels. There was another funny moment during the meeting when a panel member reported getting a cell phone call from a relative who was driving up the north shore. When asked where they were, they replied, “We’re just passing Taco-night Harbor.” Somewhere, millions of tacos are being made for taco night, but not in Schroeder.

Much has been - and will be said - about the horrible violence that erupted at the Cook County Courthouse recently. I would just like to add my voice to the chorus of relief that the victims are recovering well from their wounds and are back home in Cook County. The incident confirms what we all know – that crime and violence can happen anywhere – even in Cook County. However, we do have to remember, that while we certainly have our problems, this is a wonderful, nurturing and forgiving community. Time will be needed for everyone to recover and process. Here’s hoping the symbolic beginning of a new year will inspire us all to preserve the good and work for the better.


Wolf tracks in the snow

West End News Dec. 16

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Today, I have two stories of local boys making good - both with West End connections.

This weekend, a big-time, national touring rock band called Gentlemen Hall will be appearing at Papa Charlie's nightclub at Lutsen Mountains. It will be a homecoming for the band's lead guitar player and singer, Jacob Schmidt. Jacob was born in Cook County, raised in Lutsen and graduated from Cook County High School before heading off to Boston to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music. Jacob is the son of Carol Perkins from Lutsen and Jim Schmidt from Grand Marais. Jacob showed musical aptitude early in life and was an accomplished guitarist by the time he started high school. Jacob and his equally talented brother, Josh, were mentored by several older musicians in the area and quickly became popular performers in the region. While at Berklee, Jacob naturally played music with classmates and other musicians from the fertile Boston music scene. This led to the founding of Gentlemen Hall, followed by winning several awards, attracting a loyal fan base and a contract with a professional management company. The band is currently on a nationwide tour and some quick thinking by Lutsen Mountains marketing manager, Jim Vick, landed Jacob and his band mates at Papa Charlie's on Saturday, Dec. 17, starting at 9:30 p.m. Be there, or be square.

MinnPost, the excellent, statewide online newspaper, ran a feature story this week about the Johnson brothers, Colee, Skyler and Clay, from Hovland. The young men’s parents are Kathi and Rusty Johnson. They are also related to a number of West End residents including great aunt and uncle Carol and Ron Gervais from Tofte, aunt and uncle, Misty and Tim Schliep from Schroeder, and second cousins Terry Gervais and Cindy Hansen from Tofte - which makes them my second cousins by marriage. The MinnPost article is part of a year-long project called "Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads" that explores the lives of young people and how their choices might be shaping the future of outstate Minnesota. The Johnsons are notable for being very young entrepreneurs, having started a firewood business while they were still kids to now owning their own general logging company. It is no surprise to anyone from Cook County that the writer highlighted how hard they work. The young men come from a long line of honest, hard-working people. Congratulations to the Johnson brothers on getting some well-deserved attention for their determination and grit. You can find the article by going to and searching on the keywords Johnson Brothers.

Winter is unfolding in slow motion here at Sawbill. A couple of light snows have combined with the sparse existing snow cover, resulting in a scene that begins to approach the ideal for the holiday season. Lake travel by foot or ski is easy right now. The cold weather has formed over a foot of ice with no slush and the snow cover is just enough to give you a grip without having to do any serious trail breaking. We've had a couple of parties pass through on fishing expeditions in the wilderness. Neither group did well with the walleyes, but they enjoyed beautiful weather and scenery.

Last year, we had two albino chickadees that attended our feeders all winter long. The first one we noticed had a faint black spot on its tail and was a regular at our home feeder. The second one was almost pure white and fed exclusively at our office feeder, which is only 90 feet from the house. We never saw either bird at the opposite feeder, which answered the long-standing question about whether or not the chickadees feed from both feeders, or just one. We were hoping that our little albino buddies would return this season, but it's starting to look like that won't happen. A little research informs us that the average life span of a chickadee in the wild is two and a half years. The oldest chickadee ever documented was 11 years old. It makes sense that the white chickadees enjoy extra camouflage protection from predators in the winter, but stick out like sore thumbs once the snow melts. Nature is a harsh mistress at sometimes, but wonderful to observe in all her variety.

It's time for skiing and snowboarding in this week's West End News

West End News Dec. 8

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 Mary Somnis sent me an email the other day, calling my attention to a local shopping initiative called “Made On The Range.” It is a website, – just like it sounds with no spaces or punctuation – that lists dozens of companies that offer holiday goods and services and are based in northeastern Minnesota. The website eloquently says: “The people living in northeastern Minnesota have a long history of resourcefulness and personal innovation culminating in the design and creation of quality and interesting goods and services. This web site is a convenient one-stop-shop for these goods and services and serves as a direct portal to these companies.”

Mary Somnis is in charge of the tourism initiative at the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. The IRRRB is a state agency that receives a production tax from the iron mining industry that it uses to develop and support a stable economy in northeastern Minnesota. It operates in parts of six counties, including all of Lake County and Cook County. Mary got her start in tourism promotion right here in Cook County where she served as the Executive Director of the Lutsen Tofte Tourism Association. She started at the LTTA as a secretary, but through hard work and talent, rose quickly to the executive position. During her tenure, the Lutsen Tofte Schroeder area led the state in tourism growth. After a few years at the LTTA, Mary was recruited for her current job at the IRRRB, where she has continued her success. She kept a property here in Cook County, which she visits frequently, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see her return permanently at some point.

Again, the local shopping website is madeontherange,com.

The snow cover, or lack there of, is becoming a common topic of conversation around the West End. Of course, most good West Enders are hoping for enough snow to enable their winter sport of choice – especially the snowmobilers and cross country skiers. The down hill skiers are lucky because the snowmaking at Lutsen Mountains Ski Area is well underway and downhill conditions are already excellent. At this writing there is a 12” to 24” base with six lifts operating. There are a number of improvements at the ski area this year, including a beginner’s terrain park on Ullr Mountain, a more advanced terrain park on Eagle Mountain and a boarder-cross course on Mystery Mountain where riders can race down the series of turns, jumps and drops. It’s great to have such a wonderful facility right here in the West End along with the extensive trail systems.

There are other concerns with the low or non-existent snow cover. In the past, when we’ve had little snow and cold temperatures, many people have had their septic systems freeze up. This is a particularly annoying phenomenon with ramifications that are better left unspoken. Local well driller, Bill McKeever, was quoted the other day saying that the wells he’s seeing are the lowest that he can remember. Another long-term worry is what the fire season will be like next year if we have a dry winter and/or spring. I remember reading somewhere that the total winter snowfall on the Superior National Forest in the winter of 1935/36 was 4 inches. 1936 was an epic year for forest fires. After the big Pagami Creek Fire this fall, we could do with a breather in 2012. But, we’re lucky enough to live in a big beautiful forest, so I guess we’ll have to learn to play with the cards that Mother Nature deals us.

Bill has had a lot of exciting wildlife sightings on the West End lately

West End News Dec. 1

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We’ve been enjoying a lot of good animal sightings on the back roads recently. On Thanksgiving Day, we were headed over the river and through the woods when I spotted a group of at least four animals on the road up ahead. I quickly called Cindy’s attention to what I thought was a pack of wolves. Most of the critters leapt over the snow bank when they saw us coming, but one stayed on the road. Based on the way they moved, both Cindy and I started to doubt that they were wolves. We were able to get pretty close the remaining animal and it turned out to be a lynx. We were astounded to realize that we had just seen a pack of lynx. One of the cats was clearly bigger than the others, so we’re guessing that it was a family group, but lynx researchers have found that lynx occasionally hunt and travel in small groups. I went almost 30 years without seeing a lynx or a bobcat, but in the last decade I’ve seen several every year. It is good to have the big cats back in the neighborhood.

We’ve also been seeing many other animals as well as enjoying the best grouse hunting that I’ve seen around here in the last 50 years. All of this makes me wonder if we aren’t seeing some wildlife displacement from the huge Pagami Creek Fire. The research on what happens with wildlife during and immediately after large forest fires isn’t very complete, but it does seem to indicate that more animals either escape or survive a fire than you might think. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view that wildlife that live in a fire-based ecosystem would have developed strategies to survive fire. It also seems like common sense that there isn’t much food for wildlife within the fire boundaries for a while, so most animals and birds would shift to unburned areas until next spring. This has got to play havoc with animal territories, especially in the areas just outside the fire perimeter. On the other hand, I know that sometimes common sense will lead you astray when it comes to wildlife biology, so I’d love to see more research done in this area.

Trapping season is in full swing in Minnesota, and every road in the West End is currently blanketed with traps. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of traps lining every road and logging road in the area. I have no moral objection to trapping. In fact I have great respect for the people who hike or snowshoe their trap lines deep in the forest, reading the sign and matching wits with their prey. I have less respect for what most trapping is nowadays, which seems to be driving around in a pickup truck and setting up a line of traps along the road to catch whatever happens to cross. Even this sort of low-skill trapping wouldn’t bother me, except that I feel strongly that the animals are more valuable to the local economy if they are left alive than they are on a rich person’s back in some remote, foreign city. Seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is a big part of what draws visitors to this area year-round. It also feels kind of intrusive to have people who don’t necessarily live in the West End suddenly blanketing our roads with smelly baits and traps that can be dangerous and even deadly to local pets. Many of us become attached to the animals we see regularly around our houses and it’s sad to see so many of them suddenly disappear at this time of year.

As with all natural resources, it’s important that we learn to accommodate each other and not intrude too heavily on other people’s chosen enjoyment of the resource.

Don’t forget about the Saturday, Dec. 3 open houses that are happening at every retailer in Tofte that is open at this time of year. They are, for the record, AmericInn Gift Shop, Birch Tree Gift Shop, Bluefin Gift Shop, Coho Café, Northshore Market, Tall Tale Yarn Shop, Tofte Holiday Station Store, Water’s Edge Trading and Waves of Superior Spa. In addition to some great local shopping, there will be treats, visits from Santa and roving carolers. M. J. Huggins is offering a free ornament making class at the yarn shop and Brian Olson is offering full service gas at Holiday. For those of you under the age of 40, full service gas means that someone will pump your gas for you and wash your windshield.

On Dec. 15, Water’s Edge Trading holds their annual men’s shopping night. It is designed for West End men to complete their holiday shopping in the least painful way possible. Beer and personal shopping advice are provided. It is by invitation, so call Water’s Edge if you’d like to participate. You can also call to provide hints to the man in your life, if you know he’s attending.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

Ice on Sawbill Lake by Carl Hansen

West End News Nov. 17

Finalcut_WEN_20111117.mp38.74 MB

Last week, Sawbill Lake was almost frozen over. The official criterion for freeze-up is when the lake is more than 90% frozen. Sawbill got close to that, but then reopened over the weekend. Two young men appeared on Friday evening and proposed going out on a canoe trip. However, they accepted our strong recommendation to stay in the campground and take day trips into the wilderness, to avoid being frozen in. When they did venture out on Saturday and Sunday, they found most of the bays frozen and weren't able to paddle very far in any direction.

In the past, the lakes used to freeze pretty reliably right around the first of November. The first time we were able to paddle on Thanksgiving was in the late '80s. At that time, the old-timers around here said that they had never seen the lakes freeze that late. Since then, it has become a fairly routine phenomenon. In 1975 or '76, we actually had below zero temperatures in October and the ice on Sawbill was 6" thick on Oct. 26 when a van pulled up to the canoe landing with two canoes on top. We skated over to chat with the surprised canoeists. I remember the party leader protesting that the lakes were still open in Minneapolis.

Sometime in the '90s, we had a party get frozen in on Cherokee Lake. Cherokee was still open, but when they headed back toward Sawbill, they found Cherokee Creek too thick to paddle and too thin to walk. They returned to their campsite and waited for rescue. When they were a day overdue, we contacted the sheriff, who asked the Forest Service to send their Beaver float plane over to take a look. The campers efficiently signaled S-O-S to the plane, so the pilot landed and taxied to their campsite. He informed the group that the route to Brule Lake was open and if they paddled there, he would call Sawbill Outfitters to come pick them up. They refused that option in favor of being flown out immediately. The pilot said he would only fly them out if they agreed to pay for the flight and left ASAP without their canoes and camping equipment. For some reason, they chose this more expensive, inconvenient option.

Two months later, Steve Schug, from Schroeder, went in with the Forest Service dog team and retrieved the canoes and equipment. He was able to get everything in one trip by loading the gear in the plastic canoes and dragging them behind the dog sled, which worked surprisingly well. In the two months that the gear had been alone in the wilderness, it had been ravaged by rodents and pine martens. I called the party leader and we worked out a deal for me to bring the gear to his office during a routine trip down to the Twin Cities. His office turned out to be high in the IDS tower in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. When the elevator doors opened, I was greeted by an opulent reception room and a glamorous and decorous receptionist. She eyed my pile of stinky, semi-thawed camping gear with open disdain. As I explained my business with her boss, I mentioned that it was entirely possible that small rodents were hibernating within the gear and might wake up as they warmed. She told me firmly to put the gear in her boss' office and shut the door - tight. That's the last I ever heard of it, but it's entirely possible that distant descendants of Cherokee Lake mice are still living high in the IDS tower.

This is the time of year when we all pause to count our blessings and think about what we are thankful for. I am thankful for all the people who chose to support WTIP in the recent membership drive. I'm even more thankful for WTIP itself and the wonderful asset it has become for our community. In many ways, WTIP is representative of all that is good in our little corner of the world. There are literally too many good people, doing too many good things, to list in this limited time. Life is surely a balance of joy with sadness, but I am profoundly grateful to be part of a community where people live in dignified fellowship with each other and with nature.