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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:
Haze over BWCAW - photo courtesy Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

West End News: April 26

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I was sorry to hear that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency caved to political pressure and weakened its plan to reduce haze over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

Haze from air pollution is definitely noticeable in northeastern Minnesota. I’ll admit that my eyesight has deteriorated over the years, but when I was a kid, the sky was bluer, the views over Lake Superior were longer and there were more stars in the night sky.

I’m not a scientist, but I’m told that our haze comes largely from coal-fired power plants and nearby taconite plants. Air pollution rules are incredibly complex, but the long and short of it is that the M.P.C.A. backed down from their original haze and pollution standards after the mining company, Cliffs Natural Resources, threatened to close two of their taconite plants rather than meet the standards.

While Cliffs has had its ups and downs over the years, the company is incredibly profitable right now and should voluntarily reduce its air pollution while they can afford it. I understand that they are important players in Minnesota’s economy, but I also feel like clean, healthy air is important to Minnesota too.

If we only stand up for our air and water when it’s convenient, where does that leave us – not to mention our children and grandchildren?

The big excitement here at Sawbill last week was the replacement of the Forest Service airplane dock at the Sawbill Guard Station. The floating dock is designed for the safe mooring and loading of their big DeHavilland Beaver floatplanes. In truth, it is rarely used by airplanes and is mostly used for launching canoes, swimming and fishing.

The old dock was built by Billy Tormondsen, I think in 1972. Billy was a well known and well liked Tofte native who operated a small sawmill back in those days. Originally, the dock was all white cedar. I remember the year because Billy suddenly and unexpectedly died shortly after he built the dock. He was a good friend and a truly unique individual. He would be around 90 if he were alive today. It’ll be interesting to see if this new dock can hold up as long as Billy’s craftsmanship did.

The big new dock presented quite a challenge to get into the lake as there is no vehicle access right to the shore of Sawbill Lake. After some head scratching, the competent services of Peter Borson and his big construction forklift were recruited and things went smoothly from there.

Patty Nordahl, director of the Birch Grove Foundation tells me there quite a few contractors interested in the construction projects planned for Birch Grove this summer. These are the first projects among many around the county that are funded by the 1% sales tax that we voted in last year. Bids are being accepted until May 3rd and information and specifications are available at Birch Grove in Tofte.

Mark September 29th on your calendar for the grand opening celebration of the Birch Grove construction projects. The grand opening will feature pizza from the outdoor wood fired oven that is also in the planning stages at Birch Grove. The Hearth Oven Bread Baking Initiative Team, or HOBBITS, has settled on September 9th through the 13th for the oven building class that will be run by North House Folk School. If you are interested in taking the class, get in touch with Patty at Birch Grove or North House Folk School. There is a tuition charge, but Patty is seeking grant dollars for scholarships, so don’t let the cost stop you if you are interested.

Last call to sign up for the North Shore Stewardship Association’s free North Shore Landowners community meeting on May 11th from 12:30-4:30 at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland. This is an opportunity to connect with other landowners, public land managers, and private organizations to discover what North Shore forest restoration activities are underway and how you can become involved. You can register online at the North Shore Stewardship Association web site, or, as always, call WTIP for more information.

I’ve seen more moose in the last week than all of last year. The moose always look terrible at this time of year. Tourists often report seeing a “sick” moose in late April and early May. They’re losing their winter coats, causing them to look ratty and mostly white. They’re at their skinniest right now too. By June they will be sleek, shiny, dark brown and chubby. The bulls will be sporting their velvet racks and the calves will be growing fast. Here’s hoping that my more frequent moose sightings indicate a rebound in their population.

North Shore Market in Tofte, photo by Ruthie Hansen

West End News: April 12

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Big changes are happening at the North Shore Market in Tofte. Nancy Iverson, who has been running the store for a number of years, is turning over management to Lisa Nelson. Lisa is a true Tofte native. In recent years she has been one of the friendly tellers at Grand Marais State Bank in Tofte. Before that, she was busy with her family’s business, Cooter’s Auto Repair and Firewood on the Sawbill Trail.

Lisa is bringing a lot of energy to her new position and has many plans for improvements at the store. One of those improvements is adding her daughter, Felicia, to the staff. Felicia has been living out of the area, but is moving back to help her mom at the store, at least for the next few months.

The North Shore Market was started more than 60 years ago by Alban and Edith Nelson as a grocery supplier for the logging camps that were scattered all over the woods in those days. In that era, each lumberjack lived in his own tarpaper shack with his own small kitchen. They were really independent contractors who were paid by the amount of pulpwood they cut and were responsible for their own cooking. They worked for the owner of a large timber sale and when the sale was finished, they would hook a cat to their shack and literally drag it to the next sale.

Back then, the North Shore Market wasn’t open to the public and was really more of a warehouse. The camp foremen would gather grocery orders from the lumberjacks, drop them off at the market and Edith would pack each lumberjack’s groceries in a cardboard box. The foreman would return the next day, load the boxes in the back of his pickup and deliver them to the jacks. The tradition of packing groceries in boxes continued at the market for decades.

There were a couple of other little grocery stores in Tofte, but eventually the Nelsons converted their warehouse into a full service grocery store. In the early 60s, Henry and Florence Wehseler bought the store from the Nelsons. Henry was a lumberjack and they continued to supply logging camps while expanding the store to serve both the local community and the growing tourist population. The Wehseler family ran the store for about four decades and made it the heart of the Tofte community. The logging camps slowly disappeared, but the store continued to grow and thrive. Henry and Florence retired about ten years ago and turned it over to the Iversons. Stay tuned for more North Shore Market news as this latest transition unfolds.

The musical “Grease” will be running at William Kelly High School Auditorium for the next couple of weeks. I’ve heard rumors that this is going to be a spectacular production and is not to be missed. The talented and experienced Paul Deaner is directing the Lake Superior Community Theatre production and my confidential source tells me that he is “pulling out all the stops.” Reserved seating is available by calling Roxanne at 218-220-0682. You can also find information on the web or by calling WTIP.

If you are a North Shore landowner, mark your calendar for this year’s North Shore Landowners Community Meeting on Friday, May 11th, 12:30 p.m. at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland. This free event is an opportunity for landowners to network and learn about current efforts to restore the North Shore forest. There will be discussions about forest restoration ideas, demonstrations of restoration techniques, and information about financial assistance for your restoration projects.

The meeting is sponsored by Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association, University of Minnesota Extension Forestry Team and the North Shore Forest Collaborative, with funding from The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation. Contact Sugarloaf’s Molly Thompson at 218-525-0001 or, as always, look it up on the web or contact WTIP for information.

Construction has started on the several projects that are happening this summer at Birch Grove School and Community Center in Tofte. Bids requests are being sent out for some major improvements to the outdoor facilities. Mark Aldinger tore down the skating rink boards and Mike McMillan hauled them away. Tofte Township, who owns the building, is putting the old tennis court fencing and the old warming house up for sale. Information on the construction bids and the for-sale items is available in the community room at Birch Grove.

The Birch Grove Foundation is hoping to provide LOTS, which stands for “Learning Opportunities Through Stories” again this summer. If you have a child under school age, this is a fun hour-long parent/child activity. Call Patty Nordahl at 663-7977 to express your interest.

Birch Grove Foundation now has a Facebook page, providing quick access to all the news and activities at Birch Grove in that handy Facebook format.

It’s not too early to start planning for Marion McKeever’s Famous Fishcakes Fundraiser on Tuesday, June 12th at Satellite’s Restaurant in Schroeder. This is a very popular and longstanding event – not to mention being an authentic North Shore cultural experience. All proceeds go to Birch Grove and reservations are recommended, so call Patty at 663-7977 to get your spot nailed down.

Thinking about Marion’s fishcakes is making me really hungry, so for this week, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.


The Great Warm Wake from the NASA Earth Observatory

West End News April 5

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Now that March is in the record books, it's not surprising that this March was officially the warmest since records have been kept. Setting aside all the economic and political ramifications, this is the kind of phenomenon that meteorologists live for. Minnesota Public Radio meteorologist Paul Huttner is a frequent visitor to Tofte and the BWCA Wilderness and author of the popular Updraft Blog. Recently, he wrote about all the weather records that were smashed last month. At the end of the posting, he quotes Tofte resident Jessa Frost, who said "This winter is like a bad boyfriend. They never come around when you want them, and just when you're done with them they show up unexpectedly."

Along with the rest of the nation, I followed the Supreme Court case on the Affordable Health Care Act with great interest. I am frustrated by the conservative opposition to the law's requirement that everyone carry health insurance. This was originally a conservative idea and accepting it was a significant concession from the many people who think that health care should be a single-payer system operated by the government. If the so-called mandate is struck down by the court, the whole concept health care provided by private industry is in doubt. A private insurance system can only work if the mandate is in place to spread the risk over the entire population.

Keeping the current system will not work either. Costs are rising so quickly that it will bankrupt our economy if nothing is done. The economy is also stifled by the millions of people who are stuck in their current jobs because they don't dare to risk losing their health insurance. This unintended side effect has severely depressed the entrepreneurial spirit that we used to be famous for. The old system also allowed insurance companies to drop you if you became seriously ill, which defeats the whole purpose of insurance. It has also led to health issues being the number one reason for bankruptcy.

I often hear the argument that if prices for health care were publicly posted, people would seek out the cheapest care and costs would be contained. This really makes no sense to me. Health care is not a normal product. Think of it this way: If your child were diagnosed with cancer, would you shop for a bargain basement treatment, or would you seek out the very best and probably most expensive care you could get your hands on?

Given the choices before us, it seems that if the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Health Care Act, we will have little choice but to move to single payer system, like most of the rest of the world’s developed countries. Even now, between Medicaid, Medicare, the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Service, well more than half of Americans are covered by government funded health care. Our wonderful local clinic is partially funded by the federal government, which allows either directly or indirectly, the fantastic care that we get here in Cook County.

If the conservative justices on the Supreme Court strike down the Affordable Health Care Act, perhaps it will galvanize the country to support a truly universal, fair, sustainable and affordable health care system for America.

We had our first canoe rental at Sawbill this week, setting another early season record. This is normally a very quiet time of year back in the woods. The road bans are in place, fishing season is closed and the muddy ground usually makes camping unappealing. This year might be an exception, at least for a few people who want to experience real solitude and a chance to how nature is adapting to the wild weather.

Global land-ocean temperature index

West End News March 29

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The ice left Sawbill Lake on Tuesday, March 27. This is the earliest ice-out date since records started being kept back in the 1930s. It beats the previous record, set just two years ago, by an incredible 8 days. It is also the first time in history that the ice has gone out in March. Historically, over the last 60 years, the average ice-out date for Sawbill has been May 1.

This mild winter and incredibly early ice-out date are just two more indicators of global warming. The other local signs of global warming are shorter ski seasons, hotter summers, larger and more frequent forest fires, and the disappearance of several species of wildlife, including the moose, just to name a few.

Science has known for at least thirty years that global warming is happening and is caused by human industrial activity. Unfortunately, some of those industries have staged a remarkably effective misinformation campaign over the last twenty years, denying the existence of global warming. They’ve managed to thwart any significant effort to address this important issue and now it is too late to avoid some very bad consequences.

On a global basis, the Pentagon is projecting more armed conflicts and terrorism as a side effect of climate change around the world. The insurance industry is taking steps to limit the huge liabilities that they are facing from increasingly violent natural disasters. Glaciers and the polar ice caps are receding at alarming rates. Rising sea levels are already displacing millions of coastal residents and will displace many more millions in the near future.

Nobody likes to hear bad news, but the time is long past for the world to come together to solve this critical issue. It is also long past time to call out the global warming deniers for what they are: at best misinformed and at worst deliberate liars. In particular, the politicians who are on the wrong side of this issue should be sent packing. They know what they are doing is wrong and are placing the short term interests of their special interest donors ahead of the well being of the human race - shame on them.

On to some good news: The Cook County Lodging Tax receipts through the end of February show steady improvement in our tourism economy. In an apples-to-apples comparison, lodging sales are up about 4 percent over last year and above where they were before the recession. Of course, the figures aren’t adjusted for inflation, which makes them a little less rosy, but at least things are headed in the right direction. March and April may not be great months this year, but we’ll find out about that in the next report.

Tofte Township also received some good news this week in the form of a 29 thousand dollar grant from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation to start working on the 30 acres of land that they own around the Birch Grove Center. The property is being studied for possible construction of senior and/or affordable housing. The grant will pay for an engineering survey to figure out which parts of the property are suitable for buildings, sewer systems, wetlands, etc. Birch Grove Foundation director Patty Nordahl, who will help administer the grant, says that there is much work to be done before the project becomes reality, but she is pleased to be taking this important step. Senior and affordable housing has been a Tofte Township priority for many years.

The Birch Grove Foundation also received a generous North Shore Health Care Foundation grant for their Busy Bodies project. This is a coordinated effort with local childcare provider Anna Lisa Peck, Saplings preschool, Open Gym and the North Shore Visitation Center. They have purchased large motor equipment for pre-school age children. Studies have shown that one hour a day of vigorous play improves the health of children and lowers the risk of childhood obesity. Open Gym for pre-schoolers and their families is every Friday at 9 am, and the play is reportedly very vigorous!

Finally from Birch Grove, the regularly scheduled community lunch will be a week later than usual in April. It will be at noon on April 17 rather than April 10.

I had the privilege of seeing two lynx this week during my normal travels around the area. In both cases, I was able to get a good, long look at the beautiful cat and it was quite obvious that they were lynx and not bobcats. The only thing I can’t be sure of is whether I saw two lynx – or the same lynx twice.

Early spring conditions at Sawbill.

West End News: March 22

The West End was saddened to receive word of Reuben Tofte’s passing last week at the age of 96. Reuben is the last of a generation that was born in Tofte during the era when Scandinavians were moving to the North Shore. Reuben was the son of Tofte pioneers Cecelia and John Tofte. It is hard to conceive of all the changes that Reuben witnessed during his long and full life.

After a distinguished career as a dentist in Duluth, Reuben retired to Tofte and lived next door to the beautiful Tofte Park for many years. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Lucille, Joel, John, Lynn and the rest of Reuben’s family. The family requests that memorials be made to the Tofte Historical Society.

One thing that lifelong West End residents have never seen is a spring thaw like the one we are experiencing now. This abrupt end to an already mild winter is at least a month ahead of schedule. International Falls has set high temperature records for eight days in a row. Some of the smaller ponds here in the West End are already out and it looks like some of the lakes will start to shed their ice here in the third week of March. This is more than two weeks earlier than the previous early ice out record, set two years ago, and more than six weeks earlier than the average ice out date.

University of Minnesota climatologist, Mark Seeley, appeared on public television’s Almanac program, and said that this warm spell is the most extreme since Minnesota weather records have been kept. He went on to say that 1910 was a warm year, but wasn’t even close to the current warm winter season. He then mentioned that 1910 was one of the worst forest fire years in the state’s history. My blood ran cold when I heard that.

It’s hard to think of this as an extreme weather event, but this warm spell is actually just as extreme as a killer blizzard or a line of tornadoes. Somehow though, “extreme pleasantness” is just harder to get worked up about. Of course, in northern Minnesota the weather turns on a dime and it’s not out of the question that snow and cold could return with a vengeance before this weird winter of ‘11/’12 finally enters the record books.

Many thanks to the townships of Schroeder, Lutsen and Tofte for voting to support the Birch Grove Foundation at their recent annual meetings. The townspeople can rest assured that there are many good things happening at Birch Grove.

For instance, the weekly senior lunch, held every Wednesday, will feature a presentation from county housing coordinator Nancy Grabko on March 28. The next week, April 4, there will be a video presentation of the “Sugar – Sweet and Sour” program that had to be cancelled earlier due to a snowstorm. Blood pressure and blood sugar screenings will be available also.

The Hobbits, also known as the Hearth Oven Bread Baking Initiative Team, are meeting Wednesday, March 28 at 9 a.m. at Birch Grove. Everyone is welcome. Patty reports that she has received a lot of positive feed back on this project.

The Tofte Fourth of July planning committee has decided to move the parade time to 2 p.m. from its traditional time of 1 p.m. Volunteers and vendors for Tofte’s renowned Independence Day event are needed, so if you have an interest, contact Patty Nordahl. Her email is bgf (as in Birch Grove Foundation) and her phone is 663-7977. You can always Google Birch Grove Foundation to find a full listing of activities and complete contact information.

Round River Farms in Finland is still looking for a few more families to sign up for fresh produce this summer. For a flat, one-time fee, you share equally in the farm fresh produce with the other subscribers. Our family has been a member for years and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Families can go together on a share if they want to. If there are enough subscribers from the West End, the farm will deliver to Birch Grove, making it much more convenient for everyone. For more details, call David Abazs at 218-353-7736. You can also Google Round River Farms to find their website.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating that a remarkable series of musical events has been happening at Papa Charlie’s nightclub at Lutsen Mountains on Monday nights. It’s called the Songwriter Series and features some of the best songwriters in the music business in a quiet, intimate setting. The crowd for this event has been growing since it started, and locals make up a fair share of the audience. It seems like most of the people are there because they love music and they clearly are enjoy the experience. The songwriters also seem to enjoy the careful attention of the audience, which lifts their performance to another level. The whole thing is just working, so you can check it out every Monday night from 8 to 10 pm.


Bill notes sudden spring thaws have flooded bears out of their dens in the past. Be on the look out!

West End News March 16

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Thank you to all the candidates who ran for office in the recent township elections in Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen. I know from experience that running for public office can be a little uncomfortable for Minnesotans. After all, the definition of an extrovert in Cook County is someone who looks at your shoes while they’re talking to you. In the township elections, it doesn’t really matter what party you identify with, but it’s more about being willing to put in the time and energy. So, I offer my congratulations to the winners of the township supervisor and clerk positions, even though it’s much like congratulating them for getting a brand new pick and shovel.

It’s stylish these days to be contemptuous of people who seek and hold public office. However, like many things in life, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Office holders not only commit a huge amount of time and energy, but they make important decisions that affect our lives on a daily basis. I think it’s important that we honor those who serve, even if we don’t agree with them on the issues.

While I’m on the subject, Tofte Township has scheduled its truth in taxation hearing for Thursday, April 26 starting at 7 pm. This is where you can question the value that the tax assessor has assigned to your property. The Town Board has the authority to reduce total valuation by 1%. Cook County Tax Assessor, Mary Black, and an assistant will be at the meeting to provide advice. If you have questions about your valuation, it’s best to call Mary ahead of time so she can get background information together for you. Her phone number at the courthouse is 387-3000.

I recently heard from Rick Jannett, whom I have known since the early ‘80s. Rick has been researching small mammals, including mice, voles, and shrews, in Cook County since 1983. He has discovered that our most common small mammal, the red backed vole, goes through population cycles every three to six years. Another species, the rock vole, had a very stable population for many years, but recently has almost disappeared in some years.

The smoky shrew first appeared in Cook County in the mid ‘90s, apparently expanding its range from Canada, and now seems to be widespread in the county. Several other shrew species appear to be less common as time goes by.

Rick has found that small mammal populations in the forest have declined since 2004, but the cause is not clear. He suspects that it could be related to severe weather events or a thinner snow pack which leaves the little guys susceptible to weather and predators.

Rick has not found the white-footed mouse in the forest, which is good news because they carry deer ticks that can transfer Lyme disease and other illnesses to humans.

Rick reminds me of our own West End biologist, Bill Lane, who has been studying owls in Cook County for a similar period of time. They should probably get together to compare data, as small mammals and owls are surely inextricably linked in the ecosystem. I’ve seen Bill’s snowshoe tracks heading into the woods off the Sawbill Trail this week, so I know he is out in the dark counting owls as the rest of us slumber blissfully in our beds.

Speaking of critters, it would not be surprising to see some bears wandering around in the next couple of weeks. In the past, when we’ve had these sudden thaws at this time of year, the bears get flooded out of their dens. People see them, but they appear to still be kind of sleepy and out of it. Other than casually destroying the odd bird feeder, they don’t cause any problems.

As always, it’s great to be able to live side-by-side with so many wild animals here in the West End.

There are lots of skiing opportunities on the West End after the latest snow!

West End News March 8

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 Congratulations to Frank Moe of Hovland who recently completed a sled dog trip from Grand Marais to the state capitol in St Paul. Frank made his trip to raise public awareness of the danger of water pollution from several large-scale precious metal mining operations that are proposed for sulfide-bearing rock in northeastern Minnesota.

I’ve observed two things from the discussion that Frank’s trip has provoked. The first is that very few people are against mining. The second is that everyone is in favor of clean water. The difference of opinion seems to revolve around how much risk we’re willing to accept along with the mining. The people supporting Frank’s effort are asking the legislature to adopt a policy that would require the mining companies to prove that there will be no harm to the watershed before they are allowed to start mining. The mining companies and their supporters are asking that we trust them to protect the water, in spite of a record of truly terrible pollution from this type of mining in the past.

I feel that due to the long history of catastrophic pollution associated with mining sulfide bearing minerals, it’s perfectly reasonable to require the mining companies to prove that there will be no significant harm before they open a mine. Our clean water is just too important to gamble with.

On the local scene, a group of Hobbits is getting organized in Tofte. Hobbit is an acronym for: Hearth Building, Bread Baking Initiative Team. Jeanne Larson and Bill Higgins are working with the Birch Grove Foundation and North House Folk School to build an outdoor hearth oven at Birch Grove this summer. Their organizing announcement on Boreal News last week is so good that I’m going to quote it word for word.

“Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
A Gathering of H.O.B.B.I.T.’s (Hearth Building, Bread Baking Initiative Team)
We believe that in these challenging times there is value in strengthening the essence of our community. By having a place where we can gather together and bake bread, have “pizza-pot-luck” suppers and other events, we can nourish relationships and cultivate the support and resources that attend to the needs of our community (and have cheap fun!) Currently, we are in the planning stages to build a community hearth oven at Birch Grove Community Center this summer. A priority in our planning includes YOU! We want to know your interest and role in this endeavor. Here are some of your options:
1. I love to eat artisan breads and I support the project.
2. I am interested in attending “pizza-pot-lucks” and other community bread making gatherings.
3. I would like to be a HOBBIT - a founder. I want to help build the oven this summer, contributing my time and money 4. I am not interested in building the oven but would contribute money for the project.

Please contact Patty Nordahl at Birch Grove Community Center either by email or call 663-7977 and share your number(s) of interest.”

For those of you who are thinking about attending kindergarten next year, don’t forget the Birch Grove Community School Kindergarten Round-Up from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 13. It includes an invitation to Birch Grove Community Lunch. Call Diane at 663-0170 for more information.

When my daughter Ruthie attended her kindergarten round-up as a 4-year-old, she was delighted to be given a popsicle. She remembers thinking that kindergarten was going to be awesome because you got popsicles there. Ruthie just turned 30 and to this day she reports, with a trace of bitterness, that she never received a single popsicle while actually in kindergarten.
West End are now fully open and groomed for the first time this season. Everyone is reporting wonderful conditions, so take advantage of them while they last. With this crazy winter, who knows how long they will stay in good shape?

A snow covered picnic table at Sawbill Outfitters/ photo Bill Hansen

West End News March 1

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We had a little excitement here at Sawbill last weekend. If you remember, that was two storms ago, when we had the first significant snowfall of the season that Sunday. Here at Sawbill we got 9 inches, but in the snowbelt, 5 to 10 miles inland from Lake Superior, we got more than a foot. As usual, we had a couple of winter camping parties coming out of the wilderness that Sunday afternoon, hoping to head back to home and family in the Cities.

Unfortunately, their vehicles were not able to make it down the unplowed Sawbill Trail. I tried to break a trail for them with my big pickup plow, but as we got closer to the snowbelt, even my truck couldn’t make way. We returned to Sawbill where I turned up the heat in our crew housing and scrounged up some foo,d and we hosted seven men for an impromptu sleepover. Although the two groups had never met each other before, they were delighted to find a 30-pack of Schmidt beer that had been left by last summer’s crew, and they all soon became fast friends.

In the morning, we provided them with fresh coffee cake, orange juice and coffee. They were so enjoying being snowbound, that they stayed for a couple of hours after the road was plowed, drinking coffee and swapping winter camping stories.

This isn’t the first time, or probably the last, that we’ve had to lend a hand to winter campers stranded here at Sawbill. About 15 years ago, we hosted a solo camper whose car wouldn’t start when the temperature dropped to minus 20 the day he planned to leave. I had to push his frozen car into our heated workshop, where it took five hours to warm up enough to start. Meanwhile, the camper joined us watching the Super Bowl. We’ve kept in touch ever since then and he still camps here frequently with his family.

It’s all part of the fun when you live at on the edge of the wilderness.

The Bloodmobile will be in Tofte, in the parking lot of Zoar Lutheran Church, Monday, March 5 between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. I urge all West End residents to give blood if you are willing and able. Not only is it important to our community to maintain a ready blood supply, but the whole event is a fun chance to visit with random friends and neighbors. The process itself is almost painless and the Bloodmobile staff is friendly and efficient. Dennis Rysdahl, who manages Bluefin Bay and several other large properties in Tofte and Schroeder, is a regular donor, even though he is self-confessed to be deathly afraid of needles. If Dennis can do it, so can you! To make an appointment call Polly Erickson at 663-7398.

The Friends of the Boundary Waters organization is offering a new program this summer for an advanced internship in wilderness advocacy. It is called the Bill Rom Advocacy Fellowship and it’s part of their strategic focus on building the next generation of wilderness stewards. Bill Rom, along with his wife Barb, was a pioneer of the outfitting industry for the BWCA Wilderness. They founded Canoe Country Outfitters in Ely, which is still in business today. The internship is geared toward college or graduate students. It features a trip to Washington, D.C. with Friends staff to get firsthand experience in advocacy, meeting with members of Congress, federal agencies, and partner organizations. The application deadline is March 16. You can find more details and application forms on the Friends website, which is easily found by Googling “Friends of the Boundary Waters.”

Patty Nordahl at the Birch Grove Center in Tofte is wondering if anyone is interested in learning how to build an outdoor brick oven. Birch Grove is hoping to host a North House class in brick oven building this summer. It’s a win – win event with students learning a traditional craft and Birch Grove ending up with a brick oven for delicious bread and pizza baking. Call Patty at Birch Grove, 663-7977, if you are interested.

The latest storm canceled last week’s senior lunch at Birch Grove, along with the guest nutritionist from Essentia Health. However, her presentation was videotaped and will be shown at Birch Grove at a later date. The blood pressure and blood sugar screenings will be rescheduled. Time and date will be publicized as soon as it is set.

Patty also would like to remind everyone that Birch Grove is still selling Spring Light 60 watt compact fluorescent light bulbs very cheaply, with profits going to support the Birch Grove Foundation. She also notes that Early Childhood Open Gym is every Friday school that is in session from 9 to 10 a.m.

Congratulations to Jackie Dillenbeck and Plamen Dimitrov who are the newest members of the Birch Grove School Board. They join a long list of West End Community members who have pitched in to make Birch Grove School and West End children successful and productive.

There is a great event coming up soon in Silver Bay. It’s an evening of Folk and Classical music presented by members of the Duluth Symphony Orchestra and the Blue Canvas Orchestra from the Big Top Chatauqua in Bayfield. The show starts at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 3 at William Kelley High School Auditorium. You can pick up a ticket at either the Grand Marais or Silver Bay libraries or tickets are available for sale at the door. The sponsor is the wonderful Northern Lake County Arts Board with help from the Minnesota State Arts Board’s Legacy Fund, Silver Bay Area Tourism Association and the Minnesota Arts & Culture Heritage Legacy Fund. Be there or be square.

It sure is a relief to see that real Minnesota winter is here at last. All the trails are now open and ready for fun. The snow back in the woods is over-the-knee deep and more is arriving all the time. Time for me to go wax my skis.

Round River Farm, a CSA in Finland, MN, is hoping to make Birch Grove a weekly delivery point for veggies this year

West End News Feb. 23

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It was good to see what I am calling The Big Snow Storm of 2012 drop a season high 5 inches of snow the other day. I can remember years when a 5-inch snowfall was met with a shrug and a broom to clear the steps. This year it’s worthy of news stories and celebration. Here at Sawbill we’ve been luckier than most of the state, with 37 inches of total snowfall for the season so far and 19 inches currently on the ground.

Another big story this week was the reworking of political districts that follows the general census every decade. It is heartening to observe that the non-partisan judicial panel that actually does the redistricting actually was non-partisan and fair. In this time when partisanship seems to be creeping into every aspect of life, I give credit to the redistricting panel itself and to the Minnesota Supreme Court that appointed the panel for keeping the best interests of the whole state in mind.

That said, I do think the panel screwed up our legislative district. I’m not saying they did it for political reasons, but it does appear that they don’t understand the geography of northern Minnesota very well. Our old legislative district, numbered 6A, used to be all of Cook County, all of Lake County, which includes Two Harbors of course, and a slice of St. Louis County that included the townships just east of Duluth. The new district is numbered 3A and includes all of Cook County, all of Lake County except Two Harbors, northern St Louis County and – in my opinion, oddly – all of Koochiching County.

If you just look at the map, this seems to make sense, but the reality is that Cook and Lake Counties have little in common with Koochiching County and plenty in common with Two Harbors and the communities just east of Duluth. There is not even a direct road between Cook County and Koochiching County and it takes almost seven hours to drive from Grand Portage to International Falls. That’s roughly how long it takes to drive from Grand Portage to Northfield! I mean no disrespect to the good people of Koochiching County, but due to the geography, we have little day-to-day interaction with them.

From the perspective of party politics, it probably won’t present a huge change. Our incumbent representative, David Dill, who caucuses with the Democrats, lives in Crane Lake, which is pretty much in the middle of the new district. It’s probably fair to say that Koochiching County tends to vote a bit more Republican than Two Harbors and the Duluth area townships, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of elections.

Birch Grove Foundation Director, Patty Nordahl, reports that the Timber Beasts, led by team captain Ryan Blaisell, won this year’s Boot Hockey Tournament. This is their second consecutive annual victory. The other teams were Awesome, Mixed Nuts and Superior Hot Shots. The event was a big success, thanks to the participants, spectators, and sponsors, especially Grand Marais State Bank and Sven and Ole’s Pizza. Everyone is looking forward to next year’s tournament on the brand new rink.

David Abazs, from Round River Farm in Finland, spoke at the Birch Grove senior lunch last week. Round River Farm practices what is known as community supported agriculture. They sell shares in their output before the growing season starts for a flat fee. Each shareholder gets an equal portion of the produce as it is harvested throughout the season. They share the bounty, but also share the risk, which makes life a lot more predictable for the farmer. Here at Sawbill, we have purchased a share from David and his partners for many years and I highly recommend it. This year, David would like to find three more shareholders in the West End community and make Birch Grove a weekly drop-off point for veggie deliveries. A share can be split among two or more families. You can get a discount by working two four-hour shifts on the farm. The healthy, delicious produce comes with a newsletter that details what’s going on with the farm and recipe ideas for that week’s produce. You can find contact information by Googling Round River Farm, Finland Minnesota on the Internet.

And finally, it’s not too early to mark your calendar for the Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder annual township meetings, held in the evening on Tuesday, March 13.

Morning frost on pine

West End News Feb. 16

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Although we are barely halfway through February, the freeze and thaw cycle that we usually see in March and April has begun. Here at Sawbill, the night time temperatures are dipping into the low single digits while the day time highs are hovering around freezing or a little above. The sun is starting to have some real warmth and south facing roofs are dripping even on the days that officially aren’t above freezing. Travel on the lakes in the BWCA Wilderness is still fairly slow, with eight or ten inches of snow in on most lakes. But, if the freeze/thaw cycle continues, the snow will compress and solidify to allow for very fast travel, especially on skis. President’s weekend is traditionally the biggest weekend of the winter for wilderness camping and if the conditions continue to improve, this year may be one of the biggest ever for this growing activity.

The unusual weather has produced a beautiful side effect in the woods. When the temperature drops suddenly overnight, the trees develop a heavy hoar frost. When the morning sun hits the trees, they sparkle in their brilliant and delicate white coats. As the temperature climbs and the morning breeze stirs, they shed their frost and for about an hour it appears to be snowing lightly without a cloud in the sky. As the brilliant light plays off the falling frost, the air appears to be full of tiny diamonds shining against a deep blue sky.

Dave and Amy Freeman are West End residents who officially live in a tent cabin off the Grade Road in Lutsen. In fact they are rarely home because they spend most of their time traveling through wilderness areas all over the western hemisphere providing environmental education via satellite communications and the internet to tens of thousands of school children through their organization, Wilderness Classroom. During the winter, they often work as sled dog trip guides for Wintergreen Lodge in Ely.

As a result of their unique lifestyle, Dave and Amy have deep appreciation of the natural world and a particular love of the Superior/Quetico ecosystem. Like many others in northeastern Minnesota, they are deeply concerned the prospect of the new types of mining that are being proposed and the potential for disastrous and long lasting pollution resulting from the mining process. To show their concern and to raise public awareness of the issue, they are urging people to sign a petition that asks that no new mining be allowed unless it can be proved that it will cause no harm to Minnesota’s water resources and natural heritage. What makes Dave and Amy’s effort unique - is that in partnership with local musher Frank Moe - they will be delivering the petitions to the legislature by dog sled. It’s probably not the first time in Minnesota’s long history that the legislature has been petitioned by dog sled, but it is surely the first time in recent memory.

I was distressed by the news this week that the Minnesota Department of Health found unhealthy levels of mercury in ten percent of newborn babies in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. Mercury poisoning is a particularly insidious hazard to developing fetuses and young children, resulting in neurological damage that can delay learning and cause a lifetime of diminished capacity. While the study didn’t specifically study the sources of the mercury, the technical details make it good guess that the mercury is reaching infants through their mother’s consumption of game fish. Although mercury does exist naturally in the environment, there is no scientific doubt that industrial pollution contributes significantly to modern mercury exposure. Coal fired power plants are known to significant source of mercury pollution. The Department of Health is recommending that pregnant women and young children avoid eating large predator fish, like walleyes and northerns, to lessen their risk of poisoning. While this is surely good advice, I feel like this study is a wake-up call to do whatever it takes to avoid adding to a problem that is literally poisoning our children. The large coal fired power plant in Schroeder, owned by Minnesota Power, is moving aggressively to reduce their mercury emissions by at least seventy percent, maybe as soon as this summer. Mercury pollution can travel long distances though, so this is a global problem that needs to be addressed now.

I heard through the grapevine that the pre-school fun day at Birch Grove School in Tofte last weekend was a resounding success. Preschoolers from Hovland to Silver Bay attended in force and brought along their parents and siblings. Hopefully, this bodes well for increasing school enrollment in the near future.

Don’t forget about the very special senior lunch at Birch Grove on leap day, Wednesday, February 29. Bonnie Brost from Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Heart and Vascular Center will be giving her popular presentation titled “Sugar: The Sweet and the Sour.” There will also be free blood pressure and glucose checks before lunch.