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West End News

Clare Shirley

Clare Shirley

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

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


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

West End News: January 3

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

Greg Nichols and Will Surbaugh (Photo by Kate Surbaugh)

West End News: December 27

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Sometimes the steady diet of bad news that streams in via radio, TV and Internet can be really discouraging.  The news cycle has been especially grim recently, causing me to worry about the state of the world. 
Then, I attended an event at North House Folk School that restored my faith in the human race and gave me good hope for the future.  The event was watching 11-year-old Will Surbaugh attempt to do 500 pushups in an hour.  He did it, and then some, but you need to hear the whole story to understand why it was such an inspiring event.
Will is the son of Kate and Steve Surbaugh, who live outside of Grand Marais and own Cascade Vacation Rentals in Tofte.  Last spring, Will informed his parents that he would like to ski on the downhill ski team at Lutsen Mountains this winter.  Good parents that they are, Kate and Steve told Will that he could be on the team, but he had to earn enough money over the summer to defray at least half of the cost, including the expensive equipment that’s required for competitive downhill skiing. 
Will started a firewood business, worked hard and earned an impressive amount of money over the summer. His parents then explained to him that philanthropy is a core value of the Surbaugh family, and Will was expected to donate 10% of his earnings to a charity of his own choosing.
Will decided to support a non-profit called “The Mission Continues.”  They award six-month community service fellowships to post-9/11 veterans who then use their skills and discipline to serve a community project that addresses educational, environmental or social issues. This takes advantage of the veterans’ training to build community, while giving them a good path to reconnecting with civilian life.  At the conclusion of the fellowship, each veteran is expected to do one of three things: be employed full time, pursue higher education, or commit themselves to a permanent role of community service.
Will cheerfully sent off his donation and was surprised to be contacted by the organization and invited to their annual meeting and celebration in Washington, D.C.  The Mission Continues leaders were moved by receiving a generous donation from such a young philanthropist and wanted Will to be a part of celebrating the success of the program.  Will and Steve traveled to D.C. and Will was asked to introduce the organization’s executive director - on stage - in front of 600 people.
Inspired by his experience in D.C., Will committed to organizing a Mission Continues fundraising event in Cook County, with an ambitious goal of raising $10,000.  Will and his dad were discussing what kind of event he could organize, and Steve suggested that Will think about some kind of physical activity that would raise money through pledges. Will thought for a minute and then said he reckoned he could do 500 pushups in an hour.  Will had never done that many pushups, but he calculated that it was feasible and his plans fell into place.
That’s how I found myself at North House recently watching Will Surbaugh doing pushups.  Will did 10 pushups every minute, which only takes him about 10 seconds.  He would rest for the rest of the minute, then click off 10 more.  Fitness expert Greg Nichols was the official timer and counter. 
More than a just a fundraising event, it turned into a community effort, with a silent auction, bake sale, live music, wood fired pizza and lots of excitement.  As Will burned through his pushups, a number of people, of all ages, joined him in doing a few, or a few hundred, pushups.  Although he did slow down a bit by the end, Will easily did the 500 pushups. In fact, he completed 638 pushups in the allotted hour.  But more importantly, he easily exceeded his fundraising goal of $10,000.  You can see him do it on YouTube.
Will is a modest kid and takes his accomplishment very much in stride.  But I couldn’t help but be inspired by his commitment.  He was modeling leadership, physical fitness, health, community service, philanthropy, family and fun for everyone.  These are all values that contribute to what is good in life all the time, but it’s particularly nice to think about them at this time of year and at this point in history.  Will and his friends give me great hope for the future.

Airdate: December 27, 2012

Moose on Sawbill Trail (Photo by Tom Spence)

West End News December 20

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Lutsen native Molly Rider is planning to paddle the entire Mississippi River this summer, starting at Lake Itasca and ending in New Orleans. The life-changing trip is made possible through a grant from the outdoor club at Bowdoin College in Maine where Molly is a student.  Three other young canoeists will be joining Molly on the trip.  They are Molly’s classmate Elina Berglund, along with Leif Gilsvik and Eric “Hurikane” Svenson, both from Two Harbors.
The group plans to depart Lake Itasca at the end of May and arrive in New Orleans during the second week of August, allowing 70 days for the epic canoe trip.  Molly expects the trip to cost about $650 per person, mostly for food.  All four of these adventurous young people have a ton of canoeing experience.
They’ve been helped in their planning by Tofte resident, Eric Frost, who paddled the length of the Mississippi with Lutsen resident Dave Freeman a few years back. They’ve also been in touch with former Lutsen resident Andy Keith, who paddled the Mississippi many years ago and published a book about his adventure.  Andy lives in Mexico now, but he has been advising Molly and company over the Internet, via Skype.
In order to receive the blessing and support of the outdoor club, Molly and Elina had to present a detailed proposal, which included their detailed qualifications, gear lists, a safety plan, and a food list that accounts for every tortilla and granola bar.  They’ll be conducting a seminar on long distance canoe tripping when they get back to school next fall, and both young women plan to take leadership roles in the Bowdoin College outdoor club once they get back to school.
Molly’s parents, Tom and Ann Rider, and her grandmother, Jean Skinner, are West Enders.  Although he was born and raised in Two Harbors, Leif Gilsvik’s mother is Patty Tome, who grew up in Grand Marais, and Dave Gilsvik, a well-known artist who frequently works and teaches in Grand Marais.
As dramatic and epic as a canoe trip down the length of the Mississippi is, it seems like a short jaunt compared to the 12,000-mile canoe, kayak and dogsled journey that Lutsen residents Dave and Amy Freeman are currently undertaking.  After surviving Hurricane Sandy while they were in New Jersey, Dave and Amy have taken a few weeks off to conduct dozens of school presentations that are a key part of their mission to get children excited about wilderness and outdoor travel. 
Dave and Amy will soon be back in their kayaks heading for Key West, Florida, where their trip will end sometime in April.  Before they are done, they will have conducted school programs for tens of thousands of kids and interacted with hundreds of thousands over the Internet.  We should see them back in Cook County in June when the school year ends.
Knowing Dave and Amy though, I don’t think they will let the grass grow under their feet for long.  I’m sure they will host an event at North House this summer to show slides and tell stories about their truly epic adventure.
The late season wolf hunting and trapping season ended this week.  I have to say that I was a bit surprised by how low-key the season was, at least back here on the Sawbill Trail.  There were quite a few traps set along the Sawbill Trail, but to my knowledge there were no dogs injured or any other unfortunate incidents connected to the season.  Local Conservation Officer, Tom Wahlstrom, told me that he had a lot of calls from concerned citizens before the season, but had no complaints during the season.
I still feel like the wolves contribute more to the West End economy when they are alive than they do as a rug in someone’s den, but I guess I’m fighting a losing battle there.
Tom Spence, from Tofte, snapped a couple of good pictures of two moose on the Sawbill Trail this week.  It looks like a cow and a pretty grown up calf. It’s getting to the point where seeing a moose is pretty rare, so Tom drew a lot of positive comment when he posted the pictures on Facebook.
The Sugarbush Trail Association in Tofte has groomed the unplowed portion of the Onion River Road for both classic and skating style cross-country skiing.  Skiers are reporting excellent conditions and grooming.  Our 6K classic style trail that starts right at the bitter end of the Sawbill Trail is also groomed and in excellent condition.  There is plenty of ice for lake travel by ski or snowshoe, both in and out of the wilderness.  The rest of the West End trails, including both ski and snowmobile trails, are not quite ready for use yet.  Hopefully, nature will provide enough snow to get all the trails open for the big influx of visitors after Christmas.
Downhill skiing at Lutsen Mountains is in full swing and conditions are excellent.  Lutsen Mountains, Lutsen Resort and Grand Marais got a very complimentary write-up in an online magazine published for the Tampa Bay, Florida market.  It would be a fine irony if Tampa Bay residents traveled up here for winter fun, while half our population heads down there for sun and sand.
Here’s wishing for a peaceful, safe and happy holiday season for all.

Airdate: December 20, 2012

Alton Lake before the storm.  Photo by Crista Clark

West End News: December 13

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Everyone knows that Olympic medalist Cindy Nelson is a West End native, who grew up in Lutsen, skiing at her parents’ ski resort.  But what other world-class athlete grew up - and still lives - in Tofte, competing at the highest level in his chosen sport?  As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now….  the rest of the story.”
Sometime in January, Ron Gervais, Sr., will play in his 6,000th game of curling. That works out to an average of 120 games, every year, for 50 years.  Along the way, Ron won 11 state titles and four national titles. In 1980, Ron was chosen for the American team competing at an international tournament in Scotland. In the second game of that tournament, Ron threw an eight ender, which is the equivalent of a royal flush in poker or a perfect score in gymnastics. Only a handful of eight enders are thrown worldwide every year and almost never in a major tournament. The U.S. beat Scotland that year for the first time in the history of the tournament.
Ron started curling in 1962, the same year that the Cook County Curling Club was founded by Cook County High School bandleader Harold Ikola.  Young Ron gave it a try and has never looked back.  He’s so well respected in the curling world that he has umpired for the Silver Broom, which is the World Series of curling, not once, but twice. 
Although there is no way of knowing for sure, Ron may well have played more games of curling than any living American. He reports that there is a curler in Wisconsin who is about 1,200 games behind him, but can’t possibly curl enough to catch up. Ron attributes his success and longevity to rarely getting sick and staying in shape by cutting firewood. He also gives credit to his wife, Carol, who accompanies him to almost every tournament, sharing the driving and offering support.
One more little statistic about Ron’s curling career: Each game of curling requires a player to throw 640 lb. of stones down 150 feet of ice. Just in tournament play, Ron has thrown a total of nearly 2,000 tons of stone. I can only guess that if you include practice, that figure is probably easily doubled or tripled. Maybe curling is keeping him in shape for cutting firewood, not the other way around.
Keeping to this week’s ice theme, Carl Hansen and his friend, Crista Clark, were at Sawbill this week, taking care of the business while Cindy and I spent a few days in Duluth. They discovered that Alton Lake was in perfect condition for skating. The entire lake was smooth, black ice from shore to shore. Carl and Crista enjoyed several hours of skating on blades that are specially made to attach to cross-country ski boots. Sadly, the big snowstorm arrived just as we returned from Duluth, so we missed the opportunity. On the upside, the new snow repaired the damage done to the ski trails during the recent warm spell. It also replaced the snow on the trees and, once again, everywhere you look back here in the woods, it is a picture postcard.

Lady of the Lake statue - photo courtesy

West End News: December 6

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A few weeks ago, the Cook County News Herald ran a picture of the so-called “Lady of the Lake” statue that used to be a prominent feature on Brule Lake. It brought back a lot of memories for me. When I was a young child, I used to spend weeks at a time on Brule Lake with Vi and Ken Osman, who owned a beautiful cabin on the far west end of Brule. The Osmans retired to Brule Lake around 1955.  They had married late in life and had no children, so they adopted me as kind of a surrogate grandchild.
As we fished and commuted across Brule Lake, we would see the “Lady of the Lake” statue, as it was visible from miles away. I remember that the Osmans were casually dismissive of the statue. When I commented on its beauty, Ken detoured the boat so we could see it close up. It was actually a crude and frankly ugly statue, amateurishly constructed from cement and chicken wire. It was one of many life lessons that I learned from the Osmans.  Sometimes things that look beautiful from a distance are actually quite ugly when you see them close up. 
A few years later, I had a conversation about the statue with Art Osman, Ken’s younger brother.  It turned out that Art had helped construct the statue in 1942. Art said that when most people asked him about the statue, he told them that it was an Indian maiden, built to watch over the lake. That was probably the basic truth of the matter, but Art told me that it was also part of an elaborate practical joke. 
Art was part of a group of friends from Rochester were regular visitors to a private island resort on Brule Lake.  One of the friends had recently married. I remember Art’s description of the new bride vividly because it was the first time I heard the expression “battle axe.” Art said that the groom’s fishing buddies warned him that his new wife would forbid him from going on the annual fishing trip.  Sure enough, the first year after the marriage, the groom was not able to attend, due to some other circumstance, not wifely prohibition. The joke was that the statue was built as a caricature of the young bride, who Art described as a large and imposing woman. The following year, when the friend did arrive for the fishing trip, the group pointed to the statue and said, “Look, your wife is watching you!”
Art said that they never expected the statue to survive more than a few years. He commented that they had built it around a dead cedar stump and he guessed that the stump was what gave it an unexpectedly long life.  After Brule Lake was included in the BWCA Wilderness, the presence of the statue became mildly controversial, with some people calling for its removal and some hoping it would be allowed to remain. The Forest Service decided to leave the statue and let it deteriorate on its own. Apparently, that decision didn’t sit well with some people, because someone thoroughly and carefully removed the statue a short time later. All trace of concrete was removed and the site was returned to a natural state.
My mom, Mary Alice Hansen, the unofficial West End historian, is publishing a little history of the statue in the paper this week and compiling a longer history of it for the Cook County Historical Society.
The whole statue story is kind of a metaphor for the history of Brule Lake. It is pretty well documented that Bob Marshall, one of the early architects of the national wilderness system, fought hard to keep development off Brule Lake and make it a wilderness lake. Almost literally on his deathbed, Marshall expressed regret that he had “lost” Brule Lake.  He can rest easy now, though, as Brule Lake is now the largest lake completely within the BWCA Wilderness, with no development except the canoe landing and a small Forest Service cabin just outside the wilderness boundary.
After all my bragging last week about the heavy blanket of beautiful snow that we had on the ground and in the trees, Mother Nature struck us low with warm and wet weather that left us with a mere 4 inches of hard, crusty snow. The driveway and paths are treacherous mine fields of ice patches that can take you down in a heartbeat, and the ground is iron hard, bringing to mind the old song lyric, “It don’t hurt you when you fall boys, only when you land.”

Peg Morris (Ed Landin)

West End News November 29

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I recently received word about the death of Peg Morris.  Peg and her partner, Ed Landin, were Cook County residents for many years. They started out with a cabin between Grand Marais and Lutsen while they operated a resort on Lake Superior just outside Two Harbors.  In 1994, they sold the resort, moved full-time to Cook County and were very active members of the community until they moved away in 2002.
Peg was a remarkable woman, with many talents.  She was a biologist by training and became a well-respected employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While living in Cook County, Peg served on the Governor’s Commission on the BWCA Wilderness, the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission, Minnesota Resort Association, and both the Cook County and Arrowhead Library Boards.  She was a founding board member and eventually chairperson of the Northeast Initiative Fund, which later changed its name to the Northland Foundation. Peg was also a licensed bird rehabilitator and nursed many injured birds back to health.  I remember her delighted description of recovering wild birds flying around inside her house.
Peg changed my life when she called me back in the early ‘90s asking if I would consider serving on the Northland Foundation board of trustees. Before I could start making excuses, she said, “Serving on the Northland board has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life.” That stopped me in my tracks, because Peg had done many, many interesting things in her life. I agreed to serve and Peg was absolutely right about what a great experience it is. I will be forever grateful to her for steering my life in that direction.
Peg died back in September, after struggling with a mysterious and progressive brain and nerve degeneration for many years. It was never fully diagnosed, and while it robbed her of speech and muscle control, her eyes made it clear that she knew what was going on around her. She was 64 years old. 
Grand Marais State Bank in Tofte has several seasonal initiatives going on. I previously mentioned their “giving tree” where you can donate gift items to be placed under the tree in the bank lobby and they will be distributed to local families who can use a little extra holiday cheer this year.  They are also acting as a collection point for the Cook County Food Shelf. If you donate a food item between now and the middle of December, your name will be entered in a drawing for a $50 gift certificate. And finally, if you open a new checking or savings account during the holiday season, the bank will donate $5 to the Salvation Army Red Kettle collection effort. Thanks to Nancy Christenson and her great crew for their generous work.
The big news from here in the backwoods is that we’ve received more than 16 inches of snow since Thanksgiving.  When I tell people in town about this, they frankly give me a skeptical look. All I can say is, hop in your car and see for yourself. The first 11 inches that came on Thanksgiving night was wet, so every tree is just loaded with snow. Our little 6K ski trail here at Sawbill is open and in excellent condition. As a bonus, the snow on the trees makes every view down the trail look like a Currier and Ives Christmas card. While Sawbill Lake has been at least partially frozen for a couple of weeks, the heavy snow on top of thin ice has made lake travel sketchy and uncertain. Best to stay off the ice for a little while longer.
We’re off to a good start on my favorite season, and my hope is that this is truly the arrival of winter and the holiday season will be snowy, fun and joyful.

Airdate: November 29, 2012

Beau Larson and Carl Hansen

West End News: November 22

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Beau Larson and Carl Hansen from Lutsen and Tofte are independent filmmakers who are both graduates of the University of Montana Media Arts program and Cook County High School.  They recently collaborated on the production of “Breaking Trail,” a film about the North Shore, Lutsen and the growing mountain biking scene here in the West End. There will be a Hollywood-style premiere for the film at North House Folk School Saturday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m., complete with a red carpet and paparazzi. Although there will be bouncers at the door with a “guest list,” it is all in fun, and everyone is welcome with no charge.  Snacks and refreshments will be served.
Carl and Beau were recently featured on the popular television program, The Playlist, hosted by Karen Sunderman on WDSE, Channel 8, in Duluth.  The well-done program highlighted the young filmmakers’ creativity and success by weaving together interviews with footage from “Breaking Trail” and other films they have made.  You can watch the Playlist story online at or just Google “Channel 8 Playlist.”
As everyone knows, the recent accidental explosion at the Taconite Harbor power plant in Schroeder caused serious injuries and burns to Joe Fredrickson from Silver Bay. Joe is recovering slowly in the burn unit at Miller Dwan in Duluth. He has undergone a series of painful and difficult skin grafts, but is showing continuous improvement and is expected to make a full recovery. You can follow Joe’s progress on the Caring Bridge website by searching it for Joseph Fredrickson.
At the most recent meeting of the Taconite Harbor Citizen’s Advisory Panel, power plant manager Dave Rannetsberger talked about the accident, Joe’s recovery, and the ongoing investigation into the cause. He said that three different investigation teams have conducted detailed inquiries. It will be a while until the results are made public, but it is obvious that the explosion was caused by coal dust coming in contact with an ignition source. Meanwhile the power plant has been, and remains, shut down while repairs are made and a new set of safety protocols are developed to prevent any chance of a similar accident in the future. 
The explosion was so powerful that it blew the ceiling off the room where it occurred. All four walls were bulged out and extensive damage was done to equipment. Dave commented that he was glad to have several well-trained first responders on hand to begin treating Joe immediately after the accident, which very likely helped reduce the severity of his injuries.  Dave also had high praise for the Schroeder, Tofte, and Lutsen fire departments.
Another piece of bad news was received this week with the announcement that Northshore Mining in Silver Bay would be shutting down two furnaces in the taconite plant.  It is estimated that 125 workers will be laid off in Minnesota, but it isn’t clear how many of those will be cut from the plant and how many from the mine.  Unfortunately, those most recently hired are most likely to be laid off, so breadwinners for quite a few young families will soon be out of work.  They will be eligible for unemployment benefits, but many have not accrued much supplemental wage support that the company pays to laid off workers. The plant’s owner, Cliffs Natural Resources, says that they are making the cuts quickly in response to market conditions, hoping that by doing so they can reduce the length of the layoff.  Although the announcement was made last week, the furnaces won’t be shut down until shortly after the first of the year.
The ice on area lakes continues to come and go with the big swings in our local weather conditions.  Sawbill Lake is about half thawed at this writing and appears to be on its way to losing most of its ice for the second time this season. Looking at the forecast though, I think the next freeze up will be the one that lasts until spring.
In this season of thanksgiving, let me wish everyone in the extended West End community a safe and happy holiday season.

Ice skating on a frozen lake - photo by Anneli Salo

West End News: November 15

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Time is short to make your reservations for the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum's third annual storytelling dinner.  This popular event will be hosted by Lutsen Resort Saturday, Dec. 1. The storyteller will be Adolph Ojard, who is currently the executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Adolph is a Knife River native and the grandson of two distinguished North Shore fishing families, the Ojards and the Torgersens.  He will talk about his experience with commercial fishing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as a peek into the future of commercial fishing in Lake Superior.  Social hour starts at 5:30 p.m. and dinner at 6:30.  Call Lutsen Resort for reservations at 663-7212.  There is a reasonable charge for the dinner, as it is the main fundraiser of the year for the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte.
I want to give a shout out to Senja Ahlgren and her staff at the AmericInn - Tofte for a recent effort that they made to support military veterans and their families in Cook County. As part of a national effort by the AmericInn hotel franchise, Senja and her staff gathered donations from local businesses and individuals to make up bags of products and certificates that were distributed to Cook County veterans that encourage family activities and togetherness.  As always in the West End, everyone got behind the effort and 70 bags were distributed to veteran families in Cook County.  Thanks to AmericInn - Tofte and all the volunteers and donors for their good work.
And while I'm on the subject of good works, The Tofte Branch of Grand Marais State Bank will have a "Giving Tree" again this year for the holidays. The bank is collecting referrals of anyone who could really use an extra surprise or two this holiday season. In order to keep it confidential, they ask for the gender and age, and the person or group who will be responsible to pick up the gift at the bank by Dec. 18 for delivery before Christmas.  For information, talk to Nancy at the bank in Tofte or e-mail Patty Nordahl at Birch Grove Community Center at or call 663-7977.
I was very impressed, again this year, by the amazing energy created by the annual Bluegrass Masters weekend at Lutsen Resort, sponsored by the North Shore Music Association.  For the last 22 years, this event has filled Lutsen Resort to the gills with musicians and music fans for a weekend of jam sessions, workshops, concerts and musical networking. I only mention this event after the fact because I think it flies a little under the radar with local folks. It's a really interesting and entertaining thing to witness, just as a cultural event, if nothing else. The public is welcome to walk through the resort and listen to the dozens of jam sessions that break out in every nook and cranny. The level of musicianship is amazingly high, with some of the best acoustic musicians from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario mixed in with amateurs and beginners. 
I urge every Cook County resident to check it out when it rolls around next year on the first weekend in November. In addition to the musical fun, it is a great model for promoting tourism during the shoulder season when business drops dramatically. I can picture any number of events that could make use of excess resort capacity, contribute to the local economy and provide great entertainment for local people.
This continues to be a dramatic year for ice formation on Sawbill Lake.  The lake froze over about 70 percent back on Nov. 2.  By Nov. 7, the ice had completely disappeared in the face of warm temperatures and rain. Then, on the night of Nov. 13 it skimmed over again. Based on the forecast, it is very likely that it will thaw again. It is a rare phenomenon for the lake to freeze, thaw and re-freeze in a given year. If it does indeed thaw and freeze again, it will be first time in almost 60 years, at least, that it has frozen and thawed twice before the final freeze up.  And who knows… maybe it will freeze four times before we're done.  As I've discussed this interesting phenomenon around town, the conversation always ends with people saying to me, "Let me know if it freezes smooth enough for skating."  Rest assured that I will post to Boreal News if that happy condition develops!

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Skim ice on Sawbill Lake.

West End News: November 8

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Congratulations to everyone involved in the recent elections. It isn’t very comfortable for most Minnesotans to put themselves out there in the public scrum.  My hat is off to anyone who decides to serve in elected office, regardless of political philosophy.  It’s popular to be cynical toward elected officials now days, but in reality they work very hard and take more abuse than they deserve.  Sometimes it’s two steps forward - one step back, but in the long run our democratic system gradually makes life better for everyone.

The annual Papa Charlie’s Birch Grove School benefit at Lutsen Mountains is Friday, Nov. 16.  This long-standing event is not only generously supported by Lutsen Mountains, but also the food and beverage suppliers and countless volunteers.  It begins at 4:30 p.m. and features a lasagna dinner, silent auction and dance music by the popular and talented local band, D’Merritt.  Diane Blanchett, administrator at Birch Grove, is still looking for donations for the silent auction.  Call her at 663-0170 or email at if you can help out.

One last reminder that the bloodmobile will be at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte from 2:30 until 5:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12.  There are still openings for appointments, so call Polly at 663-7398 to do your part.

Former Congressman Jim Oberstar will be in Grand Marais Wednesday, Nov. 14 as the keynote speaker for the Active Living Summit.  The summit is designed for business people, policymakers and community leaders to learn about how active living contributes to health and quality of life in our community.  Representative Oberstar served us in Congress from 1975 through 2011.  He was chair of the powerful Transportation Committee from 2007 through 2011.  Throughout his career in public service, he has been a strong advocate for cycling, hiking and other active pursuits.  He was instrumental in including funding for biking and hiking trails in the transportation budget.  His accomplishments on our behalf are too numerous to list here, but I will say that he is an amazing public speaker and a walking encyclopedia on transportation policy issues, among many other things.  Admission to the summit is free, but registration is required.  Contact Kristin Wharton at the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic in Grand Marais for registration or more information. I plan to attend and it sounds like a good time.

Sawbill Lake and many of the smaller area lakes formed skim ice on the night of Nov. 2.  The ice got a little thicker over the next few days, but now has melted off in the face of a warming trend.  Back in the old days, it was a pretty good bet that the ice would form during the first week of November.  The first time we paddled on Thanksgiving was in the late ‘80s and it was considered a big fluke.  Now, we can paddle on most Thanksgivings.  As always, I have my fingers crossed for a freeze-up that leaves smooth ice for skating.  It’s been quite a few years since we’ve had really perfect skating conditions, so I figure that we’re due.  Flying down the lakes on skates is not only a sublime experience in itself, but it’s a great excuse to cut out on work and have some pure fun.

Canoeing in the BWCA Wilderness in November

West End News: November 1

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The late Senator Paul Wellstone was in the news last week as his family, friends, the state and the nation marked the 10th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that took the lives of eight people. I was a friend of the Wellstones, albeit one of several thousand other people. Although they were very, very busy people, they had an amazing capacity for caring and friendship and I treasured the time I was able to spend with them.
What many people don’t know is that Paul and Sheila Wellstone were honorary West Enders.  During the 12 years that he served in the Senate, they vacationed regularly in Tofte at the home of a family friend.  Sheila’s idea for their time in Tofte was to have it be a real disconnect from their otherwise hectic schedules – a time for reading, reflection, deep relaxation and taking time to be a couple. Paul was on board with the plan, but his natural tendency to seek out contact with people couldn’t be completely denied. 
His routine was to grab a borrowed overcoat that was several sizes too big for him and hike the half mile to the North Shore Market. There he read the daily newspapers, visited with store patrons and enjoyed the company of Henry and Florence Wehseler, who owned the store at the time. Paul led discussions with the customers on the issues of the day, often failing to mention that he was a U. S. Senator. He told me that he particularly enjoyed debating with Henry.  Although they were both life-long Democrats, they didn’t agree on every issue, but Paul told me more than once that he respected Henry’s insight and principles.
The Wellstones were scheduled to be in Tofte for a week beginning the day after the 2002 election. They invited Cindy and me to dinner on the second day after the election and when he made the invitation, Paul said that we would spend the entire evening at Bluefin, enjoy hours of conversation and would not mention politics even once. I agreed, but thought to myself, “Fat chance of that!”
West End residents Dave and Amy Freeman are on the home stretch of their epic multi-year journey by kayak, dog sled and canoe around most of North America.  Last year, they had a huge forest fire burn right past them in northern Canada. This week they were paddling down the east coast in New Jersey, just in time for Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately, they had plenty of warning and were able to take themselves to safety in the home of a friend about five miles inland. The day after the storm, they reported that they were kayaking over to the friend’s place of business to assess storm damage. They are scheduled to end their trip at Key West in a couple of months although, knowing them, I don’t expect they’ll let the grass grow under their feet for long.
The Memorial Blood Center bloodmobile is scheduled to be a Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte Monday, Nov. 12 from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. The recent accident at the Taconite Harbor Energy Center and the disaster on the East Coast are just the most recent reminders that having an adequate supply of blood on hand is important.  If you are in good health, give Polly Erickson a call at 663-7398 for an appointment.  You can find more information and fill out the health questionnaire online at
Here is the rundown of upcoming activities at Birch Grove:
As always, Senior Lunch is on Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. On Nov. 7, Ginny Danfelt will be there to give a brief presentation about the Residential Energy Efficiency Project.  If you are not a regular, please call ahead so they know how many to expect. You can just leave a message at 663-7977 or drop an email to
There is a lot of interest in a senior exercise class this winter, but a teacher is needed, so contact Patty at Birch Grove if you are interested. The seniors are also planning a lunch at Bluefin in December and possibly a trip to Gunflint Lodge in the spring to try out their new zip line nature tour.
Did you know that you can swim in the AmericInn – Tofte swimming pool for a small fee and the money is donated back to Birch Grove School?  Well, it’s true.
The weekly open gym for pre-schoolers, their parents and/or caregivers starts next week on Friday, Nov. 9 from 9:30 until 10:30 a.m.  This is a little later than advertised in the Birchbarker newsletter, so be advised.
Two dates have been chosen for the ever-popular boot hockey tournaments at the new Birch Grove skating rink and warming house facility this winter: Jan. 25 and Feb. 9. Get your team together and sign up by calling Patty at 66-37977 or email at
Sawtooth Mountain Clinic at Birch Grove will be open Nov. 5 and Nov. 28.  Contact the clinic in Grand Marais for appointments.
My friend and customer from Hayward, Wisconsin, Tom Heinrich, is a frequent visitor to the West End.  Tom is a teacher and a fanatic wilderness canoeist, spending several weeks each year in canoe country.  He was on Brule Lake in the BWCA Wilderness last week and sent me some interesting observations when he got home:
“.....noticed these things happening along the North Shore in the last two months....
more businesses seem more friendly to canoers...not only the owners, but the help...lots more questions about we're I/we've been, what's it like, and please stop attendant at a Holiday Gas Station explained the dynamics of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and how warm air will get pulled into the area next weekend, in time to canoe...genuine discussion and this happens at a lot of places that I stop in. It wasn't always that way. I have gained some much needed winter weight snapping down those good sandwiches now created at the Tofte General Store....

Second, WTIP is probably the best station right now in the world...lots of things that focus on being in northern Minnesota without the glitz...WOJB in Reserve, Wisconsin rates a close second...

Third, despite all the traffic that the BWCA gets, the campsites are amazingly clean. Granted I don't paddle here in the summer, but hanging out surfing the waves on Brule, which gets some good fall use, I find little if any debris in the camps...opposite of camps in the busier spots in the Woodland Caribou which usually have a fire ring with lots of tin foil and instant soup 
packages half burnt....

....and there is an advantage to global warming, which is being able to canoe longer. Never dreamed of paddling in November in the BWCA like I have the last few years and hopefully will this year also with the mild warm up...”
While it may be true that climate change is extending the canoeing season, I worry that phenomena like the July 4th blow down, the Ham Lake and Pagami Creek fires, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and other extreme weather will cause larger problems that will affect the economy in the West End.  Time will tell, I guess.

(Photo by Bill Hansen)