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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:
Marriage Equality

West End News: May 16

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Every year, here at Sawbill Outfitters, we outfit a group of college freshmen from Nebraska Wesleyan University.  It’s a summer seminar on wilderness and we’ve really enjoyed working with such nice kids and their competent instructors.
Last year, the group brought along psychology professor Frank Ferraro.  On the canoe trip, he conducted an interesting psychological demonstration, with the help of nine of the students, that confirms what many of us feel about how spending time in wilderness affects us.
It’s no secret that college age kids live pretty hectic lives.  It’s also obvious that young people’s attention has been more divided since the widespread adoption of smart phones and tablets.  Texting, videos, Facebook, Instagram and many other distractions make significant demands on attention spans.

Just before the students got on the bus in Nebraska, Ferraro gave the students a simple word game that tests focused attention and creativity.  At the end of the canoe trip he gave the test again, with a different set of words.  The students improved their ability to focus their attention and think creatively by 40 percent.  The students also reported that their thinking had been changed by their week in the wilderness.  They noticed how their attention spans and focus had increased.
Even though the test was more of a demonstration and not actual research, the results would not surprise anyone who spends time in wilderness.  Everyone feels the slowing down, sense of renewal and return of focus when they travel in wilderness. 
It seems obvious to me that we are all able to adapt to the fast pace of modern life, but it causes a constant and significant strain on our brains.  When we go somewhere where our actions are dictated by sunlight, wind, weather and other purely natural forces, our brains relax back into the mode that millions of years of evolutionary biology designed them for.  Or, in simpler language, our brains go “Ahhhhh…”
Whatever your feelings are about same-sex marriage, anyone who is interested in Minnesota politics must stand amazed at the remarkable political turnaround on this issue in less than a year.
At this time last year, not only was gay marriage illegal in Minnesota, but it seemed almost certain that a permanent ban would be voted into the state constitution.  Polls on the pending referendum for the constitutional ban showed pretty solid support.  Thirty other states had placed a gay marriage ban in their constitutions and not a single state had rejected an attempt to do so.  The political groups supporting the ban seemed well-funded, well-organized and confident.
As we know, the constitutional amendment did not pass in Minnesota.  The “Vote No” campaign was successful by being very personal. They asked the question over and over, “Don’t you have a gay couple among your family, friends or co-workers and don’t you want them to have the right to marry?”  The combination of the personal message, traditional campaign shoe-leather, and shifting age demographics carried the day – and may have contributed to the election of Democratic majorities in the legislature.
Almost incredibly, last week Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage.  It will be interesting to see if there is a political backlash, causing the pendulum to swing back to the right in the next election.  My political instincts, such as they are, say that the new law will quickly be accepted by the majority of Minnesotans when they see that it causes no problems.  I must say, everybody I know who is under the age of 35 seems puzzled that gay marriage is an issue at all.  They have grown up in classrooms where friends have two moms or two dads, many of their classmates are openly gay and they see gay role models in the media almost every day.  Their attitude is “What’s the big deal?”
The biggest impact on my family will be the uptick in the number of wedding invitations that we’ll be receiving this year.
 Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Canada Lynx

West End News: May 9

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This is an interesting place where we live, here in the West End of Cook County.  Last Saturday, I was driving to Grand Marais on the back roads, on my way to hear the keynote speaker for the North House Northern Sustainability Symposium.  As I rounded a corner, I was surprised to see two lynx on the road.  I stopped as quickly as I could, ending up about 150 feet from the lynx. 
In the last 10 years or so, it has become fairly routine to see lynx on the road, but usually you just get a glimpse before they bound into the woods.  These two lynx were sitting on the side of the road facing each other and did not run away.  To my great surprise, they looked straight at each other and started to make an unearthly noise.
I rolled down the window and was kicking myself for not having a camera, when I remembered my iPhone, which was in my pocket.  I had never used the video camera on the phone before, but I managed to fumble it into action and started filming the big cats. 
I expected them to run away at any moment, but instead they sat and continued caterwauling.  After about 15 minutes, I decided to continue on to town, figuring that they would bolt as soon as I started the truck.  As I pulled forward, one did dart off into the woods, but the other just sat serenely as I pulled up within about 20 feet. 
As I stopped the truck and turned off the engine, the second lynx came back out of the woods, sat down and they started yowling again.  This time, I was able to get a much closer video and really capture the unearthly sounds. 
Finally, not wanting to be late for the speech at North House, I just pulled past them.  They did walk slowly into the woods as I went by, but I was able to see them from a distance of less than 10 feet.
On the way home that night, I stopped at the same spot and rolled down the windows, in case they were still at it, but didn’t hear a thing.  Incredibly, about five miles farther down the road, I saw another lynx. This one was bigger than the two I’d seen earlier and leapt off the road in the usual lynx fashion.
The next morning, I posted the video on YouTube and linked to it from the Sawbill Newsletter.  A few minutes later, Sam Cook, the great outdoor writer at the Duluth News Tribune, called and asked if he could post it on the paper’s website.  In the next couple of days, it appeared on numerous Minnesota news sites, including WTIP, Minnesota Public Radio and WCCO TV.
As I write this, my shaky, amateurish, iPhone video is the top trending YouTube video in Minnesota, with more than 50,000 views.  It’s been seen in dozens of countries around the world. 
So, this is an interesting place that we live in, here in the West End of Cook County, where experiences can come out of nowhere and engage the world.

Mark your calendar for the Waste Electronics Collection day at the Cook County Recycling Center in Tofte.  The Recycling Center is just a half-mile up the Sawbill Trail from Highway 61 and discarded electronics will be collected from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday, May 18.  Computers, servers and laptops are free and there is a small disposal charge for other items.  
 Of course, one of the big contributors to our richly interesting way of life in the West End is Birch Grove School.  The Gala for the Grove, a key annual fundraiser, is scheduled for May 18 in Tofte.  A gourmet dinner, live auction, raffle, music, and dancing are on the agenda.  Call Diane Blanchette at 663-0170 for tickets, or if you’d like to donate an auction item.  The auctioneer will once again be yours truly, and I’ve been instructed to wear my vintage tuxedo.  I don’t have very good auctioneer skills, but it’s all in good fun and the only chance you’ll ever get to see me in a tuxedo.  

 Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


West End News: May 2

“Will the ice be out for the opening of fishing?” seems to be the question on everyone’s mind these days.  Predicting the ice-out date is notoriously difficult, but I’m going out on a limb to predict that, here in the West End, the ice will not be gone by May 11. I always predict ice-out for my birthday, May 5. In 57 years, I’ve only been right once and this year will not be my second successful guess.  I’m thinking a more realistic guess would be around May 15. Hope springs eternal, but it’s a telling fact that the skis are still on the porch.
It was fun to hear all the reminiscing about the early history of our beloved radio station, WTIP, during the 15th anniversary celebrations last week.  Maybe this was mentioned and I missed it, but I wanted to give a shout-out to my friend Paul Damberg, who was the development director at KUMD during the time that WTIP was starting up.  Paul really worked hard raising the money to get WTIP built and on the air. 
In the early days, WTIP used a lot of KUMD’s programming and the two stations had a tight relationship. Paul spent hundreds of hours going from business to business in Cook County, doing the hard work of raising money for something that didn’t even exist, except in some people’s imagination.  He was remarkably effective and wasn’t at all discouraged by numerous naysayers that he encountered.  Paul wasn’t motivated by self-interest.  He genuinely believed that WTIP would become a valuable community asset for Cook County, and boy, was he ever right.
Paul isn’t with KUMD anymore, but he still works in Cook County as the foundation director for the Human Development Center, which offers mental health services in Cook County.  So, I’d like to add Paul Damberg to the long list of people who were responsible for creating what has become, in my opinion, one of the best radio stations in the world.
Construction has begun on the new ski lift at Lutsen Mountains.  This is a brand new, state-of-the-art, high-speed lift that will whisk six people on each chair to the top of Moose Mountain.  It replaces the Caribou lift, for those that are familiar with the Lutsen ski runs. 
The old Caribou ski lift is being dismantled right now by Lutsen Mountains staff.  Soon, the construction crew from the Leitner Poma Company, the manufacturer of the new lift, will arrive to start their work.  Not a single part of the old lift will be used in the new construction.  Leitner Poma, one of only two ski lift manufacturers in the world, will provide turnkey construction to Lutsen Mountains, so we’ll all be able to enjoy additional runs on the mountain next winter.
I noticed an interesting nature phenomenon just outside my office window last week.  Just a few feet from where I sit, there is a bush where the chickadees sit in between trips to the bird feeder.  Their constant motion has become such a routine part of my peripheral vision that I immediately noticed when the motion stopped.  The chickadees were still in the bush, but they were sitting stock still for hours at a time.  Those were the days when the weather first warmed up, which must have triggered the behavior, but I wonder why they were suddenly so lethargic.  Were they just full of sunflower seeds now that they didn’t have to work so hard to stay warm? Or, was it the females slowed down by their developing eggs?  My best guess is that they were suffering, like me, from a bad case of spring fever.
(Photo by Carah Thomas)

Cook County Ramble

West End News: April 25

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The Cook County Ramble that I mentioned last week was a huge success.  It brought many of Cook County’s talented musicians to Cascade Lodge Pub to pay musical tribute to the life of Levon Helm.  Twenty plus musicians performed and over 100 people attended.  It was a great party and concluded with 18 musicians on stage together singing Bob Dylan’s song, “I Shall Be Released.”  $100 was donated to Levon Helm’s charity and $800 was donated to the high school band instrument fund, effectively doubling the annual budget for instrument purchase and repair at the high school.  Judging from the smiles on everyone’s faces at the show, I think we can count on it becoming an annual event.
We got a note the other day from David and Lise Abazs, who own and operate Round River Farm, the community-supported agriculture business in Finland. They reported having 60 trays of seedlings in their living room to protect them from freezing temperatures and snow here at the end of April.  They are poised to pounce on planting as soon as spring springs.  I don’t know a thing about farming, but I would think that iceberg lettuce might do well right now.
The Abazses also announced their development of a new 7-acre farm at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland.  Their goal is to grow all the vegetables for the 140,000 meals served at Wolf Ridge each year.  The farm will also provide a robust educational experience for the schools and other groups that visit Wolf Ridge.  They are just putting the finishing touches on a 30 x 96 foot tunnel-style greenhouse and are raising money to complete the remaining infrastructure for the new farm.  For more information and a link to their online fundraising site, just Google “Round River Farm” or call WTIP for contact information.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is warning West Enders about some Highway 61 construction that will slow down travel in both directions. The long stretch of truly terrible pavement on both sides of Little Marais is slated for replacement this summer and next.  At times there will be a detour up through Finland.
Next year, another rough stretch of Highway 61, from about a mile west of the Ski Hill Road all the way to County 7, will be subject to a major milling and resurfacing project.  Maybe they can fix the annoying bumps on either end of the Onion River Bridge while they’re at it.  No word on detours for this project.  It will slow down traffic while it’s in progress, but I don’t think anyone can argue that it isn’t necessary.
Care Partners of Cook County is a wonderful program that offers support to those on the journey of aging and/or serious illness.  Care Partners volunteers provide ongoing friendly visits, a compassionate presence at end of life, phone check-ins, or caregiver respite.  If you’re interested in volunteering for Care Partners, training is being offered this spring.  It will be held for three Tuesdays, May 21 and 28 and June 4 from 1 to 4 p.m.  Pre-registration is required, so contact Kay Grindland at 387-3788 for more information.  As always, you can contact WTIP for details and contact information.
Cindy Hansen saw a raccoon on the Sawbill Trail this week, about seven miles north of Tofte.  It was in no hurry to run away, so she was even able to snap a picture on her phone.  I’m hoping the raccoon is an aberration and not a sign that they are moving in to the West End.  That said, I know they are spotted fairly frequently these days closer to the big lake. 
Here are Sawbill, we’ve had visits from two raccoons in the last 10 years.  Both were pretty clearly brought here by hitchhiking in the engine compartments of cars arriving from locations in the deep South, like Owatonna or Madison. The first one appeared outside the house in February, then quickly disappeared under the porch of another building.  We never saw it again, and when we tore the building down a few years later, we found its skeleton, perfectly preserved.  The second one appeared one fall and camped out on the bird feeder.  After a day of that, we baited a live trap with marshmallows and caught it in less than 30 seconds.  Who knew that raccoons love marshmallows?  That fellow was rendered to an undisclosed location where he was released near a stream.
Raccoons are worse than bears when it comes to being pests, so let’s hope the fellow Cindy saw was just another hitchhiker.
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

(Photo by Cathy Quinn)

Yellow-rumped warbler

West End News: April 18

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 Feeding the birds outside your living room window is almost taken for granted here in the West End.  Watching birds at the feeder is such constant part of life that it often takes a visitor's fresh eyes to remind us how lucky we are to have the quantity and quality of birds that we have both in residence and passing through. After more than 50 years, it is rare to see something new at the feeder. The other day, we spotted a small group of yellow-rumped warblers on our feeder.  Wikipedia tells me that the cute little birds are known to eat sunflower seeds from feeders, but never before in our neck of the woods. The same day, a friend in Tower mentioned on Facebook that she also had yellow rumpled warblers at her feeder.  Maybe the warblers are using Facebook to find out who has bird feeders.  More likely, though, that the recent storms have blown them into an area where they don't usually hang out.  In any case, they make a colorful addition to the usual chickadees and nuthatches.
The Birch Grove Senior Lunch continues to provide excellent programming.  Recently, Alta McQuatters from Lutsen presented some of the long history that her family has in the West End.  White Sky Rock, the popular overlook near Caribou Lake, is named for Alta's grandfather.  Her memories about the connections between her family and certain place names brought up a general discussion of place names, how important their history is to understanding our culture, and how their origins could be lost if they aren't carefully documented.  Carrie McHugh, of the Cook County Historical Society, picked up on the conversation and is working to get some funding and person power to investigate place names all around Cook County.  It will be fun to see the results as they appear.
On Wednesday, Apr. 24, at 11:30 AM, Sherrie Lindskog will be presenting information on her new laughter group.  The old saying that "laughter is the best medicine" turns out to be absolutely true, both for physical and mental health.  The Senior Lunch already includes quite a bit of laughing, but Sherrie's presentation should increase the percentage and provide some very interesting information too.  Everyone is welcome to Senior Lunch at Birch Grove, but if you aren't a regular, you should call ahead so they can be sure to have enough food.  The number is 663-7977 or call WTIP for contact information.
As if that isn't enough fun in itself, the Latin Dance exercise group meets at 10:30 a.m., just before the Senior Lunch and all are welcome.  What better way to work up an appetite and get yourself ready to laugh.
West End parents and kids will be glad to hear that the popular Campsite Kids program will be offered through Birch Grove this summer.  Campsite Kids is a qualified day care for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade and runs from June 11 through Aug. 29. Although it is based at the awesome Outdoor Classroom facility at Birch Grove, the emphasis of the program is to get kids doing fun outdoor activities all over the West End.  Field trips, hiking, creative projects, a possible cabin overnight are just a few of the offerings. 
If your kids are younger than kindergarten age, don't despair, because Birch Grove School is offering their popular Saplings program for the pre-school crowd again this summer.  Conveniently, it runs on the same dates and times as the Campsite Kids program.
Space is limited for both programs, so if you're interested, call Diane at Birch Grove School.  Her number is 663-0170 or contact WTIP for complete contact information.
Peggy Anderson of Schroeder will be hosting a veterinary clinic at her business, Temperance River Traders, in Schroeder, Thursday, June 6.  A vet will be there from the Ely Vet Clinic.  Appointments can be made by contacting the Ely Vet Clinic at 218-365-5911, or contact WTIP for full contact information.
It's the time of year when I start getting a lot of people asking me for my best guess of when the ice will go out.  I've been getting a few chuckles and a few groans by confidently predicting that it will be on Aug. 1.  All kidding aside, this could be one of the rare years when the ice doesn't go out before the opening of fishing season on May 11.  That said, predicting the ice-out date is nearly impossible.  One year, the ice was completely black and obviously within a couple of hours of going out on Apr. 28.  We had a betting pool going and we almost gave the money to the person who had bet Apr. 29.  The next morning we woke up to a 13-degree temperature and heavy snow.  The ice didn't go out for another two weeks that year.
Last year, on the day we left for vacation, we went for a long walk on the lake.  When we returned from vacation, seven days later, the ice was gone.
So, although anything and everything is possible, statistics tell us that the ice should be out before opening day.  It all depends on the weather.

Photo via This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Dave and Amy Freeman complete their 11,600 mile North American Odyssey.

West End News: April 11

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Lutsen residents Dave and Amy Freeman have completed their epic trip around the continent that they call the North American Odyssey.  Starting in Seattle three years ago, they have hiked, canoed, dog sledded and kayaked through Alaska, across northwestern Canada, east through the great lakes and down the eastern seaboard to Florida, where they finally stopped at Key West last week.  The trip was an incredible 11,600 miles in length.
It is stating the obvious to say that Dave and Amy love to travel under their own power through the natural world, camping as they go.  Their real passion though is the connection they maintain with over a hundred thousand school children through their Wilderness Classroom project.  State-of-the-art technology empowers students to follow their travels and participate in real time.  They offer a curriculum that teaches across many different fields and the kids get to vote on what Dave and Amy should do next as they travel through changing landscapes and conditions.
The Freemans make their home in Lutsen, but are so often gone on their travels, that many people don’t realize that they still live here.  Now that their latest journey is completed, they’ll spend the next couple of months giving presentations at schools across the country.  When the school year ends, they’ll be returning to Lutsen, at least for the summer.  I’m confident that they will present a slide show at North House Folk School sometime this summer.  As you can imagine, they have some stories to tell!
It’s hard to guess what their next trip might be.  In the last decade, they have paddled the length or the Mississippi River, crossed Manitoba and Ontario in the winter several times, crossed the South American Andes by bicycle and paddled the entire length of the Amazon River.  Maybe the next trip will be paddling the Nile?  Or, dog sledding across Siberia?  The sky is the limit for these two.
You may have noticed how the music scene in Cook County has exploded in recent years. 
Even though we’re now sliding into the off-season, this week, local guitar virtuoso, Gordon Thorne, is hosting the annual Fingerstyle Guitar Masters Weekend at Bluefin Bay in Tofte.  In just three years, this has grown into a popular and busy weekend, bringing some of the world’s best fingerstyle guitarists to little ol’ Cook County. 
On April 19th, the first Cook County Ramble will be held at Cascade Lodge starting at 8 pm.  This fun event will feature a cross section of local musicians celebrating the life and music of the late Levon Helm.  It’s a benefit, so the musicians are donating their time.  The real draw though is the chance to hang out together and play music.  Some pleasant surprises are almost guaranteed.  The public is welcome.
The North Shore Music Association is sponsoring top name musicians regularly at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts in Grand Marais, including the super-group Red Horse on April 27th.
In the last year, we’ve had dozens of world-class musicians perform in Cook County.   Local musicians have been busy too.  It is the rare day when you can’t find live music somewhere in the county.  On most weekends you can find live music at half a dozen or more venues.
The effect of all this is that Cook County is now thought of as a music community.  Although we haven’t reached the level of Nashville, New Orleans, Branson or Memphis, we are on our way to similar fame. 
The next step would be to launch a week-long festival, similar to the highly successful Homegrown Festival in Duluth.  This style of festival fills every venue in the area every night for a week.  The emphasis is on new, original music and unusual, exciting combinations of musicians.  This is a win-win-win formula for Cook County.  It can be held in off-season, so it makes a major contribution to the tourism economy, energizes and employs local musicians, attracts exciting new talent to the area and provides wonderful entertainment for residents.
Speaking of entertainment, don’t miss the Lake Superior Community Theater production of  “Death of a Salesman” that is showing now through April 20th in Silver Bay.  George Starkovich is starring in the iconic role of Willy Loman and it’s sure to be a knock-out production.  Tickets are available by searching for Lake Superior Community Theater online, or call WTIP for contact information.
A quick reminder of the public service gathering at Birch Grove on April 19th from 5:30 – 8 pm.  All non-profits, governmental units and anyone else who is interested in public service is invited.  It will be a time to share, learn and socialize, with the ultimate goal of compiling a list of community assets in the West End.  Wood fired pizza will also be served.  Contact Patty Nordahl at or call WTIP for contact info.
We are lucky to live in a place where we get to see a lot of wildlife.  In the years when my kids were riding back and forth to school, they became almost blasé about wildlife.  “Oh look, another moose, another wolf – ho hum.”  Yesterday though, I was startled to see a large skunk on the Sawbill Trail near the Temperance River bridge, about ten miles north of Tofte.  It wasn’t too concerned about me, showing the usual skunk confidence that I would not be foolish enough to mess with it.  My terrier sidekick, Roy, had never seen a skunk before and was lobbying hard to be let out of the truck to kill it.  Little did he know what a bad idea that was.  On my return trip, I saw the skunk again, about a half mile farther north.  I hope this doesn’t mean that it is traveling to Sawbill, where Roy would likely get his chance to learn all about skunks.
(Photo by Bryan Hansel - courtesy of Wilderness Classroom)

Levon Helm

West End News: March 28

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An interesting new business is coming to Lutsen soon. Chuck Corliss, long time Lutsen visitor and homeowner, is building a winery and brewery on the east side of the Ski Hill Road, just a little ways up from Highway 61.
Chuck recently attended an informal get-together with neighbors to show them the plans for the project and solicit ideas and concerns.  Chuck plans to initially sell bottles of wine that are made elsewhere, but marketed under his own brand.  Eventually, he plans to grow fruit on the property and use that to blend his own wines.  A gift shop and tasting room will be located in the same building.
For the beer brewing side of the business, Chuck has teamed up with local brew masters, Mike Carlson and Matt Kartes.  They’ll brew small batches of high quality beer in a separate building on the site.  They will sell large bottles of their beer, known as growlers, from the gift shop.  They also hope to have their beer on tap at bars around Cook County and perhaps regionally.
The plans do not include a restaurant or bar on the Lutsen site, although Chuck is brainstorming about offering classes, tastings, acoustic music and other events.  He is striving to make the business compatible with the other uses in the neighborhood, and he plans to make the buildings, landscaping and gardens as tasteful and pretty as he can.
Chuck is hoping to be at least partly open by this fall, but possibly not fully open until next spring.  He is moving ahead full speed with all the various licenses, permissions and plans that he needs before breaking ground.
A new and fun music event is happening in the West End Soon.  On Friday, Apr. 19, Cascade Lodge Pub, located between Lutsen and Grand Marais, will be the site of the “Cook County Ramble: The First Waltz.”  Many of Cook County’s most active musicians will gather to perform songs made famous by Levon Helm. Helm was most famously the drummer for The Band, which was Bob Dylan’s band for a while, among many other accomplishments. 
Levon Helm died last year on Apr. 19, so this event is designed to honor his memory.  In recent years, Helm hosted a famous concert series call the Midnight Ramble at his home in Woodstock, New York.  Helm was also featured in the movie, “The Last Waltz,” directed by Martin Scorsese, which documents The Band’s final concert in 1978. So, the Cook County Ramble: The First Waltz, is working to carry the work of one of America’s music icons forward, right here in Cook County.
Each musician or musical group will present its own interpretation of two songs that were previously recorded by Levon Helm.  At the end, all the musicians will join in on two of Helm’s most famous songs, inspired by the final scene from “The Last Waltz.”
Everyone is welcome to come and watch the fun.  Given the level of musicianship around Cook County, it should be well worth the effort.  The event is a fundraiser, so the musicians are all donating their time and talent.  There will be a small suggested donation at the door with half the receipts going to the Cook County High School Band instrument fund and half to Levon Helm’s charitable foundation, Keep It Goin’.
If you have any questions about the “Cook County Ramble: The First Waltz,” or if you would like to perform or even just help out, contact Eric Frost at 370-1362, or call WTIP for Eric’s contact information.
The Birch Grove Foundation is hosting an interesting event, also on Apr. 19, from 5:30 until 8 p.m.  The foundation director, Patty Nordahl, is inviting all the West End non-profits, public service organizations, townships and volunteers to a gathering at Birch Grove.  The purpose is to share information, get to know each other and explore where and when it might be useful to work together.
The agenda asks that participants bring any promotional materials that you might have to share about your organization and dates and times of any events that are coming up to be put into a community calendar. 
The Birch Grove Foundation is also putting together a list of West End community assets, so people should think about what they consider to be an asset to the West End.
There will also be a brainstorming session about broadband Internet access, which is arriving in the West End soon, to generate ideas of how broadband can be used to improve the community.  The ideas will be used for a Blandin Foundation grant application for a “Public Access Technology Hub” in the West End.
And, last, but certainly not least, the wood-fired oven will be hot and you will be able to make your own pizza.  Drinks will be provided and a collection will be taken up to pay for the pizza makings.
In my opinion, this is a really important effort that the Birch Grove Foundation is making on behalf of the West End.  It should be very useful and lead to better communication and cooperation in the community as we enter the world of broadband and the many other opportunities that are in front of us.  Contact the ever-reliable Patty Nordahl at (that’s bgf as in Birch Grove Foundation), or call WTIP for her contact information.

North House instructor Peter Henrikson and Grindbygg-style timber frame - photo by Carah Thomas

West End News: March 21

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A beautiful new building is coming to Tofte early this summer.  The building has recently been built and will be moved to the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in May or early June.  It will be used to protect one or more of the museum’s historic fishing skiffs.
But, here is the interesting part. The building is a replica of the 3,000-year-old Grindbygg style of timber framing, which is the oldest known style of building in Norway.  The old style of building is still commonly seen in western Norway, especially in utility buildings like barns and boathouses. 
The Grindbygg style of building is similar to modern timber frames, but there are no mortises or tenons.  The construction is a bit simpler, but was a practical solution for ancient people that didn’t have access to smooth, sawn timbers.  They built the buildings with axes, chisels, drills and handsaws.  The bracing is made from the naturally curved root knees from birch and tamarack trees.  It gives the building a very organic, natural look and makes a building durable enough to last for centuries.
The museum’s Grindbygg building was built by a North House Folk School class under the capable direction of Peter Henrikson.  Peter traveled to Norway this year to learn the technique, which is enjoying a popular revival there.  The completed frame is currently in the courtyard at North House, so if you are going to Grand Marais, stop by and look at it.  I would love to have a cabin built in the Grindbygg style.
I was disappointed to see a headline in the Duluth News Tribune recently that read “Wolves Taking Toll on Minnesota Moose.”  The story itself, written by reporter John Myers, was actually a pretty routine update on the ongoing DNR research project on the rapidly declining moose herd.  Myers is a veteran and experienced reporter, who does consistently excellent work. 
The gist of the story was that six of the monitored moose have died since they were collared last month.  Four of the moose died from the stress of being shot with a tranquilizer and collared.  Two of the moose had been eaten and presumably killed by wolves.  In all six cases, Myers reported that it is likely that the moose were already ill and weakened before the researchers and/or wolves killed them.
In my opinion, the headline, “Wolves Taking Toll on Minnesota Moose” has two problems. First, by misrepresenting the content of the story, it reinforces old and discredited myths about wolves.  Second, is it really news that wolves kill moose?  Haven’t wolves been killing and eating wolves since time immemorial?  Doesn’t everyone know by now that the predator/prey relationship actually strengthens the moose herd over the long run? 
Last fall, 82 moose were killed by human hunters, but a headline reading, “Hunters Taking Toll on Minnesota Moose” would have been wildly inappropriate.
The Birch Grove Foundation is hoping to offer the LOTS program at Birch Grove Community Center this summer.  LOTS stands for Learning Opportunities Through Stories.  It is a family/child literacy program where children from birth to 5 years old and their caregivers listen to stories and do related activities.
There will be time for playing outside too, and maybe even a family pizza night using the new outdoor wood-fired oven. It is a great way to meet other parents with young children. Older siblings are always welcome.
If you are interested, or know anyone who might be, please contact Patty Nordahl at Birch Grove. Her email is bgf, as in Birch Grove Foundation,


West End News: March 14

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I can’t believe it’s been 15 years since I did my happy dance upon hearing WTIP’s broadcast signal for the first time.  At that point, I was just glad to receive repeats of KUMD’s programming from Duluth without having to suffer the waves of static that I had put up with for about 40 years.  Little did I dream that WTIP, “the little radio station that could,” would wind up being a completely independent source of news, entertainment and community-building.  Congratulations to staff, current and past, who, along with the members and listeners, have literally made this one of the finest radio stations in the world.
Here is my list of 15 things I like about WTIP:  Quinn’s exquisite taste in music; Buddy’s tune of the day; live local musicians; the Radio Waves Music Festival; New Orleans All The Way Live; Dick and Norm; First Thursdays; DJ Woodsplitter; the Road House; Naturalist Chel Anderson; Rhonda Silence; disaster information; Sidetracks with Matthew or Caribou and Wildersmith’s turns of phrase.
That list is 14 things.  The 15th thing that I like is what WTIP has done for promoting civil discourse in Cook County.  By exploring important and potentially controversial issues in a fair, even-handed and thorough way, they have made public debate and local decision-making much better.  This is a huge service to our community.
You may remember that at this time last year, we were experiencing an incredible March meltdown.  This whole week had high temperatures in the 50s, 60s and even hit 70 on March 19.  We lost the little snow we had in just a few days. 
I mention this because this year is completely different - and comforting - for those of us who enjoy winter.  Here at Sawbill, we have 33 inches of snow on the ground and there has been very little melting.  The trees are loaded with snow and the wind still has some bite when it blows from the north.  The trails, for skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, are in absolutely perfect condition.  It looks like winter will hang in there for the next 10 days or so, at least, so my advice is to get out and enjoy it.
Lutsen Mountains Ski Area, perhaps in a slight over-reaction to last year’s heat wave, has made incredible amounts of snow this winter.  It’s worth the price of admission just to see the giant piles of snow scattered around the slopes.  If they wanted to, they could probably stay open until June this year.
Mike Larson, of Lutsen, is preparing himself to ride in this year’s Lutsen 99er mountain bike race.  The 99-mile ride winds through the best of the West End, in a rigorous course that leads from Lutsen Mountains, down to Lake Superior, then back up through the hills and finally back to the Mountain. 
This is the third year for the race, which runs on the last weekend in June, and is organized by the Cook County Visitors Bureau in partnership with Lifetime Fitness.  Mike tells me that in the first year, 78 riders participated. Last year that grew to 350 riders at the starting line. This year they already have more than 350 riders pre-registered to date.  Mike is certain that there will be at least 800 riders this year, which is the limit the race is setting so they don’t experience growing pains. 
The Lutsen 99er is quickly becoming one of the premier mountain bike races in the Midwest and is well on its way to international prominence. As great as the event itself is, the real value comes from letting the world know that Cook County is a world-class biking destination and getting better all the time, which strengthens our economy and culture is a very positive way.
And – I fully expect Mike Larson to at least bring home an age class medal this year.

Fires grate, latrines and boardwalks waiting to be transported into the BWCA Wilderness by dog team.

West End News: March 7

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