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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:
Firefighters at Bluefin Bay Resort in Tofte, June 15, 2013

West End News: June 13

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Several months ago, I mentioned my friend Art Wright, who was about to turn 100 years old.  Art did turn 100 four months ago, but unfortunately he passed away last week. 
Art was born in Duluth.  His father was the purser on the steamship America before any roads were built up the north shore.  Art’s mother was the teacher at the Maple Hill School in Grand Marais and met Art’s father on the America while traveling to her new teaching post at the ripe old age of 17. 
The Wright family lived in Grand Marais for a couple of years when Art was a young boy.  Of course, all of his playmates from that era are gone now.
Art took many canoe trips starting from Sawbill. He could remember every detail from his first Sawbill canoe trip in 1938. 
A lot of history died with Art, but fortunately, the Cook County Historical Society has many of Art’s best memories on videotape for future generations to enjoy and learn from.
Art had many friends from Duluth to Grand Portage.  He was always good company and will be missed.
I was sad to read of the death of my friend, Roger Maxfield, who grew up in Taconite Harbor and graduated from Birch Grove School and Cook County High School.  Roger was a gentle and genial soul with many friends. 
He and I are the same age and were the last group of young men to participate in the Selective Service lottery at the end of the Vietnam War.  I was lucky enough to get a high number, so I knew I wouldn’t be drafted.  Roger had a very low number, so he was essentially sure to be drafted.  He waited on pins and needles for at least a year, but the war wound down and he never got the call.  I know it was hard on him though, to live with the uncertainty for so long. 
Roger worked at Erie Mining for a few years before moving to Honeywell, where he followed his father Floyd’s footsteps by making his living as an electrician.  We’ll miss you buddy.
The Lutsen 99er mountain bike race is just around the corner.  The fast growing, 99-mile, main event is scheduled for June 29 and starts at Lutsen Mountains.  If you aren’t already signed up for that race, you better take a pass on it for this year, unless you happen to be a well-trained mountain bike rider.
However, there is a 39-mile race that starts at the same time.  If you have put in a reasonable number of miles this spring, there is still plenty of time to register for the shorter distance.
If you are not a trained cyclist, or a kid, there are some fun opportunities for you.  On Sunday, June 30, starting at 9:30, there are three kids’ races.   The Micro Niner is for ages 5 to 7 and is a half-mile race.  The Mini Niner is for ages 8 to 10 and is nine-tenths of a mile.  The Junior Niner is for kids from 11 to 13 and runs over a 1.9-mile course.  All the kids’ races are free and will be a ton of fun.  Pre-registration is requested, but no kid will be turned away.
If nothing I’ve talked about so far is your cup of tea, there is an open house fun ride Sunday, June 30, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., sponsored by the Superior Cycling Association, at the Pincushion Trails on the hill right above Grand Marais.
There are plenty of opportunities for watching the race or becoming a volunteer.  You can find full details for all things 99er at  Or, you can contact WTIP and they will give you full contact information.
The Lutsen 99er is growing fast and is a wonderful event in itself, but it is really just a part of a fast growing bicycle scene in the West End.  Single track mountain bike trails are still being built and improved at the Sugarbush Trail system in Tofte.  Last week, another section of the Gitchee-Gami state trail was opened in Silver Bay.  The new section is a 2.3-mile section of paved trail between Rukavina Arena in Silver Bay to the West Road in Beaver Bay.  It provides a connection, via a short stretch of gravel, to the longest completed section of the trail between Beaver Bay and Gooseberry State Park.
Another 1.1 miles of trail will be completed this summer between the Onion River Road and the Ski Hill Road in Lutsen.
When the Gitchee-Gami state trail is completed, it will extend 86 miles from Two Harbors to Grand Marais and will be a major contributor to the economic and physical health of the West End.
Every West Ender experienced a feeling of dread last week when word spread that there was a serious fire at Bluefin Bay Resort in Tofte.  Although five condo units ended up being heavily damaged, no one was hurt in either the fire or the firefighting effort.
It was indeed a bad incident, but it would have been a whole lot worse but for the efforts of Tofte Fire Chief Rich Nelson, the entire Tofte Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad, and every other volunteer fire fighter in Cook County who turned out in support. 
These dedicated folks put in untold hours of training and routine maintenance, but it is all worth it when they can efficiently and effectively save a major community asset like Bluefin Bay and keep everyone safe in the process.  I know that the whole community joins me in saying thank you, thank you, thank you for all you do.

(Photo courtesy Bluefin Bay Resort)

Young bull moose

West End News: June 6

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It's time for the West End to play another round of Jerk the Merc!  For many years now, North Shore Mining in Silver Bay has offered to collect and properly dispose of mercury-containing devices and waste electronics.  This year you can drop off your devices, bulbs and electronics at John's Sanitary Service, 15 Golf Course Road in Silver Bay on Tuesday, June 11 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Mercury-containing devices include fluorescent bulbs, tilt switches, mercury thermometers, gas appliance safety shutoffs and, of course, any elemental mercury that you might have laying around from an old-fashioned chemistry set.
Waste electronics include circuit boards, computers, printers, stereos (but no speakers please), cell phones, computer monitors, TVs and microwaves.  The service is free and is open to individuals, households, small businesses and non-profits.  However, TVs, monitors and microwaves are limited to just two of each per household or business.
My hat is off to North Shore Mining Company for their annual commitment to keeping our environment free of toxic chemicals.  Once again, the drop-off is at John's Sanitary Service, in Silver Bay, on Tuesday, June 11 between 9 and 2.  You can call Jenny at 226-6231 for more information, or, as always, you can contact WTIP for full information.
I'm glad to hear the Cook County Board of Commissioners is moving toward hiring a county administrator.  The joke that I've been making is that the county already has a county administrator… and it's a combination of Janet Simonen and Auditor Brady Powers.  As with all good jokes, there is an element of truth in it, as Janet and Brady often go above and beyond the call of duty to help the county run more efficiently.  Janet's pending retirement is the perfect time to bring on a professional administrator.
Few people remember that Cook County briefly had a county administrator back in the '80s and it was an overall positive experience.  Since then, running a county has become exponentially more complex, and the days when the commissioners could act as their own administrator are past.  I hope the commissioners will hire a well-qualified and experienced administrator, because a good county administrator will save and earn far more money than the cost of their salary.
As a side benefit, it will make the job of being a county commissioner slightly less impossible and may cause a larger pool of candidates to consider running for office.  This is always a good thing in a representative democratic system.
One of my favorite news organizations is an online magazine called MinnPost.  Published by former Star Tribune publisher Joel Kramer, it employs some of Minnesota's best journalists writing about state politics, arts and culture, education, health care and more. 
Right now, I recommend a very interesting piece headlined "The Next New Economy," by Jessica Conrad, who is described in her bio as a "content manager" for another web publication called  Conrad paints a compelling picture of a future that she refers to as the "sharing economy."
She supports her prediction by describing a handful of businesses that are already successful in helping people share resources, like the popular NiceRide bike sharing program in Minneapolis.  She also mentions ZipCar, which is a fast-growing car sharing company, and Netflix, which started as a DVD sharing service but now is a streaming movie and TV service. There is a long list of sharing based companies that entrepreneurs are starting using the relatively new tools of smart phones and social networks. One that caught my eye is Sophia, which is an education sharing service.
I find this interesting in light of the soon-to-arrive broadband service here in Cook County.  If I were a young entrepreneur who wanted to live in the most beautiful part of the state, I'd be thinking about what sorts of services might spring up here once broadband and 4G phone service are widely available. 
I'd love to think up the next big thing myself, but I can never think of a great business idea until right after some else tells me about it.  As soon as the idea is out of their mouth, I say to myself, "I could have thought of that!"  I have thought about having a fleet of canoes that people could rent for BWCA Wilderness canoe trips, but it turns out someone else had thought of that one a long time ago.
All joking aside, Jessica Conrad points out in her MinnPost article that Forbes Magazine estimates that people will earn $3.5 billion in the sharing economy this year, with a growth rate over last year of 25 percent.  She goes on to note that in a world where the population is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, with the supply of natural resources dwindling, it seems obvious that we'll all have to own less, share more and find ways to cut the huge amount of waste that we now produce.
As recently as a few years ago, it was no news to see a moose on the Sawbill Trail.  Now, it has become a rare treat.  I saw a two-year-old bull on my way to town this week, right by the Honeymoon Trail intersection.  Not only was he a cute guy with tiny nubs of antler smaller than his ears, but he also had the classic woebegone look of an adolescent who has recently been rejected by his previously loving mother.  His expression said, as plainly as if he was talking, "I'm lonely, my feelings are hurt and now there is a big pickup truck looking at me and I don't know what to do!"  He finally ambled off down the Honeymoon Trail, where I'm sure that the school of hard knocks will soon turn him into a confident and sturdy adult moose.

the Wenonah

West End News: May 30

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It was a slow Memorial Day weekend here at Sawbill.  BWCA Wilderness travelers seemed to be here in good numbers, but the drive-in Forest Service campgrounds were half empty all weekend.  My guess is the combination of a late spring, high gas prices and a rainy forecast for most of the state was responsible for the slow traffic.  Here in the Sawbill Lake campground, four sites that were reserved for the whole weekend ended up as no-shows. 
The people who did show up for the holiday weekend were treated to great weather with almost no bugs.  Fishing was generally slow, although everyone seemed to catch enough for a good meal. 
I’m always happy to welcome a new business to the West End.  Jay Hanson and Dan Goyen have announced the establishment of North Shore Scenic Cruises based at the marina in Silver Bay. They will be sailing the historic motor vessel Wenonah on tours of the North Shore Mining Harbor and the beautiful geological formations in the Palisade Head area, and visiting the sites of historic ship wrecks. 
The first cruise will be June 14 and continue through the summer and fall.  North Shore Scenic Cruises has a website, which you can find by googling Lake Superior cruising, or contact WTIP for the link.  It’s great to have cruising back in the West End since the Grampa Woo stopped service several years ago.  Best of luck to Jay and Dan in their new endeavor.
Speaking of tours, it’s time to get your reservations made for this year’s Lundie Vacation Home Tour sponsored by the Schoeder Area Historical Society. 
The tour is scheduled for Saturday, July 13 and goes to homes and cabins designed by the famous archetict Edwin Lundie. This year the emphasis will be in the Hovland area and will end up at historic Naniboujou Lodge for a light dinner.  Information and reservations can be made by calling 218-663-7706, or by visiting the Schoeder Area Historical Society’s website.  Or, you can contact WTIP for full contact information.
If you can’t make it for the Lundie Tour, you can certainly stop by the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder to see the new exhibit, “Up From the Ashes: Forest Fires on the North Shore.”  It covers a history that has real resonance today, as large fires are a continuing presence in our lives.
The Cross River Heritage Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The Center is closed on Mondays.  This schedule is in place until October 19; the Center is located right in the heart of downtown Schoeder.
A memorial service is scheduled for Tofte native Ellis “Bud” Tormondsen Saturday, June 8 at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte.  Bud passed away on Feb. 15 after living in Tofte for more than 90 years.  All are welcome to come and celebrate Bud’s rich and long life.
A belated congratulations to Forest Service Tofte District Ranger John Wytanis, who retired at the beginning of May.  John was in charge of the Tofte District and the Isabella Work Station for a number of years.  John had many accomplishments in the Forest Service, but may be best remembered locally for his hard work and great communication skills during the Pagami Creek Fire in 2011.  That fire will certainly be a memorable career moment for him. John and his wife Marge will continue to live in Tofte, at least for a while.
One of the many interesting things about being in the tourism business is observing a large number of people’s behavior in what is basically in the same situation.  It provides a study of human nature to see how different people react to indentical circumstances.  One result of my lifetime in the tourism business is to remind myself, when I’m traveling as a tourist, that every clever joke I can think of has probably been told by thousands of tourists who came before me. 
This year, we have experienced a unique change in tourist behavior here at Sawbill.  Since the public Forest Service parking lot was built in 1962, everyone has parked their cars in neat lines facing north/south.  There are no lines on the gravel parking lot, so it just seemed like an unspoken consensus to park north/south.
This year, for the first time in more than 50 years, people are parking in lines facing east/west.  How is it possible that this has never happened before in the previous half century?  Why did it happen this year?  Is it somehow related to the late spring?  Have the magnetic poles shifted polarity? Ahh, the mysteries of human behavior.  They never cease to amaze.

(photo by Carah Thomas-Maskell)

'The Glacier' at Sawbill

West End News: May 23

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The Gala for the Grove, Birch Grove School's biggest annual fundraiser, was a smashing success once again this year.  School Director, Diane Blanchette, reported that this year's Gala more than met the goal of raising $10,000.  She asked me to thank Dennis Rysdahl, who donates the facilities and staff, along with the many other sponsors, who donated cash, raffle prizes and auction items.  The great local band, D'Merritt, provided live music for dancing.  Everyone had a great time and it's not too early to pencil in next year's Gala on your May calendar.
West End parents, remember the Campsite Kids and Summer Sapling programs this summer at Birch Grove.  Campsite Kids is qualified day care for kindergarten through fifth grade children three days a week, all summer long.  There will be weekly "campy" themes with field trips, creative projects, campfires, access to the school library and many other fun activities based in the Birch Grove outdoor classroom.
Summer Saplings is a similar program that is geared to the 3 to 5-year-old set.  It also runs three days a week, all day.  The number of participants is limited, so for more information or to register, call Diane at 663-0170 or contact WTIP for full contact information.
We can't let the kids have all the fun, so adults can plan on attending the popular North Shore Landowners Workshop at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland. This workshop is sponsored by the North Shore Stewardship Association at Sugarloaf Cove and has generated rave reviews from those attending in the past.  It's always nice to meet your land-owning neighbors, but you can also learn why all the birches are dying, how to control invasive species on your property, which trees to plant and how to ensure their survival and many other useful things.  The event is Friday, June 7th from 12:30 to 4 p.m.  It is free and open to public, but pre-registration is encouraged.  You can register at the Sugarloaf Cove website, or by calling 218-525-0001.  As always, you can contact WTIP for full contact information.
The entire West End Community was saddened by the news of the death of John Fredrickson from Silver Bay.  John died May 18 at home in Silver Bay.  John was a well-known and well-liked member of the community.  He was an entrepreneur who owned the Standard station in Silver Bay and John's Sanitary Removal, which he built into a thriving business over the last 28 years.
John was also then longtime chief of the Silver Bay Fire Department, which is known as one of the finest small town fire departments in the state of Minnesota.  Last year, he was honored by the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs’ Association as Fire Officer of the Year. 
He was a famous hard worker, but was also a dedicated family man.  He will be missed by the whole community.  Our condolences to the all of John's family and friends.
Molly Rider, of Lutsen, will be departing this week to paddle the entire length of the Mississippi River.  The trip is sponsored by outdoor club at Bowdoin College in Maine where Molly is a student.  She'll be joined by her best friend from school, and two friends from Two Harbors.  Watch the WTIP website for updates as the trip progresses.  Molly plans to arrive at the Gulf of Mexico sometime in early August.
It seems like all the lakes in the BWCA Wilderness are finally clear of ice. Brule Lake had significant ice until the 20th of May. Here at Sawbill, it is starting to green up, but the snow bank in front of the store, which I call "The Glacier," is still three feet tall.  It may last until the first of June this year.  Having "The Glacier" on site is bad for ice sales, because people can just throw a shovel full of snow into their coolers.  Its presence is good for sweatshirt sales though, so I guess it all works out in the end.

photo by Bill Hansen

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)