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West End News

Bill Hansen

Bill Hansen

Bill Hansen runs Sawbill Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail with his wife Cindy. Bill grew up in Cook County and knows the West End community well. The son of beloved WTIP volunteer and long-time West End News columnist Frank Hansen, Bill enjoys following in his father's footsteps.

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


What's On:
Tofte fireworks display

West End News: June 28

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A young woman was in the West End this week doing research on the history of Sawbill Lodge. Her name is Jennifer Case and she is the granddaughter of Chuck and Helen Case, who operated Sawbill Lodge in the mid-1970s. Helen ran the lodge while Chuck continued his work as an executive for the telephone company. I believe it was Bell Telephone in those days, in the Twin Cities. Their dream was for Chuck to take early retirement so he and Helen could concentrate on the lodge full time. After a few years, Chuck was offered a promotion that took the family to London and the Cases decided to let the lodge go. Jennifer reports that Sawbill Lodge still is a big part of her family's history and has caught her interest, even though she was born long after the Lodge was torn down and returned to nature. It just shows how the resort life style gets into your blood - in spite of the fact that the reality of resort ownership is mostly hard, dirty and repetitive work over long, long hours.

The torrential rain and flooding that occurred a couple of weeks ago is very likely another of the many changes that are occurring here in the West End due to climate change. We can add it to an ever growing list that includes hotter summers, warmer winters, decline of the moose population, the disappearance of many frog species, die-off of birch trees, and frequent spikes in extreme fire danger, and so on. Patty Johnson, who is a fire behavior expert with the US Forest Service, stopped in the other day on her way out on a personal canoe trip. She mentioned, somewhat ironically given the recent wet weather, that climatologists are saying that periods of extremely dry weather are likely the new normal. The fierce wildfires that are burning in Colorado right now are a good example of what we need to worry about. In my opinion, if you live in the woods, you are crazy if you don't have a sprinkler system to protect your home or business. Jim Winnanen, director of Cook County Emergency Services, has been working hard to line up another FEMA grant to help home and business owners install what are known as Firewise sprinkler systems. The grant hasn't come through yet, but Jim is confident that is will be announced soon. This is government at its best because it is much, much cheaper to pay up front for prevention than to pay for reconstruction after a disaster.

The North Shore Stewardship Association, located at the Sugarloaf Landing just west of Schroeder, is offering movie night every Friday. They show good movies that you probably wouldn't normally see and the setting at the Sugarloaf Interpretive Center is, of course, beautiful. On Friday, July 6th, they are showing "Mad City Chickens", an entertaining and funny documentary about the urban chicken movement in Madison, Wisconsin. The following Friday, July 13th the movie is "Play Again", a look at "nature deficit disorder" which is what afflicts America's children who now spend between five and fifteen hours a day looking at screens instead of playing outside and learning to enjoy the natural world.

The North Shore Stewardship Association is also sponsoring an outdoor photography workshop on Saturday, July 14 starting at 10 a.m. at the interpretive center just off Highway 61 west of Schroeder. Photographer Chris Sandberg will present the two hour class which will focus on finding and capturing outdoor scenes and presenting them in the best possible way. You can call Molly at 218-525-0001 for more information and starting times.

Don't forget about the fabulous Tofte 4th of July Celebration, one of America's great small-town Independence Day events. It all starts with the 33rd Annual Tofte Trek 10K Wilderness Run and Walk. Registration opens at 7:45 am with the 10K walk starting at 9 a.m., Kid's Race at 9:05, the 1 Mile Race at 9:20 and the 10K Run at 9:30.

The Festival at the lovely Tofte Town Park starts at 11 a.m. and runs through 5 p.m. with kids games, local crafts, food booths, beer garden and live music featuring Tofte's own Eric Frost, The Sensational Hot Rods, a '50s tribute band, San Francisco jazz musician Johnny Smith, the drum group Yabobo and the Cook County High School Band. The High School Band will also be featured in this year's parade which starts at 2 pm along the old highway in downtown Tofte. There is a spaghetti dinner at the Lutheran Church from 5 - 7 p.m. and last but not least, the spectacular fireworks display over the lake starting at full dark around 10 p.m.

I remember one year, many years ago, when there was a spectacular lightning display over the lake and vivid northern lights directly overhead while the fireworks were being shot off. We can only hope for a repeat of that memorable performance. As always, be there or be square.

Duluth flooding - AP Photo - Andrew Krueger

West End News: June 21

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It was the talk of the town this week when the communications out of the county were cut due to the extraordinary flooding in Duluth. It is almost breathtaking when the landlines, cell service and internet all go down at once. A couple of years ago, when the same thing happened, a plan was hatched to bring in a separate connection from the Iron Range, so we would have a backup. I know that the alternate connection is under construction, but apparently not finished yet.

It is probably healthy for us in the long run to realize how dependent we’ve become on the worldwide communications network. The economy comes screeching to a halt when cable gets cut. Our dependency grows by the day, including this humble report, which is usually recorded in my car (cars make surprisingly good little recording studios) and then emailed to the station.

We will probably continue to deepen our dependency on communication networks as broadband connections are rolled out in the relatively near future. Construction on the broadband network in Cook County is underway again. Miles of red tape are being cut and there is reason to believe that we may see at least part of the system lit up by the end of the year.

There is a lot of news out of the Birch Grove Center in Tofte this week. The Neighborhood Revitalization program is moving ahead for the West End. It provides grants in the form of deferrable loans for energy improvements like insulation, new doors and windows, furnaces, water heaters and so on. Owner occupied and rental housing can qualify if family income is between 40 thousand and 80 thousand dollars per year. The grants are first come, first served. You can contact Patty Nordahl at Birch Grove, 663-7977 for details and contact info.

Last call for vendors interested in working the Tofte 4th of July. Again, call Patty at 663-7977 if you are interested.

There are still a few spots available for the Hobbits project, which is class to learn how to build a wood fired outdoor oven running at Birch Grove Center from September 9th – 13th. There is a tuition cost for the class, but the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation is offering generous scholarships, so don’t let cost stop you if you are interested.

The West End was saddened by the passing of two longtime community members this week. Marion McKeever from Schroeder passed away at the age of 92 and Bud Nelson formerly from Tofte and more recently from the Gunflint Trail passed away at the age of 79. Both were active, long time business owners who contributed in many ways to their community. My thoughts and condolences go out to their many friends and family.

Western painted turtle

West End News: June 14

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This is the time of year when turtles appear all over the back roads in the West End. Pretty much anywhere that a road goes near a lake, stream or swamp, you will see numerous turtles crossing the road or perched along the shoulders. These are females who are taking advantage of the soft, sun-warmed gravel on the roadside to lay their eggs in holes they dig with their back feet. Most of the turtles you see are western painted turtles, but every once in awhile you can see a huge snapping turtle.

Every year I see a few turtles that have been hit by cars, which always makes me wonder why? Did the turtle dart out in front of the car? I can just hear the driver now, "It came out of nowhere. Really, the turtle hit me." It's frightening to think that someone could be so inattentive in their driving as to not see a turtle on the road. I simple can't believe that anyone would be so mean as to hit a turtle on purpose.

Back in the early 1960's a crew member at the old Sawbill Lodge, during a slow day at work, took a can of white paint that was kept in the boathouse for lettering numbers on boats, and painted the name of each person working at the lodge that year in small, neat letters along the edge of the shells of half a dozen turtles. For years, we would see turtles named Betty, Linda, Buck or Dusty sunning themselves on logs during the summer. Eventually, we didn't see them anymore and I had pretty much forgotten about it, until 1990 when the legendary Rainbow Gathering was held near Barker Lake here in the West End. The Rainbow folks had put a large sign on the beginning of the Sawbill Trail that read: "You cannot reach the Rainbow gathering by traveling on this road." In spite of the sign, we had several groups that wandered into Sawbill, lost and looking for the gathering. One cheerful group, driving a VW van, arrived at our store wondering where the Rainbow Gathering was. After giving them directions, I asked them if they hadn't seen the warning sign when they turned up the Sawbill Trail. The driver responded by saying that he had seen the sign and read it to his passengers, who happily told him to ignore it and keep driving. Then he mentioned that they were all glad about being lost because they had seen a turtle crossing the road near Sawbill Creek and had decided to stop and help it to safety. "And," he said, "the turtle's name was Dusty! It was painted right on his shell!" This was roughly 30 years after the turtle had been labeled by the bored lodge worker. The Rainbow People were delighted that the cosmos had directed them to become acquainted with Dusty the turtle. I shouldn't have been too surprised, as Wikipedia informs me that western painted turtles can reach sexual maturity by the age of 6 and can live up to 55 years in the wild.

Congratulations to Silver Bay entrepreneurs Lyn Singleton and Lisa Larsen who have opened a new bakery in Beaver Bay. It's called the Honey Bee Bakery and is located in the Beaver Bay community building. The products include a variety of pastries and breads, along with sandwiches, soups and coffee. I've heard very positive feedback on the pasties. Lyn gets up in the middle of the night and does the baking, while Lisa, her daughter-in-law, handles the books. Local businesses are the life blood of our economy, so be sure to show your support to this wonderful new enterprise. Even if you don't want a fresh, warm, sticky, sweet caramel roll, force yourself to stop at the Honey Bee Bakery and have one.

It's not too early to reserve your spot for the eighth annual Lundie Home tour sponsored by the Schroeder Historical Society. This year the tour is Saturday, July 14th. It will feature several homes and cabins in the West End that were designed by the famous architect Edwin Lundie. This year, some additional homes will be toured that were designed by author, architect and "Cabinologist" Dale Mulfinger. Mulfinger will be present on the tour and will be giving a presentation that day at the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder. As always, the tour will be followed by the popular "dinner on the ledge rock" with live music and beverages. There is a suggested donation for the tour and reservations are required, so contact Suzanne at the Cross River Heritage Center, 663-7706, for more details. Dale Mulfinger's presentation, however, is free and open to the public.

Returning to the subject of turtles for a moment: did you know that if you are a Minnesota resident under the age of 18, that you can take, possess, rent or sell up to 25 turtles for use in a non-profit turtle race?  But, the western painted turtles that you take, possess, rent or sell for use in a non-profit turtle race must have a longitudinal shell length of more than four inches. It's the law.

Photo: U.S. Forest Service, Eastern Region - courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, N.C.

West End News: June 7

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Recently, Steve Robertson, a naturalist with the Forest Service in Tofte, sent me a web link to the Forest History Society. I had never heard of this non-profit before, but have since learned that it was founded in 1946 and has been diligently collecting and disseminating historical data from our nation's forests. Steve directed me to their searchable database of historic photos and I was delighted to find quite a few very old photos of the Sawbill Campground, the Sawbill CCC camp and several wilderness lakes near Sawbill.

All of the old photos are fascinating, but two of them particularly caught my eye. The first was a camping scene in the Sawbill Lake campground from 1937. It is a pretty typical camping scene except that it includes all women and two are wearing dresses. We used to have a customer who canoe tripped in a skirt for many years, but otherwise, we don't see too many dresses around here. The second photo, also from the '30s, is of a road sign on Highway 61 in Tofte that lists what can be found up the Sawbill Trail and at what distances. Most of the places would be somewhat familiar to modern eyes, but it lists a "Plouff Resort" 17 miles up the Sawbill. I had never heard of Plouff Resort, but Brian Henry, retired forester from Little Marais, told me that he put some research into it when he ran across references to it in the records at the Tofte District Office of the Forest Service when he worked there. He actually found an ariel photo of the resort, which was located on the Old Grade Road, just off the Sawbill Trail and just south of the CCC camp. Brian found the site on the ground, but reported that there is really nothing left except a few scraps of metal.

Bill Plouff and his wife, whose name I can't remember, were well known pioneers along the Sawbill Trail. I presume they ran the resort that bore their name. Our family first came to Sawbill in 1957 and the Plouffs were already long gone, with only the creek, now mispronounced as "Pluff Creek", to remember them by. The late Dick Anderson, from Grand Marais, used to tell stories about working for the Plouffs when he was a kid. At that time, Dick said that they lived in a cabin on Kelly Lake. It makes me wonder if the Plouff Resort was somehow connected to prohibition. There were several resorts during that era, located in obscure spots in the woods, where it was possible to get a drink, along with maybe a card game and other illegal diversions. It's interesting that this colorful history is so little celebrated in this part of the world. I suppose it must be the influence of Scandinavian culture.

Knowing that a resort can disappear so quickly and completely makes me think about the permanence of all the human activity here in the back woods of the West End. The time may come when today's establishments are just a dim memories - hopefully, not anytime soon.

Now is the time to start thinking seriously about Marion McKeever's award winning fishcakes at Satellite's Country Inn Restaurant in Schroeder to benefit the Birch Grove Foundation. The fishcakes, along with baked potato, coleslaw, green peas, bread, rhubarb pudding and kringler, coffee, tea and milk, will be served in two shifts on Tuesday, June 12th. The first shift is over the lunch hour from 11 am to 1 pm. The second shift is during the dinner hour from 4 pm to 8 pm. Seatings are every half hour. There is a free bus departing from Birch Grove at 11:15 am for the 11:30 seating, courtesy of the Grand Marais State Bank. The bus is for all ages, but call Birch Grove if you plan to ride, so they know how many to expect. I can say from wonderful personal experience that Marion's fishcakes rank right up among the best on the shore. Not only is this a chance to help Marion make a generous contribution to Birch Grove, it's a chance to taste a genuine North Shore delicacy. Tickets are available at Satellite's, Grand Marais State Bank - Tofte Branch, Birch Grove Center, or by calling Patty Nordahl at Birch Grove, 663-7977.

Tofte 4th of July celebration is coming up fast. Don't forget to peak up your training for the infamous Tofte Trek 10 K run, founded by Jan Horak 33 years ago. You can pre-register online at Also, a reminder that the parade starts at 2 pm this year, so plan accordingly. Volunteers are still needed to run the bingo and help with children's activities, so contact the ever busy Patty Nordahl at 663-7977 if you can help.

I would like to add my condolences to all the many friends and family of Muriel Michaelson, of Tofte, who passed away last week. Muriel was an institution in Tofte and will be missed by all.

Phoebes are small birds that are common in our woods, but are most often heard and not seen. I've been noticing a pair of phoebes all spring that have been hanging around the windows of my office. Last week, I finally found their nest. They built it out of moss right on top of the outside light fixture above the front entrance to the Sawbill Store. As customers come and go, their heads pass less than two feet from the nest. The phoebes seem unfazed by the passing people. So far, most people haven't noticed the nest, but that may change when the eggs hatch and the chicks start calling for food. If need be, we will certainly block off that entrance and direct people to the side door until the chicks leave the nest.

The Gordon family on Amicus II.

West End News: May 31

The Schroeder Historical Society sponsoring a lumberjack dinner at their annual meeting on Saturday, June 9th, starting at 5 p.m. at the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder. The menu will include lumberjack stew and biscuits. I'm surprised that beans aren't on the menu as they were a famous addition to the cuisine in the old logging camps. The lumberjacks used to call them "blanket lifters." Another famous feature of logging camp meals was a long standing tradition that no talking was allowed once the food was served. Lumberjacks that were cutting, skidding and hauling big timber in the deepest part of the winter season were very serious about their food - so serious that they couldn't be slowed down for conversation. You could actually be fined for speaking during a meal. I’m confident that chatting with your neighbors will be perfectly alright at the upcoming lumberjack dinner re-enactment.

Joyce Krueger will provide old time piano music and Forest Service Naturalist Steve Robertson is presenting an entertaining program. He has promised that it won't be a lecture and it won't be boring, so you'll have to attend to see what he does. The lumberjack dinner is open to all and the cost is just a small free will offering. Contact Suzanne at the Cross River Heritage Center for details.

For a number of years, a group of local quilters have been meeting at the Schroeder Town Hall to work on quilts, share knowledge and socialize. Through the quilting, the West End group made contact with a group of quilters in Ostersund, Sweden which led to the group traveling to Sweden for a visit a couple of years back. Now, our local quilters will be hosting a delegation of the Swedish quilters in Schroeder very soon. Fifteen Swedish quilters are coming and they have activities planned in Duluth and Thunder Bay too. Local quilters Beth Blank, Nancy Hansen, Orlean Fischer and Linda Lamb have quilts on display at the Cross River Heritage Center, so you can look for them when you are there for the lumberjack dinner.

I want to acknowledge the recent passing of musician Doc Watson, a truly original American treasure. Doc was best known as a guitar player and singer, but could play a mean old time banjo too. He is often called a folk musician - and he was well versed in the Appalachian traditions that he grew up with - but he was really just a great musician, able to play comfortably in nearly every style of American music. He came to national attention in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival and remained popular and active right up until his death this week. Doc had a quality to his guitar playing and singing that only comes along once in a great while. Although his technique was nearly perfect, it was the genuine humanity and a sense of genuine connection with his art that made him special. Local musician Bump Blomberg saw Doc at what must have been his last public performance just a few weeks ago in North Carolina. My condolences to the Watson family and the vast family of musicians that Doc mentored and influenced over the years. Although he will be sorely missed, his art will live on in future generations. He was 89 years old.

I'm pleased to see that my friend, Katya Gordon, from Two Harbors, has written and published a book about her experiences sailing with her husband Mark and two young daughters, Lamar and Cedar. I met the Gordons in 2008 when they had just returned from a cruise from Knife River to the Bahamas and back. Before I knew about the sailing trip, I noticed how capable and self-possessed their two little girls were, even though they were only 3 and 5 years old at the time. When I found out that they had lived a large portion of their young lives on a traveling sailboat, I realized that living in a large house in Two Harbors was a piece of cake for them. I see that Katya has been doing author signings in Two Harbors and Silver Bay, so I assume she'll be coming up to do one in Cook County soon. The Gordon's boat, the steel hulled cutter Amicus II, is a sister vessel to the Hjordis, which is based at North House Folk School in Grand Marais.

Fishing dropped off considerably during the storms over the Memorial Day weekend, but seems to be bouncing back nicely now. Lake trout are still being caught easily and the walleyes and bass have been generally cooperative as well. We haven't seen any mayfly hatch yet here at Sawbill, but expect that we will soon. The backflies and mosquitoes have been out for a couple of weeks, but the wild weather has kept the population small and mostly non-biting. With the water so high now, it's my guess that they will get quite a bit worse in the next week as the weather warms up a bit. It's all part of the fun here in the West End.

Common Merganser

West End News: May 24

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Congratulations to Birch Grove Community School graduates Ashley Ross, Michael Sjogren and Bradley Van Doren.  The congratulations might seem a little late, as the three finished their studies at Birch Grove seven years ago.  But now they are graduating from Cook County High School.  As is often the case with Birch Grove graduates, they are all excellent students and are collecting numerous scholarships to continue their studies after high school.  The three scholars came full circle this week, returning to Birch Grove to meet with the current kindergarten class. This is a wonderful thing to do, providing positive role models to children that have their entire educational careers ahead of them.

Many Birch Grove alumni who are in college or beyond are returning to Cook County for the summer and stopping by Birch Grove to visit. Marie Nordahl recently spent part of a day at the school, joining the students for lunch and helping out with an art class.  Alumni are always encouraged to stop in and visit.  Again, wonderful examples to encourage the younger students.

Birch Grove graduates Beau Larson of Lutsen and Carl Hansen of Tofte have been in the area lately in their professional capacity as film makers.  Beau and Carl are both graduates of the University of Montana where they studied film.  They are the official videographers for the Lutsen 99er, the marathon mountain bike race that is held in the West End every June. T hey have been doing advance work this week, planning out their race day strategy and getting some advance footage shot.

In more Birch Grove news, the upcoming North House class that will build a wood fired bread oven at Birch Grove has been awarded a $1750 grant from the Cook County Community Foundation to provide scholarships for the course.  Participants will build the oven from September 9th through September 13th, with the grand opening celebration on Saturday, September 29th.  The class is filling up fast, so if you want to participate, get ahold of Patty Nordahl soon at 663-7977. I f you can’t take the class, there are several other ways to contribute, so contact Patty if you have an interest.

Spencer Motschenbacher, of Lutsen, told me that he found the nest of a common merganser duck last week.  Spencer kept his distance, but even then, he could count an amazing twenty-two eggs in the nest.  He said there may have been more, because he wasn’t sure that he could see them all.  It seems incredible that one mother duck could carry that many eggs.  And if she did, what kept her from sinking straight to the bottom of the lake?  It’s not uncommon to see mergansers with a long string of chicks behind them, but I’ve never seen anywhere near twenty-two with one mother.

The North Shore Stewardship Association at Sugarloaf Cove near Schroeder is holding a Recreational Trail Design workshop on Saturday, June 2, 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  You will learn what you need to know to design, construct, and maintain sustainable trails for hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, off-highway motorcycling, and all terrain vehicles.  Sustainable trails require minimal maintenance because their design and materials hold up to intensive recreational use and severe weather conditions. Mel Baughman, U of MN Extension Specialist, will teach the workshop.  There is a small charge, payable the day of the class.  Google Sugarloaf Cove for more information.

The Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder is having its opening party on Friday June 1st, at 6:30 p.m., kicking off another busy season of events highlighting the rich history of the West End.

Not to state the obvious, but thank goodness for the recent heavy rains to relieve the extreme fire danger that we had last week.  For two days, we watched the sky and sniffed the air anxiously as the temperature soared into the eighties, the winds ramped up to 35 miles per hour and the relative humidity plunged to near single digits.  One spark and we would have had a repeat of last fall’s fire season.  After our experience here at Sawbill last September, I know exactly how the people of Ely felt as a fire storm bore down on their homes and businesses. Thank goodness it ended as well for them as it did for us.

Now that is is raining regularly, I have to listen to the complaints of visitors about the wet weather. Sometimes, I have to take a deep breath before I commiserate with them. Those of us who live in the woods are never sorry to see a good, soaking rain.

Campground scene at the Sawbill Campground, September 1937/ photograph courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, N.C

West End News May 17

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A few weeks ago, I talked about the change in management at the North Shore Market in Tofte. I can now report that the North Shore Market has been sold to Joe and Jill Sanders, who own the neighboring business, Big Joe’s Auto Salvage. They bought the store from Nancy and Cliff Iverson, who owned it for the last ten years.

As I reported before, Lisa Nelson, of Tofte, will be operating the store. The Sanders plan to let Lisa be fully in charge. They are backing a complete remodel of the store, which will be happening very soon. The inside of the store will be gutted and new flooring, shelving and refrigeration equipment will be installed. On the outside, new half log siding and decking are planned. The entrance will be brought up to modern accessibility standards. Also, the name has been changed to the “Tofte General Store.”

Lisa is eager to serve both the local people and the many visitors to the area. She has already lowered prices on many items to encourage more local people to shop. Many new items are already in stock and more will be added after the renovation is complete. Lisa encourages everyone to let her know what they want from the store and she will do her best to accommodate. For instance, the store is already carrying organic milk, which many parents demand for their children.

Smaller, full service grocery stores have nearly disappeared from the market place in the last thirty years or so with the rise of the big box store. This has left many communities in what is often called a “food desert.” These food deserts end up being low-income city neighborhoods and small rural towns. Typically, convenience stores then become the only local option, leading to higher prices, less variety and an increase in obesity and health problems.

We are very lucky to have a local grocery store in the West End and I strongly encourage everyone to do as much of their shopping there as possible. It creates local jobs, keeps money in the local economy and makes the whole community healthier. And, it’s a great place to visit with neighbors and get the latest local news.

Last Sunday was Roger Michaelson’s 81st birthday. Roger is a Tofte resident who manages the solid waste transfer station, which he calls “The Tofte Mall” on the Sawbill Trail. This birthday was significant for Roger because he completed his goal of riding his bicycle around the world before he turned 81. Back in 2004, Roger had heart surgery and as part of his re-hab his doctor advised him to start exercising regularly. Roger fished a discarded stationary bike out of the inventory at the Tofte Mall, fixed it up, and set out to ride the 24,000 miles around the equator - riding 30 minutes per day - without ever leaving his basement. When he started he could only make about 3 miles in 30 minutes. Now, he easily rides 10 miles or more at once. He isn’t resting after completing the journey, but has already started off on his second trip around the world. The next time you see Roger, wish him a happy birthday, welcome him home, and wish him a good trip around the world for the second time.

The Birch Grove Foundation in Tofte has scheduled a public brain storming session for Thursday, May 24 at 6:30 p.m. The goal is to think of ways to better use the Birch Grove facility once the construction projects are done this fall. For instance, might the local resorts like to use the tennis courts, skating rink or wood fired oven to provide another activity for their guests. Or, perhaps you are a parent with an idea for youth activities at Birch Grove. There are no bad ideas. Everyone is welcome and, as always, yummy treats will be provided. Call Patty Nordahl at 663-7977 for more information.

One hundred years ago, in May of 1922, congress passed a bill appropriating money to create and maintain campgrounds in National Forests, including the Superior National Forest. In the prosperous times after the World War One, the popularity of camping exploded in the United States. The national forests already had some campgrounds, but many were sort of ad hoc, without water supplies, sanitation, garbage collection or established fire places. The legislation emphasized the fire danger created by inexperienced campers building campfires wherever they pleased. Testimony at the congressional hearings made it clear that the Forest Service was essentially being forced into the recreation business by public demand. The appropriation approved by Congress for the 1923 fiscal year was a whopping $22,000 for all the campgrounds in the nation. The next year the appropriation doubled. In hindsight, it has to be considered money very well spent.

Back in those days, many people felt that national parks should be in the recreation business and the national forests should be in the timber production business. Arthur Carhart was an early Forest Service leader who strongly advocated for recreation in national forests. As part of the legislative testimony back in 1922, he wrote the following: “If we are to have broad-thinking men and women of high mentality, of good physique, and with a true perspective on life, we must allow our populace a communion with nature in areas of more or less wilderness conditions.”

With an early ice-out this year, Bill believes the fishing will be better during the first part of the season.

West End News May 10

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Last week I talked about school trust lands in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and how the legislature ignored a carefully crafted agreement developed by a legislative working group that included all the stakeholders, and instead passed a bill that seemed to be written by the mining lobby.

Now, our congressperson, Representative Chip Cravaak has introduced a similar bill at the federal level, which would force the Forest Service to trade the state lands in the wilderness for national forest lands outside the wilderness. As is so often the case in modern politics, both bills are being represented as being for the benefit of Minnesota’s children, when the reality is that they actually benefit multi-national mining companies, that are unlikely to care much about Minnesota’s school children. I know it’s a lot to ask in an election year, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail and these bad bills will just fade away.

Dave and Amy Freeman are technically residents of Lutsen. I say technically because they live in the most remote northern corner of Lutsen Township, which is deep in the Superior National Forest. Their home is a tent, but it’s a really nice, large canvas tent on a permanent platform. Most people would consider living in a platform tent to be roughing it, but for Dave and Amy it represents permanent luxury.

The truth is, they are hardly ever at their home in Lutsen because this week they launched another leg of their 12,000 mile North American Odyssey. They plunked their kayaks in Lake Superior at Grand Portage and will end the trip next April in Key West, Florida. This leg of the trip will be relatively tame by their standards as they make their way through the Great Lakes, down the Erie Canal, and finally down the eastern inland waterway. The previous legs of the trip included paddling up the Pacific coast to Alaska, hiking across a big chunk of that state, paddling up the Yukon River, dog sledding through the Northwest Territories and finally canoeing from Great Slave Lake to Grand Portage last summer.

They half jokingly refer to this trip as their honeymoon, because they began shortly after their wedding two years ago. It isn’t all just for fun though. Dave and Amy run a non-profit education program call Wilderness Classroom. They stay in touch with tens of thousands of school children via a satellite connection to the internet. The kids are highly involved in their travel plans and participate in many different learning projects. Dave and Amy stop and visit schools along their route, where they present a wildly popular program that educates kids about wilderness and the natural world. You can follow their progress at

The North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte is continuing their ongoing “Stories of the Fishing Life” series with a presentation by members of the Spry family on Saturday, May 19 at 2 p.m. The Sprys are an old and well respected fishing family, mostly associated with the Hovland and Grand Portage area, who continue their fishing connections right up to the current day. As always, the program is free, open to the public and yummy treats will be served. Check the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum website, or contact WTIP for more information.

While we’re on the subject of history, mark your calendar for the opening of the William F. Roleff Forest History Photography exhibit at the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder opening on May 25 at 10 a.m. This fascinating display of photos from the early days of logging is on loan from the St. Louis County Historical Society. It ties in with the Heritage Center’s theme for the year: “Timberjack Logging on the North Shore.” Call Suzanne Frum at 663-7706 or check their website for more details.

I’ve had a lot of phone calls from people wondering how the early spring will affect the walleye’s appetite for minnows, leeches and night crawlers during the early days of the fishing season. My answer is that it is anyone’s guess. The ice left the lakes so early this year that there is literally no precedent to rely on to make predictions. Generally, an early ice-out means that fishing will be better during the first part of the season. In any case, the arrival of full summer in the deep south, by which I mean south of Two Harbors, seems to be piquing the interest anglers, hikers, bird watchers and canoeists. The busy season is upon us.

Sawbill dock, photo by Ruthie Hansen

West End News: May 3

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I don’t think I’m the only one who has been disappointed in this year’s Minnesota Legislature.  I’m not personally invested in the Vikings stadium issue, because I’m a fair weather fan a the best of times, but Vikings fans must be incredibly frustrated with the legislature’s inability to bring closure, one way or the other to that issue.

My frustration lies with two bills that were signed into law last week that deal with school trust lands and specifically school trust lands in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  School trust lands are large tracts of land that were put in state ownership when Minnesota first became a state to provide income, paid to a permanent trust fund, the proceeds of which were to be used to establish and support Minnesota’s public school system.  It was a great thing and it worked pretty well.  Most of the land was sold and the trust still exists, but in the modern era it only pays a tiny portion of school funding.

The first bill creates a new legislative commission – often a bad idea just on the face of it – to manage school trust lands, taking management away from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  Apparently, the legislature felt that the DNR was too conservative in their management on the state trust lands, taking into account things like ecosystems, watershed protections, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities like hunting, fishing, hiking and other silly scientific hoo-haw.  The new management is specifically instructed to maximize the return from the lands and damn the torpedoes.  I have no doubt that over time, the new land managers will realize that the best value is derived from land by managing it under careful scientific principals, not the principals of under-informed politicians or rapacious multi-national corporations.

The second bill outlines the state’s proposal to trade the school trust lands in the BWCA Wilderness for Superior National Forest Land outside the wilderness.  On its surface this sounds like a good idea, and it is a good idea, except the legislature ignored the recommendations of a panel of stakeholders that has been negotiating an agreement that would work for everyone and passed a simplistic plan that is only to the benefit of the state – or to be more exact, the benefit of large timber and mining interests.  Of course, the state legislature can’t force the federal government to do anything, so their action has just set the whole issue back, probably for decades.

Just like the Vikings stadium issue – lots of posturing and pretending and very little actually getting done.

Meanwhile, here in the good old West End of Cook County, kids are being happily educated, starting in pre-school with opening of enrollment for the 2012 – 2013 Saplings Pre-School at the wonderful Birch Grove Community School in Tofte.  The pre-school runs from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday on every regularly scheduled Birch Grove school day.  You can enroll your pre-schooler to go all the time or part-time to fit around your schedule.  The teaching staff is highly qualified weaves together the Core Knowledge Sequence and the Minnesota Early Learning Standards, all of which helps your child succeed all through school and life.  Free transportation and scholarships are a possibility, so call Diane at 663-0170 for details and information.

You may see a vaguely familiar face around the Bluefin Bay Grille this summer.  Emma Tofte will be on the wait staff there this summer. Although Emma hails from White Bear Lake, her presence represents a deep connection to the pioneer days of Tofte.  She is the daughter of Tofte native Scott Tofte and the granddaughter of Orton and Marge Tofte.  When Emma announced on Facebook that she would be spending the summer in Tofte, her father posted the following advice on things she should do:

  • Have lots of bonfires by the lake.
  • Catch fireflies in a bottle.
  • Play Star Light Star Bright with your cousins. You won't believe how dark it is when you try to find them.
  • Let your uncles take you out to Sawbill Lake and fish off the dock.
  • On your way, stop and get water from the spring.
  • Hike up to Carlton Peak.
  • Learn to be a rock skipper. You never run out of rocks.
  • Lay back on the beach and look up at the stars. If you're really lucky, you'll see the Northern Lights one night.
  • Swim at the Temperance every nice day.
  • Have fun.
  • Love, Dad

Good advice indeed.

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

West End News: April 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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