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

West End News Feb. 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning frost on pine

West End News Feb. 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Cook County High School Invitational cross-country ski meet was broadcast on the radio and online through WTIP and Boreal

West End News Feb. 9

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The second annual Birch Grove Foundation boot hockey tournament will be held at Birch Grove School in Tofte on Friday, Feb. 17 starting at 4:30. This event was a big hit last winter and is back by popular demand. The teams are filled for this year, but if you stop by to a spectator there will be a lot of laughter, followed by a bonfire and pizza available for purchase.

Patty Nordahl, Director of the Birch Grove Foundation, recently won a prestigious award from the Minnesota Department of Human Services. DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson honored professionals and organizations from across the state on January 20th, citing their outstanding contributions to human services program clients. Eleven individuals and organizations were recipients of the DHS Commissioner’s Circle of Excellence Awards. Patty was recognized for her work with Cooperation Station in Grand Marais and her efforts in developing the Parent Aware child care rating system. She also advised DHS on its federal Child Care Development Fund Plan and serves on the Governor’s Early Learning Council. Congratulations Patty!

If you thought you missed Birch Grove Community Lunch this week, you have another chance to make it, because the wrong date was publicized for the event. The Community lunch is held the second Tuesday of the month, which falls on February 14th. So mark your calendars and drop by Birch Grove in Tofte for a delicious meal and congenial company.

The Birch Grove Senior Lunch is held the next day, on Wednesday, Feb. 15 and David Abazs from Round River Farms in Finland will there to talk about Community Supported Agriculture and the possibility of having a drop off point in Tofte for his produce next summer. I’ve heard David speak and he is a really interesting guy. Anyone who is a full time farmer in Finland, Minnesota has to be pretty determined.

The next Senior Lunch on February 29th will have an interesting speaker too. Bonnie Brost is a registered dietician with Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Heart and Vascular Center. She’ll be giving her popular presentation titled “Sugar: The Sweet and the Sour.” There will also be free blood pressure and glucose checks before lunch.

Finally, in Birch Grove News this week, the Early Childhood Coalition is having a Fun Day at Birch Grove on Saturday, February 11th from 10 until 1 for families with children under school age and their siblings. There will be skating and gym will be set up with inflatable bouncers and other activities.

As always, you can contact Patty Nordahl at 663-7977 for more information about all the activities at Birch Grove.

The North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte has scheduled another installment of "Voices from the Fishing Life." Tofte native, Dale Tormondsen, Lake Superior commercial fisherman, former Cook County School Superintendent and all around good guy, will be at the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2PM to talk about his experiences fishing the big lake. Admission is free and all are welcomed. Call 663-7050 or for additional info.

It was fun to hear the live coverage of the Cook County High School Invitational cross-country ski meet on WTIP last week. Announcer Buck Benson and color commentator Jonathon Rova did a great job. I usually volunteer at the meet as a starter, but I had to miss it this year due to having a terrible cold. WTIP also broadcast live video of the meet in cooperation with Boreal Access, as they have been doing with some other high school sports events recently. Station manager Deb Benedict says that there will be more live video broadcasts of all sorts of events as broadband internet service becomes available in Cook County over the next couple of years. I find the cross country ski meet to be particularly heartening to watch because you can look across the stadium and see hundreds of happy, physically fit teenagers all enthusiastically participating in a healthy event. It makes the future look bright.

It's approaching caucus time in Cook County

West End News Feb. 2

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After ducking the various cold viruses that are rampaging through the county, I finally got caught a couple of days ago, which explains why I’m singing bass in the choir today.

It is time once again for the political parties in Minnesota to hold their precinct caucuses. Your election precinct is basically your general neighborhood and is the smallest part of governmental geography. Caucus is just a fancy word for get-together. I imagine that all of Minnesota’s political parties hold caucuses, but here in Cook County, as far as I know, only the Republican and Democratic parties caucus. You can attend whichever caucus you like with no requirement that you have previously voted for, or been a registered member of, the party.

There are two main purposes for caucuses. The first is to introduce resolutions that propose additions or deletions in the party’s platform. The platform is a published document that lists the official position of the party on a wide variety of issues. Frankly, the platform documents are rarely read, but they do serve to stake out the basic philosophy of the party. The platform is used to guide the actions of elected officials, although they are not bound by the positions. Think of it as providing advice from the people to the government at all levels.

The second purpose is to select delegates that will go forward in the process in which candidates run for office under the flag of the party. At the local and county levels, candidates rarely seek party endorsement, but at the state and national level most candidates are endorsed by a party and will cooperate with others elected from their party if they get into office. If you support a certain candidate for a particular office, you can work to get yourself elected as a delegate to a series of meetings known as party conventions, that progress from the local level, through a couple of regional levels, finally to the state convention – and if you’re really ambitious – on to the national convention. Candidates for office organize their supporters to become delegates, because the delegates eventually vote to endorse, or give the party’s official blessing, to a single candidate. The party then provides the endorsed candidate with resources – money, advertising, volunteers and voter databases that help get them elected.

This year, as you know, unless you live under a rock, the Republicans are working to nominate a candidate to stand for the presidency of the United States. At the precinct caucuses, a straw poll will be conducted to see which candidates are most popular with local Republicans. The straw poll is non-binding, but is kind of fun, nonetheless.

On the Democratic side, there is a lively race for a congressional candidate to run against our current congressperson, Republican Representative Chip Cravaack. Three strong candidates are in the running so far and all three will be trying to line up delegates to support their efforts to eventually run against Mr. Cravaack in the general election in November.

When all is said and done, the caucuses are really an important part of our democracy. If you choose to spend the time, you can play an important role in how government works and who represents your interests in the process.

In Cook County, all the precinct caucuses are held in Grand Marais starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. The Democrats meet at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts, which is located next to Cook County High School. The Republicans meet at the log 4-H building next to the Community Center.

Local blogger, Stanley Tull, reports having a bobcat living under his deck at his house near Murmur Creek. It was just a year ago that we had a bobcat under our deck. After a few days of constant barking by our highly agitated terriers, we live-trapped the beautiful cat and relocated it to an even more remote location just for the sake of some peace and quiet. The YouTube video that we posted of the cat’s release went viral in a modest way, mostly because people apparently enjoyed hearing – and making fun of - our strong Minnesota accents. It continues to rack up views although not at the same rate as last winter. Just search “Sawbill bobcat” on YouTube if you want to see it.

Bill and his daughter Clare found this freshly shed moose antler while out grooming the ski trail at Sawbill

West End News

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It is certainly good news that the wolf population in Minnesota has recovered to the point where it no longer requires special federal protection. I’m distressed, however, to see some legislators already whipping up the old prejudices and fears about wolves for their own political gain. Wolf management is a very complex and intricate issue, with many, many stakeholders and dozens of competing interests. I would urge the legislature to listen carefully to the professional wildlife biologists both within and outside the Department of Natural Resources. Everyone will be better served in the long run by a carefully considered, scientifically-based plan that balances all the interests.

A few weeks ago, my daughter Clare and I found a freshly shed moose antler while grooming the ski trail here at Sawbill. It is always fun to find an antler, but especially now when the moose population is at low ebb. A found antler, especially one that is recently shed, always tells an interesting story. This antler was large, but not huge – suggesting a mature bull moose, but not a giant. The base, where it attached to the head, was still bloody, so it hadn’t been long since the owner lost it. One paddle on the antler had been broken off, but the broken edge had healed over. I can picture this moose crashing headlong into a larger rival and regretting it later. My favorite thing about newly shed antlers is their smell. As the moose wanders through the forest, it drags its antlers through the brush and low tree branches, packing the little crenulations along its leading edge with rich mixture of sap, bark and leaf material. If you scratch and sniff, you get a heady whiff of the entire forest in aggregate. Balsam, mixed with birch, mixed with hazel, mixed with spruce and so on. There is just the faintest undertone of bull moose smell present too, leading Clare and I to hatch a scheme to bottle the smell and market it as men’s cologne. We thought up some names, but they mostly too tasteless to repeat on the radio, so I leave that to your imagination.

Speaking of the ski trail, I don’t want to be seen as gloating, but there is really a pretty decent snow covering up here at the end of the Sawbill Trail. As I speak, there is 17 inches of snow on the ground. Our little 7K cross-country ski trail is in perfect shape. I only mention this because people on the North Shore are amazed to hear that there is so much snow so close by. The Sawbill ski trail isn’t marked in any way, so if you come up, or send someone up to ski, just go to the bitter end of the Sawbill Trail, step over the snow bank and you will see the trail. It’s a loop, so you can go either way and it will bring you back to the same spot 7 kilometers later. It is a narrow trail, groomed for classic style skiing and is suitable for beginners.

There is a fun thing going on every Monday night at Papa Charlie’s nightclub at Lutsen Mountains. Every Monday, at least through the middle of March, they are presenting some of Minnesota’s best songwriters in an intimate, mostly acoustic session between 8 and 10 p.m. The shows so far have been excellent and the acts that are coming are top notch. The crowd is much smaller than the typical weekend crowd and much more local. For the local folks who work in tourism, Monday night is much more of a weekend night than Friday or Saturday and it gets you home early enough to get a good night’s sleep if you do have to work on Tuesday morning.
I’m thrilled to see the announcement of a new cell phone tower at Taconite Harbor in Schroeder. I know some people don’t like them, but cell phones have become an important and useful tool worldwide – and it’s high time we had decent coverage in the West End. I hope the new Tofte tower won’t be far behind.

Taconite Harbor Energy Center

West End News Jan.19

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A few days ago, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder. The Energy Center, owned and operated by Minnesota Power, is the home of three 75 megawatt coal fired turbines that provide electricity to a number of major industrial plants and over a hundred thousand residential customers in northeastern Minnesota. In a highly simplified nutshell, they bring in low sulfur coal from Wyoming by ship, burn it to produce steam and use the steam to turn the giant electrical turbines. Forty-five people are directly employed at the plant, along with a pretty constant flow of contractors, especially in recent years.

I toured the plant once before, I think it was in the early ‘70s. That was a personal tour for me and my dad conducted by Floyd Maxfield, a good family friend who was chief electrician there at the time. The basic structure of the plant is the same now as it was then. It was built in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the basic technology is still in place.

Two parts of the plant are quite different now. The first is a new building, constructed circa 2007, that contains modern pollution control equipment. Because it was built in the ‘50s, the Tac Harbor facility is exempt from much of the Clean Air Act. When the act was passed under President Nixon, the utilities argued that the old plants would soon be obsolete, so it was foolish to require them to upgrade their pollution equipment. It turned out, of course, that the old electrical plants are still needed and the majority are still up and running. Minnesota Power, being a good corporate citizen, and seeing that the old plants would eventually be required to meet modern pollution standards, decided to invest many millions of dollars in up-to-date pollution controls, voluntarily. The power plant now operates well below its allowed pollution levels, but even more pollution controls will be installed this year to bring the pollution levels even lower. All of the recent equipment has been focused on air pollution. Their water and solid pollutants have been treated under a zero release policy for quite a while.

The other big change at the plant is the control room. Back in the '70s, it was a packed with gauges and dials. I vividly remember that when we entered the control room, Orton Tofte, Senior, was on duty, reading the Duluth newspaper while keeping one eye on the gauges. Now, the control room is almost all flat screens with clear, colorful displays. Operations superintendent, Dave Dilley, explained that the control room operator can watch and manage every little part of the complex with just the click of a mouse.

I’d like to express my thanks to Dave Dilley for the fascinating tour, plant manager Dave Rannetsberger for arranging it, and Minnesota Power for being proactive and diligent in their pollution policies. Of course, large power plants like this are big producers of carbon dioxide, which is clearly contributing to climate change, but that is a larger issue that the country and world are just starting to struggle with. Minnesota Power is aware of this problem and is working toward making more of their electricity from renewable, low pollution sources like wind and hydro.

I noticed on Boreal Access the other day the Darrel Smith is retiring from ambulance duty. Darrel doesn’t live in the West End, but he has sure been here for us over the years. More than once, I’ve been happy to see his friendly, calm and competent face in the middle of a medical emergency. Darrel is one of those quiet heros among us that we rely on but can never thank enough. In recent years, little old Cook County has had more than its share of big emergencies, so congratulations and thank you to Darrel and all the emergency responders who have helped us through. Your efforts are truly appreciated.


A pack of wolves stopped by Sawbill in the wee hours

West End News Jan. 12

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Election filings for township officers are currently open. The township system of government in Minnesota is the closest form of government to actual people. It is truly where the rubber meets the road. As a former township officer, I won’t lie to you - it’s quite a bit of work and responsibility. On the other hand, it is crucial to our civil society that thoughtful, committed people fill these positions. The townships have a real impact on our lives. Service on a township board can be very fulfilling.

In contrast to hotly contested national, state and county elections, the township elections are really more of a confirmation of those willing to serve, especially the clerk position, which arguably requires the most work and brainpower. In township government, if the supervisors are the head, then the clerks are the heart of the town. I would like to take this opportunity to directly thank all the township officials for their service to the community.

One of the unique aspects of township government is the annual meeting. Everyone in town is invited to the annual meeting and many of the big decisions, including the annual budget, are made by a direct vote of the people present. This is a wonderful example of grassroots democracy in action. The meeting isn’t even chaired by the township board members. Anyone in the room can be selected to run the meeting.

Years ago, I was selected to run the annual meeting in Tofte, which is normally a pretty straightforward task of inviting motions, facilitating discussion and calling for votes. In this particular year, a township supervisor seat actually had two candidates. Steve Krueger, who had helped establish the township and served as supervisor for many years, was being challenged by a young whippersnapper, Tim Norman. The votes are cast throughout the day, just like any other election, but they are counted and the results announced in the evening during the annual meeting. This time, the election judges headed off to count the ballots and were gone for an unusually long time. When they returned, they announced that the election was a tie. Suddenly, my responsibilities as the meeting chair became more serious and complicated. After consulting with the candidates, it was agreed that the election would be decided by the flip of a coin. Steve Krueger won the flip, which seemed to please everyone, including Tim, who saw the close vote as an affirmation of Steve’s long service. In the next election, Steve chose not to run and Tim was easily elected. I was later told that flipping a coin was not the legal way to solve the problem, but nobody complained, so all was well.

Last week, my wife Cindy and daughter Clare talked me into walking out on Sawbill Lake late in the evening to howl for wolves. Sometimes, if wolves are close by, they will start howling in response to human howling. If nothing else, it’s good for a few laughs to see three adults standing in the dark howling like banshees. Cindy has an acknowledged knack for getting the wolves to answer, so we let her go first. But on this particular night, in spite of a full moon, we got nothing but silence in return. That night, just before dawn, a light dusting of snow fell. When we ventured outside early the next morning, we were surprised to see wolf tracks all over our property, including right up to both doors of the house, the doors to the store and all over the driveways. It appeared as though a large pack had come through and checked us out just before dawn. She may not have provoked them into howling the night before, but we’re giving Cindy full credit for calling them in.

We’ll be hearing a lot more about wolves this year as the state takes over responsibility for their management from the feds. Personally, I like having wolves around, even though they do present some danger to our pets. I hope the DNR’s determination to have a wolf hunting and trapping season won’t run them back to near extinction. Like all of the predators, I feel like they are more valuable to our economy loose in the woods than as a rug in someone’s den.

Late night broomball at Sawbill Outfitters

West End News Jan. 5

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I was pleased to read that Tofte Township was moving ahead with plans for a new cell tower. The same article mentioned that a new cell tower is also being planned for Taconite Harbor. Hopefully, the two new towers will finally bring reliable cell service to the West End.

When I was in Africa last year, the village I visited had no electricity, no running water and most people were subsistence farmers living on less than $300 per year. But, they had excellent cell service, with a choice of three providers and good service everywhere. Almost everyone I met had a cell phone. They had to take them to a shop with a generator to have them charged and bought their minutes in small quantities on scratch-off paper slips, but they used them constantly, including a clever system of transferring money between people by cell phone. My African hosts were shocked to hear that I did not enjoy reliable cell service at home. They think of the United States as being technologically advanced and they also wondered how I could possibly live with the inconvenience of no cell service.

Seven or eight years ago, I had a chance to visit Norway House, Manitoba, a town about the same size of Grand Marais, located way up at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. Everyone in Norway House seemed to have a cell phone and used it frequently. Everyone seemed so comfortable and adept with cell phones that I was moved to ask how long they had enjoyed cell service. To my surprise they informed me that it had only been five months and they couldn’t imagine life without it.

Here at Sawbill we have a long-standing tradition of inviting our crewmembers back to enjoy the New Year’s holiday with us. We get a good crowd every year, mostly current crewmembers, but also a few who have moved on to what they call “the real world.” They are a very easy group to have for company because they have all lived here, so they just move back into their old rooms and pitch in with the cooking, cleaning and daily chores. They also entertain themselves, making music, playing games and especially playing outside. Every year, they adapt themselves to whatever the weather offers them. Some years it’s been ice fishing, other years it’s been skating, skiing, sledding, fox and hounds, snow cave building and even a polar plunge through the ice. This year the highlighted activity was broomball. They spent half a day shoveling and resurfacing a rink on the lake. The main game started late on New Year’s Eve and ended with champaign on the lake at the stroke of midnight. Cindy insisted that they all wear helmets for safety, so we scrounged every bike and ski helmet that we could find. We didn’t have enough, so one fire fighters helmet and one antique motorcycle helmet were pressed into action. The brooms were also a ragtag collection of whatever could be found. It would have been a strange sight for any passing fox or wolf to behold.

I was very distressed to observe the level of spending - and the effectiveness of that spending – by the so called super-PACs leading up to the recent Iowa caucuses. In a nutshell, the United States Supreme Court ruled on a case last year that now allows corporations to campaign independently for or against political candidates with no limit on spending and no disclosure on who is contributing to the campaign. Judging by the millions spent by super-PACs in Iowa, we are in for a barrage of negative advertising this election season, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. In my opinion, this is a terrible development for American democracy. Already corrupt politicians now have a virtually unlimited source of money. Even honest politicians will be forced to play this big money game, making them beholden to the money, rather than their constituents. I don’t want to be cynical, but I can’t imagine that foreign governments and corporations, who now are prohibited by law from contributing to American campaigns, will abide by that law when they have an easy and untraceable conduit to pump money into our elections. In the face of this terrible decision, we are in real danger of losing the democracy that the founders dreamed of. History clearly tells us that the founders specifically wanted our public policies to be driven by the concept of one voter, one vote, rather than one dollar, one vote.

The Owiny Sigoma Band

West End News Dec. 29

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It is truly a small world. Recently, I was listening to Sidetracks on WTIP when DJ Matthew Brown announced that he was playing a song by the Owiny Sigoma Band. I was stopped in my tracks by that band name and a big smile appeared on my face.

Here is rest of the story. Back in 2001, my son, Adam Hansen, traveled to the African country of Kenya to study for a year at the University of Nairobi. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and is a city of over three million people. Adam's program included living with a Kenyan family for the year. The very first day, on the advice of his host mother, he visited the Kenyan National Theater in the heart of Nairobi. Just outside the National Theater there is a lively street scene featuring musicians who play for tips from tourists and residents alike. It's a common spot for exchange students to visit, because they can check out authentic culture, yet it's within easy walking distance of the university campus. Adam was immediately attracted to one of the musicians playing a tribal instrument called the nyatiti. It is a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a small harp. The nyatiti is played while squatting on the ground and features slinky, poly-rhythmic melodies plucked with both hands. As crazy as it sounds, the player wears a heavy brass ring on his or her big toe, which is used to strike the instrument to provide syncopated accompaniment. The player also wears a bunch of small bells on the calf of the same leg, providing more rhythmic interest. On top of all this, the musician sings, sometimes with composed lyrics and sometimes improvised lyrics.

The nyatiti player that Adam stumbled across that day was an incredibly accomplished musician named Joseph Nyamungu. He had only recently moved to Nairobi from his home village of Uranga, which is clear across Kenya near the Ugandan border, just a few kilometers north of Lake Victoria. Nyamungu was orphaned as a baby and was literally raised by his village, which is basically a large extended family. He never attended a single day of formal school and, for most of his life, only spoke the language of the Luo Tribe, although by 2001 he had picked up the Nairobi street dialect of Swahili, which is the common language of east and South Africa. To this day he speaks only a few words of English. Some of the other street musicians were fluent in English, so Adam was able to ask questions using them as translators.

Long story short, Adam began taking nyatiti lessons from Nyamungu and the two soon became fast friends. Nyamungu is a master musician, with same intensity and depth of knowledge that a top concert violinist would have in American culture. He is a demanding teacher and Adam soon found himself deeply involved with the nyatiti, meanwhile becoming fluent in Swahili and the culture of the Luo tribe. Before the year was over, Adam had graduated as a journeyman nyatiti player, which included a couple of extended visits to Nyamungu's home village and finally a formal ceremony of acknowledgment from the village, which included the gift of a piece of land where Adam can build a house if he so chooses. It was a profound experience for Adam and he kept in touch with Nyamungu, and many other Kenyan friends, after returning to the U.S. to finish his college education and start his career.

Fast forward to last year, when Adam was able to carve out three months of free time between jobs. He spent the time in Kenya, renewing his friendships and particularly spending time with his great friend, Nyamungu. Adam invited me to join him for a couple of weeks, which I eagerly did. On my first day in Nairobi, jet lagged and culture shocked, Adam took me down to the National Theater to meet Nyamungu. By now, he has become quite a fixture and has the formal support of the National Theater. He has an "office", which is a quiet, shady spot in front of the theater and a closet in the theater where he can safe store his instruments and tools. He was very welcoming to me, mostly because he is just a great guy, but also because in Kenyan culture, parents are highly respected. I quickly had to learn my new name - Baba Adam - Adam's father.

Before I had arrived in Kenya Adam and Nyamungu had decided to start a commercial fish farm on Nyamungu's land in Uranga. I actually brought 180 pounds of solar panels and pumps with me on the airplane, which was an adventure in itself. The three of us spent the next couple of days rounding up parts and equipment for the fishpond and then rode the chaotic country bus for 15 hours overnight from Nairobi to Uranga. I spent most of my time in Africa living deep in the bush working with Nyamungu, Adam and their partners getting the fish pond up and running. We had many adventures and treasure my memories from that great time. I grew to have great respect for Nyamungu's musical skills and enjoyed his outgoing personality. He is quite a celebrity in Uranga and, of course, knows everyone. I remarked to Adam that walking around Uranga with Nyamungu reminded me of walking around Tofte with Jan Horak. You have to stop and talk to everyone.

Shortly after I left Africa, Nyamungu formed a band with a drummer friend and some young British musicians who had traveled to Kenya to experience tribal music. As Nyamungu put it, "We jammed and there was good chemistry, so we formed a band." With Adam's help, the British musicians arranged for Nyamungu and his English-speaking drummer to travel to Britain for some gigs. The band, with Nyamungu taking the leadership role, was an instant hit in London and they went on to play around the festival circuit in Europe most of the summer. They shared the stage with some of the biggest names in the European rock scene and garnered rave reviews. Their name is The Owiny Sigoma Band and the recording of their song; "Wires" made its way, with no help from me, all the way to WTIP in Cook County, Minnesota.


Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder

West End News Dec. 22

Finalcut_WEN_20111222.mp39.41 MB

Minnesota Power, a division of the Allete Corporation based in Duluth, owns and operates the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder. The Energy Center is a low sulfur coal powered electrical generating station that runs three 75 mega-watt steam turbines. The power is sold to MP’s 144 thousand customers in the northern half of Minnesota, including municipal power systems, residential customers, and several very large commercial customers including taconite plants and wood product plants. Ironically, Minnesota Power does not sell power to the West End, or anywhere in Cook County. They also buy and sell electricity on the greater electrical grid. The Taconite Harbor power plant directly employs 45 people, roughly a third from Grand Marais, a third from the Schroeder, Tofte, Lutsen area and a third from the greater Silver Bay area.

Recently, Minnesota Power has established a Community Advisory Panel made up of people from the local area. There are almost 30 people on the panel, including elected officials from the counties, cities and townships, business people, tourism representatives, school officials, emergency services, regular citizens and management and staff from the power plant. According to Nancy Norr, Minnesota Power’s Regional Manager, the idea is to open up better lines of communication between our area’s largest industrial facility and the communities that surround it.

So far the panel has met twice and spent most of its time learning the history and functions of the Tac Harbor facility. The power plant was originally built by in the 1950s by Erie Mining strictly to power their taconite plant and mine in Hoyt Lakes. It was expanded in the mid ‘60s and shut down in 1982 when Erie Mining went out of business. LTV Mining reopened the plant in 1991 and ran it for ten years before they shut down. Minnesota Power bought it shortly after that and started it up again in 2002. It is just one of several power plants that Minnesota Power owns, including other coal burning generators, along with wood, hydro and wind generators. A few years ago, extensive pollution abatement equipment was installed at Taconite Harbor, significantly reducing pollutants that contribute to acid rain and other problems. They are currently working on a system that will also deeply reduce the amount of mercury that the plant emits and expect that to be done very soon. The plant was already in compliance with all pollution regulations, but the company voluntarily reduced their pollution footprint.

The people on the advisory panel have indicated that they want to know much more about the environmental issues that surround the Taconite Harbor facility along with the industrial plants that it powers now and might power in the future. They are also very interested in how the power plant can be more connected to the community, especially in the area of education and building strong, livable communities. They identified many other issues as well, that will be addressed as time goes on.

One panel member joked that they wanted Minnesota Power to contribute a million dollars to Cook County’s schools. While that provided a good laugh, it does seem like a good idea to get the schools and the company connected on a number of levels. There was another funny moment during the meeting when a panel member reported getting a cell phone call from a relative who was driving up the north shore. When asked where they were, they replied, “We’re just passing Taco-night Harbor.” Somewhere, millions of tacos are being made for taco night, but not in Schroeder.

Much has been - and will be said - about the horrible violence that erupted at the Cook County Courthouse recently. I would just like to add my voice to the chorus of relief that the victims are recovering well from their wounds and are back home in Cook County. The incident confirms what we all know – that crime and violence can happen anywhere – even in Cook County. However, we do have to remember, that while we certainly have our problems, this is a wonderful, nurturing and forgiving community. Time will be needed for everyone to recover and process. Here’s hoping the symbolic beginning of a new year will inspire us all to preserve the good and work for the better.