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West End News

Bill Hansen

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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.

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West End News: January 28

Save the date for March 15 in Lutsen to hear the results of a two-year study by the North Shore Community Climate Readiness project.  Three universities cooperated on a variety of research methods to examine how the changing climate will affect tourism on the North Shore. 
 
For example, they looked at how lake ice thickness and summer heat waves may change.  Will there be a greater risk of hotter and larger forest fires?  They also asked both locals and visitors what they thought about climate change and how it may or may not affect their behavior.
 
The interactive workshop will be from 5 until 8 pm on March 15 in Lutsen with a second workshop being held in Two Harbors on the 16th.  Location has not been set yet, but the details will be well advertised as the date draws nearer.
 
Climate change is a big issue for Cook County and it’s past time to start planning for a future with a different climate.  It would have been good to start this effort about 20 years ago, but we play with the cards we are dealt, I guess. The campaign to cloud climate science in the public mind was pretty good at delaying any policy action on climate change for a long time.  Nowadays, anyone who doesn’t realize that climate change is upon us is either willfully ignorant, or clinging to a political position that has no foothold in reality.
 
Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center in Schroeder is offering its fine Master Naturalist training again this year.
 
The course will run from 9 am to 5 pm every other Saturday for six sessions beginning February 20 and ending May 7, 2016.  Field trips will be incorporated into the scheduled class days. A capstone project is expected from participants, as well as the commitment to volunteer for 40 hours during the year.
 
The real payoff though is the deep knowledge that students of all ages gain about the world around them.  While you can easily spend a lifetime studying the natural world, the Master Naturalist course is a great way to increase your appreciation for the complex web of life that surrounds us here in the West End.
 
There is a cost associated with the course, although scholarships are available. Registration is through the Minnesota Master Naturalist web page, that’s minnesotamasternaturalist.org.  Or, call WTIP to get the contact information.
 
There is an interesting twist to the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon this year.  A song-cycle titled “Crazy Cold Beautiful” will have its world premiere at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Grand Marais at 7 pm on Friday, February 5. 
 
The song-cycle was composed by Robin Eschner and will be performed by the Borealis Chorale and Orchestra, the Stonebridge Singers Drum and the Sawtooth Elementary Choir, under the direction of Bill Beckstrand.  The composer’s own musical group, “Take Jack” will also join in the fun. 
 
This will not only will be an amazing show, but it is open to all with only a freewill offering requested in return.
 
The same basic show goes on the road to Duluth the next day, appearing at the Sacred Heart Music Center at 4 pm.
 
If jazz is more to your liking than chorale music, I recommend catching my friend Willie Waldman on that same day, Friday, February 5.  Willie is a well-known fusion jazz trumpeter who travels the nation playing with a changing kaleidoscope of inventive and skilled musicians.  The music is completely improvised, so each performance is a composing session, jam session and – for sure in Willie’s case – a virtuoso performance.
 
Willie discovered Cook County when he arrived each summer for a canoe trip in the BWCA Wilderness.  He and some of his regular band-mates are working their way through virtually every canoe route in the wilderness by taking a different 50-mile route each summer for the last 13 years and counting.
 
Willie will be at the Voyageur Brewery in Grand Marais from 4 until 7 pm, so you could catch that show before heading up to the church for Cold Crazy Beautiful.  Willie reconvenes a larger group, including some members of the Big Wu, that same night at 9:30 at Papa Charlie’s in Lutsen. 
 
Full disclosure, Willie has invited me to sit in with him while he’s in the county, but don’t let that discourage you from coming.  Willie’s prodigious musical skills and generous personality make all his shows a delightful experience.
 
 
(Photo courtesy of Willie Waldman)

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West End News: January 21

Skip Lamb, from Schroeder, called last week to gleefully report that he has counted 20 babies born, or about to be born, in the West End.  And, although Skip keeps careful track, there may be a few he doesn’t know about.
 
Skip keeps a running baby count not just because he is interested in everything that goes on in the West End, but also because he is a long time member of the Birch Grove Community School Board.  Like all small rural school systems, Birch Grove has struggled with declining enrollment over the last couple of decades.  It is starting to look like that trend is finally reversing, at least here in the West End.
 
Both the Birch Grove Community School and the Birch Grove Community Center have been thriving in recent years.  Programming and facilities for people of all ages are up to date and running like a well-oiled machine.  For instance, the skating rink is in prime shape right now, so dig out those skates and check it out.
 
Skip is also involved in the ongoing community conversation about the fate of the Taconite Harbor Energy Center, which is due to be moth-balled in October.  The power plant’s owner, Minnesota Power, has indicated that they will keep the plant in operable condition for at least several years after they shut it down. 
 
It seems like the world is moving on from polluting and inefficient coal-fired power plants, so it’s wise to start thinking about what to do with that prime piece of Lake Superior property over the long haul.  The fact that it includes a large protected harbor and a connection to the railroad, makes many people think that it should be repurposed for an industrial use. Wood pellet production, some type of clean energy production and food production have all been mentioned.
 
It is also one of the most beautiful sections of the North Shore, so it’s possible that the industrial buildings could be removed, the land restored and a tourism destination constructed.  The railroad line up to the Iron Range, which is one of the most beautiful stretches in the country, could be used as a scenic and historic attraction.
 
I’m sure there are many other ideas out there.  But at the end of the day, it is really up to Minnesota Power. They are a good corporate citizen and are involved with the local community, but like all corporations, they are obligated to maximize their profits for shareholders.
 
Filings have closed for the upcoming township elections in Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen.  It looks like the only contested election will be in Tofte, where incumbent Supervisor Jim King will face off with new candidate Sarah Somnis.  Jim moved to Tofte when he retired many years ago and has been very active in the community.  Sarah is a Tofte native with four generations of her family currently living in the West End.  She has also been an active community volunteer.  The beauty of democracy is that you can’t go wrong with two great candidates.
 
In Lutsen, according to reliable sources, Supervisor Tim Goettl did not file for re-election.  Long time Lutsen resident Rae Piepho is running for the vacant seat.
 
In Schroeder, the incumbent supervisor and clerk, Tina McKeever and Doug Schwecke, filed to continue in their positions without opposition.
 
Mark your calendars for Tuesday, March 8, which is not only the date of the township elections, but also the date of the annual township meetings.  Many people do not realize that citizens can fully participate and make real decisions at the annual meetings.  It’s the most direct form of democracy and has real consequences on all our lives, so I highly recommend attending.  Even if you don’t have an issue to advance, it gives you a good insight into the workings of your township’s public activity.
 
We had the first winter campers of the season at Sawbill this week.  Normally, by this time we’ve seen dozens of cars in the parking lot.  Two factors are at play this year.  The first is that the weather made for unsafe ice conditions followed by terrible slush.  The recent cold temperatures seem to have set up good ice conditions.  The second is that Charles Lamb of Schroeder is too busy being a dad to two teenagers and coaching the downhill ski team to go ice fishing even once.
 
Charles’ predicament is just one example of having too many choices for fun here in the wonderful West End.

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota Power)
 
 

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Lutsen’s Hazel Oberholtzer feeds a sled dog while visiting Amy and Dave Freeman on Wood Lake in the BWCAW

West End News: January 14

 When Hazel Oberholtzer from Lutsen, who is in 7th grade, woke up in a tent in the BWCA Wilderness last weekend, when it was more than 20 degrees below zero, the last thing she expected was to be too warm. Hazel found herself in this unlikely position while visiting Dave and Amy Freeman on Wood Lake near Ely. Hazel traveled into Wood Lake with her brother, Cy, who is 10, her dad, John Oberholtzer, and a friend, Andy Keith, from Grand Marais.
 
Dave and Amy Freeman are spending a full year in the BWCA Wilderness without coming out even once, to call attention to proposed sulfide mining that threatens to pollute the water in the wilderness.  They’ve been in the wilderness since late September, traveling first by canoe and now with the help of three sled dogs, Tank, Tina and Acorn.
 
The Oberholtzer party pulled four toboggans into Wood Lake via the 180-rod portage along the Fernberg Road northeast of Ely.  The portage is mostly downhill so Hazel and Cy took the opportunity to ride their toboggans down the slopes.  They not only had their own tent, woodstove and camping gear, but also brought in some people food, dog food and equipment for Dave and Amy.
 
The dog team, accompanied by Dave and Amy, met them at the wilderness boundary.  Dave suggested that all four toboggans be hooked into a train to be pulled by the dogs.  It was an open question whether the dogs could pull such a large load, but they took off so fast that Dave and Amy had to sprint and dive to catch the train before it left the station unaccompanied.
 
As the group traveled to the campsite it was 28 degrees.  By the second night of the trip it had dropped to -24 degrees.  With the help of the dogs, a good supply of down and dead ash firewood had been gathered, bucked and split, for feeding the wood stoves in the tents.  Everyone had a winter weight sleeping bag, but John, being a careful father, made sure the stove was stoked every two hours. That, along with a hot water bottle in her sleeping bag, was the cause of Hazel’s overheating.
 
Aside from the risk of heat stroke, the group had great fun skijoring, exploring, visiting and playing with the dogs. They particularly enjoyed absorbing the Freemans’ manner and mindset after they’ve spent more than one hundred straight days in the wilderness.
 
The Oberholtzers’ adventure is the perfect example of why the BWCA Wilderness is a national treasure and deserves to be fully protected.  The adventure, fun, peace and comradeship experienced by the Hazel and Cy will enrich the rest of their lives.  In fact, it was the wilderness that first brought their parents to northeastern Minnesota to establish their careers and raise their family. It creates an economy and community that are sustainable and enriching.
 
If you want to know more about the immediate and very real threats to the wilderness, the organization that is sponsoring the Freemans, “Save The Boundary Waters,” is hosting a community conversation in Grand Marais on Thursday, January 28 from 5:30 until 7 pm at the Community Center Social Room. You can find more details online at: savetheboundarywaters.org.
 
Speaking of the wilderness, it is slowly dawning on everyone with a connection to the wilderness that a quiet disaster has occurred.  The phenomenon is being called the “snow-down” or the “bend-down” as opposed to the “blow-down” that occurred in 1999.  A couple of heavy, wet snows, followed by cold weather, have bent or broken untold numbers of trees into portages and campsites in large swaths of the wilderness.  As trail maintenance workers have slaved to clear the snowmobile and ski trails outside the wilderness, it has become apparent that the clearing effort required to open the wilderness for the 2016 canoeing season is going to be massive.
 
The Forest Service has scheduled one of their Beaver aircraft to fly over the wilderness soon in an attempt to map the scope of the problem.  It is already clear that the work required exceeds the ability of the existing wilderness crews to do the job in a timely manner.  Either outside crews will need to be brought in or a huge volunteer effort will have to be organized – or both.
 
There is never a dull moment, here in the wild and wooly West End.

(Photo courtesy of Dave and Amy Freeman)
 
 

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West End News: January 7

Congratulations to local photographer Paul Sundberg, who was featured in the Duluth News Tribune and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press last week.  Paul lives in Grand Marais, but is a frequent visitor to the West End when he’s out and about with his camera.  Paul has been a professional nature photographer for many years, but has really concentrated on his passion since retiring as the long-time manager at Gooseberry Falls State Park.
 
Paul’s website, <paulsundbergphotography.com> has a popular “Photo of the Week” that was viewed more than 3 million times last year.  He also teaches nature photography at North House Folk School and to 4th graders at William Kelley Elementary School in Silver Bay.
 
Paul is often joined in his photography outings by David Brislance of Lutsen, another talented wildlife photographer and teacher.  Tom Spence, of Tofte, yet another prolific local nature photographer, is also frequently seen on the back roads in the West End.  I’m sure Dave and Tom will get their own turns at being featured by the statewide press, as all three men are talented and dedicated to their craft. 
 
It’s a pleasure to have them – and many other home-grown photographers – documenting the beautiful West End.
 
The West End that attracts wildlife photographers is changing fast due to the accumulating effects of climate change.  It was encouraging to hear that most of the world’s leaders acknowledged the need for action at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Of course, meaningful action on climate change should have started 25 years ago when the science became clear that human activity was changing the world’s climate in ways that had the potential to be very damaging to society.
 
As if it isn’t bad enough that action is coming too late to prevent really serious consequences, it’s even more disturbing that the majority of the current crop of presidential candidates are still denying that climate change is real and are condemning efforts to address the problem. 
 
In my opinion, we should all be outraged by this display of reckless and willful indifference to our children and grandchildren’s future.  Not only should the outrage be directed at the candidates, but also at the root of the problem, which is the uncontrolled and non-transparent flow of special interest money into campaign coffers.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the fossil fuel industry directly and indirectly spent half a billion dollars on candidates in the last election cycle.  It is widely estimated that more than double that will be spent in the upcoming election, focused narrowly on preventing meaningful action on climate change in the United States.
 
Bad as that is, it isn’t just climate change policy that is being blatantly bought off.  In virtually every critical issue facing the country today, special interest money is being is being fire-hosed into nearly every federal and state election, creating a situation where very small number of our most wealthy citizens has a virtual lock on public policy.  I’d like to blame all this on one party, but the reality is that both major parties are complicit, because that’s the way the game is now played, like it or not.
 
As the presidential primary season hits its stride next week in Iowa, the openly transactional nature of elections and politics will be obvious.  Most people agree that the founders of our democracy were very concerned that national political power should never be concentrated in the hands of just a few people.  It’s safe to say that if they were around today, they would be worried. 
 
Fortunately, they gave us the principal of one person, one vote, so I urge you to find out where every candidate stands on meaningful campaign finance reform before you cast your ballot this year.  The future of our children and grandchildren may depend on it.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 
 
 

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John Nelson

West End News: December 31

The end of the year is a significant point in time for the West End. There is the usual mixture of hope, tinged with sadness that everyone feels at the turn of the calendar.  It’s also when the hardest cold stretches of the winter season are just settling in for a good long stay.  But, the days are getting longer and it is, of course, peak season for visitors.
 
This year though, it’s hard to think about anything but the passing of John Nelson of Tofte.  I can’t even begin to list all the things that John did for the community of Tofte. I can say that over many years, John did more for Tofte than any living human being. His hand was in nearly every community and township enterprise.
 
John was instrumental in the re-formation of Tofte as a township in the late 1970s.  The last time I saw him, he was working on the front door of the Birch Grove Center, quietly and effectively making a key repair, as he had done so many times.  In between those two accomplishments he served as a supervisor, helped found the fire department, ran the cemetery, improved the Tofte town park, and worked on the Tofte 4th of July celebration – for just a brief sampling of everything that he accomplished. He was Tofte’s Citizen of the Year in 2009.
 
Mostly John was a leader.  He was the best kind of leader.  One who leads by example and inspires others to get involved.  John sometimes wanted people to think that he was a bit of a tough guy, but in reality, you couldn’t find a more sincere, sweet and perceptive human being.
 
Tofte will no doubt muddle through without him, but his legacy of civic generosity will be with us for a long time. 
 
Last week, I mentioned how tough the first pass through the area trails has been due to a high number of trees and brush bent over by heavy snow loads.  Well, it’s turned out to be worse than anyone thought and the amount of labor required to get the trails cleared has been huge.  Most trails are now cleared and trail riding and skiing should be excellent soon.
 
We were delighted to have Paul, Tom and Bill Jensen, brothers who grew up in Silver Bay, camping at Sawbill for a few days this week.  By my best reckoning, the Jensens have been regular Sawbill campers for close to 55 years.  Some West End old-timers might know the brothers better by their nicknames, bestowed upon them in Silver Bay so many years ago. Paul is “Friend,” Tom is “Hawk,” and Bill is “Grub.”  Friend and Hawk live elsewhere in Minnesota, but Grub still lives in Silver Bay.  Friend and Hawk are retired and Grub will be soon.
 
Their winter camping trip to Sawbill was mostly for companionship, but they did make a stab at ice fishing. They said the ice on Sawbill Lake was about 4” thick, with a layer of slush and then another couple of inches of frozen slush in most places.  All in all, still terrible conditions for lake travel.
 
 
While Hawk stopped by the office to say goodbye, a young woman climbed out of a car, clambered over the snow bank and waded through the knee-deep snow to the front of the store.  She turned out to be a Bluefin visitor who, with her husband, skis a 3-lake loop in the wilderness every year, right after Christmas, for the last six years.  It’s a cool tradition for them, as they rarely see another human being during their outing.
 
The young woman had a problem with her skis, which we were able to help with.  While she was waiting, she asked Hawk if he grew up around here.  Without hesitation Hawk replied, “Nooo… because I haven’t grown up.” 
 
This year, the slush turned the couple back pretty quickly, but they substituted a good ski on the Sawbill ski trails and left vowing to return next year.  They headed off down the trail for lunch at the Trestle Inn, so it was fun to see that they were getting a truly authentic West End experience.
 
(Photo courtesy of Cook County News Herald)

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West End News: December 24

At this time of year, it’s hard to think about anything but the holiday season, especially when the woods are a winter wonderland like they are right now. If you get just a few miles away from the big lake, every tree and bush is loaded with snow. The back roads feel like tunnels as the trees bend down to winter’s soft hand.
 
While the snowy trees do wonders for the holiday spirit, they are definitely bad news for the area snowmobile and cross-country ski trails. Trail maintenance crews are reporting incredible numbers of fallen and leaning trees across the trails. Trail clearing is a tough job at any time, but it’s made much more difficult when you have to wade deep snow to cut windfalls that are loaded with hundreds of pounds of snow and usually frozen to the ground. Despite the hard labor, the job will get done and the trails should be open very soon.
 
Right now, the only open ski trail in the West End is the unplowed portion of the Onion River Road, which is groomed for classic and skate skiing. I see that people are riding snowmobiles on the state trail, but I think they might be jumping the gun a little bit.
 
The lakes are odd this year, so I can’t recommend recreating on the ice yet, unless you are fully prepared for self-rescue and survival if you fall through. Most of the ice is fine, but there were open spots on the larger lakes very recently, so it’s unpredictable. In any case, the slush is terrible right now, so that’s reason enough to stay off the ice.
 
Stoney Creek Dog Sled Rides has opened for the season. I can’t think of anything more fun right now than taking a dogsled ride through the snow-laden trees. If you have company from anywhere south of Minnesota, they will get a huge kick out of it.  You can call for reservations at 218-663-0143. You can get more information by googling Visit Cook County or contact WTIP.
 
Of course, a great part of the holiday season is the time you spend with friends and especially family. I was recently reminded how much fun it is to question the oldest members of our families about their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.  Most of us know next to nothing about our great-grandparents, but our parents remember them well.  It’s fun to hear not just who are ancestors are but what they were like as people. It also beats talking about the presidential election, which just gets everyone riled up!
 
If you go back just twelve generations, you will find that you are the direct descendant of 4096 people.  It’s incredible to think that each of us carries around the genetic material from that many people – and in fact - millions more.  You don’t have to think like this for too long before you realize that you are literally a cousin to every other person on earth. It’s just a matter of how far back you have to go to find the common ancestor.
 
And, that’s the ideal way to think about humanity at this time of year, when our thoughts are turning to Peace on Earth.
 

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Railings on the new Six Hundred Road Bridge in Tofte

West End News: December 17

I’d like to extend heartfelt thanks on behalf of a grateful community to Amity Goettl, who recently resigned from her position as the Lutsen Township Clerk.  The clerk is the hardest position in township government, requiring many, many hours of tedious and complex work.  I don’t know how long Amity was the clerk, but it was for a long time, and she did a good job.  Thanks also to Sharon Hexum-Platzer, for agreeing to step into the Clerk position, at least until the next election.
 
The three township boards of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder that make up the West End do a ton of good for our communities.  Take a minute to say thanks to your township officials the next time you see them at the post office or in the grocery store.  Also thank them for the growing spirit of cooperation between the three townships of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder.  My parents always taught us that you actually get more through cooperation than you do from competition.  That has certainly proved to be true here in the West End.
 
The new Six Hundred Road bridge across the Temperance River near the Sawbill Trail in Tofte appears to be completely done.  The crew from Edwin E. Thoreson did their usual professional job.  The iconic old steel bridge, which was famous for being pink, was taken down and cut up with torches.  The new bridge used the existing cement piers in the river and is made almost entirely with wood.  It is just one lane, like the old pink bridge was, and fits well in its truly scenic location.  The only part of the design that makes me nervous is the very low railing that runs along each side.  They only come up to about knee height, which makes me wonder about being a tripping hazard.  Even more alarming is the very real possibility that a heavy snow year will raise the snowmobile trail level even with, or maybe even above, the height of the railings.  It’s a long drop from the bridge to the river, which may not be obvious to riders at night.  However, I know that civil engineers know their business, so I assume they know that it will be OK.
 
For all the years that I’ve lived here, I’ve never been able to determine how the Six Hundred Road got its name.  Heartbreak Hill, which is on the Six Hundred Road, is well known to have been named by teamsters who struggled to get heavy loads up and down the long, steep hill during the horse logging era.  If any history buff knows which 600 things the road was named for - please let me know.
 
It’s fun to live in a community that has so many vivid place names.  From the Scandinavian to the descriptive, most of the local names have a story to tell. Of course, for the various roads that are tagged as trails, it comes from their history of being literal trails in the past.  The township names are mostly Nordic, except for Grand Portage and Grand Marais, which speak to a French connection.  Grand Marais is widely believed to mean “Big Swamp,” but some historians suggest that it actually had a meaning of “Big Harbor” in the older French dialect. 
 
Don’t even get me started on lake names, which are as colorful as we could ask for.  I remember years ago, when Garrison Keillor had a weekday morning show on Minnesota Public Radio, he would read BWCA Wilderness Lake names just to revel in their sounds.
 
The new high-speed gondola is finished at Lutsen Mountains Ski Area and is being dedicated this week. Many dignitaries will be attending the ceremony, but the arrival of colder temperatures and snow are even more welcome.
 
I had a chance to visit the new pumping station in Lutsen that will soon be supplying water for the Poplar River Water District, including the snowmaking at Lutsen Mountains.  The three massive pumps are each 36 feet tall and can pump an incredible 3000 gallons per minute.  It’s been a tough fight to install the pumping station while dealing with the troublesome soils and the fury of Lake Superior, but it looks now like the battle is nearly won.
 

 

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West End News: December 10

Congratulations to Rob Ecklund from International Falls who will be sworn in soon as our new state representative. State House District 3A is one of the largest legislative districts in the United States, extending from Grand Portage down to the outskirts of Duluth and back up to the western edge of Koochiching County, which is closer to North Dakota than it is to Grand Marais. Any representative from 3A would be challenged to have a presence everywhere in the District, but I'm confident Rob will make the effort and be a frequent visitor to the West End, which ironically, is in the far eastern end of his district.

I join the rest of the community in expressing shock and deep sadness on the tragic fatal shooting in Tofte. Violence can and does happen anywhere, but of course we all hope and pray that is won't happen in our little town. The last shooting that I can remember in the West End was in 1973 when Minnesota Highway Patrolman Don Ziesmer was shot to death during a routine traffic stop on Highway 61 in Tofte.

I am recording this in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. where fatal shootings are nearly a daily occurrence and the threat of a terrorist attack is a constant worry. Since my last visit to Washington in the mid-1990s, security has, of course, increased dramatically. I can't say if this is unusual, but everyday that I've been here the police have been racing around, shutting down city blocks and diverting traffic. Even the genial cop who used to direct traffic in front of one of the congressional office buildings has been replaced by a tense, alert and business-like officer in a flak jacket toting an automatic rifle. Traffic is, needless to say, very obedient when he blows his whistle.

The tight security just adds another level of bewildering urban culture shock for a woods bunny like me. Even in this era of smart phones, I have to check the location of the sun periodically to orient myself to the points of the compass or I will quickly get lost. One of my lobbying partners, who also lives in the woods, stopped to intently watch some small birds in a large hedge. A few moments later a policeman appeared at his elbow, drawn by his abnormal behavior.

I'm out here in our nation's capital lobbying Congress and government agencies on behalf of sustainable and sensible economic development in northeastern Minnesota. It's encouraging to be able to meet directly with members of Congress and the administration. Frankly though, it's a little discouraging to feel like such a tiny cog in an unimaginably humongous machine. Every little effort plays a part though, so it's important to keep trying. I will say while it's very fun to visit Washington, D.C., it's always great relief to arrive back in the West End.

Coincidentally, Congress actually passed a couple of pieces of bipartisan legislation while I've been here, which has members of Congress positively giddy with joy. Apparently, that almost never happens here.

The Cook County Local Energy Project has published a booklet called "Going Solar: A Cook County Guide." You can get more information by emailing localenergy@boreal.org. Solar panels that produce hot water or electricity are now low enough in price that it pays for anyone to install them on their home, assuming they have access to sunshine. At this time of year, it feels like sunshine is in short supply, but in the long run, Cook County is an excellent place for solar systems.

Cook County Higher Education's semi-regular networking luncheon will feature the business case for social responsibility. Social responsibility for business is often defined as the triple bottom line: profits, customer and employee satisfaction, and care for the environment. Erick Block is an expert on this philosophy and will spell out why it benefits the business overall well beyond just making money. The luncheon is at the Higher Ed's North Shore Campus in Grand Marais on Thursday, December 17, from 11:30 until 1 pm. There is a modest charge and you should RSVP at 387-3411 or email highered@northshorecampus.org. As always, you can call WTIP if you missed that contact information.

Well, it's time to wrap this up and head back out into the urban jungle. As I dodge traffic and gawk at the national landmarks today, part of my mind will be, as always, in the beautiful West End.

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West End News: December 3

It’s good to be back in the West End after a two-week trip to Hawaii.  I won’t deny that Hawaii was beautiful and warm.  But, as the saying goes, “there’s no place like home.”
 
It was interesting to observe the similarities and differences between Hawaii and our own Cook County’s tourism economies. They are similar in that they are both are destinations that rely on spectacular natural and cultural features to attract visitors.  They and we rely on an infrastructure of hotels, condos, timeshares and more recently, private vacation rentals like Airbnb and Vacation Rental By Owner. Hawaii and Cook County share the problems of limited private land and a high cost of living, leading to a severe shortage of housing and disposable income for working people.
 
The differences are that Hawaii’s overall tourism industry is huge and well established, compared to ours.  They draw heavily from Asia for their visitors, although Minnesota is well known to most Hawaiians, thanks to all of us who visit there.  From my perspective, Hawaii seems to have more organized activities for tourists, like boat rides, tours, museums, events and what has to be the largest density of helicopter tours in the world.
 
The beauty of travel is how it changes your perspective.  I came home looking at the West End with new eyes and a greater appreciation for the balance we have between our human economy and the natural world.
 
There is, of course, the matter of the Hawaiian weather, but I won’t dwell on that at this time of year.
 
The special election to fill the legislative seat of the late David Dill is coming up this week.  I was honored to have been a candidate in the DFL primary election, but sad to have come up a little short in that contest.  The four-way DFL primary generated considerable interest and news coverage, but the general election has been very quiet.
 
The received wisdom is that Rob Ecklund, a county commissioner from Koochiching County who won the DFL primary, will easily win the general election over the Republican and independent candidates on the ballot.  Rob has the strong backing of organized labor, as well as the support of the powerful Iron Range legislative delegation and the endorsement of the DFL Party.  In a special election with a very low turnout, those advantages are nearly insurmountable.
 
I know and like all three candidates, but I am particularly fond of Rob Ecklund. Spending time with him at campaign events was a pleasure.  He is always a gentleman and has a very sincere and open personality.  He’s deeply involved in his community and has a genuine concern for regular people.  Even though we didn’t agree on everything, Rob showed a willingness to study, learn and make his policy decisions accordingly.  In this day and age of politicians who won’t change their minds no matter what, Rob’s genuine thoughtfulness is a refreshing quality.
 
This commentary isn’t intended for political endorsements, but I do urge everyone to vote in the special election on December 8 for the candidate of their choice.  For West End voters, please fill out and send back the ballot you have received in the mail.  If you didn’t receive a ballot, contact the Cook County Auditor in Grand Marais to arrange for one. 
 
By the way, because this is a special election, the same seat will be up for election again in 2016.  The primary, if needed, will be in August and the general election will be this coming November, along with every legislative seat in Minnesota, our own congressional seat and the presidency. 
 
It’s easy to make fun of political races, but the results have real consequences.  Voting is the most important right in our democratic process, so please join me in exercising it.
 
I’m sorry to report that it looks like there will be no ice-skating on area lakes this year.  I never give up hope though.  One year, back in the 1980s, the lakes froze with rough ice and a quick foot of snow that created terrible slush conditions.  A couple of weeks later, we had an extended stretch of unusually warm weather and a day of pouring rain.  The temperature promptly plunged to back below zero and the lakes transformed into a perfect skating rinks on six inches of solid ice.  John Oberholtzer, of Lutsen, refers to this phenomenon as “nature’s Zamboni.”
 
Barring an appearance of the elusive Zamboni, skis will have to substitute for skates this year.  I don’t feel like the lakes are totally safe for travel yet, so please use good judgment by going with friends and carrying extra dry clothes and self-rescue equipment.
 
Or, break out the downhill skis or snowboards for some fun at Lutsen Mountains, which is now open on weekends.  The spectacular, brand new gondola lift will be open to the public next weekend.  That alone warrants a trip to the hill.
 
 

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Edmund Fitzgerald

West End News: November 5

I’m delighted to announce the return of my daughter and her husband, Clare and Dan Shirley, to Sawbill this week.  Clare and Dan have been living in Missoula, Montana for the last six years.  They will be buying and managing Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, allowing Cindy and I to shed the responsibilities of ownership and revert to being simple employees.
 
Clare was born and raised in the West End, while Dan spent his formative years in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  They met in college at the University of Montana.  They’re looking forward to taking the helm at the business, as well as getting involved in community life.
 
Cindy and I are looking forward to discovering what goes on in the world outside of Sawbill in the summertime!  We’re thrilled, of course, that Clare and Dan have chosen to join the West End Community.
 
Clare and Dan are the family’s third generation to own Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, taking over in the 60th year since their grandparents, Frank and Mary Alice Hansen, started the business in 1957.
 
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since the infamous sinking of the Emund Fitzgerald.  Back in 1975, I was a young television photographer at Channel 6 in Duluth.  I flew out to Sault Saint Marie in a small plane, in the pre-dawn darkness, just a few hours after the Fitzgerald was reported missing.  At first light, I shot footage of a lifeboat, chunks of wreckage and a small oil slick boiling to the lake surface.  It was the first definitive confirmation that the Fitz had actually sunk.  We landed in the Sault and interviewed coast guard and company officials in a very sad and somber Coast Guard command center.  Then and now, my head and heart keep circling back to those 29 sailors who lost their lives and the many loved ones that they left behind. 
 
Slit Rock Lighthouse will be holding their annual commemoration of the disaster on Tuesday, November 10th.  At 4:30 pm, the names of the 29 will be read out, accompanied by the tolling of a ship’s bell.  At the end of this powerful ceremony, the lighthouse beacon will be lit and the lighthouse opened for touring.  This is the only day of the year when the public is allowed to climb the tower and see the beacon lit and revolving.
 
The Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland is sponsoring a Community Dinner on Thanksgiving Day, November 26th, from 2 until 5 pm.  The Friends of Finland will provide turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy.  Diners can bring side dishes and desserts, if they would like to share.  All are invited to arrive early to help with the cooking and set-up.  If you plan to attend, give a call at 218-353-0300 so the food quantities can be planned.
 
The FISH Project, which is public health study on fish consumption by women in their childbearing years, has reached its goal of engaging 500 women.  Well, they actually enrolled 499 women, but close enough.  Two of the study’s sponsors, Sawtooth Mountain Clinic and the Grand Portage Health Service, are holding two follow up events to celebrate the success of the community-wide effort. The first is at North House Folk School on Tuesday, November 17th and the second at the Grand Portage log community building on Wednesday, November 18th.  Both events run from 5:30 until 7:30, with the presentation starting at around 6:15.  The events will include time for chatting and delicious food, including smoked fish.  You can call either clinic for more details.
 
It was interesting to hear about the economic impact of the arts in Cook County at the recent annual gala sponsored by Visit Cook County and the Chamber of Commerce.  It is the kind of data that falls into the category of what I call, “Well duh!”  But that said, it is important to see the actual hard numbers, so we resist the temptation to take what we have for granted.  Of course, the greatest values of artistic expression in a community are the intangible qualities of joy, curiosity, satisfaction and intellectual stimulation that art provides.  Art is a powerful force for good on many levels. 
 
It is just one of the reasons that we all choose to live here in the wonderful West End.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 

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