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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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Cascade River

West End News: March 3

Birch Grove Community Center was hopping on Tuesday night when 88 people showed up for the Democratic Farmer Labor Party caucus night. In Cook County as a whole, 462 Democrats participated in their party caucus. I’ve attended the caucuses pretty reliably for my whole adult life and I’m pretty  sure that this year set the all time participation record. It even beat 2008, when Senator Barack Obama was causing a lot of interest in the presidential race.
 
I couldn’t find specific numbers for the four Republican precincts in the West End, but county wide, 109 Republicans participated in their caucuses. Best guess is somewhere between 30 and 40 West Enders caucused with the Republicans, which is also a very good turnout.
 
One of the most interesting outcomes on the Democratic side was a resolution opposing the sulfide mining in Minnesota that passed easily in the precincts from the North Shore all the way through the greater Ely area. New polls are showing growing resistance to this new form of mining across the northland and around the state. The resolutions were careful to distinguish the difference between mining sulfide ores and the existing taconite mining, which is supported by the DFL Party.
 
The Birch Grove Community Center sure is looking busy and successful these days. It was great to see it bursting with happy and engaged community members, cheerfully engaged in making their community and country a better place for all.
 
As always, it was fun to see the students’ artwork on the walls. One especially eye-catching display featured the students work in a slide show displayed on computer tablets mounted on a hallway bulletin board.
 
Birch Grove Community School Board member, Sara Somnis called to tell me about ten computer tablets that were recently purchased for students to use. This is part of a major trend in education as sophisticated learning apps are becoming cheap and commonplace. This trend works especially well for small, but highly motivated rural schools like Birch Grove. Sara also reported that new laptops were purchased for each teacher, making their work easier and more efficient.
 
Birch Grove is selling its old desktop computers and accessories to community members. So far the sale has raised more than $600, which will be used to buy more tablets. Much equipment remains to be sold, so if you’re looking for an old, but serviceable desktop computer, or other computer furniture and equipment, call Caroline at Birch Grove to schedule a shopping trip.
 
In a not-unrelated item, remember that the annual meetings for the Townships of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder are on Tuesday, March 8. Voting stations at the town halls are open from 5 until 8 pm with the annual business meeting starting right away at 8. 
 
Township annual meetings are the essence of the old saying that “the world is run by those who show up.” The annual budget and the priorities for the coming year are literally proposed and voted up or down by the residents who attend the meeting.  It’s also a great way to meet your neighbors and eat a few cookies together.
 
I urge everyone to attend their township annual meeting and I especially urge all to vote in favor of significant township investment from all three towns in the Birch Grove Community School and the Birch Grove Community Center. In my opinion, it is money very well spent and provides tremendous benefit to the entire West End.
 
Word is out the Cascade River is in great shape for skiing. You can hike up past the falls from the highway to ski up the river, or you can get dropped off at the Pike Lake Road Bridge and ski down to the highway. My sources said the trail is solid, smooth and well broken for both ski and snowshoe travel.
 
The Temperance River is also looking good. When we get into the warm/cold-night cycle next week, it is likely to develop a good crust, which will make it an ideal track for skate skiers. Of course, any time you travel on a river you should travel in a group, stay alert for hazards and carry rescue ropes and dry clothing.
 
My motto is, “When the river skiing is good, drop everything and go!” I doubt that anyone ever lay on their deathbed and regretted too many river skis. It’s just one of the perks to living in the beautiful and ever-changing West End.
 

(Photo courtesy of Cascade Property Rentals)

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Snow fleas

West End News: February 25

I was very excited to see a healthy looking cow moose on the road the other day. It seemed to have a thick winter coat and was not wearing a collar.  Why was I excited? Because I drive the back roads of the West End as much as anybody and I almost never see a moose anymore.
 
When our kids were in school, which was less than 10 years ago, we saw many moose – so many that the kids became blasé – barely willing to be roused from their reverie to take a look at even the most magnificent moose. It was so routine as to be bordering on boring.
 
Everyone knows that the moose are disappearing from Minnesota, but no one really seems to know why. In the last year, I’ve read conflicting expert opinions, including too many wolves, too many ticks, too much hot weather in the summer, not enough cold weather in the winter, climate change in general, over-hunting, habitat loss, viruses, not enough logging, too much logging and most recently, too many deer.
 
With all due respect to wildlife biologists, it really seems that nobody knows. And, none of the expert opinions strike me as being completely objective and non-political, no matter how well intentioned.
 
I certainly don’t claim to know what the problem is, but I’m beginning to suspect that it may be unknowable. It may be the case that the sheer complexity of a functioning ecosystem is beyond the ablility of the human brain to fully understand. In other words, life in the forests of northeastern Minnesota may be connected in so many subtle and intricate ways that it may not be possible to tease out the one, six or a dozen causes for moose population decline. It is at least possible that the there are hundreds, if not thousands of ecological relationships that can alter forest dynamics resulting in the simple fact that the moose can no longer survive here.
 
The moose are not the only species that is in flux during the last decade. All over the world, animal populations are declining or growing in unexpected ways. Even a casual observer here in the West End can tell you that there have been many changes over the last half century – literally dozens of species that used to be common and are now rare, and dozens more that were never seen here and are now common. It could be reasonable to conclude that whatever is causing this general trend may be causing the moose decline.
 
Switching from large wildlife to tiny wildlife, I was delighted to see a large outbreak of snow fleas this week. Snow fleas are tiny black insects that mysteriously appear on snowbanks in the middle of the winter.  They are called snow fleas because, although they are no larger than a speck of dust, they are prodigious jumpers. They appear in flocks, or perhaps swarms might be more accurate, and as you draw near to inspect them they jump so fast and far that they give the illusion of just abruptly disappearing.
 
I should point out that they are not actually fleas and do not bite. Their taxonomic name is Collembola, and while they are in the group that includes insects, they technically are not classified as insects. Their eyes are not proper compound eyes, their abdomen has fewer segments and some special extra appendages that insects don’t have. They are commonly known as springtails, due to a couple of appendages that look like tails that play a large role in their incredible jumping ability.
 
The sources I read are a little vague about why the snow fleas emerge on the surface of deep snow during warm late winter days. I feel like they are more common when the snowpack is deeper. It is a fact that they are cute and interesting, occupying one of the more unique ecological niches in the woods.
 
There is plenty of snow over the hill this year for the snowfleas and everyone else who enjoys snow. I measured 32” on the deck this morning. That is down a little since the rain we had last week.

Slush remains a serious impediment to travel on the lakes, at least in the Sawbill area. The slush has been bad all winter, but finally started to freeze up during the last cold snap. Sadly, just a day or two later the rain brought it back with a vengeance. It has been common this year to see camping parties head out on Sawbill Lake with full camping gear only to see them return a few hours later, get in their cars and leave.
 
Hopefully, the late winter cycle of freeze and thaw will soon create a crust on the lakes and rivers that will make travel a joy and the epic slush of 2016 an unpleasant memory.
 
 

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FAFSA

West End News: February 18

The news that a Dollar General Store is being planned for Cook County has certainly caused a flurry of discussion recently.  As with any public policy issue, there are many interests at play and almost as many opinions as there are people, including good reasons for and against building a Dollar General store in our fair city of Grand Marais.  And, the same arguments would apply to just about any part of Cook County, including the West End.
 
In my opinion, it boils down to how we want to organize our society.  Dollar General is part of a giant corporation that exists for one reason and one reason only – to return profit to their stockholders.  In fact, they are required by law to make every reasonable effort to maximize shareholder profit.  Beyond their legal responsibility, ruthless competition forces outfits like Dollar General to cut their costs to the bone – and sometimes beyond the bone – in order to generate those profits. 
 
It’s easy to imagine mustachioed Dollar General executives in stovepipe hats scuttling around their dank offices plotting the destruction of small town America.  My hunch is that the reality is much more banal, and in some ways even more frightening. 
 
It is much more likely that there is a bland office full of highly educated financial experts who spend their days poring over spreadsheets in order to save a dime here, a nickel there and a penny over yonder.  In the corporate cubicle, the systems they devise for cost cutting and efficiency make perfect sense, especially to the bottom line. 
 
However, in the real world of rural America, their decisions have real impact on real people that cause real damage with distressing predictability.  Wages, work schedules, work rules and benefits are lowered to the point where employees can’t make a living, or worse, are actually hurt by their employment.  Control of the supply chain provides leverage to easily drive independent, locally owned stores out of business, which in turn creates more leverage, which allows the profits to flow more freely out of the community.
 
In my opinion, business has three responsibilities: first to their shareholders, second to their employees and other stakeholders and, last but not least, to the communities where they operate.  The latter two are lost if we organize our society completely on a corporate profit model.
 
Most of the existing businesses in Cook County – even the biggest – are owned by people who live in the community and understand the triple bottom line.  I think that situation is valuable and it’s in our own self-interest to protect it.
 
One last reminder that the precinct caucuses for the Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Parties are being held on Tuesday, March 1st, with sign-in starting at 6:30 pm and the caucus process starting at 7 pm.  The Republican caucuses for Cook County are all being held at the Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais.  The DFL caucuses for all the West End precincts will be held at Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte.
 
The caucuses can be kind of sleepy affairs sometimes, but this year there will be a lot of interest because you can cast a preferential ballot to nominate a presidential candidate to represent your party in the general election this November.
 
There are two things that are important to know about the party caucuses.  The first is that you don’t have be a “registered” member of the party to participate.  You can just show up at the caucus of the party that you think most closely represents your political inclination. The second thing to know is that you don’t have to stay for the evening to indicate your presidential choice.  In fact, you can show up, sign in, fill out your presidential candidate ballot and leave, if you want to.
 
If you, or a loved one, are planning or wishing to attend college anytime soon, Cook County Higher Education has an event coming up that you should not miss.  It is a brown bag lunch that will address financial aid and how you can pay for your college education.  It will focus on how to complete the dreaded FAFSA form. FAFSA is an acronym for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
 
Financial Aid Director LaNita Robinson will walk you through the FAFSA form, including the changes that are new for 2016 and 17.  You can bring a laptop and work on your form with coaching right after the lunch. Or, you can schedule an appointment for some private help later.
 
This is all happening from 11:30 until 1 pm on Friday, March 11th at the North Shore Campus in Grand Marais.  It is a free event and everyone is welcome.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 
 
 

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West End News: February 11

Congratulations to the Cook County High School Alpine Ski team on their highly successful season.  The girl’s team recently won the Section 7 championship, competing against more than 20 other teams, including some perennial powerhouses. 
 
Head Coach Charles Lamb, from Schroeder, has done a terrific job with the team.  He has sacrificed nearly all his fishing time to his coaching duties.  If you knew how much Charles likes to fish, you would really appreciate his commitment to the cause.
 
I’d also like to point out how lucky we are to have the premier ski area in the Midwest right here in the West End.  Not only is Lutsen Mountains a great facility, they have a long history of supporting the high school team.  They also support a strong junior program that is clearly paying off at the high school and college level for kids across Cook and Lake Counties.  Who knows when and where the next Cindy Nelson or Lindsey Vonn will appear.
 
It was fun to see Lutsen’s own Willard Nelson on virtually every regional media outlet as he celebrated the 75th anniversary of his induction into World War II military service. I saw Willard interviewed on Channel 6 while he was attending a reunion of other veterans at the Pickwick in Duluth. 
 
Many people who don’t know Willard may have been surprised to hear him say he is 101 years old. Here in the West End, no one is surprised that Willard is still going strong after an eventful 100 plus years of life. His quick wit and outgoing personality have made him a West End legend. He mentioned in his TV interview that he is the oldest resident on the North Shore. Knowing Willard, I’m sure that it’s an accurate statement.
 
Just a quick second notice that the Bloodmobile will be at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte on Tuesday, March 1, from 2:30 through 6 pm. Call Carla at 663-0179 for an appointment. That is the same day as the Republican and Democratic precinct caucuses, so you can make a life saving donation and then nominate a nation saving presidential candidate in rapid succession. That’s what I call a productive day.
 
The recent Powerball frenzy reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad when the state lottery authorization was on the ballot back in 1989.  Without giving it much thought, I had drifted into thinking that a lottery was harmless fun that would generate significant tax income dedicated to improving Minnesota’s environment. When I offhandedly mentioned my opinion to my dad, he reacted forcefully, giving me a quick five-minute lesson on why lotteries are misguided and immoral.
 
His points were that a lottery is basically a tax on people who can afford it the least. Research shows that Minnesotans spend $82 each on lottery and scratch-off tickets every year. Even more disturbing is a 1999 Duke University study finding that people with an annual income of less than $10,000 average just under $600 annually on lottery games.
 
It’s easy to get caught up in the fantasy of gaining unimaginable wealth through pure luck. The reality is that winning is basically impossible. In 2015, Powerball changed the game to make the winning odds even worse, which drives up jackpots, which in turn drives up ticket sales. You are 246 times more likely to be struck by lightning, but the odds don’t really matter when people imagine themselves as a billionaire. Just to add insult to injury, the majority of people who win large jackpots usually regret it after a few years. It ruins their friendships, family relationships, and often ends in heartbreak and even broken physical and mental health.
 
What about those taxes for the environment and education? That must be a good thing, right? In fact, in the last Powerball cycle, Minnesotans spent 87 million dollars on tickets - 66 million dollars left the state while 21 million was received by the state. In other words, we are burning four dollars for every dollar of tax revenue. 
 
The windfall for the environment and education is a myth. Over time, the lottery revenue just replaces regular tax dollars, so there is no net gain in the budgets for the good causes. The displaced tax revenue is often returned as tax cuts, so at the end of the day, the lottery amounts to the poor subsidizing the rich. Does that sound like smart policy?
 
After hearing all this from my dad back in ’89, I voted no on the constitutional question allowing Minnesota to establish a legal lottery. After the question passed, I resolved to never participate in the lottery. Every time there is a huge jackpot and I have to wait in line at the store as people purchase their tickets, I joke that I expect to win the lottery even though I’ve never bought a ticket. The chances of my winning and the person buying the ticket winning are essentially the same.
 
A fair wage for real work is a much better policy for the country, the state and the beautiful West End.
 
 

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West End News: February 4

Last week I mentioned a university study that is looking at what economic and social changes are coming to the North Shore due to climate change.  The two-year study is ready to report its initial findings at a meeting in Lutsen on Tuesday, March 15th.  You must RSVP to attend.  Contact Karen Katz at katzx096@umn.edu or 651-246-0974.  You can find Karen’s contact information on the WTIP website, or by calling WTIP.
 
I know that many people in Cook County are very concerned about the impact of climate change on our economy and life style, so the study results should be very interesting. 
 
By the way, there is a Cook County Chapter of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.  You can sign up to be a local member by searching for Citizen’s Climate Lobby online.
 
The next West End visit of the Bloodmobile is scheduled for Tuesday, March 1st at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte from 2:30 through 6 pm.  Call Carla at 663-0179 to schedule your appointment to donate blood.  All blood types are needed, but they are particularly interested in type O negative.  If you haven’t donated blood before, it is easy, almost pain-free and a fun social event. 
 
The Finland area 2016 Community Conversation was held on January 9th at the Clair Nelson Community Center with a contra-dance afterward.
 
More than 50 people attended the Conversation and enjoyed a lasagna dinner with ice cream dessert and a lively discussion on topics ranging from food and farming to housing, the economy and the arts. Each table recorded their discussion on paper and shared their findings with the larger group. Afterwards, everyone present marked community priorities with sticky dots.
 
Some of the priorities identified included the Finland Community Mural, which is currently in the works, a coffee/tea cafe, a wild rice processing facility, a community barter book and better onsite camping at the Clair Nelson Center.
 
Many other topics were raised and will continue to be worked on by those that are interested.  You can find the details by searching for “Friends of Finland” online.
 
Now that the Iowa caucuses are in the record book, it’s time to start thinking about our own Minnesota precinct caucuses. Here in Cook County the Republican and Democratic, Farmer, Labor Party precinct caucuses will all be on Tuesday, March 1st, starting at 7 pm. 
 
The Republicans will hold all of their precinct caucuses at the same time at the Log 4H Building at the Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais. 
 
The DFL precinct caucuses will be held in four locations this year.  Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen will be at the Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte, while the Grand Marais area precincts will meet at the Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais.  Hovland and Grand Portage will meet at the Hovland Town Hall and the Gunflint Trail precinct will meet at Trail Center.
 
You can go to the Minnesota Secretary of State website to discover which precinct you live in, if you aren’t sure.  You can also call the always-helpful Cook County Auditor’s office and they can tell you too.
 
Both parties will be conducting straw polls on presidential candidate preference. With lively contests for president in both parties, the caucuses should be a lot of fun.  You can throw your hat in the ring to become a delegate to the county-wide party conventions and on up the line to a state senate district conventions, congressional district conventions, state conventions and even the national conventions.  Participation can be very meaningful, especially in a big election year like this one.
 
You can also present resolutions at your caucus, requesting that your party take a certain position on an issue that is important to you.  The resolutions flow through the process right up to the state and federal level where, if they have enough grassroots support they become the official goals of the party.
 
I started participating in my precinct caucus when I was in high school.  I’ve been a delegate to the state convention many times.  It has given me the honor of meeting many of Minnesota’s most famous and well-loved political figures.  It was my participation that caused Senator Paul Wellstone to ask me to run for the legislature in 2002.  Although I never made it to the legislature, having the Senator’s trust and support is still one of the highlights of my life.
 
It’s truly a case of doing as much, or as little, as you like so the process is very user friendly.  It’s also the basis of our democracy so, you know…, important.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 

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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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