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West End News

Clare Shirley

Contributor(s): 
Clare Shirley

Clare Shirley owns and runs Sawbill Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail in Tofte with her husband Dan. Clare was born in Grand Marais and grew up in Tofte. Clare is a third-generation Outfitter, and third-generation West End News writer. Clare follows in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Bill and Frank Hansen, long time West End News columnists.

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


What's On:
Fishing in the BWCAW

West End News April 7

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The tax helpers will be at Birch Grove just one more Wednesday, April 14, which is just a day before the deadline for turning in your income tax returns. Thanks to all of the volunteers who have helped the folks in the West End with their returns this year. Thanks also to Birch Grove for hosting this program each year.

The official date for submitting your census forms was April 1. I have heard that the census bureau is allowing a grace period until April 15 for mailing in the census forms. After that date the census bureau will start sending out people to make visits to those addresses that have not yet sent in the form by mail.

The census bureau says that it costs less than a dollar to process a form that is mailed in. It costs close to fifty dollars if a census worker has to make a physical visit to get the information. So I encourage folks to mail in the form. If you have misplaced the form, contact the census folks. You can get a duplicate. If you never got a form in the mail by all means contact the census office. This does happen.

By now everyone must know that funding for many government projects depends on census counts, from representation in Congress to road projects. It is in our best interest to get as complete a count as possible. Cook County has been delinquent in returning census forms in previous census counts. Not this time, please.

There is an interesting statistic in the current issue of Range View, the publication of the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission. The statistic is that 90 percent of the businesses in Cook County have four or fewer employees. The number of businesses in our county was not given in the article. What is defined as a business was not given either.

The Minnesota Department of Resources put an embargo on fire permits on Monday, April 5. The US Forest Service adopted the same policy. Until there is significant rain the fire danger needs to be kept in mind all the time. I cannot imagine starting a fire anywhere outdoors as long as these dry conditions persist.

There already has been a wild fire at Isabella which destroyed a residence.

The date of ice out on the inland lakes will be the earliest in recent history. This presents an opportunity for canoeing without bugs, and without crowds. One little glitch is that fishing season is not open, so if you do take advantage of the open lakes, don't be tempted to jump the season.

I remember an incident that happened in our store many years ago. Much the same situation existed, the ice was out a week or so before fishing season started. An out of state customer was purchasing a fishing license. After the license was issued I gave him the book of regulations and mentioned that the season would not be open for another week. He inquired about the number of game wardens in the area. I told him that there was just one. He took a deep breath and then guessed that in the huge BWCAW the odds were very small of ever meeting a game warden.

I agreed with him and then introduced him to Dan Ross, the local warden, who had been standing right next to him the whole time. Dan was not in uniform. He had just come off the lake where he had arrested a beaver poacher. After his conversation with Dan the aspiring fisherman had no doubt that he had met a game warden.

Airdate: April 9, 2010

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Frank reminisces about playing lacrosse

West End News April 1

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A notice that an original member of the seasonal Gust Lake community, Dick Brown, had died brought back many memories.

Cap and Billie Peterson of Tait Lake owned most of the shoreline property on Gust Lake. Cap and Billie had set out to buy lake property and then never sell it so that it would be protected. That admirable goal was trumped by reality. They were caught up in the Depression and needed cash, so very reluctantly they decided to sell some of the Gust Lake property.

They had no money to pay for a proper survey. They laid out the lots by each holding one end of a rope, cut to the desired lot width, drove stakes for a starting point, and then walked toward the lakeshore, stretching the rope tightly between them. A county assessor's nightmare, right? All this was of very little purpose. Everyone else was caught by the Depression as well, so no lots were sold.

Then, right after the end of WWII, they tried again and did sell a couple of lots. One couple purchasing a lot was Dick and Phyllis Brown. The lots fronted on the Grade Road. At that time the Grade had not been improved. It was a horrible road full of oil-pan-destroying rocks, and where there were no rocks there were swamps. Years later Ed Thoreson and his crew improved the road, and the road was relocated somewhat. The Browns’ cabin had been built right on the edge of the road; but the relocation gave them an extra hundred feet or so of property in front of their cabin.

The road in front of the present cabins on Gust Lake is a remnant of the original railroad grade.

Dick was a skilled mechanical engineer. At that time, at the intersection of the Grade and the Sawbill Trail, in about the location of the Sawbill CCC Camp, Dick found a treasure trove of junk. It seemed that when the CCC went out of business a lot of two-man cross-cut saws, axes, Pulaskis and brush hooks were dumped there. Dick found an old electric generator. It was heavy, but he got help and hauled it to his cabin on Gust. He took it apart, repaired what needed repair, and got it running. It was a noisy small diesel engine, so Phyllis discouraged use of it when she was present.

Phyllis was a master crafter. Their small cabin was decorated with her production in many different crafts.

The Browns came to Gust Lake for many years. They would drive over to Sawbill Outfitters to use the phone and to visit with us. We also took messages for them and if it was an emergency we would drive over to Gust Lake at the peril of our vehicle to deliver the message. I don't know how she did it, but Phyllis always had a freshly baked treat on hand when we came. Dick and Phyllis were good friends. We extend our sympathy to Dick's family.

I feel like Rip Van Winkle. The current New Yorker magazine has an article about a famous lacrosse coach. Lacrosse was one of my passions when I was a kid. I lived in Baltimore, the lacrosse hotbed of the whole country at that time. The game was pretty much limited to high schools, colleges and club teams along the East coast.

The magazine article said that more than a half million high school students, boys and girls, now played the game on school and club teams. Not only that, it was played all over the country. My immediate reaction was, "When did this happen?" I inquired and found out that there were good teams right here in Minnesota. In fact the player who is recognized as the best of the best is from Eden Prairie where I was the school psychologist for many years, now many years ago.

I used to tell the athletic faculty about the wonders of the game, but never got any interest at all in the sport. Now they are turning out lacrosse players good enough for Division I teams. Imagine!

I am not aware of varsity teams or leagues or a state tournament. There must be, though. I have seen an occasional game on a sports channel, but don't hear the local in-state sports announcers ever mentioning the game. I am delighted to find out that the game is alive and well, but where was I when all of this was going on?

One time, a year or so ago, our senior Golden Moves exercise class met in one of the gyms at the high school. There was a barrel full of lacrosse sticks there. I picked one out of the barrel just for fun and then wondered why on earth lacrosse sticks were at the school. Lacrosse sticks belonged on the East coast. Little did I know!

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Sled dogs

WEST END NEWS MARCH 27

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Joan Koski, the longtime campground host at Crescent Lake campground, has retired. Joan's tenure at Crescent Lake as a camper with her family and then as campground host stretches over more than 30 years. The remarkable thing is that this is more than 30 consecutive years, no breaks.

Every campground has its own character with a unique clientele. Crescent is used a lot by local folks who have developed groups of friends who camp together. The major attraction is fishing in the summer and deer and bear hunting in season. Joan has been a friend to what is now a couple of generations of campers.

She has worked with many game wardens, deputy sheriffs, forest service law enforcement, and forest service campground people. She was the eyes and ears on site for all folks who had any official business with the campground.

During her time she had many unique wildlife experiences. She was the person who rescued an exhausted eagle found on the shore of the lake. She put the eagle in the box of her pickup and started for Sawbill Outfitters to get help with it. The eagle was flopping around, so Joan stopped and put the eagle in the cab with her. This was a mature eagle. Fortunately it remained quiet and Joan got to help OK.

The eagle was taken to the rehab center at the U in the Cities. Eventually it was brought back to the spot where it had been found, for release. Joan got to hold the eagle in her arms at the moment of release and throw it into the air, restoring it to freedom. This was a very emotional moment for Joan. The eagle did not soar off into the sky, but instead flew into a small tree close by and sat there looking at the assembled crowd.

Several times Joan saw a cougar standing in the river near the campground. On one occasion she saw two cougars, standing together in the river, and one of the cats had a rabbit in its mouth.

Bill Hansen told a well-known nature photographer about this sighting. The photographer said that if he had taken a photo of the cougars with the rabbit he would have had the most salable photo of his career.

Joan will be missed by all of the regular campers at Crescent Lake. Now a search is on for her successor. Her equal will be hard to find.

There was a really unique wedding on Iron Lake near Ely last Sunday. The bride is Amy Voytilla and the groom is Dave Freeman, both longtime folks around the West End. Amy and Dave are partners in the Wilderness Classroom organization. Amy has done a lot of kayak instruction in the area. They have a home base on the Grade, near the Brule Lake road; but they are rarely there. They may be familiar to you because they are the leaders of really wide-ranging wilderness trips into the far north, South America, and other locations. This spring they will start out on a "honeymoon" three-year trip (in segments) starting on the West coast of the United States and proceeding east across the continent and then down the east coast.

The wedding was outdoors on Iron Lake. The guests traveled to the site via five dog teams, a snowmobile, ice skates, and on foot. The wedding was on land on a picture-perfect point. Now I have to ask your total trust in my veracity.

The bride and groom were dressed, not in rugged wilderness gear, but in real wedding finery. Amy featured a strapless wedding gown. Dave wore wedding attire as well. The ceremony was performed by Eric Frost, newly qualified for the ceremony. All went well. But come on- it was a sunny day, but the temp was in the 40s. Strapless? Only in the West End!

The only wrinkle was when the staked-out dogs decided to get into a dog fight during the ceremony. No problem, there were lots of people who knew about dog fights. Just a blip at worst.

Amy and Dave left the wedding site riding side by side on the back of their dog sled, pulled by their favorite dogs who have been with them for years. Should you wish to see pictures of this event go to Sawbill.com and enjoy.

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CensusLogo.jpg

West End News March 18

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Polly Erickson, coordinator of the recent West End blood drive, reports that the drive was successful once again. Colds and the flu forced some registered volunteers to skip donation; but the blood center people were pleased with the support extended to the program by our West End folks.

Polly wishes to thank all of the volunteer donors, and in return the West End community gives a lot of thanks to Polly for her dedication. There is more to bringing a blood drive to a successful result than meets the eye.

Polly says that the next blood drive at Zoar Church will be in July. Stay healthy!

Nothing is ever simple. The census, which is now ongoing, is a case in point. A very pertinent question involves "snowbirds,” local residents who escape from our winter weather to warmer places. The question is at what location should a snowbird be counted in the census? Here at home or winter refuge? The answer without any doubt is, declare your residence where you really live, here in Cook County. Please explain this to friends and relatives who are away for the winter.  This is no joke; we absolutely need every single resident to be counted here. If Minnesota loses a seat in Congress, legislative districts will need to be redrawn. The bulk of people in Minnesota now live in metropolitan areas. It is easy to guess that redistricting would favor those areas, and we would lose what little legislative power that we have now.

In the last census count, Cook and Aitkin counties had the lowest percentage of response of all the counties in the state. That is just plain dumb if this happens again. Fill out the very simple form and return it right away. Otherwise we may lose eligibility for many funding programs after the results of the census are counted.

A community effort is being organized to gather bicycles to provide transportation for our many summer workers. The workers need a way to get from home to work and to just get around in whichever community they are located while they are here. The bike path that runs along Highway 61 is a very efficient route for workers to get from one place to another in the West End, so bikes are practical in the West End.

If you have a bike that is in working condition, or that can be fixed up, the committee working on this would like to hear from you. There must be dozens of bikes that have not been used in a long time, which would be a big help to these workers.

For more information call Rick Schubert at 475-2778.

I must confess that I get a little edgy when there is any danger that the West End community is not a full partner in decisions that directly affect our well-being. We hear a lot about Superior National golf course, its funding, deficits, management and fate from county and city officials. I don't hear much about the West End town governments and business community contribution to decisions about this course. Very significant revenue comes to the West End from the course. The welfare of the West End economy should be one of the first considerations in any discussion about the course.

Let us hope that the new cooperative effort to join the various business promotion organizations is a first step toward giving everyone an equal voice in essential decisions. The fate of the golf course is an essential decision.

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A one room school house

West End News March 10

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Please remember that trained volunteers will be at Birch Grove Center to help West End folks prepare their income tax returns each Wednesday. The volunteers may help everyone 55 years old or older; as well as folks with low or moderate income. I continue to be unbelieving that moderate income for a couple with two dependent children is $80,000 a year. That should cover almost everyone in the county.

The service is first come, first served. The volunteers start at 9 a.m. There is no charge for the help.

There certainly is a lot of publicity about the upcoming census. This census is very important for Minnesota and for Cook County. Minnesota is within a margin of 1,000 residents of losing one congressional seat. The number of congressional seats is calculated with the population. If a congressional seat needs 400,000 people to exist, then the population of the state will be divided by 400,000 to get the number of seats that Minnesota will have. If there are a lot of people in an area, a small geographic area will get a seat. Fewer people means a larger area.

Our congressional district is already the district with the largest land area in the state. Should a congressional district be lost, the district will cover even more territory, and we will be included. So, it is important that we keep our present eight congressmen. Make it a personal responsibility to be sure that you are counted. Much funding and even more important adequate representation in Congress is at stake. We need all the representation we can get.

A good example is the current state of school financing in our state and nation. I have been connected with education at all levels for many years. I cannot remember a time when school financing was not a burning issue. Everyone agrees that public education is essential. For some reason there is always emotional tension about funding our schools. Right now the situation is worse than any time I can remember. Not just here, but all over.

The pioneer immigrants of the West End built a school right after they built their houses. These folks were tight with money; but they agreed that money spent on educating their children is money well spent. If you wanted to get in trouble in the West End, suggest something to harm the school. This attitude was communicated to the children. The children were expected to work hard in school and to learn their lessons.

The attitude of the West End folks was summed up neatly by Ted Tofte, a first generation child who became a well-known school superintendent in Minnesota. Ted said, “In the schools there are things that would be nice to have, there are things that the school ought to have, and things that the school has to have.”  This was the secret of the success of the West End schools in the early days; and the tradition is carried on to this day by Birch Grove School.

As a result, the academic achievements of these children then and now are impressive. Many academic and professional advanced degrees have been earned by West End children. Many matured to positions of leadership in their communities as well as at the state and national level.

The WTIP fund drive has the motto, "So Many Reasons.” This excellent radio station is key to community effort for the census, for volunteer participation, and for the unreserved support of all of our schools. Supporting this station is one way that we can preserve the quality of life that we all enjoy.

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Tracks in snow by Stephan Hoglund

West End News March 4

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The considered opinion of the folks who play in the snow is that this season has been as close to perfect as any season could be. Good, timely snow inland for the snow sleds, mushers, all varieties of skiers, and snowshoe folks.

An added benefit has been the mild temperatures and bright blue skies. So often snow is good, skies are blue, but high winds and bitter cold make snow sports downright uncomfortable. Other times snow is sparse, or there are problems with slush, or whatever. No need to extend the list. You all have lived through it, right?

So spread the word about how good the snow sports are now and will be for some time into the future. We can use the business.

Our family is going through an acute state of "What if?” Whenever our children were off on their various adventures, we worried about their health and safety, sometimes for good reason. Now we have the same worries about our grandchildren. Our children operated on the premise of "if we don't tell them, they won't have to worry.” The grandkids take the same position.

The massive earthquake in Chile reinforced our concerns. Our granddaughter, Clare, was in Chile from August through December 2008. She attended the university and lived in Vina del Mar, a coastal city very near Concepcion, the most ravaged city in Chile. Her significant other best friend, Dan, lived in Concepcion at the same time.

Since the quake they both have been trying to contact friends in Chile. They’ve had very little luck contacting Vina del Mar; but some luck in contacting Concepcion. So far those who they have talked to are OK. The report is that older buildings, constructed before modern earthquake engineering was in place, are significantly damaged. Buildings built to earthquake standards are OK so far as the building structure goes, but the contents of the buildings are a mess. They are told that it looks like the building was in a giant shaker that upset everything: pictures off the wall, dishes on the floor, furniture overturned and smashed, the works.

The blessing so far is that none of their friends are injured or missing. Property damage will be a burden.

We worried about Clare riding in rickety busses on single lane mountain roads into primitive communities; but we never thought of worrying about a record-breaking earthquake. So now we can add a new worry to our list. A grandson is about to go to Germany to study. Please tell us that Germany does not have earthquakes; but what about avalanches?

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The Tofte Fire Department

West End News Feb. 25

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It is time for a heads-up to all West End folks about an upcoming blood drive at Zoar church. The drive will be held on Tuesday, Mar. 2, from 2:30 until 5:30 p.m. By this time we all know about the chronic shortage of potentially life-saving blood and blood products.

More information is available from the blood drive coordinator, Polly Erickson, at 663-7398.

There is a very loyal group of donors who volunteer time after time. I asked Polly if she had any record of how many times the folks in her core group had donated. She did have that information and when she tabulated the data she and I both were surprised at the results. Over the years 23 folks have donated between 10 and 20 units of blood; 10 between 20 and 30 units; and six have given 30 or more units. Just using the 10-,20-, and 30-unit markers, this amounts to at least 610 units donated by our friends and neighbors. There are many more people who have also given from time to time. That is wonderful. To me, that’s what a community is all about.

I would imagine that filling out state and federal income tax forms is one of our least favorite things to do. Seniors need not despair. Help is at hand. Every Wednesday, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., trained volunteer tax preparers will be at the Birch Grove Center to help seniors with their tax returns. There is no charge for this service. Not only that, most returns can be filed electronically. If you have a refund due to you, electronic filing will get a check back to you in less than three weeks. Pretty nifty!

As the April 15 deadline for filing tax returns gets closer, the traffic gets heavier for the preparers, so if you can get it together, go to Birch Grove, and beat the crowd.

The feedback from West End folks who went to the story time at the Fishing Museum in Tofte to hear Walter Sve tell stories from his own personal experiences gave a "wonderful" rating to the event. A large crowd came to hear the stories. These events take place several times a year at the museum. This is really oral history from first-hand experiences. Thanks to Walter for his generous sharing with the community.

There is big news about the new fire truck that will soon be on line at the Tofte Fire Department. The word "new" is hardly understood in the Tofte department. From the beginning, finances only allowed for buying used equipment, always as good as possible for the money available. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time were invested in this used equipment both to get it ready for use and then to keep it running.

Tom Laine devoted a lot of energy to finding and acquiring what he called "good deals". His deals ranged from not so great to sensational. Along the way he picked up some surprising items. I remember mentioning to him that the Eden Prairie Fire Department was getting new turnout gear, and the old gear was surplus and available. I knew that because I worked in the Eden Prairie schools and the head custodian for the school district was a friend and also the fire chief. Tom took immediate action, and for quite a while the Tofte fire fighters had "Eden Prairie" printed on the back of the turnout gear.

Equipment came from wherever. The telephone company, back when there was just one telephone company, donated a surplus service pickup truck to the firemen. This was a neat truck with a lot of bins and drawers. This unit was Tofte's first unit assigned to the first responders. Then there was what looked like a homemade unit. It was a unit to slip into the bed of a pickup. It had a rectangular tank that held about 100 gallons of water. The power for the pump was a small Briggs and Stratton gas engine. It carried about 150 feet of inch-and-a-half rubber hose. This unit was for brush fires. It did the job on more than one occasion.

Over the years the equipment was improved, each unit a little better than the one it replaced. Fortunately the Tofte department has always been blessed with members who are excellent mechanics and heavy equipment operators.

Lutsen Fire was much the same story. Get what you could, fix it up, and keep it running as long as possible. The Lutsen department has had outstanding support from fundraisers and private donations, which have made a huge difference. The Schroeder department got off to a somewhat faster start. Back in the day when the town of Schroeder got quite a bit of money from the taconite operation, the town could afford to buy new or next-to-new equipment right away. Among other things, this gave the Schroeder department star status in the Fourth of July parades.

All along there has been a strong tradition of mutual aid among the departments. A fire in any one of the West End towns gets immediate cooperation from the other departments. No question, it happens. Many thanks to all of the volunteers, with their expertise, who have protected the West End communities for so many years.

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Bag Balm

West End News Feb. 17

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The West End community has lost another of our shining lights. Virginia Tofte died on Feb. 8, just two days short of her 93rd birthday. It is impossible to think about Virginia and Casey without smiling: Virginia for her never-ending friendliness, and Casey for his never-ending supply of stories.

I remember a time when we were on a canoe trip. We were going through a lake and of all things Casey and Virginia paddled up to us, going in the opposite direction. Casey was clearly having a bad day. Head down, scowling, he was paddling like he was trying to imitate a 25 horsepower motor. Virginia, on the other hand was riding in the bow seat, combing her hair, applying makeup and engaging passing canoes with friendly chatter.

Virginia did well whatever she happened to be doing. Her skill as an artist, painting in watercolors and oil, was recognized by the awards and prizes she won over the years. Folks in the West End who have one of Virginia's paintings hanging in their homes appreciate her talent and inspiration. Even though Virginia and Casey moved from the West End a decade ago, her presence is still with us.

When the time came recently to groom the cross-country ski trails at Sawbill, to Bill's dismay the long track heavy-duty snow sled he uses to track the trails would not run. All kinds of expensive possibilities came to mind. Bill hauled the machine to the Mayo Clinic for snowmobiles, to Gerry Gervais, the Snowmobile Doctor at Tofte. Gerry made the diagnosis in short order after examining the machine. Mice had built a nest in the muffler, which built up tremendous back pressure. Treatment is a new muffler. Only a modest cost, TTL.

You all know that I am a weather nut. Weather trivia which most folks find to be worth a big yawn, I find to be fascinating. So here is the weather trivia for the week. On Friday, Feb. 12, there was a 40-degree temperature difference between the shore of Lake Superior and the highest elevations in the West End. I am sure that you wanted to know that.

This morning I heard Jay Anderson tell about a family in New England who make a product called "Bag Balm,” intended for use with dairy cows for an obvious purpose, which had found many applications outside of the cow barn. There was a parallel product in Minnesota. Our daughter lives in Maple Lake. When her kids were in diapers and suffered rashes, she found a product at the drugstore in Buffalo, which was a remedy for diaper rash. The family who owned the store was named Ertl. The product was called "Ertl's Butt Cream,” made by the Ertl family. The applications found for this product also strayed widely from butts. Give folks a chance and ingenuity will emerge every time.

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Snow depths varied widely in the West End after the most recent storm.

West End News Feb. 10

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Once again we have a dramatic example of the many micro-climates in Cook County and specifically the West End. Snow depths from the weekend snowfall ranged from three inches to about a foot in some locations. Driving and visibility ranged from clear as a bell to zero visibility with borderline dangerous driving.

Lake Superior, combined with the rapid increase in elevation away from the shore, causes the complexity. Along the Sawbill Trail, for example, there is a zone from the lake to the top of the hill, then another from there to the Six Hundred road with a decrease in snow depth; then a stretch of several miles with an increase in snow, and finally in the higher elevations another decrease in depth.

Sometimes the National Weather Service calls during a storm to get a report on current conditions. Sawbill Outfitters is a volunteer weather observer. During the weekend the weather service in Duluth called. They were totally confused about the location. They said that the Google map showed the location to be on the shore, on the highway. Bill said "No.” Then they found Sawbill Landing on Google. This was the location of a small logging community and a log loading landing at one time. There has been nothing at that location for close to 50 years.

At this point Bill launched into an explanation of the history and geography of the area. This happens almost every time the weather bureau calls. Some years ago I sent the Duluth office of the weather bureau a copy of the large Superior National Forest map. Obviously that did not help.

The record snow on the east coast brought back a childhood memory. I grew up in Baltimore. We did not have many clear-cut snowfalls. Late in February one year we did have a snow just like the one that hit Baltimore and Washington last weekend. The deep snow was bad enough; but the temperature rose into the 60s right after the snow. Fast melting took place. The snow came off of roofs in mini-avalanches. The sliding snow ripped the rain gutters from our house in minutes. The aftereffects of that snow were worse than the snow itself.

Congratulations to the high school Alpine skiers, and special congrats to our West End snow bunnies, Molly Rider and Signe Larson, who go to the state meet as individual contestants. Both girls started skiing at about the time that they started to walk. Both girls have been running and skiing ever since. Family homes within walking distance of the ski hill must help. Perhaps Signe and Molly will follow in the ski tracks of Lutsen's legendary Olympic and World Cup skier, Cindy Nelson. I am sure that WTIP will broadcast the results of the state ski meet as soon as they are known. Our best wishes for good luck to the whole team.
 

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Frank remembers the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon of bygone days

West End News Feb. 3

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The recent Beargrease Marathon revived some memories of the early days of the event that became the Beargrease of today. Early on, the race was nothing like it is today.

I am sure that my recall is incomplete. My purpose is to enjoy some highlights from the early days.

The route of the race ran from Grand Marais, across the Grade road and then on back roads, ski trails and snowmobile trails through the county. Trail markers were just signs warning motorists and truckers that a race was in progress. The teams were disposed to running on the wrong side of the road; but fortune smiled and no one got hurt as the occasional car went into the ditch rather than colliding with a team.

Some of the early teams were interesting. Many teams were made up of what might be called classical Huskies. Big dogs, strong dogs, beautiful dogs, but not bred for speed. Actually a team of these freight haulers on one occasion pulled a car out of a ditch.

There was a picture-perfect team of Samoyeds. Snow white, affectionate, great crowd pleasers; but Samoyeds are guard dogs for flocks of sheep. They are not racers and are useless for pulling serious sleds fast. We got a harness and put one of our Samoyeds into a dog team. She laid down with her feet in the air and said, "Who me?” That ended her racing career.

Then there was the famous team of standard poodles. These were large dogs, very fast for their size for very short distances. That team lasted as far as the Sawbill Trail and then was mercifully withdrawn.

There was a carnival atmosphere at the Sawbill checkpoint. Locals set up a cook tent and made gallons of hot stew. Local volunteers directed traffic, both vehicle and personal. Rumors about the positions of the different teams, who had dropped a dog, the condition of the trail. Each and every rumor was spread by usually ill-informed pseudo-experts. Good spirits ruled the day.

Gradually the race gained prestige and attracted some very famous racers from Alaska and many other states. The simple arrangements became more specific. There were rules and officials and, along with all that, a need for communication.

At that time there were no cell phones, so communication with the checkpoints was difficult. Ham radio operators pitched in, but the ethics of ham radio as interpreted by the hams on the spot prohibited traffic tainted in any way by commercialization. So other kinds of communication were needed.

At Sawbill Outfitters we had radio telephone service, both a base station which sent a signal to a tower on Maple hill in Grand Marais, as well as mobile units in our cars and vans. We loaned a van equipped with a radio to the Sawbill checkpoint so information from that checkpoint could be sent out.

Transmitting from the checkpoint worked well, but receiving messages was confusing. The radio was our business radio, so all incoming calls were answered at the outfitters. We would take the message, explain to the caller that we would forward the message, and then call the checkpoint on the two-way radio. This was difficult to explain to radio and TV people who had no idea of the circumstances.

For a few years Cindy Hansen of Sawbill was the boss lady at the Sawbill checkpoint. That job was daunting. Cindy did enjoy the job in spite of all the difficulties. She got to talk to the famous racers and soon found out which ones were great folks and which ones were not so great. The job was exhausting but exciting.

There was chaos and high energy at the checkpoint for a couple of days and then it was all over. All that was left was the straw from the dog beds and trash where the handlers’ trucks had been parked.

This is the kind of event where the folks who are deeply involved say immediately after it is over, "Never again, not me.” Then they take a breath and say, "When do we start getting ready for next year?”

 

 

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