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West End News

Clare Shirley

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.


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West End News: April 30

The ice left Sawbill Lake on Tuesday, April 28th.  By noon, the lake was more than 90% open and by 5 pm there wasn’t a trace of ice left.  Less than an hour later the first car with a canoe on top pulled into the parking lot. 
When we got our first computer back in the late ‘80s, I used it to calculate the average ice-out date for Sawbill Lake over the previous 10 years.  May 1st was the average ice-out date at that time.  Today, I figured the average ice-out date for the last ten years and it came out to April 26th.  Statistics are funny things and ten years isn’t a very big sample, but it sure seems like the ice-out date is trending earlier over time.
I have seen ice records on Sawbill Lake going back to the early 1930s and the two earliest ice-out dates occurred in the last ten years – April 4th in 2010 and an incredible March 27th in 2012.  Even though the ice went out late in 2013 and ’14, that wasn’t even close to the record late ice-out date which is, in my memory, May 26th, back in the 1970s.
For the last 40 plus years, we’ve been sending our ice in and out dates to Dr. Ken Stewart, now Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York in Buffalo.  Dr. Stewart sends a stamped, self-addressed post card every spring and fall to remind us to send him our report.  This year, the post card arrived on the same day that the ice went out.  That could be a coincidence or Dr. Stewart is getting very accurate at predicting ice dates.
This is my last call for reminding everyone to buy tickets for the Gala For The Grove, which is on May 9th this year.  Opening day is probably not the best choice of dates for a fund-raising dinner, but any fisher-person worth their salt will have their limit well before noon, leaving plenty of time to attend the Gala.  The 9th is also Mothers Day, but that’s a win-win as it allows you to support Birch Grove Community School and take your mom out to dinner at the same time.  Call 663-0170 to make your reservations.
Cook County Higher Education is holding two important mental health training events on Thursday, May 7th, at the North Shore Campus in Grand Marais.
The first is about mental illness in the workplace. It will present strategies for employers to prepare themselves to help and provide support to employees and customers during episodes of mental illness.   This session runs from 11:30 to 1 pm on the 7th and is part of the ongoing Brown Bag Lunch sessions hosted by Cook County Higher Ed.
The second session is Suicide Prevention Awareness Workshop from 6 to 7 pm on May 7th. This workshop focuses on how to identify the warning signs and risk factors of suicide, how to ask a person if they are suicidal, and where to refer them for professional help.
We’re lucky to have good local and national resources for both people who may feel suicidal and people who know someone who may be having suicidal thoughts.  There is hope and help available by simply picking up any phone and dialing 211.  You can also text the word “life” to 61222.  The national hotline number is 1-800-273-8255 -- that’s 800-273-TALK.  Of course, in any emergency, dialing 911 will connect you to help immediately.  If you feel like someone you know is feeling suicidal, stay with them until professional help arrives.
Thanks to Cook County Higher Education for hosting these important and useful training sessions – and for everything else they do, by the way.
Many people in the West End fondly remember Neal Grage who lived in Schroeder for 33 years.  Neal passed away last week at the age of 86.  He was a mainstay in the community when he lived here, and a respected employee at Erie Mining’s Taconite Harbor facility.  Neal is survived by his wife, Arlene, and the five children that they raised here in the West End - Becky, Steve, Dave, Kathy and Shelly.
For anyone who knew Neal, they knew that he was just about the nicest person you could ever want to meet.  He was mild mannered, had a good sense of humor and could be relied upon to be steady and thoughtful in everything he did. 
I’m sure the whole West End joins me in wishing condolences to his family.
The Forest Service has a contractor working around the Sawbill Lake Campground this week, removing small balsam fir from the forest.  This is a fire prevention strategy that will keep a forest fire from crowning into the tall treetops in and around the campground.
The sound of continuous chain sawing in the background makes me feel even more like I’m living in an episode of the late, great “Red Green Show.”  So tell my wife I’ll be home right after the show and keep your stick on the ice.



West End News: April 23

I saw a moose on the Grade Road last week.  I saw it a little closer than I like to see a moose when I’m traveling 40 miles per hour in a car.  It is rare to see a moose anymore, or even tracks of a moose on the back roads in the West End.  It’s so rare that I’ve let my guard down.  Of course, the one moose in a hundred square miles has to be lurking in the worst spot on a blind corner.  Fortunately, the healthy looking young cow didn’t panic and run.  She just spun around and prepared to kick the car if I got too close.  I was easily able to slow down and steer around her.  No harm done, except a shot of adrenaline for both of us.
Farther along on the same night, I saw a muskrat out for a ramble in the middle of the Sawbill Trail.  When I stopped, he turned around and ran toward the car, like he was looking for a ride.  This is the second muskrat I’ve seen wandering around on the Sawbill Trail.
Both the lack of moose and the ramblings of the muskrats are clear signs of our rapidly changing climate.  Twenty years ago, the moose were plentiful and the muskrats were nearly unheard of.  I wonder how long until the alligators show up.
The North Shore Stewardship Association has announced their first capital campaign in more than 20 years for the Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center in Schroeder.  The number of people taking advantage of Sugarloaf Cove has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.  The improvements will include better parking, signage, and building upgrades that provide for easier access and support of Sugarloaf’s educational efforts, according to Executive Director Molly Thompson.
The 38-acre Sugarloaf Cove site is renowned for its volcanic geology, cobblestone beach, unique arctic plants and its unusual tombolo.  Alright, if you know what a tombolo is, your vocabulary is better than mine.  I had to look it up.  A tombolo is a bar of sand, or shingle, connecting an island to the mainland.
Long story short, Sugarloaf Cove is the greatest and I hope everyone will join me in helping them out with this campaign.  You can donate online at: or call Molly at 218-525-0001.  You can always call WTIP if you missed that contact information.
The 5th annual Gala for the Grove, the year’s largest fundraiser for Birch Grove Community School, will be on May 9th in the Lakeside Ballroom at Surfside on Lake Superior in Tofte.  This event sells out every year and starts with a champagne social at 5 pm.  The gourmet dinner begins at 6:30 pm with a fabulous prize drawing held near the end of the dinner.  At 7:30, the piece-de-resistance, an entertaining live auction, is held.  The auction always includes some very unusual and desirable items.  Finally, at 9 the dancing begins and continues until the wee, wee hours, which by Tofte standards is probably about 10:30.
Tickets are still available, but you should make your reservations right away.  Contact Celeste at Birch Grove Community School, 663-0170 or email  In this case there is no doubt, be there or be square.
In breaking news, there has been a change of ownership in the bottle shop located next to the Tofte General Store.  As planned during the store complex’s sale four years ago, Cliff Iverson has relinquished the management of the liquor store to Lisa Nelson and her hard-working crew at the Tofte General Store.  Major renovations are underway and if you stop in soon, you can request that your favorite beverage be stocked.
As reported here last week, Sawbill Lake was making quick progress toward shedding its ice cover for the season.  In less than a week, summer-like weather melted 27 inches of solid ice down to 13 inches of pretty degraded ice.  That’s when Mother Nature hit the big ol’ red STOP button.  For the first part of this week the remaining ice has been getting more solid and is currently covered with five inches of fresh powder snow.  While the return to winter is disheartening, it’s not unusual.  I hope to report next week that the waves are lapping the shore as the canoes paddle into the sunset.


Grand Marais' Jess Hemmer testing the ice depth on Sawbill Lake

West End News: April 16

It’s no surprise that the recent heat wave has jump-started the waterfall season.  In every nook and cranny of the West End, all you have to do is stand still when the wind is calm and you can hear running water – either the intimate gurgle of a rivulet a few feet away or the distant roar of a river in flood.
Visit Cook County, our most excellent county-wide tourism promotion organization, has been working diligently for the last two years to let the rest of the world know what we locals have known all along: late April and early May is the best season for waterfalls.
Now, a map showing waterfall viewing locations is available, thanks to the VCC’s talented marketing team.  The map locates seven easily accessed waterfalls in the West End alone.  Hiking to visit waterfalls makes a great free time activity for locals and visitors alike.
In my opinion, the waterfall season has the potential to be very popular, similar to what we experience during the fall color season.  Many years ago, the fall color season was a very quiet time in the West End.  In the ‘50s and ‘60s many resorts closed for the season on Labor Day.  Someone at the Forest Service District Office in Tofte had the idea to print a map of the local back roads that were good for viewing the fall colors.  They gave whimsical names to the routes and put up simple roadside map boxes to dispense the simple maps.  The rest, as they say, is history.
The biggest problem with Cook County’s tourism-based economy is the extreme drop in visitors in the early spring and late fall.  It makes a lot of sense to promote the unusual beauty of those seasons enjoyed by locals but unknown to visitors.  If we can combine the unique natural events with fun music, food and art - all the better.
Filling the resorts in April and November will contribute to rising wages, housing stability, family health and a whole list of other benefits.
The Cook County Local Energy Project has a good deal for homeowners who are considering home improvement this summer.  Their Residential Energy Efficiency Program is accepting new customers in the month of April.
If you sign up for the program, you will receive a home energy audit before you start work on your home.  The audit will be followed by clear suggestions on how to effectively lower your energy bills through home improvements.  After the construction is complete, another audit is completed to document the savings.  You pay for the audits and improvements, but once the improvements are done, you receive a rebate for the cost of the audits.
Not only is this a good deal up front, but also it’s the gift that keeps on giving, keeping hard-earned money in your pocket year after year after year.  That is money that you can use to take a vacation to Florida during the February cold snap a few years from now.
For more details, contact Virginia Danfelt by email.  The address is
I recommend reading an interesting article published this week in the online news website Minnpost.  The author is John Gappa, who is a well-known and well-respected corporate chief financial officer in Minnesota.  He provides an analysis of the risk/benefit ratio for the proposed PolyMet precious metal mine in the Lake Superior watershed near Ely.
Usually, I’d rather have a root canal than read a financial risk analysis, but Gappa makes a strong case that Minnesotans are carrying the bulk of the financial risk, with very little return for that risk.  Read it and decide for yourself.  You can find the article online at
I would like to add my voice to the chorus of condolences on the passing of retired teacher, Wayne Hansen, in Silver Bay.  I didn’t know Wayne personally, but by all accounts he was an engaged and beloved teacher and community member in Silver Bay for more than 50 years.
Here at Sawbill, we’ve begun our annual ritual of daily ice measurements on Sawbill Lake.  The first measurement was made on Monday and came in at 25.5” of fairly solid ice.  In just 24 hours the measurement dropped to 21” with the ice being noticeably softer.  By Wednesday, the 15th, the ice had “floated up” which is the phenomenon when the porous ice sheet detaches from shore and is literally floating on top of the water.  Usually, the ice goes out within two weeks of floating up.
Thankfully for the general mental health of all West End residents, it looks like spring will arrive at more or less the normal time this year.  If it had been another very late spring like the past two years, we would be in need of community wide group therapy.


Swans swimming in Temperance River

West End News: April 9

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The umpteenth annual Tofte Trek trail run is accepting pre-registrations from now until July 1.  Race day is July 4, which falls on a Saturday this year. You can also register the morning of the race, but it costs a bit more.
The Tofte Trek is famous for its muddy, wet conditions as it winds around roads and trails of Tofte for 10 kilometers.  It is recommended that you wear your old running shoes because they will likely be ruined.
Originally the brainchild of the well-known Tofte character, Jan Horak, the race is now a major fundraiser for the Sugarbush Trails Association that maintains the cross-country ski and mountain bike trail system in the hills above Tofte. 
The event starts and ends at the Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte.  It includes kids’ races that begin at 9am and the main event when the kids are finished.  Same day registration opens at 8 am.
To pre-register, or get more information, go to the Sugarbush Trail Association website at:
It’s been fun to have Peter Hall working near us at the end of the Sawbill Trail for the last couple of months.  Peter is a logger who was born and raised in Lutsen, the youngest son of the well-respected Hall family.  He logged for many years around the West End until he moved to West Virginia 17 years ago to be a field engineer for a heavy equipment manufacturer in the coal mines there.  Recently, Peter has returned to his roots and started logging full time back in Cook County.
It’s always a pleasure to watch anyone who is good at what they do and Peter is certainly a highly skilled logger and mechanic.  His artistry operating the complicated logging equipment is a marvel, but he is also highly attuned to the woods and what is going on in the ecosystem.  He is always alert for opportunities to help out wildlife, improve timber regeneration or protect the watershed.  His mindfulness pays off for his business, as he is a much sought after logger with a two-year backlog of timber sales.
One funny thing did happen while Peter was working near us.  We are in the habit of taking our two feisty terriers for a walk on the Sawbill Trail every afternoon.  The dogs, Roy and Phoebe, love to be walked on leashes, which is kind of odd because they are normally free to roam our property all day long.
Last week, while Cindy was walking the dogs, she could hear Peter chain-sawing in the woods alongside the road.  Like all terriers, our dogs are on constant alert for intruders of any species.  Surprisingly though, they are not concerned in the least with the engine noise from a logging operation, so they were paying no attention to the chain-saw noise.  However, just as they came even with where Peter was working, he emerged suddenly from the thick brush to their right, wearing his orange chaps, Carhartt jacket, hardhat, earmuffs and eye goggles – idling chainsaw in hand. In other words, he was the very picture of what every terrier thinks that a terrier-murdering monster looks like. The dogs went from calm to ballistic in a heartbeat.  The chorus of panicked barking was so deafening that Peter just smiled, shrugged and walked back into the woods.  Of course, the terriers were convinced that their ferocity had saved Cindy’s life, as well as their own, and probably most of the civilized world.
More recently, we had an unusual wildlife sighting along the back road known as The Grade in Tofte.  We were driving over the Temperance River near Baker Lake when we spotted two swans in the river.  I’ve only seen one other swan this far back in the woods and that was just flying overhead.  These beautiful birds were floating regally on the still water below the rapids.  I don’t have the skill to determine if they were Tundra or Trumpeter Swans, but they surely are a beautiful harbinger of the approaching spring season here in the West End.


Cook County Higher Education’s North Shore Campus

West End News: April 2

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Nonprofit organizations have been in the news lately. A few weeks ago the West End townships were discussing their support for local nonprofits like the Birch Grove Community School and the Birch Grove Foundation, along with snowmobile and ski clubs.  Before that, the Cook County Board of Commissioners had a lively discussion about their funding of local nonprofits as part of the budget process.
Now, the Cook County Commissioners are planning a public meeting and a public hearing regarding county support of community nonprofits.
All this talk about nonprofits got me to thinking about what nonprofit organizations are and what they do. In my mind, nonprofit organizations exist to promote the health and well being of society. They are, at their core, a group of people working together to accomplish something that can’t be done individually.  There are many important needs of society that cannot be effectively addressed by businesses or government. It’s this important niche that nonprofits fill.
While nonprofits are often described by words like “charitable, philanthropic or volunteer,” they are actually partnerships between business, governments and private individuals to fulfill a mission for the common good of the community. They are also a major part of the economy. In Minnesota, more than ten percent of all employment is in the nonprofit sector.  In terms of dollars, the nonprofit economy in Minnesota is larger than all of state government.
Cook County Higher Education is a nonprofit that receives money from the Cook County commissioners, the State of Minnesota, businesses, charitable foundations and private individuals. This organization was founded more than fifteen years ago to provide college level education right here in Cook County. It was meant to allow local people to educate themselves without having to leave the county.
The County Board has supported Higher Ed since it started, with a contribution that has varied from $5,000 to $15,000 per year.  So, what have they gotten for their money? More than 700 people have received college level certificates and degrees, including everything from proficiency certificates on up to bachelors, masters and even one doctorate degree.  Hundreds of people have, by their own hard work and initiative, raised themselves from unemployment or underemployment to good paying, highly skilled jobs.  Many people have left public welfare to join the local workforce, pay taxes, buy a home, start businesses and enjoy productive lives right here in Cook County.
The county’s support has helped attract millions of dollars from the State of Minnesota, private foundations and individual donors. Many of these contributors ask if the county commissioners also support Higher Ed as an indication of community buy-in.
In my opinion, the county commissioners’ support of Cook County Higher Education may be the smartest and most effective money they spend each year. It is, without a doubt, the best return on investment that the county can ask for. If the county commission increased their contribution to Higher Ed, it could result in more county residents rising from poverty to make powerful contributions to the overall prosperity of the community.
It is healthy for the townships and Cook County to be discussing what rationale the elected officials should use to decide which nonprofits to support with the money that we contribute through taxes. They would be smart if they applied the following questions to nonprofits asking for county support.
Does the work of this nonprofit benefit a lot of people in Cook County? Is this nonprofit well run and compliant with the law and best practices? Does this nonprofit fill a niche that is not filled by private business or government? Has this nonprofit put together the best partners to do the job? Does this nonprofit provide a good return to the community for the dollars invested? And last, but not least, is this simply the right thing to do?
If the answers are yes, as they so clearly are for Cook County Higher Education, then the county commissioners should vote in favor of providing funds.
In the case of Cook County Higher Education, a relatively small amount of additional funding could make it possible for any Cook County resident to receive higher education, regardless of their ability to pay.  That is exactly the kind of thing that makes this a great place to live.


Spring crust skiing on the Temperance River in Tofte

West End News: March 26

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Here is a good deal.  On Thursday, April 9th, a free visit to the dentist is available for all young people ages 18 months to 26 years old.  The free services include an exam, cleaning, x-rays, fluoride, and/or sealants. 
Call Grand Marais Family Dentistry at 387-2773 to schedule an appointment.  Cook County School District 166 is providing free transportation.  The dentist’s office can help you arrange transportation.
It’s kind of surprising, but good dental health is a major indicator for overall success in life.  If you think about it, bad dental health can not only be very expensive, but also can affect your ability to get or hold many jobs.  We’re lucky to have such a community-minded local dentistry practice.  Many thanks to them for making this great program possible.
As usual, there is a lot going on at Birch Grove School and Community Center in Tofte.
The Birch Grove Foundation that manages the Community Center is looking for people to join their board of directors.  It only requires a commitment of two years, with seven meetings held each year.  The Foundation is certainly important to our quality of life, so please consider serving if you have the time.  Call Caroline Wood at 663-7977 for more information.
Birch Grove Community School is still open for kindergarten and pre-school enrollments for next year.  They will roll out the red carpet for any prospective student and their families.  You can meet the teachers, sit in on classes or get a personal tour from the administrator.  If you talk to the parents of current students, you will hear a story of educational excellence.  Give Diane a call at 663-0170.
Community Education is offering piano lessons at Birch Grove to students of all ages.  The cost is reasonable and you can get set up on a schedule by contacting Sara Silence, Community Education Director at 663-0170.
The music culture in Cook County is amazing, so if you stick to your lessons, you can be playing for audiences in no time.  A recently released study concluded that learning and playing music is wonderful for brain development in children and also significantly reduces the risk of dementia in older people.
Last but not least, it is not too late to get help with your taxes at Birch Grove.  You can just pop in on any Thursday between 10 am and 3 pm between now and April 15th.  Trained volunteers will help you organize your paperwork and prepare your tax return for you.
It’s always interesting to follow the Minnesota Legislature at this time of year when the significant issues for the session start to bubble up to the top of the news. 
With a nearly $2 billion surplus at hand, the familiar arguments about whether to spend, save or send back are surfacing.  
After experiencing the Jesse checks back in the early 2000s, and the cut, cut, cut of the Pawlenty years, I’d like to think that Minnesotans have learned a thing or two.
It seems obvious to me that there is a well known phenomenon called the business cycle which has the economy sometimes doing well and sometimes doing not so well.  During the good times, tax revenues follow the economy up and during the not-so-good times tax revenues decline.
Common sense should dictate that the state could set aside some of the windfall in the good times to cover the inevitable shortfall in the lean times.  It also seems logical to increase needed investments in infrastructure and useful programs when the money is available, while holding enough in reserve to carry those investments during the down cycles.
This strategy has a side benefit of helping to even out the economic swings because, with money in the bank, so to speak, the state can bolster employment and efficiency during those periods when private industry is unable to invest.
As all voters are adults, it seems like the “just give it back” philosophy wouldn’t have much traction.  But, sometimes it seems like the body politic has a short memory.
Twice last week I joined with friends to ski down about 8 miles of the Temperance River in Tofte.  The recent thawing and refreezing phenomenon has turned the rivers and lakes in the West End into well-paved highways and parking lots.
The snow crust is so strong that I noticed moose tracks crossing the Temperance and the moose was staying right on top.  You know it’s a crusted snow when it can hold up a moose!
It’s pretty likely that travel conditions on the lakes and rivers will continue to be good for the next couple of weeks.  Of course, you must exercise caution and good judgment for any frozen water based activity.  But, if the conditions hold up, get out there and enjoy the long days, balmy breezes and fast travel, before it melts away.

(Photo by Nickie Dietz)


Randy Sabien

West End News: March 19

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If you’ve been thinking about starting or expanding a business in the West End, now is a great time to do it.  The Entrepreneur Fund, a Duluth-based nonprofit that provides educational and financial support for entrepreneurs, has started a new program especially for Cook County.  They are calling the program “enFuse: Cook County.”
This unique program is designed to help Cook County businesses increase revenue, reach new markets and smooth out the ups and downs of our seasonal economy.  This will be done by providing strategic advice, workshops and low-interest financing.  The goal is to see at least 25% growth in each participating business over the next three years.
This worthy effort is being funded by two local donors, who wish to remain anonymous, and the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation.  West End business person, Steve Surbaugh, who has a long history of working with the Entrepreneur Fund is the local contact.  If you’re interested in growing or starting a West End business, contact Steve at 218-370-9757 or email  You can always call WTIP for contact information.
In my humble opinion, the West End is poised for success over the next decade or two.  Programs like the one I just mentioned, along with the very large expansion of Lutsen Mountains Ski Area, bode well for the future of our economy.  That, combined with a long-term commitment to the success of Birch Grove School and finally building a good supply of housing that is affordable for working families, will solve many of our nagging problems.
It goes almost without saying that the incredible natural beauty of Lake Superior, unspoiled lake-land forest, the nation’s premier wilderness area and a rich culture of arts will continue to make significant contributions to our quality of life.
As if those aren’t enough positives for the West End, we also enjoy the services of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, along with the hospital and Care Center, that give us truly world class medical care that is available and affordable for everyone.
Most of the world defines success as constant growth.  Here in the West End, success now seems to be defined by growing the capacity of our people to lead dignified, fulfilling and happy lives, free from fear and poverty.
There is so much good music happening in the West End these days, that it’s hard to single out any particular event.  But, Gordon Thorne, from Finland is organizing a truly unique and spectacular musical event on April 10th and 11th at Bluefin Bay in Tofte.  The 5th annual Fingerstyle Masters Weekend will feature master guitarist Mike Dowling, along with renowned fiddlers Randy Sabien and Tom Schaefer.
There will be workshops for musicians of any skill all day on Saturday.  Friday night there will be an informal picking circle at Bluefin featuring the visiting professionals, along with our own Gordon Thorne, who is no slouch on the guitar himself.  Saturday night there will be a formal concert.
All the proceeds from this fantastic event will be donated to WTIP for the transmitter replacement fund.  For more information, you can just surf over to the WTIP website.  Do I even have to say, you should be there, or you will definitely be square!
Speaking of happy events, how about those northern lights the other night?  It was a display to be remembered as one of the best.  As I was driving home, the aurora over the Sawbill Trail was distracting, to say the least.  At one point, the vivid green curtain wrapped around itself, forming a giant light tube leading to the heavens.  The cosmic tube of light then started dropping toward earth, giving me the illusion that I was about to drive right under it.  I thought to myself, “This is it! I’m about to be sucked into the sky by benevolent aliens!”  Well, that didn’t happen, but I did manage to stay out of the ditch – barely.


Birch Grove

West End News: March 12

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The annual meetings of Schroeder, Lutsen and Tofte were lively and productive affairs a few nights ago.  A lot of stuff gets done at these meetings and all kinds of information is gathered.
The big news coming out of the meetings is that all three townships expressed financial support for Birch Grove Community School.  This gives the school the resources to have a secure future while we work toward growing enrollment over the next five years or so.
In the Tofte Township meeting that I attended, there were many passionate expressions of support for the school and the Birch Grove Community Center, which are housed in the same building.
Birch Grove School board member Skip Lamb, who refers to himself as the oldest member of the youngest school board in the state, asked me to pass along his thanks to the people of the West End for their continuing generous support of the school.  Skip wrote that when the children walk in the front door of Birch Grove every day it reminds us all the West End community supports education and its children are valued.  I would just add my personal “hear, hear!” to that.  It is certainly something we can all be proud of.
I was also highly interested in the progress report about the senior housing project that is happening in Tofte.  Tofte Township is building 12 two-bedroom homes with attached garages in the woods right behind the Birch Grove building.  The homes will be available for rental at the projected price of $950 per month.  The rent will include water, sewer, garbage pickup and mowing service.  Electricity and heat are extra.  The homes will be constructed to be very energy efficient, which will help a lot with those extra costs.
The homes will first be offered to West End residents over the age of 55.  If that initial offering doesn’t fill the homes right away, they will be offered to young working families.  Given the difficulty of finding housing here in the West End, these two populations should fill up the new homes pretty quickly.  It was made clear at the meeting that the new homes will not be available as vacation or second home rentals.
The same property behind Birch Grove has room for more development.  Once this first project is up and running, Tofte is eager to participate in the recent effort to build homes all over Cook County that can be afforded by working people.  These are exciting times!
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to thank the amazing people who serve on their township boards, as well as those who belong to the fire and rescue volunteer departments.  They are too many to mention by name, but they are the heroes of our community.  The next time you see one of them in the grocery store or post office, please take a minute to express your thanks.
And before I leave the Tofte Township annual meeting for another year, I’d like to say how pleased I am to see young people showing up at the meetings and taking part in a meaningful way.  It’s natural for those of us in later years of life to worry about where the leadership will come from in the future.  At least for Tofte, I can confidently say that the future of Tofte was sitting in the room last Tuesday night and the future looks bright.
Speaking of young leadership, there is a fun and easy opportunity to make some small improvements to the West End in the upcoming “Great Place Race” returning for a second year after a successful roll out last spring.
The Great Place Race is looking for businesses and organizations to apply with a high impact, low cost idea to make a place great.  Mini-grants of up to $1000 per project will be awarded to fund your idea.
Applications are due before the end of March.  Applications are available online at or at the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic front desk in Grand Marais.  If you have questions or just want to bounce an idea off someone, call Maren at 387-2330, extension 110.  As always you can get full contact information by calling WTIP.
As usual, there are too many fun things happening in the area to even keep track.  My advice is take some time to enjoy the longer days and get out to participate in some of the wonderful activities available at this busy time of year.  It’s what makes it a pleasure to live here in the beautiful West End.


Saint Urho driving the grasshoppers out of Finland. Good reason to celebrate!

West End News: March 5

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On Tuesday, Mar. 10, the townships of Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen will hold their elections and annual meetings. 
Polls are open from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. In Schroeder and Lutsen the polls and annual meetings are held at their respective town halls. In Tofte, the voting and meeting are at the Birch Grove Community Center.
Township government is the closest to the people of all the branches of government. The annual meetings are designed to give residents a chance, before the next annual budget is done, to set the priorities of the town for the upcoming year. 
This year, Birch Grove Community School will be asking each township for a $20,000 contribution to keep the school alive and well. As a public, nonprofit charter school, Birch Grove does receive a per-student payment from the state, just like any other public school. However, a recent dip in enrollment has caused the fixed costs to exceed what the state provides. Basically, our award-winning little school is asking the property owners of the West End to tide them over until enrollment gets back to where it will pay the bills.
I believe that taxes should never be levied unless they can be justified for one of three reasons. First, if the investment of the taxes pays back more to the taxpayers than is invested, then it’s a no-brainer.  The second reason is to help people who genuinely can’t help themselves; we all need to chip in to relieve human suffering. The third reason is that sometimes it is just the right thing to do. In the case of Birch Grove Community School, their request for funding squarely fulfills all three of my categories. 
There is no better way to create a prosperous and happy community than investing in top-flight education. If we want to attract young families to the West End, we must have the school. It is the first thing that people look at when they move to a new area. The local school must be excellent and it must be stable. It is simply the right thing to do.
If the school, heaven forbid, would close, small children from the West End would be required to ride the bus for an unacceptable length of time to the next nearest schools. 
Last but not least, this is a very smart investment in the future. One of the main reasons the school enrollment is low is the lack of reasonably priced housing for young families. There is currently a strong and united movement to build entry-level housing in the West End. The new senior housing in Tofte will free up some good homes for young families too. It would be penny wise and pound foolish to not fund the schools just before affordable housing becomes available.
The cost of the request would only amount to around $20 to $40 per year for each homesteaded property, so this should not be a difficult decision.
The Birch Grove Community Center, trail clubs and other worthy local nonprofits will also be making requests at the annual township meetings.  They are also vitally important to the health of our communities and deserve our support.
On a lighter note, mark your calendar now for the super fun St. Urho’s Day celebration in Finland.  I can’t believe it, but this is the 40th anniversary of the day celebrating St. Urho’s miracle of chasing the grasshoppers out of Finland and saving the grape crop. Products made from grapes and also made from grains still are an important part of the celebration to this day.
The activities are too numerous to mention here, but the highlights include the Miss Helmi beauty and talent competition Friday, Mar. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m.  Then on Saturday it’s the big parade from noon to 1 in downtown Finland.  If you’ve never been, to say that the floats are creative is a major understatement.  Of course, there will be music, refreshments and mojakka at all times. 
As I always say: Be there or be square.


This is what happens when you drive on snow-covered back roads in cold weather

West End News: February 26

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Birch Grove Community School in Tofte held a well attended public meeting last week. The entire West End community was invited to gain a better understanding of the history, programs and services of the school. The Birch Grove School Board also provided insight into the future challenges that the school faces and some possible solutions. 
The school board plans to ask for long-term support from the townships of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder at the annual township meetings on Mar. 10.  In my opinion, Birch Grove Community School is a critical part of the future for the West End, especially in our quest to make the West End a better place for young working families.  Losing the school would be a disastrous setback.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners efficiently settled the issue of a new radio tower to be built within sight of the BWCA Wilderness this week. 
The Minnesota Department of Transportation asked Cook County to allow them to build a radio tower on county land near Marsh Lake on the Grade Road, 4 miles east of the Sawbill Trail, in Tofte.  The tower is part of the ARMER system that provides a statewide network of radio communications for all the public safety organizations.  The normal height for an ARMER tower is 330 feet, which requires it to be lighted, both day and night. A 330-foot tower in this location would be plainly visible from dozens of lakes and campsites within the BWCA Wilderness and many other remote locations outside the wilderness.  Understanding that the location of the tower is in an area where people are sensitive about keeping the woods wild, MNDOT offered to construct a 180-foot tower that would not require lighting and would be much less visible. 
The Cook County Commissioners reviewed the existing county tower ordinance, looked at the technical data, consulted with MNDOT and emergency providers and listened to their constituents and stakeholders. After following this careful process, they voted to allow the 180-foot tower.
I was impressed by the reasonable and measured approach taken by all the parties. In my opinion, this is how all government should work: Gather the facts, listen to the stakeholders and make a decision that most people can live with.  Congratulations to all involved.
That inevitable tax season has rolled around and once again the AARP tax aid volunteers are willing to help you with your federal and state individual tax returns.  They can also help you fill out your Minnesota property tax and rent refund forms. They can even file corrections or amendments to your last year’s forms if necessary.
In most instances, the volunteers can file your tax documents electronically. E-filing allows your state refund to come back to you in one to two weeks and federal refund in two to four weeks.
The free tax assistants are at Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte every Thursday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. from now until the Apr. 15 deadline.
You should bring your 2014 tax documents, your Social Security card and a photo I.D. if you are using this service for the first time. If you have copies of last year’s state and federal tax forms, they are helpful too.
If you don’t have time to sit with the preparer as they complete your filings, you can drop off the documents, have a short conversation and then go back to work. You can swing by to pick up your paperwork when everything is done. 
If you have any questions, call Steve Deschene at 387-1767.
For whatever reason, we haven’t been seeing as much wildlife this winter as in past seasons. That said, my partner, Cindy, saw a bobcat with a snowshoe hare in its mouth the other day. The bobcat had the rabbit’s head in its mouth with the body hanging down. It tried to run when Cindy appeared on the scene, but kept tripping over its dangling prey. It wasn’t willing to give up the meal, though, so Cindy got a good look at it as it struggled up and over the snowbank.
The only unusual animals that I’ve seen lately are a white weasel, a star-nosed mole and a grouse sitting in the middle of the road in the middle of the night.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grouse out on the road after dark. It didn’t move as I drove around it, so maybe it was frozen solid while in the act of crossing the road during the daylight hours.  I wouldn’t be surprised.