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West End News

Bill Hansen

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Bill Hansen

Bill Hansen runs Sawbill Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail with his wife Cindy. Bill grew up in Cook County and knows the West End community well. The son of beloved WTIP volunteer and long-time West End News columnist Frank Hansen, Bill enjoys following in his father's footsteps.

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

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West End News: December 10

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

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

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 Even the genial cop who used to direct traffic in front of one of the congressional office buildings has been replaced by a tense, alert and business-like officer in a flak jacket toting an automatic rifle.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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West End News: December 3

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

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Edmund Fitzgerald

West End News: November 5

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

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Lutefisk!

West End News: October 29

The umpteenth annual Lutefisk and Ham Dinner at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte is scheduled for Saturday, November 14, from 5-7 pm.  This very popular fundraiser has deep roots, going back to the arrival of the original Norwegian immigrants on the North Shore.  In fact, it really goes back to pre-historic Scandinavia when fish had to be preserved for longer periods of time than simple drying would allow.
 
Lutefisk is dried cod fish that is soaked in a lye mixture for two days at which point it is dangerously corrosive.  An additional 5 days of soaking in cold water, changed daily, makes it edible – at least according to some people.
 
The directions for making lutefisk specifically warn against leaving it in the lye mixture for too long because saponification of the fish fats may occur.  This led me to Wikipedia where I learned that saponification is the process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye.  Saponification is a great vocabulary word, but not one that you usually see in a recipe.
 
Of course, the most notorious fact about lutefisk is - what I will politely call - its “distinctive” odor.  The taste is surprisingly mild though, especially when slathered with melted butter.  The mouth feel is a bit strange.  Think fish-flavored Jello and you’ll be close.  If lutefisk isn’t for you, the good cooks at Zoar make plenty of ham, which is an equally traditional dish for Norwegian-Americans. 
 
This year, for the first time, the church is asking people to make reservations for the dinner and the number of diners will be limited to 100.  All you have to do is call the church at 663-7925 to leave a message with your name and how many people you are bringing.  You can pay the night of the dinner.
 
This is a quick reminder to return your ballots for the general operating school levy referendum before November 3. You can also vote in person on November 3 at the courthouse in Grand Marais.
 
The West End lost two of its most vivid citizens this month.
 
Rob McCampbell died at home in Tofte on October 19.  Since moving to Tofte, Rob spent most of his years at his beautiful cabin on Pancore Lake.  When the Cross River Café was still in business in Schroeder, Rob was a regular, driving all the way down from Pancore to hang out with his friends.  He had an outgoing personality that served him well as he developed a retirement business of selling Turkish rugs.  He ran the Uhller ski lift at the hill for several years.  He would keep detailed and interesting conversations going with multiple people as they cycled through the lift, demonstrating his keen mind and sharp wit.  He was deeply in love with his wife, Perihan.
 
Bernie Sajdak, from Schroeder, died on October 18.  Bernie was a renaissance man with a brilliant mind and a wide range of practical skills.  He did many jobs through his life, including a busy lawn care business most recently.  Bernie also planted many thousands of trees on contract with the Forest Service.  He was an unstoppable tree planter, who loved to work long hours alone.  For many years afterward, he would visit his planting areas to check on their progress and was pleased with the big contribution he had made to the future of our forests.
 
Perhaps Bernie’s greatest passion was his skill as a trapper.  He was an old-school trapper who ranged deep in the woods, where he plied his trade based on his vast and detailed knowledge of animal behavior.  Bernie loved working by himself in the woods.  He always said that his dog never argued with him about when and where they went.  He was one of a small number of people who have been trampled by a moose, although he always made it clear that he didn’t blame the moose. I doubt if there are many left who understand the woods like Bernie did.
 
Bernie always expressed his gratitude for the love shown him by his beautiful and resourceful wife, Bobbie, and his talented and successful children.  I’m sure the whole West End joins me in wishing them our deepest condolences.
 
The West End will never be quite the same without Rob and Bernie among us.
 

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Cook County Schools

West End News: October 22

We were thrilled to have a visit from the Superior National Forest leadership team this week. The team is about 30 Forest Service employees who hold the higher administrative jobs at the Forest Service headquarters in Duluth and in the District Offices around the Forest. They were taking a full day to tour various parts of the Tofte District, which includes most of the West End.
 
The Forest Service plays a large role in our lives here in the West End, as they administer the vast majority of our land base. Their multiple-use mandate provides business opportunities in timber and recreation of all types. They are also important employers in their own right. As if that isn’t enough, they provide a lot of the recreation opportunities that we all enjoy, including trails of all types, fishing docks, campgrounds and hunting land, just to name a few.
 
The individuals on the leadership team are out and about in the forest on a daily basis, but it’s also valuable for the whole team to get out together, so they can discuss and ponder future policy decisions while looking at the actual effects of their past decisions.
 
It’s easy to make fun of any big organization like the Forest Service, but the reality is that they do a great job administering the public lands that provide for the lifestyle that makes us all want to live here.  In my long experience with the Forest Service, I’ve invariably been impressed with the intelligence and dedication of the employees. They do a lot for us and we shouldn’t take them for granted.
 
The Bloodmobile is returning to Tofte on Monday, November 16, from 2:30 until 6 pm.  It parks at Zoar Lutheran Church with registration taking place just inside the church. Long-time blood drive volunteer, Julie Rannetsberger, is organizing things this time around, so give her a call at 663-7111 to schedule a time to donate.
 
I almost never miss an opportunity to donate blood, but I’ll have to pass this time because I’ll be on vacation in Hawaii. Someone is welcome to take my place though – at the blood drive, not in Hawaii!
 
I usually don’t report local births, because if I do one, then I have to do them all. But I’m making an exception for the birth of Freja Tofte Hedstrom last week. Freya is, I’m told, the first child born of a union between the Toftes and the Hedstroms, two of the  largest and most prominent pioneer families in Cook County. Congratulations to the parents, Abby Tofte and Sam Hedstrom, as well as the grandparents, Brian and Kelly Tofte, and Ed and Kris Hedstrom.
 
The election ballots are out for the operating levy referendum for the Cook County Schools, also known as Independent School District Number 166. 
 
In my opinion, the correct vote on this issue is “yes.” Without this authorization, our largest school district will be crippled in its efforts to educate our children.  
 
Education is the key to almost everything in a civil society. I could provide examples all day, but the bottom line is that our tax dollars spent on public education provide a return on investment that would be the envy of any Wall Street hedge fund.  Failure is not an option here. We can pay a little now or pay a lot later.
 
Aside from the financial sound financial reasons for voting yes, it is also just the right thing to do. What kind of community would we be if we didn’t invest in the well-being of our children? 
 
Thanks in advance for doing your part to keep the West End a wonderful place to grow up and a great place to raise a family.
 

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West End News: October 15

As I write this, there is only one car in the parking lot here at Sawbill.  The busiest canoeing season in recent years is finally coming to a close.  The North Shore resorts are still hopping, but the fall colors are now past their peak and the quiet season is just around the corner.
 
For the year-around resorts and businesses, the deep valleys in income that occur in November and April are a real problem.  They go from being desperately short of staff - to wildly overstaffed - for a good month before the winter tourism season kicks in.  Layoffs are hard on everyone, but if the staff is kept on, it has the practical effect of suppressing wages, as the slow season must be averaged with the busy season.
 
The solution, of course, is to give visitors a reason to come to Cook County during the slow months.  One of the best examples of that strategy is the upcoming Bluegrass Masters Weekend at Lutsen Resort.
 
Celebrating its 25th year this year, the event is a unique partnership between Lutsen Resort and the nonprofit North Shore Music Association.  This year it is happening on November 6, 7 and 8. 
 
This time around, the visiting bluegrass master is Mike Witcher, who plays the resophonic guitar, which is commonly known as the Dobro.  It is an acoustic version of the steel guitar, with the strings being picked with the right hand while the notes are formed with a steel bar held in the left hand.
 
An in-demand session player in L.A. and Nashville, Mike Witcher has worked with such artists as Dwight Yoakam, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Peter Rowan, Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. He has played the Grand Ole Opry and Prairie Home Companion many times, and you can hear him on hundreds of records, sound tracks, commercials, and TV shows.
 
Mike is bringing an all-star bluegrass band with him.  The master players will be giving workshops all day on Saturday.  You can register for the workshops on the spot Saturday morning.  The band will present a concert on Saturday night in the Lutsen Resort Ballroom.
 
The coolest part of the event are the jam sessions that are almost continuous in every nook and cranny of the resort.  Most of the visitors who attend are musicians themselves and they play from early in the morning until early the next morning throughout the weekend.  If you like bluegrass music, I highly recommend that you stop by Lutsen Resort some time during the weekend to walk around and listen to the spontaneous music.  The high level of musicianship will surprise you and I guarantee that you will have a good time!
 
Here are a couple of quick reminders for events at Birch Grove School and Community Center in Tofte:  The annual Halloween Carnival will be on Sunday, October 25, from 2 until 4 p.m.  It is a wahoo good time for all, especially the under 15 set.
 
Mark your calendar for the Community Lunch at Birch Grove on the second Tuesday of every month.  No need to call ahead – you can just show up at 11:30 and enjoy lunch with your friends and neighbors, prepared by chefs Julie Aldinger and Barb Merritt.  There is a reasonable charge in exchange for a delicious meal and some great conversation.
 
You may recall the Norwegian murder mystery trilogy best known as “The Land of Dreams” series. The three books won a prestigious Scandinavian writing award and were translated into English a few years ago by the University of Minnesota Press.  The books included many real places and people from the West End, including yours truly.
 
Now, according to the Minnesota Film Board, a deal has been made to produce the books as a television show titled “Minnesota.”  I am a very minor character in the book, but if my character is included in the TV show, I may get the real world answer to that old hypothetical question of which actor would portray me on TV?
 
I’m actually hoping that Sawbill and I will both get cut from the screenplay.  The last thing I want is indirect television fame, especially because my fictional alter ego isn’t a very nice person.  Sawbill Canoe Outfitters is portrayed in the book as being fantastically successful – practically an excuse to print money.  While this is flattering, any small business owner will tell you that it is far from reality.
 
It sounds like the whole project is a long way from a done deal.  In the unlikely event that the show is produced and is actually watched by a significant number of people, it will just be part of the interesting life that we all get to lead, here in the West End of Cook County.
 
 
 

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This is what the campaign trail looks like in the beautiful Legislative District 3A

West End News: October 8

It’s good to be back writing the West End News for the best radio station in the world, WTIP.  I took some time off from this job while I made an unsuccessful bid to become the legislative representative for the beautiful and massive District 3A.
 
Contrary to popular belief, being a candidate for public office is a lot of fun.  Your job is to get yourself out in the community to listen to the hopes, fears, concerns and dreams of as many people as possible.  It turns out that this is a very affirming and interesting job.  Everyone I talked to was friendly, well informed, and often funny.  Even the people who would said they would never vote for me invariably had a smile and a word of encouragement.
 
The most affirming though, are the volunteers and supporters who commit wholeheartedly to a common vision for the future of the state.  I can assure you that there are many, many of our friends and neighbors willing to work hard for prosperity, justice and the common good.
 
I was disappointed to lose the election.  But, beyond my own bruised ego, I was more disappointed for the hundreds of dedicated volunteers, supporters, donors and thousands of voters who put their trust and faith in me.  On the other hand, I know that I worked as hard as I could and, at the end of the day, that’s all a person can do.
 
As a side benefit, the campaign came at a perfect time to enjoy the fall colors as I drove from Grand Portage to International Falls and back several times.  I saw a ton of wildlife, including half a dozen bull moose, several wolves, including a curious a adolescent, several lynx, the same set of bear cub twins four times, a fisher and too many deer, eagles, fox, hawks, owls and migrating warblers to count. Northern Minnesota is a great place to live!
 
All the resorts, restaurants and stores along the North Shore have been swamped this fall as the beautiful weather has extended the popular fall color season to the latest date in modern history.  The extended season, combined with the annual gap between shifts of foreign student workers, has created a serious employee shortage all up and down the shore.  Owners and management are bussing tables and cleaning rooms, while the wage workers who are still on the job forgo days off and work a lot of overtime.  It’s a classy problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.  It should ease up in a couple of weeks when the leaves drop and the next crop of seasonal workers arrive and get settled in.
 
I am pleased to report that the wonderful Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland has two advocates trained to provide services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, including legal advocacy or assistance if you are in crisis. Those in need are welcome to walk in during the Center's regular office hours from 10am - 4pm on Tuesdays and Fridays and ask for Honor or Joni.
 
Brulé, with its spectacular Native American stage production of “SIGHT, SOUND & SOUL,” is performing Saturday, October 24, at 7:00 pm at the William Kelley High School Auditorium in Silver Bay.
Hailing from South Dakota, Brulé thrills audiences with a fusion of cultural rock, traditional sound, and theatrical dance with insights to share about our connections to others, to the land, and to the living things around us. Brulé’s electrifying show includes a five-piece rock ensemble with traditional Native American instrumentation and dancers.
 
The Northern Lake County Arts Board sponsors Brule’s concert, with financial support from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation, Cultural Arts and Heritage Fund and the Silver Bay Tourism Association. For information and ticket reservations, just search the Internet for the Northern Lake County Arts Board, or contact WTIP.
 
When and if you do get a minute of free time, be sure to enjoy the spectacular foliage, or the brilliant northern lights, or the wonderful meteor shower in progress this week.  There is never a shortage of world-class quality experiences here in the beautiful West End.
 

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Firefighter at work on the current fires in Alaska.

West End News: August 6

Many local Forest Service employees and retired employees are being dispatched to the large wild fires in the western states and Alaska.
 
Tim Norman, from Tofte, who is a retired fire behavior specialist with the U.S. Forest Service just returned from a month in Alaska.  He was stationed on a huge fire along the Yukon River about 50 miles from Fairbanks. 
 
Tim was the operations manager on a fire that was half a million acres in size. To put that in perspective, that would be half the BWCA Wilderness burning in one large fire.  The operations manager is arguably the toughest job on any fire, requiring vast experience, years of training, solid judgment and the ability to make decisions that carry life and death consequences.  It is a lot like being a battlefield commander, but hopefully without any loss of life.
 
At one point, the smoke from the fire was so intense that aircraft couldn’t supply the fire camps located hundreds of miles from the nearest road.  The local people broke out their salmon nets and gathered berries to keep the hungry firefighters going until the supply flights could resume.
 
Tim slept for nearly three days straight when he got home.  The heavy responsibility and rough working conditions in Alaska kept him up all hours and provided for plenty of stress.
 
Tim was very impressed the hospitality and skills of the native Alaskan Athabaskan people that he worked with there.  He commented that the fun part of being a wildland fire fighter is getting to know all the different cultures in this great and diverse country that we call the United States.
 
The Birch Grove Foundation is celebrating its 30th year of existence this year with a “Back to the Future” party on Saturday, August 15. The festivities kick off at 3 pm and include a Birch Grove retrospective, tours, dinner, a presentation and a movie on the new large format theater style movie screen.
 
Caroline Wood, the Birch Grove Foundation Director, is calling 2015 “a year to remember.”  Not only is it the 30th anniversary of the beloved community center, but it has been, by far, the most successful year of fundraising in the Foundation’s history.  More than $70,000 in grants have been received this year in addition to the income that the Foundation collects through its various activities.
 
The Birch Grove Community Center mostly serves the townships of Lutsen, Schroeder and Tofte.  If you haven’t stopped by recently, I strongly urge you to stop in for a tour on the 15th.  It has become a truly remarkable and lovely gathering spot for the entire West End.

Cook County School District 166 is holding another operating levy referendum during the normal general election this November.  The previous operating levy referendum expires in December.
 
I plan to vote yes for the referendum and strongly urge everyone to join me in voting yes.  Our schools are the single most important key to the future prosperity of Cook County.  It isn’t the only key, but it is the most important key.  Without top notch public education, everything else becomes much, much more difficult.
 
In my opinion, the system of holding referendum elections every few years for regular school funding is not good public policy.  It was an idea that was popular 20 years ago, but has proven to be a wasteful, time consuming and unnecessary process.  There are far better ways to hold schools accountable for their spending while making sure that we spend enough to make Minnesota’s public education system fair and equal and right up there with the best in the world.  It’s an investment that will pay rich rewards.  I urge the state legislature to revisit school funding soon and design a system that is efficient, fair and effective.
 
The blueberries and raspberries are reaching their peak ripeness this week.  In the West End, it seems to be a so-so year for blueberries, but the raspberries are abundant, if on the small side. 
 
I’ve heard stories of very abundant blueberries at the end of the Gunflint Trail and in the Pagami Creek burn near lake Isabella.  As a bonus this year, the biting insects are nearly nonexistent.  Now is the time to head for the berry patch and gather a little taste of the sweetness that is our beloved West End.
 
 

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Locomotives on the rail line between Taconite Harbor and Hoyt Lakes

West End News: July 30

The closing of Minnesota Power’s Taconite Harbor power plant continues to be on the minds of West End residents.  It takes time to absorb such a large blow to the community.
 
I was intrigued by Cook County News Herald editor Rhonda Silence’s suggestion that the railroad between Schroeder and Hoyt Lakes be reactivated as a scenic railroad.  I’ve hiked quite a few sections of that rail line and it is beautiful.  The tunnel is particularly spectacular, not just for its capacity to scare the young Rhonda Silence, but for breathtaking views from both ends. 
 
The kind of thinking that Rhonda is doing is exactly what we need to turn the end of the power plant era into a new era of prosperity for Schroeder and Taconite Harbor.  It seems to me that any place where a rail line meets a Great Lakes shipping line is bound to be useful to someone.
 
The 15th annual Gitch-Gami Trail Association North Shore Bike Ride is coming up on Saturday, August 15.  The ride takes place on the Gitchi-Gami State Trail along with some connecting roads and offers a 28-mile, 37-mile, and 55-mile option.  The ride starts and ends at Gooseberry State Park.  Riders should gather there around 9:00 am in order to start riding before 10:30.  You must wear a helmet and be willing to sign a liability waiver.  There is a small charge for participation.
 
The North Shore Bike Ride was the brainchild of the late Congressman Jim Oberstar.  He wanted the event to call attention to the trail each year, especially to highlight the additions to the trail year by year.
 
Jim Oberstar was, among many other accomplishments, the leading advocate for bicycling in the U.S. Congress.  It was his vision that will result, when complete, in an 88-mile bike trail along the shore of Lake Superior from Two Harbors to Grand Marais.  Twenty-nine miles are complete now with some significant new sections coming soon.
 
The Birch Grove Community Center would like to introduce you to Pickleball, if you aren’t already acquainted.  Pickleball is a fun game that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong.  It can be played indoors or out with a paddle and a plastic ball.  It is a sport that can be enjoyed by people of all abilities.
 
Birch Grove has Pickleball every Thursday and Saturday at 10:00 am.  They are especially encouraging new players at this time and will make sure that you are comfortable and have fun.  Call Elizabeth at 663-7977 to give her a heads-up if you plan to attend.
 
The folks at the Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland are organizing an invasive weed pull on August 6 at 5:00 pm.  That is the same night and time as the popular farmer’s market, so you can stock up on fresh goodies and perform some community service at the same time.  The Lake County Invasive Species Team will be on hand to provide instruction on identification and techniques for removing invasive weeds.  Bring your gloves.
 
Congratulations to a couple of couples from Lutsen who tied the knot last weekend.  Josh Schmidt married Kim Coffman and Steve Bragg was wedded to Teresa Hansen.  Both ceremonies were loaded with locals and family from afar, all of whom enjoyed the most perfect North Shore Saturday of the decade.  It’s good to feel the love in the air in the beautiful West End.
 
 

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West End News: July 23

It was a week of disaster and near disaster in Tofte. 
 
Firmly in the disaster category, the Life Flight had to be summoned to Tofte and all our hearts go out to the Martinez family in their time of sorrow.
 
In the near disaster category, Rita Wehseler rolled her pickup on to its top on Highway 61 right in front of the rescue squad garage.  She had to take the ditch to avoid a vehicle pulling out of Bluefin and it was steep enough to flip her over.  Fortunately, she was wearing her seatbelt and escaped with minor injuries.  As we all know, Rita is pretty tough.  Once you've been dragged for a few miles by a dog team at 45 below zero, your perspective changes a bit.
 
Nevertheless, we're all grateful that she wasn't seriously hurt and it's a good reminder to all of us to respect the danger of the highway during this busy, busy season.
 
Finally, in the category of serious, but kind of funny now, the ice truck caught fire and burned up in Tofte last week.  The story around town is that it broke down and then caught fire spontaneously.  No one was hurt, but the ice was a total loss.
 
Dave and Amy Freeman call Lutsen home, but they actually live most of their lives in a tent, in their capacity as wilderness guides and the principals of Wilderness Classroom, the non-profit organization that connects school children with wilderness via technology.  One or both have paddled the length of the Amazon River, the Mississippi River, The River of Doubt in Brazil, paddled, hiked and dog-sledded halfway around North America, and paddled from Grand Marais to Washington D.C., just to name a few of their adventures.
 
Now, they are fulfilling a long-time goal by camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for a full year, without coming out.  From September 23, 2015, until September 22, 2016, they will travel the length and breadth of the BWCA Wilderness, but will not leave even for a single moment, unless they have an emergency.
 
They are calling it their "Year in the Wilderness" and are hoping to use the feat to call attention to the environmental threat posed by international mining interests that are hoping to mine sulfide-bearing rock within both the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior watersheds.
 
The Freemans are encouraging people to join them for short periods during the year, which is also how they plan to be re-supplied with food.  They plan to travel over 3,000 miles by canoe, foot, ski, snowshoe and dog team.  They will stay at more than 120 campsites.
 
You can find out more about their trip - and sign up to travel with them for a while - by googling "Campaign To Save the Wilderness."
 
Right now in the wilderness and in secret locations outside the wilderness, blueberries are starting to ripen.  Although far from the peak, ripe berries are being picked, especially on the south facing slopes.  It looks like it will be a mediocre berry crop this year, especially after we were all spoiled by last season's record harvest.
 
Between the half decent berry crop and a bumper crop of hazelnuts, the bears should be infrequent visitors to campsites, cabins and back yards this season.  Although there is always the possibility of bears capitalizing on easy access to human food, the availability of ample natural foods will keep most of the bruins deep in the woods, where they belong.
 

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