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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.


What's On:
Yellow-rumped warbler

West End News: April 18

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 Feeding the birds outside your living room window is almost taken for granted here in the West End.  Watching birds at the feeder is such constant part of life that it often takes a visitor's fresh eyes to remind us how lucky we are to have the quantity and quality of birds that we have both in residence and passing through. After more than 50 years, it is rare to see something new at the feeder. The other day, we spotted a small group of yellow-rumped warblers on our feeder.  Wikipedia tells me that the cute little birds are known to eat sunflower seeds from feeders, but never before in our neck of the woods. The same day, a friend in Tower mentioned on Facebook that she also had yellow rumpled warblers at her feeder.  Maybe the warblers are using Facebook to find out who has bird feeders.  More likely, though, that the recent storms have blown them into an area where they don't usually hang out.  In any case, they make a colorful addition to the usual chickadees and nuthatches.
The Birch Grove Senior Lunch continues to provide excellent programming.  Recently, Alta McQuatters from Lutsen presented some of the long history that her family has in the West End.  White Sky Rock, the popular overlook near Caribou Lake, is named for Alta's grandfather.  Her memories about the connections between her family and certain place names brought up a general discussion of place names, how important their history is to understanding our culture, and how their origins could be lost if they aren't carefully documented.  Carrie McHugh, of the Cook County Historical Society, picked up on the conversation and is working to get some funding and person power to investigate place names all around Cook County.  It will be fun to see the results as they appear.
On Wednesday, Apr. 24, at 11:30 AM, Sherrie Lindskog will be presenting information on her new laughter group.  The old saying that "laughter is the best medicine" turns out to be absolutely true, both for physical and mental health.  The Senior Lunch already includes quite a bit of laughing, but Sherrie's presentation should increase the percentage and provide some very interesting information too.  Everyone is welcome to Senior Lunch at Birch Grove, but if you aren't a regular, you should call ahead so they can be sure to have enough food.  The number is 663-7977 or call WTIP for contact information.
As if that isn't enough fun in itself, the Latin Dance exercise group meets at 10:30 a.m., just before the Senior Lunch and all are welcome.  What better way to work up an appetite and get yourself ready to laugh.
West End parents and kids will be glad to hear that the popular Campsite Kids program will be offered through Birch Grove this summer.  Campsite Kids is a qualified day care for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade and runs from June 11 through Aug. 29. Although it is based at the awesome Outdoor Classroom facility at Birch Grove, the emphasis of the program is to get kids doing fun outdoor activities all over the West End.  Field trips, hiking, creative projects, a possible cabin overnight are just a few of the offerings. 
If your kids are younger than kindergarten age, don't despair, because Birch Grove School is offering their popular Saplings program for the pre-school crowd again this summer.  Conveniently, it runs on the same dates and times as the Campsite Kids program.
Space is limited for both programs, so if you're interested, call Diane at Birch Grove School.  Her number is 663-0170 or contact WTIP for complete contact information.
Peggy Anderson of Schroeder will be hosting a veterinary clinic at her business, Temperance River Traders, in Schroeder, Thursday, June 6.  A vet will be there from the Ely Vet Clinic.  Appointments can be made by contacting the Ely Vet Clinic at 218-365-5911, or contact WTIP for full contact information.
It's the time of year when I start getting a lot of people asking me for my best guess of when the ice will go out.  I've been getting a few chuckles and a few groans by confidently predicting that it will be on Aug. 1.  All kidding aside, this could be one of the rare years when the ice doesn't go out before the opening of fishing season on May 11.  That said, predicting the ice-out date is nearly impossible.  One year, the ice was completely black and obviously within a couple of hours of going out on Apr. 28.  We had a betting pool going and we almost gave the money to the person who had bet Apr. 29.  The next morning we woke up to a 13-degree temperature and heavy snow.  The ice didn't go out for another two weeks that year.
Last year, on the day we left for vacation, we went for a long walk on the lake.  When we returned from vacation, seven days later, the ice was gone.
So, although anything and everything is possible, statistics tell us that the ice should be out before opening day.  It all depends on the weather.

Photo via This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Dave and Amy Freeman complete their 11,600 mile North American Odyssey.

West End News: April 11

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Lutsen residents Dave and Amy Freeman have completed their epic trip around the continent that they call the North American Odyssey.  Starting in Seattle three years ago, they have hiked, canoed, dog sledded and kayaked through Alaska, across northwestern Canada, east through the great lakes and down the eastern seaboard to Florida, where they finally stopped at Key West last week.  The trip was an incredible 11,600 miles in length.
It is stating the obvious to say that Dave and Amy love to travel under their own power through the natural world, camping as they go.  Their real passion though is the connection they maintain with over a hundred thousand school children through their Wilderness Classroom project.  State-of-the-art technology empowers students to follow their travels and participate in real time.  They offer a curriculum that teaches across many different fields and the kids get to vote on what Dave and Amy should do next as they travel through changing landscapes and conditions.
The Freemans make their home in Lutsen, but are so often gone on their travels, that many people don’t realize that they still live here.  Now that their latest journey is completed, they’ll spend the next couple of months giving presentations at schools across the country.  When the school year ends, they’ll be returning to Lutsen, at least for the summer.  I’m confident that they will present a slide show at North House Folk School sometime this summer.  As you can imagine, they have some stories to tell!
It’s hard to guess what their next trip might be.  In the last decade, they have paddled the length or the Mississippi River, crossed Manitoba and Ontario in the winter several times, crossed the South American Andes by bicycle and paddled the entire length of the Amazon River.  Maybe the next trip will be paddling the Nile?  Or, dog sledding across Siberia?  The sky is the limit for these two.
You may have noticed how the music scene in Cook County has exploded in recent years. 
Even though we’re now sliding into the off-season, this week, local guitar virtuoso, Gordon Thorne, is hosting the annual Fingerstyle Guitar Masters Weekend at Bluefin Bay in Tofte.  In just three years, this has grown into a popular and busy weekend, bringing some of the world’s best fingerstyle guitarists to little ol’ Cook County. 
On April 19th, the first Cook County Ramble will be held at Cascade Lodge starting at 8 pm.  This fun event will feature a cross section of local musicians celebrating the life and music of the late Levon Helm.  It’s a benefit, so the musicians are donating their time.  The real draw though is the chance to hang out together and play music.  Some pleasant surprises are almost guaranteed.  The public is welcome.
The North Shore Music Association is sponsoring top name musicians regularly at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts in Grand Marais, including the super-group Red Horse on April 27th.
In the last year, we’ve had dozens of world-class musicians perform in Cook County.   Local musicians have been busy too.  It is the rare day when you can’t find live music somewhere in the county.  On most weekends you can find live music at half a dozen or more venues.
The effect of all this is that Cook County is now thought of as a music community.  Although we haven’t reached the level of Nashville, New Orleans, Branson or Memphis, we are on our way to similar fame. 
The next step would be to launch a week-long festival, similar to the highly successful Homegrown Festival in Duluth.  This style of festival fills every venue in the area every night for a week.  The emphasis is on new, original music and unusual, exciting combinations of musicians.  This is a win-win-win formula for Cook County.  It can be held in off-season, so it makes a major contribution to the tourism economy, energizes and employs local musicians, attracts exciting new talent to the area and provides wonderful entertainment for residents.
Speaking of entertainment, don’t miss the Lake Superior Community Theater production of  “Death of a Salesman” that is showing now through April 20th in Silver Bay.  George Starkovich is starring in the iconic role of Willy Loman and it’s sure to be a knock-out production.  Tickets are available by searching for Lake Superior Community Theater online, or call WTIP for contact information.
A quick reminder of the public service gathering at Birch Grove on April 19th from 5:30 – 8 pm.  All non-profits, governmental units and anyone else who is interested in public service is invited.  It will be a time to share, learn and socialize, with the ultimate goal of compiling a list of community assets in the West End.  Wood fired pizza will also be served.  Contact Patty Nordahl at or call WTIP for contact info.
We are lucky to live in a place where we get to see a lot of wildlife.  In the years when my kids were riding back and forth to school, they became almost blasé about wildlife.  “Oh look, another moose, another wolf – ho hum.”  Yesterday though, I was startled to see a large skunk on the Sawbill Trail near the Temperance River bridge, about ten miles north of Tofte.  It wasn’t too concerned about me, showing the usual skunk confidence that I would not be foolish enough to mess with it.  My terrier sidekick, Roy, had never seen a skunk before and was lobbying hard to be let out of the truck to kill it.  Little did he know what a bad idea that was.  On my return trip, I saw the skunk again, about a half mile farther north.  I hope this doesn’t mean that it is traveling to Sawbill, where Roy would likely get his chance to learn all about skunks.
(Photo by Bryan Hansel - courtesy of Wilderness Classroom)

Levon Helm

West End News: March 28

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An interesting new business is coming to Lutsen soon. Chuck Corliss, long time Lutsen visitor and homeowner, is building a winery and brewery on the east side of the Ski Hill Road, just a little ways up from Highway 61.
Chuck recently attended an informal get-together with neighbors to show them the plans for the project and solicit ideas and concerns.  Chuck plans to initially sell bottles of wine that are made elsewhere, but marketed under his own brand.  Eventually, he plans to grow fruit on the property and use that to blend his own wines.  A gift shop and tasting room will be located in the same building.
For the beer brewing side of the business, Chuck has teamed up with local brew masters, Mike Carlson and Matt Kartes.  They’ll brew small batches of high quality beer in a separate building on the site.  They will sell large bottles of their beer, known as growlers, from the gift shop.  They also hope to have their beer on tap at bars around Cook County and perhaps regionally.
The plans do not include a restaurant or bar on the Lutsen site, although Chuck is brainstorming about offering classes, tastings, acoustic music and other events.  He is striving to make the business compatible with the other uses in the neighborhood, and he plans to make the buildings, landscaping and gardens as tasteful and pretty as he can.
Chuck is hoping to be at least partly open by this fall, but possibly not fully open until next spring.  He is moving ahead full speed with all the various licenses, permissions and plans that he needs before breaking ground.
A new and fun music event is happening in the West End Soon.  On Friday, Apr. 19, Cascade Lodge Pub, located between Lutsen and Grand Marais, will be the site of the “Cook County Ramble: The First Waltz.”  Many of Cook County’s most active musicians will gather to perform songs made famous by Levon Helm. Helm was most famously the drummer for The Band, which was Bob Dylan’s band for a while, among many other accomplishments. 
Levon Helm died last year on Apr. 19, so this event is designed to honor his memory.  In recent years, Helm hosted a famous concert series call the Midnight Ramble at his home in Woodstock, New York.  Helm was also featured in the movie, “The Last Waltz,” directed by Martin Scorsese, which documents The Band’s final concert in 1978. So, the Cook County Ramble: The First Waltz, is working to carry the work of one of America’s music icons forward, right here in Cook County.
Each musician or musical group will present its own interpretation of two songs that were previously recorded by Levon Helm.  At the end, all the musicians will join in on two of Helm’s most famous songs, inspired by the final scene from “The Last Waltz.”
Everyone is welcome to come and watch the fun.  Given the level of musicianship around Cook County, it should be well worth the effort.  The event is a fundraiser, so the musicians are all donating their time and talent.  There will be a small suggested donation at the door with half the receipts going to the Cook County High School Band instrument fund and half to Levon Helm’s charitable foundation, Keep It Goin’.
If you have any questions about the “Cook County Ramble: The First Waltz,” or if you would like to perform or even just help out, contact Eric Frost at 370-1362, or call WTIP for Eric’s contact information.
The Birch Grove Foundation is hosting an interesting event, also on Apr. 19, from 5:30 until 8 p.m.  The foundation director, Patty Nordahl, is inviting all the West End non-profits, public service organizations, townships and volunteers to a gathering at Birch Grove.  The purpose is to share information, get to know each other and explore where and when it might be useful to work together.
The agenda asks that participants bring any promotional materials that you might have to share about your organization and dates and times of any events that are coming up to be put into a community calendar. 
The Birch Grove Foundation is also putting together a list of West End community assets, so people should think about what they consider to be an asset to the West End.
There will also be a brainstorming session about broadband Internet access, which is arriving in the West End soon, to generate ideas of how broadband can be used to improve the community.  The ideas will be used for a Blandin Foundation grant application for a “Public Access Technology Hub” in the West End.
And, last, but certainly not least, the wood-fired oven will be hot and you will be able to make your own pizza.  Drinks will be provided and a collection will be taken up to pay for the pizza makings.
In my opinion, this is a really important effort that the Birch Grove Foundation is making on behalf of the West End.  It should be very useful and lead to better communication and cooperation in the community as we enter the world of broadband and the many other opportunities that are in front of us.  Contact the ever-reliable Patty Nordahl at (that’s bgf as in Birch Grove Foundation), or call WTIP for her contact information.

North House instructor Peter Henrikson and Grindbygg-style timber frame - photo by Carah Thomas

West End News: March 21

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A beautiful new building is coming to Tofte early this summer.  The building has recently been built and will be moved to the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in May or early June.  It will be used to protect one or more of the museum’s historic fishing skiffs.
But, here is the interesting part. The building is a replica of the 3,000-year-old Grindbygg style of timber framing, which is the oldest known style of building in Norway.  The old style of building is still commonly seen in western Norway, especially in utility buildings like barns and boathouses. 
The Grindbygg style of building is similar to modern timber frames, but there are no mortises or tenons.  The construction is a bit simpler, but was a practical solution for ancient people that didn’t have access to smooth, sawn timbers.  They built the buildings with axes, chisels, drills and handsaws.  The bracing is made from the naturally curved root knees from birch and tamarack trees.  It gives the building a very organic, natural look and makes a building durable enough to last for centuries.
The museum’s Grindbygg building was built by a North House Folk School class under the capable direction of Peter Henrikson.  Peter traveled to Norway this year to learn the technique, which is enjoying a popular revival there.  The completed frame is currently in the courtyard at North House, so if you are going to Grand Marais, stop by and look at it.  I would love to have a cabin built in the Grindbygg style.
I was disappointed to see a headline in the Duluth News Tribune recently that read “Wolves Taking Toll on Minnesota Moose.”  The story itself, written by reporter John Myers, was actually a pretty routine update on the ongoing DNR research project on the rapidly declining moose herd.  Myers is a veteran and experienced reporter, who does consistently excellent work. 
The gist of the story was that six of the monitored moose have died since they were collared last month.  Four of the moose died from the stress of being shot with a tranquilizer and collared.  Two of the moose had been eaten and presumably killed by wolves.  In all six cases, Myers reported that it is likely that the moose were already ill and weakened before the researchers and/or wolves killed them.
In my opinion, the headline, “Wolves Taking Toll on Minnesota Moose” has two problems. First, by misrepresenting the content of the story, it reinforces old and discredited myths about wolves.  Second, is it really news that wolves kill moose?  Haven’t wolves been killing and eating wolves since time immemorial?  Doesn’t everyone know by now that the predator/prey relationship actually strengthens the moose herd over the long run? 
Last fall, 82 moose were killed by human hunters, but a headline reading, “Hunters Taking Toll on Minnesota Moose” would have been wildly inappropriate.
The Birch Grove Foundation is hoping to offer the LOTS program at Birch Grove Community Center this summer.  LOTS stands for Learning Opportunities Through Stories.  It is a family/child literacy program where children from birth to 5 years old and their caregivers listen to stories and do related activities.
There will be time for playing outside too, and maybe even a family pizza night using the new outdoor wood-fired oven. It is a great way to meet other parents with young children. Older siblings are always welcome.
If you are interested, or know anyone who might be, please contact Patty Nordahl at Birch Grove. Her email is bgf, as in Birch Grove Foundation,


West End News: March 14

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I can’t believe it’s been 15 years since I did my happy dance upon hearing WTIP’s broadcast signal for the first time.  At that point, I was just glad to receive repeats of KUMD’s programming from Duluth without having to suffer the waves of static that I had put up with for about 40 years.  Little did I dream that WTIP, “the little radio station that could,” would wind up being a completely independent source of news, entertainment and community-building.  Congratulations to staff, current and past, who, along with the members and listeners, have literally made this one of the finest radio stations in the world.
Here is my list of 15 things I like about WTIP:  Quinn’s exquisite taste in music; Buddy’s tune of the day; live local musicians; the Radio Waves Music Festival; New Orleans All The Way Live; Dick and Norm; First Thursdays; DJ Woodsplitter; the Road House; Naturalist Chel Anderson; Rhonda Silence; disaster information; Sidetracks with Matthew or Caribou and Wildersmith’s turns of phrase.
That list is 14 things.  The 15th thing that I like is what WTIP has done for promoting civil discourse in Cook County.  By exploring important and potentially controversial issues in a fair, even-handed and thorough way, they have made public debate and local decision-making much better.  This is a huge service to our community.
You may remember that at this time last year, we were experiencing an incredible March meltdown.  This whole week had high temperatures in the 50s, 60s and even hit 70 on March 19.  We lost the little snow we had in just a few days. 
I mention this because this year is completely different - and comforting - for those of us who enjoy winter.  Here at Sawbill, we have 33 inches of snow on the ground and there has been very little melting.  The trees are loaded with snow and the wind still has some bite when it blows from the north.  The trails, for skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, are in absolutely perfect condition.  It looks like winter will hang in there for the next 10 days or so, at least, so my advice is to get out and enjoy it.
Lutsen Mountains Ski Area, perhaps in a slight over-reaction to last year’s heat wave, has made incredible amounts of snow this winter.  It’s worth the price of admission just to see the giant piles of snow scattered around the slopes.  If they wanted to, they could probably stay open until June this year.
Mike Larson, of Lutsen, is preparing himself to ride in this year’s Lutsen 99er mountain bike race.  The 99-mile ride winds through the best of the West End, in a rigorous course that leads from Lutsen Mountains, down to Lake Superior, then back up through the hills and finally back to the Mountain. 
This is the third year for the race, which runs on the last weekend in June, and is organized by the Cook County Visitors Bureau in partnership with Lifetime Fitness.  Mike tells me that in the first year, 78 riders participated. Last year that grew to 350 riders at the starting line. This year they already have more than 350 riders pre-registered to date.  Mike is certain that there will be at least 800 riders this year, which is the limit the race is setting so they don’t experience growing pains. 
The Lutsen 99er is quickly becoming one of the premier mountain bike races in the Midwest and is well on its way to international prominence. As great as the event itself is, the real value comes from letting the world know that Cook County is a world-class biking destination and getting better all the time, which strengthens our economy and culture is a very positive way.
And – I fully expect Mike Larson to at least bring home an age class medal this year.

Fires grate, latrines and boardwalks waiting to be transported into the BWCA Wilderness by dog team.

West End News: March 7

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The Tofte Post Office is officially cutting its window hours starting Monday, March 11.  From that day forward, the window will be open from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m. and then again from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.  The post office boxes will be accessible from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., six days a week.  Saturdays will have the same morning window hours that are currently in place.
In the future, the post office is aiming to change the front door locks so box holders can access their boxes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  That change will obviously require some security measures to be put in place but, in this day and age, that should be an easy problem to solve.  That change would be a nice convenience to help make up for the cuts in window service.
The postmaster’s job in Tofte has been technically unfilled since Priscilla Reviere retired a few years ago.  All the postmasters since then have been temporary replacements.  The new window hours will change the postmaster position from a full-time job with benefits to a part-time, six-hour-a-day job without benefits.  This change is a double-edged sword because it eliminates a well-paid full-time job from the West End.  On the other hand, it will still be a desirable part-time job.  The two-hour break over the lunch hour, though, will essentially guarantee that the job will go to someone who lives near by.  No one will want to commute to the job and be forced to kill two hours every day with no pay.
The new postmaster position will be offered soon.  Anyone interested should watch for the posting to go up in the Tofte post office.
Our local Forest Service wilderness rangers are in the midst of an interesting project that occurs annually at this time of year.  They are using a dog team to transport heavy fire grates, latrines and boardwalk timbers into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  The items are stashed in central locations that can be accessed by their maintenance crews during the summer as needed.
Here at Sawbill, the team of friendly huskies is being wrangled by Nancy Mondalexis from Ely.  Local wilderness rangers, Tammy Cefalu and Dan Disch, are working with her to get the materials situated before the warm weather arrives.  It’s a great example of smart and efficient government work, providing a service that ends up creating a lot of economic benefit to the West End communities.  On top of that, it looks like a lot of fun.  Somehow, it just seems right to see working dogs doing a significant job in the wilderness.
Congratulations to Tess Dornfeld on her triumph at Sven and Ole’s world championship joke telling contest recently.  Tess won the “Best Scandinavian Accent” category at the event and took home a $25 gift certificate to Sven and Ole’s and a plaque.  I am proud to say that Tess is one of the many fine Cook County residents who first came to the county as a Sawbill Outfitters crewmember.  She currently works for Waters Edge Trading in Tofte and at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op.  Her mother, Carol Winter, was also a Sawbill crewmember back in the ‘70s.  Her parents own land near Grand Marais and are planning to start building a retirement home here this year.  Tess gets her accent knack from her mother, who also can tell a good joke in a perfect Scandinavian accent.
I highly recommend the cover article on the Feb. 20th issue of Time Magazine.  The more than 30-page article by Steven Brill is entitled: ”Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.”  Brill’s in-depth analysis of how health care is priced, charged and paid for in the United States should be required reading for every American. It’s a great example of how careful, objective journalism can serve our society. But, for those of us in Cook County, it serves another purpose. It reminds us how lucky we are to have our local clinic and hospital.  Both the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic and the North Shore Hospital work hard to provide us with high quality, personalized care at reasonable prices.  I have no doubt that health care professionals across the country are, with few rare exceptions, dedicated and sincere in their efforts.  The system though, especially the payment system, is absurd and out of control. In my opinion, it reflects more poorly on our political system than on our health care system.  Read the article and see if you don’t agree.

Ellis "Bud" Tormondsen - photo by Terry Backlund.

West End News: November 28

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I am always sad when I hear that we’ve lost another member of “the greatest generation.”  Last week, World War II Marine Corps veteran Bud Tormondsen passed away. His parents were North Shore pioneers Chris and Metelda Tormondsen.  Bud was a popular and well-respected Tofte resident for his entire life. I know many people who made a point of stopping to visit Bud each time they traveled up and down the shore. 
Just before his death, the young Norwegian filmmakers who were working around the county recently discovered Bud.  They were particularly charmed by him and hoped to feature him in their film project about Norwegian Americans.  I’m afraid that his illness and death kept that from happening, at least in the depth that they were hoping for.
I join the whole community in offering condolences to Bud Tormondsen’s family and friends.
Cook County Higher Education is offering a three-day advanced welding course March 23 though March 25.  The instructor is Don Hammer, an amazingly skilled and experienced welder, artist and renaissance man.  I can vouch for Don’s teaching skills because I took his basic welding course a couple of years ago.  He was good at giving clear instruction and very encouraging, even to those who were among the welding-challenged, a group in which I was clearly a member.  When Don met with me at the end of the course to critique my project, he inspected it carefully, gave constructive criticism, and concluded by saying, “You did OK, but when you show this to people, please don’t tell them that you made it in my class.”  He was joking… I think.
Skilled welders are in great demand in today’s world. Contact Cook County Higher Education in Grand Marais at 387-3411 for more information.
Cindy Hansen and a friend from the Cities went for a snowshoe hike on Sawbill a few days ago and discovered a dead otter.  Otters keep holes open here and there along the lakeshore so they can get under the ice for feeding.  This otter was lying just a few yards from an access hole.  The snow was beaten down for about 15 feet all around the carcass.  Unfortunately, it had snowed that morning, so Cindy couldn’t tell what tracks were at the scene.  The ravens had been feeding for a little while, but the body was surprisingly intact.  Only the major organs had been removed.
I did some research and couldn’t find any mention among otter experts about otters killing each other, so we think it must have been a larger predator.  I figure that a wolf would have been inclined to eat the whole thing if it had the chance.  One local expert guessed that it might have been a bobcat or lynx.  He said that he has heard of the big cats waiting by the access holes to grab otters when they pop out.  In any case, it was an interesting find.  Nature isn’t always pretty, but it is always interesting.
A couple of quick reminders: First, remember that the bloodmobile will be at Zoar Church in Tofte in the afternoon of Monday, March 4.  Call Carla Mennson at 663-0179 look for the Duluth-based Memorial Blood Center online if you would like to donate.  Second, remember that AARP volunteer income tax preparers will be at Birch Grove Center every Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. between now and tax day.

Boreal Owl

West End News: February 21

The boreal owl is a very small owl that used to be fairly common around here, but has mostly disappeared in recent years.  At the moment though, there is a well-documented irruption of boreal owls occurring in northern Minnesota. 
The word “irruption,” spelled i-r-r-u-p-t-i-o-n, is often confused with the word eruption, as in the eruption of a volcano.  Irruption with an “i” means the influx, in unusually large numbers, of a species into an area where they normally aren’t seen.  Biologists are guessing that a lack of prey farther north is driving the little owls south this year.
Most people probably haven’t noticed this latest irruption because the boreal owls are nocturnal and are silent when they aren’t breeding, so they are rarely observed unless you’re looking for them.  It’s only when they make a rare daytime appearance, or when they die in a place near humans, that they get noticed. 
Here are Sawbill, I found a dead boreal owl while plowing our canoe yard after the most recent snowfall.  It’s fun to see such a rare bird close up, but sad that it had to die for me to be able to inspect it.  It’s always a surprise to pick up an owl.  The one I found was about the size of a small grouse, but only weighed about four ounces.
Another phenomenon that may be occurring this year is bobcats appearing at bird feeders.  When the snow gets deep but hasn’t developed a crust, which is the case right now, the bobcats have a hard time catching prey.  When they get hungry enough, they start to show up at bird feeders, especially if there is a suet feeder that can be robbed.  I’ve heard a few reports of bold bobcats around the West End this week, but we haven’t seen one here at Sawbill yet.
Recently, I’ve noticed that there are a large number of job openings in the county.  I don’t know if this is a good sign, or a bad sign.  It could be the result of the improving economy - or it could reflect a migration out of the area by the people who formerly held the jobs - or it could just be a coincidence. West End visitors often ask me about job openings in the area.  It seems many people fantasize about moving to our wonderful community, and who can blame them?
The new water pipeline, erosion control projects and high-speed ski lift at Lutsen Mountains will surely mean many construction jobs in the near future.  The ski area is also looking into replacing its 50-year-old gondola soon.  Superior National golf course is planning a large upgrade too.  With the continuing fiber optic project and Highway 61 construction, things should be hopping around Lutsen for the next few years.
If you know somebody who has always wanted to move up here, now might be a good time.
The Bloodmobile is returning to Zoar Church in Tofte Monday, Mar. 4.  It’s important to maintain a good blood supply, but even more important is the chance to hang out with your neighbors and catch up on what everyone is doing, while drinking juice and eating cookies.  New donors are always needed, so if you’re interested call Carla Mennsen at 663-0179.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons. This image is a work of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.)

West End News February 14

West End News February 14

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Logging has increased along the Sawbill Trail over the last couple of years.  Almost every month a new logging site or road appears, along with the commuting loggers, heavy equipment and - of course - logging trucks.
The industry has come a long way since the horse logging days.  It is now almost entirely done with big harvesting and processing machines.  Like many modern industries, this has drastically increased productivity, but reduced the number of workers.
Back when I first came to the West End, there were temporary logging camps where the lumberjacks lived in shacks that were dragged from one site to another. The lumberjacks used chainsaws to fell, limb and cut the trees to length.  Rubber-tired skidders pulled the trees out to a landing where they were typically cut to the 100” length required by the pulp mills. The lumberjacks were a colorful group of mostly older men who worked incredibly hard, played hard and often drank hard. Now, lumberjacks are skilled machine operators who live in town and are respected members of the community.
This week a new logging road appeared along the Sawbill Trail, cleared out by two cats in just a day or two. The road is actually a section of the old Sawbill Trail that was abandoned back in the mid-1990s when the Sawbill Trail was reconstructed from the end of the blacktop on the Tofte end, to the Grade Road, six miles south of Sawbill Lake.  When that project was in the planning stages, an alert engineer noticed that the Sawbill Trail and the Grade Road were parallel to each other for a little over two miles.  The county was planning to rebuild the Sawbill and the Feds were planning to rebuild the Grade, so they combined the two roads along the route of the Grade and abandoned a couple of miles of the old Sawbill Trail.
Not only did the scheme save everyone money, but it eliminated the most twisty and dangerous section of the Trail.  That stretch ran over a series of eskers, which are steep ridges of gravel that were deposited by the receding glaciers in the last ice age.  When the road was built, back in the ‘20s, the easiest thing was to put the road on top of the eskers, resulting in a narrow, twisting road with steep drop-offs on both sides.  You can still see this phenomenon in the West End along the Honeymoon Trail, among others.  On the Sawbill, the curvy section included one notorious bend that was widely known as “Dead Man’s Curve.”  I never heard if anyone actually died there, but many cars and trucks wound up in the woods at the bottom of the steep slope.
Right after the road was abandoned, it was a favorite for grouse hunters, but it only took a few short years before wind fallen trees and new growth made the old road impassable, even for hiking.  Sometime this week, I’m going to go in to see how far the logger has cleared the old road, and revisit that stretch of eskers. With a little luck, I may even get to visit my old friend, “Dead Man’s Curve.”
Back when the Sawbill Trail was rebuilt, the county planned to pave it. It was very controversial at the time. Eventually, a compromise was reached that resulted in a complete rebuild, but left the surface gravel and the road as narrow as possible.  Now, 20 years later, it seems that the paving is on its way, probably in 2014. 
Paving the Sawbill Trail somehow just feels wrong, but the engineers make very convincing arguments for the safety, maintenance, and environmental benefits of paving.  There is less gravel mining needed, no dust to kill roadside vegetation, less sediment washed into trout streams and far better braking distances and vehicle control. In addition to all those benefits, the traffic on the Sawbill Trail is busy enough in July, August and September, that the gravel forms terrible washboard that literally shakes vehicles apart.  Paving has become unavoidable, but the county plans to keep the road to its current width with no new construction.
There is good news and bad news considering the current amount of snow back here in the woods.  The good news is that right now there is 28” of snow on the ground.  The plowed-up snow banks here at Sawbill are over 6 feet high and impressively deep.  The trees are also loaded with snow, so it really is a good old-fashioned winter scene at the moment and ideal for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The bad news is that if it snows again, I’ll have to shovel the roofs of several large buildings here on the property. Shoveling roofs used to be a routine chore, often needing to be done twice a winter and even three times in a snowy year.  In the last 10 years, I’ve only had to shovel twice.  Shoveling roofs is the kind of job that is only fun for about 15 minutes.  After that it is just hard, boring work.  The invention of the iPod has made it slightly more interesting, but does nothing to prevent aching arms and a sore back.
As I’ve said many times before, though, it’s the price we pay to live in paradise.

Airdate: February 14, 2013

Moose capture - photo courtesy the Minnesota DNR.

West End News: February 7

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Two of the young Norwegian film makers who where around the county last summer have returned for the month of February to finish their interactive, multimedia project about Norwegian Americans on Minnesota’s north shore.  They are part of a collective of young Oslo area photojournalists who call themselves “Lutefisk Hotel.”  Their north shore project is called “The Norwegian Riviera.”
When they arrived in the county, Kristian Bålsrød and Anton Ligaarden advertised a request for housing, so we let them stay in our crew house here at Sawbill.  It was fun to have them around for few days.  They are certainly skilled photojournalists, which you can see for yourself by looking at their website at  Also, Anton received word while here at Sawbill that his work has been nominated for “picture of the year” by the Norwegian Nation Photojournalism Association.  That is a high honor to earn at the tender age of 22.  Congratulations Anton.
Like all young Norwegians, they speak English very well, with only the occasional humorous translation error.  While having coffee at our kitchen table, Kristian exclaimed, “Oh look, there is a woodchuck on your bird feeder!”  Seeing the look on our faces, he quickly said, “no - a woodchuck is a small mammal. I mean woodpecker.”  He followed that by asking what the large red bird on feeder was called.  When we replied that is was a pine grosbeak, Kristian responded, “What? Pine roast beef?”  It was good for a laugh, but I must admit that I can’t even pronounce the four Norwegian words that I know correctly, so my hat is off to Norwegian language education.
Ann Rider, who lives in Lutsen, is a well-respected and successful editor of children’s books.  She works for Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  She is one of a number of Cook County residents who have successful businesses that operate in the larger world, but fly under the radar here in the county. 
In the world of children’s books, the highest honor you can receive is a gold or silver medal from the American Library Association.  The Caldecott Medal is awarded for the best illustrations and the Newberry Medal is awarded for the best writing.  A book that Ann edited, “Sleep Like A Tiger,” illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski and written by Mary Logue, just received this year’s silver Caldecott Medal.  This is a big deal, but almost routine for Ann.  Her books have previously won two gold Caldecotts, two silver Caldecotts and a silver Newberry.  The awards go to the illustrators and authors, not the editor, but Ann is invited to the ceremony and is the recipient of high praise from the winners.
The DNR moose collaring operation has moved out of Cook County.  They are working now in the western end of the Superior National Forest, but are very close to completing their task of collaring 100 moose.  They have some dramatic pictures of shooting moose with tranquilizer darts, installing the collars and taking various biological samples.  You can easily find their pictures and daily updates by going to the Minnesota DNR website and entering the key word “moose.” 
While I’m supportive of the research and the results will be fascinating, there is a small part of me that feels sorry for the moose.  It can’t be much fun to be chased by a helicopter, shot with a tranquilizer, subjected to numerous humiliating probes and pokes and then be left with a ear tag and a collar to wear until you die.
It also seems obvious to me that the moose decline in northern Minnesota is just one of hundreds of signs that the climate is changing and the ranges of all species are moving north.  I wonder sometimes if it isn’t easier to study the problem than to get to work solving the problem.
Speaking of climate change, Minnesota Power announced last week that they are shutting down one of the three coal-fired turbines at their Taconite Harbor power plant in Schroeder.  Unit three at Tac Harbor is actually the newer of the three units.  The power plant was actually designed to have six turbines, to be built in stages as needed.  Unit 3 was added to the plant a few years after the original two units were built.  Being a few years newer, it was the most efficient and least polluting unit at the plant until a few years ago when extensive pollution control equipment was installed on Unit 1 and 2.  Minnesota Power figures that it wouldn’t pay to put pollution control equipment on Unit 3 in the face of impending federal limits on CO2 production.  CO2, especially from coal-fired power plants is a major cause of climate change.
Minnesota Power didn’t say when Unit 3 would be closed.  I notice when I drive by that it is still going strong.  The good news is that they don’t expect anyone to lose their job due to the closing.  The bad news is that the handwriting seems to be on the wall for the eventual closing of the whole plant.  That will be a serious economic hardship for Cook and Lake Counties, if and when it happens.  On the other hand, climate change is now obvious for all to see and I would sure hate to lose the moose in our woods.