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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:
Art Wright being interviewed by Mary Alice Hansen - photo by Bill Hansen.

West End News: February 1

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Last week I visited with Art Wright at his home in Duluth. Art was born in Duluth in 1913, but lived in Grand Marais for a time when he was a young boy.  He’ll be turning 100 in a couple of weeks. Art’s father was the purser on the steamship America.  His mother was the teacher at the Maple Hill School just north of Grand Marais.  She received her teaching certification when she was 16 years old.  Art’s parents met on the America when his mother was traveling to her new job.
During the visit, my mom, Mary Alice Hansen, and my son, Carl Hansen, filmed an interview with Art about his boyhood memories in Grand Marais and his time growing up aboard the America.  They did the filming on behalf of the Cook County Historical Society.
I knew that Art was an avid wilderness canoeist for his whole life, so I asked him when he took his first canoe trip in the BWCA Wilderness.  He said his first trip was in 1928 when he and some friends went to Kekekabic Lake.  His first trip starting at Sawbill Lake was in 1930 or ‘31. 
Art recalled around that time that he and a friend were returning to Sawbill from a long canoe trip and encountered a large floatplane at the Sawbill boat landing.  As the young men approached the landing in their canoe, the pilot taxied away from the landing, right past their canoe.  Floatplanes make a huge wake when they taxi at slow speed and it caught Art and his friend off guard and they were dumped, with all their gear, just a few yards short of their take-out point.  Art commented mildly that they were “not too happy with the pilot.”
If you’ve driven through Tofte lately, you can’t help but notice the beautiful new building that has gone up at Sawtooth Outfitters. The owners, Jeff and Sarah Lynch, had the building designed by an architect to mimic the look of the Sawtooth Mountains. The beautiful custom windows pick up the motif of the trees on the hills.
The old Sawtooth Outfitters building was quite small, especially considering that the owners also live in the building. The new building still includes the Lynches’ home, but they will have more room for themselves as well as expanded space for their retail store, along with their existing ski, bike and canoe and kayak rental business.  For the first time, they will have a public bathroom for their customers.
The Lynches made a point of hiring local contractors for the big job.  The primary builders are Tyler Norman and Jared Boen.  As all buildings should be now days, the 3,200-square-foot building is highly energy efficient and utilizes off-peak electric heat, a wood stove backup and passive solar heat from the south-facing windows.
They are fully open for business now and will have a grand opening celebration in the spring.
The moose capture and radio-collaring project was active along the Sawbill Trail last week. The researchers, their mobile laboratory and helicopter were set up at the Moose Fence ski trail parking lot for a couple of days. DNR wildlife manager, Dave Ingebrigtsen, reported 31 moose had been captured and collared so far, including five cows and four bulls along the Sawbill Trail.
Their goal is to collar 100 moose. When a collared moose dies, the researchers will attempt to get to it as soon as possible to conduct an autopsy and ultimately try to answer the question of why the moose population is declining.
The team had cleared a helicopter landing spot here at Sawbill, but finally decided not to collar moose that might wander into the wilderness before they die, which would complicate the access for autopsy.  I understand the thinking, but we were disappointed to miss out on the excitement.  We are easily entertained at this time of year here in the backwoods.
Jerry Gervais, the famous Snowmobile Doctor from Tofte, had a man walk into his yard the other day.  The man had quite a story to tell.  He was staying at Temperance Landing in Schroeder with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and 1-year-old grandchild.  The family decided to have dinner at the Trestle Inn, with the younger couple snowmobiling there and the older couple taking the baby and driving.  They looked at a map and decided to drive to the Trestle by going up the Sawbill Trail and then cutting across the 600 Road, not knowing that in the winter the 600 Road is actually a snowmobile trail. 
They managed to get their Honda Civic onto the 600 Road and drove for quite a ways before they realized their mistake. By that time, they were afraid they would get stuck if they tried to stop or turn around, so they decided to keep going. 
After driving five miles on the 600 Road, they came to the intersection with the Tofte snowmobile access trail. Seeing the sign that said, “This way to Tofte,” they decided to head down the actual snowmobile trail to Tofte. They made it another five miles before they reached the snowmobile bridge across the Temperance River and became hopelessly stuck. 
The grandfather left his wife and grandchild in the car and continued walking down the trail. He followed the signs for almost another five miles to the Snowmobile Doctor, figuring correctly that he would be a good person to help them. Jerry quickly rounded up some help, two snowmobiles and a sleigh and rescued the grandmother and grandchild.  The next morning, Paul James, from Tofte, pulled the car out using the Tucker Sno-cat that he uses to groom the local snowmobile trails.
It’s actually fairly common for people to attempt driving their cars on groomed snowmobile trails and getting stuck, but they usually don’t get very far.  The Sno-doc says that he’s no fan of Honda Civics, but he had to give some credit to the little car that became a fairly functional snowmobile for at least 10 miles.


West End News: January 24

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The most common question that we hear from our customers here at Sawbill Outfitters is, “What do you do in the winter?”  They seem to feel that when the canoeing season ends, there must not be very much to do.
I thought about this as I struggled to cope with the brisk West End weather that we had this week. The first chore was to plow and shovel the eight inches of snow that fell over the weekend. As I stepped out of the plow truck a wind gust almost knocked me over. The blowing snow created a total whiteout and branches were flying sideways through the air. 
By morning, the temperature stood at 22 below zero. We make our own electricity here at Sawbill and the first thing I noticed was that our diesel generator hadn’t started during the night when our battery bank triggered the automatic start circuit.  The batteries were still providing power, but just barely. 
The last thing I wanted to do before breakfast was to trudge through the squeaking snow to the diesel shed to diagnose the generator failure.  It turned out that the propane tank heater on the big diesel engine had been blown out by the strong wind gusts the night before. With the heater re-lit, it only took about half an hour before I was able to get the rig running.
The next thing I noticed was that our backup propane furnace was off line. The wood-fired boiler was keeping us plenty warm, but I’m always nervous when there is no backup for a critical system. I had to work my way through five levels of the troubleshooting guide before I discovered that the fresh air intake on the furnace had been packed with snow by the same pesky wind gusts the night before. 
Relieved to have everything working again, I headed back to the house for breakfast, only to discover that our radiotelephone system was not working. At first I suspected a power outage in Lutsen, where our base station is located. But after some checking, I found that the electric light bulb, that provides just enough heat to the little radio shed to keep the radios working, had burned out.
After replacing the bulb, I was happy to head back toward the house to warm up my cold fingers and finally eat breakfast. But before I got there, I noticed that the diesel had shut itself off. So I passed right by the warm house where breakfast was waiting, and headed back to the diesel shed.  The diesel fuel, which is supposed to be fine down to 40 below, had gone from a liquid to a solid in the fuel lines. By that time, the sun was high enough in the sky for the solar panels to start charging the batteries, so all I had to do was wait for the air to warm up to a balmy 16 below and the fuel thawed itself out.
Breakfast was really more of a brunch by the time I got around to it, then the normal daily chores began.  It’s just the price we have to pay to live here in paradise.
I’d like to express my condolences to the family and many friends of my friend, Jim Johnson, who passed away this week.  Jim made many contributions to the community, but over the last eight years he served very honorably as a Cook County Commissioner.  Jim always led by example.  His calm and friendly demeanor belied the passion he felt for public service.  He did more for us than we will ever know and did it with dignity, patience, respect and a good sense of humor.  He will be sorely missed.
Eight teams eventually signed up for the Birch Grove January boot hockey tournament.  I look forward to reporting the action and the results next week.
Remember that Birch Grove is looking for members to join their “Keep It Moving” team for the month of February. All you have to do is go to the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic website, sign up for the Birch Grove team and log your walking, skiing, running or biking miles, or minutes of other exercise. You are also cordially invited to Birch Grove on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. for gentle exercise or walking.
If you are of pre-school age, save the date for the “Winter Wonderland” event at Birch Grove on Feb. 4. This is the annual fun day for pre-school children, their families and caregivers.  More details will become available as the date draws nearer.

Canada Lynx caught on West End trail cam.

West End News January 17

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It looks like a part of the new moose research project that is being coordinated by the Department of Natural Resources might come to Sawbill.  DNR wildlife biologist Dave Ingebrigtson, from Grand Marais, stopped by recently to let us know that public parking lot here at Sawbill might be used as a helicopter landing pad starting this week.  It may include a fuel tanker, support crew and a heated trailer used by state veterinarians as a portable laboratory.  He even mentioned the possibility of a moose being brought into the parking lot in a sling under the chopper.
Dave said the activity, or lack of activity, here at Sawbill will depend on where moose are found and many other details related to the research.  I sure hope they end up here because it would be fun to watch the research at close range – and it’s always entertaining to have a helicopter in the neighborhood.
About 15 years ago, the DNR was doing a project near here that involved using a helicopter to spread tree seeds.  The pilot, who was a private contractor, landed here at Sawbill a couple of hours before his fuel truck arrived, so we invited him to kill time by joining us for lunch.  At the end of the meal, he pushed his chair back, looked at our two younger children and asked if they would like a ride.  He insisted that we all go, two at a time.  He had spent years giving rides at county fairs, so he really knew how to show the yokels a good time.  It is one of our family’s favorite memories, all the more so for being so unexpected.
I don’t reckon we’ll be so lucky this time around, but it sure would be fun to be in a helicopter that was flying close enough to a moose to shoot it with a tranquilizer gun.
The new skating rink and warming house at Birch Grove is now fully open for business. With this extended cold snap that has settled in, the skating should be ideal.  The lights are on until 10 every night and the warming house is open most of the time.
The popular boot hockey tournament held at the Birch Grove skating rink already has four teams signed up for the contest scheduled for Friday, Janu. 25.  If you want to get in on the January tournament, you should email right away and you can probably still squeeze in.  A second tournament is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 9 and it’s not too early to register for that. A team consists of five or six players who are at least 12 years old.  Each game is 25 minutes long and the tournament runs until a champion is crowned.  Regardless of their win/loss record, each team will receive a complimentary Sven and Ole’s pizza, thanks to Sven and Ole’s and Grand Marais State Bank.
Birch Grove is also recruiting West End residents to its Keep It Moving team.  This is part of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic’s program that has businesses and organizations in Cook County tracking how many miles they have walked, run or biked to be plotted as distance around Lake Superior.  The idea is to see how many virtual circle tours your team can make around the big lake and compare that with your friends and neighbors’ efforts.  You can join the Birch Grove team, log your miles and keep track of the progress on the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic website.
Even though it is rare to see a moose these days, lynx sightings continue to be fairly routine here in the West End.  I saw two lynx on my way to Ely last week, and another West End resident shared a lynx photo that their trail cam captured.  It’s sure good to have the big cats around again and it looks like there are plenty of snowshoe hare for them to eat at the moment.
I drove over to Ely because I was invited to a meeting with Sen. Al Franken on the issue of the state owned school trust lands in the BWCA Wilderness.  The issue of school trust lands goes all the way back to when Minnesota was declared a state.  Over the years, this has been a political football that has been kicked all over the field and even occasionally out of bounds.  The meeting I attended was made up of business owners whose businesses are directly tied, in one way or another, to the BWCA Wilderness. 
The issues surrounding these state land holdings are unbelievably complex, detailed and arcane.  I couldn’t begin to go into them here without causing a quick and sharp drop in listenership.  But, I will say that I was very impressed with how thoroughly Sen. Franken is striving to understand the issue.  He is meeting with federal, state, county, township and school officials, mining concerns, business people, environmental interests, hunting and fishing interests and anyone else he can find who cares about public lands and/or public education.  He likely now knows more about the issue than any other living person and will be using that knowledge to guide the drafting of any future legislation.  It was a pleasure to see a politician doing his homework so thoroughly and thoughtfully.
While on the subject of politics, I hope my fellow gun owners will join me in supporting some long overdue common sense regulations.  The scorched earth politics of certain gun advocacy groups have long annoyed me. It’s time to set aside wild fantasies of government conspiracies and do what we need to do to protect our children from guns that are manufactured for only one purpose – to kill lots of people very quickly. The time has come.
Airdate: January 17, 2013

Geologist John Green and Forest Service employee Mary Igoe install the new geology display at the Gunflint District Office.

West End News: January 10

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Back in the woods, winter is holding its own a little better than in the rest of the region.  Here at Sawbill, as of Jan. 9, we’ve had a season total of just less than 30 inches of snow.  Between normal settling and a couple of heat waves, there are 10 inches left standing on the ground.  It’s kind of sad, and a sign of the times, that we now welcome every inch of snow as a big event.  Not too many years ago, a four-inch snowfall was barely worthy of comment. 
Joe Fredrickson, from Silver Bay, who was injured in an accidental explosion at the power plant in Schroeder way back at the end of October, came home from the hospital on Christmas Eve after more than two months at the Miller-Dwan Burn Unit in Duluth.  His recovery has been painful, slow and difficult, but when he rolled into Silver Bay, the town’s people lined the streets to cheer and welcome him home.  Although it is a little hard to read, you can follow Joe’s progress at his Caring Bridge site by searching it for Joseph Fredrickson.  His steady progress and hard work will eventually bring him to full recovery, but it is a hard road that he has to walk.
I just received word that my friend, Tom Parent, originally from Schroeder and recently from Silver Bay has passed away at age 57.  The Parents are pioneers in Schroeder and trace their regional roots back for countless generations.  I’m sure I join the whole community in offering my condolences to Tom’s family and friends.
I’d like to add my congratulations to Art and Lavonne Anderson who were recently named Schroeder Citizens of the Year.  Their kindness toward their neighbors was mentioned in the recognition.  I can only say that they probably should have been named Citizens of the Decade, but otherwise the honor couldn’t be better placed.
The BWCA Wilderness overnight permit reservation system is slightly different this year.  All reservations for the entry points in Cook County can be reserved on a first come, first served basis starting at 9 a.m. Jan. 30.  Each entry point has a daily quota on the number of parties that can begin their trips that day.  The reservation system used to be a little more complicated, but now that almost all permits are reserved online, it has been streamlined and is really very easy and convenient.  The website is, which is the main portal for all federal facilities.  Once there, it is easy to find the BWCA Wilderness and follow the simple steps to reserve the permit for your canoe trip.  You only need to know for sure which entry point you will use and the date you will actually enter the wilderness.  Where you travel in the wilderness, how long you stay, how many people in your party and where you exit the wilderness can all be flexible right up until you actually start the trip.  If you don’t like booking things online, there is still a toll-free number available.  You can get it by contacting any U. S. Forest Service office.
The forest service office in Grand Marais has recently installed an interesting lobby display on the geology of Cook County.  Well-known geologist John Green created the display, which tells the rich and fascinating story of Cook County’s 2.7-billion-year geological history.  John’s credentials as an expert on our geology include a full career teaching at UMD, an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. from Harvard.  I can’t wait to see the display.  I’ve always wanted to know more about our geology, but could never make it through the geology textbooks.  Honestly, reading a geology textbook puts me to sleep faster than being hit over the head.  A lively display with actual rocks to pick up should save me from the embarrassment of keeling over and snoring right in the forest service lobby.

Sawbill Crew Reunion on Sawbill Lake at Midnight on New Year’s Eve.  Photo by Carl Hansen, Hansen International Productions.

West End News: January 3

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It is always hard to find news for the West End immediately after one of the annual peaks in the tourism industry.  It really is kind of a “no news is good news” situation.  When things are going well, as they did last week during that magic time between Christmas and New Year’s day, it seems like all West End residents are either working or enjoying the company of their own visiting friends and family.
This year, the weather cooperated with the holiday season to give everyone a wonderful winter experience.  Based on what I saw around the area, it was busy, busy, busy.  I think it’s likely that it was busier than last year, which continues a multi-year trend rising out of the recession that began back in 2008.  The county-wide lodging tax figures through November confirms the trend of a slow but steady increase in business.  Comparing apples to apples, May through November lodging revenues rose 6.5% compared to last year.
Speaking of tourism, the Los Angles Times recently published a story about the declining moose population in Minnesota.  The article was generally pretty favorable to our area, even though the focus was on kind of a sad subject.  The reporter, Andrew Khouri, contacted Sally Nankivell, who directs the Cook County Visitors Bureau, for background information as he was writing the article.  Sally found herself in the awkward position of trying to describe the annual moose rut to a thoroughly urban reporter.  Sally tried to use gentle euphemisms, but when it became clear that the reporter was just getting more confused, she had to give it to him straight.  The conversation caused a few uncomfortable silences, but eventually professionalism on both sides carried the day.  In the article, Kourhi refers delicately to the “moose mating season” and leaves it at that.
If you are fascinated by the habits of moose and all the other flora and fauna of the West End, the North Shore Stewardship Association is offering a Northwoods/Great Lakes Master Naturalist course at Sugarloaf Cove in Schroeder.  The course consists of six Saturday sessions, starting in February and ending in May. You will study the fascinating geology, plant and animal communities, inland lakes and bogs, ecology and human interactions of the Northwoods and Lake Superior.  Field trips are a key part of the curriculum.  At the conclusion, you will be a certified Minnesota Master Naturalist by the University of Minnesota Extension service.  You can register at the Minnesota Master Naturalist webpage.
Here at Sawbill, we host an annual reunion of our summer staff, both current and former, over the New Years holiday.  This year we had about fifteen young people here, playing broomball, skiing, snowshoeing, eating and generally celebrating the time between canoeing seasons.  We are lucky to attract very accomplished and interesting employees who quickly become honorary family members during their summers at Sawbill.  A number of them are living in the region now, scattered between Duluth and Grand Marais.  Over the years, at least a dozen of our summer employees have settled permanently in Cook County.  I’m pleased that they are all productive citizens of our beautiful community.  Who knows how many of next year’s crop will end up here as well?

Greg Nichols and Will Surbaugh (Photo by Kate Surbaugh)

West End News: December 27

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Sometimes the steady diet of bad news that streams in via radio, TV and Internet can be really discouraging.  The news cycle has been especially grim recently, causing me to worry about the state of the world. 
Then, I attended an event at North House Folk School that restored my faith in the human race and gave me good hope for the future.  The event was watching 11-year-old Will Surbaugh attempt to do 500 pushups in an hour.  He did it, and then some, but you need to hear the whole story to understand why it was such an inspiring event.
Will is the son of Kate and Steve Surbaugh, who live outside of Grand Marais and own Cascade Vacation Rentals in Tofte.  Last spring, Will informed his parents that he would like to ski on the downhill ski team at Lutsen Mountains this winter.  Good parents that they are, Kate and Steve told Will that he could be on the team, but he had to earn enough money over the summer to defray at least half of the cost, including the expensive equipment that’s required for competitive downhill skiing. 
Will started a firewood business, worked hard and earned an impressive amount of money over the summer. His parents then explained to him that philanthropy is a core value of the Surbaugh family, and Will was expected to donate 10% of his earnings to a charity of his own choosing.
Will decided to support a non-profit called “The Mission Continues.”  They award six-month community service fellowships to post-9/11 veterans who then use their skills and discipline to serve a community project that addresses educational, environmental or social issues. This takes advantage of the veterans’ training to build community, while giving them a good path to reconnecting with civilian life.  At the conclusion of the fellowship, each veteran is expected to do one of three things: be employed full time, pursue higher education, or commit themselves to a permanent role of community service.
Will cheerfully sent off his donation and was surprised to be contacted by the organization and invited to their annual meeting and celebration in Washington, D.C.  The Mission Continues leaders were moved by receiving a generous donation from such a young philanthropist and wanted Will to be a part of celebrating the success of the program.  Will and Steve traveled to D.C. and Will was asked to introduce the organization’s executive director - on stage - in front of 600 people.
Inspired by his experience in D.C., Will committed to organizing a Mission Continues fundraising event in Cook County, with an ambitious goal of raising $10,000.  Will and his dad were discussing what kind of event he could organize, and Steve suggested that Will think about some kind of physical activity that would raise money through pledges. Will thought for a minute and then said he reckoned he could do 500 pushups in an hour.  Will had never done that many pushups, but he calculated that it was feasible and his plans fell into place.
That’s how I found myself at North House recently watching Will Surbaugh doing pushups.  Will did 10 pushups every minute, which only takes him about 10 seconds.  He would rest for the rest of the minute, then click off 10 more.  Fitness expert Greg Nichols was the official timer and counter. 
More than a just a fundraising event, it turned into a community effort, with a silent auction, bake sale, live music, wood fired pizza and lots of excitement.  As Will burned through his pushups, a number of people, of all ages, joined him in doing a few, or a few hundred, pushups.  Although he did slow down a bit by the end, Will easily did the 500 pushups. In fact, he completed 638 pushups in the allotted hour.  But more importantly, he easily exceeded his fundraising goal of $10,000.  You can see him do it on YouTube.
Will is a modest kid and takes his accomplishment very much in stride.  But I couldn’t help but be inspired by his commitment.  He was modeling leadership, physical fitness, health, community service, philanthropy, family and fun for everyone.  These are all values that contribute to what is good in life all the time, but it’s particularly nice to think about them at this time of year and at this point in history.  Will and his friends give me great hope for the future.

Airdate: December 27, 2012

Moose on Sawbill Trail (Photo by Tom Spence)

West End News December 20

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Lutsen native Molly Rider is planning to paddle the entire Mississippi River this summer, starting at Lake Itasca and ending in New Orleans. The life-changing trip is made possible through a grant from the outdoor club at Bowdoin College in Maine where Molly is a student.  Three other young canoeists will be joining Molly on the trip.  They are Molly’s classmate Elina Berglund, along with Leif Gilsvik and Eric “Hurikane” Svenson, both from Two Harbors.
The group plans to depart Lake Itasca at the end of May and arrive in New Orleans during the second week of August, allowing 70 days for the epic canoe trip.  Molly expects the trip to cost about $650 per person, mostly for food.  All four of these adventurous young people have a ton of canoeing experience.
They’ve been helped in their planning by Tofte resident, Eric Frost, who paddled the length of the Mississippi with Lutsen resident Dave Freeman a few years back. They’ve also been in touch with former Lutsen resident Andy Keith, who paddled the Mississippi many years ago and published a book about his adventure.  Andy lives in Mexico now, but he has been advising Molly and company over the Internet, via Skype.
In order to receive the blessing and support of the outdoor club, Molly and Elina had to present a detailed proposal, which included their detailed qualifications, gear lists, a safety plan, and a food list that accounts for every tortilla and granola bar.  They’ll be conducting a seminar on long distance canoe tripping when they get back to school next fall, and both young women plan to take leadership roles in the Bowdoin College outdoor club once they get back to school.
Molly’s parents, Tom and Ann Rider, and her grandmother, Jean Skinner, are West Enders.  Although he was born and raised in Two Harbors, Leif Gilsvik’s mother is Patty Tome, who grew up in Grand Marais, and Dave Gilsvik, a well-known artist who frequently works and teaches in Grand Marais.
As dramatic and epic as a canoe trip down the length of the Mississippi is, it seems like a short jaunt compared to the 12,000-mile canoe, kayak and dogsled journey that Lutsen residents Dave and Amy Freeman are currently undertaking.  After surviving Hurricane Sandy while they were in New Jersey, Dave and Amy have taken a few weeks off to conduct dozens of school presentations that are a key part of their mission to get children excited about wilderness and outdoor travel. 
Dave and Amy will soon be back in their kayaks heading for Key West, Florida, where their trip will end sometime in April.  Before they are done, they will have conducted school programs for tens of thousands of kids and interacted with hundreds of thousands over the Internet.  We should see them back in Cook County in June when the school year ends.
Knowing Dave and Amy though, I don’t think they will let the grass grow under their feet for long.  I’m sure they will host an event at North House this summer to show slides and tell stories about their truly epic adventure.
The late season wolf hunting and trapping season ended this week.  I have to say that I was a bit surprised by how low-key the season was, at least back here on the Sawbill Trail.  There were quite a few traps set along the Sawbill Trail, but to my knowledge there were no dogs injured or any other unfortunate incidents connected to the season.  Local Conservation Officer, Tom Wahlstrom, told me that he had a lot of calls from concerned citizens before the season, but had no complaints during the season.
I still feel like the wolves contribute more to the West End economy when they are alive than they do as a rug in someone’s den, but I guess I’m fighting a losing battle there.
Tom Spence, from Tofte, snapped a couple of good pictures of two moose on the Sawbill Trail this week.  It looks like a cow and a pretty grown up calf. It’s getting to the point where seeing a moose is pretty rare, so Tom drew a lot of positive comment when he posted the pictures on Facebook.
The Sugarbush Trail Association in Tofte has groomed the unplowed portion of the Onion River Road for both classic and skating style cross-country skiing.  Skiers are reporting excellent conditions and grooming.  Our 6K classic style trail that starts right at the bitter end of the Sawbill Trail is also groomed and in excellent condition.  There is plenty of ice for lake travel by ski or snowshoe, both in and out of the wilderness.  The rest of the West End trails, including both ski and snowmobile trails, are not quite ready for use yet.  Hopefully, nature will provide enough snow to get all the trails open for the big influx of visitors after Christmas.
Downhill skiing at Lutsen Mountains is in full swing and conditions are excellent.  Lutsen Mountains, Lutsen Resort and Grand Marais got a very complimentary write-up in an online magazine published for the Tampa Bay, Florida market.  It would be a fine irony if Tampa Bay residents traveled up here for winter fun, while half our population heads down there for sun and sand.
Here’s wishing for a peaceful, safe and happy holiday season for all.

Airdate: December 20, 2012

Alton Lake before the storm.  Photo by Crista Clark

West End News: December 13

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Everyone knows that Olympic medalist Cindy Nelson is a West End native, who grew up in Lutsen, skiing at her parents’ ski resort.  But what other world-class athlete grew up - and still lives - in Tofte, competing at the highest level in his chosen sport?  As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now….  the rest of the story.”
Sometime in January, Ron Gervais, Sr., will play in his 6,000th game of curling. That works out to an average of 120 games, every year, for 50 years.  Along the way, Ron won 11 state titles and four national titles. In 1980, Ron was chosen for the American team competing at an international tournament in Scotland. In the second game of that tournament, Ron threw an eight ender, which is the equivalent of a royal flush in poker or a perfect score in gymnastics. Only a handful of eight enders are thrown worldwide every year and almost never in a major tournament. The U.S. beat Scotland that year for the first time in the history of the tournament.
Ron started curling in 1962, the same year that the Cook County Curling Club was founded by Cook County High School bandleader Harold Ikola.  Young Ron gave it a try and has never looked back.  He’s so well respected in the curling world that he has umpired for the Silver Broom, which is the World Series of curling, not once, but twice. 
Although there is no way of knowing for sure, Ron may well have played more games of curling than any living American. He reports that there is a curler in Wisconsin who is about 1,200 games behind him, but can’t possibly curl enough to catch up. Ron attributes his success and longevity to rarely getting sick and staying in shape by cutting firewood. He also gives credit to his wife, Carol, who accompanies him to almost every tournament, sharing the driving and offering support.
One more little statistic about Ron’s curling career: Each game of curling requires a player to throw 640 lb. of stones down 150 feet of ice. Just in tournament play, Ron has thrown a total of nearly 2,000 tons of stone. I can only guess that if you include practice, that figure is probably easily doubled or tripled. Maybe curling is keeping him in shape for cutting firewood, not the other way around.
Keeping to this week’s ice theme, Carl Hansen and his friend, Crista Clark, were at Sawbill this week, taking care of the business while Cindy and I spent a few days in Duluth. They discovered that Alton Lake was in perfect condition for skating. The entire lake was smooth, black ice from shore to shore. Carl and Crista enjoyed several hours of skating on blades that are specially made to attach to cross-country ski boots. Sadly, the big snowstorm arrived just as we returned from Duluth, so we missed the opportunity. On the upside, the new snow repaired the damage done to the ski trails during the recent warm spell. It also replaced the snow on the trees and, once again, everywhere you look back here in the woods, it is a picture postcard.

Lady of the Lake statue - photo courtesy

West End News: December 6

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A few weeks ago, the Cook County News Herald ran a picture of the so-called “Lady of the Lake” statue that used to be a prominent feature on Brule Lake. It brought back a lot of memories for me. When I was a young child, I used to spend weeks at a time on Brule Lake with Vi and Ken Osman, who owned a beautiful cabin on the far west end of Brule. The Osmans retired to Brule Lake around 1955.  They had married late in life and had no children, so they adopted me as kind of a surrogate grandchild.
As we fished and commuted across Brule Lake, we would see the “Lady of the Lake” statue, as it was visible from miles away. I remember that the Osmans were casually dismissive of the statue. When I commented on its beauty, Ken detoured the boat so we could see it close up. It was actually a crude and frankly ugly statue, amateurishly constructed from cement and chicken wire. It was one of many life lessons that I learned from the Osmans.  Sometimes things that look beautiful from a distance are actually quite ugly when you see them close up. 
A few years later, I had a conversation about the statue with Art Osman, Ken’s younger brother.  It turned out that Art had helped construct the statue in 1942. Art said that when most people asked him about the statue, he told them that it was an Indian maiden, built to watch over the lake. That was probably the basic truth of the matter, but Art told me that it was also part of an elaborate practical joke. 
Art was part of a group of friends from Rochester were regular visitors to a private island resort on Brule Lake.  One of the friends had recently married. I remember Art’s description of the new bride vividly because it was the first time I heard the expression “battle axe.” Art said that the groom’s fishing buddies warned him that his new wife would forbid him from going on the annual fishing trip.  Sure enough, the first year after the marriage, the groom was not able to attend, due to some other circumstance, not wifely prohibition. The joke was that the statue was built as a caricature of the young bride, who Art described as a large and imposing woman. The following year, when the friend did arrive for the fishing trip, the group pointed to the statue and said, “Look, your wife is watching you!”
Art said that they never expected the statue to survive more than a few years. He commented that they had built it around a dead cedar stump and he guessed that the stump was what gave it an unexpectedly long life.  After Brule Lake was included in the BWCA Wilderness, the presence of the statue became mildly controversial, with some people calling for its removal and some hoping it would be allowed to remain. The Forest Service decided to leave the statue and let it deteriorate on its own. Apparently, that decision didn’t sit well with some people, because someone thoroughly and carefully removed the statue a short time later. All trace of concrete was removed and the site was returned to a natural state.
My mom, Mary Alice Hansen, the unofficial West End historian, is publishing a little history of the statue in the paper this week and compiling a longer history of it for the Cook County Historical Society.
The whole statue story is kind of a metaphor for the history of Brule Lake. It is pretty well documented that Bob Marshall, one of the early architects of the national wilderness system, fought hard to keep development off Brule Lake and make it a wilderness lake. Almost literally on his deathbed, Marshall expressed regret that he had “lost” Brule Lake.  He can rest easy now, though, as Brule Lake is now the largest lake completely within the BWCA Wilderness, with no development except the canoe landing and a small Forest Service cabin just outside the wilderness boundary.
After all my bragging last week about the heavy blanket of beautiful snow that we had on the ground and in the trees, Mother Nature struck us low with warm and wet weather that left us with a mere 4 inches of hard, crusty snow. The driveway and paths are treacherous mine fields of ice patches that can take you down in a heartbeat, and the ground is iron hard, bringing to mind the old song lyric, “It don’t hurt you when you fall boys, only when you land.”

Peg Morris (Ed Landin)

West End News November 29

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I recently received word about the death of Peg Morris.  Peg and her partner, Ed Landin, were Cook County residents for many years. They started out with a cabin between Grand Marais and Lutsen while they operated a resort on Lake Superior just outside Two Harbors.  In 1994, they sold the resort, moved full-time to Cook County and were very active members of the community until they moved away in 2002.
Peg was a remarkable woman, with many talents.  She was a biologist by training and became a well-respected employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While living in Cook County, Peg served on the Governor’s Commission on the BWCA Wilderness, the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission, Minnesota Resort Association, and both the Cook County and Arrowhead Library Boards.  She was a founding board member and eventually chairperson of the Northeast Initiative Fund, which later changed its name to the Northland Foundation. Peg was also a licensed bird rehabilitator and nursed many injured birds back to health.  I remember her delighted description of recovering wild birds flying around inside her house.
Peg changed my life when she called me back in the early ‘90s asking if I would consider serving on the Northland Foundation board of trustees. Before I could start making excuses, she said, “Serving on the Northland board has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life.” That stopped me in my tracks, because Peg had done many, many interesting things in her life. I agreed to serve and Peg was absolutely right about what a great experience it is. I will be forever grateful to her for steering my life in that direction.
Peg died back in September, after struggling with a mysterious and progressive brain and nerve degeneration for many years. It was never fully diagnosed, and while it robbed her of speech and muscle control, her eyes made it clear that she knew what was going on around her. She was 64 years old. 
Grand Marais State Bank in Tofte has several seasonal initiatives going on. I previously mentioned their “giving tree” where you can donate gift items to be placed under the tree in the bank lobby and they will be distributed to local families who can use a little extra holiday cheer this year.  They are also acting as a collection point for the Cook County Food Shelf. If you donate a food item between now and the middle of December, your name will be entered in a drawing for a $50 gift certificate. And finally, if you open a new checking or savings account during the holiday season, the bank will donate $5 to the Salvation Army Red Kettle collection effort. Thanks to Nancy Christenson and her great crew for their generous work.
The big news from here in the backwoods is that we’ve received more than 16 inches of snow since Thanksgiving.  When I tell people in town about this, they frankly give me a skeptical look. All I can say is, hop in your car and see for yourself. The first 11 inches that came on Thanksgiving night was wet, so every tree is just loaded with snow. Our little 6K ski trail here at Sawbill is open and in excellent condition. As a bonus, the snow on the trees makes every view down the trail look like a Currier and Ives Christmas card. While Sawbill Lake has been at least partially frozen for a couple of weeks, the heavy snow on top of thin ice has made lake travel sketchy and uncertain. Best to stay off the ice for a little while longer.
We’re off to a good start on my favorite season, and my hope is that this is truly the arrival of winter and the holiday season will be snowy, fun and joyful.

Airdate: November 29, 2012