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West End News

Bill Hansen

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.


What's On:
Common Merganser

West End News: May 24

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Congratulations to Birch Grove Community School graduates Ashley Ross, Michael Sjogren and Bradley Van Doren.  The congratulations might seem a little late, as the three finished their studies at Birch Grove seven years ago.  But now they are graduating from Cook County High School.  As is often the case with Birch Grove graduates, they are all excellent students and are collecting numerous scholarships to continue their studies after high school.  The three scholars came full circle this week, returning to Birch Grove to meet with the current kindergarten class. This is a wonderful thing to do, providing positive role models to children that have their entire educational careers ahead of them.

Many Birch Grove alumni who are in college or beyond are returning to Cook County for the summer and stopping by Birch Grove to visit. Marie Nordahl recently spent part of a day at the school, joining the students for lunch and helping out with an art class.  Alumni are always encouraged to stop in and visit.  Again, wonderful examples to encourage the younger students.

Birch Grove graduates Beau Larson of Lutsen and Carl Hansen of Tofte have been in the area lately in their professional capacity as film makers.  Beau and Carl are both graduates of the University of Montana where they studied film.  They are the official videographers for the Lutsen 99er, the marathon mountain bike race that is held in the West End every June. T hey have been doing advance work this week, planning out their race day strategy and getting some advance footage shot.

In more Birch Grove news, the upcoming North House class that will build a wood fired bread oven at Birch Grove has been awarded a $1750 grant from the Cook County Community Foundation to provide scholarships for the course.  Participants will build the oven from September 9th through September 13th, with the grand opening celebration on Saturday, September 29th.  The class is filling up fast, so if you want to participate, get ahold of Patty Nordahl soon at 663-7977. I f you can’t take the class, there are several other ways to contribute, so contact Patty if you have an interest.

Spencer Motschenbacher, of Lutsen, told me that he found the nest of a common merganser duck last week.  Spencer kept his distance, but even then, he could count an amazing twenty-two eggs in the nest.  He said there may have been more, because he wasn’t sure that he could see them all.  It seems incredible that one mother duck could carry that many eggs.  And if she did, what kept her from sinking straight to the bottom of the lake?  It’s not uncommon to see mergansers with a long string of chicks behind them, but I’ve never seen anywhere near twenty-two with one mother.

The North Shore Stewardship Association at Sugarloaf Cove near Schroeder is holding a Recreational Trail Design workshop on Saturday, June 2, 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  You will learn what you need to know to design, construct, and maintain sustainable trails for hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, off-highway motorcycling, and all terrain vehicles.  Sustainable trails require minimal maintenance because their design and materials hold up to intensive recreational use and severe weather conditions. Mel Baughman, U of MN Extension Specialist, will teach the workshop.  There is a small charge, payable the day of the class.  Google Sugarloaf Cove for more information.

The Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder is having its opening party on Friday June 1st, at 6:30 p.m., kicking off another busy season of events highlighting the rich history of the West End.

Not to state the obvious, but thank goodness for the recent heavy rains to relieve the extreme fire danger that we had last week.  For two days, we watched the sky and sniffed the air anxiously as the temperature soared into the eighties, the winds ramped up to 35 miles per hour and the relative humidity plunged to near single digits.  One spark and we would have had a repeat of last fall’s fire season.  After our experience here at Sawbill last September, I know exactly how the people of Ely felt as a fire storm bore down on their homes and businesses. Thank goodness it ended as well for them as it did for us.

Now that is is raining regularly, I have to listen to the complaints of visitors about the wet weather. Sometimes, I have to take a deep breath before I commiserate with them. Those of us who live in the woods are never sorry to see a good, soaking rain.

Campground scene at the Sawbill Campground, September 1937/ photograph courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, N.C

West End News May 17

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A few weeks ago, I talked about the change in management at the North Shore Market in Tofte. I can now report that the North Shore Market has been sold to Joe and Jill Sanders, who own the neighboring business, Big Joe’s Auto Salvage. They bought the store from Nancy and Cliff Iverson, who owned it for the last ten years.

As I reported before, Lisa Nelson, of Tofte, will be operating the store. The Sanders plan to let Lisa be fully in charge. They are backing a complete remodel of the store, which will be happening very soon. The inside of the store will be gutted and new flooring, shelving and refrigeration equipment will be installed. On the outside, new half log siding and decking are planned. The entrance will be brought up to modern accessibility standards. Also, the name has been changed to the “Tofte General Store.”

Lisa is eager to serve both the local people and the many visitors to the area. She has already lowered prices on many items to encourage more local people to shop. Many new items are already in stock and more will be added after the renovation is complete. Lisa encourages everyone to let her know what they want from the store and she will do her best to accommodate. For instance, the store is already carrying organic milk, which many parents demand for their children.

Smaller, full service grocery stores have nearly disappeared from the market place in the last thirty years or so with the rise of the big box store. This has left many communities in what is often called a “food desert.” These food deserts end up being low-income city neighborhoods and small rural towns. Typically, convenience stores then become the only local option, leading to higher prices, less variety and an increase in obesity and health problems.

We are very lucky to have a local grocery store in the West End and I strongly encourage everyone to do as much of their shopping there as possible. It creates local jobs, keeps money in the local economy and makes the whole community healthier. And, it’s a great place to visit with neighbors and get the latest local news.

Last Sunday was Roger Michaelson’s 81st birthday. Roger is a Tofte resident who manages the solid waste transfer station, which he calls “The Tofte Mall” on the Sawbill Trail. This birthday was significant for Roger because he completed his goal of riding his bicycle around the world before he turned 81. Back in 2004, Roger had heart surgery and as part of his re-hab his doctor advised him to start exercising regularly. Roger fished a discarded stationary bike out of the inventory at the Tofte Mall, fixed it up, and set out to ride the 24,000 miles around the equator - riding 30 minutes per day - without ever leaving his basement. When he started he could only make about 3 miles in 30 minutes. Now, he easily rides 10 miles or more at once. He isn’t resting after completing the journey, but has already started off on his second trip around the world. The next time you see Roger, wish him a happy birthday, welcome him home, and wish him a good trip around the world for the second time.

The Birch Grove Foundation in Tofte has scheduled a public brain storming session for Thursday, May 24 at 6:30 p.m. The goal is to think of ways to better use the Birch Grove facility once the construction projects are done this fall. For instance, might the local resorts like to use the tennis courts, skating rink or wood fired oven to provide another activity for their guests. Or, perhaps you are a parent with an idea for youth activities at Birch Grove. There are no bad ideas. Everyone is welcome and, as always, yummy treats will be provided. Call Patty Nordahl at 663-7977 for more information.

One hundred years ago, in May of 1922, congress passed a bill appropriating money to create and maintain campgrounds in National Forests, including the Superior National Forest. In the prosperous times after the World War One, the popularity of camping exploded in the United States. The national forests already had some campgrounds, but many were sort of ad hoc, without water supplies, sanitation, garbage collection or established fire places. The legislation emphasized the fire danger created by inexperienced campers building campfires wherever they pleased. Testimony at the congressional hearings made it clear that the Forest Service was essentially being forced into the recreation business by public demand. The appropriation approved by Congress for the 1923 fiscal year was a whopping $22,000 for all the campgrounds in the nation. The next year the appropriation doubled. In hindsight, it has to be considered money very well spent.

Back in those days, many people felt that national parks should be in the recreation business and the national forests should be in the timber production business. Arthur Carhart was an early Forest Service leader who strongly advocated for recreation in national forests. As part of the legislative testimony back in 1922, he wrote the following: “If we are to have broad-thinking men and women of high mentality, of good physique, and with a true perspective on life, we must allow our populace a communion with nature in areas of more or less wilderness conditions.”

With an early ice-out this year, Bill believes the fishing will be better during the first part of the season.

West End News May 10

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Last week I talked about school trust lands in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and how the legislature ignored a carefully crafted agreement developed by a legislative working group that included all the stakeholders, and instead passed a bill that seemed to be written by the mining lobby.

Now, our congressperson, Representative Chip Cravaak has introduced a similar bill at the federal level, which would force the Forest Service to trade the state lands in the wilderness for national forest lands outside the wilderness. As is so often the case in modern politics, both bills are being represented as being for the benefit of Minnesota’s children, when the reality is that they actually benefit multi-national mining companies, that are unlikely to care much about Minnesota’s school children. I know it’s a lot to ask in an election year, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail and these bad bills will just fade away.

Dave and Amy Freeman are technically residents of Lutsen. I say technically because they live in the most remote northern corner of Lutsen Township, which is deep in the Superior National Forest. Their home is a tent, but it’s a really nice, large canvas tent on a permanent platform. Most people would consider living in a platform tent to be roughing it, but for Dave and Amy it represents permanent luxury.

The truth is, they are hardly ever at their home in Lutsen because this week they launched another leg of their 12,000 mile North American Odyssey. They plunked their kayaks in Lake Superior at Grand Portage and will end the trip next April in Key West, Florida. This leg of the trip will be relatively tame by their standards as they make their way through the Great Lakes, down the Erie Canal, and finally down the eastern inland waterway. The previous legs of the trip included paddling up the Pacific coast to Alaska, hiking across a big chunk of that state, paddling up the Yukon River, dog sledding through the Northwest Territories and finally canoeing from Great Slave Lake to Grand Portage last summer.

They half jokingly refer to this trip as their honeymoon, because they began shortly after their wedding two years ago. It isn’t all just for fun though. Dave and Amy run a non-profit education program call Wilderness Classroom. They stay in touch with tens of thousands of school children via a satellite connection to the internet. The kids are highly involved in their travel plans and participate in many different learning projects. Dave and Amy stop and visit schools along their route, where they present a wildly popular program that educates kids about wilderness and the natural world. You can follow their progress at

The North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte is continuing their ongoing “Stories of the Fishing Life” series with a presentation by members of the Spry family on Saturday, May 19 at 2 p.m. The Sprys are an old and well respected fishing family, mostly associated with the Hovland and Grand Portage area, who continue their fishing connections right up to the current day. As always, the program is free, open to the public and yummy treats will be served. Check the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum website, or contact WTIP for more information.

While we’re on the subject of history, mark your calendar for the opening of the William F. Roleff Forest History Photography exhibit at the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder opening on May 25 at 10 a.m. This fascinating display of photos from the early days of logging is on loan from the St. Louis County Historical Society. It ties in with the Heritage Center’s theme for the year: “Timberjack Logging on the North Shore.” Call Suzanne Frum at 663-7706 or check their website for more details.

I’ve had a lot of phone calls from people wondering how the early spring will affect the walleye’s appetite for minnows, leeches and night crawlers during the early days of the fishing season. My answer is that it is anyone’s guess. The ice left the lakes so early this year that there is literally no precedent to rely on to make predictions. Generally, an early ice-out means that fishing will be better during the first part of the season. In any case, the arrival of full summer in the deep south, by which I mean south of Two Harbors, seems to be piquing the interest anglers, hikers, bird watchers and canoeists. The busy season is upon us.

Sawbill dock, photo by Ruthie Hansen

West End News: May 3

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I don’t think I’m the only one who has been disappointed in this year’s Minnesota Legislature.  I’m not personally invested in the Vikings stadium issue, because I’m a fair weather fan a the best of times, but Vikings fans must be incredibly frustrated with the legislature’s inability to bring closure, one way or the other to that issue.

My frustration lies with two bills that were signed into law last week that deal with school trust lands and specifically school trust lands in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  School trust lands are large tracts of land that were put in state ownership when Minnesota first became a state to provide income, paid to a permanent trust fund, the proceeds of which were to be used to establish and support Minnesota’s public school system.  It was a great thing and it worked pretty well.  Most of the land was sold and the trust still exists, but in the modern era it only pays a tiny portion of school funding.

The first bill creates a new legislative commission – often a bad idea just on the face of it – to manage school trust lands, taking management away from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  Apparently, the legislature felt that the DNR was too conservative in their management on the state trust lands, taking into account things like ecosystems, watershed protections, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities like hunting, fishing, hiking and other silly scientific hoo-haw.  The new management is specifically instructed to maximize the return from the lands and damn the torpedoes.  I have no doubt that over time, the new land managers will realize that the best value is derived from land by managing it under careful scientific principals, not the principals of under-informed politicians or rapacious multi-national corporations.

The second bill outlines the state’s proposal to trade the school trust lands in the BWCA Wilderness for Superior National Forest Land outside the wilderness.  On its surface this sounds like a good idea, and it is a good idea, except the legislature ignored the recommendations of a panel of stakeholders that has been negotiating an agreement that would work for everyone and passed a simplistic plan that is only to the benefit of the state – or to be more exact, the benefit of large timber and mining interests.  Of course, the state legislature can’t force the federal government to do anything, so their action has just set the whole issue back, probably for decades.

Just like the Vikings stadium issue – lots of posturing and pretending and very little actually getting done.

Meanwhile, here in the good old West End of Cook County, kids are being happily educated, starting in pre-school with opening of enrollment for the 2012 – 2013 Saplings Pre-School at the wonderful Birch Grove Community School in Tofte.  The pre-school runs from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday on every regularly scheduled Birch Grove school day.  You can enroll your pre-schooler to go all the time or part-time to fit around your schedule.  The teaching staff is highly qualified weaves together the Core Knowledge Sequence and the Minnesota Early Learning Standards, all of which helps your child succeed all through school and life.  Free transportation and scholarships are a possibility, so call Diane at 663-0170 for details and information.

You may see a vaguely familiar face around the Bluefin Bay Grille this summer.  Emma Tofte will be on the wait staff there this summer. Although Emma hails from White Bear Lake, her presence represents a deep connection to the pioneer days of Tofte.  She is the daughter of Tofte native Scott Tofte and the granddaughter of Orton and Marge Tofte.  When Emma announced on Facebook that she would be spending the summer in Tofte, her father posted the following advice on things she should do:

  • Have lots of bonfires by the lake.
  • Catch fireflies in a bottle.
  • Play Star Light Star Bright with your cousins. You won't believe how dark it is when you try to find them.
  • Let your uncles take you out to Sawbill Lake and fish off the dock.
  • On your way, stop and get water from the spring.
  • Hike up to Carlton Peak.
  • Learn to be a rock skipper. You never run out of rocks.
  • Lay back on the beach and look up at the stars. If you're really lucky, you'll see the Northern Lights one night.
  • Swim at the Temperance every nice day.
  • Have fun.
  • Love, Dad

Good advice indeed.

Haze over BWCAW - photo courtesy Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

West End News: April 26

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I was sorry to hear that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency caved to political pressure and weakened its plan to reduce haze over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

Haze from air pollution is definitely noticeable in northeastern Minnesota. I’ll admit that my eyesight has deteriorated over the years, but when I was a kid, the sky was bluer, the views over Lake Superior were longer and there were more stars in the night sky.

I’m not a scientist, but I’m told that our haze comes largely from coal-fired power plants and nearby taconite plants. Air pollution rules are incredibly complex, but the long and short of it is that the M.P.C.A. backed down from their original haze and pollution standards after the mining company, Cliffs Natural Resources, threatened to close two of their taconite plants rather than meet the standards.

While Cliffs has had its ups and downs over the years, the company is incredibly profitable right now and should voluntarily reduce its air pollution while they can afford it. I understand that they are important players in Minnesota’s economy, but I also feel like clean, healthy air is important to Minnesota too.

If we only stand up for our air and water when it’s convenient, where does that leave us – not to mention our children and grandchildren?

The big excitement here at Sawbill last week was the replacement of the Forest Service airplane dock at the Sawbill Guard Station. The floating dock is designed for the safe mooring and loading of their big DeHavilland Beaver floatplanes. In truth, it is rarely used by airplanes and is mostly used for launching canoes, swimming and fishing.

The old dock was built by Billy Tormondsen, I think in 1972. Billy was a well known and well liked Tofte native who operated a small sawmill back in those days. Originally, the dock was all white cedar. I remember the year because Billy suddenly and unexpectedly died shortly after he built the dock. He was a good friend and a truly unique individual. He would be around 90 if he were alive today. It’ll be interesting to see if this new dock can hold up as long as Billy’s craftsmanship did.

The big new dock presented quite a challenge to get into the lake as there is no vehicle access right to the shore of Sawbill Lake. After some head scratching, the competent services of Peter Borson and his big construction forklift were recruited and things went smoothly from there.

Patty Nordahl, director of the Birch Grove Foundation tells me there quite a few contractors interested in the construction projects planned for Birch Grove this summer. These are the first projects among many around the county that are funded by the 1% sales tax that we voted in last year. Bids are being accepted until May 3rd and information and specifications are available at Birch Grove in Tofte.

Mark September 29th on your calendar for the grand opening celebration of the Birch Grove construction projects. The grand opening will feature pizza from the outdoor wood fired oven that is also in the planning stages at Birch Grove. The Hearth Oven Bread Baking Initiative Team, or HOBBITS, has settled on September 9th through the 13th for the oven building class that will be run by North House Folk School. If you are interested in taking the class, get in touch with Patty at Birch Grove or North House Folk School. There is a tuition charge, but Patty is seeking grant dollars for scholarships, so don’t let the cost stop you if you are interested.

Last call to sign up for the North Shore Stewardship Association’s free North Shore Landowners community meeting on May 11th from 12:30-4:30 at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland. This is an opportunity to connect with other landowners, public land managers, and private organizations to discover what North Shore forest restoration activities are underway and how you can become involved. You can register online at the North Shore Stewardship Association web site, or, as always, call WTIP for more information.

I’ve seen more moose in the last week than all of last year. The moose always look terrible at this time of year. Tourists often report seeing a “sick” moose in late April and early May. They’re losing their winter coats, causing them to look ratty and mostly white. They’re at their skinniest right now too. By June they will be sleek, shiny, dark brown and chubby. The bulls will be sporting their velvet racks and the calves will be growing fast. Here’s hoping that my more frequent moose sightings indicate a rebound in their population.

North Shore Market in Tofte, photo by Ruthie Hansen

West End News: April 12

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Big changes are happening at the North Shore Market in Tofte. Nancy Iverson, who has been running the store for a number of years, is turning over management to Lisa Nelson. Lisa is a true Tofte native. In recent years she has been one of the friendly tellers at Grand Marais State Bank in Tofte. Before that, she was busy with her family’s business, Cooter’s Auto Repair and Firewood on the Sawbill Trail.

Lisa is bringing a lot of energy to her new position and has many plans for improvements at the store. One of those improvements is adding her daughter, Felicia, to the staff. Felicia has been living out of the area, but is moving back to help her mom at the store, at least for the next few months.

The North Shore Market was started more than 60 years ago by Alban and Edith Nelson as a grocery supplier for the logging camps that were scattered all over the woods in those days. In that era, each lumberjack lived in his own tarpaper shack with his own small kitchen. They were really independent contractors who were paid by the amount of pulpwood they cut and were responsible for their own cooking. They worked for the owner of a large timber sale and when the sale was finished, they would hook a cat to their shack and literally drag it to the next sale.

Back then, the North Shore Market wasn’t open to the public and was really more of a warehouse. The camp foremen would gather grocery orders from the lumberjacks, drop them off at the market and Edith would pack each lumberjack’s groceries in a cardboard box. The foreman would return the next day, load the boxes in the back of his pickup and deliver them to the jacks. The tradition of packing groceries in boxes continued at the market for decades.

There were a couple of other little grocery stores in Tofte, but eventually the Nelsons converted their warehouse into a full service grocery store. In the early 60s, Henry and Florence Wehseler bought the store from the Nelsons. Henry was a lumberjack and they continued to supply logging camps while expanding the store to serve both the local community and the growing tourist population. The Wehseler family ran the store for about four decades and made it the heart of the Tofte community. The logging camps slowly disappeared, but the store continued to grow and thrive. Henry and Florence retired about ten years ago and turned it over to the Iversons. Stay tuned for more North Shore Market news as this latest transition unfolds.

The musical “Grease” will be running at William Kelly High School Auditorium for the next couple of weeks. I’ve heard rumors that this is going to be a spectacular production and is not to be missed. The talented and experienced Paul Deaner is directing the Lake Superior Community Theatre production and my confidential source tells me that he is “pulling out all the stops.” Reserved seating is available by calling Roxanne at 218-220-0682. You can also find information on the web or by calling WTIP.

If you are a North Shore landowner, mark your calendar for this year’s North Shore Landowners Community Meeting on Friday, May 11th, 12:30 p.m. at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland. This free event is an opportunity for landowners to network and learn about current efforts to restore the North Shore forest. There will be discussions about forest restoration ideas, demonstrations of restoration techniques, and information about financial assistance for your restoration projects.

The meeting is sponsored by Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association, University of Minnesota Extension Forestry Team and the North Shore Forest Collaborative, with funding from The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation. Contact Sugarloaf’s Molly Thompson at 218-525-0001 or, as always, look it up on the web or contact WTIP for information.

Construction has started on the several projects that are happening this summer at Birch Grove School and Community Center in Tofte. Bids requests are being sent out for some major improvements to the outdoor facilities. Mark Aldinger tore down the skating rink boards and Mike McMillan hauled them away. Tofte Township, who owns the building, is putting the old tennis court fencing and the old warming house up for sale. Information on the construction bids and the for-sale items is available in the community room at Birch Grove.

The Birch Grove Foundation is hoping to provide LOTS, which stands for “Learning Opportunities Through Stories” again this summer. If you have a child under school age, this is a fun hour-long parent/child activity. Call Patty Nordahl at 663-7977 to express your interest.

Birch Grove Foundation now has a Facebook page, providing quick access to all the news and activities at Birch Grove in that handy Facebook format.

It’s not too early to start planning for Marion McKeever’s Famous Fishcakes Fundraiser on Tuesday, June 12th at Satellite’s Restaurant in Schroeder. This is a very popular and longstanding event – not to mention being an authentic North Shore cultural experience. All proceeds go to Birch Grove and reservations are recommended, so call Patty at 663-7977 to get your spot nailed down.

Thinking about Marion’s fishcakes is making me really hungry, so for this week, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.


The Great Warm Wake from the NASA Earth Observatory

West End News April 5

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Now that March is in the record books, it's not surprising that this March was officially the warmest since records have been kept. Setting aside all the economic and political ramifications, this is the kind of phenomenon that meteorologists live for. Minnesota Public Radio meteorologist Paul Huttner is a frequent visitor to Tofte and the BWCA Wilderness and author of the popular Updraft Blog. Recently, he wrote about all the weather records that were smashed last month. At the end of the posting, he quotes Tofte resident Jessa Frost, who said "This winter is like a bad boyfriend. They never come around when you want them, and just when you're done with them they show up unexpectedly."

Along with the rest of the nation, I followed the Supreme Court case on the Affordable Health Care Act with great interest. I am frustrated by the conservative opposition to the law's requirement that everyone carry health insurance. This was originally a conservative idea and accepting it was a significant concession from the many people who think that health care should be a single-payer system operated by the government. If the so-called mandate is struck down by the court, the whole concept health care provided by private industry is in doubt. A private insurance system can only work if the mandate is in place to spread the risk over the entire population.

Keeping the current system will not work either. Costs are rising so quickly that it will bankrupt our economy if nothing is done. The economy is also stifled by the millions of people who are stuck in their current jobs because they don't dare to risk losing their health insurance. This unintended side effect has severely depressed the entrepreneurial spirit that we used to be famous for. The old system also allowed insurance companies to drop you if you became seriously ill, which defeats the whole purpose of insurance. It has also led to health issues being the number one reason for bankruptcy.

I often hear the argument that if prices for health care were publicly posted, people would seek out the cheapest care and costs would be contained. This really makes no sense to me. Health care is not a normal product. Think of it this way: If your child were diagnosed with cancer, would you shop for a bargain basement treatment, or would you seek out the very best and probably most expensive care you could get your hands on?

Given the choices before us, it seems that if the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Health Care Act, we will have little choice but to move to single payer system, like most of the rest of the world’s developed countries. Even now, between Medicaid, Medicare, the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Service, well more than half of Americans are covered by government funded health care. Our wonderful local clinic is partially funded by the federal government, which allows either directly or indirectly, the fantastic care that we get here in Cook County.

If the conservative justices on the Supreme Court strike down the Affordable Health Care Act, perhaps it will galvanize the country to support a truly universal, fair, sustainable and affordable health care system for America.

We had our first canoe rental at Sawbill this week, setting another early season record. This is normally a very quiet time of year back in the woods. The road bans are in place, fishing season is closed and the muddy ground usually makes camping unappealing. This year might be an exception, at least for a few people who want to experience real solitude and a chance to how nature is adapting to the wild weather.

Global land-ocean temperature index

West End News March 29

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The ice left Sawbill Lake on Tuesday, March 27. This is the earliest ice-out date since records started being kept back in the 1930s. It beats the previous record, set just two years ago, by an incredible 8 days. It is also the first time in history that the ice has gone out in March. Historically, over the last 60 years, the average ice-out date for Sawbill has been May 1.

This mild winter and incredibly early ice-out date are just two more indicators of global warming. The other local signs of global warming are shorter ski seasons, hotter summers, larger and more frequent forest fires, and the disappearance of several species of wildlife, including the moose, just to name a few.

Science has known for at least thirty years that global warming is happening and is caused by human industrial activity. Unfortunately, some of those industries have staged a remarkably effective misinformation campaign over the last twenty years, denying the existence of global warming. They’ve managed to thwart any significant effort to address this important issue and now it is too late to avoid some very bad consequences.

On a global basis, the Pentagon is projecting more armed conflicts and terrorism as a side effect of climate change around the world. The insurance industry is taking steps to limit the huge liabilities that they are facing from increasingly violent natural disasters. Glaciers and the polar ice caps are receding at alarming rates. Rising sea levels are already displacing millions of coastal residents and will displace many more millions in the near future.

Nobody likes to hear bad news, but the time is long past for the world to come together to solve this critical issue. It is also long past time to call out the global warming deniers for what they are: at best misinformed and at worst deliberate liars. In particular, the politicians who are on the wrong side of this issue should be sent packing. They know what they are doing is wrong and are placing the short term interests of their special interest donors ahead of the well being of the human race - shame on them.

On to some good news: The Cook County Lodging Tax receipts through the end of February show steady improvement in our tourism economy. In an apples-to-apples comparison, lodging sales are up about 4 percent over last year and above where they were before the recession. Of course, the figures aren’t adjusted for inflation, which makes them a little less rosy, but at least things are headed in the right direction. March and April may not be great months this year, but we’ll find out about that in the next report.

Tofte Township also received some good news this week in the form of a 29 thousand dollar grant from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation to start working on the 30 acres of land that they own around the Birch Grove Center. The property is being studied for possible construction of senior and/or affordable housing. The grant will pay for an engineering survey to figure out which parts of the property are suitable for buildings, sewer systems, wetlands, etc. Birch Grove Foundation director Patty Nordahl, who will help administer the grant, says that there is much work to be done before the project becomes reality, but she is pleased to be taking this important step. Senior and affordable housing has been a Tofte Township priority for many years.

The Birch Grove Foundation also received a generous North Shore Health Care Foundation grant for their Busy Bodies project. This is a coordinated effort with local childcare provider Anna Lisa Peck, Saplings preschool, Open Gym and the North Shore Visitation Center. They have purchased large motor equipment for pre-school age children. Studies have shown that one hour a day of vigorous play improves the health of children and lowers the risk of childhood obesity. Open Gym for pre-schoolers and their families is every Friday at 9 am, and the play is reportedly very vigorous!

Finally from Birch Grove, the regularly scheduled community lunch will be a week later than usual in April. It will be at noon on April 17 rather than April 10.

I had the privilege of seeing two lynx this week during my normal travels around the area. In both cases, I was able to get a good, long look at the beautiful cat and it was quite obvious that they were lynx and not bobcats. The only thing I can’t be sure of is whether I saw two lynx – or the same lynx twice.

Early spring conditions at Sawbill.

West End News: March 22

The West End was saddened to receive word of Reuben Tofte’s passing last week at the age of 96. Reuben is the last of a generation that was born in Tofte during the era when Scandinavians were moving to the North Shore. Reuben was the son of Tofte pioneers Cecelia and John Tofte. It is hard to conceive of all the changes that Reuben witnessed during his long and full life.

After a distinguished career as a dentist in Duluth, Reuben retired to Tofte and lived next door to the beautiful Tofte Park for many years. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Lucille, Joel, John, Lynn and the rest of Reuben’s family. The family requests that memorials be made to the Tofte Historical Society.

One thing that lifelong West End residents have never seen is a spring thaw like the one we are experiencing now. This abrupt end to an already mild winter is at least a month ahead of schedule. International Falls has set high temperature records for eight days in a row. Some of the smaller ponds here in the West End are already out and it looks like some of the lakes will start to shed their ice here in the third week of March. This is more than two weeks earlier than the previous early ice out record, set two years ago, and more than six weeks earlier than the average ice out date.

University of Minnesota climatologist, Mark Seeley, appeared on public television’s Almanac program, and said that this warm spell is the most extreme since Minnesota weather records have been kept. He went on to say that 1910 was a warm year, but wasn’t even close to the current warm winter season. He then mentioned that 1910 was one of the worst forest fire years in the state’s history. My blood ran cold when I heard that.

It’s hard to think of this as an extreme weather event, but this warm spell is actually just as extreme as a killer blizzard or a line of tornadoes. Somehow though, “extreme pleasantness” is just harder to get worked up about. Of course, in northern Minnesota the weather turns on a dime and it’s not out of the question that snow and cold could return with a vengeance before this weird winter of ‘11/’12 finally enters the record books.

Many thanks to the townships of Schroeder, Lutsen and Tofte for voting to support the Birch Grove Foundation at their recent annual meetings. The townspeople can rest assured that there are many good things happening at Birch Grove.

For instance, the weekly senior lunch, held every Wednesday, will feature a presentation from county housing coordinator Nancy Grabko on March 28. The next week, April 4, there will be a video presentation of the “Sugar – Sweet and Sour” program that had to be cancelled earlier due to a snowstorm. Blood pressure and blood sugar screenings will be available also.

The Hobbits, also known as the Hearth Oven Bread Baking Initiative Team, are meeting Wednesday, March 28 at 9 a.m. at Birch Grove. Everyone is welcome. Patty reports that she has received a lot of positive feed back on this project.

The Tofte Fourth of July planning committee has decided to move the parade time to 2 p.m. from its traditional time of 1 p.m. Volunteers and vendors for Tofte’s renowned Independence Day event are needed, so if you have an interest, contact Patty Nordahl. Her email is bgf (as in Birch Grove Foundation) and her phone is 663-7977. You can always Google Birch Grove Foundation to find a full listing of activities and complete contact information.

Round River Farms in Finland is still looking for a few more families to sign up for fresh produce this summer. For a flat, one-time fee, you share equally in the farm fresh produce with the other subscribers. Our family has been a member for years and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Families can go together on a share if they want to. If there are enough subscribers from the West End, the farm will deliver to Birch Grove, making it much more convenient for everyone. For more details, call David Abazs at 218-353-7736. You can also Google Round River Farms to find their website.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating that a remarkable series of musical events has been happening at Papa Charlie’s nightclub at Lutsen Mountains on Monday nights. It’s called the Songwriter Series and features some of the best songwriters in the music business in a quiet, intimate setting. The crowd for this event has been growing since it started, and locals make up a fair share of the audience. It seems like most of the people are there because they love music and they clearly are enjoy the experience. The songwriters also seem to enjoy the careful attention of the audience, which lifts their performance to another level. The whole thing is just working, so you can check it out every Monday night from 8 to 10 pm.


Bill notes sudden spring thaws have flooded bears out of their dens in the past. Be on the look out!

West End News March 16

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Thank you to all the candidates who ran for office in the recent township elections in Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen. I know from experience that running for public office can be a little uncomfortable for Minnesotans. After all, the definition of an extrovert in Cook County is someone who looks at your shoes while they’re talking to you. In the township elections, it doesn’t really matter what party you identify with, but it’s more about being willing to put in the time and energy. So, I offer my congratulations to the winners of the township supervisor and clerk positions, even though it’s much like congratulating them for getting a brand new pick and shovel.

It’s stylish these days to be contemptuous of people who seek and hold public office. However, like many things in life, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Office holders not only commit a huge amount of time and energy, but they make important decisions that affect our lives on a daily basis. I think it’s important that we honor those who serve, even if we don’t agree with them on the issues.

While I’m on the subject, Tofte Township has scheduled its truth in taxation hearing for Thursday, April 26 starting at 7 pm. This is where you can question the value that the tax assessor has assigned to your property. The Town Board has the authority to reduce total valuation by 1%. Cook County Tax Assessor, Mary Black, and an assistant will be at the meeting to provide advice. If you have questions about your valuation, it’s best to call Mary ahead of time so she can get background information together for you. Her phone number at the courthouse is 387-3000.

I recently heard from Rick Jannett, whom I have known since the early ‘80s. Rick has been researching small mammals, including mice, voles, and shrews, in Cook County since 1983. He has discovered that our most common small mammal, the red backed vole, goes through population cycles every three to six years. Another species, the rock vole, had a very stable population for many years, but recently has almost disappeared in some years.

The smoky shrew first appeared in Cook County in the mid ‘90s, apparently expanding its range from Canada, and now seems to be widespread in the county. Several other shrew species appear to be less common as time goes by.

Rick has found that small mammal populations in the forest have declined since 2004, but the cause is not clear. He suspects that it could be related to severe weather events or a thinner snow pack which leaves the little guys susceptible to weather and predators.

Rick has not found the white-footed mouse in the forest, which is good news because they carry deer ticks that can transfer Lyme disease and other illnesses to humans.

Rick reminds me of our own West End biologist, Bill Lane, who has been studying owls in Cook County for a similar period of time. They should probably get together to compare data, as small mammals and owls are surely inextricably linked in the ecosystem. I’ve seen Bill’s snowshoe tracks heading into the woods off the Sawbill Trail this week, so I know he is out in the dark counting owls as the rest of us slumber blissfully in our beds.

Speaking of critters, it would not be surprising to see some bears wandering around in the next couple of weeks. In the past, when we’ve had these sudden thaws at this time of year, the bears get flooded out of their dens. People see them, but they appear to still be kind of sleepy and out of it. Other than casually destroying the odd bird feeder, they don’t cause any problems.

As always, it’s great to be able to live side-by-side with so many wild animals here in the West End.