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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:
Ice on Sawbill Lake is still 15 inces thick!

West End News May 5

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The winter of 2010/2011 has been one to remember. It started early, stayed true to itself for many months, and now is having trouble finding the exit. Aside from the scientific statistical evidence of this winter’s severity, I know that I burned half again more firewood than last year. Sawbill Lake still has about 15” of ice on it. Just a few days ago, we were walking on it, shuffling through snowdrifts and leaning into an ice-cold north wind. The Forest Service pilot has just reported that the large BWCA Wilderness lakes, like Cherokee, Little Sag, and Tuscarora, are still covered with white ice. In spite of this, I’m predicting that all the lakes will be well clear of ice by the opening of fishing on May 14th.

We have a mystery here at Sawbill. A few days ago, a car with a canoe on top pulled into the Sawbill Lake campground. We wondered about it because the canoeing is extremely slow right now. The party stayed overnight in the campground and the next morning their car, with the canoe still on top, was parked in the public parking lot. Peeking in the windows, we could see that there is no camping gear and no sign of the occupants. We checked the campground and they weren’t there either. Our best guess is that they decided to hike into the wilderness, which is a fairly daunting prospect with no trails, dense brush and crusty knee-deep snow in many places. We’re hoping they didn’t choose to hike on the lake ice, which is no longer trustworthy and getting thinner by the hour.

Richard Louv, author of the popular book, “Last Child in the Woods” speaks frequently on the subject of what he calls “nature deficit disorder.” Basically, he has studied research from many fields that shows conclusively that modern American children are spending much less time out of doors in contact with nature. He argues that the growing problems of attention deficit disorder, obesity, declining creativity and depression can be at least partially be traced to a nature deficient childhood. He has spawned an international movement to reintroduce children to nature. Here in Cook County, the Gunflint Trail Association and the Cook County Visitors Bureau have created an innovative program called “Becoming a Boundary Waters Family.” It combines a wonderful book with a series of events that are designed to give families the skills and enthusiasm to become life-long BWCA Wilderness campers. Recently, the program won a prestigious regional award celebrating cooperation between the Forest Service and local residents.

Next week, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen will be hosting Richard Louv for a lecture, followed by a distinguished panel discussion, including Lutsen’s own Jim Vick, representing the Cook County Visitors Bureau. The “Becoming a Boundary Waters Family” program is the lead sponsor for the event, positioning Cook County as a leader in this important effort to get kids back in the woods.

Planning is moving ahead for the new Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais. Projected to cost more than 10 million dollars, it would include, among other things, a swimming pool, wellness center, kitchen and banquet facilities and host several existing programs like Minnesota Extension and Community Education. This project is part of the 1% sales tax initiative that we voted in awhile back, but has serious ramifications for ongoing taxpayer expense in the future. A public meeting about the project is scheduled for Wednesday, May 11th at 7:00 p.m. at the Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte. I urge everyone to attend, get informed, and share your input on this important issue. If you can’t make the meeting on the 11th, there is another meeting scheduled at the Courthouse in Grand Marais at 7 PM on Tuesday, May 10th.

All the recent news from around the world has reminded me once again how lucky we are to live where we do. I get as wound up about local, regional and national issues as anyone, but when I read about the tsunami in Japan, or the violence in Pakistan, or even the tornadoes in Alabama, it really changes my perspective. Our problems seem pretty tame in comparison. Even our most controversial issues are disagreements on exactly how to make our already great quality of life even better. Our government, at all levels, is remarkably responsive and representative. Our police are honest and protective. Our neighbors try hard to be friendly and helpful. I’m all for making things better, but once and awhile we need to step back and appreciate what we have.


Crocus in the Snow

West End News April 28

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This is the time of year when most of Cook County takes a deep breath and enjoys the lull between the busy winter season and the even busier summer season. In stores and restaurants you only see locals and people have a little more time for chatting. We decided the other day that if we are stopping at the post office and the grocery store, we need to plan an extra 45 minutes for visiting.

Of course, in true Minnesota fashion, the most popular topic of conversation has been the weather. As everyone knows we’ve been careening between snowy winter days and balmy spring-like days. As I write this, there is 4” of fresh snow on the ground at Sawbill and snow is still falling. Two days ago we were putting the skis away and getting out the deck furniture. Somewhere in the back yard, under the snow, there are crocuses blooming and tulip leaves sprouting. The current ice report is 18” remaining on Sawbill Lake. Lichen Lake, along the Grade Road, went out completely during the last warm spell and two loons have already taken up residence.

There is a double sense of relief this spring. In addition to the normal off-season breath catching, there are strong indications that the local economy is picking up after a tough couple of years. The extra sales tax on lodging gives us a good barometer on the health of the local tourism economy, which in turn, comprises most of the county’s economy. The numbers show that tourism was up 8% county wide in 2010 and is on track to be up at least 9% so far in 2011. Of course, having a good summer will depend on the snow melting and the blueberries ripening at some point.

It’s been interesting to hear some of the comments recently about the Superior National Golf Course in Lutsen. It seems like there is a profound lack of understanding of the benefit that the golf course has brought to the whole county. First of all, it’s a beautiful golf course and another wonderful asset for local recreation. I am completely uninterested in golf. I only watch golf on TV when I feel like taking a nap because it puts me right to sleep. However, my son Carl is an avid golfer and participated for several years in the wonderful youth golfing program at Superior National. The golf pros and the staff always treated him very well and as parents we were delighted that he was eager to participate in a safe, healthy, and fun activity.

The golf course has been a big financial success too. The bonds have been paid by lodging tax dollars and have never come from local taxpayers. The surrounding property, which would not have been developed if it wasn’t adjacent to the golf course, now pays well over a hundred thousand dollars a year in property taxes, while requiring very little in the way of county services. The lodging businesses from Schroeder to Grand Marais have seen a hefty increase in their occupancy from golfers. Even a conservative estimate of this business would be in the millions of dollars, resulting in many direct and indirect jobs. Finally, the golf course itself provides a small, but important number of living wage jobs, supporting several young families. There are many other ways that the golf course contributes to Cook County’s economy and quality of life, too numerous to mention here. In my opinion, Superior National has done exactly what it was designed to do. Now if I could only figure out why someone would want to spend a few hours chasing a little white ball around.

Airdate: April 28, 2011

Photo courtesy of Carrie Eberhardt via Flickr.



West End News April 21

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I saw my first chipmunk of the season this week. It was standing up, in that cute chipmunk way, right in the middle of the Sawbill Trail. It didn’t move a muscle as I approached in my car, so I hit the brakes hard, not wanting to run over the first chipmunk of the year. In a grim twist of the ground hog day tradition, I’m pretty sure if you kill the first chipmunk you see in the spring, it dooms us to at least six more weeks of winter weather. At the last second the chipmunk turned and dove into a hole right in the middle of the road. I wonder what it will do when the county road grader comes along in a few weeks?

Congratulations to the McKeever family of Schroeder on their nomination for a Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Award. They were nominated in the innovation category for developing a process that increases the efficiency of geo-thermal heating systems. The Labo Awards are a program of the UMD Center for Economic Development and recognizes entrepreneurs and business owners from Northeastern Minnesota. Former West End resident David Peipho, son of Butch and Rae Peipho of Lutsen is also nominated for a Labo Award in the micro entrepreneur category for his business, Superior Squeegee.

The excellent online news source, MinnPost, is running a series of in depth articles about Minnesota rural youth called, “Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads.” MinnPost reporter, Jeff Severns Guntzel, was in Cook County recently and produced a nice profile of Cook County’s own Kelly Schoenfelder. The reporter also visited Cook County Higher Education and I hope he will feature that outstanding home-grown program in a future article. Even many Cook County residents don’t know that you can attend college right here in Cook County. Since it’s inception 305 students have been awarded degrees or certificates through Cook County Higher Education, using a variety of distance learning methods. You can find MinnPost online at

The Annual meeting of the Tofte Historical Society will be held on Sunday, May1st, at the Birch Grove Center in Tofte. The event starts at 2 PM. There will be a brief business meeting, followed by a presentation on boat building from Todd Miller, owner of the the Grand Marais Boathouse. There will be, of course, refreshments, treats and plenty of time for visiting. You can call 663-7050 for more details or if you have questions.

The ice on Sawbill Lake is still 22” thick and plenty strong enough to walk on. A couple of weeks ago, when it was so warm, the ice actually floated up. Floating up is the phenomenon of the ice sheet detaching itself from the shore and becoming so porous that it becomes lighter than the water and spontaneously rises up about a foot an a half. Usually, when the ice floats up, it will be gone in ten days to two weeks. This year, the day after it started floating, the weather turned so cold that the water around the edges has refrozen and the ice sheet is once again anchored to the shore in most places. The streams that flow to Lake Superior have dropped dramatically from their raging peak last week. Their flow will pick up again when the weather warms up, providing more fun for the white water kayakers that are parked along Highway 61 these days. Things change fast this time of year, and I’m confident that summer will arrive before the 4th of July.

Speaking of summer, there is a new and exciting event that will occur in the West End this summer. The Lutsen 99er is a 99 mile mountain bike race that will be held for the first time on June 11th this year. It’s a collaborative effort of our local tourism groups and the national company, Life Time Fitness. It is already being billed as the premier mountain bike race in the Midwest. It will start up at Lutsen Mountains, descend to the shores of Lake Superior, then climb back into the heights of the Superior National Forest before ending, 99 miles later, back at Lutsen Mountains. In addition to the main event, there will be a 39 mile event for people who are new to the sport or just don’t want to tackle the grueling main event. There will be many other activities planned around the weekend and much more information to come. As always, you can find information on the web at

Airdate: April 21, 2011

Photo courtesy of Dawn Huczek via Flickr.


Highway 1 is a famous stretch of American road, known for its tight turns, abrupt hills and remote, forest scenery and wildlife.

West End News April 15

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We just got back to the county after a lovely vacation and were surprised by the dramatic advance of spring weather during the last week. When we left, our driveways and paths were treacherous sheets of ice and the snow gauge stood at 23 inches. Now, just a short week later, the snow gauge is down to 6 inches, the roofs are almost free of snow and the lakes are looking unsafe for travel.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is warning us of major construction this season on Highway 1, the road that runs from Illgen City to Ely. Highway 1 is a famous stretch of American road, known for its tight turns, abrupt hills and remote, forest scenery and wildlife. It is also infamous for accidents, which is why it is being reconstructed. The engineering plan is to make the road safe, but retain as much of it’s winding, rolling personality as possible. Hopefully, Highway 1 will remain the attraction for motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts that it’s been in the past. I have often ridden my motorcycle up to Ely. Last year, we stayed at the Ely Motel and the owner told me that he has many customers who come from all over the country to ride or drive on Highway 1.

There is always some nostalgia that arises when progress moves forward, even when it is for clear-cut safety reasons. The demise of quirky old Highway 1 got me to thinking about a canoe trip that my family took back in the late ‘50s. We decided to start the trip at Seagull Lake and instead of taking the Sawbill Trail back to Tofte and then up to Grand Marais, we drove across The Grade from the old Sawbill CCC Camp to the Ball Club Road and on to the Gunflint Trail from there. In those days, The Grade was literally and old railroad grade with the rails and ties removed. It received so little traffic that the alder brush had grown in thickly and dragged roughly along the sides of what would be today be called a Sport Utility Vehicle, but in those days was called a Carry-All.

The roadbed was very rough and consisted of coarse fill rather than crushed gravel. Parts of the road were swampy and flooded – deep enough that we worried about water getting into the engine carburetor. Our speed seemed to be just a hair faster than walking and several times we had to get out and clear downed trees. We had to keep a sharp eye out for stray railroad spikes that were left lying around when the rails were pulled up. Sure enough, we picked up a spike in one of our tires. As my dad changed the tire, we worried about getting another flat and being stranded along a road with virtually zero traffic. We had all our camping gear and food for a week, but as a young kid, I was terrified that we’d end up camping far from where my fishing pole could be put to good use. It took us about four hours, but we finally made it to the Gunflint Trail with the only damage being thousands of light scratches in the carry-alls paint.

The Gunflint seemed like a major highway compared to The Grade, but in fact the Gunflint at that time was a narrow gravel road with lots of corduroy, frost heaves, speeding logging trucks and deep ditches. On one set of sharp curves we came upon a pickup that had gone into a wet ditch and was well buried in the mud and leaning heavily to one side. My dad hopped out and had a quick conversation with two cheerful men who were working with a spade and a come-along hand winch to get the truck out. When Frank got back in the car, I remembered asking him if the men wanted us to call them a tow truck. He said, “Those are the Boostrom brothers. They don’t need any help with a little job like that.” I remember very little of the canoe trip, but that back road adventure has stayed vivid in my memory.

Of course, it’s all in your perspective. The late Edwin Nelson of Lutsen told me once that he used to live on Gunflint Lake when the Gunflint Trail was still literally a foot trail. He said that twice a winter he would snow shoe from Gunflint Lake to Grand Marais and bring back a toboggan full of groceries and supplies. He said it took him one day to snow shoe to town, but with the hill and the heavy toboggan it would take him two days to snowshoe home. The distance was over 50 miles each way. I’ll never forget Ed’s comment when I marveled at how amazing it was to snowshoe that far. Ed looked me straight in the eye an


A map of Anguilla, the most eastern island in the British West Indies

West End News April 6

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Like many Cook County residents at this time of year, I have traveled a good distance south to spend a week being renewed by a beach and a hammock before the busy summer season gets under way. I'm on the Caribbean Island of Anguilla which is the island farthest east in the British West Indies.

Aside from the obvious difference in climate, Anguilla and Cook County have quite a bit in common. Both areas have beautiful coastline and lush, remote and rugged interior areas. All the natural beauty supports a vital tourism industry that dominates both economies. Both areas have a deep history of commercial fishing that continues today. Both areas, as it turns out are facing deep government budget deficits and are struggling to balance the twin pains of service cut backs and tax increases. Tourism both here and at home have been slower for the last two years and the real estate market has been very soft. However, tourism revenues this year have been up about 10% in both areas, but still not back to historic levels.

One of the most discussed issues here on the island is figuring out how much development is appropriate. Many of the arguments would be very familiar to Cook County residents. When does the intensity of development start to destroy what attracts tourists to visit here in the first place? For instance, the airport, which is actually on the neighboring island of St Marten, has been rebuilt and modernized over the last several years. It is now a small version of every modern airport, with lots of polished steel, glass and crowd handling design. When I commented on this to my taxi driver, his comment was that everyone hates the new airport. He went on to say that both tourists and locals loved the old, funky airport that was a much better representation of the local culture and traditions.

One issue they don't have down here is the management of public lands. Only a small fraction of the land on the island is in public hands, as opposed to Cook County where more than 90% of the land is public. Down here, they establish rules for development that are designed to grow the economy - which make good sense at first - but it becomes very difficult to control development as time goes on, running the risk of overdevelopment and the degradation of the quality of life for the full time residents.

Historically, the main argument in Cook County has been that the public lands hold us back. That the government has "grabbed" the land, crippling our tax base and keeping us in poverty. If only we were free to develop the public land like private land, money would flow in and life would be ideal. We've seen a little revival of this outdated thinking in the recent initiative by some county commissioners to somehow forbid the conversion of any more land from private to public in Cook County. This is a bad idea. Public lands are a huge part of the quality of life here in Cook County. For locals and tourists alike, the opportunities for solitude, scenery, wildlife viewing, four wheeling, hiking, boating, canoeing, hunting, fishing and so on, are the foundation of our life style. On top of this we have the value of breathing clean air and drinking clean water. We take this for granted, but it is a real and growing problem around the world.

It is often argued that more private land would increase the tax base and lower everyone's taxes. The reality is that under even ideal conditions, the development of private land increases the need for public services equal to the amount of tax revenue it produces. In many cases, it will actually cost more than the taxes it brings in, resulting in a larger tax burden on existing homes and businesses.

It is also somewhat arrogant to try to tie the hands of future county boards. I for one would like to see any issues surrounding the conversion of land from public to private, or visa versa, decided on the merits, rather than on a blanket decision made without the facts at hand.

It really boils down to what kind of world we want to live in. It is a constant tension between short term reward and long term wisdom. I recommend that everyone hop into a hammock and give it some serious thought. In Anguilla and in Cook County, we all need to keep talking, thinking and working together to provide a better world for our descendants.


Camping sarongs are soon to be famous thanks to Bill's wife Cindy Hansen

West End News April 1

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This is the time of year when I start fielding inquiries about when the ice is going out on Sawbill Lake. The ice out phenomenon provides a lot of entertainment every year. It might be an interesting phenomenon - or it may just be a symptom of Cook County's long winters. Here at Sawbill, we've been keeping track of ice in and out dates for Dr. Ken Stewart from the State University of New York at Buffalo for 35 or 40 years. Dr. Stewart is gathering ice data from dozens of lakes across North America for no other reason than curiosity and the possibility that someone might want to use it for research someday. Every five years or so, I forget to return his post card and Dr. Stewart calls to remind me and we get to have a little chat. He says that there is no doubt that the ice out dates have been trending earlier since he started keeping track.

Here at Sawbill Lake, last year set the early ice out record in the 55 years that I've been around here, going out on April 4th. In 2009 the ice cleared Sawbill on May 7th, and in 2008 is was May 6th. In 2007 it was April 24th and in 2006 it was April 17th. Over the last 35 years, the average ice out date is right around May 1st.

Predicting the ice out date is nearly impossible. I remember one season, about 20 years ago, when we had a betting pool going. On the last day of April, it was 63 degrees and the ice was black and barely floating. We almost gave the money to the person who had the closest guess because it was obvious to all that it was going out that night or early the next day. But, that night the temperature plunged below freezing and it snowed. The cold snap lasted and it was two full weeks before the ice went out. In 2007, on the other hand, the ice was a solid 18 inches thick and perfectly safe to walk on - and then was gone six days later.

Last week we actually added ice when the temperature dipped below zero for five nights in a row. Now that things have turned more seasonable, we can start the guessing game and get the bets laid down. As I do every year, I'm putting my money on May 5th because that's my birthday. In 55 years, I've only won the bet once.

Sam Cook, the popular outdoor editor at the Duluth News Tribune, put out a call a couple of weeks ago for readers to let him know what their favorite canoe trip gear is, for inclusion in a column that will run when the canoeing season starts. Sam said most reader's submissions were pretty much what you would expect - great boots, carbon graphite paddle, super duper tents, etc. What he didn't expect was Cindy Hansen's contribution of the favorite item from her annual ladies' canoe trip. That would be colorful sarongs that she and her companions use for camp-wear, beach towels, picnic blankets and even occasionally portage attire. Cindy claims that Carol Perkins from Lutsen invented the canoe trip sarong. I think she got it from some long time customers of ours - a group of mature women who call themselves the BWISBs, which is an acronym for Big Women In Sports Bras. Sam called and wondered if Cindy had pictures, so watch the Duluth paper next month for several lovely ladies of the West End canoe camping in sarongs.

The first results of the 2010 census came out recently and they show that Cook County's population grew by .2% over the last ten years as compared to a 7.8% increase for Minnesota as a whole. Of course, statistics get a little strange when the population is small. The 2010 population is reported as 5,176 up from 5,168 in 2000. I'd like to personally welcome the 8 new people.


Ski conditions on BWCA Wilderness lakes have been excellent this week according to Bill Hansen of WTIP's West End News

West End News March 24

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It was a pleasant surprise this week to see a wave of news stories out of the Twin Cities about West End native Solveig Tofte. Solvieg is the daughter of Karen and Orton Tofte, Jr. She lived in Tofte until she was nine. Her aunt and uncle, Meg and Greg Tofte, are the only members of her immediate family that still live in Tofte, although she has great aunts and uncles, cousins and other relatives scattered liberally throughout Cook County. Solveig has been a renowned and award winning bakery chef for years, but she is currently in the news because she has started her own bakery and cafe, called Sun Street Breads in south Minneapolis. She has been the subject of very flattering articles in the Duluth News Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a number of other publications in the Twin Cities. The most exciting news is that Soveig has been gathering old family recipes for inclusion on the menu. She especially mentioned what she called the all-holy fish cakes, that are the glue that holds her extended family together. Many of us are very familiar with that particular Tofte family tradition. I know that Sun Street Bakery will be a regular stop for me when I get to the Cites and a regular request for deliveries from people who are traveling north from Minneapolis. I have no doubt that Solveig's sunny personality, Tofte family intelligence and Scandinavian work ethic will make her business a big success!

Solveig Tofte is just one of the many distinguished alumni of Birch Grove School in Tofte. If you would like your child to get an excellent start in life, there is a wonderful opportunity for you at Birch Grove right now. The Sapling Preschool program is offering free preschool during the months of April and May for any child that is due to enter kindergarten next year. The Saplings Preschool is open from 7:30 A. M. until 3 P. M., Monday through Thursday. The program uses the Core Knowledge Sequence and adheres to the Minnesota Early Learning Standards. The staff is professional and caring. The hours and days of participation are flexible and bus transportation is free if you live on an established bus route. The majority of scientific evidence now clearly points to the early childhood years as the most crucial in determining the happiness and success of an adult. This is really too good of an offer to pass up. You can contact the Birch Grove Community School at 663-0170 or find more details online at

As I predicted last week, the ski conditions on BWCA Wilderness lakes were excellent this week. Up until a couple of days ago, you could ski fast almost anywhere just as though you were on a groomed trail. One day last week, I skied the loop around Sawbill, Kelso and Alton Lakes by myself in the late afternoon. When sun works on the ice surface this time of year, it reveals all the ski, snowshoe, toboggan and dog sled tracks from the entire winter. They appear as ghostly traces - very clear to see and all but flush with the surface of the ice. It tells the tale of much winter fun. It also shows that it is almost impossible to move in straight line when you traverse an open, featureless lake during the winter. On this day, there were large puddles of standing water out in the middle. When there is no wind and the day is moving toward dusk, these puddles perfectly reflect the sky. They are also almost frictionless for skis, so you can glide great distances with no effort. If you look down at that moment, you can get the illusion that you are suspended in a light blue void filled with golden and pink clouds above you and below you. It is an earthly glimpse of a skier's paradise.

On Alton, I spotted a very large otter that appeared and disappeared several times as I approached it. When I reached the spot, I found a hole in the snow that led down to the open water. It was surrounded by otter scat, which is mostly comprised of the red tinged exoskeletons of crayfish. I waited quietly by the hole with my camera, but the otter was too smart for me and didn't reappear. It’s almost mystical how they can dive under the ice and stay there long enough to swim down the lake to another hole where they won't be bothered by a curious skier.


Lake Superior Ice

West End News March 19

For the first time in many years, there is a logging sale in progress near our home at Sawbill. It's been kind of nice to have neighbors again, even if they do go back to town at quitting time each day. This week, the loggers finished up the sale, and a trucker has been making regular trips between Sawbill and Superior to get the pulp to market before the roads break up. The trucker is very professional and I've noticed when I've met or followed him that he is a careful driver. I was headed home from town a few days ago and saw some ravens lift from the ditch about half way up the Sawbill Trail. This would hardly even be noteworthy on Highway 61, but it is rare for anyone to hit a deer on the Sawbill, so it caught my interest. I couldn't see the carcass over the snow bank, but I did see a gruesomely vivid trail of blood from the middle of the road up and over the snowbank. It was strange enough that I stopped to take a look. When I climbed the snow bank I saw the dead animal but it was so mangled that it took me a minute to figure out that it was a large wolf. If was freshly dead and looked for all the world like it had been run over by a logging truck. When I got home, I called Conservation Officer Tom Wahlstrom. Tom had already been to the scene and was actually the one who dragged the wolf off the road and into the brush. Before I could say anything, Tom commented that it looked like it had been run over by a logging truck. A few days later, I stopped to chat with the truck driver who was hauling from the sale near us. It turned out that he had indeed hit the wolf, but he said the strange part of the incident was that the wolf had plenty of opportunity to get out of the way. The Sawbill Trail at that point was still mostly ice, so the truck driver did what he could to slow down and avoid the wolf, but it just stood where he couldn't avoid it and paid the ultimate price. This is very odd behavior for wolves, who are usually plenty smart enough to avoid large trucks. The driver said it was unique to his experience. Of course, we'll never know why the wolf behaved in such an odd way, but at least it didn't suffer.

Winter turned on a dime this week and spring is upon us. Melting seemed to start immediately after daylight savings time ended. Now that the snowpack on the lakes and rivers has become very soggy, we are hoping for some cold nights to set a nice crust. In the years when we get a couple of weeks of freeze and thaw cycle, it can make for some great fun. On the lakes, travel becomes very fast. In the late morning, the hard pack snow becomes just soft enough to hold a ski edge and a cross country skier can eat up the miles with very little effort. One one warm day a few years ago, a group of us skied across six Boundary Waters lakes in nothing but running shorts. If the rivers get a suitable crust, it can make even an average skier feel like an Olympian, because when you ski down a river, it is always slightly down hill. If you are lucky enough to get a breeze at your back ... well, it's heaven. Once in about every 20 years, the lakes will flood themselves with melt water, then refreeze smooth enough for ice skating. Of course, everyone should use great caution when venturing out on spring ice. Know the iced thickness, never ski alone, keep some distance between individuals and carry rescue and survival equipment. If you haven't done it before, go with and experienced person the first few times.

This has been a wonderful winter for live music in the West End and all of Cook County. The Cook County Visitors Bureau has cooperated with area resorts and watering holes to present live music nearly every day. On weekends, there is more live music than one person can possibly attend. Some venues bring in their own musical acts. The result of all this musical opportunity is that local musicians have had many chances to showcase their talents to visitors and locals alike. This has been a deliberate strategy by Cook County's tourism community to establish our area as a music destination, provide outstanding entertainment for local residents and provide work for local artists. As a side benefit, the local music scene has become very active with new bands forming, jam sessions popping up all over the county and a noticeable improvement of skill among local musicians. The attendance at the music venues has been gradually going up and people from outside the area are starting to think of Cook County as a place with great music scene.

Speaking of which, I highly recommend that you mark your calendar and plan to attend the concert at Papa Charlie's in Lutsen on March 31st. There are, of course many nationally know bands that play at Papa Charlie's and they are all worth seeing, but the concert on that Thursday night will, in my opinion, will be special. The Travelin' McCourys are one of the finest bluegrass bands in the world. The leader, Ronnie McCoury, is widely believed to be the best mandolin player in bluegrass music. The whole band are virtuosos on their instruments and they are renowned for their wonderful vocal harmonies, especially on old time gospel songs. A couple of years ago, the McCourys met another great gospel band, the Lee Boys, at a festival. The Lee Boys are veterans of an African American gospel tradition coming from a denomination know as the House of God Church. These churches specialize in a gospel music called "Sacred Steel" that uses the pedal steel guitar, which is most often used in country music, where most churches use an organ. In this music though, the arrangements draw heavily on rhythm and blues, jazz and blues influences. Like the McCourys, the Lee Boys are powerful and skilled singers. At the festival, these two bands started jamming and the results were magic. It is a happy marriage of two great American music traditions with the sum being greater than the parts. They are now touring together and we are lucky enough to have them appearing here in the little old West End of Cook County. Be there or be square.

Airdate: March 19, 2011

Photo courtesy of Tom Kelly via Flickr.


Sawbill's albino chickadee

West End News March 10

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Back in October we were surprised and delighted to discover an albino chickadee coming to our office window bird feeder. In more than 50 years of bird watching, I’d guess that I’ve seen thousands of chickadees, but I had never seen and albino until this little guy showed up. We broke out the camera right away, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to photograph an individual chickadee. It seemed to disappear as soon as we started paying special attention to it. When it finally came within range, it would invariably jump, twitch or fly just as the shutter clicked. But, with persistence, we finally got three decent pictures of him or her and duly posted them on our online newsletter.

It turns out that albino chickadees are relatively rare and our newsletter entry got picked up by a writer for the Duluth News Tribune and several other birding blogs. We quickly got several somewhat snippy emails from serious birders, patiently explaining to us that what we had was an albino finch, which are relatively common, not a chickadee. Being no expert on albinism in birds, I was willing to have an open mind, so the next time I got close the pale little bird I took a hard look. As I stared at the bird, less than five feet away, it opened it’s mouth and said “chick a dee dee dee.” Later that day I rounded up a witness and while we were both very focused on it at close range, it repeated the statement – case closed.

I have always wondered if the birds that come to our office bird feeders are the same birds that come to our house bird feeders that are only about 150 feet away, but not within sight of each other. All winter, Mighty Whitey was a constant visitor at the office, but never once did we see him at the house feeder. Then, about a week ago, a guest spotted an albino chickadee at our dining room feeder. It was a few days until we got a close up look at it – and lo and behold – it was a different albino chickadee. Both birds are about 95 per cent white, but have a little grey on the shoulders and tails. The beaks and feet of both birds are not exactly pink, but sort of flesh colored. But, the white chickadee at the house feeder has a distinct black dot on its tail about the size of a pea – unmistakably different than the office chickadee.

I hope both chickadees hang around, although I think the life span of the average chickadee in the wild isn’t too long. I would guess that white coloration provides camouflage during the winter – especially this winter. When the snow is gone though, the poor little guys are going to stick out like sore thumbs to the sharp eyes of predators.

Many people around here know the Gilsvick family from Two Harbors, as they have many connections to Cook County. Leif Gilsvik worked for us here at Sawbill last summer immediately after he graduated from Two Harbors High School. Leif ran cross country for Cook County High School for several years. His mother, whose maiden name was Patty Tome, grew up in Grand Marais and graduated from CCHS. His father, Dave Gilsvik, is very well know artist who occasionally teaches painting at the Art Colony in Grand Marais.


Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

West End News March 3

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I've noticed that many people are starting to feel cranky about winter. I'm feeling a little cranky too, but not about the cold weather and plentiful snow, which always me happy - even at the end of the season.

The first thing I'm cranky about is the reservation system for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry permits. In the distant past, the Forest Service decided to contract out the reservation system. At some point it was acquired by a division of Ticketmaster, a company notorious for their high prices and terrible service. They make the phone companies look like the helpful folks at the corner grocery store.

For a number of years, there was a $12 nonrefundable fee that you paid to reserve a permit. This week, out of the blue, the Forest Service announced that the reservation fee was dropping by half - down to $6 for each permit reserved. This is, of course, good news in itself. What makes me cranky about it is that none of the outfitters, who reserve a large percentage of the permits on behalf of the canoeing public, were notified of the change. Even more annoying, this came two months into the permit reservation season. This catches all the outfitters and the Forest Service with their brochures and web sites all set with erroneous information. In my opinion, common courtesy would require a little "heads up" to the people most affected by the change. In fact, we are hearing through the local Forest Service offices that a large number of wilderness rangers, the people who actually work in the wilderness, have been laid off for the upcoming season. Couldn't that six dollars have been redirected to rehire those critical staff people?

A spokesperson for the Forest Service, in an interview here on WTIP, said the fee reduction was due to the efficiency introduced to the system be putting it on the internet. The system has been online for a number of years. I wonder how many millions of dollars the no-bid contract brought to the Canadian based Ticketmaster conglomerate over the past several years? It galls me that unearned dollars are pouring into distant corporate coffers while local people are being laid off.

Simultaneous with the reservation fee reduction, the permit reservation web site has undergone a recent overhaul and is now not working properly. We're told that the company is working on it, but it may be a while until it is fixed. I know a couple of local 13 year olds that could fix it for them in a heartbeat.

The second thing I'm cranky about is the recent announcement that the moose hunting quota for this year is being cut by half. The moose population in northeastern Minnesota is crashing. I rarely see any moose while driving the back roads of Cook County any more. In fact, I rarely even see the tracks. Even more disturbing, is that fact the moose population in northwestern Minnesota showed a similar decline a decade ago and moose are now virtually extinct in that part of the state.

I am not anti-hunting, but it sure seems like common sense that if an animal population is crashing, and a nearby population has recently gone practically to zero, and no one really knows why, that you would stop shooting them. If the moose disappear from Cook County, it will be a profound loss - for our culture, community and economy.

The third thing I'm cranky about is the childish anti-tax philosophy that seems to have an iron grip on our nation. Taxes that are fair and pay for things that are outstanding public investments are a good thing. As the former Republican Governor of Minnesota, Elmer L Anderson said, "Taxes are the way people join hands to get good things done. That's the tradition of Minnesota."

The reason I bring this up is not to touch off a debate about taxes or democracy, but to highlight an opportunity for the township residents of Cook County to take part in the uniquely grass roots process of Minnesota township government. The old saying that "the world is run by the people who show up" is literally true at the township level. Every year, the townships hold an annual meeting to which all township residents are invited. This year, the date is March 8th. The annual meeting is what really sets townships apart from other forms of government. At the meeting, the residents have a direct voice in how the township will be run. Citizens can propose township actions and have them voted up or down right then. Most importantly, the people at the meeting pass the levy of property taxes that the township is allowed to collect. The town board can only spend what has been authorized by the voters. It also allows your neighbors, friends and relatives - also known as the township board of supervisors - to explain what the town does and why. This is a wonderfully direct, effective and community building form of democracy. Just thinking about it causes me to forget my crankiness - that and the stunning blue sky with the golden, late winter sun shining down above the brilliant snow blessing our lakes, streams and trails.

Airdate: March 3, 2011

Photo courtesy of ShakataGaNai via Wikimedia.