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West End News

Bill Hansen

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Bill Hansen

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

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

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West End News: June 4

 
I enjoyed Brian Larsen’s article in the Cook County News Herald about the history of the Schliep family at the Taconite Harbor power plant in Schroeder. There is no living person with more knowledge of the plant than Jim Schliep of Tofte. 
 
Jim’s son, Tim, and grandson, Jory, work at the power plant now, keeping the Schliep family tradition going forward. The picture in the paper made it clear that the Schlieps are getting taller with each successive generation. If the trend continues, Jory’s kids will be professional basketball players.
 
Unfortunately, the occasion for the Schliep family reunion at the power plant was the permanent closing of Unit 3, the largest and newest of the three turbine units at the plant. Although they are ten years older, Units 1 and 2 were retrofitted with 50 millon dollars worth of pollution reduction equipment about 8 years ago, so as the dirtiest of the three units, #3 had to be closed for owner Minnesota Power to meet clean air regulations.
 
Minnesota Power has been up-front with the community about the closing of Unit 3 and the eventual closing of the entire power plant. That is, of course, a hardship for the West End and the entire region. It’s never a good thing when good paying jobs are lost within our small population.
 
Minnesota Power has looked long and hard at how they could keep the Taconite Harbor Energy Center functioning, but its location and age make every alternative too expensive. There is no hard date for the closing of the remaining two units, but it appears to be inevitable.
 
It’s always difficult when global conditions hit home at the local level, but nothing lasts forever, and there are very good reasons that the old, inefficient coal fired power plants are at the end of their usefulness to society. There could well be another generation’s worth of work at Taconite Harbor as the plant lives out the rest of its life and then is decommissioned.  
 
All we can do as a community is look to the future. If we tap the skills and work ethic of the Schliep family and the many other local people with ties to Taconite Harbor, hopefully we can make the best of a bad situation.
 
The winds of change affect every industry. This season’s display at the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder is titled “Lost Resorts.”  It provides a glimpse of more than 50 resorts that operated in the West End since the early 1930s. Only eight of those resorts are still in business today. 
 
On the surface, it sounds like the tourism business has suffered a severe decline, but the opposite is actually true. The tourism economy in the West End is bigger and healthier than it’s ever been. The big reduction in the number of resorts is, in my opinion, the result of market forces that made the little “Ma and Pa” resorts unprofitable, leading to the rise of the large, commercial resorts. Many of the small resorts morphed into large operations. In Tofte, for instance, Olsen’s Resort and Edgewater became Bluefin Bay, with many millions of dollars of new investment.
 
It’s natural to feel nostalgia for the old days, but in my opinion, we’re lucky that all the large resort properties in the West End are still owned by local people who live here and are active in community life. 
 
In any case, I hope you’ll join me in visiting the “Lost Resort” exhibit at the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder.
 
Also, mark your calendar for the Schroeder Area Historical Society Annual Meeting at the Heritage Center on Sunday, June 21, starting at 1 pm.  The speaker this year is Tim Cochrane, Superintendent of Grand Portage Monument, who will talk about the American Fur Company which had a strong connection to the West End. Tim is a fascinating speaker with a vast knowledge of our region’s history – and if that isn’t enough – ice cream will be served.
 
It seems like just yesterday that I was talking up an unknown little bike race called the Lutsen 99er. I don’t have to talk it up anymore as it has morphed, in just a few short years, to one of the premiere mountain bike races in the country. It not only provides a big shot of tourism revenue during race weekend, but it has put us on the map as a biking destination. Congratulations to all the West Enders who work so hard on this fantastic event. 
 

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White Pine "Topping"

West End News: May 28

 
For the last year, our Sawtooth Mountain and Grand Portage Clinics have been cooperating the Minnesota Department of Health on study of mercury exposure from eating fish in Cook County. 
 
Several years ago, it came to light that newborn babies on the North Shore have a higher level of mercury in their blood than newborns in the rest of the Midwest.  The current study is aimed at learning the fish eating habits of women in their childbearing years along the North Shore.
 
The study, which started last May, is attempting to interview and test the blood of 500 women, ages 16 to 50, before the end of June.  Although this seems like an ambitious goal, they have already tested more than 450 women, so the goal of 500 is definitely within reach.
 
If you decide to participate, you just schedule a short visit at the clinic in Grand Marais or Grand Portage.  You will be interviewed and a small amount of blood will be drawn.  You will learn the level of mercury and fatty acid in your bloodstream.  An important part of the study is learning the methods for eating fish in the healthiest way. 
 
All information will be kept strictly confidential.  You do not have to eat fish to participate.  All participants who complete the study receive a $50 Visa card.
 
This is an important study that will lead to healthier lives for all of our children, so please help to reach the goal of 500 participants.  I would, if I were eligible!
 
To schedule your appointment, call Sawtooth Mountain Clinic at 387-2330 or Grand Portage Clinic at 475-2235.
 
If you haven’t stopped in to the Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte recently, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit.  The place has evolved into a vital gathering spot for the whole West End.  The building and facilities look good and a wide variety of opportunities and programming for West Enders of all ages is offered.  Wood fired pizza parties, community and senior lunches, fitness equipment, a lending library, farm fresh produce, pickle ball, community education classes and the list goes on and on.
 
If you have an idea for something you want to see at Birch Grove, talk to director Caroline Wood or one of the board members.  This vital community resource belongs to all of us, from Silver Bay to Grand Marais and beyond, so stop by and take a look.  I guarantee that you’ll find something to like.
 
According to a new report from the Minnesota think tank, Growth and Justice, income inequality in Minnesota is wide and growing.  The percentage of all income going to the richest one percent is the highest that it’s been since the 1920s.  Today the richest one percent of Americans own more than 40% of the nation’s wealth.
 
The brand new report, which you can see at growthandjustice.org, offers a look at Minnesota income inequality county by county. 
 
For Cook County, it is the proverbial good news, bad news scenario. 
 
The good news is that Cook County’s median income is right in the middle as compared to the statewide average.  Although average may not sound that good, we are actually much better off, income-wise, than other small, rural Minnesota counties.
 
The bad news is that we are among the highest Minnesota counties in income disparity.  This should be no surprise to anyone who understands the financial geography of Cook County.
 
In my opinion, the current level of income inequality is unnatural and unfair.  It’s not the result of free market forces, but the outcome of more than 40 years of so called trickle down economic theory.  It’s well past time to abandon that failed policy, get the big money out of politics and return to a system that fairly compensates people for their work. 
 
I sense that most employers in Cook County would like to pay their employees better, but competition keeps them from doing it on their own.  This is problem that needs to be solved at the national level.  We all need to keep this in mind during the next election.
 
The Forest Service has been doing a lot of work in the wilderness now that weather has turned summer-like.  On Wonder Lake, which was hit hard by the blow-down in ’99, they were concerned about some giant old white pines with dead tops.  They were afraid that if the tops broke off, they could potentially land in a campsite.  Normally, they would just cut down the hazardous trees.  This time though, they brought in some firefighters who have been trained in the art of topping trees.  They climbed the mighty pines and cut the tops off, leaving the magnificent tree for people and wildlife to enjoy.
 
My hat is off to people with the skill for that kind of work.  You just never know what kind of unique people we have here in the West End.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.
 
 
 

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Black Beach

West End News: May 21

Fishing season has been open for a couple of weeks now and reports from anglers are coming in mostly positive. Walleyes are biting slowly, but steadily, with almost every group reporting success, but often with the caveat that they “had to work for ‘em.”  
 
Bass have been the surprise of the season so far, with many reports of big bass big caught, in spite of chilly water temperatures. Northerns always bite well in the early season and this year is no exception. The biggest reported so far was in the ten pound range.
 
Lake trout are easily being caught in the deep wilderness lakes. One solo paddler told me that he caught five large lake trout in a row casting into the pool at the base of a falls. He said it was too bad that he doesn’t eat fish because he could have lived for a week on just one of those beauties. He said that he practices “hook and release” so the fish never leaves the water and is kept on the line just long enough to gently remove the hook with a needle-nosed pliers.
 
Fishing should improve over the next few weeks, so put on new line and get out on your favorite lake.
 
I was pleased to see the story in the Cook County News Herald about the plaque that has been erected by the Lutsen Villa Association in honor of the late Bub Nelson. Bub’s impact on the West End is too large to even begin to describe here. The highlights include turning Lutsen Resort into one of Minnesota’s best-loved resorts, founding the Lutsen Mountains Ski Area, building the first condominiums on the North Shore and arranging for the construction of Superior National golf course.
 
In my opinion, it’s very important for a history like Bub’s to be remembered and re-told as an example to future generations. Thanks to the leadership of the Lutsen Villa Association helping to keep Bub’s memory alive.
 
The unique and secluded Black Beach in Silver Bay is again open to all, after several years of being closed to public use. The beach is reached by taking the first turn off Highway 61 east of the stoplights in Silver Bay.  It’s been a popular picnic spot for hundreds, if not thousands of years, until safety concerns caused the private owner to post it with no trespassing signs.
 
Now, the City of Silver Bay and the Minnesota DNR have collaborated in leasing the property from the owner, North Shore Mining, and putting it back on the short list of public North Shore beaches.
 
The black sand is a legacy of the era when Reserve Mining dumped the waste rock produced at their taconite plant into Lake Superior.  Despite its color being derived from what amounted to massive industrial pollution, it is now one of those wonderful secret spots along the North Shore that locals love and visitors get to discover.
 
Congratulations to Tofte’s hard-working fire chief, Rich Nelson and his wife Cathy, on taking the first real vacation of their working lives.  They relaxed on the beach in southern California near the home of their daughter, Caitlin.
 
Rich said that he was worried about the reaction from the Californians when he revealed his Minnesota winter legs on the beach. He said the only way people knew that his legs were alive was that he didn’t have a tag on his toe.
 
He should probably worry more about what West Enders will say when they see a relaxed Rich Nelson sporting a California tan.

(Photo courtesy of Superior Hiking Trail Association)
 

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Jenna (Latz) Wagner moments before surgery to donate her kidney

West End News: May 14

When she grew up in Lutsen, Jenna Latz, daughter of Jeff and Anna Latz, was an active and well-known kid.  She was a good student, and outgoing athlete, active in the community and a friend to many.  In due course, she departed for college in Arizona and joined the ranks of people raised in the West End who return home for frequent and busy visits.
 
Last fall, Jenna Latz became Jenna Wagner when she married Jessman Wagner on her parents’ dock on Deeryard Lake.  All of this is a pretty standard biography for a West End kid who was raised by her village. 
 
Last Wednesday, Jenna took a dramatic step away from the ordinary when she donated one of her kidneys to a woman that she didn’t even know.
 
It all started last year when Jenna learned that a friend's mother, Sharon Scanlan, needed a kidney transplant and wasn’t a match with any of her immediate family members.  Sharon was in the unenviable situation of having to find a donated kidney when she matched less than 5% of the population.
 
Jenna immediately agreed to be tested, and after a long process of medical tests, was found to be Sharon’s perfect match.  Although it is quite possible to live with only one kidney, Jenna’s decision is not without serious risk.  The surgery, although considered routine, is still a very major operation with all the risks that go along with it.  As Jenna makes her way through the rest of her life, having only one kidney puts her at higher risk.
 
In spite of the risks, Jenna never hesitated in her resolve to help her friend’s mother.  All her medical expenses are covered by insurance, of course, but she will have to be off work for at least a month at no pay.  Jenna’s many friends, co-workers and classmates have generously stepped up to make sure that her decision doesn’t hurt her financially.
 
I’m sure I join the whole West End in feeling proud and honored to be part of a community that produced Jenna Wagner and helped to make her the extraordinary person that she is.  It really makes you think about what we can all do to make the world a better place.  Join me in sending good thoughts Jenna’s way to help her to a hasty and healthy recovery.
 
Schroeder resident Bill Christ will be presenting a fascinating topic at the May session of the Great Decisions/Foreign Policy Discussion Group which meets in Grand Marais.  Bill has an interesting background that ranges from international business to the ministry.  His topic is “Privacy in the Digital Age - International Cyber Security and Cyber Cold Warfare.” 
 
As the internet becomes a vital part of modern society, involved with nearly everything that we do, the issues of privacy and security are becoming more and more important.  Bill has been applying his considerable intellect to studying this issue for about six months.  It will be an interesting, important and stimulating discussion.
 
The Great Decisions group will be meeting at the Community Center in Grand Marais from 12:30 to 2 pm on Thursday, May 21st.  It is free and open to all.
 
WTIP’s popular Friday evening program, “The Roadhouse,” recently conducted an interview with Dr. Frank Ferraro, a psychology professor from Nebraska, about his experiments concerning the mental benefits of wilderness canoeing.
 
Essentially, his research shows that being in the wilderness makes you more creative and enhances your ability to focus mentally.  This feeling of renewal that we all feel when we spend time in the woods is well known, but it’s really interesting to see it backed by data and hear Dr. Ferraro’s theories about why it happens.
 
If you’re interested, go to WTIP’s website at wtip.org to hear the whole interview by Roadhouse host Dick Swanson. 
 
Dr. Ferraro was kind enough to say nice things about Sawbill and the BWCA Wilderness that we are lucky to have as part of our community.  It’s just another advantage to the wonderful life here in the West End.
 
 

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Black Bear (wanderlingnome /Flickr)

West End News: May 7

 
Recently, I looked back in the WTIP archives of West End News for this week in 2010 when my dad, Frank Hansen, was still the West End correspondent.  Among other things, he wrote about the Commercial Fishing Museum and the temporary Post Master position in Tofte.  Five years along, both those stories are still in the news.
 
The Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte recently held their annual meeting and elected a new board of directors.  They are looking for a couple of more directors, so if you’re interested in local history, stop in at the museum and let them know.
 
Also at the annual meeting, long-time museum director Don Hammer announced his retirement from the museum.  If you know someone who is interested in a part time job preserving the history of commercial fishing in the West End, have them keep an eye out for the upcoming job listing.
 
Five years ago, Frank also reported that an announcement of a permanent postmaster for Tofte was due any day.  That day has yet to come as the U. S. Postal Service struggles with providing rural postal service all across the country.  Our current temporary postmaster, Edward Taylor, has been on the job for a couple of years now, but he tells me that the new permanent postmaster will be arriving any day.  Morgan Johnson, who has been the temporary postmaster in Lutsen, will be taking over in Tofte – possibly by the end of the month.
 
I’m sure I speak for many in the community when I say that we will miss Edward when he leaves us.  Even though he commutes in from Two Harbors, he has established himself as a friendly and helpful member of the West End community.  Edward isn’t sure what his future holds.  He has a couple of more years before he can retire from the postal service, but is at least looking forward to a long, well deserved vacation when his duties in Tofte end. 
 
The Birch Grove Community Center is Tofte has started up the popular weekly pizza parties that have been happening during the summer months since the outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven was constructed a couple of years ago.  Every Wednesday night, from now until September 30th, starting at 5 pm, the pizza oven will be hot and ready to go.  The dough and sauce are provided and you just bring the toppings that you prefer.  There is a small dough-nation suggested to cover the costs. You can enjoy your pizza rain or shine thanks to the beautiful timber framed picnic shelter.  It is a good idea to let them know that you are coming by calling 663-7977 or email bgf@boreal.org.
 
The woods are in a state of suspended animation right now as dry weather has held off the green-up temporarily.  The up side is that without the leaves out, you can see into the woods and spot animals that are normally hidden.  This week I’ve seen a fisher, one cow moose with a collar and one without, and yesterday a little bear eating grass along the roadside.  It was so absorbed in it’s meal that it didn’t hear my truck as I coasted up to within 20 feet or so.  I quickly broke out my phone and recorded the sound of my dog, Roy, barking and video of the startled bear running off.  Roy continued to mutter about the bear for about another ten miles down the road. He gets pretty concerned when he sees a bear.  I suspect he’s had some close encounters that we didn’t ever know about.
 
Even though Roy sees them as a dire threat to public safety, I like having the bears around.  It’s a big part of what make life here in the West End so sweet.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

{click here to see a short video of the bear}
 

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West End News: April 30

The ice left Sawbill Lake on Tuesday, April 28th.  By noon, the lake was more than 90% open and by 5 pm there wasn’t a trace of ice left.  Less than an hour later the first car with a canoe on top pulled into the parking lot. 
 
When we got our first computer back in the late ‘80s, I used it to calculate the average ice-out date for Sawbill Lake over the previous 10 years.  May 1st was the average ice-out date at that time.  Today, I figured the average ice-out date for the last ten years and it came out to April 26th.  Statistics are funny things and ten years isn’t a very big sample, but it sure seems like the ice-out date is trending earlier over time.
 
I have seen ice records on Sawbill Lake going back to the early 1930s and the two earliest ice-out dates occurred in the last ten years – April 4th in 2010 and an incredible March 27th in 2012.  Even though the ice went out late in 2013 and ’14, that wasn’t even close to the record late ice-out date which is, in my memory, May 26th, back in the 1970s.
 
For the last 40 plus years, we’ve been sending our ice in and out dates to Dr. Ken Stewart, now Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York in Buffalo.  Dr. Stewart sends a stamped, self-addressed post card every spring and fall to remind us to send him our report.  This year, the post card arrived on the same day that the ice went out.  That could be a coincidence or Dr. Stewart is getting very accurate at predicting ice dates.
 
This is my last call for reminding everyone to buy tickets for the Gala For The Grove, which is on May 9th this year.  Opening day is probably not the best choice of dates for a fund-raising dinner, but any fisher-person worth their salt will have their limit well before noon, leaving plenty of time to attend the Gala.  The 9th is also Mothers Day, but that’s a win-win as it allows you to support Birch Grove Community School and take your mom out to dinner at the same time.  Call 663-0170 to make your reservations.
 
Cook County Higher Education is holding two important mental health training events on Thursday, May 7th, at the North Shore Campus in Grand Marais.
 
The first is about mental illness in the workplace. It will present strategies for employers to prepare themselves to help and provide support to employees and customers during episodes of mental illness.   This session runs from 11:30 to 1 pm on the 7th and is part of the ongoing Brown Bag Lunch sessions hosted by Cook County Higher Ed.
 
The second session is Suicide Prevention Awareness Workshop from 6 to 7 pm on May 7th. This workshop focuses on how to identify the warning signs and risk factors of suicide, how to ask a person if they are suicidal, and where to refer them for professional help.
 
We’re lucky to have good local and national resources for both people who may feel suicidal and people who know someone who may be having suicidal thoughts.  There is hope and help available by simply picking up any phone and dialing 211.  You can also text the word “life” to 61222.  The national hotline number is 1-800-273-8255 -- that’s 800-273-TALK.  Of course, in any emergency, dialing 911 will connect you to help immediately.  If you feel like someone you know is feeling suicidal, stay with them until professional help arrives.
 
Thanks to Cook County Higher Education for hosting these important and useful training sessions – and for everything else they do, by the way.
 
Many people in the West End fondly remember Neal Grage who lived in Schroeder for 33 years.  Neal passed away last week at the age of 86.  He was a mainstay in the community when he lived here, and a respected employee at Erie Mining’s Taconite Harbor facility.  Neal is survived by his wife, Arlene, and the five children that they raised here in the West End - Becky, Steve, Dave, Kathy and Shelly.
 
For anyone who knew Neal, they knew that he was just about the nicest person you could ever want to meet.  He was mild mannered, had a good sense of humor and could be relied upon to be steady and thoughtful in everything he did. 
 
I’m sure the whole West End joins me in wishing condolences to his family.
 
The Forest Service has a contractor working around the Sawbill Lake Campground this week, removing small balsam fir from the forest.  This is a fire prevention strategy that will keep a forest fire from crowning into the tall treetops in and around the campground.
 
The sound of continuous chain sawing in the background makes me feel even more like I’m living in an episode of the late, great “Red Green Show.”  So tell my wife I’ll be home right after the show and keep your stick on the ice.
 

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Tombolo

West End News: April 23

I saw a moose on the Grade Road last week.  I saw it a little closer than I like to see a moose when I’m traveling 40 miles per hour in a car.  It is rare to see a moose anymore, or even tracks of a moose on the back roads in the West End.  It’s so rare that I’ve let my guard down.  Of course, the one moose in a hundred square miles has to be lurking in the worst spot on a blind corner.  Fortunately, the healthy looking young cow didn’t panic and run.  She just spun around and prepared to kick the car if I got too close.  I was easily able to slow down and steer around her.  No harm done, except a shot of adrenaline for both of us.
 
Farther along on the same night, I saw a muskrat out for a ramble in the middle of the Sawbill Trail.  When I stopped, he turned around and ran toward the car, like he was looking for a ride.  This is the second muskrat I’ve seen wandering around on the Sawbill Trail.
 
Both the lack of moose and the ramblings of the muskrats are clear signs of our rapidly changing climate.  Twenty years ago, the moose were plentiful and the muskrats were nearly unheard of.  I wonder how long until the alligators show up.
 
The North Shore Stewardship Association has announced their first capital campaign in more than 20 years for the Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center in Schroeder.  The number of people taking advantage of Sugarloaf Cove has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.  The improvements will include better parking, signage, and building upgrades that provide for easier access and support of Sugarloaf’s educational efforts, according to Executive Director Molly Thompson.
 
The 38-acre Sugarloaf Cove site is renowned for its volcanic geology, cobblestone beach, unique arctic plants and its unusual tombolo.  Alright, if you know what a tombolo is, your vocabulary is better than mine.  I had to look it up.  A tombolo is a bar of sand, or shingle, connecting an island to the mainland.
 
Long story short, Sugarloaf Cove is the greatest and I hope everyone will join me in helping them out with this campaign.  You can donate online at: sugarloafnorthshore.org or call Molly at 218-525-0001.  You can always call WTIP if you missed that contact information.
 
The 5th annual Gala for the Grove, the year’s largest fundraiser for Birch Grove Community School, will be on May 9th in the Lakeside Ballroom at Surfside on Lake Superior in Tofte.  This event sells out every year and starts with a champagne social at 5 pm.  The gourmet dinner begins at 6:30 pm with a fabulous prize drawing held near the end of the dinner.  At 7:30, the piece-de-resistance, an entertaining live auction, is held.  The auction always includes some very unusual and desirable items.  Finally, at 9 the dancing begins and continues until the wee, wee hours, which by Tofte standards is probably about 10:30.
 
Tickets are still available, but you should make your reservations right away.  Contact Celeste at Birch Grove Community School, 663-0170 or email birchgrove@boreal.org.  In this case there is no doubt, be there or be square.
 
In breaking news, there has been a change of ownership in the bottle shop located next to the Tofte General Store.  As planned during the store complex’s sale four years ago, Cliff Iverson has relinquished the management of the liquor store to Lisa Nelson and her hard-working crew at the Tofte General Store.  Major renovations are underway and if you stop in soon, you can request that your favorite beverage be stocked.
 
As reported here last week, Sawbill Lake was making quick progress toward shedding its ice cover for the season.  In less than a week, summer-like weather melted 27 inches of solid ice down to 13 inches of pretty degraded ice.  That’s when Mother Nature hit the big ol’ red STOP button.  For the first part of this week the remaining ice has been getting more solid and is currently covered with five inches of fresh powder snow.  While the return to winter is disheartening, it’s not unusual.  I hope to report next week that the waves are lapping the shore as the canoes paddle into the sunset.
 

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Grand Marais' Jess Hemmer testing the ice depth on Sawbill Lake

West End News: April 16

It’s no surprise that the recent heat wave has jump-started the waterfall season.  In every nook and cranny of the West End, all you have to do is stand still when the wind is calm and you can hear running water – either the intimate gurgle of a rivulet a few feet away or the distant roar of a river in flood.
 
Visit Cook County, our most excellent county-wide tourism promotion organization, has been working diligently for the last two years to let the rest of the world know what we locals have known all along: late April and early May is the best season for waterfalls.
 
Now, a map showing waterfall viewing locations is available, thanks to the VCC’s talented marketing team.  The map locates seven easily accessed waterfalls in the West End alone.  Hiking to visit waterfalls makes a great free time activity for locals and visitors alike.
 
In my opinion, the waterfall season has the potential to be very popular, similar to what we experience during the fall color season.  Many years ago, the fall color season was a very quiet time in the West End.  In the ‘50s and ‘60s many resorts closed for the season on Labor Day.  Someone at the Forest Service District Office in Tofte had the idea to print a map of the local back roads that were good for viewing the fall colors.  They gave whimsical names to the routes and put up simple roadside map boxes to dispense the simple maps.  The rest, as they say, is history.
 
The biggest problem with Cook County’s tourism-based economy is the extreme drop in visitors in the early spring and late fall.  It makes a lot of sense to promote the unusual beauty of those seasons enjoyed by locals but unknown to visitors.  If we can combine the unique natural events with fun music, food and art - all the better.
 
Filling the resorts in April and November will contribute to rising wages, housing stability, family health and a whole list of other benefits.
 
The Cook County Local Energy Project has a good deal for homeowners who are considering home improvement this summer.  Their Residential Energy Efficiency Program is accepting new customers in the month of April.
 
If you sign up for the program, you will receive a home energy audit before you start work on your home.  The audit will be followed by clear suggestions on how to effectively lower your energy bills through home improvements.  After the construction is complete, another audit is completed to document the savings.  You pay for the audits and improvements, but once the improvements are done, you receive a rebate for the cost of the audits.
 
Not only is this a good deal up front, but also it’s the gift that keeps on giving, keeping hard-earned money in your pocket year after year after year.  That is money that you can use to take a vacation to Florida during the February cold snap a few years from now.
 
For more details, contact Virginia Danfelt by email.  The address is localenergy@boreal.org.
 
I recommend reading an interesting article published this week in the online news website Minnpost.  The author is John Gappa, who is a well-known and well-respected corporate chief financial officer in Minnesota.  He provides an analysis of the risk/benefit ratio for the proposed PolyMet precious metal mine in the Lake Superior watershed near Ely.
 
Usually, I’d rather have a root canal than read a financial risk analysis, but Gappa makes a strong case that Minnesotans are carrying the bulk of the financial risk, with very little return for that risk.  Read it and decide for yourself.  You can find the article online at Minnpost.com.
 
I would like to add my voice to the chorus of condolences on the passing of retired teacher, Wayne Hansen, in Silver Bay.  I didn’t know Wayne personally, but by all accounts he was an engaged and beloved teacher and community member in Silver Bay for more than 50 years.
 
Here at Sawbill, we’ve begun our annual ritual of daily ice measurements on Sawbill Lake.  The first measurement was made on Monday and came in at 25.5” of fairly solid ice.  In just 24 hours the measurement dropped to 21” with the ice being noticeably softer.  By Wednesday, the 15th, the ice had “floated up” which is the phenomenon when the porous ice sheet detaches from shore and is literally floating on top of the water.  Usually, the ice goes out within two weeks of floating up.
 
Thankfully for the general mental health of all West End residents, it looks like spring will arrive at more or less the normal time this year.  If it had been another very late spring like the past two years, we would be in need of community wide group therapy.
 

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Swans swimming in Temperance River

West End News: April 9

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The umpteenth annual Tofte Trek trail run is accepting pre-registrations from now until July 1.  Race day is July 4, which falls on a Saturday this year. You can also register the morning of the race, but it costs a bit more.
 
The Tofte Trek is famous for its muddy, wet conditions as it winds around roads and trails of Tofte for 10 kilometers.  It is recommended that you wear your old running shoes because they will likely be ruined.
 
Originally the brainchild of the well-known Tofte character, Jan Horak, the race is now a major fundraiser for the Sugarbush Trails Association that maintains the cross-country ski and mountain bike trail system in the hills above Tofte. 
 
The event starts and ends at the Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte.  It includes kids’ races that begin at 9am and the main event when the kids are finished.  Same day registration opens at 8 am.
 
To pre-register, or get more information, go to the Sugarbush Trail Association website at: sugarbushtrail.org.
 
It’s been fun to have Peter Hall working near us at the end of the Sawbill Trail for the last couple of months.  Peter is a logger who was born and raised in Lutsen, the youngest son of the well-respected Hall family.  He logged for many years around the West End until he moved to West Virginia 17 years ago to be a field engineer for a heavy equipment manufacturer in the coal mines there.  Recently, Peter has returned to his roots and started logging full time back in Cook County.
 
It’s always a pleasure to watch anyone who is good at what they do and Peter is certainly a highly skilled logger and mechanic.  His artistry operating the complicated logging equipment is a marvel, but he is also highly attuned to the woods and what is going on in the ecosystem.  He is always alert for opportunities to help out wildlife, improve timber regeneration or protect the watershed.  His mindfulness pays off for his business, as he is a much sought after logger with a two-year backlog of timber sales.
 
One funny thing did happen while Peter was working near us.  We are in the habit of taking our two feisty terriers for a walk on the Sawbill Trail every afternoon.  The dogs, Roy and Phoebe, love to be walked on leashes, which is kind of odd because they are normally free to roam our property all day long.
 
Last week, while Cindy was walking the dogs, she could hear Peter chain-sawing in the woods alongside the road.  Like all terriers, our dogs are on constant alert for intruders of any species.  Surprisingly though, they are not concerned in the least with the engine noise from a logging operation, so they were paying no attention to the chain-saw noise.  However, just as they came even with where Peter was working, he emerged suddenly from the thick brush to their right, wearing his orange chaps, Carhartt jacket, hardhat, earmuffs and eye goggles – idling chainsaw in hand. In other words, he was the very picture of what every terrier thinks that a terrier-murdering monster looks like. The dogs went from calm to ballistic in a heartbeat.  The chorus of panicked barking was so deafening that Peter just smiled, shrugged and walked back into the woods.  Of course, the terriers were convinced that their ferocity had saved Cindy’s life, as well as their own, and probably most of the civilized world.
 
More recently, we had an unusual wildlife sighting along the back road known as The Grade in Tofte.  We were driving over the Temperance River near Baker Lake when we spotted two swans in the river.  I’ve only seen one other swan this far back in the woods and that was just flying overhead.  These beautiful birds were floating regally on the still water below the rapids.  I don’t have the skill to determine if they were Tundra or Trumpeter Swans, but they surely are a beautiful harbinger of the approaching spring season here in the West End.
 
 

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Cook County Higher Education’s North Shore Campus

West End News: April 2

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Nonprofit organizations have been in the news lately. A few weeks ago the West End townships were discussing their support for local nonprofits like the Birch Grove Community School and the Birch Grove Foundation, along with snowmobile and ski clubs.  Before that, the Cook County Board of Commissioners had a lively discussion about their funding of local nonprofits as part of the budget process.
 
Now, the Cook County Commissioners are planning a public meeting and a public hearing regarding county support of community nonprofits.
 
All this talk about nonprofits got me to thinking about what nonprofit organizations are and what they do. In my mind, nonprofit organizations exist to promote the health and well being of society. They are, at their core, a group of people working together to accomplish something that can’t be done individually.  There are many important needs of society that cannot be effectively addressed by businesses or government. It’s this important niche that nonprofits fill.
 
While nonprofits are often described by words like “charitable, philanthropic or volunteer,” they are actually partnerships between business, governments and private individuals to fulfill a mission for the common good of the community. They are also a major part of the economy. In Minnesota, more than ten percent of all employment is in the nonprofit sector.  In terms of dollars, the nonprofit economy in Minnesota is larger than all of state government.
 
Cook County Higher Education is a nonprofit that receives money from the Cook County commissioners, the State of Minnesota, businesses, charitable foundations and private individuals. This organization was founded more than fifteen years ago to provide college level education right here in Cook County. It was meant to allow local people to educate themselves without having to leave the county.
 
The County Board has supported Higher Ed since it started, with a contribution that has varied from $5,000 to $15,000 per year.  So, what have they gotten for their money? More than 700 people have received college level certificates and degrees, including everything from proficiency certificates on up to bachelors, masters and even one doctorate degree.  Hundreds of people have, by their own hard work and initiative, raised themselves from unemployment or underemployment to good paying, highly skilled jobs.  Many people have left public welfare to join the local workforce, pay taxes, buy a home, start businesses and enjoy productive lives right here in Cook County.
 
The county’s support has helped attract millions of dollars from the State of Minnesota, private foundations and individual donors. Many of these contributors ask if the county commissioners also support Higher Ed as an indication of community buy-in.
 
In my opinion, the county commissioners’ support of Cook County Higher Education may be the smartest and most effective money they spend each year. It is, without a doubt, the best return on investment that the county can ask for. If the county commission increased their contribution to Higher Ed, it could result in more county residents rising from poverty to make powerful contributions to the overall prosperity of the community.
 
It is healthy for the townships and Cook County to be discussing what rationale the elected officials should use to decide which nonprofits to support with the money that we contribute through taxes. They would be smart if they applied the following questions to nonprofits asking for county support.
 
Does the work of this nonprofit benefit a lot of people in Cook County? Is this nonprofit well run and compliant with the law and best practices? Does this nonprofit fill a niche that is not filled by private business or government? Has this nonprofit put together the best partners to do the job? Does this nonprofit provide a good return to the community for the dollars invested? And last, but not least, is this simply the right thing to do?
 
If the answers are yes, as they so clearly are for Cook County Higher Education, then the county commissioners should vote in favor of providing funds.
 
In the case of Cook County Higher Education, a relatively small amount of additional funding could make it possible for any Cook County resident to receive higher education, regardless of their ability to pay.  That is exactly the kind of thing that makes this a great place to live.
 
 

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