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West End News

Bill Hansen

Contributor(s): 
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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Locomotives on the rail line between Taconite Harbor and Hoyt Lakes

West End News: July 30

The closing of Minnesota Power’s Taconite Harbor power plant continues to be on the minds of West End residents.  It takes time to absorb such a large blow to the community.
 
I was intrigued by Cook County News Herald editor Rhonda Silence’s suggestion that the railroad between Schroeder and Hoyt Lakes be reactivated as a scenic railroad.  I’ve hiked quite a few sections of that rail line and it is beautiful.  The tunnel is particularly spectacular, not just for its capacity to scare the young Rhonda Silence, but for breathtaking views from both ends. 
 
The kind of thinking that Rhonda is doing is exactly what we need to turn the end of the power plant era into a new era of prosperity for Schroeder and Taconite Harbor.  It seems to me that any place where a rail line meets a Great Lakes shipping line is bound to be useful to someone.
 
The 15th annual Gitch-Gami Trail Association North Shore Bike Ride is coming up on Saturday, August 15.  The ride takes place on the Gitchi-Gami State Trail along with some connecting roads and offers a 28-mile, 37-mile, and 55-mile option.  The ride starts and ends at Gooseberry State Park.  Riders should gather there around 9:00 am in order to start riding before 10:30.  You must wear a helmet and be willing to sign a liability waiver.  There is a small charge for participation.
 
The North Shore Bike Ride was the brainchild of the late Congressman Jim Oberstar.  He wanted the event to call attention to the trail each year, especially to highlight the additions to the trail year by year.
 
Jim Oberstar was, among many other accomplishments, the leading advocate for bicycling in the U.S. Congress.  It was his vision that will result, when complete, in an 88-mile bike trail along the shore of Lake Superior from Two Harbors to Grand Marais.  Twenty-nine miles are complete now with some significant new sections coming soon.
 
The Birch Grove Community Center would like to introduce you to Pickleball, if you aren’t already acquainted.  Pickleball is a fun game that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong.  It can be played indoors or out with a paddle and a plastic ball.  It is a sport that can be enjoyed by people of all abilities.
 
Birch Grove has Pickleball every Thursday and Saturday at 10:00 am.  They are especially encouraging new players at this time and will make sure that you are comfortable and have fun.  Call Elizabeth at 663-7977 to give her a heads-up if you plan to attend.
 
The folks at the Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland are organizing an invasive weed pull on August 6 at 5:00 pm.  That is the same night and time as the popular farmer’s market, so you can stock up on fresh goodies and perform some community service at the same time.  The Lake County Invasive Species Team will be on hand to provide instruction on identification and techniques for removing invasive weeds.  Bring your gloves.
 
Congratulations to a couple of couples from Lutsen who tied the knot last weekend.  Josh Schmidt married Kim Coffman and Steve Bragg was wedded to Teresa Hansen.  Both ceremonies were loaded with locals and family from afar, all of whom enjoyed the most perfect North Shore Saturday of the decade.  It’s good to feel the love in the air in the beautiful West End.
 
 

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West End News: July 23

It was a week of disaster and near disaster in Tofte. 
 
Firmly in the disaster category, the Life Flight had to be summoned to Tofte and all our hearts go out to the Martinez family in their time of sorrow.
 
In the near disaster category, Rita Wehseler rolled her pickup on to its top on Highway 61 right in front of the rescue squad garage.  She had to take the ditch to avoid a vehicle pulling out of Bluefin and it was steep enough to flip her over.  Fortunately, she was wearing her seatbelt and escaped with minor injuries.  As we all know, Rita is pretty tough.  Once you've been dragged for a few miles by a dog team at 45 below zero, your perspective changes a bit.
 
Nevertheless, we're all grateful that she wasn't seriously hurt and it's a good reminder to all of us to respect the danger of the highway during this busy, busy season.
 
Finally, in the category of serious, but kind of funny now, the ice truck caught fire and burned up in Tofte last week.  The story around town is that it broke down and then caught fire spontaneously.  No one was hurt, but the ice was a total loss.
 
Dave and Amy Freeman call Lutsen home, but they actually live most of their lives in a tent, in their capacity as wilderness guides and the principals of Wilderness Classroom, the non-profit organization that connects school children with wilderness via technology.  One or both have paddled the length of the Amazon River, the Mississippi River, The River of Doubt in Brazil, paddled, hiked and dog-sledded halfway around North America, and paddled from Grand Marais to Washington D.C., just to name a few of their adventures.
 
Now, they are fulfilling a long-time goal by camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for a full year, without coming out.  From September 23, 2015, until September 22, 2016, they will travel the length and breadth of the BWCA Wilderness, but will not leave even for a single moment, unless they have an emergency.
 
They are calling it their "Year in the Wilderness" and are hoping to use the feat to call attention to the environmental threat posed by international mining interests that are hoping to mine sulfide-bearing rock within both the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior watersheds.
 
The Freemans are encouraging people to join them for short periods during the year, which is also how they plan to be re-supplied with food.  They plan to travel over 3,000 miles by canoe, foot, ski, snowshoe and dog team.  They will stay at more than 120 campsites.
 
You can find out more about their trip - and sign up to travel with them for a while - by googling "Campaign To Save the Wilderness."
 
Right now in the wilderness and in secret locations outside the wilderness, blueberries are starting to ripen.  Although far from the peak, ripe berries are being picked, especially on the south facing slopes.  It looks like it will be a mediocre berry crop this year, especially after we were all spoiled by last season's record harvest.
 
Between the half decent berry crop and a bumper crop of hazelnuts, the bears should be infrequent visitors to campsites, cabins and back yards this season.  Although there is always the possibility of bears capitalizing on easy access to human food, the availability of ample natural foods will keep most of the bruins deep in the woods, where they belong.
 

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Bode, the formerly lost dog

West End News: July 16

It is not much of a surprise, but upsetting nonetheless, to hear Minnesota Power announce the permanent closing of their coal-fired power plant in Schroeder.  To their credit, the utility has been preparing the community for this announcement for several years. 
 
There will be a lot of talk about who is at fault for the closing, but the bottom line is that the power plant has been left behind by the modern world, just like any other outdated technology.
 
However, the pain felt by the community and the people who work at the plant is real and immediate.  Some of the employees will retire. Some will take Minnesota Power up on their offer to relocate to another facility.  But a significant number, who have deep roots and other commitments in Cook and Lake Counties, will be forced to change careers – which is a difficult task in this part of the world.
 
On the positive side, Minnesota Power plans to keep the plant in reserve for another few years, which will require some people to keep up with routine maintenance and security. The decommissioning and deconstruction of the huge industrial site will provide some jobs for quite a few years after that. 
 
With its access to rail service, the power grid and a deep-water port, hopefully a new line of business can be developed at Taconite Harbor that will provide significant jobs into the future.
 
It strikes me as a perfect location for a large solar power facility, perhaps paired with a large greenhouse/fish farm operation.  In any case, we’ll have to put on our thinking caps and make the best of a bad situation.
 
Several other news items caught my eye this week. 
 
The first is a document put together by the nonprofit group Water Legacy.  They prepared it as a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  The nearly 500 pages of official documents form a devastating indictment of how the mining industry in Minnesota has managed to avoid meeting even the most basic water quality standards over the last twenty or more years.
 
Water Legacy’s investigation makes it clear that the mining industry has used its considerable political clout to essentially make up its own rules, resulting in significant damage to public rivers and lakes.
 
The second news item that caught my eye is a report that lobbyists spent almost 70 million dollars this year to influence the Minnesota Legislature.  That is more than $320,000 per legislator in a single year. 
 
The third news item was the release of a timetable for the Polymet Corporation to begin a huge new mining operation near Hoyt Lakes in the Lake Superior watershed.  The Polymet executives have repeatedly said that they plan to fully comply with Minnesota’s water quality regulations.
 
I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about how these news items might, or might not, be related.
 
Bode, the dog from Minneapolis who has been on the loose around Sawbill for the last few weeks, has finally been captured and returned to his owners. 
 
Bode became spooked during a thunderstorm near Burnt Lake in the BWCA Wilderness and ran off from his owners, who had only recently adopted him from a dog rescue organization.  He was spotted every few days since then, but was too skittish to be captured.
 
He finally walked into a campsite at the Nine Mile Lake Campground, more than 25 miles from Burnt Lake.  A woman in the campsite grabbed his collar, thinking he belonged to another party in the campground.  Bode’s dog tags led them to the true owner and the saga of Bode concludes with a happy ending.  Bode’s owners have asked me to thank everyone who helped them over the last few weeks and expressed their gratitude for all the support and concern they received from the good people of the West End.
 
 
 

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Cobblestone structures in Tofte Park

West End News: July 9

I was surprised and honored to be named Citizen of the Year at this year’s 4th of July celebration in Tofte.  As I said in my acceptance speech, off the top of my head I can think of 20 people that deserve the honor more than I do.  I am pleased to receive the same award that my mother, Mary Alice Hansen, won couple of years ago.  It seems like whenever I do something that either of my parents did previously, I’m on the right track.
 
During the plaque ceremony, Tofte Township Supervisor, Jim King, mentioned that the Citizen of the Year Award was created seven years ago to honor Tofte resident and volunteer, Bob Boomgard.  I was saddened to hear Jim say that Bob had passed away recently.
 
Bob Boomgard retired to Tofte many years ago and quickly became one of the most active volunteers that one can imagine.  He did many things, but his first love was the beautiful Tofte Park. 
 
Tofte Park is one of the North Shore’s hidden gems – a beautiful swath of Lake Superior shoreline that was bypassed by the modern reconstruction of Highway 61.  Originally donated to the township by Elizabeth Tofte in 1922, the park featured a quaint spillway, wishing well and walking bridge, all built out of red, white and blue cobblestones.
 
By the early 1990s, the cobblestone structures were in considerable disrepair.  Bob, along with his wife, Delora, painstakingly recovered all the fallen cobblestones and restored the lovely structures to their original glory.  We all enjoy his work every time we stroll through the park and the township has been inspired to make a number of improvements to the park over recent years.  It is now a popular spot for weddings and picnics – not to mention the famous 4th of July celebration.
 
Bob Boomgard will be greatly missed in Tofte, not only for his hard work, but his invariably cheerful and upbeat personality.
 
It is good to see that the 600 Road bridge across the Temperance River in Tofte is finally funded for replacement.  The old iron bridge, whose paint had faded to a charming pink color over the years, has been closed for almost a year, effectively cutting off reasonable access to the 600 Road.  The 600 Road is not only important to local loggers, but is a popular tourism destination, especially in the fall when its abundant maples put on a spectacular show.
 
In a very enlightened move, the Forest Service has designed an aesthetically pleasing wooden bridge that will blend with the beauty of the river - and will be constructed by a local contractor.
 
It remains a mystery as to why the replacement wasn’t done before the inconvenience of having the road closed for a year, but I guess it is a case of better late than never.
 
Here is a quick list of “not to be missed” West End events that are coming up in the next month:
 
The Bloodmobile will be at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte on Tuesday, July 21, from 2 until 6 pm.  Call Polly Erickson at 663-7398 if you would like to donate a pint of blood.
 
On Saturday, July 18, Barb Livdahl will be speaking about the current exhibit called “Lost Resorts” at the Cross River Heritage Center in Schroeder.   She’ll be sharing what she learned while researching all the resorts that existed in the West End from the 1920s through today.
 
Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center in Schroeder has a fun plan for their annual meeting this year.  They will be celebrating aboard the tour ship Voyageur on Saturday, August 8, embarking from the Silver Bay Marina at 5:30 pm.   If seeing Sugarloaf from the big lake isn’t enough, their will be hors d’oeuvres, wine and live music from the THUGS, which stands for Two Harbors Ukelele Group.
 
We’ve been chasing a lost dog around the woods here at Sawbill for the last two weeks.  The husky mix named Bode, ran off from his owners during a thunderstorm in the BWCA Wilderness just north of Sawbill.  Bode is a recent rescue by his family so he hadn’t bonded completely with them yet.
 
He is spotted around the area almost every day and will readily eat food that is left out for him, but won’t let anyone get close enough to capture him.  The owners are coming back up from their home in the Twin Cities today with a large live trap that we’re all hoping will do the trick. 
 
Stay tuned, for what we’re all hoping will be the happy conclusion to the saga of Bode next week.
 

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Dee and Steve Hedman of Duluth

West End News: July 2

Polly Erickson, the West End’s favorite blood collector, is once again asking for volunteer donations when the bloodmobile is in town on Tuesday, July 21.
 
Donating blood is a very important community service, saving and improving the lives of our loved ones, friends and neighbors. It is also a lot of fun to visit with the staff and the other donors in the bloodmobile.
 
One of the less pleasant, but necessary, parts of the blood giving experience is the lengthy interview that determines if you are eligible to be a donor. Now days, you can go to the Memorial Blood Center website and complete the questionnaire online. It speeds things up on donation day, both for you and for the staff.
 
The large, colorful, converted RV will be at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte from 2 pm until 6 pm on Tuesday, July 21. Call Polly at 663-7398 to make an appointment.
 
North Shore Area Partners, the excellent program based in Silver Bay that provides in-home services for seniors and disabled folks in eastern Lake County, is holding a public event during the Bay Days Celebration next week. They’ll be at Reunion Hall from 9 am until 4 pm on Saturday, July 11. Stop by, learn about the program, buy some food, make a silent auction bid - and please thank the many volunteers for their valuable community service.
 
Camp Menogyn, the famous YMCA camp on West Bearskin Lake on the Gunflint Trail, is offering some open spots in their canoeing, backpacking and rock climbing trips to local kids at a reduced price. The trips start next week, so you need to act fast if you want to take advantage of this huge opportunity.
 
If you are entering grade 7 through 12, get in touch with Fred at the camp right away. A Camp Menogyn experience can literally change your life. Menogyn is Ojibway for “together” and is spelled m-e-n-o-g-y-n.  If you can’t find it online, call WTIP for contact information.
 
Steve Gendron, from Minneapolis, has been volunteering to count loons on a selection of West End lakes for more than 20 years. He reports his careful counting to the DNR where they are combined with the efforts of hundreds of other volunteers to track the loon population in Minnesota over the long term.
 
This year, Steve brought along his new dog, Bode, along on the trip. Bode is a husky mix and came to Steve through a rescue organization just a couple of weeks ago. On Monday, as he was crossing the portage between Smoke and Burnt Lakes in the BWCA Wilderness, Bode was spooked by some thunder and ran off into the woods. Despite two days of searching, Steve and his family could not find him.
 
On Wednesday, the Gendrons had to return to Minneapolis with heavy hearts. Signs and pictures at the Sawbill entry point are alerting people traveling in that direction to keep their eyes peeled, and by Wednesday evening we had several reports of Bode sightings.
 
We would be more despairing for Bode’s fate if it weren’t for an almost identical situation two summers ago. That dog, also spooked by a storm, was missing for more than two weeks before it showed up at a campsite and was enticed into captivity with an offer of food. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for the same outcome for Bode.
 
Back in 1958, my parents hired a lovely high school girl from Duluth named Dee Sampson. That same summer Sawbill Lodge, our next-door neighbor, hired an awkward boy of the same age named Steve Hedman. I was only five years old, but I distinctly remember that whenever he wasn’t working, Steve would come over and stand in the corner of our store and look miserable. I tried to talk to him, but he could barely string a sentence together in his painful shyness.
 
As the summers rolled by, Dee continued to work for us and became a treasured family friend. Steve continued to hang around and act weird, but slowly worked up his nerve and started talking to Dee.
 
One day, I rounded a corner unexpectedly and caught Steve and Dee kissing. I was shocked by this wild behavior, but apparently I was the last to know that the two had grown quite sweet on each other.
 
In 1966 they were married and, of course, took a BWCA Wilderness canoe trip for their honeymoon. We decorated their canoe with “Just Married” signs and tied tin cans to the stern.
 
On July 2, Steve and Dee celebrate their 49th anniversary. They have three children and more grandchildren than I can keep track of. They are visiting Sawbill to relive the wonderful memories that they created so long ago.
 
By the way, Steve overcame his shyness, got a degree in genetics, and had an illustrious career as a professor at UMD. Dee is well loved in Duluth for a lifetime of community involvement and acts of kindness.
 
While other people looking at them may see an older couple when they look at Steve and Dee, after all these years, I still see the awkward boy and beautiful girl slowly falling in love.
 

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Finland Farmers Market (courtesy of the Clair Nelson Intermodal Transportation Center)

West End News: June 25

I had two stark reminders of my own mortality this week. 
 
The first was the onset of a mundane summer cold that, if it didn’t make me feel like I was dying, it made me feel like I wanted to die, for about three days.
 
The second was an invitation to contribute an oral history to the Schroeder Area Historical Society.  Their main exhibit this summer is “Lost Resorts” presenting the history of the many resorts that flourished during the 20th century and were gone by the start of the 21st.
 
I was surprised that they wanted an oral history from a young person like me, until I thought about it for a minute. When I discuss oral history with friends it usually includes some talk about “getting the history before it’s gone.” Hopefully, this is just the first of several oral histories I can contribute before I’m gone.
 
Brian Tofte, local historian extraordinaire, sent me an oral history that my dad, Frank Hansen, gave to historian Bill Raff back in the ‘90s.  It was transcribed from a recording, so it was fun to hear my dad’s voice in my head as I read through it. It was taped at Bill’s cabin on the Gunflint Trail and I could tell from the conversation that it was a relaxed and congenial atmosphere. Both men are gone now, so I don’t feel bad about revealing that the interview grew noticeably livelier and more colorful as it went on, most likely reflecting the number of martinis that were consumed.
 
My interview with the Schroeder Area Historical Society is scheduled for 2:30 pm at the museum, so I seriously doubt that martinis will be involved.
 
Sugarloaf Nature Center in Schroeder is offering unique opportunities to explore the West End with a master naturalist every week throughout the summer.
 
If you want to participate, meet at the Sugarloaf parking lot at 1 pm on any Friday between now and August 21st. Wear sturdy shoes, a hat and bring a little bug dope. July 3rd’s topic will be boreal forest ecology and on July 10th the maple hardwood forest will be explored. You can email sugarloaf@boreal.org for more information.
 
The first Farmers Market of the season at the Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland was this week and was a smashing success. For many people in the West End, this is the closest Farmers Market available. It is every Thursday evening from 5 to 7 pm from now until the end of September. The Clair Nelson Center is on the Cramer Road just east of downtown Finland.
 
Also at the Finland Community Center on Thursdays is LOTS, which stands for Learning Opportunities Through Stories. Bring your toddlers in between 3 and 4:30 pm for a great story time – and then stay for the Farmers Market.
 
Somewhere I read an interview with Bob Dylan where he mentioned his memories of attending story time at the old Carnegie Library in Duluth when he was a toddler. I have many fond memories of story time at that same library, but I’m too young to have sat next to Bob Dylan. Taking your toddler to hear good stories doesn’t guarantee that they will become a world-renowned poet like Bob Dylan, but it does increase the odds that they will become a life long reader and learner.
 
Many canoeists returning from the BWCA Wilderness are complaining about muddy portages this year. We’ve received more than 5” of rain so far in June here at Sawbill. It’s been a little damp for sure, but it’s nice to have a season when wild fire isn’t constantly on our minds.
 
It’s also encouraging to hear of many moose sightings in the wilderness. Five moose seems to be the average for most groups last week. Most have been cows with calves, which is normal at this time of year, but raises some hope that the decline in the moose population is possibly slowing down. We’ll keep our fingers crossed, as the West End without moose would be a sad future indeed.
 
 

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Senator Tom Bakk

West End News: June 18

Fishing has been good this year and northern fishing was particularly good during the early part of the season. A lot of my customers reported catching big northerns this year and in every single instance that I heard about, the fish were returned to the water to be caught again another day. When I was a kid, every large fish was kept, shown off, and either eaten or mounted. Now, almost everyone releases big fish.

Under a new plan being proposed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it looks like it will soon become mandatory to release all big northern pike caught in northeastern Minnesota. Research is showing that preserving the big northerns and removing the hammer handles is much better for the walleye population and the overall ecological health of the lakes.

DNR Fisheries managers are pretty confident in their science, but are still bending over backward to include the public in any future regulation changes. They know from bitter past experience that tampering with fishing regulations can have the same potential effect on politics that dynamite has on fish populations. They are hopeful that by tailoring different regulations to the circumstances in different parts of the state, they can get good buy-in from the public. Based on the many anglers that I talk to every day, the plan sounds like a good one to me.

Speaking of politics, our own State Senator Tom Bakk's tenure as Senate majority leader is being called into question by many editorial writers across the state. The chaotic end to the recent legislative session has led to some public disgruntlement among the members of the DFL caucus in the Senate. Some last minute back-room deals weakening some key environmental protections angered many Democrats, both within the caucus and across the state. Bakk also supported a downgrading of the State Auditor's power, which was widely seen as political payback for Auditor Rebecca Otto's publicly expressed reservations about proposed sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Although the change for the Auditor's position ultimately did pass, most legal scholars don't give it much of a chance of withstanding an expected constitutional legal challenge.

Earlier this year, Bakk received a bitter tongue lashing from fellow DFLer Governor Mark Dayton in which the Governor said that he could no longer trust the powerful Senate Majority Leader. The two men eventually reconciled, but the end of the session seemed to expose some ongoing tension.

Of course, for those of us lucky enough to live in Senator Bakk's district, he has been a good friend, bringing millions of dollars to the district for good projects and by stint of his leadership power, protecting our interests very effectively at the legislature. It would be a distinct loss for us if Senator Bakk lost his leadership position. However, some political pundits are suggesting that Senator Bakk's weakened position within his own caucus, combined with a distinct swing of statewide public opinion against sulfide mining near the wilderness, which he strongly supports, may cost him that very leadership position.

Even if it does't happen next year, the Iron Range will very likely lose some political clout after the 2020 census, based on population trends alone. Whatever ends up happening, it will be an interesting next few years for political nerds like me to observe the happenings.

Two former Sawbill Outfitters crew members who have become permanent residents of Cook County, Carla Hill and Jessica Hemmer, went on a canoe trip together last week. On the last morning of their trip, they awoke on Polly Lake, to discover that a large snapping turtle had crawled into their fire grate, where they had built a fire just the night before, and was laying its eggs. They saw at least 15 eggs go into the hole dug by the turtle with their own eyes.

After a couple of hours, the turtle, apparently now empty of eggs, jostled itself around and headed back to the lake. The two experienced wilderness women watched with interest as the primeval looking reptile waddled toward a steep rock incline. They speculated that the turtle was planning to slide on its bottom shell, down the steep slope to the water. Much to their surprise, when the turtle started to slide, it immediately went end over end, or as the late Millie Croft used to say, "arse over teacup," clump, clump clump - until it finally splashed back into the lake. After briefly gathering its wits, mama turtle swam calmly off, leaving two astonished humans in its wake.

It was just another unique experience in the wonderful West End.

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West End News: June 11

This is the last call for the medical research project known as FISH that wants to interview and test 500 women of childbearing age that live on the North Shore.  The interview and tests are entirely confidential and relatively quick and painless.  The study is important for the future of our children and you get a $50 gift card if you participate.
 
I’m sure the data won’t be terribly skewed if they don’t reach the goal of 500 participants.  That said though, they are so close, wouldn’t it be great to hit that goal.
 
If you’re interested, contact the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic in Grand Marais or the Grand Portage Clinic for details.
 
I read, with interest, the fine article in the Star-Tribune by Thomas Fisher about the future of driverless cars and the impact they will have on our communities.  What made this article interesting is that it was reporting on statements made by an infrastructure specialist in one of the world’s leading engineering firms. 
 
The gist of it was that driverless cars will be widely available within 3-5 years and could outnumber human-operated cars within ten years.  He pointed to major research and development that several car and technology companies are now conducting on public roads all over the world.  The driverless cars will be much safer, cheaper and more efficient, so much so that it will become an obvious next step in transportation technology.
 
As with all big technology shifts, some people will really benefit, especially the 25% of the human race that can’t drive, for one reason or another.  And, some people will lose out. Perhaps it will end up being more expensive for some people. Those of us who love to drive will certainly lose that sense of pride in a practiced skill.  Hopefully, there will still be plenty of opportunities to drive for pleasure.
 
I for one can’t wait for my driverless car.  I imagine reading, napping, watching movies and surfing the Internet while my car safely and swiftly carries me to Duluth and beyond.  I’m assuming a shift to driverless cars will benefit our tourism industry by making it more convenient and cheaper to drive to a favorite vacation spot.  Time will tell.
 
The talk up here in the backwoods of the West End includes a lot of theorizing about how this year’s weather has caused the transition from spring to summer to be a little weird. For instance, fishing has been quite good. The walleyes are hungry and in their usual spots, while the bass have been biting much earlier than usual. At least around here, there has been no major mayfly hatch. Until late last week, there were almost no mosquitoes. They’re starting to show up now, but the dragonflies have hatched early, so the bug season may be fairly mild this year. Here’s hoping, anyhow.
 
It is gloriously green back in the woods right now. Blossoms are more plentiful than I’ve seen in a long time and the water is running high.  I’ve even seen my first turtle laying eggs in soft gravel along the edge of the Grade Road.
 
It’s a crazy explosion of fertile life after the long cold winter. Get out and enjoy the beautiful and wild West End as often as you possibly can.
 
 
 
 
 

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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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