West End News Feb. 16

Morning frost on pine
Morning frost on pine

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Although we are barely halfway through February, the freeze and thaw cycle that we usually see in March and April has begun. Here at Sawbill, the night time temperatures are dipping into the low single digits while the day time highs are hovering around freezing or a little above. The sun is starting to have some real warmth and south facing roofs are dripping even on the days that officially aren’t above freezing. Travel on the lakes in the BWCA Wilderness is still fairly slow, with eight or ten inches of snow in on most lakes. But, if the freeze/thaw cycle continues, the snow will compress and solidify to allow for very fast travel, especially on skis. President’s weekend is traditionally the biggest weekend of the winter for wilderness camping and if the conditions continue to improve, this year may be one of the biggest ever for this growing activity.

The unusual weather has produced a beautiful side effect in the woods. When the temperature drops suddenly overnight, the trees develop a heavy hoar frost. When the morning sun hits the trees, they sparkle in their brilliant and delicate white coats. As the temperature climbs and the morning breeze stirs, they shed their frost and for about an hour it appears to be snowing lightly without a cloud in the sky. As the brilliant light plays off the falling frost, the air appears to be full of tiny diamonds shining against a deep blue sky.

Dave and Amy Freeman are West End residents who officially live in a tent cabin off the Grade Road in Lutsen. In fact they are rarely home because they spend most of their time traveling through wilderness areas all over the western hemisphere providing environmental education via satellite communications and the internet to tens of thousands of school children through their organization, Wilderness Classroom. During the winter, they often work as sled dog trip guides for Wintergreen Lodge in Ely.

As a result of their unique lifestyle, Dave and Amy have deep appreciation of the natural world and a particular love of the Superior/Quetico ecosystem. Like many others in northeastern Minnesota, they are deeply concerned the prospect of the new types of mining that are being proposed and the potential for disastrous and long lasting pollution resulting from the mining process. To show their concern and to raise public awareness of the issue, they are urging people to sign a petition that asks that no new mining be allowed unless it can be proved that it will cause no harm to Minnesota’s water resources and natural heritage. What makes Dave and Amy’s effort unique - is that in partnership with local musher Frank Moe - they will be delivering the petitions to the legislature by dog sled. It’s probably not the first time in Minnesota’s long history that the legislature has been petitioned by dog sled, but it is surely the first time in recent memory.

I was distressed by the news this week that the Minnesota Department of Health found unhealthy levels of mercury in ten percent of newborn babies in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. Mercury poisoning is a particularly insidious hazard to developing fetuses and young children, resulting in neurological damage that can delay learning and cause a lifetime of diminished capacity. While the study didn’t specifically study the sources of the mercury, the technical details make it good guess that the mercury is reaching infants through their mother’s consumption of game fish. Although mercury does exist naturally in the environment, there is no scientific doubt that industrial pollution contributes significantly to modern mercury exposure. Coal fired power plants are known to significant source of mercury pollution. The Department of Health is recommending that pregnant women and young children avoid eating large predator fish, like walleyes and northerns, to lessen their risk of poisoning. While this is surely good advice, I feel like this study is a wake-up call to do whatever it takes to avoid adding to a problem that is literally poisoning our children. The large coal fired power plant in Schroeder, owned by Minnesota Power, is moving aggressively to reduce their mercury emissions by at least seventy percent, maybe as soon as this summer. Mercury pollution can travel long distances though, so this is a global problem that needs to be addressed now.

I heard through the grapevine that the pre-school fun day at Birch Grove School in Tofte last weekend was a resounding success. Preschoolers from Hovland to Silver Bay attended in force and brought along their parents and siblings. Hopefully, this bodes well for increasing school enrollment in the near future.

Don’t forget about the very special senior lunch at Birch Grove on leap day, Wednesday, February 29. Bonnie Brost from Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Heart and Vascular Center will be giving her popular presentation titled “Sugar: The Sweet and the Sour.” There will also be free blood pressure and glucose checks before lunch.

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