West End News: July 21

An old plane wreck at Zenith Lake with a great story.
An old plane wreck at Zenith Lake with a great story.

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It’s a relief to be back in the business of selling fishing licenses here at Sawbill. While we were very careful to advise everyone that it is illegal to fish without a license, it made for some awkward moments at the cash register as people who traveled thousands of miles to go fishing in the great Minnesota wilderness struggled with the decision of whether to sacrifice a key part of their experience or break the law. In the larger scheme of things, fishing isn’t all that important, but this is just the kind of thing that makes people lose faith in government. At the end of the day, government really resides in the minds of the governed and the tacit agreement to follow the rules for the good of the greater community. I have good friends who argue that all government is bad and we would be better off with a purely free market system. My answer is to invite them to visit Mogadishu, Somalia, where a pure free market, with no government constraint, is a reality. While government can be frustrating at times, it really is the glue that gives us our high quality of life. I’m glad that the state is back in business.

On a smaller scale, we had a customer this week who exemplifies good leadership and the benefits of civil society. Rich Dahle-Koch is a pastor from Plymouth that leads several groups on canoe trips each year. Rich is a natural leader and his groups are among the happiest and most inspired that we see here at Sawbill. Last week, he led his churches scout group on an epic canoe trip that nearly circumnavigated the BWCA Wilderness in six days. Rich has many community building tricks up his sleeve, but a couple are kind of unique. He deliberately led the group to a long portage that is still on the map, but in reality is so grown over that it functionally doesn’t exist anymore. The scouts had to pull out their maps and compasses and figure out how to reach a goal that doesn’t have a clear path to it. Later in the trip, Rich had each kid carry a canoe across a portage blindfolded. He assigned an unblindfolded person to shadow them, but they didn’t interfere unless safety was at stake. It is fun to see the pride and self assurance that radiates from the faces of the scouts when they return to civilization.

Two Sawbill crew members, Tyler Campbell and Luke Opel, took a day off to visit the airplane wreck that is on Zenith Lake, deep in the wilderness. I learned about the wreck back in the sixties when two young canoeists came in the store and asked me what its story was. I had no idea, but by good luck, Orton Tofte, Senior, happened to be paying a rare visit to Sawbill that day. Of course, Orton knew the story. In 1946 a young man appeared in Tofte with a brand new Piper Cub airplane with the idea to make his living as a bush pilot. He was quickly recruited by local trappers and in that capacity flew into Zenith Lake on Christmas Eve to check out the beaver house there. He parked the plane on thin ice and it fell through, with it’s wings resting on the ice. The pilot walked from Zenith Lake to Tofte, where he was living at Tofte’s boarding house. It took him 24 hours to hike the nearly 50 miles in knee deep snow. A gang of men, including the young Orton Tofte, got organized and went back up to Zenith, lifted the plane back up on the ice and started melting the ice off of it using a barrel stove and large sheets of canvas. They were almost done with the process when the whole thing caught fire. They shoveled snow on the engine to salvage that and pitched the frame and wing back in the woods where it remains today. The young pilot soon left the area and his identity is lost to history.

It’s hard to imagine that the lakes will freeze in a few months with the hot weather we’ve been having this week. I’ve had several tourists ask me if the lakes actually freeze over. I think summer is all the sweeter here in the North Country, where we only get it for two weeks every year.

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