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West End News

Clare Shirley

Clare Shirley owns and runs Sawbill Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail in Tofte with her husband Dan. Clare was born in Grand Marais and grew up in Tofte. Clare is a third-generation Outfitter, and third-generation West End News writer. Clare follows in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Bill and Frank Hansen, long time West End News columnists.

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

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West End News: March 26

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Here is a good deal.  On Thursday, April 9th, a free visit to the dentist is available for all young people ages 18 months to 26 years old.  The free services include an exam, cleaning, x-rays, fluoride, and/or sealants. 
Call Grand Marais Family Dentistry at 387-2773 to schedule an appointment.  Cook County School District 166 is providing free transportation.  The dentist’s office can help you arrange transportation.
It’s kind of surprising, but good dental health is a major indicator for overall success in life.  If you think about it, bad dental health can not only be very expensive, but also can affect your ability to get or hold many jobs.  We’re lucky to have such a community-minded local dentistry practice.  Many thanks to them for making this great program possible.
As usual, there is a lot going on at Birch Grove School and Community Center in Tofte.
The Birch Grove Foundation that manages the Community Center is looking for people to join their board of directors.  It only requires a commitment of two years, with seven meetings held each year.  The Foundation is certainly important to our quality of life, so please consider serving if you have the time.  Call Caroline Wood at 663-7977 for more information.
Birch Grove Community School is still open for kindergarten and pre-school enrollments for next year.  They will roll out the red carpet for any prospective student and their families.  You can meet the teachers, sit in on classes or get a personal tour from the administrator.  If you talk to the parents of current students, you will hear a story of educational excellence.  Give Diane a call at 663-0170.
Community Education is offering piano lessons at Birch Grove to students of all ages.  The cost is reasonable and you can get set up on a schedule by contacting Sara Silence, Community Education Director at 663-0170.
The music culture in Cook County is amazing, so if you stick to your lessons, you can be playing for audiences in no time.  A recently released study concluded that learning and playing music is wonderful for brain development in children and also significantly reduces the risk of dementia in older people.
Last but not least, it is not too late to get help with your taxes at Birch Grove.  You can just pop in on any Thursday between 10 am and 3 pm between now and April 15th.  Trained volunteers will help you organize your paperwork and prepare your tax return for you.
It’s always interesting to follow the Minnesota Legislature at this time of year when the significant issues for the session start to bubble up to the top of the news. 
With a nearly $2 billion surplus at hand, the familiar arguments about whether to spend, save or send back are surfacing.  
After experiencing the Jesse checks back in the early 2000s, and the cut, cut, cut of the Pawlenty years, I’d like to think that Minnesotans have learned a thing or two.
It seems obvious to me that there is a well known phenomenon called the business cycle which has the economy sometimes doing well and sometimes doing not so well.  During the good times, tax revenues follow the economy up and during the not-so-good times tax revenues decline.
Common sense should dictate that the state could set aside some of the windfall in the good times to cover the inevitable shortfall in the lean times.  It also seems logical to increase needed investments in infrastructure and useful programs when the money is available, while holding enough in reserve to carry those investments during the down cycles.
This strategy has a side benefit of helping to even out the economic swings because, with money in the bank, so to speak, the state can bolster employment and efficiency during those periods when private industry is unable to invest.
As all voters are adults, it seems like the “just give it back” philosophy wouldn’t have much traction.  But, sometimes it seems like the body politic has a short memory.
Twice last week I joined with friends to ski down about 8 miles of the Temperance River in Tofte.  The recent thawing and refreezing phenomenon has turned the rivers and lakes in the West End into well-paved highways and parking lots.
The snow crust is so strong that I noticed moose tracks crossing the Temperance and the moose was staying right on top.  You know it’s a crusted snow when it can hold up a moose!
It’s pretty likely that travel conditions on the lakes and rivers will continue to be good for the next couple of weeks.  Of course, you must exercise caution and good judgment for any frozen water based activity.  But, if the conditions hold up, get out there and enjoy the long days, balmy breezes and fast travel, before it melts away.

(Photo by Nickie Dietz)



West End News: March 19

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If you’ve been thinking about starting or expanding a business in the West End, now is a great time to do it.  The Entrepreneur Fund, a Duluth-based nonprofit that provides educational and financial support for entrepreneurs, has started a new program especially for Cook County.  They are calling the program “enFuse: Cook County.”
This unique program is designed to help Cook County businesses increase revenue, reach new markets and smooth out the ups and downs of our seasonal economy.  This will be done by providing strategic advice, workshops and low-interest financing.  The goal is to see at least 25% growth in each participating business over the next three years.
This worthy effort is being funded by two local donors, who wish to remain anonymous, and the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation.  West End business person, Steve Surbaugh, who has a long history of working with the Entrepreneur Fund is the local contact.  If you’re interested in growing or starting a West End business, contact Steve at 218-370-9757 or email  You can always call WTIP for contact information.
In my humble opinion, the West End is poised for success over the next decade or two.  Programs like the one I just mentioned, along with the very large expansion of Lutsen Mountains Ski Area, bode well for the future of our economy.  That, combined with a long-term commitment to the success of Birch Grove School and finally building a good supply of housing that is affordable for working families, will solve many of our nagging problems.
It goes almost without saying that the incredible natural beauty of Lake Superior, unspoiled lake-land forest, the nation’s premier wilderness area and a rich culture of arts will continue to make significant contributions to our quality of life.
As if those aren’t enough positives for the West End, we also enjoy the services of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, along with the hospital and Care Center, that give us truly world class medical care that is available and affordable for everyone.
Most of the world defines success as constant growth.  Here in the West End, success now seems to be defined by growing the capacity of our people to lead dignified, fulfilling and happy lives, free from fear and poverty.
There is so much good music happening in the West End these days, that it’s hard to single out any particular event.  But, Gordon Thorne, from Finland is organizing a truly unique and spectacular musical event on April 10th and 11th at Bluefin Bay in Tofte.  The 5th annual Fingerstyle Masters Weekend will feature master guitarist Mike Dowling, along with renowned fiddlers Randy Sabien and Tom Schaefer.
There will be workshops for musicians of any skill all day on Saturday.  Friday night there will be an informal picking circle at Bluefin featuring the visiting professionals, along with our own Gordon Thorne, who is no slouch on the guitar himself.  Saturday night there will be a formal concert.
All the proceeds from this fantastic event will be donated to WTIP for the transmitter replacement fund.  For more information, you can just surf over to the WTIP website.  Do I even have to say, you should be there, or you will definitely be square!
Speaking of happy events, how about those northern lights the other night?  It was a display to be remembered as one of the best.  As I was driving home, the aurora over the Sawbill Trail was distracting, to say the least.  At one point, the vivid green curtain wrapped around itself, forming a giant light tube leading to the heavens.  The cosmic tube of light then started dropping toward earth, giving me the illusion that I was about to drive right under it.  I thought to myself, “This is it! I’m about to be sucked into the sky by benevolent aliens!”  Well, that didn’t happen, but I did manage to stay out of the ditch – barely.



West End News: March 12

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The annual meetings of Schroeder, Lutsen and Tofte were lively and productive affairs a few nights ago.  A lot of stuff gets done at these meetings and all kinds of information is gathered.
The big news coming out of the meetings is that all three townships expressed financial support for Birch Grove Community School.  This gives the school the resources to have a secure future while we work toward growing enrollment over the next five years or so.
In the Tofte Township meeting that I attended, there were many passionate expressions of support for the school and the Birch Grove Community Center, which are housed in the same building.
Birch Grove School board member Skip Lamb, who refers to himself as the oldest member of the youngest school board in the state, asked me to pass along his thanks to the people of the West End for their continuing generous support of the school.  Skip wrote that when the children walk in the front door of Birch Grove every day it reminds us all the West End community supports education and its children are valued.  I would just add my personal “hear, hear!” to that.  It is certainly something we can all be proud of.
I was also highly interested in the progress report about the senior housing project that is happening in Tofte.  Tofte Township is building 12 two-bedroom homes with attached garages in the woods right behind the Birch Grove building.  The homes will be available for rental at the projected price of $950 per month.  The rent will include water, sewer, garbage pickup and mowing service.  Electricity and heat are extra.  The homes will be constructed to be very energy efficient, which will help a lot with those extra costs.
The homes will first be offered to West End residents over the age of 55.  If that initial offering doesn’t fill the homes right away, they will be offered to young working families.  Given the difficulty of finding housing here in the West End, these two populations should fill up the new homes pretty quickly.  It was made clear at the meeting that the new homes will not be available as vacation or second home rentals.
The same property behind Birch Grove has room for more development.  Once this first project is up and running, Tofte is eager to participate in the recent effort to build homes all over Cook County that can be afforded by working people.  These are exciting times!
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to thank the amazing people who serve on their township boards, as well as those who belong to the fire and rescue volunteer departments.  They are too many to mention by name, but they are the heroes of our community.  The next time you see one of them in the grocery store or post office, please take a minute to express your thanks.
And before I leave the Tofte Township annual meeting for another year, I’d like to say how pleased I am to see young people showing up at the meetings and taking part in a meaningful way.  It’s natural for those of us in later years of life to worry about where the leadership will come from in the future.  At least for Tofte, I can confidently say that the future of Tofte was sitting in the room last Tuesday night and the future looks bright.
Speaking of young leadership, there is a fun and easy opportunity to make some small improvements to the West End in the upcoming “Great Place Race” returning for a second year after a successful roll out last spring.
The Great Place Race is looking for businesses and organizations to apply with a high impact, low cost idea to make a place great.  Mini-grants of up to $1000 per project will be awarded to fund your idea.
Applications are due before the end of March.  Applications are available online at or at the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic front desk in Grand Marais.  If you have questions or just want to bounce an idea off someone, call Maren at 387-2330, extension 110.  As always you can get full contact information by calling WTIP.
As usual, there are too many fun things happening in the area to even keep track.  My advice is take some time to enjoy the longer days and get out to participate in some of the wonderful activities available at this busy time of year.  It’s what makes it a pleasure to live here in the beautiful West End.



West End News: March 5

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On Tuesday, Mar. 10, the townships of Schroeder, Tofte and Lutsen will hold their elections and annual meetings. 
Polls are open from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. In Schroeder and Lutsen the polls and annual meetings are held at their respective town halls. In Tofte, the voting and meeting are at the Birch Grove Community Center.
Township government is the closest to the people of all the branches of government. The annual meetings are designed to give residents a chance, before the next annual budget is done, to set the priorities of the town for the upcoming year. 
This year, Birch Grove Community School will be asking each township for a $20,000 contribution to keep the school alive and well. As a public, nonprofit charter school, Birch Grove does receive a per-student payment from the state, just like any other public school. However, a recent dip in enrollment has caused the fixed costs to exceed what the state provides. Basically, our award-winning little school is asking the property owners of the West End to tide them over until enrollment gets back to where it will pay the bills.
I believe that taxes should never be levied unless they can be justified for one of three reasons. First, if the investment of the taxes pays back more to the taxpayers than is invested, then it’s a no-brainer.  The second reason is to help people who genuinely can’t help themselves; we all need to chip in to relieve human suffering. The third reason is that sometimes it is just the right thing to do. In the case of Birch Grove Community School, their request for funding squarely fulfills all three of my categories. 
There is no better way to create a prosperous and happy community than investing in top-flight education. If we want to attract young families to the West End, we must have the school. It is the first thing that people look at when they move to a new area. The local school must be excellent and it must be stable. It is simply the right thing to do.
If the school, heaven forbid, would close, small children from the West End would be required to ride the bus for an unacceptable length of time to the next nearest schools. 
Last but not least, this is a very smart investment in the future. One of the main reasons the school enrollment is low is the lack of reasonably priced housing for young families. There is currently a strong and united movement to build entry-level housing in the West End. The new senior housing in Tofte will free up some good homes for young families too. It would be penny wise and pound foolish to not fund the schools just before affordable housing becomes available.
The cost of the request would only amount to around $20 to $40 per year for each homesteaded property, so this should not be a difficult decision.
The Birch Grove Community Center, trail clubs and other worthy local nonprofits will also be making requests at the annual township meetings.  They are also vitally important to the health of our communities and deserve our support.
On a lighter note, mark your calendar now for the super fun St. Urho’s Day celebration in Finland.  I can’t believe it, but this is the 40th anniversary of the day celebrating St. Urho’s miracle of chasing the grasshoppers out of Finland and saving the grape crop. Products made from grapes and also made from grains still are an important part of the celebration to this day.
The activities are too numerous to mention here, but the highlights include the Miss Helmi beauty and talent competition Friday, Mar. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m.  Then on Saturday it’s the big parade from noon to 1 in downtown Finland.  If you’ve never been, to say that the floats are creative is a major understatement.  Of course, there will be music, refreshments and mojakka at all times. 
As I always say: Be there or be square.



West End News: February 26

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Birch Grove Community School in Tofte held a well attended public meeting last week. The entire West End community was invited to gain a better understanding of the history, programs and services of the school. The Birch Grove School Board also provided insight into the future challenges that the school faces and some possible solutions. 
The school board plans to ask for long-term support from the townships of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder at the annual township meetings on Mar. 10.  In my opinion, Birch Grove Community School is a critical part of the future for the West End, especially in our quest to make the West End a better place for young working families.  Losing the school would be a disastrous setback.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners efficiently settled the issue of a new radio tower to be built within sight of the BWCA Wilderness this week. 
The Minnesota Department of Transportation asked Cook County to allow them to build a radio tower on county land near Marsh Lake on the Grade Road, 4 miles east of the Sawbill Trail, in Tofte.  The tower is part of the ARMER system that provides a statewide network of radio communications for all the public safety organizations.  The normal height for an ARMER tower is 330 feet, which requires it to be lighted, both day and night. A 330-foot tower in this location would be plainly visible from dozens of lakes and campsites within the BWCA Wilderness and many other remote locations outside the wilderness.  Understanding that the location of the tower is in an area where people are sensitive about keeping the woods wild, MNDOT offered to construct a 180-foot tower that would not require lighting and would be much less visible. 
The Cook County Commissioners reviewed the existing county tower ordinance, looked at the technical data, consulted with MNDOT and emergency providers and listened to their constituents and stakeholders. After following this careful process, they voted to allow the 180-foot tower.
I was impressed by the reasonable and measured approach taken by all the parties. In my opinion, this is how all government should work: Gather the facts, listen to the stakeholders and make a decision that most people can live with.  Congratulations to all involved.
That inevitable tax season has rolled around and once again the AARP tax aid volunteers are willing to help you with your federal and state individual tax returns.  They can also help you fill out your Minnesota property tax and rent refund forms. They can even file corrections or amendments to your last year’s forms if necessary.
In most instances, the volunteers can file your tax documents electronically. E-filing allows your state refund to come back to you in one to two weeks and federal refund in two to four weeks.
The free tax assistants are at Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte every Thursday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. from now until the Apr. 15 deadline.
You should bring your 2014 tax documents, your Social Security card and a photo I.D. if you are using this service for the first time. If you have copies of last year’s state and federal tax forms, they are helpful too.
If you don’t have time to sit with the preparer as they complete your filings, you can drop off the documents, have a short conversation and then go back to work. You can swing by to pick up your paperwork when everything is done. 
If you have any questions, call Steve Deschene at 387-1767.
For whatever reason, we haven’t been seeing as much wildlife this winter as in past seasons. That said, my partner, Cindy, saw a bobcat with a snowshoe hare in its mouth the other day. The bobcat had the rabbit’s head in its mouth with the body hanging down. It tried to run when Cindy appeared on the scene, but kept tripping over its dangling prey. It wasn’t willing to give up the meal, though, so Cindy got a good look at it as it struggled up and over the snowbank.
The only unusual animals that I’ve seen lately are a white weasel, a star-nosed mole and a grouse sitting in the middle of the road in the middle of the night.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grouse out on the road after dark. It didn’t move as I drove around it, so maybe it was frozen solid while in the act of crossing the road during the daylight hours.  I wouldn’t be surprised.



West End News: February 19

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It’s that time year again for the kindergarten round-up at Birch Grove Community School in Tofte.  I wonder where the expression “round-up” got started in reference to recruiting kindergartners to start their long school careers.  It always creates a wonderful image in my mind of kindergarten teachers riding horses around the county and lassoing wild pre-schoolers into a herd and then escorting them to the school like horses to a corral.  From time to time, one rowdy kid breaks from the ranks and runs for the hills, only to be calmly returned to the herd by a tobacco-chewing teacher in a 10-gallon hat.
In reality, kindergarten round-up is a half day visit to the school for 4-year-olds who will be attending kindergarten next year.  You can either bring your child to Birch Grove at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Mar. 10, or call to arrange to have your child picked up by the bus. There will be special projects and activities for the children until 11:30 when the parents are invited to join their children for a community lunch.
If you aren’t available to pick up your child after lunch, all the round-up participants are invited to attend the Saplings pre-school program from noon until 5 p.m. free of charge.
For more information or to register your child, call Diane at 663-0170.  If you are new to Birch Grove, you can find out a lot about the award-winning school at  
A few weeks ago, Duluth’s Channel 8 television program, The PlayList, taped an evening of performances by Cook County musicians at Papa Charlie’s nightclub in Lutsen. The first of those performances will air Thursday, Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. and will be rebroadcast on Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.  This performance will feature Tofte singer/songwriter Eric Frost.  The talented Mr. Frost is accompanied by one of his friends, whose name escapes me right now.
Bump Blomberg and Adam Moe, who call themselves “Pushing Chain,” will appear on the PlayList in March, and the Splintertones are scheduled for sometime in April. All three performances will be available on the PlayList website after they appear over the airwaves.
It sounds like this will be the start of many visits by the PlayList to Papa Charlie’s to document the vibrant and growing music scene that Cook County is now famous for.
Tofte got a scare recently when Tofte Township Supervisor Paul James was rushed to the hospital in Duluth when he suddenly became very ill. I’m glad to report that after a scary week in the hospital, Paul is back home and on the road to recovery.
Paul has done so much for Tofte, both as a township official and as a tireless volunteer community member, that it’s hard to ponder Tofte going on without him. There’s nothing like a health scare to remind us that we should all take the time to thank the people like Paul who donate so much of their time to making the West End a better place to live.
Like so many things in life, it’s a case of not missing your water until your well goes dry, a saying that also resonates with this radio station’s “Because of You” membership drive happening this week.
We are truly blessed to have the amazing community resource that is WTIP in our community.  From great music, to local news, to emergency information, to high school sports, to hearing the warm voices of our friends and neighbors day in and day out, WTIP gives us great value for our modest contributions. 
I urge you to join me in becoming a member, or renewing your membership, or increasing your contribution if you’re a longtime supporter. This non-commercial, local radio station relies on us just as much as we rely on it.  And, you can take it from me, it’s a great feeling to be a member of this radio station.



West End News: February 12

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The Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Cook and Lake counties are sponsoring a community conversation on water quality priorities for Lake Superior’s North Shore.  I guess that would be a conservation conversation.  Try saying that 10 times fast.
All joking aside, Minnesota’s North Shore is sitting on the most concentrated supply of clean, fresh water in the world.  Policies that affect the both the Lake Superior and Arctic watersheds are crucial for the future of our children and grandchildren. Fresh water is in short supply in most of the world, so we have to be very mindful and strategic about the fresh water treasure that is all around us.
The community conversation is being held at the Devil’s Track Landing Restaurant Monday, Feb. 23 starting at 5 p.m.  The program will include a brief background session, dinner and then the community conversation.  The whole thing winds up at 7:30 p.m.
RSVPs are appreciated, which you can do by visiting or call Ilena Berg at 387-3648.  As always, you can contact WTIP for that contact information.
Cook County Higher Education is holding a financial aid information night, designed to help you figure out how to pay for college. This is not just for high school seniors, but for anyone who would like access to higher education to improve their lot in life. 
In my opinion, college loans have been allowed to become a bit of scam over the last couple of decades.  Bad policy made student loans way too expensive and some unscrupulous operators offered bogus coursework in order to hook unsuspecting people into years of unnecessary debt and worry.
Lucky for us, Cook County Higher Education’s information is the real deal. In recent years, new federally guaranteed loans have become available with low interest rates and a payment schedule that is tailored to your income. Also, the good people at Higher Ed are experts at helping you find the right education path, that provides real benefit, and will guide you to success.
The financial aid information night is at the Higher Ed campus in Grand Marais Wednesday, Feb. 18 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.  They will provide information, and are also willing to provide hands-on help with the various forms.  The session is free and open to all.  You can get more information by calling 387-3411 or online at  If you missed that contact info, you can always contact WTIP.
The bloodmobile will be back in Tofte at Zoar Lutheran Church Monday, March 2, from 2:30 to 6 p.m.  I will be there, along with many other community members, so stop by for some good chatting and complimentary snacks.  The process is quick and painless.  Filling the blood bank is very important for the health and security of our region, so please donate if you possibly can.  Call Carla at 663-0179 for make an appointment.
Lutsen’s own Jim Vick got a very complimentary mention on the statewide news website MinnPost.  The article was touting the music scene at Papa Charlie’s nightclub located at Lutsen Mountains Ski Area.  Jim Vick is the marketing manager for the ski area and does the music booking for Papa Charlie’s as one part of his job.
Journalist Jim Walsh said, “… there are still music lovers and listeners out there like Jim Vick, whose vision as booker/manager of Papa Charlie’s has made the chalet at the foot of Lutsen Mountain a model for all other clubs looking to create and cultivate a true listening scene.”
He was referring to the Monday and Wednesday night songwriter series that Papa Charlie’s has been hosting for the last several years.  The audience and staff are politely asked to refrain from conversation during the musical numbers, which creates a magical atmosphere where the music can be truly and deeply felt and appreciated.
This is part of a national movement of clubs and cafes that are known as “listening rooms” and allow musicians and music lovers to connect on a whole different level than the usual semi-chaotic bar scene.
Upcoming songwriter shows include Boston-based Meg Hutchinson, Low front man Alan Sparhawk, former Cook County resident and now big-time musician Barbara Jean, and the nationally popular Moors and McCumber. 
I know they are school nights, but it is worth the effort for locals and visitors alike to attend these marvelous shows. The music starts at 8 p.m. and is over at 10, so you can still get a good night’s sleep while catching some of the best songwriters and performers in America, right here in little old Lutsen.
For a full schedule of music in Cook County, go to or stay tuned to WTIP for frequent announcements of live music all over the county.
Last but not least, don’t forget the boot hockey tournament at Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte, Friday, Feb. 20 from 5 until 9 p.m.  The Minnesota Wild have nothing compared to the excitement generated by these local athletes as they vie to swat the volleyball into the net for another year of bragging rights here in the beautiful West End.

(Photo courtesy of Visit Cook County)



West End News: February 5

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It was great to hear a recording of my dad, Frank Hansen, on the radio again during the Beargrease sled dog race a couple of weeks ago.  Frank authored the West End News for many years, first in the Cook County News Herald and then here on WTIP, right up until his brief illness and death in 2010.  It is, of course, bittersweet for me to hear his voice again, but the pleasure definitely outweighs the sadness. 
It got me to thinking how family histories might be more accessible in the future.  I heard last week that most people can only name two of their eight great-grandparents.  However, Frank’s great-grandchildren will be able to listen to hours of his actual voice telling stories, giving them a good sense for him as a person. Most of our great grandchildren will be able to look us up on Facebook and YouTube to watch us age through decades of selfies and funny videos.
I’ve recently heard a recommendation for leaving a written memoir for our heirs.  Maybe we just need to be more mindful of the future as we document our lives online.
I was very pleased to read about the grand opening of Birch Tree Center in Duluth. The Center will provide mental health crisis services for all of northeastern Minnesota, including Cook County.  Services are many and include a safe place for people experiencing a mental health crisis to be housed, kept safe and connected with treatment. The program is designed to be welcoming to many cultures.
In the past, services for people experiencing a mental health crisis in Cook County were not necessarily tightly organized. Part of the program will include a paid coordinator in Cook County who will help organize law enforcement, health care providers and social services into a cohesive response team.
You can find information at, or if you need immediate help with a mental health crisis for yourself or others you can simply dial 2-1-1 from any phone.
I think the cell tower installation in Tofte is finally working. The tower was erected a couple of years ago and the cell antennas appeared several months ago.  Then, just a few weeks ago a crew appeared and buried the ubiquitous orange fiber optic conduit to the tower, cutting a main fiber line in the process that took most of Cook County Internet and telephone down for a full day.
A few days ago, I noticed five bars on my phone while in Tofte. The most I’d ever seen in the past was one bar.  Shortly after that, I stopped to buy a new phone at the Verizon store in Duluth.  The salesman looked online and confirmed that the Tofte cell site is now shown as “on the air.”  However, it will only work for phones that receive 4G signals and the service is for data only. The salesman explained that Verizon is in the process of converting all their cells to data-only high speed 4G.  Your voice calls will be carried as data in what is called “voice over Internet protocol.”  So if you’re still rocking that old 3G flip phone, the Tofte tower won’t do you any good.  You’ll need to upgrade to a sleek new smart phone in order to make phone calls.  The salesman did say that the newer 4G phones should have a significantly better range than the older phones, so that’s good news.
As reported here previously, world traveler Noah Horak has been home in Tofte since before Christmas. Noah spent the last two and a half years riding his motorcycle around the world. He is famous in the sport of adventure motorcycling, which is made up of people traveling on specially built motorcycles that are designed to travel the world on back roads, goat tracks or just cross country.
Noah is presenting a slide show travelogue of his many adventures at North House Folk School  Tuesday, Feb. 10 starting at 7 p.m.  The talk is free and open to the public. 
Noah is a natural born storyteller and he has some incredible stories to tell.  You can get a gist for his experiences at his blog: or just Google “round the world with Noah.”



West End News: January 29

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Boot Hockey is back at Birch Grove again this year.  The popular tournament is still open for team sign-ups. There is a limit of eight teams with five to seven people on each team.  The date is Friday, February 20th, with registration starting at 4 pm and boot hockey action starting at 4:30.  Call Birch Grove at 663-7977 or email for more information or to sign up your team.
In the past few years, the Forest Service team seems to have dominated the tourney, so it would be nice to bring in some stiffer competition for them so they don’t get cocky.  Business sponsorships are encouraged, by the way, so don’t be shy about recruiting a team. 
As if the boot hockey tournament isn’t too much fun in itself, Birch Grove is also having a movie night that same night with two features, the first starting at 5 pm and the second at 7 pm.  Movie fans can arrive early to catch some exciting broomball battles and broomball players can unwind with a movie after the game.
I ran into Barb Merritt at the Tofte General Store the other day as she was checking out the groceries for the Senior Lunch at Birch Grove.  It made me hungry just seeing the ingredients for a delicious beef stew.  Barb enjoys the highest reputation as the Senior Lunch chef.  I told her that I would be there every week if I didn’t live so far away.  It is definitely on my list of things to do when I retire.
Remember that the Senior Lunch is nearly every Wednesday at Birch Grove in Tofte.  If you aren’t a regular participant, give Birch Grove a call to let them know you’re coming so Barb can plan you in.  The few time that I’ve been able to go I’ve learned a ton of history and did a lot of laughing.
The Birch Grove Foundation is also planning a Spring Blossom bus tour to Door County, Wisconsin, May 3rd through May 8th.  The tour is designed for people 55 and older, but everyone is welcome to participate.  That number again at Birch Grove is 663-7977 or email
I’ve been following, with interest, the news about a pending decision to stop planned births at the North Shore Hospital in Grand Marais.  I have a fair amount of experience in the birthing room at the hospital as all four of my children were born there.  It was sure a wonderful thing to experience such an intense and emotional time in a familiar setting with talented nurses and doctors who were friends and neighbors.
As I understand it, the intersection of insurance and medical standards is causing the reluctant decision to stop planned births at the hospital.  That is too bad, but it’s important to remember that the hospital plays a relatively brief role in the whole experience of childbirth.  Our wonderful Sawtooth Mountain Clinic will be providing the same pre and post-natal services that they have been all along.  Childbirth education will still be happening locally.  Even though the birth-day is a big event, everything that comes before and after is vitally important, too.  It looks like the clinic will be working with prospective parents to make their birth experience as personal and unique as they like.
Also, the hospital will still be providing birthing services for babies that won’t wait for a ride to Duluth.  Two of my children would have been born in Little Marais if we had tried to drive to Duluth after labor started.
The whole situation is just one symptom of the ongoing semi-chaos that is the American health care system.  My experience has been that the people who provide our health care are universally caring, smart and very, very good at what they do.  However, the way that the health care system is organized - especially around the money part - is a confusing, and nearly incomprehensible mess. 
It isn’t realistic to think that we can suddenly scrap the entire system and start over.  But, we can hope for finding the political will to start fixing the most obvious problems and get to a health care system that works for everyone.
Come to think of it, if the entire system ran a little more like it does here in Cook County, the whole country would be better off.



West End News: January 22

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Live musical performance has become a routine, almost nightly, event in Cook County.  The West End is a particular hotbed of live music, including a variety of local acts and big-name artists who appear most often at the Papa Charlie’s nightclub at Lutsen Mountains Ski Area.
This growth in local live music is not by accident, as the tourism businesses countywide have decided to make Cook County a music destination.  If I say, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans or Branson, you know right away that those are music destinations with deep traditions and culture.  The goal is to put Cook County in that same category. The effort is paying off as the word spreads. 
Recently, a public television program based in Duluth called “The PlayList” decided to highlight the music scene in the West End by filming a whole show of Cook County musicians in live performance from the stage at Papa Charlie’s.  You can join the audience for the filming session by showing up at Papa Charlie’s on Tuesday, January 27th.  The show runs from 8 until 11 pm and features Tofte singer/songwriter Eric Frost, Bump Blomberg and Adam Moe, known as “Pushing Chain” and the “Splintertones,” a 7-piece high energy dance band from Grand Marais.  The event is free and open to the public.  They also promise PlayList swag at the door.
Another notable music event is the “Century of Jazz” program being presented by the Sky Blue Jazz Ensemble.  This show is in the beautiful William Kelley High School Auditorium in Silver Bay on Monday, January 26th, starting at 7 pm.  The William Kelley High School Jazz Band will also perform.  Several members of the Sky Blue Jazz Ensemble hail from Cook County. 
“Century of Jazz” is co-sponsored by the Northern Lake County Arts Board.  They have a spiffy new website, so go to: for more information.  The Arts Board sponsors a lot of great things in Silver Bay all the year around, so you probably want to put their website in your bookmarks.
I have been pleased to hear the call for providing two free years of community college for anyone who is interested that has been coming from the leadership in the Minnesota Legislature and from President Obama.  The “free” part, of course, refers to the cost to the student, not implying that there is no cost.  In my opinion, it’s a clear winner to make a public investment in the future of our communities that will return the cost many times over.
That said, I also agree with some critics of the idea who point out that there are more impediments to higher education than the cost of tuition.  Tuition is only about a fifth of the actual cost of college, with living expenses, books, transportation and childcare making up the bulk of the costs.  I would like to see a comprehensive program that supports students across the board for the first two years of community college.
The experience of our own Cook County Higher Education has clearly shown that highly engaged student support is critical to successful graduation and job placement.  Cook County Higher Ed, whose main mission is providing student support, has a higher graduation rate than Harvard.
There is a lot of scholarship money already available for Cook County residents.  My dream has always been to create the situation where any Cook County resident could attend college, regardless of their financial situation. 
I like to dream big, so why not have the same goal for whole country?  The payoff would be spectacular and our humble West End would be an even better place to live.