Posted on

August 1998

8/31/98 – Those of you who watch the Sawbill
Weather ’98
page, may have noticed that our weather observer, Ruthie Hansen, is now listed as "former weather observer." Ruthie began school today at the Minnesota Arts High School in the Twin Cities. She is taking a usual load of high school courses and then receiving special instruction in Literary Arts. Quite a change for a kid who has been home schooled on the edge of the BWCA Wilderness for the last few years. Perhaps we can entice her to write a few entries for the newsletter describing the contrast between the solitude of Sawbill and the urban art school.

A group of musicians who visit the Sawbill campground every year were just here again this past weekend. This loose group of musical friends has been making friendship and music at Sawbill for almost 15 years now. They fish and camp all day, then at night, they pull out guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins and basses, unlimber beautiful voices and make music around the fire until the wee hours.

8/27/98 – A rare bit of excitement on Tuesday when a camper became lost in the woods overnight. Kevin Griffith, age 20, from Owatonna, Minnesota decided to hike across a peninsula on Sawbill lake and meet his friends who were in a canoe. He became disoriented during a rain squall and tried to backtrack to camp. Instead he headed due north into very remote and wild country. When he realized that he was thoroughly lost, he panicked and ran for some distance. He eventually fell and spent the night where he fell, among some moss under a pine tree. In the morning, after an estimated half hour of sleep, he decided to stay put until rescued. He ate three flies, a berry and a nut. He reported that the flies had no taste, but the berry made him queasy. He tried to capture a dragon fly, but it was too quick for him.

Kevin’s group called and searched for him until well after dark. In the morning they paddled into Sawbill and we notified the Cook County Sheriff. Deputy Sheriff Tim Weitz mobilized the Cook County Volunteer Rescue Squad. He also notified the Forest Service, who were able to call several nearby wilderness rangers on the radio. Within hours, the deputy, rescue squad, rangers and two Sawbill crew members were on the scene and cooperating in a well organized search. About 2:30 P. M. two of the rangers, Gary Robinson and Ellen Hawkins, heard a faint response to their calls on a megaphone. They plunged deep into the rugged forest and within a half hour they had located Kevin – wet, tired and hungry, but basically OK.

We were all impressed by the excellent work of the deputy, rescue squad and wilderness rangers. it is nice to know they are there when you need them.

8/26/98 – We are receiving good help the past week from several former crew members. Mary Zinn from New York City, has returned the past two years to take a break from her city life and aid us during a very busy time when many of our crew our packing off to college. Mary and I returned late the other night from an outing in town. It is so quiet at Sawbill then. After a bumpy, loud ride on the trail, the silence covered us like a blanket. We quieted ourselves and our steps, in an attempt to fully tune into the silence. It is so tangible – thick and dark, all around, there is a sense that you could reach out, take hold of it, and take it in. Mary said it made her ears ring. How different it must be from the New York soundscape. She left me there, and I tried to nail down this elusive feeling that there was a rich substance all around me called quiet, which seemed to have a cool resistance when I waved my arm through it. A loon broke the spell, and the air was crisp with their calls. I shut my eyes and listened to an incredible chorus of loons. There were differing intensities of calls – those that seemed to be coming from Sawbill, and then more from other lakes. I strained my ears, and thought I could hear very distant calls. Though I can’t be sure, since sound seems to play tricks, it seemed I was hearing loons calling from many lakes. I tried to think how this sounded to loons. Could they hear this for miles, and did they respond from lake to lake? And why so many joyous sounding calls simultaneously? My human sense was that it was a communal celebration of darkness and solitude, a celebration of being a loon and living on such amazing lakes, in this dark sky that made their calls sound so great. I stared into the void of darkness, and those calls became visual – red blossoms of notes rising into the air. I imagined a birds eye view of our surrounding lakes, and could see those plumes of notes drifting up and fading into a glow of sound. As I peer out the window tonight, I see the northern lights are on. Perhaps a remnant of last night’s audio energy, like the buzz in the air after a wonderful summer concert, but more ancient and strange.

8/24/98 – Hectic, very hectic, this past week at Sawbill. I apologize to our loyal newsletter followers for the lack of entries. One of the loyal readers, Dean Elling, returned from a canoe trip yesterday. It was the first trip with his son Thomas, who looked to be five years old. They had a great trip, and returned scruffy and beaming with smiles. Thomas’s cousin, Akiko Takechi of Japan, has an interest in the BWCA, and Dean and I had planned to surprise her with a picture of her relatives. Unfortunately, technology conspired against us, and only half the picture loaded into the computer. Akiko, I can report that Dean and Thomas were in high spirits despite a long session of book reading in the tent, while waiting out a stormy day. We appreciate Thomas’ patience with the weather, as we are eager to receive any rain at all these days. Dean reports a growing interest among Japanese people with Northern Minnesota. Please come check it out, Akiko. A crew member of ours is headed to teach English in Japan this Fall. It seems there are several layers to this nascent Sawbill Japan connection!

Despite the lack of moisture a major bolete mushroom bloom is surrounding the Dome. I have never noticed so many mushrooms surrounding the dome so uniformly. I wonder if this is a confused mushroom pilgrimage. The dome looks very much like a mushroom, as it begins to poke out of the ground. Considering the purported power of the mushroom from early experimenters in psychodelia, I wonder if I should prepare for a huge stalk to lift the dome skyward? I’ll keep you posted. On a more grounded note, the large leaf asters are blooming in profusion. It is quite a sight to see open areas covered in their knee high lavender blooms slightly smelling peppery.

8/19/98 – The fire ban has been lifted. The Cook County Board of Commissioners voted last night to lift their ban of open fires in the wilderness. As usual, fires are only allowed in the fire grates at campsites. It continues to be extremely dry here, so campers should be very careful with their fires.

8/16/98 – The Bloody Knees Canoe Club began its seventh annual trip this morning. They promised us some rain, but were only able to produce a light shower just after dawn.

Bloody Knees Canoe Club "Before"

8/15/98 – A fire ban has been declared for the BWCA Wilderness. Open fires are not allowed. Cooking must be done on stoves. Not only is the fire danger extreme, but water levels are approaching record low levels. So far, the only closed route is the Frost River. The Louse River is getting tough and the Phoebe River has several sections that are slowing progress.

One of the lightning caused fires from back in mid July has come back to life. An inch of rain on July 27th was thought to have drenched the fire, located east of Polly Lake. For eighteen days there was no hint of smoke. Two days ago, the fire suddenly rekindled, moving from the swamp where it had been burning, up the hill, and into the timber. The Forest Service is closely monitoring its progress and doesn’t expect it to develop into a major fire.

8/12/98 – A good friend of mine has been such a stimulation for nice hikes and thoughts about the processes of the natural world. The other day she suggested we explore a section of old growth maple that grows near Lutsen. En route, thimbleberries and raspberries threatened our intention to reach the maples, but we persevered and made for the gnarly old trees. These maples are like a wood in a fairy tale. Open walking prevails under a thick canopy that filters down green light around trunks that twist and split in all directions. Millions of ten inch maple seedlings carpet the floor, each desiring a sliver of sunlight that might allow it to become the next blackened, cracked historian of that hillside. To peer so far into the woods, unencumbered by balsam, aspen seedlings or alder tangles, is such a delight in the boreal forest. The clarity is uplifting. We felt light there together. There is a sense of potential in places like this, as if anything can happen. We stood together quietly, drifting. Slight crashes tumbled into the solitude. With a gasp that turned to broad smiles, we saw what can happen in those woods. A sow and her two cubs ambled by. Transfixed by the energy and beauty of those big black balls rolling through the woods, we went unnoticed. They moved casually, but steadily, across the hillside, stopping occasionally to sniff or lift up debris in search of insects. It was a pleasure to see, and provides a nugget of memory to transport myself back to those woods.

This same person was wondering about the early onset of leaves this Spring and how that will affect the Fall leaf display. She had heard that leaves will change and drop sooner, as a result of the warm Spring. This did not seem to jive with my notions of the onset of the Fall colors, which are based on concepts of temperature change and less sunshine. A forester at the Tofte Ranger Station explained how an early Spring sets a clock in motion for the life span of leaves. This clock, plus or minus a little, runs out after a certain amount of time. He made an analogy to blooms, which similarly will set fruit earlier, if they bud earlier. With leaves and fruit, this seems to be the case this year. Some color change is already evident in the forest, and rosehips are approaching a rich red. Pin cherries are translucent and red, reminding me of their abundant floral display early this Spring. Each inquiry provides provides a glimpse at the complexity of the natural order. Lucky to have such inquisitive friends.

8/11/98 – Wow, so many wonderful customers today! Willard and Vivian Stevens have been camping in the Sawbill campground for years. Jeff Krejeci and I spoke on the phone today, and he and his wife have been coming for the past few years. A young family, new to Sawbill, returned with good reports from Brule. Each of these people represent a thread in a wonderful tapestry of experience. Willard has been entertaining us for years with his dry wit. He amused me today by explaining how to use the tongue of a worn out shoe for a sling shot. I recall a conversation from years ago, over a soda, in which Willard described in great detail the workings of a municipal natural gas system. It was first hand, from a guy who put in more than thirty years as a gas man – fascinating. Each year the thread is renewed with a hug from Vivian and another laugh from Willard. Jeff called today to see about buying a canoe at the end of the year. His voice reminded me of my conversation with him and his wife way back in May. It was a clear day with a slight breeze, they were the first customers of the year, and I was so pleased to think of the experiences awaiting these easy going folks, in a Spring wilderness. Jeff’s call took me back to that thread, and helps me see more clearly, in the murkiness of August, what a fine weave this season is proving to be. The family from Brule, who I spoke with at length, yet cannot recall their name, returned with such appreciation of the beauty and pride at their accomplishment. I am drawn to people who are so gentle and considerate in their interactions with others. Our tapestry is blessed with threads like them. They were disappointed with the campers who damage green trees at the campsites. They wondered how we will preserve this place, when those behaviors, sometimes, seem far too common. Thinking back on their concerns and their obvious love of their children, I am hopeful that their kids will find ways to tackle these problems, becoming the threads in a fabric which is durable and fashionable.

8/10/98 – Troop 571 of Mound, Minnesota arrived for their first canoe trip out of Sawbill this afternoon. Keith, Steve and boys send their greetings to the relatives who are watching this site. They are surely the most colorful boy scouts we have seen in awhile.

8/8/98 – There is a wonderful article by John McPhee in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine describing the joys of swimming with a canoe. McPhee was raised in the Maine canoe country, but many of his observations travel well to Minnesota. He describes gunwale pumping, the means of propelling a canoe by standing up on the rails in the stern and bouncing up and down. Jean Raiken, a Sawbill pioneer, was famous for her gunwale pumping technique. In the late ’20’s, she could be seen pumping her way down Sawbill Lake, sunset blazing behind her, singing lusty songs at the top of her lungs. She was always amused by local legends that developed about the beautiful and mysterious "Indian Maid" who haunted Sawbill Lake.

McPhee also writes a wonderful description of deliberately swamping a canoe, which inevitably leads to the discovery of the air pocket trapped under the overturned canoe. The space under the canoe is a magic place, with a diffused shifting light and a tympanic sound effect. Novices will often emerge into this space with a shout, causing sharp pain to the ears of anyone sharing the air pocket. Usually, the swimmers just listen to their own excited breathing, with an occasional whispered comment, until the urge strikes them to roll the canoe right side up and the bright, busy outside world is revealed.

McPhee finally points out, by dramatic example, how this canoe play actually serves the serious purpose of training for an accidental capsizing. When I tipped over far from shore, deep in the Quetico, late in October, all those years of canoe swimming reassured me that I really could float my pack back into the canoe, gather up paddle and map, and swim the whole works a quarter mile to shore. Despite a water temperature in the high 30’s, I was quite comfortable from my swimming effort by the time I reached shore. The plastic pack liner produced my dry change of clothes, and I was on my way in fifteen minutes.

8/3/98 – One of our favorite groups, Jan Moravec and party, left yesterday and we miss them already. This group of young women have been wilderness canoeing together for many years – literally since they were young girls. They have a great attitude toward fun in the wilderness and have charmed successive Sawbill crews for many seasons.

Many old-timers are returning to Sawbill at this time. The famous Consortium group is currently in the wilderness for their 21st year. On the campground, we have the Kubiak brothers: Bob, Bill and Tom are all former Sawbill employees. Tom has the distinction of being employee #1, all the way back to 1957. Many other campground regulars are back this year. One of our chief joys in this business are the friendships that have developed and continued for so many years.

8/1/98 – Tom Glenny has been canoeing out of Kawishiwi Lake and Sawbill Lake since 1947. Most of those years his companions have been boyhood friends from his home town of Rockford, Illinois. As you can imagine, over the years they have developed many traditions and generated many stories.

Their most famous story involved the sneaking in of a gallon of ice cream, frozen with dry ice, for an annual birthday party on Malberg Lake. The surprise worked perfectly and has entered the lexicon of great BWCA Wilderness practical jokes.

Another tradition of Tom’s group involves packing in a roadside mail box which is installed at the lakeshore of their campsite for the amusement of passers by.

Tom’s son Stuart has participated in the trips since he was a boy. For the past few years, Stuart has brought a youth group from his church. The ice cream story is retold each year and the mailbox has become part of the youth group’s tradition too.

This year, Tom and his friend Glenn drove up from Rockford a day after the youth group began their trip at Kawishiwi Lake. They took a fast canoe and caught up with Stu and the youth group on Polly Lake. They approached the campsite ringing a bell and calling out "Good Humor man!!" With them they had letters from friends, family members and the church which they deposited in the waiting mailbox. After greeting everyone, they broke out a gallon of ice cream and the whole group enjoyed an ice cream social on the shores of Polly Lake, more than twenty miles from the nearest freezer. Tom and Glenn bid the group goodbye, returned to Kawishiwi, Sawbill and finally Rockford.

Tom commented that some people might think he is crazy to have gone to so much effort just to deliver some ice cream. Our response was to confirm that he is indeed crazy:-)