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October 1998

10/31/98 – We are mourning the death of former Sawbill crew member Hans Hicks. Hans took his own life in Duluth earlier this week. Hans worked at Sawbill in ’94 and ’95. He had been working his way through school at the U of M, Duluth and was near graduation. Hans was an avid climber and canoeist. He was well loved by his co-workers and will be deeply missed. There is memorial service scheduled for 2 P. M. Monday, November 2nd at Leif Erickson Park in Duluth.

Hans Hicks (bottom left) with the ’94 Sawbill Crew.

10/29/98 – Our gravel is slowly disappearing. As the amount of vehicle and foot traffic decreases, the cover of leaves on the gravel intensifies. Taken as a whole, our graveled areas begin to resemble a leafy quilt. On the path to lunch, the aspens predominate, in the canoe yard, dry birch leaves, and by the workshop, golden white pine needles. The aspens are pasted flat, as they came down with the big rains. At first, they formed a glorious yellow and gold mosaic path. Their paving still resists our feet, but age has turned them gun metal blue, purple, and sienna. When I stand in the middle of all those aspen leaves, and stare down, my eyes ache slightly, and the pattern and texture of the leaves fade, leaving just globes of color shifting hues. In places where the birch and aspen mix, texture is more noticeable, as the drier crumpled birches, with larger teeth, form ridges and peaks. Our golden retrievers prefer the patches of white pine needles, and they strike quite a colorful pose as they snooze in the noon day sun. Below the red pines, cones dot the leaves like little ornate knots tied in the quilt. The red squirrels are still knocking them down, and they make quite a thud or bong depending on which canoe they land. The squirrels run back and forth on the ground, sewing their cones away at the edges of the gravel. Everywhere I walk, the thick covering of leaves gives Sawbill a sleepy feeling. Several buildings are little used now, and leaves pile around their doors and tuck in at their foundations. I so enjoy these dashes of color on the gravel. They brighten the day and remind me of the quiet and solitude that is just around the corner. They hint at the ice skating to come, as some of them will be locked mid drift below our skates. Finally, they tell of the snow. A few of them will roll around on all the white – either falling late, or blowing out from some windswept place. At some distant winter moment, a subtle change of time will take place, and the leaves will take on a new significance. They will become reminders of warmth, summer, paddling, or the crew’s return. The landscape holds a multitude of signs and stories in place for us, awaiting the whims of our interpretation. We craft the meaning, but it is stored out there. If we do not attend to these natural reservoirs, a stream from a distant place will dry, leaving us thirsty. Indigenous people around the world see life in rocks, trees, and wind. They hear stories from them and endow them with family titles. Listen to the leaves, they speak to us. Not verbally, but symbolically they foretell and remind. They tune us to color, light and beauty. It is a dialogue. We look at them, and they shine back.

10/25/98 – October weather returns, and the parking lot empties. We await Bill and Cindy’s return. We are a little concerned for their well being, because they did not pack their sunscreen! With the rain and cool weather, the crew is holed up doing inside jobs. Carl and Clare Hansen have not been seen today, and we believe it has something to do with a twenty-five hour Scooby Doo jam session on the Cartoon Network. Bizarre, but enticing, as I was once a huge Scooby Doo fan, and that basement TV viewing binge may provide a wilderness experience the likes of which I have never considered! Anne "Strupie Doo" Strupeck was supposed to leave this morning, but awaits word on her ailing car. As a result, she will be consuming scoobie snacks with us, too. Gorgeous bright read strawberry leaves provided a dose of reality, when I walked out to check the oil in the diesel generators which allow us to watch Scooby.

10/24/98 – The paddle season continues! Another day has dawned with blue skies and mild temperatures. The parking lot, empty last week during the rainy weather, has eight cars, and already this morning we have sent out a few parties. During the forty-two years Sawbill has been sending people into the wilderness, there have been few seasons that have provided such ideal conditions for paddling and camping. The enduring season is putting a damper on a tradition we started this past Spring. In the empty parking lot, under a blue sky, in T-shirts, we threw a frisbee around with no concern of hitting trees. We spread out to each corner and stretched our arms and legs with long throws and heroic catches. Cindy, Michele, and I so enjoyed that novel bit of play, we planned all summer to relive the event this Fall. We stipulated the lot must be totally empty. Michele is gone now, but Natasha and Annie remain as worthy replacements. Oh, the parking lot must be snow free, as well. It’s so hard to recreate those sweet moments in life.

10/23/98 – Bill and Cindy are enjoying nice weather on their canoe trip. Dry blue skies and sixty degrees, as I sit here wondering why I am in the office! The next two days call for more of the same, and we plan to take advantage of the mild weather to shovel out fire grates and put canoes away. The snow buntings have returned to our area. They are a migrant from the treeless areas north of here. They are predisposed to seek out open areas, and, in our area, they congregate on the gravel roads. This preference results in a very nerve wracking fleeing pattern. As a car approaches, the buntings fly as fast as they can, and, for as long as they can, right in front of the grill of the vehicle. In so doing, they avoid turning into the foreign boreal woods. Like dolphins off the prow of the ship, they surf the wind just off the hood, flashing their white wings with dark tips. It is amazing the speeds these birds can achieve in a short distance – outrunning a car going 45 mph. Eventually the issue is forced, and to avoid becoming a hood ornament, the birds choose the lesser of two evils and duck into the woods. Occasionally, a bunting is too slow and is lost below the bumper. This is sad for all of us, but sentiment is varied regarding our role in the fate of the hobo bunting. Two forest service personnel’s ideas perhaps sum up the debate. One person was sad, but did not feel endangering himself, or vehicle, by braking was worth the bunting’s life. His harsh but pragmatic conclusion, "During this time of year, the bunting replaces the dragonfly on the car grill." The other person, distinguished herself by putting a vehicle in the ditch in an attempt to avoid a bunting. Karmically, I identify with the latter, but in practice, I err on the side of the former. My middle road solution, is to take my foot off the gas, and coach the birds, "Come on, Come on!" So far, the words don’t help, but they make me feel better.

10/20/98 – It is a good time of year for the permanent crew members to go paddling. Bill and Cindy leave on a trip tomorrow, and I just returned from a three day trip exploring the north end of Sawbill. I welcomed the rain, but wondered how my partner, a first time camper, felt about so much moisture. She said she expected cold rainy weather, and felt content to see what the rain had in store for us. Expectations are such a critical aspect of wilderness travel. All of us have different agendas in the wilderness, but by entering it, we all agree to become part of the processes of a wild place. Sometimes this is not easy. All summer long, I speak with people who choose to end trips early due to inclement weather. I understand their disappointment and fatigue, but I am occasionally frustrated by a lack of understanding and their choice to not mentally prepare before the trip – to not consider the entire picture of the natural system in which they travel. I am frustrated, because I feel their experience is incomplete. I have seen such beauty in what our cultural consensus deems the nastiest weather. It is so good to know a place in storm.

The sound of the wind the other night was amazing. Howling from some distant point, it roared across the lake and ripped viciously into the trees at our site. Jack pines swayed back and forth in ten foot arcs. Having seen countless wind thrown trees, my heart raced at the prospect of spending a night in a forest that looked like a breezy wheat field. I would hate to die below a massive jack pine. I accept the risk, because I know during the next big storm, when I am cozy in bed at home, I will think about this stand of trees flying through the night. My heart will race then, as I contemplate the wailing, dark, exotic nature of the wild place adjacent to my door.

All night, we experienced the storm. It became like a performance, one of those day long affairs that are common in Eastern cultures, where the audience tunes in and out. We swam back to consciousness during the loud scenes, laying there in pitch dark, wide awake, attuned to the slightest straining branch. Rain drops on the rain fly were like gamelan. At 4am the wind was so strong, I went out to check on the canoe. In unlaced boots and a rain jacket, I wrestled the canoe to a safer spot. I switched off my head lamp and got into that storm.

In the morning, the scene was transformed. The water level had risen a few inches, redefining our footing for canoe loading. The spaghum moss was incredibly puffy, and little buttons of mushroom caps were beginning to dot the forest floor. A beaver dam was washed by a smooth foot of water, which we polled over with some difficulty and rode back down gleefully. We paddled home, and everywhere forest was floating with us: brown cedar sprigs, birch leaves, sticks, all being patterned into long lines or floating mats. I stroked under that sky, thinking how it was the night before, trying hard to imagine all this debris suspended in the air. Trying to glean from that darkness full of flying bits of forest, one more grain of understanding.

10/17/98 – It seems the drought is now officially over. We have had over 3" of rain in the last two days. Last night, it poured a steady rain for hour after hour. This is a sound we haven’t heard for more than a year.

Ken Gilbertson, director of the excellent Outdoor Program at the U of MN, Duluth, was camped in the campground last night with a group of freshman that have never been north of Duluth. Yesterday, he stood on an exposed rock on the edge of Sawbill Lake. This morning it was nowhere to be seen.

10/13/98 – This morning we felt the annual magic of the first snowfall. The air had that fresh smell that only comes with snow. Only six cars in the parking lot this morning.

Left, the season’s first snow. Right, close up of canoe, snow and leaves.

Jeff Beck, one of our favorite group leaders, has been out this week with his family. Here they are, moments after coming off the lake, posing with the snowy canoes.

10/11/98 – Small powder blue bugs hatched in profusion yesterday. About the size of a gnat, they appeared early in the day and hovered aimlessly, in the warmth of a beautiful day. It was nice to have their company, as small blue insects do not appear everyday, and they are fun to observe. Today they are gone, and I am left wondering about their life cycle. In these woods, there are so many life forms laying in wait for the right conditions. As I walk from building to building, I peer into the woods and think about all the species with which I share this space. On the forest floor, wispy white threads of mushrooms push and spread about, hazel nuts fall silently seeking purchase in the soil, and star nosed shrews burrow to and fro in search of a bouquet of prey which would star admirably in any science fiction movie. I wonder which life phase the blue bugs have transitioned into today. Which nugget of genetic material have they deposited, what does it look like, and to what pulse and energy source does its clock run. So many silent, marvelous mechanisms interpreting and tracking each day. I look into the woods, appearing mostly static at any given moment, and I think of all the processes and data collection silently whirring around me. The web of life is tangible and the word organic hits me like never before. As I drift there and fixate on the forest floor, it begins to undulate and transform. Small peaks and troughs of land quicken in succession around my motionless body. A raven’s call cracks in my skull like a bell, and I smile, amused at my imagination and in awe of the energy surrounding me.

10/9/98 – Coming back from Grand Marais, I was driving down The Grade in the "Old Van". It was a perfect day to be driving. This was the umpteenth town trip I had done over the three years I have worked at Sawbill. It was one of the most memorable. As I slowed down to take a glimpse of Lichen Lake, I was astounded by what was in front of my eyes. After parking the van on the side of the road and rolling my window down, I took a deep breath. The sun was no longer above. It had actually moved down into the cluster of trees across the small lake. I could have sworn it was living and breathing within them. This yellow glow was something I had never seen in all my life. The seasonal change was clearly apparent. My camera was with me at the time, but I was in one of those moments in which a photograph could not even begin to capture the picturesque view. This most pleasant memory would do the justice. As a big smile came on my face, I remembered exactly why I am here, why I have worked in this amazing setting for the past three seasons. I acknowledged the energy here; the energy which no one can put into words, but that which we can all feel. After several minutes of pure bliss, I headed back towards Sawbill. My reflections moved along, as well, and soon I was thinking about what it has been like working here. Ever since my first canoe trip with the Flossmoor Community Church, I have been intrigued by the portrait of this land. After four years of canoeing with my advisor "Uncle Doug", I was hooked, and applied for a position on the crew. This summer, I was able to take three fabulous trips with friends. Each one had a particular style to it. Most people would agree that each canoe trip is special and unique in its own way. But, we cannot ignore the common denominator between past trips and those to come. The intense beauty, unique calm, and extreme quiet takes us away from the daily "civilized" routine. This may be the last season I work at Sawbill. There’s no way to tell at this point. And, if it ends up being my final season, I will have no regrets. I have had an incredible three summers working with people who share the same interests in the outdoors. In ten years, when I look back on these summers, I will have the fond memories of nature, friendship, and humor.

10/6/98 – We are finally experiencing some "normal" October weather. A spectacular storm is in process, blowing 30 mph east winds and dropping over an inch of rain in the last 24 hours. Almost everyone has abandoned the BWCA Wilderness, except for a few hapless moose hunters, who I picture huddled under a sagging tarp, facing a hissing fire and hoping for a break in the clouds. Several trees came down across the Sawbill Trail yesterday. Cindy had to unlimber the trusty bow saw while delivering Carl and Clare to school.

10/4/98 – OB (A.K.A. "Obie" and "John Oberholtzer"), Sawbill employee extrordinaire and frequent eloquent contributor to this newsletter, is currently on vacation in Florence, Italy. Here is a copy of email from him:

Subject:     Buonosayra
From: John Oberholtzer,
Just finished seeing the Duomo, and I passed a little internet storefront.
Florence is so amazing! We have seen so much amazing art, architecture,
and sculpture of the Renaissance. Really great. It sort of leaves me
The Italians are so incredibly fashionable. Lots of beautiful people
walking down narrow medieval streets, or racing around on mopeds, cell
phone in one hand, cigarette and handle bar in the other. The food –
See you all soon.

10/2/98 – Bill and Audrey Johnson stopped by Sawbill earlier this week while they were in the area taking in the fall colors. Bill, Audrey and their three children, were stalwart Sawbill campers in the 1960’s and early ’70’s. It was good to have them back in the store after all these years.

The fall colors are at their peak right now. The drought and warm September kept them less dramatic than past years, but still beautiful.

Left: Looking west from the landing. Right: The store 10/2/98.