11/28/99 – Sawbill Lake thawed out again on the 26th. It is
in a unique configuration now, with about 30% of the lake covered
with strange, grey ice and the rest is wind whipped water. This
is the first time I can remember that the lake has frozen and
thawed twice in the same season. – Bill
11/26/99 – Sawbill refroze on the night of the 24th.
The Cook County High School football team won their third straight
state championship today at the Humphrey Dome in downtown Minneapolis.
Carl, Clare, and Cindy Hansen were in attendance along with about
2,000 other Cook County residents (not bad for a county with only
3,200 total population). Cindy, being an alumnus and former cheerleader,
treats the games as class reunions.
Dave Freeman, long time Sawbill crew member, visited for Thanksgiving.
Dave is working for Wintergreen
Sleddog Lodge in Ely this winter. He will be guiding clients
on winter wilderness camping trips by dog team. Dave and I fulfilled
a long time ambition by running from Sawbill to Tofte together
yesterday. The 23 mile jaunt took us 3.5 hours and ended at the
Bluefin Bay Resort hot tub – the perfect therapy for tired leg
It looks as though our snow is here to stay. Although there
is only about 4" on the ground, it has that permanent look.
It is startling how the snow cover transforms the landscape. One
moment the woods are brown, brittle and bare. The next moment
it is a soft white wonderland – the sharp edges blunted and the
dark hollows filled with white light. Even more evocative are
the hushed silence and the fresh snow smell. Fall becomes winter
in a few minutes. – Bill
11/23/99 – Snow today! Good weather for tracking pine marten
activity. A friend this morning told me about pine martens tearing
holes in canvas yurts up the Gunflint Trail. I am reminded of
the architectural strategies of the Three Little Pigs. We are
in the late Straw Age here at Sawbill. Huff and puff Marten, I
know where to find some brick!
Outside the window, in a three foot square of birch, evening
and pine gross beaks sit with a blue jay puffed up against the
chill and snow. Yellow, red and blue dashes on this morning’s
fresh canvas. I can imagine the warmth of their color.
I have been meaning to report on a walk among many fallen old
growth red pines above Sawbill’s eastern shore. The Storm knocked
down about one third of these 90-110 year old giants. The trees
lie serenely, long trunks propped on elbow branches like reclining
Buddhas. Cool ashen soil, remnants of the fire that gave birth
to these trees, streak the soles of the root balls. Roots drying
in the Western sun are telling life lines. Many large earthen
bowls were excavated, red pine foot prints, cool and moist four
feet down. I sat for a long time and thought about forest ecology.
A novel angle of repose, my feet and legs running down the thick
trunk, back against the forest floor upturned by the root ball,
I saw the forest anew. I walked the path of the trunk, each step
marking my progress on an identical standing neighbor. At the
top, in the spiky angular crown, I held on to branches that used
to hold the sky. The tip of the tree was a springboard, and before
I jumped ship, I looked out and surveyed a harbor full of anchored
reds, calmly awaiting their final journey – descent to the forest
floor. I walked to the top of another fallen tree, the same as
the last except more of a twist and a slightly deeper cut lightening
scar. I think of all those B-52 bombers retired in the desert
sun, so similar, yet distinct in the decals and names of former
crew. Just as those planes recall former lives and mark geo-political
change, each red pine is a story of wind, moisture and storm in
the succession of the forest. Both, retired from above, allow
new light and shadows to fall across the land. OB
11/22/99 – The Revenge of the Pine Martens. Regular readers
of this newsletter will recall the saga of the breaking and entering
pine martens last winter. OB and I did epic battle to discourage
the varmints from chewing their way into the store building. For
awhile, it looked like the martens were smarter than us. But,
after much creative use of hardware cloth, live trapping, and
giving a long free car ride to nine of the buggers, we finally
Imagine my horror today when I entered our crew quarters (known
to the Sawbill crew as "The Mobe"), and found clear
evidence of a visit by a marten. I immediately tapped OB for his
superior marten tactical prowess and we moved in, armed with hardware
cloth, spray foam insulation, some sturdy lumber. a couple of
hundred nails, and a mean attitude. We flushed two of the big
weasels out of the place as we worked. One sat in a tree and stared
at us mockingly as we labored. We halfheartedly threw some rocks
at it, but it didn’t even flinch. Last year, after each skirmish,
we would congratulate ourselves on outsmarting the little devils,
only to be humiliated the next day. This time, we are taking a
"wait and see" attitude, ready to shore up any weakness
they find in our defense.
My non-violence policy toward martens is being severely tested.
My trusty shotgun is temptingly close by… But, I think we can
do it with our superior intellect and opposable thumbs. Stay tuned.
Sawbill Lake thawed out again today after two days of temperatures
near 40 F. – Bill
11/20/99 – We were saddened to receive news of Larry Matheson’s
death today. Larry, from Belvedere, Illinois, was a loyal Sawbill
wilderness camper for more than thirty years. For many years,
Larry wore a silver construction hard hat while traveling up to
his favorite campsite on the "big bend" of the Kawishiwi
River. Several times I encountered Larry on the trail and was
able to identify him from miles away by the sun reflecting off
his hard hat. We received the sad news via the following letter
from Larry’s wife, Celestia:
I wanted to relate to you how much Laurence and I enjoyed all
the wondrous years of trips to the Sawbill. They provided us with
many memories we enjoyed together.
After this last year of failing health, Laurence passed away
Nov. 3, 1999. Because I have had some nursing experience, Laurence
was able to be at home where I cared for him.
Laurence always thought the Sawbill area was the most beautiful
place in the world. I usually pulled up your newsletter on the
Web every couple of weeks and read it to him. The good times (and
some not as good) were never forgotten. I hope the Sawbill will
be open for years to come so many people have a true nature visit
and get to know all of you good friends in the North Woods.
Sincerely, Celestia Matheson
While running yesterday, I encountered a cow moose and her
calf at close range. As they ambled away, I noticed that their
backs were covered with the ice, just like the brush that was
tinkling as they pushed through it.
Sawbill Lake froze over last night. – Bill
11/19/99 – We had some much needed rain early this morning.
It came as freezing rain, so everything is covered with a quarter
inch of glazing.
11/18/99 – On Monday night Frank and Mary Alice returned from
Duluth at suppertime. As they were unloading their car in front
of their house, they were brought up short by a wolf pack which
began howling less than a quarter of a mile away. Tuesday morning
I saw wolf tracks on the road right in front of Frank and M.A.’s
house. It is always a treat to hear or see the wolves that live
all around us. In the 43 years that we have been here, we have
never had a wolf cause a lick of trouble (unlike the bears, martens,
The small ponds have a half inch of clear ice on them. Sawbill
Lake has a bit of thin ice in the sheltered bays, but is otherwise
11/13/99 – Several of the staff from Wilderness
Inquiry are here for a brief recreational canoe trip. They
are enjoying the incredible weather.
Ruthie Hansen had her first public reading of the year as part
of her participation in the Literary Arts program at the Minnesota
Arts High School. It was held at the Mighty Fine Cafe in North
Minneapolis with about 130 people in attendance. Ruthie read with
a clear, strong voice two beautiful poems she had written. Clearly
the best of the evening, but I’m not biased or anything…
I had the fun of being a guest on the public television show
"Almanac" last night. It is a public affairs magazine
style show that is produced by KTVA – TV in St Paul. It is shown
widely in the midwest. The issue, of course, was fire risk in
the wilderness. I tried to emphasize that this forest has a fire
based ecology and we all need to learn to adapt ourselves to that
fact. And,we will be working with the Forest Service to provide
visitors with good information about what to do if they encounter
a wild fire.
This morning, Cindy Hansen’s mother, sister , niece and nephew
are here participating in a giant Christmas cookie bake off. The
house is redolent with the aroma of cookies and lefsa (a traditional
Scandinavian treat). Holiday music is playing and the sun has
pushed the thermometer over 60 degrees. – Bill
11/11/99 – The Forest Service released their study of increased
fire danger in the BWCA Wilderness due to the July 4th windstorm.
Using computer models designed to simulate fire behavior in areas
of logging slash (the closest they can come to simulating the
blow down), they are predicting a 90 – 95% possibility of large
fires for the upcoming season.
On the good news side, most of the Sawbill area was unaffected
by the worst of the blowdown. Fire danger in the standing forest
will only become a factor in extreme drought. The only area that
our customers commonly use that are included in the blowdown areas
is the Little Saganaga area. In the Brule area, large lakes and
two previous fires have provided us with enough fuel reduction
to decrease the likelihood of a large, fast moving fire.
The major change for most users will be some added education
about what to do if you encounter a large fire. The Forest Service
experts said that most lakes will provide adequate shelter from
even a large fire. Their only caveat was that during windy conditions,
heavy smoke could make it a "miserable" experience.
The Forest Service will be creating a web site to contain all
the data and models that they are using. We will pass along the
URL for that site as soon as it is available.
Our philosophy is that fire is, and always has been, a normal
and inevitable part of the forest ecology. As visitors, we need
to acknowledge the fact, and plan accordingly. Some simple steps
to protect ourselves and our possessions is the appropriate response.
Beyond that, we need to respect the powerful forces of nature,
and learn from them.
11/10/99 – Warm, golden sunshine has poured over the wilderness
these last two days. Sixty degree temperatures, light southerly
winds, and high humidity all contributed to the illusion that
it was July instead of the middle of November. We quickly capitalized
on the situation. After two days of chainsaw work on the ski trail,
OB went for a half day paddle with some friends while I went for
a run in shorts and a t-shirt. Several species of small flying
insects have been fooled into hatching. I spotted a Great Gray
Owl on the Sawbill Trail yesterday afternoon.
Speaking of animal sightings, we had our first Pine Marten
on the back deck Sunday afternoon. We were glad to see it, with
only a small pang of fear in the back of our minds. – Bill
11/7/99 – I just returned from a two day journey to the heart
of Iowa. Ruthie and I went to Grinnell College for a prospect’s
tour. As is often the case, almost everyone we met had either
been to Sawbill or knew somebody who has been here. The admission
office secretary said her husband and sons had gone out of Sawbill
for the last two years. Iowa is an interesting place (if you like
farms, which I do), but it is always good to return to the northland.
11/3/99 – OB returns to Sawbill today after his big trip to
Ireland. We are looking forward to his stories and having his
cheery face back on the ranch. The slight covering of snow that
fell two nights ago is still with us. The ponds are frozen again
this morning, but it may be a little while until the lake freezes
for the season. – Bill
11/1/99 – Ellen Lock, former
Sawbill crew member, now works for Wilderness
Inquiry, a non-profit group that provides wilderness opportunities
for disabled people. Ellen is the featured staff member on WI’s
website this month.