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What Once Was Here: Remnants from the Past

8/18/2018 – I have spent many hours walking the Sawbill dirt road, hiking rustic trails that snake through the surrounding woods. From old logging roads to over grown, out of season cross country ski trails, there is always a surprise, a mingling of history, waiting for you at the end of the rainbow. As I take my evening stroll, the sunset like a watercolor painting stretched across the sky, my mind is transported back to a time that I can only imagine, one I have not lived but have created from the structures or photographs I have seen. I try to conjure up an idea of what Sawbill was like in the 1930’s. What was it like to eat in the timbered dining hall fueling up before a day paddle? What was it like to work for the Minnesota Conservation Corps and to live at the old camp nestled in the National Forest? As I walk I wonder, I absorb. These remnants hold stories, waiting for me to contemplate, to ask the right questions and to slow down and sit and listen to what they have to share.



“U NO U R AT SAWBILL!”, the first clue guests were granted as they turned up the lane for their anticipated vacation, this sign being as much an integral part of the lodge as Uno, the water wheel cranking creek dweller. I imagine people laughing, infected by the delight of a deserved respite from the doldrums of everyday life, clinking glasses at the bar (the stools of which are sitting in the crew housing), music gliding on the breeze and the warmth of summer sun kissing lake bathers. I think of my grandparents, Gertrude and Carl, who would drive up the shore every month for a getaway, treating themselves to a stay at a place such as this. My Grandmother’s dark curls bouncing as she skips rocks. My grandfather’s stoic countenance melting away as he looks out at the water. Vacations had such a different air to them.

I read about the abundance of gimmicks at the Sawbill Lodge and about the regulars who became more like family.


Corner balcony, Sawbill Lodge. Source: Ren Holland at

The lodge was closed for the season in 1942 due to hardships caused by the war (specifically the ration of gasoline, preventing anyone from travelling up the shore). After the war ended the lodge reopened and saw its heyday in the 1950’s. Card games were arranged for post dinner entertainment, the owner (jean) circulated the room to gauge what lodgers wanted to do the next day and arranged guides and fishing locales for them. Bears also granted guests entertainment. Remains of dinner were placed outside the porch and folks would sit in wait and watch as bears would devour the food. If watching giant, sharp toothed mammals wasn’t your cup of tea you could spend time in the sauna or read a book from Jean’s impressive library. Oftentimes there was special entertainment such as a slide show or talent show. Once a summer guests were loaded up into motor boats and brought to an island for a dinner picnic.

When the area became a protected wilderness in 1978 a bill was passed that all structures be sold for removal in order to return the area to its natural state. The last year of operation for the lodge was 1982.


Dining Room, Sawbill Lodge. Source: Ren Holland at

The lodge now sits on highway 61 and has been renamed Solbakken. My evening walks guide me to the grounds of the old lodge. All that remains are moss covered stairs and fragments of the stone foundation. However, memories and photographs keep buildings alive even after they are gone and the stories we are told gives immortality to these cherished places.



I was tipped off by fellow crew member and human with a wealth of knowledge concerning many subjects, Mongo, about an old shack buried along a cross country ski trail that used to hold dynamite. What in the heck was the dynamite used for? When they were putting in the Sawbill Trail they used the dynamite to clear the way for building. The shack is composed of thick concrete walls, rusted orange exterior and a roof top that comes to a high point. The roof is shaped that way for a reason. If the dynamite tucked inside were to explode, it would (hopefully) shoot straight through the top versus through the walls, out the sides, into the trees…disaster would ensue!

Running, jumping over downed trees and Yarrow dusted forest floors, I ventured out in search for the shack. An avid explorer, especially when historical buildings and stories are involved, I excitedly pranced down the trail on hunt for this destination. The orange structure, veiled by saplings and leaf adorned branches, subtly came into view. I felt a pang of nerves as the stillness lay around me, my hand reaching for the concrete slab of a door, hoping to glimpse inside. A young tree inconveniently was growing just close enough that it prevented the door from opening and me from further exploration. With a sigh of relief and quenched curiosity I slowly made my way home, pleased with the afternoon. It was an excellent excuse to get outside and in the woods (as if I ever needed one).


The CCC Camp, located at the junction of the Sawbill Trail and the Grade in 1933

The Civilian Conservation Corps was founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt  in 1933. Roosevelt wanted to pull America out of the ruin of the Great Depression and the CCC would help employ the young men in dire need of work in order to help a country in dire need of help.

There were 13 camps in Cook County, MN, including 3 different camps located along the Sawbill Trail. The workers thinned brush and unwanted plants around trees to help maintain growth. They prepared sites for the planting of new trees and groomed portage trails, built campgrounds and took census of wildlife.

The Sawbill Civilian Conservation Corps Camp was abandoned and dismantled before 1957 but the work that they accomplished is apparent and appreciated.

Nothing remains of the old CCC camp but there is a sign honoring the work accomplished. But camp remains are not the only way we can remember all of the hard work these young men put into our beloved wilderness areas. Trails, campsites, the trees you walk among. All of these are signifiers that people before us were guarding and ensuring the longevity of the Boundary Waters, for those of us who have come after to continue to enjoy and to care for.

I have not yet had a chance to visit the site, but that is next on my extensive list.


~Do you remember visiting Sawbill when these structures were still standing and utilized? Do you know somebody who worked for the Minnesota Conservation Corps or spent a special, romantic weekend at the Old Sawbill Lodge? Do you know of other spots that I missed? If you would like, please share with us. We would love to hear your stories!


For more information about the past of Sawbill and the surrounding areas check out Sawbill: History and Tales by Mary Alice Hansen, copies are carried in our store.




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Pileated Woodpecker

8/8/18 – If you are staying in the Sawbill campgrounds or in the BWCA, you will hear the chirping of many birds. One call that stands out in particular is the Pileated woodpecker. These woodpeckers can be seen throughout the campsite and are beautiful.

The Pileated Woodpeckers are the second largest woodpeckers known to the American continent. Their average wingspans range from 26 to 30 inches, these are large birds! The birds are usually black with white stripes and have a red spot on top of their head.

Male pileated woodpecker. Photo taking by Sawbill customer Tim Petricek.

They can be heard either by their call or their noisy tree pecking activity. They peck against trees to find food such as ants and larvae. They also consume nuts and poison ivy berries. You might hear them going about their work in the morning. Their calls are great to wake up to.

Pileated woodpecker in tree. Photo by Tim Petricek.

These birds are a great treat to see while camping out in the North Woods. While you’re up here make sure to keep your eyes open for woodpeckers and the various other birds flying around.

– Nathan



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Hiking spots near Sawbill

8/6/18 – Since the Sawbill campground has so many lakes nearby to paddle, it is often overlooked that there are many worthwhile hiking spots and trails within a cars reach. While paddling around is the activity to do in the BWCA, it is sometimes nice to stretch your legs and go hiking. Hiking through the woods is a quick way to encounter nature and see it in action.

Carlton Peak is a hike about twenty five minutes from Sawbill Lake, close to Tofte and right off of Sawbill trail. The peak is part of the Sawtooth Mountains, which is technically a mountain range from Tofte to Grand Marais. Carlton Peak provides a beautiful stretching overlook of Lake Superior. Near the peak of the hike, there are some exposed rock faces that climbers often visit. The Carlton Peak is a great family hike and is three miles round trip.

Rock face that can be climbed at the top of Carlton Peak.
Near the peak of the Carlton hike. Lake Superior could not be seen due to the fog.

Another hiking spot that is accessible by car is the Oberg Mountain Trail. The Oberg Mountain Trail is about a two mile loop that offers views of Lake Superior and Oberg Lake. It is about five miles east of Tofte and located down Forrest Road 336. This hike is great for all ages.

The third and most well known hike near the area of Sawbill is Eagle Mountain. Eagle Mountain is the highest point in Minnesota at 2,301 feet. The hike is three and a half miles to the peak. This makes it a seven mile hike round trip. Since Eagle Mountain is a real mountain, the hike is a little more strenuous than the other two hikes listed above, but the view is worth it.

If you are interested in anymore information about the hikes, feel free to talk with the Sawbill staff!

– Nathan

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The busy season is here!

8/3/18 – With the crisp breeze of the August air and the decrease in mosquito activity, Sawbill has seen an increase in groups venturing up and out to enjoy the beautiful weather. August tends to be a time when the BWCA has an influx in campers; if you have ever paddled in the Boundary Waters around this time, you probably understand why.

This is the Sawbill staff’s favorite time of year because we get to see many familiar faces and groups. A few days ago, a longtime returning church group arrived and had six fully booked permits issued! That is fifty four young campers and group leaders who are get to experience the serene Boundary Waters. This six permit group also had twenty four canoes and full gear outfitted to them. As you can imagine, the Sawbill crew has been very busy as many other groups and customers are coming through. The crew has had a very fun time preparing for and interacting with all the new and familiar faces. We look forward to seeing more of you all!

If you are worried about having trouble finding a campsite during this busy season, do not fear. There are plenty of campsites dispersed throughout the Boundary Waters. The deeper you go, the more open campsites you will find. This busy time gives you an opportunity for further exploration of the Boundary Waters and to meet other BWCA enthusiasts in the Sawbill grounds.

August is a time you do not want to miss up at Sawbill. Come get the tail end of the summer weather while you can!

– Nathan


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A Week of Festivities

7/31/18 –

This past week Sawbill had many a celebration from Boys Night Out in Grand Marais to Christmas in July.

“Just hear those loon calls a-callin-ya, wolf packs a howlin’, yea…come on it’s lovely weather for a canoe ride together with yooouu”

Oof..OK, I tried…

But, tis the season for…Sawbill Crew’s annual Christmas in July party!

Look at all the artistry!

60 frosted sugar cookies later (well, 50…we had to make sure they were tasty!) and the crew was so deep into the holiday spirit that we swore we heard reindeer hooves on our rooftop (it was probably just the rambunctious red squirrels). Our Christmas meal, generously and deliciously made by Clare and Dan Shirley, was nothing short of a feast worthy for the Who’s in Whoville. Sawbill elves busily put together their Secret Santa gifts of which all were so beautifully executed and thoughtful. I am consistently impressed by everyone in this community!

This week we also celebrated the last annual Dome Dance. The dome was filled with lively music, of which one could hear winding through the trails to the campground like the pied piper beckoning folks up towards the twinkling lights of our dance. It was a wonderful evening and we were excited to be joined by so many of you. Thank you!

Last but not least the Sawbill Boys had their opportunity to enjoy the big city life of Grand Marais this weekend. From snacking on a gourmet spread of smoked fish and cheese while cruising on the Schooner Hjordis to topping it off with even more scrumptious food at the Angry Trout, they did it all with total style:

Sawbill boys clean up so well.
We’re tired of canoes, now switching over to schooners. Just kidding.

While the boys lived out their nautical dreams the Sawbill Babes held down the fort with a cozy craft night weaving birch bark beads and watching classic films. There is never a dull moment up here, even on a night in.

Hope everyone had as much fun this week as we did! Now, onward to another busy week up here at Sawbill. Go, go, go!



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Gary Freiermuth

7/28/18 – We were sad to hear of the recent passing of longtime Sawbill camper and friend, Gary Freiermuth. Here at Sawbill, many customers turn into something more like family over the passage of years. It’s one of the best parts about our job here. Bill had the following to say about Gary:

“The whole Sawbill/Crescent Lake family is saddened by this news. Cindy and I spent many happy hours in conversation with Gary over the years. He was a gentle, compassionate and funny storyteller. His love for the northwoods and the wilderness was always front and center. His encounter with a black cougar on the Grade Road is a story that will be told for years to come. I always reassure people that Gary was a completely credible source for that amazing story. We still laugh about the time he came in to report being chased by a pack of wolves, also on the Grade Road. When he stopped to get out his camera, the “wolves” surrounded his car and he realized that they were Dave Freeman’s friendly sled dogs who had escaped from their kennel. I can still hear his laugh.

His loss is a loss for the fabric of life at Crescent Lake and Sawbill Outfitters. We will think of our friend often and he will be missed by many.”
Be well.
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Get Your Groove on for: Dome Dance 2018, July 28th! All are welcome!

7/22/18 – Greetings to all near and far, the much anticipated annual Dome Dance is swiftly approaching, and we are all putting our snazziest Chacos on!

The other night, chattering over a campfire, the flames illuminating our excited faces, dressed up in pioneer attire (don’t worry, I will explain later), I heard experiences of Dome Dances of Sawbill Past. How the Crew member reunion years are a wild romp, when the outfitter turns into a soiree. As a new member to the Sawbill family, I ate this up.

Always a sucker for a good party (especially one where you can bust some moves…), I reminisced on community Contra dances that I have attended before. Everyone is smiling, spinning around and round to the fast paced tune of the fiddle. When the song ends cheeks are rosy, breath is short, but smiles are stretched across the dancer’s faces. What a sweet and electric way to be engaged with folks around you, swinging your partner on the floor, making eye contact with someone and both giggling over how much fun you’re having breaking a sweat while cutting a rug! Wouldn’t you love to hear that good ole’ banjo pluckin’, feel it sweep you away into a night of toe tappin’?

WELL THEN, if so! Please join us on Saturday July 28th at 7 pm for the party, located in the geodesic dome alongside the canoe-yard. Campers, paddlers, meanderers alike, one and all. What a wonderful way to meet your fellow wilderness adventurers by gathering together in a giant, empty building (slightly resembling a beaver lodge), for a night of lively music and community dance.


We hope to see you there!


P.S. Oh, right, I nearly forgot! The current crew had a lovely Themed dinner this weekend. Inspired by the Oregon Trail (the classic computer game from the 1990’s, of course). We donned our best bonnets, despite a few of us having been stricken with measles, and nestled around a campfire. We enjoyed forged mushrooms and wild rice, brats and delicious cake. Spirits were high, the dinner luxurious, despite the fear of dysentery and snake bite. It’s always good to have a little fun!

Just got off our Conestoga wagon



Hope all of you out there are enjoying your summer months, having themed dinners of your own, surrounded by good food, good company and some good pioneer fiddle tunes.


– Anna

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Naturalist Programs – Perfect Family Fun

7/18/18 – Between June 19 and August 25th, the USDA Forest Service is conducting interactive presentations every Saturday night from 7:30 – 9:00 PM. These are informative programs conducted around a campfire on the shore of Sawbill Lake.

View of sunset on the shore of Sawbill Lake. The program is conducted near the dock where this photo was taken.

Each week, a different theme is presented. These themes range anywhere from cooking in the wilderness to black bears! The programs are conducted by Forest Service rangers. The rangers do a superb job at making these presentations very interesting by combining aspects such as stories, games, fossils, treats and more.

Turtle found near Sawbill dock. Animals such as this can be seen at the Naturalist Programs.

The naturalist programs are suitable for all ages and great for families. Even the Sawbill Crew members enjoy attending these meetings each week as they provide valuable information about the lands. Many of the Sawbill Crew members were surprised to realize how little they knew about the animals and nature around them!

At last weeks program, I had much fun learning about bats and was very surprised to learn that bats can eat up to twenty thousand tons of mosquitoes in their lifetime. Bats are now my favorite animal.

If you like being in nature, learning, fun games and delicious s’more treats, then the Saturday night Naturalist Programs are perfect for you! We hope to see you there.

– Nathan

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Dragon Fly Society of America

7/17/18 – Sawbill had a surprise visit this week from two members of the national Dragon Fly Society of the Americas. These dragon fly enthusiast were surveying for dragon flies near Temperance River when their car broke down and was stuck upon a logging road. Luckily Clare Shirley, owner of Sawbill, passed the enthusiast along the way and gave them a ride to Sawbill.

Turns out these two enthusiast came all the way from Texas and Maryland for the annual Dragon Fly Society of America conference being held at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, MN. This conference was being hosted by the Minnesota Dragon Fly society. The conference was a three day ordeal in which many enthusiast, professors and researchers came together to discuss the odonata clade of flies. Odonata is the proper scientific term for a clade of carnivorous flies which include dragonflies and damselflies.

One of the many dragonflies examined at Temperance River. This dragonfly is called a Swift River Cruiser.

For three days, pictures were shown, data was presented and discussions were conducted, all dedicated to dragonflies.  One hundred and fifty species of Minnesotan odonatas were presented. Minnesota is abundant in dragonflies because many of it’s natural habitats such as bogs and creeks are ideal for dragonfly populations. This makes Minnesota the perfect place for dragonfly research.

Following the meetings, members would go out on excursions to collect information and pictures of dragonflies. The visitors to Sawbill reported that they saw over 76 species of odonata while surverying the land near Temperance River.

If you are interested in more information on Minnesota dragonflies and the odonata species, consider reading the book Dragonflies of  the Northwoods written by Kurt Mead. This book includes the species and descriptions of dragonflies that can be seen around Minnesota.

Dragonflies are essential for the insect population health in the north woods. These beautiful flies come in arrays of shapes and colors and have been on Earth for over 300 million years! If this doesn’t make you love them yet, dragonflies can eat up to three hundred mosquitoes per day, which I’m sure everyone can appreciate when camping in the north woods.

The link for the Dragon Fly Society of Americas is posted below.

– Nathan

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Wild Blueberries!

The wild blueberries are out! Wild blueberries have started to grow near Sawbill Lake and around areas off the Sawbill trail.

Wild blueberry season in Minnesota starts early to mid July, meaning that the next two weeks are prime time to go blueberry hunting.

If you are searching for blueberries near Sawbill, search in meadows near pine trees. These areas contain ideal soil for wild blueberries to grow. Wild blueberry hunting is a great opportunity for exploration of the wilderness. You never know what kind of wild life you might see along the way!

Paths such as this can be good areas to search for wild blueberries.

It is not uncommon to find an abundance of blueberries around these woods. We have had reports of customers collecting up to thirty six pounds of blueberries! While it may be tempting to utilize and harvest largest quantities, make sure to only harvest amounts that will be consumed. This ensures proper health for the blueberry plants and opportunity for other people to discover.

Happy hunting!

– Nathan