Posted on

It’s a Frosted Mini Wheat World in the Winter

12/15/22 – This morning we woke up to a forest covered in frosting and it’s still coming down! We received maybe 5″ yesterday, and another 6-8″ overnight. The wind has been whipping off and on though, so it’s a little hard to get an accurate measurement. With the snowpack we already had on the ground that adds up to about 20″ of snow in the woods. Getting very excited to break out the snowshoes and skis! -Jessica

The Sawbill Trail about 11am this morning.
Just off the canoe landing the snow has drifted to almost two feet and there looks to be a good amount of slush further out, which means lake travel will be a little dicey for now.
Posted on

Ice Check

12/8/22 – Last night around 10pm I stepped outside to admire the first full moon since the woods have been blanketed in snow. It was a brisk -19 degrees and trees were popping all around (caused when sap inside a tree freezes, expands, and breaks open the bark). I took this eerie sound as a signal that it might be okay to venture onto the lake in the morning. Up until now I hadn’t been super confident in it’s structural integrity due to the mid November snow we received just as things were beginning to freeze over. So, this morning I gathered the necessary items for measuring ice and headed for the lake. Half way between the canoe landing and Mouse Island I found 6″ of sturdy ice, with the bottom 3-4″ nice and clear. A good start, but I didn’t venture any further (here’s a link the Minnesota DNR’s ice thickness guidelines for lake travel). Did I mention I’m a chicken when it comes to early ice? -Jessica

This picture was taken just after 10am. Note how low the sun is…
The official ice measuring stick hard at work.
Posted on

Tree Hunting

12/3/22 – Tis the season for tracking down the perfect tree to liven up a living room. Key requirements for a successful tree hunting excursion include; enthusiasm for trudging through snow, a trusty hand saw, sled accompanied by ropes or straps (for securing the tree to the sled and/or car), and a keen eye for spotting the not so elusive Abies balsamea (balsam tree). Also if out and about in the Superior National Forest don’t forget a tree cutting permit which is available online at -Jessica

There’s no shortage of balsam in the Northwoods, but I found it necessary to zig zag my way all over in search of the “perfect” one.
Tools of the trade.
The perfect tree!
Posted on

Connected to Power!

11/22/22 – After more than 66 years of generating our own power, last week the electrical (and fiber) grid finally made its way to Sawbill. This may come as a bit of a surprise. People often assumed that we have always been connected to power because of our sizable campus and modern amenities, but the reality is we have maintained our own mini power plant. It has grown and morphed over the years, utilizing a combination of solar, wind, propane and diesel generation.

It is truly remarkable what Frank and Mary Alice conceived of so many years ago, and how Bill and Cindy continued to expand and grow in spite of this very large hurdle. Clare and I have been here for seven years now, and I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t had an electricity issue forefront in my mind.

The closest connection to the grid is 9.5 miles from Sawbill at an ARMER tower on the Grade. The power and fiber cables were trenched in this fall as a part of a large federal fiber grant (RDOF) awarded to our local electric/fiber utility, Arrowhead Cooperative. It is a 10 year, $20 million grant that was awarded in 2021 and this was the first project completed. (Over the next decade they will be connecting other parts of Cook County currently not on the grid) We have been advocating for a project like this for years, so we are thrilled that it has finally come to fruition.

People have been asking if we are sad to lose our off-grid status. It’s true, there is some romanticism about being off the grid, and we have learned a lot of tangential skills from it, but with a system of our size was more work and worry than romance. There’s a lot going on here at Sawbill, and energy issues have demanded a lot of time on our schedules (and space in our heads). In the long run it will also make us much “greener”, too. While we do have a decent solar capacity, it was always limited by the amount of battery storage we could reasonably maintain. So in practice, the solar capacity was never enough to power our operation and we have relied heavily on propane and diesel generators. Now, we can invest in more solar capacity and just sell it back onto the grid and not worry about the storage aspect. The grid is also slowly moving away from carbon, so that will help us, too. We were never going to be carbon free in our off-grid system. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn how to troubleshoot a diesel engine and coax it back to life at 3am when it’s 30 below, but it’s not an experience I’ll miss.

Speaking of generators, the cool thing is we have a bunch of infrastructure in place already that we can now shift to being backups to the grid. So now when there is a power outage, we’ll have a robust backup system, so theoretically we’ll never be without power now!

I’m sure we’ll continue to realize many benefits to our new access to power, but the first obvious one is just how quiet it is. Especially this time of year with snow on the ground and no visitors, the absence of the generator droning in the background is pretty special, and I think the way we would all want to experience the deep north woods.

– Dan

Sawbill’s new “power plant”. Transformer in the foreground with the new service panels built in fall 2022.
Using a “plow cat” contractors use a tandem machine configuration to simultaneously cut a trench and lay power and fiber. The work began on the Sawbill side and worked back to the source on the grade, 9.5 miles away.
Plow cat navigating the canoe yard
Concrete was poured over the cable in spots where rocks prevented it from being layed 3 ft deep.
Close up of high voltage cable. A relatively small wire encased in a multi layer rubber housing inside of a hard plastic conduit.
Kit and Sig look on while excavators clear the spot for the new transformer.
Snow covered trench. A bit of stress to get this project done in the late fall, but that’s nothing new for us!
Arrowhead Cooperative energizing our service on November 15, 2022.
Our trusty diesel generators will now be in standby mode, ready for an emergency. Retired from their prime power duties.
Posted on


11/14/22 – Yesterday afternoon I decided I better get one last walk along the lake path before it gets covered in multiple feet of drifted snow.  As soon as I reached the water I noticed patches of skim ice floating all over.  Upon closer inspection the areas that looked like open water had a very fine layer of ice crystals beginning to form.  Pretty fun to watch the transition as it happens.  -Jessica

The canoe landing today at 8am.
Posted on

Used Canoes For Sale

10/25/22 – With an unseasonably fair weathered fall and a number of bigger projects happening around Sawbill, our used canoe sale is a bit later than usual this year. But fear not! Dan has been hard at work in the shop now that things have quieted down around here and the first batch of canoes have hit the website. You can read more about our refurbishment process here.

Dan takes advantage of the warm day to work with the shop door open.

As a reminder, we refurbish our three-year old used canoes prior to sale. That means that canoes become available as they are ready, so 2 or 3 new ones will hit the website every several days until they are all done. This year we’ll have just a few Wenonah MNII and MNIII’s, Northstar Northwind 20’s (3 seats) and Northstar Seliga’s for sale. If you are interested in an unrefurbished canoe that you are able to pick up immediately, give us a call and we can discuss the discounted pricing.


Posted on

Gold on Snow

10/17/22 – It’s that special time of year where the tamaracks have become golden, the leaves are falling of the trees, and there is an inch of snow on the ground. No ice on any larger lakes observed yet but the shallow ponds along Sawbill trail had ice on them this morning.

With the temperatures regularly dipping below freezing these days all outside water has been turned off at Sawbill including the shower house. The campground will be open until October 20th, afterwards it will be unmaintained with no fee.

Today the Kevlar canoes are going into their cave to hibernate for the winter. If you are looking to go on one last canoe adventure for the year best to call ahead to inquire about services. Some of the crew lives here year round but best to let us know you are coming on up.

Posted on

Almanac North

10/12/22 – The local PBS station in Duluth airs well-done and informative show called Almanac North, which tackles a variety of issues and topics pertinent to our corner of the world. Recently, Aaron Brown hosted a special hour-long episode on the topic of mining in northern Minnesota. Sawbill’s own Clare Shirley was asked to provide some perspective as a BWCA-adjacent business owner. You can watch the whole episode here, Clare’s piece starts at minute 36.

Posted on

Winding into Winter

10/10/22 – With the final days of warmth upon us, we are turning our focus from Wilderness exploration to buttoning things up for the oncoming winter. It’s hard to imagine on days like this, when it’s 50 degrees and brilliantly sunny that soon the woods will be under a blanket of sparkling snow. The forecast tells us that it is imminent, however, so we’re busily draining water and stashing gear away. We are still here so if you’re out leaf-peeping feel free to drop by the store. We’ll be open from 9ish-5ish everyday, and if you don’t see us during those hours please give us a ring and we’ll pop in to help you. As always, we are here year round so don’t hesitate to give us a call during business hours or email anytime!

The moon setting over fall foliage was a beautiful treat this morning.
Sawbill Mom Liz Pudas was thrilled by a chance encounter with this Canada Lynx this past weekend – thanks for sharing the photos Liz!
The dock’s days are numbered, soon the Forest Service will move it for safe winter storage so that the ice doesn’t damage it.
A leaf peeper’s dream! It’s been a glorious fall.


Posted on

Lovely days

10/6/22 – It has been a fantastic fall up here at Sawbill. The weather has been mostly mild and the foliage has all turned into a glorious mosaic! We have been busier up here than most autumns with people coming up to enjoy the vibe. The leaves have only just started to fall and there is still time to come up and enjoy them.

As of Oct 10th, things will slow down and we will start to put the canoes to bed. If there is no one in the store during regular business hours, just wander around back as we are probably putting gear away. If you need to reserve any gear, best to call ahead first.
– Jesse

A sea of leafy majesty along the ridge
Golden Birch

Photos courtesy of Katie Kelley and Jesse Bergeson