At Sawbill, we check the, My Aurora app, every day to see if, “tonight might be the night,” the Northern Lights would bathe our lake in the harmony of colors it produces. The likelihood of a celestial show was high and Monday, September 18th was the night! Lauren and Anna noticed the light columns forming in the sky and in seconds everyone was dressed and headed to the pier for the long-awaited performance. And boy, was it a blockbuster! Gray columns turned into a crown of sparkling rays shooting skyward, getting brighter as time went on. Suddenly, the white light began to turn emerald green with hints of rose-pink sneaking into the show. The entire lake basked in the rainbow of light that was reflected in the silky, smooth, water of Sawbill. For an unbelievable encore, what looked like a myriad of spotlights began zooming around the sky, illuminating a 360-degree circle surrounding us. And then, it was gone. Everyone simultaneously let out their breath in disbelief at what they had beheld. What we had witnessed was now a perfect memory.
9/12/23 – This weekend marks the beginning of our much anticipated annual used canoe sale. Traditionally, we sell our three-year old rental canoes after a thorough refurbishment process, which you can read more about here. We’ll still be doing that this year, although not until early October. Once canoes are refurbished and ready, we post them here on our website.
So what’s for sale now? This year we are offering an early bird sale of “as-is” canoes. We have Northstar Seligas, Wenonah Minnesota 2s and Minnesota 3s available now. These are priced individually, depending on condition, but are generally between $1,600 and $1,700+tax. They are for sale on-site only here at Sawbill, they won’t be listed online. These canoes are all in great shape and were pulled directly from the rental fleet, and there’s still time to pick one up and sneak a quick fall trip in! Our store is open 8am – 7pm seven days a week, so you can make a trip out of it and grab a cup of hot coffee while you shop.
If you have any questions about these or the refurbished canoes yet to come, please feel free to give us a call at 218-663-7150 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
8/27/23 – If you’ve ever worn a classic grey Sawbill hoody in the airport you’ll know, Sawbill crew are everywhere! Over 67 years of business Sawbill has had the great pleasure of becoming a second home for generations of crew now. All bias aside, Sawbillians are some of the best people to work alongside. The unique climate of deep collaboration, remoteness, and creativity is like no other and every summer season leads to new and lasting bonds.
The 2023 crew! Back Row: Eli, Matthew, Diana and Sig, Owen Jr, Feliks, and Carter. Middle Row: Clare and Kit, Grant, Lauren, Ethan, and Dan. Front Row: Jessica, Anna, Sawyer, and Caid. Front and Center: Huckleberry
Dan and I couldn’t do what we do without the crew. We are endlessly grateful for the good cheer, the hard work, and the total buy-in to the Wilderness ethic that these folks display year after year. While we wish some of the summer staff farewell as they head back to college, we’ve got a stellar lineup staying through the fall this year. Fall crew is already busy planning a Northwoods Feast where we’ll prepare delicacies we’ve harvested this season to include: walleye, small mouth, blueberries, juneberries, raspberries, a variety of mushrooms, wild rice and maple syrup from our friends down the road, and soon grouse!
08/21/23 As August slowly winds down in the next week and a half, new foragables are appearing. While they have been out for a couple weeks now, Lobster Mushrooms have become more noticable. I would like to share the first sentence on Wikipedia with you, Reader.
“Hypomyces lactifluorum, the lobster mushroom, contrary to its common name, is neither a mushroom nor a crustacean, but rather a parasitic ascomycete fungus that grows on certain species of mushrooms, turning them a reddish orange color that resembles the outer shell of a cooked lobster”.
I enjoy the clarification that this organism is not a crustacean!
To locate these mushrooms in the Midwest, head to a mixed forest; one with trees like birch, aspen, and red pine. In the Northwest, look for Ponderosa pines. Edible Lobsters are lighter orange in color, and will be firm and dense. Older mushrooms are darker orange, red, or purple-ish and are said to feel more like a sponge when lightly squeezed. As with anything found in the field, it’s best to go with a seasoned forager for a safer, hands-on experience. Ones that aren’t too old can be dried and turned into powder. For ones that are the right age, cut off all the soft parts of flesh and make sure to wash them well. The shapes the mushrooms grow allow for a lot of hiding holes for dirt and bugs!
Many people say that Lobster Mushrooms have a meaty texture and have a taste similar to lobsters (there have been a few reports of people with shellfish allergies also reacting to the mushrooms). The first time eating them, cut them into strips and sautee them in some butter or olive oil to allow yourself to get the full taste of the mushrooms. Since the mushrooms are so dense and hold their shape well, it is common for people to grate the lobster mushrooms and make mushroom cakes like potato latkes.
I personally am not a fan of them, so I just go with someone who will eat them. It’s a great excuse to go somewhere new and hike!
In the dog days of summer, one of my favorite feelings is biting down on juicy blueberries freshly picked from the bush. There are many berries in the northern woods if you know where to find them. I will go through some that you can find and what you need to know about them when foraging.
Safety tips for Identification
Do NOT consume anything until you are sure you know what you have found
Don’t rely just on color for IDing, look at such things as leaf placement and shape.
Use more than one picture so you have different angles and lighting
Starting with one of the most famous in the arrowhead region of Minnesota, the blueberry is a fantastic trail treat when portaging in the BWCA, or a fun activity to do while staying in the campground. To find blueberry bushes, head to the edges of the woods and clearings. They like sun and can also be found in hilltops and ridges. Blueberries are one of the first plants to appear after a wildfire. When IDing blueberries, you are lucky. There are no toxic look-alikes as long as you follow safe identification practices. Look for oval leaves up to 2 inches long that are green with tinges of red. The leaves are alternatively attached to the stem with stemlets. Berries have a 5-point crown on the bottom. They are blue when ripe and have a silvery, dusty bloom. Blueberries grow in a tight cluster at the end of a twig or stemlet.
Next on the list is the serviceberry. There are a number of names these berries are know by; sarvisberry, juneberry, and saskatoon. This blueberry look alike is found in areas you find blueberries as well as many other places. One place is along the dirt roads up here. To identify serviceberries, look for large bushes and small trees. Leaves are oval to egg shaped and usually 1 to 3 inches long. The top side of the leaf is bright green while the bottom is paler. These berries vary in color a bit. When the berries are ripe they can be reddish-purple, blue, purple, or almost black.
Another group of berries that are ripe this time of year are compound drupes. Common ones in this area are the raspberry, dewberry, and the thimbleberry. The raspberry and thimbleberry bushes are arching vines with alternating toothy leaves. Dewberry vines creep along the ground. Both thimbleberries and raspberries are red when ripe while dewberries are black.
The last berry I’ll cover is the bunchberry. This small shrub spreads via an underground root system and is usually found in large colonies. Bunchberries are found in shady coniferous and mixed-wood forests. Leaves are 1 to 3 inches and appear to whorl out from the center. The fruit grows in bright red bunches on the top of the stalk of the plant. The bunchberry is the only berry on this list that is not delicious. It is edible and makes a good trail nibble, but the fruit is mealy and bland. Keep knowledge of it in your back pocket for the unexpected survival situation.
For more information: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/issues/2019/jul-aug/berries.html
August 8th was a big day in the Northwoods. We got a total of 1.12 inches of rain here at Sawbill. Lakes north of us got even more, with some reports of hail on Brule Lake! The rain and thunder storm that happened was probably the longest sustained rain we have had all season, so we really needed it. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s July 2023 climate summary, Duluth and the Arrowhead region were 2.5 inches below average rainfall this year. Normal average precipitation level is around 4 inches. In one rain storm we have almost reached all of July’s rain levels. If you are interested, I’ll leave a link to the climate summary below.
08/04/23 Sawbill has had some nice weather the past couple of weeks. Temperatures have hung around the mid 70s during the day and usually stayed in the mid 50s at night. A few days of rain has helped the water levels, but we have had a number of people come back from Cherokee Lake with reports of a lot of mud on the portages in between Sawbill and Cherokee Creek. Sounds like it might be a bit of a slog around Ada Lake and Creek especially. Other than the mud, everything else is as it usually is. We’ve also had a few days of smoke in the sky from the Canadian wildfires. Luckily the smoke has stayed farther up in the atmosphere so air quality has remained good. The good news is that smoke in the sky makes for some nice sunsets!
In exciting animal sighting news, a family came back from the Cone Lakes north of Brule Lake with reports of 5 separate moose sightings! One bull, one cow and calf pair, and three other solo cows. The dad said he had only ever seen one moose in all the years he’s been coming here, and that it seems like his son just might be the good luck charm he’s needed. A number of other groups have reported moose sightings in the Jack/Kelly corridor.
Our campground host and storekeepers have been getting a lot of questions about Huckleberry’s whereabouts. I am happy to report he is alive and well! As a 10 year old dog, he spends most of his time sleeping next to the store desk or in the office. As of this winter, he seems to be going deaf, or he has decided that what anyone says to him is not that important and it’s just best to ignore most people. He still loves the water and has gone swimming in the past week.
8/3/23 – This week we made some big progress on our continued energy updates and transitions. Last fall we reported about our connection to the electrical grid after operating for 65 years with our own power generation and infrastructure.
With our new access to grid power, we are making a few changes around Sawbill that will allow us to conserve energy and also realize a greater degree of consistency and reliability in our heating and domestic hot water systems.
This week we decommissioned our aging wood boilers and adjacent Boiler Mate hot water heaters to make way for some new equipment. Earlier this summer we also removed a set of propane co-gen units that provided electricity and heat.
Without the need for generators to run all the time, we are able to transition to simple electric hot water heaters in the houses and store, and some large propane heaters to accommodate the needs of our shower house. This transition is going to allow us to produce just the amount of hot water we need and limit extra run time on our boilers.
In the coming weeks, we will be installing new off-peak electric boilers to heat our buildings in the winter, giving us reliable and consistent heat when and where we need it, while using minimum energy.
07/29/23 As someone who grew up in an area that only had mallards, swans, and geese, I was confused by the name “Sawbill” when I first visited the outfitters many years ago. I might be willing to bet others had the same question pass through their heads as well, “What is a Sawbill”?
Sawbills, more commonly known as the common merganser, are a species of merganser found in a number of places around the world. The taxonomic name for the common merganser is Mergus merganser. First century Roman authors used mergus as a catch-all term for unspecified waterbird, and merganser is a combination of mergus and anser, which is Latin for goose. There are three subspecies of the common merganser. The first one, M. m merganser, is found in northern Europe and Northern Asiatic Russia. The next one is M. morientalis, found in the mountains of Central Asia. Finally, the one we are the most familiar with, M. m americanus. This subspecies is found throughout much of the US and into the lower 2/3rds of Canada.
The sawbill’s main diet is fish. They dive to catch fish with bills that have serrated edges to help hold on to their slippery meals. The serrated bill is where they get the nickname, “Sawbills”. Mergansers feed on other aquatic creatures like mollusks, crustaceans, and amphibians. If you ever notice a merganser with white feathers that are ever so slightly tinged pink, it is due to carotenoids, a pigment that can be found in some crustaceans and fish.
Starting in May and going through July, female mergansers will lay between 9-12 eggs. Nesting usually occurs in tree cavities. In some places, like in the Asiatic mountains, where it is devoid of trees, they will use holes on cliffs and steep riverbanks. After hatching, the mother will take each duckling to the water by her bill. Sawbills are known to form crèches, where one female will look after up to 70 ducklings at one time. Other animals that do this are lions, penguins, and another seabird, the common eider. Many mergansers move to areas that will have open water throughout the winter, though in areas that have milder winters, like California, they are year round residents.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about the wonderful creature that is the common merganser. I always enjoy watching these beautiful birds when I’m out in the wilderness.
The history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is long and fascinating. There are many things we can learn from looking back on lives lived and decisions made. Today, I thought I’d delve into the history of the BWCA through the eyes of a geologist.
An Overview of What We Can Find
Minerals and rocks make up most of our world. We use rocks for construction, and use a myriad of minerals in our day-to-day lives. Copper wires help run electricity, halite, also known as salt, flavors our foods, and many places still use coal to heat homes. Many of the main categories of rocks are found in the BWCA, as well as the north shore of Lake Superior and much of the Midwest.
Igneous rocks such as basalt, rhyolite, and granite are found in large quantities here. There are two main categories of igneous rocks: mafic and felsic. Mafic rocks are high in iron and magnesium. These rocks tend to be darker colored. Think basalt. They are created by low-viscosity, or runny, lava that cools over a long period of time. Felsic rocks are higher in minerals like feldspar and silica. These rocks are lighter in color. Granite is a good example of a felsic rock. The lava that creates felsic rocks is usually thicker.
The main minerals that could be found in the BWCA are copper, nickel, gold, and iron. There are a number of abandoned mines in the wilderness before it was a protected area that used to hunt for gold and copper. There is one on the south shore of Jack Lake near the Baker Lake entry point, #39. This was a gold mine that shut down in the late 1800s.
Arguably the most well known rock to come from our area is the agate. These beautiful stones are made of microcrystalline silica, the same material that makes up quartz crystals. They formed in vesicles, or holes, in the basalt. Over millions of years, water saturated with silica would flow into these cavities and layer by layer the agate would form. Scientists still don’t understand the mechanism behind the creation of agates. It is a mystery that many are still trying to solve.
An Incomprehensive Geologic History of the BWCA (and north shore of Superior)
The oldest rocks that can be found in the wilderness area is a formation known as the Ely Greenstone. This Greenstone was created more than 2.7 billion years ago (bya). The rock was formed in a marine environment because at that time in earth’s history where we are now was under water. There are outcroppings on the southwest end of Moose Lake, the north shore of Knife Lake, and the east shore of Gabimichigami Lake. Between 2.7 and 2.5 bya, there were periods of intrusions into the greenstone by granite followed by deformation and erosion of the greenstone and granite followed by more granitic intrusions. The sedimentary rocks formed by the erosion are named the Knife Lake Group. These rocks can be found in Cache Bay of Saganaga, the south and northeast shores of Knife Lake, and Kekekabic Lake. After the second round of intrusions there was a long period of erosion. The Gunflint Iron Formation was formed around 2.0 bya. The main origin of this formation is thought to be an uplifting of the Knife Lake Group. The Gunflint Iron Formation is made up of sediment rich with iron. Best place to find outcroppings is the north shore of Gunflint Lake.
Approximately 1.1 billion years ago, the Laurentia craton started to split. This fault line runs from Oklahoma up to Thunder Bay, curves back down to run under what is now Lake Superior, and ends as far south as Tennessee or Alabama for a total of 1,800 miles in length. For some reason not yet known to geologists, the rifting stopped. If it had continued, there would be an ocean splitting the US in half! During this time of volcanic activity, lava that would cool into gabbro and basalt flowed onto the surface. It is in this basalt that the agates formed. By using seismic waves, geologists were able to get an understanding of how deep the layer of rock is. Roughly 15 miles thick in some places. The name for this formation is the Duluth Complex. You can find rocks around lakes south of the Kekekabic Trail. A couple modern day examples of rifting are the Mid-Atlantic Rift and Rift Valley in eastern Africa.
The last major event started between 3 to 1 million years ago. The Pleistocene Ice Age drew glaciers down from the north in many waves. Some of the most visual signs of the past glacial periods are striations. Striations are lines carved into the surface of a rock by the glaciers dragging other rocks over top. The last glacier receded around 10 to 11 thousand years ago. Once they were gone, the basins left behind filled with water to create the beautiful lakes we know now.
The Laurentian Divide
The Laurentian Divide runs through the BWCA near us at Sawbill! It crosses the portage into Beth Lake from Alton Lake to the west of us, and again north of us by Cherokee Lake. Waterways to the north of the Divide drain into the Hudson Bay and water to the south will end up emptying into the St. Lawrence Seaway.
We can learn a lot from the rocks around us. There’s a saying in the geology world, “ The present is the key to the past”. By studying the rock formations and the processes that act on them, we can slowly uncover how the Earth came to be. The BWCA is a unique place that has many windows to the past sitting in plain sight. All we need to do is look.
Author’s note: If anyone is interested in learning more, I recommend a short pdf called, “It’s Written in the Rocks” by Dr. Paul W Weiblen and “Roadside Geology of Minnesota” by Richard W. Ojakangas.