Posted on

September 1999

9/30/99 – We had a visit from Bev Hagar (nee Wine) the other
day. She thinks that Wine Lake may be named after her. In 1945,
her boyfriend took a Sawbill canoe trip and visited a beautiful
unnamed lake. When he returned, he told Bev that the beautiful
lake reminded him of her, so he named it after her. She had forgotten
this until she saw her old boyfriend again at their 50th high
school reunion. Her father had died in a swimming accident in
1945 and this tragedy drove many other memories out of her mind.
Her son and a friend decided to take Bev to Wine Lake for her
70th birthday present. She did say that her ex-boy friend was
an eagle scout, so "he may have named the lake after me,
or it may have already been named Wine Lake and he just took advantage
of that fact." We have a map from 1928 and Wine Lake was
not named then. Ms. (Wine) Hagar did transfer a bottle of good
wine into a Nalgene bottle to toast her 70th birthday on Wine

Matt Caron, who completed an ambitious solo trip last week
sent this gorgeous photo he took just after dawn on September

John Abbott sent along this picture of his son Dave. He says
they took to calling him "Trooper Dave" and you can
clearly see why.

9/29/99 – I spent a pleasant morning fishing with Duluth News
Tribune outdoor writer Sam Cook. Sam and I enjoy fishing together
because we are both content to enjoy a beautiful day and not worry
too much about catching fish. That was indeed the case yesterday.
It was a glorious, warm, windless day. The colors were brilliant
gold against a flawless blue sky. We did each catch a small perch,
but not the chunky Rainbow Trout we were hoping for.

David Armstrong sent along these pictures of his daughter,
Danielle, admiring ancient rock paintings and displaying a trophy
fish. The Armstrongs, who live in Silver Springs, Maryland, enjoyed
a two week BWCA Wilderness trip at the end of August.

9/25/99 – As the days shorten and the cross country ski season
draws nearer I frequently run long distance after dark. This week
I have been enjoying clear skies, brisk temperatures and a waxing
moon. One night, I surprised a moose (or vise versa) who was standing
about twenty feet off the road. She gave a startled snort and
then started running through the woods parallel to my course.
In the dark, she was crashing through the underbrush at an alarming
rate. It’s amazing what a large dose of adrenaline can do for
your running speed.

Last night, I was about four miles down the road, when a sound
stopped me in my tracks. A pack of wolves was howling under the
huge pie plate of a moon. They seemed to be located roughly a
half mile ahead of me and slightly to the east. In spite of my
rational mind thinking how beautiful and sublime the moment was,
my brain stem was sending a tingle of fear into my stomach. I
was planning to run another mile, which would take me on almost
a direct course toward the pack. I briefly considered turning
back, but decided it would be much more exciting to continue with
the chance that I might actually see the pack under the moonlight.
I thought of Sig Olson’s famous essay about being surrounded by
a wolf pack while hiking alone, at night, on the Kawishiwi River.
I also thought about the ability of a wolf to break a moose femur
in it jaws. That inevitably led to thoughts of the occasional
mountain lions that are spotted near here.

Ultimately, the remainder of the run was uneventful, although
a few well placed shadows raised my heart rate from time to time.
Today, in the daylight, I’m grateful for the presence of these
awesome predators in our shared ecosystem. It reminds me that
human beings do not have exclusive dominion of the night woods.
There are beings out there that are smarter, faster, and far more
at home than I.

Yesterday morning, Minnesota Public Radio’s "The Morning
Show" with hosts Dale Conelly and Jim Ed Poole, broadcast
live from the North House Folk School on the harbor front in Grand
Marais. Observant listeners (The morning show is heard over 29
stations in 7 states and on the web a may have recognized
yours truly as one of the judges of the stone skipping contest.
The judges used the aliases of Larry, Curly and Moe to protect
their anonymity. The Morning Show visit was a kick off to a capital
campaign that will bring two new MPR stations to Grand Marais.
Visitors to the area will be able to listen to this fine radio
service at 88.7 and 89.7 FM beginning in November of 2000. – Bill

9/22/99 – The Forest Service has announced an increase in the
BWCA Wilderness permit reservation fee for next season. The $9
fee that goes to the private contractor running the reservation
system will rise to $12 next year. The $10/person user fee which
is used by the Forest Service to fund their work within the wilderness
will remain the same. In another change, the user fee will not
be collected in full, as it is now, when the reservation is made.
Instead, a standard deposit of $20 will be taken when the reservation
is made and the balance will be due (or refunded for solo trips)
when the permit is picked up. In other words, every reservation
will require a $32 payment next year ($12 reservation fee + $20
deposit on the user fee).

The private reservation service, ReserveAmerica, provided very
poor service this year. Many mistakes were made, their website
is slow and confusing, and phone calls often involved 20 minute
holds accompanied by some of the worst canned music imaginable.
The Forest Service assures me that the problems will be addressed
during the off season and next year will be better.

9/21/99 – We had our first snow flurries yesterday. It froze
hard last night with a low of 27 F. The fall colors will reach
their peak sometime this week, probably during the full moon this

9/20/99 – Scraped ice off the windshield for the first time
this morning.

9/18/99 – Ed Dallas, Poet Laureate of Sawbill, sent this haiku:

with each paddle stroke

a whirlpool spins and fades

behind my canoe

Long time wilderness campers, Carol Loch, Mary Bart, and Barb
Hultman sent this picture of themselves in front of the Sawbill
store. This year, hampered by various injuries, they limited their
stay to the Sawbill campground. Next year they vow to return to
the wilderness.

Ted Heinonen, artist, musician, and all around good guy, sent
this still commemorating the ’99 Fish ‘n’ Pick gathering in the
Sawbill campground.

9/14/99 – We are growing gills in anticipation of a permanent
underwater life here at Sawbill. It has rained 12 out of the last
14 days. In spite of the unrelenting gray weather, most returning
canoeists are still professing to having a good time. They are
saying things like, "We had a wonderful time – it could have
rained a little less, but…" Fishing has been generally
quite good and the forecast is positive for tomorrow. The Fall
colors have just begun to show themselves in the last day or two.
We are still a week or better away from the peak. – Bill

9/8/99 – Last month we had a report from Phil Coates about
a renegade squirrel in the Sawbill campground that stole the peanut
butter knife from Phil’s table. Another member of the group, Joe
Johnston, got this picture of the pirate in the act.

9/7/99 – Another Labor Day weekend has come and gone with no
shortage of activity and excitement here at Sawbill.

Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota sent us a fair chunk
of their freshman class for a four day canoe trip. This is a tradition
with Carleton and Sawbill going back some fifteen years. As always,
they are well organized, have high wilderness ethics and are generally
pleasant to deal with.

Another Sawbill Labor Day tradition is a group of fine Minnesota
musicians who camp together in the the Sawbill Campground. They
call it the "Fish’n’Pick" and that is just what they
do. Fishing occupies their days and jamming ’til the wee hours
consumes their nights. Over the years we have made a campfire
available in our canoe yard so they can play and sing without
disturbing the campground. The music has evolved over the years
from straight ahead Bluegrass to acoustic original music. Some
of the state’s most talented instrumentalists and song writers
participate. Great fun for us.

Lloyd Gilbertson, dog musher and former neighbor, sent an email
today wondering if any Sawbill newsletter readers would be interested
in hiring on with him for the winter as a dog handler. If you
like dogs, like to work hard, and have the freedom, it would be
an intriguing adventure. I can attest to Lloyd’s fairness and
good nature. He now lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His email
address is:

As an aside, Lloyd invited me to go on his Y2K9 New Year’s
Eve sled dog trip 🙂 I will definitely do so if possible.

On the down side of the weekend, a few cars were broken into
on the Sawbill parking lot. This has not happened for many years.
Sawbill always seems like a magic place where crime doesn’t happen,
but I guess it really can happen anywhere. The Cook County Sheriff
responded quickly and arrested a young man who was staying on
the campground and driving a stolen car. They found the valuables
that were missing from the cars and will quickly get them reunited
with their owners. We are blessed with excellent and professional
law enforcement here in Cook County.

9/3/99 – We received the following email from Jim Mason of
Mason City, Iowa:

Hi there,

I’ve just returned from another wonderful BWCA experience that
began and

ended at the Sawbill Outfitters. I just wanted to drop you a line
of thanks

and share an experience I had that might be appropriate for the

I’ve always enjoyed interacting with birds. On our first day
in, I decided

to go for a swim across Alton. When I got to the other shore,
I noticed

three loons had taken a keen interest in me. Apparently they had
not seen

anyone swimming in their water before and were investigating.
They made

their noisy inquiries and I did my best to return them in their

Somehow, the cold water made it easier for me to duplicate their
calls. They

kept getting closer and closer trying to figure out what I was.
All they

could see was my head, which is about the same size as they are.
Then, a

bald eagle joined into the chorus. The eagle was perched on top
of a large

pine near the waters edge just behind me and was chittering away
along with

us. The eagle, the loons and a loony human were carrying on a

It was a remarkable experience, one I’ll take with me to my grave.
This went

on for what seemed like quite a while. The loons got within about

yards of me. I could see their eyes and one seemed to have a reddish

about his head. I started to get a little nervous about the eagle.
Did he

think I might be food? I realized that if he decided to try to
come down and

grab me, I may have already received my advance notice. So, I
hauled myself

out on the rocks so they could all see I was just a human. That
ended the

interactions but I got to leave with one of my favorite wildlife


My partners dubbed the place where this all happened, the protruding

rocks just west and south of the Sawbill/Alton portage, Loony
Yanni Point

in commemoration of the event.

My thanks to Anna and John for getting us off to a good start.

Jim Mason.

Sawbill Outfitters is a proud member of Northeastern
Minnesotans For Wilderness
which is working to organize the
many people who support the wilderness and happen to live in northeastern
Minnesota. Visit their site for more information on BWCA Wilderness
issues and what you can do to help protect the BWCA Wilderness.

Posted on

August 1999

8/31/99 – Much is being written in the regional newspapers
about the increased risk of wildfire in the BWCA Wilderness in
the wake of the July 4th windstorm. Our view is that the windstorm
and the fires that will follow are natural events in the wilderness
forest ecosystem. Although human nature makes it tempting to view
these events as "disasters," they are in fact a healthy
events within the forest’s time frame.

In 1995, a huge blow down event occurred in the Adirondack Park
in New York. We found a very interesting article studying the
blowdown event in the Adirondacks which has many similarities to
the situation in the Superior National Forest.

The article is available on the web on the Conservation
Ecology online magazine.

8/27/99 – What a commotion the spiders made last night! They
decorated the woods with ornamental webs on every tree and strung
streamers across the road. Their fine threads glistened in the
moonlight like bubbles in champagne. Everyone came to witness
the spectacle, and they were treated to fine sights: spiders covering
great distances between trees by "ballooning" on long
strands, and rodeo like contests of insect bundling. In a great
display of generosity, miles of web were strewn out,wrapping the
woods in a thick tangle. In the early morning light, evidence
of the celebration hung damp with dew or drifted in the wind,
living lines dancing hypnotic, graceful curves. A diehard moose,
wearing a sodden trench coat of webs, marched about pestering
the others to wake and continue the festivities. Two ravens, who
had held a mutual but distant affection, found courage in the
evening’s passion. They glided under the sun, draping themselves
in the finest webs which whipped and snapped behind them to the
rolls and tumbles of their aerial flirtations. Flicker was crazed
wearing a curly wig of web. He had lost all sense of gratitude
and began rooting around eating his hosts! A playful dragonfly
jumped from reed to reed, enjoying the whip at the reed top when
the spiders’ taught threads snapped under his weight. As the day
progressed, wind and sun broke down the threads, pieces littering
the forest like confetti after a parade. Tiny worms that live
in mushrooms collect it as ticking material. The spiders sleep
all day in the center of their webs, some waking later confused
to find themselves riding on a pine marten tail or bear snout
that crashed through their tree archways. In the late August evening
sun, the spiders reconvene under mushroom domed conference centers.
Lounging on long velvety strands of spaghum moss, in a haze of
spore, they plan the night’s activity – a hum of clicking legs.
Each night, until the frost, they will tie the woods in a different
shape, a different theme, celebrating the aspects of a good summer.

8/25/99 – Mike Coomes and Kathleen Lock sent along this photo
of their daughter Caitlan from their recent canoe trip.

8/24/99 – The evening sun lay in the tree tops and a loon flew
over calling. In the cool shade of Sawbill’s western shore, we
fished for walleyes. Before I heard the loon, I saw it – a speck
drawing a line toward our canoe, enlarging like a raindrop falling
cheekward. The call, impossibly loud from such a distant object,
cracked through the silence announcing, Loon! We paused, enrapt,
our troll drifting back, lines crossing. Closer and closer, the
loon’s neck undulating to the beat of wings. Just at the tree
tops, a warm glow lit the creamy white belly yellow, taking the
chill from the dark cool waters. I hoped the loon would call again.
I ached for that call, as if my brain, so accustomed to audio
communication, needed further confirmation of this other sentient.
A call could suggest I existed to her and, just maybe, she sensed
my well intentioned curiosity and happiness to see her. There
is a desire to connect, to become enmeshed in the workings and
lives of the pulsing surrounding ecosystem. When I chat with a
moose on the road and its big head tilts, or whistle at a curious
fox that stops and looks me in the eye, I feel accepted, like
an insider. The wilderness is foreign terrain, and just as we
seek acceptance in a smile or warm gesture in a another culture,
we seek in wildlife sightings understanding and a sense of belonging.
In the silence, approaching wing beats tapped lightly like a conductors
baton. We were scarcely breathing when a burst of yellow notes
washed down on our heads, a loon cadenza. It was so like a salutation
I grinned and waved, murmuring hello in happy surprise. OB

8/21/99 – Effective immediately, the Forest Service is allowing
open fires in the BWCA Wilderness between the hours of 6 PM and
midnight. As always, fires must be contained in the fire grates
provided at the campsites and drowned thoroughly before they are
left unattended.

Ed Dallas, Poet Laureate of Sawbill, sent this poem this morning:


Once you’ve paddled and portaged

a canoe north, out of the Sawbill,

camped where fleeting glimpse

of wolf dominates campfire conversation

late into star drenched night,

interrupted only by haunting

wail of distant loon,

you’ll be surprised how often

this "wilderness yardstick" measures your life,

finding you to far

south of the Sawbill.

8/19/99 – We received two interesting emails from Sawbill campers.

John Mills wrote:

Just wanted to report a wolf pack sighting. My canoeing
partner and I were

camped on North Temperance, on the island site at the north end.

Saturday evening we heard, we heard wolves yelping in the not
too distance,

and were quite astonished to hear them, as it was my first such
encounter in

21 trips up north.

The next morning (Sunday), we headed south toward Brule
at around 7:45 am.

Just as we cleared the southern portion of the island, Mike spotted
a wolf

pack (4 wolves, two browns/whites and two grays) circling a cow
and calf off

the little island to the south. I had just got a glimpse of them,

they split for the mainland, presumable due to being startled
by us. I

have never encountered wolves before Sunday, and thought you might

interested in the event.

I couldn’t get the wolves in a pic, as they were too far
away by the time I

got my camera out, but did catch the cow and calf.

Phil Coates wrote:

Subject: Warning about campsite #21

While camping in this site last week (during the storm)
a red squirrel

licked some peanut butter off of one our of camp knives. Liking
it, he

picked the knife up and carried it up the white pine tree.

Be warned that there is a Red Squirrel with an attitude
hiding out on

campsite #21. He is armed and believed to be dangerous. Be careful



8/18/99 – Another chapter from the July 4th storm has closed.

For several days last week, we were mystified by a Royalex
canoe abandoned on the Alton to Sawbill portage. The canoe was
grotesquely indented at the stern and was equipped with fishing
gear. I received a call the other day from Dave Nelson, and he
was asking if the Forest Service could drop his canoe at our place
for him to pick up. An odd request, and then the light bulb lit.
Dave proceeded to tell me a very amazing story.

The afternoon of the storm, Dave and his girlfriend were on
a day trip from their camp on Alton. They were seeking big pike
on Sunhigh Lake when darkness descended at mid-day. They leaned
the canoe against a big pine and crawled under it to wait out
the storm. Then, Dave says, "all the trees starting coming
down." They were trapped below the canoe when a pine fell
across the canoe mid-beam. Dave painfully extracted himself and
then carefully assisted his girlfriend whose head was pinned below
the bow seat. Sans saw, Dave began to dig out the canoe but quickly
ran out of soil. To extract the canoe, he pounded it out, bashing
the stern with a rock. The canoe popped back into shape (amazing
Royalex), and the couple headed toward Wonder Lake. About one
hundred feet into the Wonder to Alton portage, elevated ten feet
off the portage, in a tangle of wind blown trees stretching in
all directions, Dave determined portaging was infeasible. The
canoe was abandoned, and they negotiated a 200 rod maze of pine,
birch and aspen. Exhausted, they rested while staring at the mile
and a half of shore and woods between them and their campsite.
After wading, swimming, and bushwhacking, a tree hammered tent
greeted them. They extracted the tent and slept uneasily on bruises
and concerns of being in the BWCA without a canoe – up the river
without a paddle.

Their luck continued in the morning when not a canoeist was
in sight. Dave improvised a raft from his Thermarest and huffed
and puffed to the Alton to Sawbill portage. In disbelief, he saw
not a soul, and splashed in to continue his arduous trek to the
landing. Finally, a camper in the bay, spotted him pushing a Thermarest
through the water, and loaned Dave a canoe. Dave immediately returned
to his girlfriend and they headed home.

A few weeks later, the sawyer crew that cleared the Alton to
Wonder portage retrieved the canoe and, mysteriously, left it
as a conversation topic on the Sawbill side of the Alton portage.
Finally, the canoe was towed to the Forest Service guard station.
There’s not a fish in it, but that is one hell of a fish story!
– OB

8/15/99 – There is a fire ban in effect for most of the BWCA
Wilderness for the rest of the season. Due to the large amount
of blow down associated with the July 4th storm, fire danger will
be very high throughout the fall, no matter what the weather does.
The leaves and needles on the fallen trees have dried to the point
where they are very volatile. Only the area west of a line from
Kawishiwi Lake to Malberg Lake is exempt from the fire ban.

8/14/99 – I opened this newsletter today and was shocked to
see how long it has been since we made an entry. My apologies
to the regular readers. The whole Sawbill crew gets a little frazzled
this time of year.

Clare Hansen, age 11, and I were able to sneak away for a four
day father/daughter canoe trip this week. We entered at Kawishiwi
Lake and visited the pictographs on Fishdance Lake, before camping
on Alice Lake. We traveled up through Thomas and Fraser Lakes,
got temporarily lost on Roe Lake, and came back to Kawishiwi through
Boulder, Adams, and Malberg Lakes.

On the 238 rod portage between Cacabic and Thomas Lakes, there
is an infamous swamp section about 200 feet long. Sometime in
the past, the Forest Service built a corduroy walkway across the
slough. Over the years, the walkway has sunk about a foot below
the surface of the muddy water. If you stay right in the middle
of the trail as you cross the marsh, you will be fine. If, however,
you stray from the center, you will sink to your waist or higher
in the foul smelling mud (known to veteran canoeists as "loon
shit"). Clare had a brush with fate when she stepped just
off the beginning of the boardwalk and got her foot thoroughly
stuck. Fortunately, she was able to patiently extract her foot
without losing her boot.

Some other canoeists on the portage were not so lucky. A girl
about Clare’s age did have her shoe sucked off just moments after
we extracted Clare. We saw the same group after lunch on Fraser
and asked them if they had found the shoe. They said they had,
after an hour and a half of feeling around in the grime. They
also found two other shoes! It makes you wonder what else might
be in there. Perhaps a boy scout or two?

Our trip concluded on Thursday with a long day of travel in
the pouring rain. We stayed dry in our Helly Hansen rain suits
though, and kept our spirits up by making up silly songs. Clare
turned to me as we approached the last lake and announced that
she was not going to paddle because she didn’t want the trip to
end. I asked her if she would really prefer setting up a drenched
tent and eating dinner under the tarp to a hot meal and a warm
bed at home. Without hesitating, she said yes. I love that girl.
– Bill

8/4/99 – Ed Dallas, Poet Laureate of Sawbill, comments on his
recent canoe trip out of Sawbill:

I am still thinking about the canoe trip and the fun we
all had. Everyone liked the snowshoe rabbit that came into camp
every night on North Temperance and was like a pet dog. Then there
was the two dragonflies at the island camp on Burnt that flew
in and cleaned up the gnats. That was something to watch.

Now I don’t know what it is about that first portage from
the Sawbill to Smoke but every time we hit that portage there
are people there that have lost something. Last year it was car
keys this year it was a life jacket! Plus after I had told the
guy he should be standing on the wood walkway, he went through
the bog up to his chest!!! He didn’t have to be worried about
get dirty for the rest of the day.

But the best thing on the whole trip, in my book, was the
campsite on North Temperance. Our tent faced west and on the first
night laying in bed looking at the sunset was out of this world!!
Here was this near perfect reflection of three clouds, a pinkish
rose color, framed by the tent door and just as the color was
starting to fade a loon landed on the lake right in the middle
of the cloud reflections. It was so beautiful. Both nights the
loons called like crazy on the lake. – Ed

8/2/99 – Last night was the annual Dome Dance at Sawbill. It
is a chance for our excellent and hard working crew to blow off
some steam and have fun. Line, square and circle dances were called
by Terrence Smith, caller extrodinaire from Duluth, and father
of crew member Laura Smith. Fiddling was provided by Laura, Mark
Boggie from Two Harbors, and Tom Van Cleve from Grand Marais.
Besides the Sawbill crew, the dancers included some Sawbill campers,
wilderness rangers, and some folks from Grand Marais and Tofte.
The highlight of the evening was the world debut of the Sawbill
Band. It is made up of crew members playing instruments that they
have never played before. What they lacked in technical skill,
they made up for with enthusiasm.

The 1999 Sawbill crew is among the best we’ve ever had. Hard
working, cheerful, committed to wilderness – truly a pleasure
to be associated with. – Bill

8/1/99 – We had two great groups of high school kids here this
morning. The Zackley Youth Group from the 1st Congregational Church
of LaGrange, Illinois, and the youth from the Flossmoor Community
Church of Flossmoor, Illinois, are both long time customers, friends
of Sawbill, and the BWCA Wilderness. It is a joy for us to deal
with such lovely, intelligent, and alert youth. Both churches
run excellent programs for their young people and we are proud
to play a small part. – Bill

Posted on

July 1999

7/31/99 – A party camping on Alton Lake noticed an injured
loon. They pursued it in their canoes and fairly quickly cornered
it against shore. Its beak was tightly wrapped in fishing line
and it had a broken lower jaw. They removed the line, placed the
large water bird in a cooler and brought it in to us. We called
Laura Erickson, who is a bird physiologist and radio personality
in Duluth. Laura advised that it would need surgery at the Wildlife
Veterinary Center, University of Minnesota , St Paul. A few more
quick phone calls and a plan fell into place. Dale Stephens, a
Sierra Club group leader who was just returning from a canoe trip,
agreed to transport the loon to Laura Erickson in Duluth. The
Northwoods Audubon Center in Sandstone, Minnesota, volunteered
to meet the loon at Laura’s house and transport it to the clinic
in St Paul. Laura applied expert first aid and provided advice
for hydration and emergency feeding. The Audubon folks documented
where the loon was found so it can be returned to its proper territory
if it survives. We’ll keep you posted. – Bill

7/29/99 – Although we have not heard officially, it is likely
that the Forest Service has ceased the use of chainsaws within
the wilderness on the Tofte District. This includes most of the
areas that Sawbill customers normally visit. This is consistent
with their normal policy of using non-mechanized methods for maintaining
portages and campsites. The law clearly give them the option of
using power tools, but they generally avoid it, out of respect
for wilderness values.

Ed Dallas, Sawbill’s Poet Laureate, is starting a trip out
of Sawbill today with his family. If, in the next week, you encounter
a large bearded man exclaiming poetry on a portage somewhere north
of Sawbill, then you know you’ve found Ed. – Bill

7/26/99 – We had a little scare last night when the Forest
Service called to warn us about a large storm headed our way.
It was moving in from western Minnesota with 100 mph winds, funnel
clouds sighted, and large hail. With the July 4th storm fresh
in our minds, we took the warning very seriously. We notified
everyone we could contact, moved our vehicles to the center of
the parking lot, and started tracking the storm on the web. Fortunately,
it dissipated before it got here and we got by with a few jolts
of nearby lightning and a quarter inch of rain. Cooler air moved
in behind the front. It is good to see people in long pants and
flannel shirts again. – Bill

7/25/99 – The beautiful weather has put a smile on the face
of all canoeists and kept the Sawbill crew hopping. When the weather
is perfect, everyone shows up on time, stays out as long as they
can, and lingers on the porch enjoying the afterglow of their
wilderness time. The only complaint is the decline in fishing
success, which is inevitable with warm, sunny weather. – Bill

7/20/99 – Mushrooms are congregating in the forest. In the
past few days, bulbous lumps of color broke through the brown
duff and are cooling under the large leaf asters. They stand mutely,
as curious and enticing as knobs or dials on an alien dashboard.
I cannot pass one without bending down, checking for gills or
pores, feeling the cool texture of the caps, and sniffing the
moist, earthy perfumes. Inevitably, close inspection of one mushroom
leads to the discovery of others. Long, wispy tendril like mushrooms,
corals, or bright emerald green caps coated with slime – I roll
to each on soggy knees, carried by the thrill of color and shape,
carried like the spores on the winds of discovery. Yesterday,
gorgeous specimens of Fly Agaric dotted the path behind the shower
house. I wanted you all to see their beauty. The second picture
is a strawberry’s tattoo of spore. Colorful, delicate spore prints
like these are a treat, part of the rich rewards that is the study
of minutia in the Northwoods. OB

7/19/99 – One pleasant side effect of the big storm is the
wonderful smell in the air. Those of us lucky enough to live here
don’t normally notice the pine scented air, unless we have been
away for awhile. Now, with all the disturbed vegetation, the piney
odor is so strong as to be unmistakable. Also, the air seems remarkably
clear these days. The sky is sharply blue and the clouds achingly
white. – Bill

7/17/99 – Life has returned to normal (whatever that is) after
the big storm. The tadpoles are sporting legs, grasshoppers are
clacking around the parking lot, and the blueberries are just
starting to come ripe on the southern exposures. At dawn, the
ravens have long and complex conversations with each other. They
discuss the day’s activities, tell a few jokes, laugh raucously,
and fly off to work shouting encouragement to each other. – Bill

7/14/99 – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has
produced some beautiful maps
of the storm damage
and the ongoing work to repair campsites
and portages. They also have a cool
satellite view
with the storm damaged area superimposed. The
latest word from the Forest Service is that all the routes within
normal canoeing distance from Sawbill are open, except for the
Louse River, the Frost River, and a few dead end lakes. We expect
that the Louse and the Frost will be cleared quite soon. They
are probably possible now, if you allow extra time.

The Forest Service announced yesterday that they will issue
no new permit reservations for Brule Lake entry until more campsites
have been cleared. They will honor all existing reservations.
Additionally, they will not issue tickets to people camped on
undesignated campsites if they have made a reasonable effort to
find a designated site. Everyone needs to remember that human
waste should be deposited at least 150′ from the nearest lake,
campsite or trail and should be buried 6" deep. The immediate
area should be "naturalized" by spreading needles and
leaves to match the surrounding terrain. Fires are still allowed
only in the fire grates provided at designated campsites. If camping
on an undesignated site, or if the fire grate is not accessible
at a designated site, you can use camp stoves only for cooking.
– Bill

7/11/99 – The Forest Service is throwing a lot of resources
at cleaning up the damage from last week’s storm. Portages in
our area are in fairly good shape considering the intensity of
the storm. By the end of today, the Lady Chain and Cherokee Loop
routes should be clear. We have yet to hear specific reports on
the Louse River or Frost River. We have heard that the portage
into Frost from Gordon is clear and the portages out of Malberg
into Boze are in good shape. Hog Creek to Perent Lake is clear.
There was lots of damage over by Brule, reports former crew member
Ellen Locke and her boyfriend Greg Bagnato. They just returned
from a trip to Davis and over to Winchell. They only encountered
eight windfalls on the portage from North Cone into Davis. Everything
else had already been cut by Forest Service sawyers. Ellen and
Greg were tan, relaxed and impressed with the power of the storm.
Greg reports that the massive cedars on the Lily portage trail
were knocked down. These are beautiful, gnarled cedars, and I
was sad to hear the news. However, they will lay on that ground
long after my grandchildren are dead – I will just have to discover
a new aspect of their form. Many portages are still not checked,
so plan on stopping in and chatting with us to receive the most
recent information. Campsites are in various states – some usable
some not. Plan on finding a camping location earlier in the day
than usual. Camping is still only permitted on designated sites.
– OB

Here at Sawbill we continue to clean up from all the blow down.
We have had fun counting tree rings on the fallen trees. The sky
is much more evident around here and has been blue and sunny for
the past two days. The huge, beautiful white pine that we lost
in front of the store left quite a large tipped up stump in our
picnic area. Peter Hall, a local logger, was nice enough to help
us with some clean up. He is pictured here wrestling the old giant
out of the ground. The roots were massive, and when all was done,
a deep, brown hole was all that was left after a hundred years
of life. OB

– OB

7/7/99 – Now that we’ve had time to assess the damage from
Sunday’s storm, we are counting ourselves very, very lucky. Although
many trees went down here, in the campground and in the wilderness,
it appears that no one in this immediate area was hurt. One family
on the campground had two tents set up on their campsite. When
the storm hit, they all dived into one of the tents. The other
tent was totally destroyed when two huge trees fell across it
moments later. Another group was driving over to Kawishiwi Lake
with two canoes on a trailer. A large tree fell right across the
trailer, destroying both canoes. Our worst loss here at Sawbill
was our largest and most beautiful white pine, right by the picnic
table in front of the store. It uprooted and fell just a couple
of feet from our communication tower guy wires. – Bill

Almost everyone who was in the BWCA Wilderness came out and
went home on Sunday. However, several groups began canoe trips
yesterday and this morning. Gary Robinson, wilderness ranger,
went up to Cherokee and west and east as far as Beth and Burnt
Lakes yesterday. He said the portages were difficult, but usable.
– Bill

The Duluth News Tribune is reporting that 19 people were airlifted
out of the wilderness with injuries. No deaths have been reported
in the BWCA Wilderness, but a few of the injuries were severe.
– Bill

7/5/99 – Things here are busy and a little hectic. We had a
thunderstorm pass through here at about 2:00 p.m. yesterday afternoon,
which lasted about a half an hour, with tornado-like winds and
heavy rain. It took a lot of trees down and the Sawbill Trail
was impassable until about 7 p.m. last night. There have been
no injuries reported so far and all campers and Sawbill crew are
accounted for. We are all a little weary, as this twist of events
on the 4th of July has added more excitement to this normally
peaceful place. It is events like this that bring to our attention,
once again, to the awesome force of Mother Nature.

Incidentally, Bill, Cindy, and their children are on a family
vacation in Canada and John Oberholtzer, known to many as OB,
is in Michigan at a family reunion. Needless to say, the exciting
stuff happens when the Hansens leave! The melodious sounds of
chainsaws drift this way as I sit here and survey the damage done
by the storm. Luckily, no one was hurt, and the forest smells
of a Christmas Tree farm with many cut pine trees lying amidst
the forest floor. The adventures of yesterday blend in with today’s
work, and the telltale stumps of the trees that fell will soon
be all that reminds us of these exciting events. LTB, NW, EF

Posted on

June 1999

6/29/99 – Getting busy here, as you can probably guess by our
newsletter hiatus. I just got back yesterday from a 3-day jaunt
out of Round Lake. We paddled over to Gabimichigami, then to Little
Saganaga, then back to Round. Why so far away, you ask? Simply,
I failed to take the advice I dole out about 100 times per day
over the phone and "get my permit early." We had a little
incident with the canoe during lunch on Little Sag one day; she
decided to take an unexpected day trip, without consulting us,
the paddlers, beforehand. The demeaning part is that a canoe will
really sail in a brisk wind, much faster than with two laboring
paddlers. So, I took an unplanned swim – in the rain, and lightning.
Again, it wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t advise against it in
every single canoe orientation I give: "Pull your canoe all
the way up on shore and turn it over, even if you’re just stopping
for a lunch break." I used to think it presumptuous to follow
one’s own advice religiously, now I just think it will keep my
underwear from getting soaked. ‘Till next time . . . AWH

6/19/99 – The dragonflies are swarming now and the black flies
(aka gnats) are just an unpleasant memory. The black flies got
a public relations boost this year when they were featured in
an article by outdoor writer Sam Cook. Sam writes for the Duluth
News Tribune. He is an excellent writer, so his black fly article
was picked up be wire services and spread around the country.
The black flies were no worse than usual this year, but their population
peak coincided with Memorial Day weekend, giving thousands of
holiday campers the opportunity to experience the ravenous horde.

The dragonflies are a pleasure to watch. They are incredible
fliers. They can fly in any direction, including backward, stop
on a dime, and never run into each other. If an airplane could
be engineered with the performance characteristics of a dragonfly,
the world would be a lot more fun. – Bill

6/17/99 – Here is the poem by John Oberholtzer that was read
on the For
The Birds
radio program yesterday:

Bird Legs

I’ve seen gulls leave a leg hanging down as they fly. Cruising
in front of my car, the foot swings back and forth at each turn
like a rudder. Crows and hawks bounce into the air, and then,
slightly askew, feet and legs dangle, communicating out of use,
away from land.

I’d let my legs swing too. Rappelling, or on a trampoline,
legs sweetly float. We share with raven feelings of fatigue. We
know the strategies of gull when she seeks a relaxing posture.
All creatures of sinew and bone, of pull and push, are relieved
to let it all hang out, seeking the sensation of loose and relaxed.

In dreams, legs hang. Flight comes naturally, and the weight
of legs is felt. Odd pressures on the hips, and tingling in the
soles, remind us how infrequently our legs are allowed to drift.
Below a parachute the feet tickle, as if shoes my slip off without
the ground to hold them in place.

I want to follow gull over the break wall; out over the depths
of the lake, my legs like pants drying on a breezy clothesline.
Fold my wings with raven, as he lets go to tumble toward his mate.
Drop my legs with eagle, and feel the wind and splash on my toes
grabbing for trout.

I swim naked with my friend, dangling in clear water. Her breasts
float from ribs relieved to feel the sharp cool. We dry in the
sun against a rock, torsos and arms like sleepy orangutans. Awakened,
we jump back in, floating flat, forest debris peeling off our
bodies, zigzagging slowly to the bottom. Our hair undulates in
the waves. Raven swims overhead, legs pumping imaginary water,
sun dancing on obsidian talons. Gravity seems to slip, and it
feels imminent we will drift into a sky full of water, birds,
earth and people, gently bumping and slowly drifting over the

6/16/99 – This morning OB’s poem "Bird Legs" was
read by host Laura Erickson on the public radio syndicated program
The Birds."
The program is heard on the stations of the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium. We’ll get a copy and post it here
tomorrow. Congratulations OB.

Frost was observed on some of the roofs here at Sawbill this
morning. The forecast is calling for even colder temperatures

We took the Sawbill crew ’99 group picture last night. With
the controlled chaos that reigns here at Sawbill, it is a rare
moment that finds us all together.

6/14/99 – Wow, there is lots going on: thimbleberry blooms,
dragon flies, bindweed, turtles crossing the road, hawkweed, fragrant
rose blooms, dying black flies, other flies biting, large leaf
aster carpets the forest, baby moose sightings, so much bunchberry,
good bass fishing, sweet little twin flowers, bumble bees, calla
lilies, box elder bugs, lupines, swallowtail butterflies, blue
flags, fluffy air from dandelion heads and diamond willow, aspen,
and birch catkins, star flowers, coral root shoots, hopping toads,
and several hard to identify moths. June is busting out all over!!

6/10/99 – There are holes above the shower house. Two days
ago, a brief but intense storm stampeded over Sawbill. Several
big pines came down, two of which danced hard with the shower
house and dome. The dome stood firm against a big jack pine. Above
the shower house, in those windy moments, a good size white pine
snapped half way up, viciously slamming into the women’s roof.
Breaks from above gather more speed and are always worse. Several
small holes and a crushed eave were the result. Luckily, we have
good carpenter friends on the North Shore, and I am presently
listening to the final touches of reconstruction. In the aftermath,
we took a long hard look at the big trees around our buildings.
Typically, we err on the side of letting as many trees stand as
possible, but a couple diseased white pines loomed ominously near
too many buildings, so we took them down. One of them was about
eighty years old and has long provided shade above the shower
house and office window. Yesterday’s hot sun glared more intensely
above the computer. I looked out and remembered the new hole in
the forest over the showers. It is significantly brighter out
there, and likely, a tad bit warmer. I’ll miss that tree, a tree
that stood for forty years or more when this spot was just forest.
A tree that, until it was gone, I had not realized was part of
my mental map of this place. At night, I look up at the big trees
to guide me through the dark paths. Last night as I was moving
between buildings, the trees were drenched in a quick, heavy rain.
I stood below one, against dry warm bark that the storm was too
brief to dampen. The stars reappeared rapidly, so rapidly that
the dripping pines still sounded like rain. I imagined a starlight
rainbow. All I saw were moppy, dark heads of pine, mourning in
the night breeze. OB

6/9/99 – At the base of my brain, a flycatcher’s song has taken
root. For the past several weeks, an Empidonax Flycatcher has
been emphatically calling a sharp, simple "per-wee!"
We rarely see the flycatcher, but its call is the backdrop for
all our comings and goings. Several nights, I have heard the flycatcher
so clearly that I pause, surprised to hear the call so late. But,
like reaching land after a long windy paddle, still feeling waves
roll through limbs and heart, it was an illusion. While fixing
canoes or unloading stock, the flycatcher call cuts into my conscious,
distracting my concentration, drawing my mind into the woods that
press so near. I’ve seen the flycatcher only once, threading in
and out of the tree tops, alighting briefly, calling, then off
again – each spot a little knot cinched with a "per-wee",
darning our clearing back into the forest canopy. The insistent
flycatcher tunes me to other calls, bits of sound that roll into
our compound like errant balls from neighbor children. I am reminded
of the fun nearby, the treats and wonder that first brought me
here and are too often obscured during busy times. Worn out, at
the end of a long day, all that remains is the flycatcher. A beacon
pulsing in my head, in the darkness of my bedroom, it guides me
through the inconsequentials of the day, into a morning so full
of chiming birds, I wonder if I will ever feel down again. OB

6/2/99 – Veteran Sawbill crew member, Dave Freeman, ended an
interesting overnight canoe trip yesterday. He left Sawbill about
5 PM and traveled to Wine Lake. He took the 480 rod portage north
of Lujenida, but turned west in the middle and followed a little
used trail to Frederick Lake. He spent the morning fishing on
Wine and then returned to Sawbill by Noon.

Dave is renowned for his long distance solo canoe trips through
the wilderness. It isn’t that he travels fast, but he is relentless.
He first came to our attention when he took a week long solo trip
at the age of 16. Two weeks ago, he graduated from the University
of Colorado with a degree in anthropology.

Posted on

May 1999

5/31/99 – Another busy, yet uneventful Memorial Day weekend
has passed. The weather was excellent until this morning. Hot,
sunny and windy weather helped keep the black flies in partial
retreat. They peaked a little bit early this year and should be
steadily declining over the next couple of weeks. As soon as the
dragon flies emerge the black flies disappear within a few days.

5/28/99 – Craig Cornwall is a fanatic for wilderness canoeing.
In addition to countless trips in the BWCA Wilderness, he is a
veteran of many arctic river trips, hunting expeditions, and winter
camping forays. Craig told me once that he was on the water in
a canoe 90 days each year. That was before he and his wife, Georgeanne,
became parents of three beautiful children. Craig’s canoe time
diminished a bit for a few years. Now, he is back with all three
kids, all happy as clams in the height of black fly season, protected
by oversize bug shirts.

Craig, Colin, Tyler and Genevieve Cornwall.

5/27/99 – Brian and Eric Tofte were up fishing the other day. It is a pleasure to watch these two North Shore natives fish. Eric, who is 10, outfished everyone else 4 to 1. Both Brian and Eric betray their fishing lineage. They seem to think like a fish, which is not surprising when you consider the countless generations of Norwegian fisher folk from whom they descend.

Brian and Eric Tofte enjoying the moment.

5/21/99 – An inch of rain has returned water levels to good early June levels. It has also encouraged the black flies to make their appearance. They are only bad in certain places right now and haven’t really started feeding in earnest yet. Fishing, which had been excellent during the first days of the season, took a dive yesterday while the front moved through. It should be better today with the rising barometer. Last night, a heavy fog rolled in after dark, some fisherman on Crescent Lake became completely lost in the white world. Even the voices of people on shore were difficult to follow, due to the dense fog and disorientation. One of the people on shore had a powerful laser light, capable of piercing the fog and leading the confused anglers home.

5/17/99 – Kyle Kondrat, from Gross Pointe Farms, Michigan, age 11, was on the scene at Sawbill for only few hours when he and his dad decided to do a little fishing right in front of the campground. As they were trolling a floating Rapala to their intended fishing spot, Kyle landed a two pound lake trout. This is noteworthy because Sawbill Lake does not contain lake trout. A year ago, the Minnesota Fisheries folks were using the Forest Service airplane to stock lake trout in some remote lakes. As they were loading the plane, a bucket tipped over and spilled half a dozen lake trout into Sawbill. The fisheries biologist said, "Don’t be surprised if someone catches a lake trout in the next few years."

After landing the lake trout, Kyle put his line back in the water and immediately caught a 7 lb 9 oz walleye.

Kyle Kondrat, age 11.

5/16/99 – The opening of fishing was laid back as usual here at Sawbill. The days of the frantic fishing fanatics whipping the water for the really big ‘un seem to be permanently gone. They have been largely replaced by relaxed wilderness seekers who wet a line as part of their total experience. The only fishing reports we received were from Pat Precord who stopped over from Crescent Lake to pick up more bait (a good sign).

5/10/99 – The most appropriate entry for today would probably be: "Worked all day – much more to do." This is the time of year when we don’t see too much except whatever is immediately in front of us. With just a few weeks between winter and summer, several months worth of work need to be done in a few weeks. Compounding the problem is the lack of help (most of our employees are college students) and the usual springtime activities of the resident Hansen children (school programs, recitals, etc.). Although it seems hopeless at times, we have survived for the last 42 seasons and I expect we will survive this one. Actually, help is at hand with the arrival today of Laura TerBeest, our first seasonal employee.

Even as we scurry between buildings, nature puts on a show for us. Yesterday, I heard the lonesome screech of an eagle and looked up to see a graceful aerial ballet between a mature bald eagle and a harassing raven. Why the huge eagle seems so intimidated by the raven is a mystery to me.

5/8/99 – The weather has suddenly become much more seasonable. We have received more than an inch of rain in the last three days and the temperatures are now spring-like. The Forest Service recorded the highest fire danger index in anyone’s memory early in the week. Now the fire fighting crews are putting the equipment away, enjoying some comp time, and planting their gardens. – Bill

5/4/99 – We’ve received three comments via email on OB’s chilly plunge pictured below. First, Sawbill’s Poet Laureate, Ed Dallas wrote, “Was that picture taken on the way in, or the way out? How cold is that water?” Next, Jeff Reihle, wrote, “One word – shrinkage!” Finally, Jan Morovac commented, “I’ll bet OB was singing tenor for a week after that.”

OB actually did complain rather bitterly about the water temperature this year. I don’t think the water temperature has changed any from year to year though. – Bill 😉

5/1/99 – Dramatic events in the sleepy little town of Tofte yesterday. A wildfire was discovered about 2:30 PM along the Superior Hiking Trail two miles north of town. The U. S. Forest Service fire patrol airplane arrived within minutes and began water bombing the hot, two acre fire on both sides of a high maple ridge. The unusually calm day allowed the pilot to scoop water directly from Lake Superior. Soon a small crowd formed in the beautiful Tofte Town Park to watch the plane do its work. The white and red 1950’s vintage DeHavilland Beaver would come banking in low over the lake shore, skim gracefully down to a landing and immediately apply full power while opening trap doors in the floats to scoop up water. The big 550 horsepower rotary engine caused windows to rattle and spectators to cover their ears. Water would froth violently ender the plane until the tanks were full and the vintage aircraft would lift heavily off the water, bank sharply toward the hill, and head for the fire. Lake Superior was creating a thin haze as the cold water met the unseasonably warm air. This distant haze erased the hori zen, having the effect of framing the sunlit bush plane in a palette of pastel blues and grays. The fire was easily extinguished, thanks to the almost windless conditions. – Bill

Posted on

April 1999

4/29/99 –

OB opens the ’99 Sawbill Beach Club in the traditional style, one day after the ice leaves Sawbill Lake. Estimated water temperature: 32.001 degrees.

We’ve had several inquiries about the return of the loons. We have heard several loons calling as they fly over, but have yet to see the return of the pair that nests on south Sawbill Lake. They may have been surprised by the rapid meltdown too. Last night, I heard the woodcocks doing their mating flight and the wood frogs started to croak in the black spruce bog. – Bill

4/27/99 – 7 P. M. It’s official. The ice is substantially clear on Sawbill Lake. Only a narrow band of ice along the east shore remains, but the experts say when the lake is 90% clear of ice, you can declare it out.

Carl Hansen with his fishing pole, but before you call the game warden, be assured that he is just sailing his "Paddle To The Sea" which he recently carved during a course at the North House Folk School

4/27/99 – The ice on Sawbill is not out, but there is no measurement, because my measuring hole is gone. By 8 o’clock last night, Sawbill was about 30 percent out. Carl, Clare and I went for a sunset paddle. The main snowshoe and ski trail heading north up the middle of the lake proved to be more durable than the ice around it. For almost half a mile, the white track, about four feet wide, floated by itself with black, ice cold water on both sides. Ski tracks were plainly visible on it, giving me the irrational urge to put on the skis and try it. Halfway up it, we cut across it with the canoe and it broke at that point. The inertia from our collision carried the end away and a quarter mile of pure white ski trail floated off down the lake.

I expect Sawbill to be officially out by the end of today and will try to find the time to post it here as soon as it happens. – Bill

4/25/99 – A beautiful Sunday afternoon finds the Hansen family jogging, playing catch, washing windows, installing screens, and sunbathing (Cindy) – ahhhh Spring. The summer-like temperatures have taken the lake ice down to 9" in less than two days. At this rate it could be out on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Owl researcher, Bill Lane, sent us the following excerpt from his recent journal. Bill has been in the area for the last six weeks gathering census data and observing the behavior of the Boreal Owl. This is his thirteenth year of research on the diminutive owls. – Bill

April has thus far been unkind to my receptive ears. One low-pressure
system after another has swept across northeast Minnesota, and the winds
have put a damper on completing, even starting my surveys. Bad weather
means that I have no release for my compulsive/obsessive owl disorder;
that I have no excuse to not wash my polypropylene and cook proper
meals. I get six, maybe seven hours of sleep. Life could be viewed as
good. But, I am a biologist and when the weather sours-I get antsy.

In a good year, when nest sites have been located, the weather doesn’t
matter. Something is always happening at the nest, be-it the female
leaving to defecate and cast a pellet, or the male making a food
delivery. Okay, I confess: it’s not exactly like watching a parade-more
like a bobber in a hole in the ice. Nest-site observations do however,
help to answer the myriad of questions about the boreal owl that gnaw at
me every field season.

Of course, in order to locate nests that I can watch in bad weather, I
first have to locate males. My search for boreal owls is facilitated by
the male’s unique song (generally 10 notes per bout; 10 to 12 bouts per
minute) and its extreme audibility (I have heard males from a distance
of over 2 miles). When the male’s song changes though, something is up.
Most notably, the frequency of his singing bouts increase and you sense
that there is a bit of excitement, a little more urgency in his song.
If the short bouts are replaced by a continuous series of notes
(prolonged staccato), our bachelor owl may have found a potential mate.
It’s kind of like a singles bar.

In reality though, the prolonged staccato song provides me with only a
brief glimpse at the courtship of the boreal owl. The question remains:
what is the entire process like? Recently, during yet another weather
interruption, I had the opportunity to put a month’s worth of
observations on one male to use. I had located him on 11 March, and
over the next few weeks, he proved to be a consistent singer, but for
the most part unexcited. Sunday night (4 April) I made a
slumped-shouldered drive up the Sawbill Trail to see if anybody would be
singing in the fog, rain, and tree-creaking winds. At his spot, I
stopped and heard him immediately. I decided to record his singing
activity, feeling it was a better option than talk radio. For the next
hour he sang, averaging 15 bouts per minute. This guy was excited.
When I heard the female, I knew why.

As soon as she vocalized, the male went into a bout of prolonged
staccato, and I went into the woods like a bull through the streets of
Pamplona. When I finally arrived at the cavity tree, the male sat in
the cavity entrance and was in a singing frenzy. I timed his bouts, and
they peaked at 20 per minute, but only for a short time. When the
female vocalized again, he initiated another bout of prolonged staccato,
lasting for 2 min and 9 seconds-without interruption! With nothing to
do, I made myself comfortable and sat beneath the tree letting events
take their course.

I stayed at the site for 4 hours. In that time, the female entered the
cavity three more times. Going through my mental-rolodex of owl
behaviors, I tried to determine where this pair was in the courtship
process. Obviously, judging by the males singing when I arrived on the
site, she was already on his territory. I sensed an opportunity to
expand my understanding of the species. It doesn’t happen often, but I
found myself hoping for bad weather.

My hopes were exceeded the next day, when heavy snow warnings were
issued and flags on the Shore were stiff, like the flag on the moon.
The weather cooperated, the female didn’t. I arrived at the cavity site
at 1830 (owls don’t adjust for Daylight Savings Time), and sure enough,
8 minutes later I heard the male singing during his journey to the
cavity. At this point, I told myself “the female will be here in no
time.” I didn’t even zip up my coat. The male sang at 14 or 15 bouts
per minute. Snow started falling. He bounced from the cavity to a
pine, then a spruce branch not more than 10 feet above me. One hour
passed. The winds picked up and he just kept singing. At 2230, I
recorded three observation in my field book: 1) male still singing; 2)
female a no-show; and 3) getting hypothermic. I arrived at the site
during the springtime and left in a blizzard.

Weather conditions improved enough for surveys on Tuesday, but I did
manage to visit the site again, convinced that the female was an
integral part of the cavity tree’s avi-fauna. At 0200, I got out of my
truck and was met by silence. That in itself told me that things were
getting serious. After 20 minutes the male started singing, first in a
subdued staccato, but when the female vocalized, he did his thing. He
let out a prolonged staccato song lasting for 1 minute 54 seconds,
interspersed with a two second pause, then 2 min and 11 seconds of
prolonged staccato. I believe I now know why birds have air sacs.

The next night (8 April), I arrived at the site at 1830. Sure enough at
1836, the male flew right into the cavity and started singing away. At
one point, he dropped to the bottom of the cavity and continued
singing-probably admiring his song. At 1905:40, the female vocalized
from a small stand of black spruce approximately 50 meters to the west.
The male, as you can probably predict by now, went into another bout of
prolonged staccato. At 1910, she again vocalized but stayed in the
black spruce. Then, after my many mental pleadings, she arrived at the
cavity and didn’t even pause. She just flew right in. Interestingly,
she appeared to have something in her foot, which I deduced to be some
nesting material (I often find moss and lichen at the bottom of owl

The male took off to the east while she sat at the cavity entrance
wondering where her Fabio went. At 2116, with the female tucked deep in
the cavity, the male arrived again, made a brief vocalization, and then
made a delivery to the female. I packed my gear and headed to my
truck. There would be no more frantic singing and no more courtship
behaviors to watch. It was again time to hope for good weather.

Questions or comments? Please direct them to:

4/24/99 – Sawbill Lake ice 15". I saw seven moose on the way home from Ely last night. Northeastern Minnesotans For Wilderness had its annual membership meeting at Camp Du Nord on the north arm of Burntside Lake. It was a beautiful day. Temperatures near 70 degrees, blue skies and black ice on Burntside. A small, but dedicated group of local folks who support wilderness, discussed the issues, heard from the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park managers, shared a meal, and danced to the Wild Thyme band. Becky Rom, an Ely native and daughter of pioneer outfitters Bill and Barb Rom, gave a moving tribute to her childhood mentor,
Sigurd F. Olson, on this 100th anniversary year of his birth. – Bill

4/21/99 – Sawbill Lake ice: 16". I saw five moose on the way home from town last night. The moose are shedding their winter coats right now, which turns them nearly white and very scroungy looking. They seem more skittish than usual, almost as if they are embarrassed by their shabby appearance. I guess it is like that bad dream where you are at school and realize that you are only wearing your underwear. If the moose could blush, they probably would. – Bill

4/20/99 – The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was here yesterday doing research in Sawbill Creek. They are studying Sawbill Creek in connection with a study of the effect of development and logging on watersheds. Sawbill Creek is a control for the experiment. In other words, it is a creek without significant development or logging that they can compare to other creeks to quantify any changes that might occur. It is well known that logging increases the water temperature in adjacent streams, which reduces trout populations. – Bill

4/19/99 – Sawbill Lake ice depth: 17", 6" of slush and 11" of solid ice.

4/16/99 – Sawbill Lake ice depth: 20".

4/15/99 – The ice on Sawbill Lake is 24" thick. The top layer is about 5" of slush ice and is pretty degraded. Then there is a middle layer of 4" of water. Finally, 15" of solid ice. There is plenty of ice for travel, but you would sure get your feet wet. The weather service keeps predicting snowfall, but so far Spring weather prevails. Redwing blackbirds and starlings are the latest migrants to arrive at Sawbill.

The kids and I had another startling natural event on the way home from school today. As we passed the steel bridge that crosses the Temperance River six miles north of Tofte, we were astounded by the condition of the river. We made our way onto the bridge and stood in awe. Apparently, the river ice had formed a major dam somewhere upstream. The ice dam had broken and sent a flash flood of water, ice and debris down the river. The rampage was four or five times the usual height of the river. The galloping, coffee colored water was choked shore to shore with huge ice blocks. Amongst the turmoil were dozens of whole trees, ripped from the river banks by the violence. The whole stew was moving along at about ten miles per hour. As we watched in amazement, the ice and debris began to thin, and within ten minutes the river was back to straight water with just the occasional ice flow. We were tempted to race back to Temperance River State Park to watch maelstrom drop over the high falls, but I was frankly scared to get too close to that kind of raw natural power. – Bill

4/14/99 – We have finally worked the bugs out of our new microwave radio-telephone system that was installed nearly a year ago. The system had some minor problems at first, but had deteriorated throughout the winter until it was barely usable. Good detective work by technician Steve Schuh finally solved the problem yesterday and we are enjoying truly clear telephone conversations for the first time in our history. We are not popping the champagne cork until it has worked trouble free for a couple of months, but I feel we are on the right track.

Part of the radio-telephone work required me to climb the 180′ tower on top of the Lutsen Mountains Ski Area yesterday. It was 60 degrees and completely calm (a rare occurrence at that altitude). The sky and Lake Superior were a matching deep blue. The view was spectacular for 360 degrees. The ski area was closed, but they were having their annual crew party. It was fun to watch people having a relaxing day of skiing on the very hills where they work so hard the rest of the season. In the quiet, I could clearly hear their conversations as they paused to rest on the slopes. It was an exhilarating, yet strangely calming experience. – Bill

4/11/99 -Today is probably the last day of skiing for the year. Water is starting to pool on the ice around shore, making it difficult to access the ice sheet without getting your ski boots wet. After my chilly plunge last year, I am a little gun shy about spring ice.

4/10/99 – 28" of ice measured on Sawbill Lake today. This is still more than enough for skiing. I skied from the landing to the Ada Creek Portage and back (12 miles) in 52 minutes. 30 minutes up and 22 minutes back. It gives you a clue which way the wind was blowing. With the 20+ mph wind at my back, I felt how the Olympians must feel all the time.

As I came flying back down Sawbill, I noticed a critter on the ice ahead. As I drew nearer, it resolved into an otter, loping across the widest part of the lake. My course brought me into a perfect intersection with the graceful animal. I thought it surely must see me, as I was right in the middle of the huge sheet of white ice. When I was about 100 yards away, it suddenly stopped, looked at me, and then doubled its speed toward shore. When it hit top speed, it dropped on its stomach and slid for 5 feet or so. It would run five or six steps and then slide again. By the time it reached a spot of open water near shore, I was only ten feet behind it. It did one last belly flop, coasting well over 15 feet and slipped like greased lightning down the hole. – Bill

4/7/99 – We were greeted by seven inches of new snow yesterday morning. It continued to snow lightly through the noon hour, then a few peeks at the sun and rising temperatures melted about half of the wet snow. Karl Hansen and Lee Stewart, Sawbill’s first seasonal employees, were forced to take a snow day on their second day of work. When they tried to drive up the Sawbill Trail from Tofte, they encountered 14+" of heavy snow in the hills above Lake Superior. Skies are leaden again this morning, making almost a week of rain, snow and fog. It is a good omen for the summer that we are having a wet weather pattern now. Hopefully, we will avoid last year’s nearly disastrous drought. – Bill

4/5/99 – OB is off for a few weeks of vacation, so the newsletter is likely to be less descriptive for awhile. We returned from a week in the Caribbean to be greeted by freezing rain, slush, gray skies, wet snow, and slushy mud – a sure prescription for depression. Actually, the signs of Spring are encouraging, especially the brightly colored birds that are flocking to the feeder. In the midst of the gloom and rain, the birds have been providing a chorus of beautiful song.

The BWCA Wilderness Permit Reservation Office was having phone trouble last week. If you tried to call and couldn’t get through, it should be OK now. Remember, it is a new toll free number this year: 1-877-550-6777 or on the Internet at: – Bill

Posted on

March 1999

3/31/99 – I was amazed by reports from our Minneapolis weather correspondent, Kathleen Heikes. Known to some of you as the apple of OB’s eye, Kathleen also doubles as a diligent observer of the meteorological phenomena of the banana belt metro region. She reports that a high of seventy three degrees and strong warm winds, thawed Lake Harriet last night! Amazed, I wondered about our ice, and once again, am impressed at the difference resulting from a couple hundred miles. Sawbill lake has exactly two feet of ice, and a 14 inch blanket of snow sleepily covers the forest floor. However, today’s appearance of a grackle and booms of an approaching thunderstorm, suggest that Sawbill Lake may too ice-out early this year.

This time of year, rocks seem to hatch through the lake surface. As the ice settles and the snow pack melts from above, rocks which protrude above the water, but lay buried during winter, appear to push up. Cracks radiate from these points, and there is a sense of anticipation while looking down on them, as if imminently something may come forth. In fact, in or very near these cracks, otters squeeze in and out. They burrow to the water, taking advantage of the thin ice on top of the rocks and the melting that occurs between the solar heated rocks and ice pack. Neat circular holes, otter size, dive into the cracks. Near each hole were massive amounts of otter scat composed solely of crayfish remains – the otters are living high times. There were so many holes, so many busy otters. I’d like to see them from above with time lapse photography – otters zig-zagging across the lake, lacing the holes together, and heads crunching crayfish popping up smooth icy shoots, over and over, like prairie dogs in a field. Next, a special lens to see through the ice, to watch their sinewy bodies twist and turn in the opaque light, exchanging knowing grins above the perturbed crayfish.

Rocks hatch and others appear to have fallen from the sky, smashing into the lake. After several big winds this winter, large rocks are surrounded by banks of windblown snow. Eddie currents at the base of a rock maintain a snow free collar right down to the ice. The warm weather softens and sculpts the edges of the banks so that the rock seems to sit in an impact crater. The shallows in which the rock sits are obscured, so it seems quite plausible the rock is from above. Thus framed, the details of the rock begin to stand in stark contrast to the surrounding white sheet. Lichens of green, yellow, blue and orange invade the lake canvas like a painting’s first brush stroke. The earliest open water appears near these rocks, as if Spring waited there all winter long. Soon the sky will dab water on the lichens, painting the lake from dawn to dusk, finishing a painting every evening. OB

3/29/99 – Yesterday was a gray, wet day. The sawbill trail was a soup of deep ruts, frozen lumps, and gravel slush. Former crew members Jeff Thompson and Michele Thieman were visiting, and their cars left quite an impression climbing Two Mile Hill – sort of an automobile foot step chart for the cha-cha. Such is the nature of early Spring. A junco just flew by, affirming that last sentence.

Late last night the weather cleared. I watched light, wispy clouds pass the moon like a freight train going by. A high brisk wind carried them noiselessly. I wondered at their destination, and envied their flight through the starry night. Oh to be an angel hobo on that boreal line. Instead, I settled into a cup of tea, watching the moon fade on and off to the cloud’s streaming pulse. The snow in the yard flashed from white to charcoal, and over and over shadowy trees were erased and redrawn. The shadows changed subtly and slightly, according to the passing cloud’s cargo. My eye chased the shadows, trying to fix them, failing just as it does with the northern lights. It was a mesmerizing scene. I stood staring, not moving, my body loosening, as if something inside might lose tether, lifting with the steam of my breathing and tea. Cold and fatigue drew me inside. At six a.m. this morning, the same clouds lumbered past, and I smiled knowing it was not a dream, knowing there will be another chance to cast off and drift, far from port and schedule. OB

3/26/99 – I soared across the tops of the white pines, and glided like a wolf through the forest. Ski skating conditions prevail across Sawbill lake. Early this morning, the old growth white pines, along the campground trail, cast crisp shadows, like cookie cutter voids cut into the bright lake. I skated from tree top to tree top, stopping and standing on some, looking for meaning, as if the horizontal lines of branches folded out from the dark trunk were a giant Rorschach ink blot. Near the Alton portage, the dogs and I followed a line of wolf tracks. She went at a gallop across the portage. At the Alton end, she leaped a huge drift, running two strides parallel to the slip face, and then, with a deep set of prints, across to the other side. The dogs snorted deeply in her tracks – Sunnie squealing and scanning the horizon. Their paws were half the size of hers.

It is warm today, and I have a door open cooling the house which bakes in a southern exposure. The yard is full of a cacophony of bird calls. When I close my eyes, it is as intense and exotic as a market scene in a remote Asian province – as difficult to interpret, too. Yesterday, Mary Alice pointed out the pine siskins, whom I had mistaken as juvenile gold finches. The confusion the crows cause is a mystery as well, as they seem innocuous. Big and dark, maybe they just seem scary, like a big old Wal Mart dropping into the local economy. OB

3/23/99 – Obie and I skied down the Temperance River this morning. We must have covered about ten miles of river. The river froze during very high water last fall. With the water level naturally dropping over the winter and the recent warm weather, huge blocks of suspended ice have collapsed, leaving the river pocked with stretches of open water that are four or five feet lower than the snowpack surface. The huge holes have rounded edges and some have refrozen, so the contours of the riverbed are quite dramatic, but easily skiable. A stiff north wind, combined with the gradual downslope of the river, made for some fast progress. At some points we got going so fast that we dropped into downhill tucks and rocketed along for several hundred feet in this pose. We covered the distance in one hour and fifteen minutes. – Bill

3/22/99 – This may be rash, but I am declaring victory in the Great Marten War of 1999. After engineering multiple new fortifications on the store building and a rapid response to the opening of a new front on the crew building, no marten has breached the walls for three days. Vigilance is vital for continued peace with honor.

Crows have returned to the northwoods, joining their larger raven cousins who are year ’round residents. This morning a crow is timidly snatching sunflower seeds from beneath the bird feeder. One of the many sleek red squirrels has taken offense to the interloper, and is making repeated runs at the crow’s tail. The gleaming black bird seems relatively unconcerned, giving a little hop and a dirty look whenever the squirrel gets too close. – Bill

3/18/99 – Obie trapped marten number eight last night. He had to camouflage the trap inside a cardboard box with a marten sized hole in it. He used a third of a jar of raspberry jam for bait. We are convinced that this marten was trapped inside the building after we closed off every possible marten break-in point. I hope so. I’m getting tired of being outsmarted by weasels. – Bill

Sawbill’s poet laureate, Ed Dallas, sent the following email this morning:

How goes the
battle with the martens? I had some strange dreams last night on the battle.
It seems the National Guard was called out, turn it into one big military
campaign. Tofte was the control center and the had the Sawbill Trail closed
off. A SWAT team was called in with tanks, rockets etc. They looked at it as
a hostage situation, with guess who as the hostages!! Poor Obie was Duct
taped to a log with one mean marten ready to chew him into little bits of
bloody flesh!! The Guard thought the phone calls, the marten’s hisses and
squeaks, was some kind of code and they called the CIA in to break the code,
but they couldn’t. I wish I could tell you how all this came out but just as
the dream was getting to the end the mouse trap in the kitchen went off and
woke me up, I had one dead mouse. Hope you guys don’t put much stock into

Well have a good day and if you need a Colonel to lead the troops into
battle let me know as I am a Colonel of Auctioneering, but the martens don’t
need to know that, just the Colonel part.


3/17/99 – The recent freeze and thaw cycle has hardened the lake surfaces making them perfect for travel. I skate skied to the extreme north end of Sawbill Lake and back (12 miles total) this morning in less than 50 minutes. As I write, it has begun to rain hard and the temperature is near 40.

We are still locked in battle with the local pine martens, whom we have started to regard as outright criminals. After trapping seven of the little buggers and blocking every possible entry to the store building, they chewed the corner out of the wooden garage door and continued to raise havoc. In addition to their other pranks, at least one has now become trap wise and won’t be tempted into our live trap again. Apparently, it is no problem for them to find their way back from a 6 mile car ride. We are beginning to realize that we may not be smarter than the martens. I would hate to resort to having to kill them, but we are reaching the end of our rope.

We have discovered how they communicate with each other. Several times during their siege our telephone system lights have informed us that someone was talking on a line from the store building. Upon investigation, we found a phone that we thought the martens had knocked off the hook. Now we know that they were actually calling their marten friends and relations to invite them to the kegger in our store. – Bill

3/12/99 – Somewhere near Sawbill today, a group of wolves have found their mark. The place starts as virgin snow with four or five linear sets of wolf tracks radiating away like tendrils on a jelly fish. Light fades in the eyes of the prey, and a snowy paw mosaic forms to the rhythm of meat snapping from bone, warning growls, and soft strong shoulders bumping and jockeying. A raven discovers the scene, and circles calling in an ancient tongue. Satisfied muzzles stain red, and drops of blood dot the packed snow like the finishing touches on a Jackson Pollack painting. Raven sits patiently with his brothers and sisters, black holes in a lush pine backdrop. A young wolf, tail between legs, lies wiggling below a large male, submissive, yet keenly aware of the larger wolf’s every move. A sunny birch full of finches sings incessantly. Noiselessly, a red squirrel navigates skinny spruce branches with a pine cone the size of its head. As the wolves recede, a raven swoops down and waddles in for inspection. A panting wolf stops, and quizzically tilts her head at the snow, as a vole burrows about in a white universe a foot and a half below. In today’s strong sun, snow drips from branches and an exquisite pine scent feels like Spring. Wolves clear their bowels and circle their glossy red and white sculpture, curling into gray balls. They dream as a pack, dreaming their woods into the next day. OB

3/10/99 – The pine marten saga continues. We have now trapped a total of five martens from the store. We aren’t entirely sure if they are five different martens or if they are returning cross country from their Siberian exile. I was forced to return to my favorite spot, the crawl space, where I discovered that they had forced my repaired screen again. I repaired and resecured the barrier (I went a little crazy on it – muttering all the while). This morning, there were fresh marten tracks leading under the deck, but my screen repair appears to have thwarted them. Obie read that martens will dramatically expand their range during years of low prey populations. I think they all just head for Sawbill.

3/8/99 – We have been struggling with the local pine martens (basically, five pound weasels if you aren’t familiar) all week long. It started last week when a door on the store building failed to latch properly and blew open during the night. A pine marten climbed the screen door and chewed through the screen. Failing to notice the hole in the screen, we shut the outer door, apparently trapping the marten in the building. We noticed the next day that many items were knocked off of shelves, garbage cans upended, etc. We opened the doors and went away for awhile, assuming the trapped animal would be grateful to depart, especially with no water being available in the building. All was quiet for a day or two when we discovered, to our surprise, the store thoroughly trashed. We decided that the marten was living in the store, unwilling to leave, and must be trapped. We contacted the local D.N.R. wildlife biologist and he loaned us the appropriate live trap. He also advised us to keep our fingers away from the trapped animal. He said, "They can get their noses through the mesh and they bite like a sewing machine." Within twelve hours we had trapped the interloper and given him a five mile ride down the Sawbill Trail. Satisfied, we arranged to return the trap to the biologist. The next day Obie noticed one item was knocked off the shelf again. We scratched out heads, but were in denial. The next morning, we were greeted by more marten mischief in the store, including an actual sighting of the beast. The trap was retrieved and reset. This time, success came within the hour. This marten got a shot of red spray paint on his butt and an eight mile road trip. By that night a third culprit was captured, sprayed and delivered. In the morning I put on old clothes and entered the nether world of the dreaded crawl space. After crawling the length of the building on a rough dirt floor with as little as twelve inches of head room, I found the secret marten entrance. The original trapped marten, desperate for water no doubt, had found a screened foundation vent that was hidden by the front deck and torn through it. I fixed the screen and minutes later trapped a fourth and (I hope!) final marten.

The four martens were quite different in their reactions to the trap. The first worked itself into a lather, but was reluctant to leave the trap when it was opened. The second cowered in the cage and gave us reproachful looks. The third was fairly relaxed and even finished up the uneaten bait during his car ride. The fourth only had one thing on his mind: bite hard and bite often. If you came within three feet of the trap he would hurl himself at you with a growl that would chill Stephen King’s blood. – Bill

3/4/99 – I apologize to our regular readers for the lack of entries. March is the month folks start thinking paddling. The reservations and inquires are coming in like the last blizzard! With Bill and Cindy in Arizona, the work of three has become one, and the newsletter received low priority. Vacationing in Arizona, and lots of reservations, are classy problems! I’m not complaining.

Cold overnight here. The snow is very crunchy and walking on it sounds like having bowls of Rice Crispies for shoes. With the return to cold weather, I have been closely monitoring the lake for a crust that will support skate skiing conditions. After ice-skating, this is my favorite activity. When the lake surface becomes like a mid length shag carpet, skate skiing is a dream – effortless and exhilarating. The only way to improve upon that experience is to find skate ski conditions on the rivers. The slight downgrade adds to the fun, and a person begins feel the way it is for the water falling to Superior. OB

Posted on

February 1999

2/28/99 – Former crew members Cathy Iverson and Dan Seemon are visiting for the week. Their arrival was heralded by intense moans and gyrations by the dogs. Dan and Cathy are a doggie nirvana of snacks, walks, and sweet talk. A very gray today, which began in a thick fog. Yesterday, thunderstorms were reported along the shore! Quite odd for this time of year.

A moose is frequenting the "roller coaster" section of the Sawbill Trail. He has been lying in the road licking salty ice chunks from the cars. Standing up is a stiff laborious affair for a moose, and I sort of feel bad interrupting the licking. However, I wonder how healthy those big salty blocks of road grime are? Fortunately, this year the snow banks remain within the moose comfort zone for hurdling. Most of the moose I have seen, eagerly duck into the woods. A few winters ago, the snow banks were very high, and the prospect of bogging in them, kept the moose zig-zagging down the road. There were some long drives to town that year, and stressful days for confused moose. I am glad when the moose quickly dash to safety, though my observation is limited. It is great drama to see such a huge animal melt back into the woods, as quickly as it appeared. Sometimes, I focus too much on the radio, road and work day. The brief appearance of a moose resets my mind, reminds me of the aberrant nature of the road clearing in a thick forest full of creatures. I stop the car and try to catch one more glimpse. The daily reports of environmental degradation make these encounters more precious. It is such a treat to understand we are still sharing the world, part of a community. OB

2/26/99 – When I walk out under our tall pines, listening to the wind in their tops and seeing the happy blue above, I am glad. The dogs stretch, moan, roll in the snow, and nip affectionately at my gloves. We have all been holed up in front of the computer for too long. There is plenty to do this week, as Cindy, Bill, Carl and Clare are exploring Arizona. There is still work to do today, but it will have to wait. Gust, the older of our retrievers, is starting to move a little more slowly. I tried to encourage him to go out and run, but he lay still, pretending confusion. I finally got him out the door, where he immediately curled up. I asked if he would prefer my company – immediate comprehending wag of tail, Sunnie, our younger retriever, crooned and shook her fanny. Out we went, walking far below the old growth white and red pines blowing a big sunny sound, invigorating our spirits. Soon both dogs were running, leaping, pulling each other down. In the warm sun, on spongy snow, I joined the game – fake charges, leaps, and rolls.

I think of our pines from above, how they rise out of the canopy, a small red and white pine hill in the forest, a pine bloom. We walk about, the dogs and I, they, diligently nose to the ground, me, straining my neck staring up at the pines. Such wise animals dogs, to explore and enjoy that which is underfoot, instead of seeking the mysteries of the tree tops. I can’t help myself though, wondering how it is up there – dancing in the wind with all those long green needles, stretching branches high. A glorious existence, to be the first to know what the wind carries, the first to see the sun, and the last to see it go. I’ve climbed up there a few times, wedged in among branches and an intoxicating scent. Swaying at the top of a big old pine, forest stretching as far as I can see, I’ve sensed an illusive spirit, another way: lonely, wild and ancient. A hint at the way in which the earth is operating here. It is an exciting sensation and a little odd. A red squirrel’s repetitive click up there seemed less like scolding and more like a maniacal laugh, entirely foreign, a siren from another pulse and pace of life. High up there, everyday, those pines sway back and forth in the air, the same air our chests rise and fall against. It has been that way for a long time, long before our way of knowing. The sensation is one of transcendence, and it feels good. Good because of the sneaking suspicion that abstract thought only penetrates so far, and because we intuit an exoticism and enlightenment, typically reserved for extraterrestrials, right in our midst. OB

2/22/99 – One of the all time great groups of Sawbill returned today from their annual winter camping trip. All are distinguished members of their respective communities, who come to the northwoods to "act like adolescents" (note the fuzziness of the portraits).

The Consortium – Winter Addition (L to R) Rich, HMFIC (His Majesty First In Command), Voyageur, Marmaduke and their ski tracks (what’s in those cups?)

I experienced a "once in a lifetime" wildlife sighting today as I was driving to town to fetch the kids from school. About seven miles north of Tofte I noticed an animal running in a snowmobile track alongside the Sawbill Trail. I assumed it was a fox, as we see them frequently in this area. As I drew abreast of it, I was startled to see that it was a bobcat. Instead of bolting into the heavy cover, like every other bobcat I’ve ever seen, it sat down. I braked to a stop and then slowly backed up until I was right next to it. It seemed unconcerned, even when I lowered the window and spoke to it gently. I was able to study every detail from a distance of about five feet. Its face was like an ordinary house cat, except nearly twice as big. Heavier, longer legs, huge feet, and a short tail distinguished it from a tabby. As I tried to sear the moment into my memory, I suddenly realized that what I had first taken for whiskers were actually a dozen porcupine quills protruding from its muzzle and nose. The poor miserable thing was probably starving, explaining its strange behavior. I briefly entertained trying to use my Leatherman to remove the quills, but thought better of it, both because the cat wouldn’t have allowed it, and my philosophy that nature should be allowed to take its course. This brought the realization that I was adding to its stress with my presence. I whispered "good luck" and rolled away. I watched in the rear view mirror as it crossed the road and padded into the woods. – Bill

2/19/99 – Every year we face the task of removing snow from the roofs here at Sawbill. Four of our buildings are not strong enough to bear the weight of more than four feet of snow. When the snow reaches a depth of three feet, we shovel it off to avoid being caught by large storm.

Obie, Jake and Carl on the roof of the Sawbill Store, viewed from the front.

2/17/99 – Cross country skiing at night, with a headlamp, the night before last brought on another astounding optical illusion. A fine snow was inexplicably falling under starlit skies. The snow, and perhaps a slight haze, obscured the dimmer stars, letting only the brightest shine through. The Milky Way, which is usually prominent as a gauzy band of light across the sky, could not be seen. When I stopped for a breather and tipped the headlamp back to look at the sky, its beam reflected on the tiny, falling snow crystals. Suddenly, it appeared that the Milky Way was falling to earth, each tiny star a sharp, cold ice crystal. Last night the snow had stopped and the Milky Way was back in its place. In the sub-zero cold each star shone without a twinkle, as solid as time itself in the vastness of the universe. – Bill

2/12/98 – A gorgeous storm blew across our home last night. Strong winds howled and swirled, sculpting six inches of light snow into whips and ridges. The warm weather of the previous week had left a dirty crust of snow and treacherous icy footing. Today, it is all frosted. Pure white rolls over every corner and edge. As the day progresses, the birds’ activity is recorded in the light snow at the base of our feeder. Gros beaks hop about, fluttering their wings on the snow for support. Like micro snow shoe tracks, the paths of the gross beaks slowly encircle the feeders – their little wing prints like leaves accumulating in the Fall. The grouse must be glad, as they count on fluffy snow for hiding and warmth. In the next few days, skiers and snow shoers all over the North Shore will be treated to the shock of grouse exploding from the snow in a burst of white and noise. Very intense. As the light fades, the beauty is intensifying. It is time to turn off the computer and step out the door.

2/8/99 – Former Sawbill crew members Kate Ferguson-Surbaugh, Steve Surbaugh, and Jason Morse are on a winter camping trip this week. They departed yesterday, along with current crew member John Oberholtzer and Snoose Surbaugh, the dog. They were surprised I’m sure, as we were, by an unexpected half inch of snow last night. Otherwise, the temperature is balmy and they are doubtless having a good time. Kate and Steve worked two years for Paul Schurke’s Wintergreen Lodge in Ely after they left Sawbill, leading winter camping trips.

Obie negotiates the canoe landing en route to winter camping.

2/6/99 – Adam Hansen, Sawbill crew member and Frisbee Golf champion, competed yesterday in the regional high school cross country ski meet. He won second place in the classic race which earns him a spot at the Minnesota State High School meet next week. Congratulations Adam.

2/5/99 – I just finished tying a canoe on a customer’s car! Don’t worry winter campers, the lakes are still solid. Mary and Jeff Krejci are enjoying a week of skiing, and decided to buy one of our Mad River Explorers. Jeff and Mary were our first customers of 1998, beginning their trip May third. Although technically our season has not begun, I think the purchase of a kevlar canoe warrants their designation as first customers of 1999. Congratulations Mary and Jeff. Since this is the first mention of this achievement, we’ll call it the "Krejci Award". Winners will receive a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, and a picture taken with Bill, Cindy or Obie. I suppose the last customer of the year deserves recognition. Come to think of it, this year that was very nearly Jeff. Hmmm… Okay, great, the Fall "Krejci"! First place will be awarded a hot beverage and a photo op with favorite outfitter. After forty-two years, finally a solution to the lack of business during the shoulder seasons.

Posted on

January 1999

1/31/99 – We’ve been skiing in the moonlight every night. On Friday night, Clare Hansen took along a catalog and picked out her new swimming suit by moonlight in the Sawbill parking lot. She was able to clearly see the pictures and read the text. Saturday night, Carl Hansen read a Garfield book in the same spot. As the week progresses, the moon rise will surpass our bedtime. Our nocturnal skis are truly a "once in a blue moon" experience.

1/28/99 – I snowshoed in a section of tall pines near the Perent Lake Road yesterday. The recent snow is wonderful: sugary and light. Eight inches of it sifted like sand through the rawhide webbing, step after step. Snow was drifting off the trees and wetting my face. A squirrel alerted me to his stash of white pine cones below the snow. He must have been processing the cones all during the storm. Little cone chips were mixed in with the snow about five inches down – a neat soup to run my hand through. I thought of that squirrel nibbling away, the snow piling up on his head. Nearby the stash of cones, a grove of hazel held more squirrel treats. Four and a half feet off the ground were dozens of drying mushrooms. Wedged into the forks of hazel branches earlier this summer, the mushrooms were perfectly dehydrated. I saw one, and when I tuned my eye to them, I was amazed at how many there were. I thought of my friend who dehydrates mushrooms and prizes them above all else that he dries or jars. I wondered if the mushrooms were a treat for the squirrels, as well. The mushrooms had a musky odor and were rather pretty. Brown and twisted, stems hanging down, they were like little seahorses suspended in the hazel. The old timers say the height of stored mushrooms in the woods predicts the snow depth for the winter. These mushrooms were still a couple feet above the snow. I’ll check them again in a month or so. It was a treat to look into the woods as a squirrel might.

1/27/99 – The snow is floating down and settling on every twig and branch. The snow, the grey dawn light, the clouds, and even the birds are all absorbing sound, giving the world a hushed, cottony aspect. About 4" fell overnight. 6" – 9" is expected, with more possible in the higher elevations (that’s us).

1/23/99 –

L to R – Obie Oberholtzer, Rich Hicks, Chris "Jake" Hicks, and Jason "Jake" Morse

Rich and Jake Hicks stopped by before their winter camping trip yesterday. They were excited and looking forward to beautiful weather. They were heading out toward the Lady Chain and will stop in on Sunday with a report.

1/19/99 –

Sawbill Parking Lot Monday, 1/18/99

This is a sight you don’t see every day at Sawbill, especially in January. Forty seven people from the 1st Lutheran Church of Fargo spent Martin Luther King weekend camping in the wilderness. This is the second year this well organized group has done this, although with fewer people last year. They are very careful to split up into groups of nine and take completely different routes. They enjoyed the balmy temperatures and snow, but were somewhat buffeted by the 30 mph winds that blew them in on Monday.

1/16/99 – Yesterday marked the first day in 28 days that we didn’t record a below zero temperature. This morning we awoke to an incredible 29 degrees. On the way home from school, Carl and I saw four bull moose in a group. Three were adolescents, with modest antlers. The fourth was a giant, with a huge rack — but only on one side. Imagine having a forty pound, two foot long weight glued to one side of your head. On the same trip we saw one of the largest, most beautiful wolves we have ever seen.

Jake Hicks, brother of former Sawbill crew member Hans Hicks, visited on Thursday. He started out to ski to Burnt Lake, but was turned back by slush about a mile up Sawbill Lake. Two parties are out camping this weekend. Hopefully, they have found a way to avoid the slush.

1/12/99 – Bright sunny day and very crisp, -8 as a high today. A dusting of snow covered the ski trail yesterday. Usually this is good news, but this snow, having fallen during sub-zero temperatures, was very difficult to wax for. The snow holds the ski, a sensation like being in a slow dream where it is taxing to move. I found myself stopping more often due to the exertion. The woods are very quiet after a new snow. No wind or animal stirred. I stared for a long time up the length of a dead jack pine, spiky and sun bleached. In such total silence, the mind seems to expand, and it felt as if my thoughts and the thinking apparatus of my mind, were among the woods. A slight ringing deep in my ears, moved out. The jackpine silhouetted against the sky and the snowy spruce, seemed less like observed objects and more like a backdrop inside my head, by which other thoughts passed. Sort of a mental screen saver. I stood thus transfixed, until the cold crept into my feet and hands, tweaking my mind like the sensation of losing a vision of a three dimensionally drawn object. I skied, warming my feet and hands, acutely aware of the tunnel of boreal forest wrapped around me, drawing closer with the dusk. I headed home moving as if in a womb – silent, warm, nurturing, seeking a timeless dimension of pine, snow, and silence.

1/8/99 – The news is good at Sawbill for the birds. Jays, finches, nuthatches, and chickadees have spread the word, and our yard is full of flight. On cold days like these, avian logic calls for a lot of movement. Each bird flies sortie after sortie from spruce to feeder, feeder to aspen, etc. I’ve been observing a blue jay leaping among the lower dead branches of a whitepine. Each leap is a cupped depression in four inches of snow frosting. The jay lands, fluffs her feathers momentarily, and leaps again. Leap, puff, fluff, leap, puff, fluff. It looks like great fun. I try to imagine how it must feel to pop around like that. I wonder if jays look forward to soft branches and fluffy landings like we anticipate good skiing and snow shoeing. The blue jays have character. They seem less cautious than the other birds, and their blue suit does not really match, especially considered against the fashionable gross beaks. Yet, they crash the party like an eccentric relative, dining on old Kraft Mac and Cheese like it was caviar. They’re the bird for me: poorly dressed, brash, and too proud to pester campers for handouts like their drab, bulkier, grey cousins.

1/6/99 – It is bitterly cold here this morning. Only -10 at 11 AM, but a 25 mph wind is making it fairly inhospitable, especially down on the lake. The wind has carved wildly sculptured drifts on the south end of Sawbill. Slush has crept in under the snow at certain spots on the lake. It’s proof of the superior insulating qualities of snow that water can exist in liquid form during this bitter cold snap with only 8" of snow covering it. The slush makes travel on the lakes virtually impossible during weather this cold. If your ski or snowshoe breaks down into the slush and then you lift it up into the air – bang! – you have a fifty pound ice cube on your foot.

1/5/99 – John (Obie) Oberholtzer returned yesterday after a month long sabbatical to work on his writing. He is writing a series of northwoods essays that he hopes to have published. A fair amount of this newsletter is authored by Obie, so you are probably familiar with his style.

One interesting phenomenon we are observing this year is the frequent visit by flocks of Goldfinches to our bird feeders. For the past forty years we have seen Goldfinches only during migration. This year they hung around longer, which we attributed to the warm weather. Now, the weather has turned cold with a vengeance, but the Goldfinches remain daily visitors. Chickadees, on the other hand, are usually plentiful visitors here in the north. This year (and last) we have only a handful.

1/1/99 – A quiet evening of board games and charades got the Hansen family (plus Molly Richardson, Adam’s girlfriend) through the evening and into 1999. I was able to uphold my tradition of greeting the new year on the ski trail. A nearly full moon provided ample light to see the trail. It cast sharp black shadows across the path and made the fresh white snow sparkle in the clearings. In spite of a -24 F temperature, the outing was serene and comfortable. Ed Dallas, the poet laureate of Sawbill, was moved to this haiku:

winter’s first full moon

greets new year – up north some plan

for cold midnight ski

Happy New Year.

Posted on

December 1998

12/28/98 – The combination of a wicked head cold and lack of any real news has prevented a timely update of this newsletter. We are enjoying a very relaxing vacation. Adam and Ruthie Hansen are back from school. Ranna Hansen and her children, Marc and Marie, are visiting from their home in Maple Lake, MN. This morning, snow is drifting down softly and steadily. The retrievers are curled up on the porch and covered with a half inch of white fluff. We are skiing on the unplowed campground roads and the lake (when the wind permits). Perhaps today’s snow will allow grooming and track setting on the ski trail through the woods. The trails near Tofte are groomed and reported to be excellent, despite having the bare minimum of snow.

12/24/98 – The Hansens will be celebrating Christmas in Hovland, MN with Cindy’s mother Arline, on the shore of beautiful Lake Superior. Christmas morning will find us here at Sawbill. Carl and Clare will be up early to see what Santa left in their stockings. The rest of the day will be devoted to skiing, skating, visiting and eating cookies. Happy holidays to one and all 🙂

12/21/98 – The winter solstice is a highlight for us. It is a brilliant cold day with fresh snow on every twig and branch. The sunlight is all the more precious for its scarcity. Clare and I set a track on the lake yesterday for cross country skiing. We were able to put in a fast 12 kilometers before sunset. With a little extra snow last night, we should be able to groom the unplowed campground roads today. The lake may be a little inhospitable for the next few days. The forecast is calling for -25 degrees with a 20 mph wind. Brrr…

12/17/98 – Scott Harris, longtime Sawbill BWCAW traveler and father of former Sawbill crew member Katy Harris, adds by email:


I enjoy your newsletter and pop in regularly.
Feel free to improve on this, but I figured this is probably the only way I
can get in the newsletter short of destroying a canoe.

There once was a man with a woodsy purpose.

Who skated fifteen miles on an icy surface.

He saw the remains of a Moose by a bay.

He thought they might have been there just for a day.

And he told us about it on the Internet, instead of using cursive.

12/15/98 – Ed Dallas, the poet laureate of Sawbill writes:

I have found a new form of poetry that works well with condensed prose. It is call haibun. Haiku is placed within the prose. I tried it with the 12 -10 -98 entry to the newsletter. I hope you like it.

lake ice – sky mirror

clouds pass beneath feet – steel blades

etching reflections

ice reflects vivid

colors – small sky arched rainbow –

dark clouds ride cold wind

winter favors none

some make it to spring – others

become gnawed bone piles

wolf pack surrounds moose

winter scavengers must wait

risk takers eat first

red snow

where moose

became wolf

12/10/98 – Sawbill Lake is now solidly frozen from one end to the other. Although the ice is not perfect, it is smooth enough to allow comfortable skating anywhere. Today, I skated a 15 mile circuit in just over an hour. The clouds were black on the bottom, then purple at the next level, fading into pink, and finally snow white on top. The colors were diffusely reflected on the glossy ice surface. One cloud produced a small, but intense, rainbow, also reflected. I found myself skating directly down a rainbow path, surrounded by miles of broad stroke pastels. As I drew abreast of Kelso Bay, about halfway up Sawbill Lake, a sudden movement just inside the bay caught my eye. A raven lifted off what looked like a pile of debris on the ice. It was the remains of a moose, devoured by wolves and scavengers. The moose had fallen about 20 feet from shore. All that remained was blood, hair and the contents of the large intestine. Nearer to shore was a single front leg and the about half the hide. Every shred of flesh had been picked from the hide. The massive leg bone had been sheared clean in half by the powerful jaws of the wolves. Large, bloody wolf tracks led away from the kill, across the gleaming ice. A few small pieces of bone were scattered widely around the area, but everything else was eaten or carried off, including the skull, spine, and three legs with hooves. There is tragic and exultant beauty in the ancient dance of predator and prey.

12/9/98 – Carl Hansen is nine years old today. He received a globe, a Wallace and Grommit clock, and a boom box for presents.

We are excited about our new photovoltaic tracking system. We have mounted 36 electricity producing solar panels on 21′ poles. They turn automatically to follow the sun across the sky, thus increasing dramatically their output of electricity. They join the 40 panels previously mounted on Frank and MA’s roof. As far as we know, Sawbill now has the largest solar system in the midwest.

Sawbill’s new tracking solar panels.

12/8/98 – Skating is the order of the day.

Bill, Cindy and Obie showing their style.

Open water lingering near the Smoke Lake Portage on Sawbill Lake.

12/7/98 – Finally, some cold weather. It is 19 degrees this morning. We need some snow now, as many of us are going through ski withdrawal. It looks like we may be able to skate on the lake today, so that is some consolation. Due to the lack of snow, the hiking season has been extended this year. I hiked two portions of the The Superior Hiking Trail east of Grand Marais this weekend. I encourage anyone interested in the Northshore to check out the trail. It is accessible at many locations for small day trips or for overnight outings. It goes through many beautiful woods, including gorgeous sections of old growth. The vistas over the lake are many, and the trail is well maintained. I hiked a section of cedars rooted high on a ridge above Durfee Creek. Their dark leaves, and twisted shapes, were very evocative at dusk. I returned just as all light receded from the woods, the cedar trunks were elusive shadows, and the only sounds were my crunching feet on frozen leaves.

We’ve had good reports from our crew members. Jason Morse will be a certified teacher in one week, and we are glad that he plans to return to Grand Marais to seek work. Many of you may remember Dave Freeman from LaGrange IL. Dave started working for us in 1994, but missed last year. He surprised us last month by offering his talents to us again in 1999. Adam Hansen just returned from Germany, where he was the Gambian representative at the Model United Nations. Former crew member Patti Olson is enjoying her neuroscience program at Northwestern. She reports it feels self conscious to be learning how the brain works, while using it so intensely. Erik Hoekstra hopes to return to Sawbill next summer, and he will be entertaining Adam and Eric Frost this weekend at UW Madison. Laura TerBeest picked out the family xmas tree in Omaha over Thanksgiving Break. In short sleeves, she was still too warm – weird.

12/3/98 – Strange days here, lately. Cindy and I just went to check out the lake, and it felt very much like our Spring inquiries regarding break up. The ice is five inches thick, and degrading rapidly as the lake is bathed in sunlight and full of puddles of water. Warm winds from the West are not helping.

Yesterday, a slush layer had refrozen, providing fairly smooth skating. The ice looked just like Spring. On the surface, leaves and other bits of debris were encased in shallow displays, where they had melted into the ice on previous warm days. I skated the perimeter of the lake, as I was nervous to move very far from shore, after Bill’s chilling episode last year! Five inches of ice is plenty thick, but when it is composed of slush and has floated up, I err on the side of caution. It was enjoyable to cruise along the shore, dodging in and out of partially submerged trees and overhanging cedars. A wolf must have had a similar interest, as her tracks were with me most of the way. (She investigated beaver’s lodge longer than me.) Once the ice has slightly broken away from the shore, it depresses under my weight. A faint crackling, watery sound accompanied me as I cruised along.

On warm days, the water that accumulates on the ice surface needs to drain. Gravity bores holes through the ice, perhaps at the location of a small imperfection. The holes vary in size from six inches to two feet in diameter. They look like ornate starfish, as they are surrounded by drain channels that lead into them. Seen from a skater’s vantage, these channels look like aerial views of canyon systems. Five or six encircle each hole and they are slightly depressed. Refrozen the day I skated, I was able to inspect quite closely these dark stars in the ice. The time for skating is so brief, it is truly a treat. I have to physically remind myself of the danger below me, when I become too enraptured. I put my hand in one of the holes I have drilled and feel the life drain out of it in seconds. Recreation and aesthetics take a backseat to self preservation in this sol.