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Connected to Power!

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Dan

Sawbill’s new “power plant”. Transformer in the foreground with the new service panels built in fall 2022.
Using a “plow cat” contractors use a tandem machine configuration to simultaneously cut a trench and lay power and fiber. The work began on the Sawbill side and worked back to the source on the grade, 9.5 miles away.
Plow cat navigating the canoe yard
Concrete was poured over the cable in spots where rocks prevented it from being layed 3 ft deep.
Close up of high voltage cable. A relatively small wire encased in a multi layer rubber housing inside of a hard plastic conduit.
Kit and Sig look on while excavators clear the spot for the new transformer.
Snow covered trench. A bit of stress to get this project done in the late fall, but that’s nothing new for us!
Arrowhead Cooperative energizing our service on November 15, 2022.
Our trusty diesel generators will now be in standby mode, ready for an emergency. Retired from their prime power duties.
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11/14/22 – Yesterday afternoon I decided I better get one last walk along the lake path before it gets covered in multiple feet of drifted snow.  As soon as I reached the water I noticed patches of skim ice floating all over.  Upon closer inspection the areas that looked like open water had a very fine layer of ice crystals beginning to form.  Pretty fun to watch the transition as it happens.  -Jessica

The canoe landing today at 8am.
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Used Canoes For Sale

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

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

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


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Gold on Snow

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

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

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

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Almanac North

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

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Winding into Winter

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

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


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Lovely days

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

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

A sea of leafy majesty along the ridge
Golden Birch

Photos courtesy of Katie Kelley and Jesse Bergeson

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Dachshund puppies!

9/4/22 – The last few weeks we’ve been charmed by several visits of brand new baby Dachshund puppies. Dave and Shawn who supply us with our bundled firewood, just had a litter of puppies. As the little fur balls are growing and getting ready for their new homes, Kit and Sig and the Sawbill crew have been happy to oblige in the task of socializing the few weeks old pups.

A pile of puppies ready to bound out and play on the back deck of the Sawbill store.
Puppies and packs. 5 week old Dachshund puppies checking out a pile of dirty packs.
Kit is smitten by all the puppy love.
Sig is all grins with a lapful of pully.

– Dan

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Fall Hours

8/13/22 – Typically at Sawbill, we shift to our fall hours of business on Labor Day. This year, however, we find ourselves with a staff stretched thin thanks to factors outside of our control. In order to maintain a reasonable work environment, we’ll be starting fall hours effective today.

For the rest of the season, you can catch us open from 8am – 7pm, seven days a week. Of course, we’ll still be glad to set you up with your permit and gear at no extra charge the night before your trip – just come on in between 5pm-7pm. As usual, you are welcome to pick up/return your gear anytime during our open hours, no need to call and adjust your arrival time.

Sawbill is run by an INCREDIBLE crew of the nicest, hardest working, funniest, and most sincerely good people around. We really appreciate everyone’s understanding as we adjust things in order to give our hard workers the breaks they need in order to keep facilitating everyone’s BWCA vacations. Being open 11 hours a day, 7 days a week still leaves plenty of time for chatting around the map 🙂

Longtime Sawbill campers Rick and Mary enjoy the quiet evening.


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Off the Beaten Path

8/12/22 – For me personally, one of the hardest parts of planning a trip in the Boundary Waters is figuring out where to go. I usually start by opening up a map or Google earth and pouring over the countless lakes, streams, and bluffs. There is so much to see, that it is overwhelming in the most wonderful way possible. It’s what keeps so many people coming back. 

A great part about working at Sawbill is that you get time off to explore. I love Sawbill and Alton as much as the next person, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t curious to find out where the creeks led to, or see what’s on the other side of the beaver dams. Luckily, many members of the crew share that same curiosity and intrigue of what lies down the paths less traveled. On a crisp, yet sunny Tuesday morning, my coworker David and I decided to use the break in our schedules to explore somewhere we’d never been.

Although technically out of the wilderness boundary, the junction of Swanson and Koski Creek still offers the same atmosphere as the BWCA. Intertwined with the better-known Temperance River, it’s as much of this area and experience as Ada or Hog Creek. A section of it is visible from the Sawbill Trail and its subtle beauty has captured the attention of those who pass by it.

We had always wondered where it led to and finally decided to grab a Minnesota II and check it out. Upon arrival, we joked about how we’d probably paddle 300 feet just to find it too shallow to paddle or have it dead-end altogether. To our surprise, we made it a lot farther than planned. Around each narrow bend, we’d find another up ahead. The creek was surprisingly deep, the full length of our paddles couldn’t even touch the bottom in most spots. The water was a deep mahogany color and flowed gently through the meandering streambed. It was so still that you could see a perfect reflection of the trees ahead glowing in the soft morning light. Once we were away from the road, it felt quiet and remote. There were delicate flowers floating along the edges and little patches of flattened grass where a beaver chewed the bark off of a stick or a moose came to drink from the stream. It was a secret world that we would have never known existed had we not set out to answer our questions. 

We agreed to paddle downstream for an hour or until the creek’s natural end, whichever came first. To our surprise, we reached an impassable beaver dam close to the time we needed to turn back. We set the canoe in the tall marsh grass and clambered over the swampy tussocks that separated the creek from the solid ground of the shore. Eager to see what lay on the other side, we pushed our way through a dense patch of forest to find a small, rocky stream on the lower side of the dam, not quite passable by canoe. It was a satisfying end to a nice little morning adventure.

As we paddled back upstream, the sun was high above us. Areas that were previously shadowed by the trees were now easy to see. That’s the beauty of out-and-back paddles. It allows you the opportunity to see a place from two different perspectives and perhaps notice things that you missed before. 

On the way back to the car, we took a brief break at one of the few beaver dam crossings to romp around a mossy clearing in the woods. We watched as our shoes sank deep into the fluffy sphagnum, and admired a little brown frog toddle along the moss. We made it back to the car in good time and reminisced about the little world we had just discovered.

There are so many wonderful things to see in the Boundary Waters and oftentimes we’re intent on seeing the bluffs and waterfalls found in magazines and on postcards. Those things are indeed awe-inspiring and wonderful; they deserve to be seen. However, little trips like this remind me that there is also magic in the unassuming places. And there is something very special to be said for that too.