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Bunches of Beautiful Berries Galore!

In the dog days of summer, one of my favorite feelings is biting down on juicy blueberries freshly picked from the bush. There are many berries in the northern woods if you know where to find them. I will go through some that you can find and what you need to know about them when foraging. 

Safety tips for Identification 

  1. Do NOT consume anything until you are sure you know what you have found
  2. Don’t rely just on color for IDing, look at such things as leaf placement and shape.
  3. Use more than one picture so you have different angles and lighting

Berry time

Blueberries from the Sawbill Trail. PC: Author

Starting with one of the most famous in the arrowhead region of Minnesota, the blueberry is a fantastic trail treat when portaging in the BWCA, or a fun activity to do while staying in the campground. To find blueberry bushes, head to the edges of the woods and clearings. They like sun and can also be found in hilltops and ridges. Blueberries are one of the first plants to appear after a wildfire. When IDing blueberries, you are lucky. There are no toxic look-alikes as long as you follow safe identification practices. Look for oval leaves up to 2 inches long that are green with tinges of red. The leaves are alternatively attached to the stem with stemlets. Berries have a 5-point crown on the bottom. They are blue when ripe and have a silvery, dusty bloom. Blueberries grow in a tight cluster at the end of a twig or stemlet.

Blueberries from the Sawbill Trail. PC: Author

Serviceberries found in the same patch as the blueberries. PC: Author

Next on the list is the serviceberry. There are a number of names these berries are know by; sarvisberry, juneberry, and saskatoon. This blueberry look alike is found in areas you find blueberries as well as many other places. One place is along the dirt roads up here. To identify serviceberries, look for large bushes and small trees. Leaves are oval to egg shaped and usually 1 to 3 inches long. The top side of the leaf is bright green while the bottom is paler. These berries vary in color a bit. When the berries are ripe they can be reddish-purple, blue, purple, or almost black.

Raspberries in the same patch as the blueberries and serviceberries. PC: Author
Thimbleberries. PC: Plant Oregon

Another group of berries that are ripe this time of year are compound drupes. Common ones in this area are the raspberry, dewberry, and the thimbleberry. The raspberry and thimbleberry bushes are arching vines with alternating toothy leaves. Dewberry vines creep along the ground. Both thimbleberries and raspberries are red when ripe while dewberries are black.

The last berry I’ll cover is the bunchberry. This small shrub spreads via an underground root system and is usually found in large colonies. Bunchberries are found in shady coniferous and mixed-wood forests. Leaves are 1 to 3 inches and appear to whorl out from the center. The fruit grows in bright red bunches on the top of the stalk of the plant. The bunchberry is the only berry on this list that is not delicious. It is edible and makes a good trail nibble, but the fruit is mealy and bland. Keep knowledge of it in your back pocket for the unexpected survival situation.

Bunchberries found in Tettegouche State Park. PC: Doreen L. Wynja

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Finally, Some Good, Falling Rain!

August 8th was a big day in the Northwoods. We got a total of 1.12 inches of rain here at Sawbill. Lakes north of us got even more, with some reports of hail on Brule Lake! The rain and thunder storm that happened was probably the longest sustained rain we have had all season, so we really needed it. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s July 2023 climate summary, Duluth and the Arrowhead region were 2.5 inches below average rainfall this year. Normal average precipitation level is around 4 inches. In one rain storm we have almost reached all of July’s rain levels. If you are interested, I’ll leave a link to the climate summary below. 


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Nothing to See Here, Just a Normal Update.

Sunset through the trees . PC: Author

08/04/23 Sawbill has had some nice weather the past couple of weeks. Temperatures have hung around the mid 70s during the day and usually stayed in the mid 50s at night. A few days of rain has helped the water levels, but we have had a number of people come back from Cherokee Lake with reports of a lot of mud on the portages in between Sawbill and Cherokee Creek. Sounds like it might be a bit of a slog around Ada Lake and Creek especially. Other than the mud, everything else is as it usually is.  We’ve also had a few days of smoke in the sky from the Canadian wildfires. Luckily the smoke has stayed farther up in the atmosphere so air quality has remained good. The good news is that smoke in the sky makes for some nice sunsets!

In exciting animal sighting news, a family came back from the Cone Lakes north of Brule Lake with reports of 5 separate moose sightings! One bull, one cow and calf pair, and three other solo cows. The dad said he had only ever seen one moose in all the years he’s been coming here, and that it seems like his son just might be the good luck charm he’s needed. A number of other groups have reported moose sightings in the Jack/Kelly corridor.

The Cone Lakes are located north of Brule Lake. All moose sightings by the one family happened there up to Davis Lake. PC:
Jack and Kelly Lakes are a part of the Temperance River and are filled with lily pads, a favorite aquatic snack of the elusive moose. PC:

Our campground host and storekeepers have been getting a lot of questions about Huckleberry’s whereabouts. I am happy to report he is alive and well! As a 10 year old dog, he spends most of his time sleeping next to the store desk or in the office. As of this winter, he seems to be going deaf, or he has decided that what anyone says to him is not that important and it’s just best to ignore most people. He still loves the water and has gone swimming in the past week. 


View on a calm evening at the canoe landing. Looks just like glass. PC: Author

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More energy projects!

8/3/23 – This week we made some big progress on our continued energy updates and transitions. Last fall we reported about our connection to the electrical grid after operating for 65 years with our own power generation and infrastructure.

With our new access to grid power, we are making a few changes around Sawbill that will allow us to conserve energy and also realize a greater degree of consistency and reliability in our heating and domestic hot water systems.

This week we decommissioned our aging wood boilers and adjacent Boiler Mate hot water heaters to make way for some new equipment. Earlier this summer we also removed a set of propane co-gen units that provided electricity and heat.

Without the need for generators to run all the time, we are able to transition to simple electric hot water heaters in the houses and store, and some large propane heaters to accommodate the needs of our shower house. This transition is going to allow us to produce just the amount of hot water we need and limit extra run time on our boilers.

In the coming weeks, we will be installing new off-peak electric boilers to heat our buildings in the winter, giving us reliable and consistent heat when and where we need it, while using minimum energy.

Never a dull moment at Sawbill!


Plumbers disconnecting retired wood boiler in staff house.
New electric hot water heaters in staff house.
Our store basement with its new hot water heater and awaiting its new boiler.
New hot water heaters for the shower house, sitting where generators were.
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What is a Sawbill anyway?

07/29/23 As someone who grew up in an area that only had mallards, swans, and geese, I was confused by the name “Sawbill” when I first visited the outfitters many years ago. I might be willing to bet others had the same question pass through their heads as well, “What is a Sawbill”? 

Sawbills, more commonly known as the common merganser, are a species of merganser found in a number of places around the world. The taxonomic name for the common merganser is Mergus merganser. First century Roman authors used mergus as a catch-all term for unspecified waterbird, and merganser is a combination of mergus and anser, which is Latin for goose. There are three subspecies of the common merganser. The first one, M. m merganser, is found in northern Europe and Northern Asiatic Russia. The next one is M. m orientalis, found in the mountains of Central Asia. Finally, the one we are the most familiar with, M. m americanus. This subspecies is found throughout much of the US and into the lower 2/3rds of Canada. 

Male common merganser. Photo credit: Gregg Thompson
Female common merganser. Photo credit: Nigel Voaden

The sawbill’s main diet is fish. They dive to catch fish with bills that have serrated edges to help hold on to their slippery meals. The serrated bill is where they get the nickname, “Sawbills”. Mergansers feed on other aquatic creatures like mollusks, crustaceans, and amphibians. If you ever notice a merganser with white feathers that are ever so slightly tinged pink, it is due to carotenoids, a pigment that can be found in some crustaceans and fish.

Starting in May and going through July, female mergansers will lay between 9-12 eggs. Nesting usually occurs in tree cavities. In some places, like in the Asiatic mountains, where it is devoid of trees, they will use holes on cliffs and steep riverbanks. After hatching, the mother will take each duckling to the water by her bill. Sawbills are known to form crèches, where one female will look after up to 70 ducklings at one time. Other animals that do this are lions, penguins, and another seabird, the common eider. Many mergansers move to areas that will have open water throughout the winter, though in areas that have milder winters, like California, they are year round residents. 

I hope you enjoyed learning more about the wonderful creature that is the common merganser. I always enjoy watching these beautiful birds when I’m out in the wilderness. 


Momma and babies. Photo credit: Jim McCormac
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A Gneiss (nice) History Lesson


The history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is long and fascinating. There are many things we can learn from looking back on lives lived and decisions made. Today, I thought I’d delve into the history of the BWCA through the eyes of a geologist. 

An Overview of What We Can Find

Minerals and rocks make up most of our world. We use rocks for construction, and use a myriad of minerals in our day-to-day lives. Copper wires help run electricity, halite, also known as salt, flavors our foods, and many places still use coal to heat homes. Many of the main categories of rocks are found in the BWCA, as well as the north shore of Lake Superior and much of the Midwest. 

Looking into the entrance of the old Jack Lake mine. Photo credit: Author

Igneous rocks such as basalt, rhyolite, and granite are found in large quantities here. There are two main categories of igneous rocks: mafic and felsic. Mafic rocks are high in iron and magnesium. These rocks tend to be darker colored. Think basalt. They are created by low-viscosity, or runny, lava that cools over a long period of time. Felsic rocks are higher in minerals like feldspar and silica. These rocks are lighter in color. Granite is a good example of a felsic rock. The lava that creates felsic rocks is usually thicker.   

The main minerals that could be found in the BWCA are copper, nickel, gold, and iron. There are a number of abandoned mines in the wilderness before it was a protected area that used to hunt for gold and copper. There is one on the south shore of Jack Lake near the Baker Lake entry point, #39. This was a gold mine that shut down in the late 1800s.

Agate found by the Author in 2022

Arguably the most well known rock to come from our area is the agate. These beautiful stones are made of microcrystalline silica, the same material that makes up quartz crystals. They formed in vesicles, or holes, in the basalt. Over millions of years, water saturated with silica would flow into these cavities and layer by layer the agate would form. Scientists still don’t understand the mechanism behind the creation of agates. It is a mystery that many are still trying to solve.  

An Incomprehensive Geologic History of the BWCA (and north shore of Superior)

The oldest rocks that can be found in the wilderness area is a formation known as the Ely Greenstone. This Greenstone was created more than 2.7 billion years ago (bya). The rock was formed in a marine environment because at that time in earth’s history where we are now was under water. There are outcroppings on the southwest end of Moose Lake, the north shore of Knife Lake, and the east shore of Gabimichigami Lake. Between 2.7 and 2.5 bya, there were periods of intrusions into the greenstone by granite followed by deformation and erosion of the greenstone and granite followed by more granitic intrusions. The sedimentary rocks formed by the erosion are named the Knife Lake Group. These rocks can be found in Cache Bay of  Saganaga, the south and northeast shores of Knife Lake, and Kekekabic Lake. After the second round of intrusions there was a long period of erosion. The Gunflint Iron Formation was formed around 2.0 bya. The main origin of this formation is thought to be an uplifting of the Knife Lake Group. The Gunflint Iron Formation is made up of sediment rich with iron. Best place to find outcroppings is the north shore of Gunflint Lake. 

Good Harbor Bay lavas- Terrace Point basalts overlaying the Cut Face Creek sandstones. The sandstone was deposited in between eruption events during the rifting. Photo credit: Author

Approximately 1.1 billion years ago, the Laurentia craton started to split. This fault line runs from Oklahoma up to Thunder Bay, curves back down to run under what is now Lake Superior, and ends as far south as Tennessee or Alabama for a total of 1,800 miles in length. For some reason not yet known to geologists, the rifting stopped. If it had continued, there would be an ocean splitting the US in half! During this time of volcanic activity, lava that would cool into gabbro and basalt flowed onto the surface. It is in this basalt that the agates formed. By using seismic waves, geologists were able to get an understanding of how deep the layer of rock is. Roughly 15 miles thick in some places. The name for this formation is the Duluth Complex. You can find rocks around lakes south of the Kekekabic Trail. A couple modern day examples of rifting are the Mid-Atlantic Rift and Rift Valley in eastern Africa.

The last major event started between 3 to 1 million years ago. The Pleistocene Ice Age drew glaciers down from the north in many waves. Some of the most visual signs of the past glacial periods are striations. Striations are lines carved into the surface of a rock by the glaciers dragging other rocks over top. The last glacier receded around 10 to 11 thousand years ago. Once they were gone, the basins left behind filled with water to create the beautiful lakes we know now.

The Laurentian Divide

The Laurentian Divide runs through the BWCA near us at Sawbill! It crosses the portage into Beth Lake from Alton Lake to the west of us, and again north of us by Cherokee Lake. Waterways to the north of the Divide drain into the Hudson Bay and water to the south will end up emptying into the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

The Laurentian Divide runs through the BWCA. Photo credit: J. Wolfe

To conclude

We can learn a lot from the rocks around us. There’s a saying in the geology world, “ The present is the key to the past”. By studying the rock formations and the processes that act on them, we can slowly uncover how the Earth came to be. The BWCA is a unique place that has many windows to the past sitting in plain sight. All we need to do is look. 


Author’s note: If anyone is interested in learning more, I recommend a short pdf called, “It’s Written in the Rocks” by Dr. Paul W Weiblen and “Roadside Geology of Minnesota” by Richard W. Ojakangas.

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Fire Ban Lifted

7/2/23 – Good news! Due to the rain we have gotten in the past few weeks the Forest Service has announced that beginning tomorrow, July 3rd, the fire restrictions within the Superior National Forest will be lifted. This means that campfires will once again be allowed across the entirety of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. However, it is still extremely important to continue to follow safe fire practices by completely dousing all fires until they are cold to the touch. – Anna

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Behind the Scenes: Food Packing

6/25/23 – As the season continues, we are getting more and more outfitting groups! We offer complete equipment, complete food, or complete outfitting (both equipment and food) packages. One of the jobs for crew is helping to pack for these outfitting groups. For food specifically, we offer a wide range of meals which can be selected using the food preferences form on the website. We then package it up with breakfasts and dinners in daily packaged portions and then separate bags for fresh food (such as burgers, steak, eggs, cheese, peanut butter, jelly), lunch components, and miscellaneous items (such as snacks, dishwashing gear, cooking oil and cracker meal for frying fish, paper towels, etc.). All of this gets packed into a canoe pack lined with a cardboard box and trash bag and is all set, ready to go whenever the group arrives! – Anna

Breakfasts and dinner are portioned and individually packaged by meal. Fresh foods can be paired with the freeze dried meals for the first few days and are packaged in separate small, soft-sided cooler containers to stay cold.
All of the food ready for a complete outfitting group of 4 people over 4 days.
Food pack all set to go. The box/trash bag liner is helpful not only to keep the food from getting crushed, but it is also a perfect place to put any trash or food waste in between the box and trash bag to follow the leave no trace principles.
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Wildflower Wonderland

6/17/23 – The flowers are out and blooming here at Sawbill – decided to go for a bit of a wildflower walk around the store and past a few of the campsites on my way down to the landing. Some are not yet in full bloom, so there should only be more in the coming weeks. Very beautiful to spot them all over the property and especially hidden in plain sight on the side of the road. – Anna

Large-Leaved Lupine
Honeysuckle along the Sawbill Trail
Coralroot (a type of orchid) along a trail in the campground
Azalea bush (there is one in front of the store and one along the path to the showers) where we frequently see hummingbirds and hummingbird moths
Several pink lady slipper plants tucked in an unexpected spot between the parking lot and store
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Fire Ban

6/13/23 – We just received the official word that there is a fire ban for the Superior National Forest taking effect tomorrow, June 14th. This doesn’t come as a surprise, and for those of us who make our home in the forest it is something of a relief. Since the snow melted in early May we have had less than 0.5″ of rain total, and things are quite dry out there. Fire bans aren’t anyone’s favorite, but I’d wager that wildfires are even less welcome.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the fire ban:

  • No campfires allowed in the BWCA until further notice
  • Camp stoves that are pressurized and have an on/off switch are allowed
  • Twig burning stoves, charcoal grills, and alcohol stoves without on/off switches are prohibited
  • Campfires are still allowed in fee-campgrounds on the Forest – This means it is OK to have campfires in the Sawbill Lake, Crescent Lake, and Temperance River Campgrounds so long as you are exercising extreme caution

Here’s the official notice from the Forest Service: