Remembering a burning forest, 9 years later

ham lake fire
Picture from MN Firewise

Nine years ago today the eastern section of the Boundary Waters canoe area was raging with fire.  75,000 acres of pristine land was burning wildly out of control.  Houses were lost. Lives were risked. Smoke filled the air all the way down to the Twin Cities.

And that is when Sue and Bob McCloughan signed the purchase agreement to buy Bearskin Lodge, in the midst of a fire that threatened to burn down the business.

We spent our days at school with one eye on our students and the other glued to the internet news about the fire. Eventually I just gave up and said “Kids, let’s go off topic and learn something really interesting about fire, that will also explain why your eyes are watering now.”  We all watched the changing fire maps and ravaged pictures.

firet trucks ham lake fire
Photo courtesy Gunflint Trail Fire Department

As the fire came closer to Bearskin, Bob & I tried to ascertain what precautions were being taken by Bearskin.  The owner wanted the lodge sale to remain a secret from his employees, yet from afar we were wildly concerned that “our” property would burn down and wished we could dare ask the employees what was happening. We called the owner, who said everything is fine, the sprinklers are going, and it’s so little to worry about that we’re flying to the tulip show in Iowa.

We already had enough history with him to think perhaps a second call was in order.  I called Bearskin and got Dee, who would later turn out to be a dear friend.  I said I was concerned about the Lodge and wondering what they were doing.  Dee assumed I was another one of the many concerned members of the Bearskin fan club, and talked about the preparations to leave. “Are the sprinklers on?” I asked.  It was evident that homes and businesses with the fire suppression sprinklers were surviving.  “Um, no, we, um, won’t be using the sprinklers,” she said. “We don’t think we need them.”   She was respectful enough of her current boss that she didn’t say, “No, we won’t be using the sprinklers because the FEMA sprinkler system was never maintained and is now in a thousand broken pieces, and actually we all think our boss believes it is in the best interest of the resort to burn down.”  (She saved those truths for later, in the many re-tellings of the story.)  Dee said other staff would be leaving for town with trucks and equipment, that the managers had left long ago to get a motel in Silver Bay to house their secret dogs and cats.  The owners?  Flying to a tulip show in Iowa. (Although we later heard they did show up at the lodge at some point, so good.) As we heard this on the phone, it was all we could do not to drive up ourselves and start pulling together sprinklers and trying to save the place.

Most Bearskin employees went to shelters in Grand Marais. Being low-level employees who ended up totally responsible for the stressful decision- making while the fire advanced towards Bearskin was very traumatic for some of the staff

airplane minnesota incident command
Picture courtesy Mn IncidentCommand

One of them had a seizure outside the shelter, changing his life for years to come.  Another just cried and cried. The youngest employee, Adde, rose to the occasion and figured out how to be the adult in the group, a skill she can still muster up regularly in her real life today.

Of course, we only heard these stories after the fact.  All we knew was that we just put a lot of money down and signed a pile of papers to buy a resort where no preparations were being made to keep the resort from burning down momentarily.

And luckily, it didn’t.  A tongue of the fire made its way towards our area, but was kept under control. The physical beauty of our area remained untouched by fire and the cabins and resorts around us continued to be safe. This time.  There’s a long history of fires in these big woods and we understand that our turn could come. We hope not soon.

The Ham Lake fires started because of one camper. Conditions were right to spread a fire very quickly – as they are today.  The individual who accidentally started the fire was identified, demonized, persecuted, prosecuted, and basically dragged through hell until he eventually committed suicide.  Politicians tell us we live in a Christian nation, but if so, we ought to be able to do forgiveness a little better instead of always focusing on retribution.  He made a mistake. Any of us could. There’s a fine retelling of his sad story here.

ham_lake_fire_wcredit lee johnson
Photo by Sue Prom

The lesson is please, please, please be careful with fires up here.  It’s dry and windy today.  There are thousands of branches down on the ground from this winter’s bend-down.   Keep fires small.  Some of you folks —is this a southern thing?—who like their pile of wood to be in a 5 foot tall tipi shape when it gets lit are just asking for trouble with those giant fires.  Small, under control, and always watched is the way the pros make a fire.  Above all, don’t walk away from the fire.  We see this all the time in the campground: raging fire in the pit, nobody around for miles—or even worse, obviously tents full of sleeping people. You can do better than that.

We will have fire on the Gunflint Trail again.  We are all a little more prepared for it now, after lessons learned from Ham Lake.  Bearskin has invested in an outstanding all – encompassing FEMA  fire suppression sprinkler system.  We test it  regularly, keeping it in perfect shape each year. Bob and Quinn are fire department members, who have been well-trained to assist in a fire or a rescue and best of all, they have fire department radios to be in quick contact in an emergency.   And needless to say, if something bad happens Bob, Sue, Quinn & Kate will not be off at a flower show, we will be here every minute to make sure, first of all, that our sweet staff is safe and untraumatized and secondly, to do what we must to preserve all your Bearskin memories here.

But let’s avoid another Gunflint Trail fire if we can.  Do your part!

HamLakeFire lee johnson
Photo by Lee Johnson




The Bearskin version of Fox News

7.18.11fox mumm
Fox photo by Katie Mumm

Almost everyone who visits Bearskin has high hopes of observing three specific northwoods animals.  The number one goal is always to spot a moose, then glimpse a bear (but only the rear end, as it runs away), and maybe, with luck, see or hear a wolf.

So you might be surprised to know that none of those creatures are the animal that Bearskin guests talk about the most during their stay.  Foxes are actually the critters that make our guests extra happy.  Hundreds of photos of posing and preening foxes are snapped every summer around the Main Lodge.  We sell dozens of fox stuffed animals, foxy kids’ purses, fox books, and fox cards.

Bearskin has a long history of having fairly tame red foxes living on the grounds of the resort.  When we first arrived at Bearskin almost a decade ago, our employee Adde regularly made meals for a ridiculously tame fox, and even allowed the fox into her apartment occasionally.  Foxes have been known to get in canoes, and supposedly a fox can untie a boat from the dock.  They peek in windows, pose on deck railings, and occasionally run off with meat intended for the grill.  The Shoe Stealing Fox (aka Imelda), was perhaps the most famous Bearskin fox, covertly sneaking flip flops, hiking boots, and tennis shoes off the deck and steps of cabin 7. Many a family combed the woods behind cabin 7, desperately trying to find a missing sneaker so a kid wouldn’t spend the remainder of their vacation limping around with only one shoe.

facebook post about fox shoes august 2013

So here is a story to add to the fox legends:  About a week ago, when the ice was still solid, Kate and Quinn observed a fox crossing the bay with something in her mouth.  At first they assumed the fox was carrying a rabbit or squirrel, killed for dinner.  But as they looked more closely, they realized she was carrying a baby fox kit all the way across the lake.  Then she came back for another. And another, and another. By the time she was done ferrying her whole litter across the lake, the fox looked exhausted. It was no small task to move her family. This was peculiar behavior.  Quinn and Kate wondered why she would go to that much trouble to abandon a home and move so far away.

Previously, Quinn and Bob had been rebuilding the steps to cabin 7.  When they pulled the old steps off, they found chewed boards, broken styrofoam, and multiple signs that animals had been tunneling under cabin 7 for years.  So, of course, Quinn and Bob did a top-notch job of resealing every crack and hole, nailing up new boards and filling every possible animal entry point with spray foam. No creature would be getting back under that cabin!

Quinn thought about the fox mother for a few days and then started to wonder if her grueling move might be connected in some way to the rebuilding of the cabin 7 steps.  Yesterday Quinn and Bob went back to cabin 7 and pulled off a few of the new boards, attempting to see under the steps.

It was a surprise to discover a sizable fresh tunnel under the steps, circumventing their repairs.  At that point it became apparent what must have happened:  Bob and Quinn had accidentally entombed the litter of baby foxes. For two days they had worked on the steps, sawing and pounding and probably terrorizing a little fox family.  When the job was over and the foxes’ fear subsided, that mother dug an incredibly difficult new tunnel, removed all her babies, and stoically carried all of them as far away from that dreadful Cabin 7 as she possibly could.

We were left with two thoughts:

First, that is an extraordinarily heroic fox mother.

And secondly, deep under cabin 7 there are probably several years’ worth of missing shoes.


3.2.13 Jane Kolarich Fox C9
Fox photo by Jane Kolarich



The “Bend-down,” part II

By now most people have heard something about the thousands of trees that bent over into snow-covered rainbow shapes after the heavy, wet snow of December 16-18.  All winter activities in Cook County have been affected by the massive number of trees bending over every roadway or trail, and a huge amount of effort has gone into clearing trails over the past few weeks.

Bearskin and Golden Eagle staff members were out clearing almost nonstop for days, and we did get most of our trails back in good shape pretty fast.  Dan at Golden Eagle says he lost about 6 pounds on the Bend-down diet — apparently the grueling task of cutting down trees every day is actually a healthy thing to do!  Bob would not agree since clearing trees has left him with tendinitis in both elbows, an issue that has not successfully excused him from the daily clearing activities.

Many guests have ventured into the bent-down areas, describing crawling through the snow-laden trees as a surreal experience, or like trying to enter Narnia.

Here’s a picture taken when Jim Pohle and Joe Zuaro tried to ski into Old Logging Camp the morning of December 30.  They came across workers from Golden Eagle making headway on the trail, but it was far from passable.  This trail is in good shape now, but it took some time.

12.30.2016 bend down on Old Logging Camp Jim Pohle
Photo by Jim Pohle

Here’s Roger Kolarich wending his way down a trail before it was cleared.  In the good spots it looked like this:

12.2015 bend down kolarich

But in most places, this was the trail — entertaining to snake through for awhile but it was an adventure, not a ski trip:

12.2016 bend down Beaver Dam Kolarich
Photos by Jane Kolarich

At this point there are a few short, non-essential connecting trails that are still covered with trees and, of course, Poplar Creek, a 6.3 mile trail into the middle of the deep wilderness that is covered in trees and even still has swampy, unfrozen wet segments. (That’s another peculiar thing about this winter!)  In many places it’s been hard to even find the Poplar Creek Trail.  On Friday a big crew of volunteers and employees of Bearskin and Golden Eagle went out on Poplar Creek trail with a vengeance, determined to speedily get the job done.

Bob and local fire chief Jim Morrison encountered an interesting phenomena: 40 foot tall trees, just bent over at the very top. Bob said it was incredibly beautiful, except they kept breaking and crashing down onto the trail in a wall of falling snow and branches.  They theorized that vibration from the chain saws might have been just enough to set the fragile trees off — so, wisely,  they quit standing anywhere near one of those trees.

By the end of Friday afternoon Poplar Creek wasn’t done, but the workers made significant progress. At least they can see the trail now.  Kate and Quinn are out clearing again this afternoon, and those two can energetically make progress fast.  Achy Bob is out there too with our employee Matthew, and for an old, sore guy Bob is surprisingly vigorous at ripping out trees.  It won’t be long before we can officially add Poplar Creek back on the Central Gunflint Trail Ski map.

Meanwhile, it keeps snowing up here, and new trees keep bending over from the increasing weight. The snow that causes this is thickly frozen onto the trees, so windy days don’t seem to clear the snow piles off the branches. It makes the pine trees almost fakey beautiful, like the snow-blobbed pines on plaster Christmas houses. Photographers have  come from all over the country to take photos of the pine trees on our trails right now.   We’re always going to remember the hard work it took to get these trails clear again, but for most people who came up here, the beauty of this winter will be what they recollect.

asbjorn munk ski trail4bearskin 028
Photo by Asbjorn Munk



Cupcake trees and the return of the bend-down

12.18.2015 the pines snow
Gunflint Trail today.

We just returned from the Twin Cities, where we were celebrating the 100th birthday for Bob’s dad.  We left Bearskin at the beginning of the snowstorm, so we weren’t there to watch how much snow accumulated during the two days we were gone.

Quinn and Kate didn’t leave until the next morning; they forewarned us that Bearskin received at least a foot of fresh flakes, and that the trees were heavy with snow.  Then I saw a Facebook post from someone who reported there were at least 20 downed trees on the Gunflint Trail that night due to the snow.

On our trip back to Bearskin today we were somewhat unimpressed with the snow quantities, considering how treacherous driving through the blizzard had been on the way south.  The North Shore mostly has snow with stubble, a pretty coating of white that makes even the trashiest dives along the Highway 61 suddenly look fresh and redeemed.  A sparkling white that is pleasant to view out the car window, but nothing out of the ordinary for December in Minnesota.

And then we drove up the Gunflint Trail. Oh my.

There is something a little magical about the Gunflint Trail when it comes to snow.  Bearskin is the Bearskin because of this winter magic. We’ve been here long enough now to know this happens, but sometimes it’s still awe-inspiring when we see it again.  We drove up the hill and suddenly it was almost as if we had been transported to another planet. This new world was coated in a thick, drooping frosting of white.  Snow depth increased with each mile we drove up the Trail and the pine boughs sagged with heavier and heavier masses of snow the farther we drove. For as often as we’ve seen this, today both of us were exclaiming “wow, look at that” over and over all the way up the Trail.

If you’ve ever wanted to see miles and miles of pine trees that look exactly like frosted Christmas cookies, now is the time to drive up the Gunflint Trail. The downside of this heavy coating is that is looks like we have another “bend-down,” the winter version of the infamous blow-down.  Thousands of the small trees are arched into rainbow shapes and even many of the large ones have a peculiar curve.

best frosted trees
These cupcake trees by the Lodge have a curious curve today.

Dozens of big trees are hanging off the phone lines and some of the line appears to be stretched all the way to the ground. (CenturyLink, where are you? Clearly no sign of any repair activity along the Trail yet.) If you try to call Bearskin and you can’t get through, it may mean that the branch that broke the phone line’s back finally fell.  The whole arrangement looks pretty tenuous.  It’s also kind of entertaining to think that phone communication continues just fine with all manner of crazy contorted limbs and tree trunks dangling precariously from the phone lines.  Now there’s a minor miracle.

While this snow is exactly what we needed to get the ski season off to a great start, grooming after this snowstorm is going to take MUCH longer than expected.  Quinn went out in the groomer Thursday morning before he had to leave for the party, and reported it was very slow-going.  He said it was “groom 100 feet, then stop and cut down trees, groom another 100 feet, stop and cut down trees again.” Poplar Creek in particular appears to completely encased in arched trees.  It will take awhile to get through the tree mess on all our trails. This is the case on both sides of the Central Gunflint system.

We have Summer Home, Campground, and the Lit Loop cleared, and we will be out regrooming those trails first thing tomorrow morning.  The rest, however, could take some time.

But consider driving up to see the Gunflint Trail anyway as soon as you can to view this stunning landscape, before the wind knocks the frosting out of all the trees.  (Drive slowly and carefully, because this snow in the woods has really brought the moose out into the roads!)  And bring your camera, because you’re not going to see anything quite like it anywhere else in Minnesota right now.

Bearskin’s new Pisten Bully groomer arrives!

Playmobil pisten bully
McCloughan’s first Pisten Bully

This was the McCloughan family’s very first Pisten Bully.  Quinn McCloughan bought it when he was about 8 at Lake Superior Trading Post with his birthday money, and we still have it.  It grooms trails about as well now as it ever did.  If you are a 4 inch tall skier, this machine grooms the coolest ski trail you’ll ever encounter.

Bearskin’s 1987 PB

This was the McCloughan’s second Pisten Bully.  Dave and Barb Tuttle bought this grooming machine for Bearskin in 1987, upgrading from a smaller machine and making an immense investment in the future of skiing here.  The Tuttle family actually traveled to the factory in Germany to see their Pisten Bully being manufactured.

For almost 30 years the 1987 PB chugged along the trails, creating great skiing in the midst of a deep forest environment.  This was a was a well cared-for machine, but over the years there were plenty of disasters.  The worst fear was what would happen if this big diesel machine ever stalled far out on the trail in subzero temps, where it likely wouldn’t start again. (Correction: second worst fear — the worst fear was having the groomer go through the ice, but Dave had already done that one.)

One of Quinn’s first groomer experiences when he was just a fresh 21-year old here was having the PB break down on the trail at -13 degrees, with nobody else around to help him solve the problem.  He proved he was up to the coming challenges when he eventually got it back to the warmth of the shop. We had a few years where Bob swore that aliens (or more likely, drones) were making the Pisten Bully wacko on specific parts of the trail system; a new computer system installation made it act much less crazy, but it couldn’t be counted on to be entirely sane.   Every time the trails were  fully groomed and the machine was safely put away, we all breathed a sigh of relief because we’d escaped Pisten Bully Disaster one more time. It was time for a replacement.


pisten bully on truck
Our brand new Pisten Bully, being delivered 12/9/2015

So this is our brand new Pisten Bully, as it was delivered to Bearskin yesterday.  Quinn and Bob, as well as Dave Tuttle, checked out all the new features.  A fraction of the size of the 1987 machine, this is a far more powerful groomer.  Our trails will be wider and smoother, plus the experience inside the groomer will be warm, comfortable and surprisingly quiet.  We don’t have quite enough snow yet to truly groom, but they took it out for a bit of experimental grooming and loved the results.  And, of course, driving the groomer will be an entirely different experience when the constant, over-riding fear of being stranded at -20 below isn’t a fundamental part of the grooming process.

pisten bully lessons
Pisten Bully lessons for Bob while Quinn and Dave Tuttle inspect
So what’s all this stuff do?


Figuring it out

Dave took the ceremonial first ride in the groomer. He drove it to the shop and made sure all the flashing lights and doohickey switches worked.

Then came the sad part: we packed up the old PB, with its old colorful Bearskin Ski Guy Logo on the outside and lots of good memories on the inside, and sent it on its way to its next home.  Somewhere in Ohio the Bearskin Pisten Bully will live to groom another day.

old pisten bully driving away
Saying goodbye to 3 decades of Bearskin grooming memories






Anatomy of an epic blog failure, or how Facebook obliterated the Bearskin Blog

blog fail

This post first appeared in April, 2013. In spite of best intentions,  this should be titled Blog Failure Part II.The blog simply faded away again, while numerous Facebook sites, Instagram posts, Twitter accounts, and Pinterest sites survived or even thrived.  But sometimes we have a better story to tell than will fit in 140 characters or in a couple snapshots. So with a rerun of this vow to bring it back to life, the Bearskin Blog is back online.

The first Bearskin Blog appeared August 27, 2007, just a few weeks after our family took on the challenge of owning Bearskin Lodge. (Click here to read the first Bearskin Blog entry from 2007.) Reading that initial blog years later, I can still feel the overwhelming emotional rush of excitement, fear, and responsibility that defined our lives during those first few years.  Everything was new, hard, and very scary.

The Bearskin Blog was a great way to introduce our family to Bearskin guests.  After three decades of being a family-run resort during the Barb and Dave Tuttle era, a few years passed when Bearskin lost the family-owned feel.  Guests wanted a relationship with the owners; they wanted to know our kids, meet our grandparents, pet our dog. They wanted to see the people who own Bearskin showing pride in their resort, fixing and repairing and updating the cabins that are a source of treasured memories for generations of Bearskin guests.

So we shared our daily lives in our Bearskin Blog.  Our dumb mistakes (A Bad Day for Birds and Suckers);  the inevitable catastrophic moments (The Good Life)  or (Survivor — the Power Outage Edition); the scary stuff (A Disconcerting Afternoon); the wildlife encounters (Bear  vs. Dumpster) or (Moose  vs. Andy McDonnell); the sad losses (A Life Well-Lived).  After awhile it seemed that most guests who came to Bearskin already “knew” us, even if we’d never met before.

In January, 2009, we decided to try making a Bearskin Facebook page.  These days almost every business has a Facebook presence but as surprising as it seems now, back in 2009 making a business Facebook page was a relatively novel idea.

Posting on Facebook was easy for us; hardly any time commitment needed.  Find a nice picture, add 25 words — done!  Facebook was the ideal format to give our guests and Facebook friends a brief  moment in their day to savor the Bearskin experience.  The page quickly developed a following and in a short time we were reaching several thousand Facebook  fans.

In our busy day it’s always easier to find 5 minutes to post on Facebook than to expend the effort to write a decent blog. And so the blog gradually faded into oblivion.  Our last finished blogging effort was in the summer of 2012 — not for lack of starting new blogs.  Our WordPress draft file is full of good blog beginnings.  Finding the time to finish is always the issue.

Looking at our past history on the blog, I miss having such a full record of Bearskin life.   The Bearskin Blog is a chronicle of what has happened at Bearskin since 2007, at least up until the time I lost the fire to keep writing.

7,000 people like the Bearskin Facebook page (actually, now it’s closer to 12,000).  They get a quick daily glimpse of Bearskin life on Facebook, but there is no sense of history to it.  Yes, you can go back on the Facebook Timeline to see what was posted in the past.  Without even looking I can tell you what it was for any date of the year:  an interesting  picture with 3 – 5 sentences of seasonally appropriate comments.  It could be 2009 or it could be 2013.  The defining sense of time and place just isn’t there.

Life at Bearskin is not as novel to us at it was in 2007, but nonetheless it’s still always interesting here.  The changing of the seasons, the big  resort projects, the unexpected wildlife encounters, the unusual guests–all of those things make our days at Bearskin memorable. I’m going to try to revive our dead blog.  Of course, we won’t give up on Facebook.  But for those people who like to relish the long version of the Bearskin story, rather than a few fleeting Facebook  seconds, the Bearskin Blog is back.  Bookmark us and see how long the Blog revival lasts!