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Stories from Sawbill: Bears and other visitors make an outfitter's life interesting

During a rare moment of free time on Thursday morning, Sawbill Canoe Outfitters crew member Jessica Hemmer (left) and Sawbill co-owner Clare Shirley rewind rope that customers will use on upcoming trips. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

One of the joys of running a canoe outfitting business is getting to know the clientele, said Bill and Cindy Hansen, who operated Sawbill Canoe Outfitters for three decades before retiring this year. Bill Hansen would often strike up a conversation with a client.

"Here's the quintessential story," Hansen said. "It was the early 1980s. There was a woman who had been on the trail for 10 days. She'd fallen in a swamp. Her clothes were brown with mud. She had soot all over the place and, frankly, she didn't smell very good.

"I stood upwind of her, and we started talking. She was waiting for somebody, so we had time to kill. She was really intelligent and interesting. We had a good conversation. I finally said, 'Where are you from?' She said, 'Minneapolis.' And I said, 'What do you do for a living?' And she said, 'Well, I'm a federal judge.' "

Hansen must have expressed some surprise.

"She said, 'Does it surprise you that a woman is a federal judge?' "

"I said, 'Not at all. It surprises me that someone so dirty is a federal judge.' She looked at herself and said, 'Oh, yeah. I guess I am. You ought to see me in my robe.' "

Critters who came to visit

If you operate an outfitting business 25 miles into the boonies, you're bound to have some critter stories. The Sawbill crew has a lot of them.

"We trapped seven pine marten out of the store one winter," former owner Cindy Hansen said. "They started looking familiar, so we spray-painted their butts."

Her husband, Bill Hansen, would haul the offending critters away from Sawbill, but many of them came back. He learned just how far he had to transport various trapped critters.

"Squirrels, it's two miles," he said. "Pine martens, 5 miles. And for bears, it's like 100 miles."

"We had a bear one year," Cindy Hansen said. "He was cinnamon-colored. We called him Boo Boo. We live-trapped him."

Bill hauled him to a gravel pit 40 miles away, near Finland.

"I let him out at 8 o'clock at night, and he was back before lunch the next day," Hansen said.

Bear comes shopping

One day, Bill Hansen was working in the outfitting office when an employee, John Schrag, popped in.

He said, 'I have a question,' " Hansen recalled. " 'Should there be a bear in the store?' "

"No. Is there one?" Hansen asked Schrag.

"Yes," Schrag replied.

So, the two of them walked down to the outfitting store. Sure enough, there was the bear.

"He was fully in the store, but he was kind of holding the door open with his back end," Hansen said. "I said, 'Nope. Out you go.' And he ran off."

Doing it yourself — mostly

Like most outfitters and resort owners know, it pays to solve problems on your own as much as possible. But everyone has their limits.

After Bill and Cindy Hansen's daughter, Clare Shirley, and her husband, Dan Shirley, took over the business this year, the younger couple inherited the maintenance work.

Earlier this summer, Dan called Bill Hansen, now living in Grand Marais, with an issue to troubleshoot.

"'It seems like the septic might be backing up,'" Bill Hansen said Dan told him. "So, I was talking Dan through it. I said, 'Is the septic tank full to the top?' He said, 'Yep.' I said, 'There's a filter in that tank and it's plugged. It's about two and a half feet down. There's a hook on it. Probably the easiest thing to do is just reach in there and pull it up.'"

There was a brief pause in the conversation before Dan replied.

"He said, 'That's not going to happen,' " Hansen recalled.

Shirley switched the camp to an auxiliary septic system. A septic technician arrived from Grand Marais early the next morning.

Special delivery

Sawbill's remote setting played directly into the birth of Kit, Dan and Clare's first child, last year. The couple originally was scheduled to have Kit at a Duluth hospital, but plans changed quickly when Kit's delivery became imminent. Dan and Clare, living in a yurt at the time, raced down the Sawbill Trail, turned left and drove until they met an ambulance streaking down from Grand Marais, a doctor on board.

"She examined Clare, turned to the ambulance driver and said, 'Drive as fast as you can,' " Bill said.

They made it to the hospital in Grand Marais, where Kit was soon born. The story made the Boston Globe, and NBC News was at Sawbill earlier this summer to do a feature on Kit's arrival.

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