Remote Boundary Waters outfitters connected to power grid after six decades

The modern world has finally made it to the end of the Sawbill Trail, at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Sawbill Canoe Outfitters reports that, after more than 66 years of operation, the business finally got connected to “the grid” last week. Located 24 miles north of Tofte, the remote location has long been powered solely by its own generators, solar, and wind.

Third-generation owners Clare and Dan Shirley say they are celebrating. Sawbill was founded in 1957 by Frank and Mary Alice Hansen, grandfather of current co-owner Clare, whose parents also operated the outfitter.

“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,” Dan wrote in a recent blog post.

Dan pointed out one benefit they’re already experiencing: silence. Connecting to the grid has allowed them to turn off their diesel generators, restoring quiet to this peaceful place at the edge of the wilderness.

The connection includes both power and fiber internet cables. It required trenching cable for 9.5 miles from the nearest connection at an ARMER tower on The Grade. The project was made possible with a $20 million federal grant to Arrowhead Cooperative from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The Sawbill connection is the first project completed, with more parts of rural Cook County to be connected in coming years.

While Sawbill has been able to use some carbon-free power sources, like solar and wind, they say they have been limited by their ability to store energy in batteries. Now, connected to the grid, they can continue generating renewable energy and simply sell the power back to the grid rather than store it.

And they can start focusing more of their time and energy on outfitting canoeists.

“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,” Dan wrote.

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