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Passing it on: Third generation of Hansen family outfitting canoeists for adventures in the Boundary Waters

Frank and Mary Alice Hansen started Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in 1957. (Sawbill Canoe Outfitters photo)1 / 6
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Dan Shirley prepares a Greek spinach pie for the Sawbill Canoe Outfitters staff lunch on Thursday morning, Aug. 17. Looking on are his wife, Clare Shirley, and the couple's daughter, Kit. Dan and Clare represent the third generation of Hansen family members to own Sawbill Canoe Outfitters. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)3 / 6
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 / Forum News Service)4 / 6
Sawbill Canoe Outfitters employee Jessica Hemmer (left) gives canoe-handling tips to a group of paddlers from Minneapolis on Thursday morning, Aug. 17. Canoeists (from left) are James Bell (back to camera), 8; Paul Portenlanger; Brad Rupprecht; and Greg Bell. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)5 / 6
Canoeists outfitted by Sawbill Canoe Outfitters head for the landing to begin their trip on Thursday morning, Aug. 17. In the foreground is Paul Portenlanger of Minneapolis. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service) 6 / 6

NORTH OF TOFTE — It was a damp and drippy August morning at Sawbill Canoe Outfitters nestled among the pines at the tip of the Sawbill Trail north of Tofte. A group of Twin Cities canoeists portaged shiny Kevlar canoes toward the landing on Sawbill Lake to start their trip. Sawbill crew member Jessica Hemmer of St. Cloud had just finished a portaging demonstration for a group of outbound paddlers. Other canoeists bound for the trail prowled the well-stocked Sawbill store for last-minute necessities.

Now, at the peak of the paddling season, Sawbill was humming. Ten to 25 canoe parties per day might pass through the business, headed for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which begins just a 20-minute paddle up Sawbill Lake.

This year marks a significant passage for the business, started in 1957 with a half-dozen canoes and a few sleeping bags by Frank and Mary Alice Hansen. Their granddaughter, Clare Shirley, and her husband Dan Shirley are now in charge of the business. After a transition period last summer, the Shirleys have taken over the business from Clare's parents, Bill and Cindy Hansen, who ran it for the past 30 years.

With their summer crew of 12, and 15-month-old daughter Kit always somewhere nearby, the Shirleys are carrying on the tradition at Sawbill, where some customers are fourth-generation Sawbill paddlers.

They realize what they've inherited.

"Sawbill is definitely bigger than Clare and me," Dan said. "We're kind of stewards of this thing that has a life of its own. ... We're just trying to maintain its viability and make it a place where people want to keep coming."

Dan and Clare came to Sawbill from Missoula, Mont., where both had attended the University of Montana and Clare had attended law school. They met while studying abroad in Chile. After graduating, Clare was working as an attorney and Dan, a chemist, for a biotech start-up.

When Bill and Cindy Hansen told their children the couple would soon be ready to step away from the Sawbill business, Dan and Clare got to thinking. Both were at points in their careers that the change seemed right.

"This was an opportunity we couldn't pass up," Clare said. "It kind of fell into our laps."

They were the only members of the Hansen family who expressed an interest in taking over the business.

Bill and Cindy have since moved to Grand Marais but still find themselves at Sawbill when needed. Cindy is happy to draw babysitting duties with her young granddaughter.

"One of the nicest things about passing it on within the family is that they can call us when they need us and have us not work when they don't need us," Bill Hansen said. "It's really fun for me to be up there. Half the people who come through the door I've known for 30 years."

Unique philosophy

From its beginnings with Frank and Mary Alice Hansen, Sawbill has always operated in a way different from many tourism-related businesses. Because of its remote location, at the road's end 24 miles north of Tofte and off the grid, the Sawbill crew has always lived on site. This year's crew numbers 12, and most have been there for at least two or three years. For Hemmer, 27, who had just finished the portaging demo, it's summer No. 7.

"It's the atmosphere, and being able to walk out the back door into the woods or go for a paddle," said Hemmer, who works winters at Lutsen.

The transition to a third generation of the Hansen family has gone smoothly, she says.

"It's fun to see their fresh ideas, but keeping the same spirit of the whole 'Sawbill Idea.'"

Ah, the 'Sawbill Idea.'

Passed down from Frank and Mary Alice to Bill and Cindy and now to Clare and Dan, the concept is unusual: Give employees a voice in the business, let them choose what jobs they want to do, and things run a lot more smoothly. Nobody gets stuck scrubbing trail-blackened cookpots eight hours a day while someone else gets to ferry canoeists by van to other wilderness entry points.

"We have a work system there, which we've had since the '70s," Bill Hansen said. "All work is reassigned on a weekly basis — and we were in the mix, working with the crew. There's very little employer-employee thing or boss-worker thing."

Using a point system, each employee "votes" weekly on which jobs he or she would like to do. Jobs hold different values based on their desirability. Someone might earn more points scrubbing showers than giving canoe demos. And — imagine this — for half of Clare and Dan's work hours each week, they're in the same bidding pool with crew members.

"That all plays into the dynamic," Dan Shirley said. "We're scrubbing toilets alongside the crew. We can be held accountable to our crew members if they're depending on us. It ends up creating a lot of mutual respect."

"You talk to other business owners, and they can't fathom giving up the control," Clare said. "We do have control. We just don't have to use it as frequently."

Changes over time

The generations of Hansens have witnessed plenty of change over their years at Sawbill. The innovation of lightweight Kevlar canoes made canoe travel less physically demanding. The Sawbill Trail, once a two-rut road, is now much improved — though still mainly gravel.

But the biggest changes were the evolution in the canoe country's designation as a wilderness.

When Sawbill opened in 1957, the canoe country was still the "Superior Roadless Area" in Superior National Forest. It was designated the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when the federal Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 and later became the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with passage of a congressional act in 1978. That act reduced the use of outboard motors and snowmobiles significantly.

"Motors went away," Bill Hansen said.

No motors are permitted in the BWCAW on Sawbill and other lakes where the outfitters send canoeists. Before 1978, Sawbill did a thriving business renting motors and offering a motored towing service to transport paddlers farther into the wilderness. But the Hansens embraced the change.

"Wilderness should be non-motorized, in my view," Bill Hansen said.

Kit on the move

With lunch time just an hour or so away, Dan Shirley put the finishing touches on three pans of Greek spinach pie. Clare moved from the couple's home to the outfitting building, Kit riding on one hip. At mealtimes, she eats alongside the crew, and they teach her all kinds of things.

"Show me your muscles," Clare says to Kit.

She throws her arms into the air as if flexing her little biceps and flashes a grin. She learned that one from the big kids.

The rain outside has let up now. Sawbill-outfitted canoeists sort gear into canoes at the landing. They're headed off into the most popular wilderness area in the country. They'll return in a few days with stories to tell.


For a collection of shorter stories about life at Sawbill Outfitters over the years, go to and click on "Outdoors."