Start your adventure at the end of the road

Start your adventure at end of the road

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2012 – 1:02 PM


Early Saturday morning on Crane Lake on the Minnesota-Ontario border, a peaceful place to fish walleyes was easy to find. The fish, anglers found, bit fairly often.

Sometimes the best destination is at the end of the road. This is no truer than at Crane Lake, Minn., the southernmost lake of Voyageurs National Park, which sits right at the end of the U.S. highway system. A sign towers over the last few feet of Hwy. 24, reminding that this is “The End of the Road.” But the end of this road is a good thing. And you don’t have to be a hard-core fisherman or camper to enjoy all that this area has to offer.


The first thing you’ll notice about Crane Lake is that the highway ends and the waterways begin. Literally. Crane is the closest entry point to Voyageurs for almost all Minnesota visitors. It’s connected to Rainy Lake, Kabetogama and Sand Point lakes to the north. To the east, Crane Lake is a gateway to the lakes of Superior National Forest, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Quetico Provincial Park. From Crane, you can travel by water about 60 miles in several different directions. And if you’re up for a few portages, you can go at least 1,000 miles.


Fishing … fishing … and more fishing. Crane Lake is home to several fish species, including walleye, northern pike and bass. The bait shops are chock full of locals with advice. If you tune into your marine band radio each morning, you’ll hear up-to-date tips on fishing hot spots, as well as the nearest wildlife sightings. There are also local guides who can be worth their weight in panfish to folks coming into the area to fish Crane for the first time. Bring your own boat, or keep it simple and rent a pontoon, fishing boat or houseboat right on Crane. The Visitor Bureau website offers information on fishing and a list of outfitters and resorts that offer rentals.

Crane is also perfect for other water activities, including swimming, scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking. It’s one of the smaller lakes in the park, and one of the most rugged, with hundreds of sheer rock walls and picturesque narrows. Between Crane Lake and Sand Point Lake you’ll find narrows that are the most photographed spot in Voyageurs National Park. This early May, the water was already a crisp 62 degrees — warm enough for kids to launch themselves off the end of the docks, and calm enough to take an evening canoe or kayak trip along the shoreline in search of wildlife. Loons, eagles, deer and otter are seen frequently, while moose, black bear and wolves tend to be more elusive. Folks can bring their own kayaks or canoes, or rentals are available at several locations on Crane Lake.

If you’re looking for a hiking excursion, head to Vermilion Gorge on the west end of Crane Lake. The trail is 3 miles long, and after 10 minutes on the trail, hikers will run into Vermilion Falls, where the torrent of water is forced through a 10-foot-wide opening in the granite. Boardwalks around the falls offer breathtaking views. (

A visit to the Vince Shute Bear Sanctuary can make for a memorable outing. It’s a sanctuary to dozens of bears, operated by the American Bear Association, in the town of Orr, a 35- to 40-minute drive from Crane Lee. A large viewing deck allows visitors to observe the bears in their natural habitat (1-218-757-0172;

Scotts resort offers a charming one-stop shopping excursion for visitors and floatplanes. Owners Darrell and Carole Scott have created a wonderful shop packed with mementos and gifts, as well as products made by artists in the area. Don’t forget to say hello to “Norton” the northern pike, a local favorite who looms under the Scotts’ dock. (1-218-993-2341; http://www.scottsoncrane


There’s no shortage of places to stay on Crane Lake. Check for listings.

Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats has private lake cabins and is the only place that rents houseboats on Crane Lake (7576 Gold Coast Road; 1-218-993-2266; There’s a houseboat to fit any size, including a whopper Voyagaire 550, whose main deck is 990 square feet and includes a hot tub. All new houseboat drivers are trained by Voyagaire’s staff.

If pitching a tent is more up your alley, four outfitters offer camping and RV sites right on Crane Lake. For more rustic camping and some solitude, head deeper into Voyageurs Park. The campsites are accessible only by water, and classified as tent, houseboat or day-use sites. All are marked with signs. Permits are required for overnight stays, and can be obtained at any park visitor center or boat ramp. Find camping information at

Were to eat

If you don’t want to be hassled with packing staples for a camping or houseboat trip, Voyagaire Lodge offers food provisioning. There are a handful of restaurants on Crane, at Nelson’s Resort (7632 Nelson Road), Scotts Seaplane Base (7546 Gold Coast Road) and Trail’s End Resort (6310 Crane Lake Road, Buyck, Minn.). Voyagaire also has a restaurant on the main level of the lodge, offering fresh walleye and a superb margherita pizza.

Reminder: While dining in Mother Nature’s restaurant, be sure to pack your food away so as not to entice an unwanted guest to your table.


Find the Crane Lake Visitor & Tourism Bureau at and Voyageurs National Park at

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.

John Madson Fellowship Winner

June 12, 2012

McDonnell, Pollmann receive 2012 OWAA Madson Fellowships

MISSOULA, Mont. — Outdoor Writers Association of America selected Kelly Jo McDonnell and John Pollmann as co-recipients of the 2012 OWAA John Madson Fellowship. The fellowship is an annual grant program that funds continuing education opportunities for OWAA members. This year’s recipients will share the total award of $2,500 for reimbursable expenses related to attending educational opportunities of their choice.

McDonnell, of Lino Lakes, Minn., is a writer and TV producer for Ron Schara Productions and has been with the company for 16 years. TV segments air on NBC, Fox and Outdoor Channel. McDonnell is also a freelance writer of outdoor-related features for the (Minn.) StarTribune. A member since 2011, she is the daughter of late long-time OWAA member Jim McDonnell. She will be attending the Travel Writers Conference in Corte Madera, Cali., this coming August.

Pollmann, of Dell Rapids, S.D., is an educator and freelance writer and photographer. He has had credits appear in the Ducks Unlimited e-newsletter, Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Delta Waterfowl Magazine, Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Outdoor News and other outlets. Pollmann has been an OWAA member since 2008, and will be attending OWAA’s Goldenrod Writing Workshop in Missoula, Mont., in July.

OWAA’s Madson Fellowship is funded through the John Madson Fellowship Fund, an endowment that thrives primarily through OWAA member contributions and fundraising efforts. Its goal is to enhance professional communication skills for OWAA members. The fellowship program is designed to honor the legacy of John Madson, one of OWAA’s most talented, respected and honored legends. Applications are evaluated by a committee of past OWAA Jade of Chiefs conservation award winners.

For more information on the Madson Fellowship, visit

OWAA is The Voice of the Outdoors®. The Outdoor Writers Association of America is the oldest and largest association of professional outdoor communicators in the United States. It was organized in 1927 by members of the Izaak Walton League of America and includes professional communicators dedicated to sharing the outdoor experience. OWAA’s professionals include writers, photographers, outdoors radio- and television-show hosts, book authors, videographers, lecturers and artists. The association is headquartered in Missoula, Mont. For more information, contact Robin Giner, executive director, Outdoor Writers Association of America, 615 Oak St., Ste. 201, Missoula, Mont. 59801; 406-728-7434,;

Toy Inventor is on a fun run!

West Lakeland toy inventor is on a fun run

  • Article by: KELLY JO McCONNELL , For the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2012 – 5:29 PM

Tony Morley of West Lakeland Township has had a successful — and fun — career as a toy inventor.


Tony Morley at his home shop in West Lakeland Township. For Fisher-Price he has invented Block Builder (front left), and for Fat Brain he has invented Stacking Action Blocks (center) and Wobbling Tobbles.

Tony Morley didn’t intend to spend most of his adult life tinkering with toys, but that’s what he has done for about three decades.

“I didn’t go to college with intentions to be a toy inventor,” chuckled Morley, 61. “I don’t know many people who do. And if somebody had that as a career goal, I would try to talk them out of it.”

Morley’s run in the toy business is an impressive one. This spring at the American International Toy Fair in New York, manufacturers picked up a number of Morley’s toy ideas for review. He’s fresh off another success, “Wobbling Tobbles,” manufactured by Fat Brain Toys. It was a finalist for 2012 Toy of the Year in the Specialty Toy category by the Toy Industry Association.

“Tobbles is a satisfying toy concept that I invented recently,” Morley said, “It’s got some character about it that is attractive to young and old.”

The typical life span of a successful toy is about three years, explained Morley. Yet, he’s been fortunate to have one that is on its 12th year with Fisher Price. “Its called Stacking Action Blocks,” he said, “very simple, very low-tech.”

It took a few years for the resident of West Lakeland Township to find his niche.

After receiving an industrial design degree from Brigham Young University, Morley worked at several positions and traveled from place to place. It wasn’t until he started working at toy companies that he found his calling.

It started with Lakeside Games in Bloomington in 1980. Morley’s next gig was designing Star Wars-themed toys for Kenner Products, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then he was on to designing games for Milton Bradley in Springfield, Mass., between 1984 and 1986.

He met his wife, Taia, a fellow game designer in Massachusetts, and they moved to Minneapolis so Morley could join two partners in an independent toy design company. After the partners went in different directions, Morley decided to strike out on his own, and kept the group’s original name, Red Racer Studio.

Today, Red Racer Studio takes contracts from Mattel, Fisher-Price and others. He and Taia also do package design for toy companies.

Morley enjoys the creative process and says he showed signs of tinkering even as a child growing up in California. He had little or no knowledge of physics or electricity or the scale of materials, but he says he spent a lot of time in the garage just building things.

“I once tried to make a rock polisher out of an old washing machine motor,” recalled Morley. “It was dramatic. I plugged it in and it essentially self-destructed in a very violent fashion.”

Do his four kids think his job is cool? “No. They don’t think it’s cool. They don’t know anything else. Their friends thinks it’s super-cool, though,” he said.

Even though most find Morley’s job a fun and carefree way to spend the working days, he stresses that the toy industry can be a tricky one, and is very unpredictable. But when one of his toys captures the attention it deserves, “It is a great feeling,” he said. “It is fun!”

Auto Guru – Star Tribune

Auto guru retires from Century College

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2012 – 3:44 PM

Century College auto instructor Tom Chall has retired after four decades of helping students become the people who help keep our cars running.


Tom Chall has been teaching at the auto shop at Century College since before they laid the concrete. When he began teaching, gas was 25 cents a gallon and a car was a glorified go-cart. “Today’s automobile has more technology than the first lunar landing to the moon! It’s just amazing,” Chall said.

Tom Chall was there when the automotive program began at Century College in White Bear Lake. He was the one who started it.

Now, 41 years and countless students-turned-mechanics later, he’s retiring. In his time at Century, Chall has seen some major changes, not only at the two-year college but in the automotive industry as a whole. He’s also been a keen observer of student behavior. With his wealth of experience, we asked him to take a look back on his tenure.

What was the price of gas when you started teaching? Twenty-five cents a gallon. I had a ’72 Vega, and when I would drive from Milwaukee, $3 would fill the tank. I could always fill the tank for under $4. The students think it’s unfathomable.

The biggest change in cars through the years? When I started, the car was like a big go-cart. It had seven more pistons than a go-cart, and seven more spark plugs. There was nothing electronic about it. Today’s automobile has more technology than the first lunar landing to the moon! It’s just amazing. … Every part of the vehicle is computer-controlled. It has changed so that the computer senses every function of the car. You could go into a slide, and it will start to correct it to take you out of the slide. The automobiles today are superior, cleaner and more efficient.

Common problems, then and now? Common problems are always the brakes, steering suspension, spark plugs. You don’t have to worry about a distributor cap — we don’t even have a distributor anymore. … Today, you get the “check engine” light that signals there’s a failure in one of the computer systems. You have to diagnose and know it, and be able to fix that in today’s cars. … The hardest thing to teach is diagnosing. Fixing is the easy part. … Only half of the students make it to the second year [of the program], and the reason is they have to score well in electrical. We can start out with 500 and end up with 75 students. Every one of my students said they never realized how complicated an automobile really was.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of? We [Century College] have the best program in the state. Our students are the proof of the pudding. When students head to a manufacturer’s training session they come back and say “wow, thanks for teaching me so well.” … My teaching colleagues are a big part of the success of the program. And they’re both former students, too!

Biggest challenge? The biggest challenge is trying to teach someone who doesn’t really want to learn. You just can’t do it. The good news is, the number of students who want to learn far outweigh the ones that don’t. It’s very satisfying to have a student who wants to work very hard, and does very well because they’re doing something they’re passionate about. If you’re passionate, you’ll be successful in life.

Philosophy on teaching? You have to know your subject matter inside and out. It’s the rubber-to-the-road reality; you just need to know your subject matter well, and share that passion. … You also have to have the ability to get complicated concepts across to people. I have 25 different ways to explain something. If you don’t get it across one way, try another way. I once had a student who would sit in the front row, and I could read his face like a sign. When he got it, his face lit up like a light bulb. You have to find a different approach until that light goes on.

Favorite memory? When students share with me that “you’ve been more of a dad to me than my dad.” That’s happened on a couple of occasions. We have some students in the program that have been down a tough road. That’s another part that’s rewarding … to see someone pull themselves up by their bootstraps, give them a trade so they can make money, and deal with the ex-con stereotype. Some turn their life around. As a teacher, you can be a big part of that.

Funniest memory? Around 10 or 15 years ago we had gotten in a fast car and I asked one of the security guards if he wanted to ride in “my new car.” College was over with, so we went out and did burnouts in the back parking lot. When we were in the car, the security officer’s phone rings, and it was one of the administrators saying there was this black Camaro doing burnouts in the back. The security guy said he was right on top of it, and put his hand out the window and waved at the administrator. It was extremely hilarious. He handed me the phone and I invited [the administrator] to come down, too. I’ll chuckle about that one for the restof my life.

Retiring after 40-plus years – now what? My wife, Pam, and I are blessed with a beautiful house on the lake, and we have three grown children. I do love to boat, and I have a brand-new pontoon. But if you have a gift, you have to give it away; you can’t just hoard it. I’m working on some outboards for some friends and neighbors. I also will do more church volunteer work. I’ve spent a whole lifetime at Century College. Right now, our automotive program is the best in the state. And I run into students everywhere now! If I’m in Florida getting off a plane, I run into a student. If I’m in Montana, I run into a student. Or boating at Cross Lake, I run into a student. It makes you feel proud.

Forest Lake dancer living her dream

 Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune

  • Updated: May 4, 2012 – 6:09 PM

Kourtni Lind always wanted to dance on Broadway. Now, she’s in the cast of “Spiderman.”

Broadway is a long way from Washington County, but Forest Lake native Kourtni Lind always knew that’s where she’d end up.

Lind landed a key role in the rock musical “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” in December and has been performing since on Broadway — her dream since she was 3 years old and dancing in her mother’s dance studio.

“I actually was not really good,” Lind said, recalling her early years dancing. “It wasn’t until I hit my growth spurt and figured out how my body worked that it all clicked. I realized it was what I was meant to do, and I’ve always loved it.”

Lind’s mother, Robin Lind, owner of Dance Tech Studio in Forest Lake, admitted she tried to steer her daughter toward sports and not the arts world.

“She hadn’t grown into her body yet, but she did do well in sports. She just wasn’t very flexible. … But she just loved to dance!”

Danielle Napoli, a lifelong friend who took dancing with Lind, remembered Lind’s lack of flexibility, but she also remembered a strong work ethic and a will to practice.

“Yes, she wasn’t the most flexible at that time,” said Napoli, “but look at her now. She’s Gumby woman. I never doubted that she could do it.

“When Kourtni makes up her mind to do it, she can pretty much accomplish anything.”

The entertainment business can be a challenging one. Lind said she really started to focus on dance as a career once she hit high school.

She had attended junior high and most of senior high in Forest Lake, but spent her senior year at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts. After graduating and moving to Los Angeles, Lind participated in the nationally broadcast reality show, “So you think you can dance?” and was booked on the “Wicked” tour. But she knew New York was the place she needed to be.

Lind toured with “Wicked” for 2010, but then made the decision to leave.

“I chose to leave so I could move to New York,” she recalled. “I left around the holidays and moved to New York on Dec. 28th of 2010.”

She cleared her calendar for auditions. When the “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” audition came around, she was ready. It was a two-day process, involving dancing first, then returning to sing.

“I had a great feeling that I had gotten it,” Lind said. “The call from my agent came in around 10:30 in the morning, and it was such the stereotypical thing. … They put me on speaker phone and told me the news and we were all screaming and crying.”

The rock musical has become infamous in New York City due to problems with its budget and struggles with injuries and safety issues. But it seems to have hit its stride, recently having sellout shows and strong reviews.

About 80 percent of the cast has stuck with the production, and Lind, 22, is the youngest cast member.

“Everybody is from all over the place. It’s so cool that way,” said Lind, “We have people from Chicago, Michigan and Iowa. I think I’m the only Minnesotan, though.”

The work schedule is grueling — they do eight shows a week and have Mondays off.

Lind said the Broadway schedule makes it tough to come home for visits. “It was Minnesota State Fair time last year when I was last home,” she said. “I only get one day a week right now.

“I miss my family all the time,” she said, but “I need to be far away to be able to do what I love and make money. I’m very blessed to have that support system in my family.”

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

Lino Lakes save blue herons

Quick work helps Lino Lakes save blue herons

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELLSpecial to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2012 – 11:00 PM

The revival of a colony that was declining a decade ago is a living legacy to Art Hawkins, who sounded the alarm.


The blue heron is Lino Lakes’ logo.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune s

In northeast Lino Lakes, there’s a piece of land that could be right out of “Jurassic Park.”

“Just north of 35W, look over to your right, and you can see an island and a lake,” said Marty Asleson, environmental coordinator for the city. “That’s where the blue herons are living. When they fly over, they look like a pterodactyl. Their species dates back to the dinosaur age. They’ve been around a long time.”

Not so long ago, however, the Peltier Island colony appeared to be going the way of the dinosaur.

In the early 2000s, Lino Lakes resident Art Hawkins, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, noticed that the blue herons were disbanding.

“Art was the one that rang the alarm on the colony,” said biologist Andy Von Duyke, “and the Peltier Lake Heron Task Force was organized; it was a coalition of stakeholders as well as DNR [the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources], Anoka County Parks, and the city of Lino Lakes and Centerville.”

Hawkins died in 2006, but his warning already was bearing fruit. The project received some funding, and with the help of DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, steps were being taken as early as 2004 to reverse the trend.

“I was a new graduate student at the time,” Von Duyke said. “That season I started studying the colony. In the previous season, there were 250 nests in this colony early in the season. We went and installed cameras. … That colony had a 100 percent failed [birth] rate that year. Based on my camera evidence, I had a pretty good idea what it was.”

Predation, mainly raccoons, seemed to be the main culprit, Von Duyke said.

Asleson also suspected boating activity in the shallow waters around the island and 35W road construction, as well as low-flying seaplanes, as possible factors.

Said Von Duyke: “I had an experimental design to test my hypothesis on the remaining couple hundred nests. But in 2005, there were only 25 active nests. [The number] dropped 90 percent in one year. So I immediately went into crisis mode. We had to keep this colony going.”

He and volunteers started by installing predator guards and monitoring the nests. Asleson said a no-wake zone around the island also was enforced.

Three blue heron chicks survived that year, and there’s been a steady increase since then, Von Duyke said. The following year, 50 chicks survived.

Observers estimate there are now more than 100 active blue heron nests on Peltier Lake. The coalition volunteers have confirmed great egrets nesting on the island, as well.

“It’s very exciting,” said Von Duyke. “A colony that’s on the brink in 2005 now seven years later is graduated into a big colony — not the huge one that it used to be, but bigger than the average colony in Minnesota.”

Von Duyke, a volunteer on the project now, said blue herons not only are magnificent creatures, but also are important to the ecology of the region.

Asleson agrees and notes that the bird is ingrained into the Lino Lakes culture:

“The Blue Heron is our city logo. It’s on our water tower. We have a Blue Heron Elementary, and it’s on our coffee cups. If you live in Lino Lakes, you know about the blue heron.”