Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Black ice and a bunch of ballyhoo!


Once again, the summer season is approaching in our northern corner of the state. Last weekend brought the influx of fisher-folks, many anxious to be up in our beautiful area and away from the metro backdrop or wherever they call home, despite that bit of SNOW Mother Nature pelted at us. Still others travel north to stay at weekend or seasonal homes they have invested in. Coming north to Tower and Ely ranks high on the priority list of thousands of seasonal residents and tourists.

That being the case, this season as they exit Tower, driving that last stretch of road to Ely through what was once such an alluring gateway, I have wondered if their reactions to the defoliation along the roadsides of Highway 169 are at all measurable to mine? It was my favorite drive and it has been destroyed.

Back on Feb. 25, I was driving to work at the Timberjay office in Tower, when my generally smooth-rolling apple cart was greatly upset by the cutting of trees on this stretch of road. In fact, I wasn’t the only one upset, as many appalled and infuriated locals stopped by the office to voice their complaints. I, too, vented my frustration, arms waving and a few words flying, and it was reflected on my Facebook page. “Undies in an uproar over the devastation of my beautiful, wooded drive from Ely to Tower! They just trashed the living crap out of the landscape, so the road can be straight, barren and safe? So it’ll be easier to drive 70 mph, pass more cars, or text message without flying into Clear Lake? Slow down, learn to drive in winter conditions and leave the beauty in place! If we had no concern for aesthetics...we’d live in North Dakota!”

A couple of my Facebook friends added to my rant, “Yeah maybe people should just SLOW DOWN ALREADY, enjoy the drive! Next thing you know they’ll be turning it into a four-lane so certain people can hurry up and get to where they’re going. Ugh!” Another comment followed, “I thought the same thing. Destroy the best part of the drive to the BWCAW.”

I am by no means a “fern fairy,” or “tree hugger,” as some may already be scoffing, but I can’t wrap my head around the necessity to demolish our beautiful northern roadsides to straighten a road that was not desperately needing this fix! That day back in February as I drove to work, I watched the aged Norway and White pines literally getting snipped down as if they were made of soft clay by some piece of heavy equipment. It was so distressing to me.

I have been driving that stretch of road since 2001 when I moved to Ely, and have never so much as swerved, let alone had an accident. I am a seasoned driver and don’t take unnecessary chances, especially in winter conditions. With all respect to those who have lost loved ones on this road, I cannot personally recall very many accidents that claimed lives in the years I have driven it. In fact, I was told by a reputable source that the worst section of the road is actually the hilly stretch from the Y Store heading south towards the Black Bear Cafe, but there won’t be any money left to take out those hills because of the high cost of the Eagles Nest stretch. While the Black Bear curve was fixed, there’s still plenty left undone on that stretch. It would be interesting to gather the MnDOT statistics on these sections of the highway.

Speaking of MnDOT, I did go online to their site to read about what is labeled as: The Highway 1/169 Eagles Nest Lake Area project-Six Mile Lake Road to Bradach Road. It states, “The 3A route was selected as the preferred alternative because it most closely met the project purpose and need and balanced social, economic and environmental impacts. The new alignment will reduce shading, which contributed to icy road conditions over the years, and will improve safety with wider shoulders, improved alignments and profiles and increased passing opportunities.” Well, reading this was just plain old aggravating.

“Purpose, need, balanced social, economic and environmental impacts.” What a wash! Yes, lives have been lost on many of our roadways for various reasons, but what justifies destroying the invested properties of all those residents living along the highway?  The project gets extremely invasive by Clear Lake where some of these unfortunate residents between the road and the lake have lost so much! For what? Wider shoulders and more passing opportunities, as stated by MnDOT? Don’t these living, tax-paying citizens have rights? I see fences being put up because the faster, wider road (in other words, racetrack), will be in such close proximity to their once private homes. I understand that others say they will try to sell their places. Good luck with that now! One upset property owner has the capacity to relocate his home to the opposite side of his property and escape the imminent raceway, at his own expense of course!

We live up in this region largely because of the beauty. So why do aesthetics along this gateway, to the land we claim we need for tourism income to survive, apparently not matter? In contrast, there is the Needles Highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota. It’s a spectacular fourteen-mile drive through pine and spruce forests and rugged granite mountains, unguarded by rails in many places. The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along this narrow winding tour. There are a few places where the road passes through tunnels and is little more than eight feet wide. Construction was completed back in 1922, and nothing too dramatic has been done to maim its appearance, despite the fact that thousands upon thousands of cars drive it every season. How grand for South Dakota! It is my opinion that the tolerance pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction here in northeastern Minnesota!

In an article on contemporary aesthetics entitled, The Aesthetics of the Road, Road Art, and Road Traffic, Finnish author Yrjö Sepänmaa states it best, “A good road is a living, total work that arises from a vision, which demands impeccable professional skill in its designer, as well as the ability to understand and create aesthetic landscape totalities.”  Hurray for the Finns and their design sense! We have plenty of Finns up here, including myself in part, probably not enough of them are MnDOT road architects though.  So the hell with aesthetics, we’ve also got “black ice” to worry about!

There’s such ballyhoo about the treacheries of “black ice” these days on this road and others. The MnDOT report states that the construction is needed to reduce shading which causes the ice. Did our grandparents ever anguish about this? There’s shading by trees everywhere. This is not Iowa. Snow and ice are part of life in the North Country... period.  All of a sudden I hear “black ice” spoken of as if it’s the Grim Reaper! This shadowy-phantom wraith of the winter roads, “black ice,” lies waiting in the ditches, determined to clutch onto our tires and spin them out of control.

Being in an irritated state, I did some reading about this, too. The American Meteorological Society Glossary of Meteorology, includes a portion of the definition of black ice as “a thin sheet of ice, relatively dark in appearance, that may form when light rain or drizzle falls on a road surface that is at a temperature below 0°C. Because it represents only a thin accumulation, black ice is highly transparent and thus difficult to see as compared with snow, frozen slush, or thicker ice layers.” Sounds like ice to me. Nothing slow down, hold ‘er steady and drive careful.

So, it seems I live in a part of the world where aesthetics aren’t very important, at least to the high muck-a-mucks that make the decisions for this kind of progress. It is a shame, a damn shame, and no amount of discussion will convince me otherwise.  For me and the thousands of seasonal residents and tourists who pass by the stumps and rubble this summer and into the fall of 2017 when the project is slated for completion, we can chalk it up to progress as we grimace and furrow our brows.

The very aesthetic Lynn O’Hara can be reached at


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