Sawbill Canoe Outfitters: The family behind the legacy

By Alissa Johnson via Quetico Superior Wilderness News

There is an outfitter at the end of the Sawbill Trail, to the northwest of Lutsen, Minnesota, where customers and staff return year after year and whose names are remembered. They become part of a kind of family tree, a network of people connected to the place and the family at its center. The Hansens, and now the Shirleys, have been running Sawbill Canoe Outfitters since 1957, creating more than a business. It’s a place where annual traditions, lifelong friendships and marriages have been born.

Most recently, Bill Hansen, son of the original owners, handed over the business to his daughter Clare Shirley and her husband, Dan, after owning it for 30 years. They run it with their 15-month-old daughter, Kit (born just in time for canoe season), in tow. Their story suggests that it’s still possible to combine business with the magic of introducing campers to canoe country and raising a family.

Growing up Sawbill

Bill has been known to say, more than once, that Sawbill is a great place to grow up and a great place to raise kids—that he knows because he’s done both. He spent his first summer on Sawbill Lake at the age of three, when he, his two siblings, and his parents, Frank and Mary Alice Hansen, lived in a one-room cabin at Sawbill Lodge.

His parents ran a fledgling outfitting business for the lodge, where the owner wanted someone to offer outfitting for guests. Bill’s dad worked as the dock boy and his mom ran the outfitter. The summer’s receipts totaled $300, with canoes renting for $2.80 per day.

It was a fit for the young family. Frank and Mary Alice secured a Forest Service operating lease and built the original Sawbill Canoe Outfitters building a quarter-mile from the lodge. Bill spent his childhood summers at Sawbill. By the age of six, he had access to his own motorboat. He started canoeing alone at seven or eight, and he had free reign of the lake and the woods.

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Sawbill Canoe Outfitters: The family behind the legacy

Sawbill Canoe Outfitters. Frank and Mary Alice Hansen started Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in 1957. Mary Alice still lives on the property. Bill Hansen recently handed over Sawbill Canoe Outfitters to his daughter Clare Shirley and her husband, Dan. Kit Shirley, the great granddaughter of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters founders, Photos courtesy Bill Hansen.

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