Proposed Northwest Sands tour would take history, ecology on the road

Organizers are seeking input on sites to highlight from St. Croix Falls to Madeline Island.

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Brian Finistad, right, talks about the history of the Northwest Sands, particularly the stretch that runs through Douglas County, as, left to right, Steve and Catherine Lynch and Kathy Laakso listen during a meeting on a proposed auto tour of the area Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at the Highland Town Hall (Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram)

Community members gathered in the Highland Town Hall Saturday, Sept. 11, to explore the idea of an auto tour of the Northwest Sands. Also known as the sand barrens, the area extends from St. Croix Falls in Polk County to Madeline Island in Bayfield County.

The tour would be built as a cell phone app or brochures — a handheld guide to the home of the Ojibwe, fur trading, mining, wild rice, homesteaders, farming the St. Croix riverway, the Brule River, logging, arts, music, the conservation movement and more.

Created by sand deposited by glacial meltwaters, the 1,900-square-mile Northwest Sands area is a globally-imperiled habitat with a diverse ecology. It also holds significant geological sites and carries a rich history.

A former Native American footpath, the sand barrens area was used extensively for travel before railroads and automobiles, and at times of the year when river travel was not ideal.

An auto tour wrapping all three layers of significance would lead visitors to sites and points of interest, increasing their awareness of this unusual landscape from the seat of their car.



  • Gordon homes join growing state register of historic places The Antoine and Sarah Gordon House, A.D. Thompson cabin, provide a rare glimpse of the area's past.
  • Pattison teachers gather around building relic The school sign is on display in the Fairlawn Mansion and Museum gardens.

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Photos and old newspaper articles were among the historic items shared during a meeting about a proposed auto tour of the Northwest Sands area Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 in the Highland Town Hall. (Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram)

“The barrens of the Northwest Sands are a connection of people and place; how we live and how we lived here is a reflection of the land itself,” said Jane Anklam with the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary in Solon Springs. “And telling that story is a way to protect not only the amazing places, but to build connections in our community.”

The idea started with friends groups dedicated to the various sand barrens areas along the path, such as the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary.

Their motto? “If you love a place, you will protect it.”

“We wanted to make sure that people that visited here didn’t just fly by and go up to Lake Superior. We constantly felt like we were competing with Lake Superior,” Anklam said. “We wanted people to embrace it and know about it so they could be careful with it.”

Their initial idea was to highlight the area’s ecology on placemats at local bars and restaurants. They kicked around the idea of an auto or bike tour. Then Anklam met Brian Finstad, who was seeking to highlight the area’s history through a similar tour.


Momentum built up as historical societies got involved, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources joined and they applied for a $2,000 grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. A draft map was created showing the possible route and preliminary sites to highlight.

A draft map detailing the northern half of a proposed auto tour that would take visitors to areas of environmental, geological and historical significance along the Northwest Sands. Organizers are seeking public input on significant sites that could be added to the tour. (Courtesy / Brian Finstad)

Sidelined for a year due to COVID-19, the group began hosting meetings at communities along the tour route in July. Fifty people attended a meeting in Burnett County; 30 showed up at Douglas County’s Amnicon Town Hall in August. Saturday’s meeting was attended by half a dozen people.

“I’d like to get more involved in the project. It’s really neat,” said Steve Lynch, president of the Barnes Area Historical Association.

For Finstad, who grew up in Gordon, the meetings are a chance to uncover historical, ecological or geological nuggets to add.

“We don’t know everything,” Finstad said. “All of this is just, at this point, made up. This is all a draft. So we want to learn the things in the community that you think we should know.”


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Left to right, Catherine and Steve Lynch with the Barnes Area Historical Association talk with Jane Anklam while Brian Finstad discusses historical sites with Ted Eastlund, also of the Barnes Area Historical Association, in the Highland Town Hall Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, following a meeting on a proposed auto tour of the Northwest Sands area. (Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram)

Seven additional meetings are planned, including ones in Solon Springs and Iron River. Contact Brian Finstad, , 612-594-1854, for more information or to suggest a site to add to the tour.

Upcoming meetings

Oct. 9: Bird Sanctuary Club House, Solon Springs, 1 p.m.

Oct. 23: Iron River Community Center, 9 a.m.

A draft map detailing a proposed auto tour that would take visitors to areas of environmental, geological and historical significance along the Northwest Sands from Madeline Island to St. Croix Falls. Contributed / Brian Finstad

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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