(This is the second in a four-part series about the schools that are located in the four corners of Minnesota.)
GRAND MARAIS – Cook County High School is exactly what the name implies. It’s the only school in Cook County, which is the second-largest county in Minnesota by total area, but has the fifth-smallest population of all 87 counties.
That equation – a macro area with a micro number of people -- means that students come from all over the county in the tip of northeast Minnesota’s arrowhead to attend school. Some live far up the Gunflint Trail, a county road that snakes northwesterly from Grand Marais through Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area nearly to the Ontario border.
“I think the furthest bus ride is about an hour, if you go all the way up the Trail, and they have to go to the very end of the Trail to pick some kids up,” said athletic director and volleyball coach Pam Taylor, a native of Chaska who has worked in the school district for 33 years.
Cell phone service can be spotty in the hilly timberlands that shadow the Lake Superior shore, and broadband internet is relatively new in the county. A trip to the dentist can mean two hours on the road. It’s an isolated, scenic location where summer teems with tourism and winter mean lots of opportunities to sit by a fire or bundle up and explore the outdoors.
Lyle Anderson, who was hired at Cook County as a teacher and coach in 1976 and retired in 2009, came from North Dakota and figured he would stay for a couple years. Now in retirement, he’s still here.
“Heck yeah,” he said, “I absolutely fell in love with this place.”
This part of Minnesota is unlike any other, with the phrase “winter sports” often meaning outdoor sports. The highlight of Anderson’s coaching career was leading the Cook County Vikings to Class A state football championships in 1997, 1998 and 1999, but he also coached basketball, wrestling, track and, yes, skiing.
The Cook County boys and girls basketball teams, girls cross-country team and one-act play groups have all been to state competitions. Football leads the way with 11 state tournament appearances, most recently in 2007.
Simply putting teams together for practices, much less games, can be a big task due to the distances that athletes must travel. Along the lakeshore, the school district extends nearly 70 miles from Schroeder in the south to Grand Portage and the Canadian border in the north. When a team bus returns to the school from a road game, some kids will drive another hour to get home.
Because of that, when the Vikings play Polar League road games, some varsity contests start at 6:30 instead of 7 p.m. so the teams arrive home sooner.
“Especially on weeknights we can get home a little earlier,” Taylor said. “That eliminated getting back to school at 1 o’clock in the morning and having to be here by 8. A lot of times kids will try to arrange to stay in town but sometimes they can’t.”
Travel can present challenges other than distance. Taylor talks about her son, a student at Vermilion Community College in Ely, driving home to Grand Marais on state Highway 1, which winds for 107 miles through the Superior National Forest.
“He had run off the road and went in the ditch. He stood on top of his car in order to get cell phone service.”
When teams ride a bus to Ely and back, they often take extra garbage bags in case anyone becomes ill.
“I hate that road on a bus,” Taylor said with a smile. “There are a lot of times when I get phone calls, ‘So and so got sick on the bus going to Ely.’ If they have any kind of car sickness, they’re in trouble.”
The enrollment in grades nine through 12 is 170; that number has been falling in recent years and is expected to be around 149 in 2015-16. After a history of playing 11-man football, the Vikings will play their first season as a nine-man team next fall.
“That’s going to be a big switch,” Taylor said. “But the last couple of years in football our numbers have been low, and then kids get hurt. Nine-man makes travel easier, too. With 11-man we went all the way to Ogilvie (213 miles each way). I think now the furthest one will be Cherry (132).”
Senior Noah Warren said his high school memories will revolve around football.
“That was what half of my school was all about,” he said. “Playing football with my brother and the guys above me and the guys below me. I think (playing nine-man) is probably a step forward. When we finished last year we had 17 guys on the team. There’s not a lot you can do with that.”
Jami Sjogren, a senior three-sport athlete, said one of her favorite things about the school is that everyone knows everyone.
“It’s pretty small, easy to navigate around. You’re not going to get lost,” she said. “We’re all really close. In my class, I’ve gone to school with most of them since kindergarten.”
Taylor added, “I think one thing that’s unique with these guys is they do all know each other. They know their whole class, but not just their class, they know the whole school. The elementary kids know the high school kids. I think that’s kind of important for these guys.”
One of the newest members of the school staff is Adam Nelson, who is in his second year as the principal for grades six through 12. The 33-year-old is a native of Red Wing, 305 miles to the south; he and his wife have two children. His duties also sometimes extend to officiating junior varsity basketball games and filling in as a middle school coach.
“Coming from Red Wing, we used to complain about driving to Hutchinson or Chanhassen,” he said. “It’s like an hour and 15 minutes to Chanhassen. Here, we have to go about two hours to get just about anywhere, other than Silver Bay and Two Harbors.
“It was a really eye-opening experience when it came to the sports teams. The dedication of the coaches and athletes and parents to do the things they do up here, just to make it happen, is pretty incredible. There are a lot of great people around here.”
--To see photos from Cook County, visit the MSHSL Facebook page.
--NEXT: Hills-Beaver Creek