Minnesota Public Radio ran a story earlier this month about the extremely long school bus ride endured every day by students who live up the Gunflint Trail.
The News Tribune did its own story on that long bus ride almost 22 years ago, in November 1988. The driver is different, but much remains the same…
Paul Werdier stands by his school bus on November 15, 1988, at the start of the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais. (Tom Dennis / News-Tribune)
Gunflint Trail run means a long day for the bus driver
By Tom Dennis, News-Tribune
Paul Werdier cranks open the door to his school bus and climbs aboard, holding a snow shovel and a double-bladed axe.
“Yeah, I guess I carry a few things on this bus that others don’t,” he says.
The supplies go behind the driver’s seat, where the spare boots and blankets are kept in winter. Werdier double-checks the oil, the lights and the emergency heater. He punches the ignition and the big diesel roars into life.
It’s 5 a.m. in Grand Marais. The longest school-bus run in Minnesota has begun.
Twice a day, every school day, Werdier makes a 114-mile trip up and down the Gunflint Trail. The night is black as he rolls through the empty streets of Grand Marais.
“I’ll be surprised if we don’t see two or three moose today,” he says. “After a big snow, I’ve seen them goofy moose lie right down in the middle of the road, licking up the salt.
“Does that ever wake you up.”
The bus swings north into the woods, which stretch unbroken all the way to Hudson Bay. A few inches of snow have fallen overnight; the bus fishtails ever so slightly as Werdier negotiates the winding road.
“It’s a little slushy out,” he says. “Once in a while I’ll see a logger who got up early. But usually I’m the first one breaking trail.”
Werdier, 40, has been making the Gunflint run for about a year. The hours are long, he admits. He starts at 5, gets back at about 8:15 a.m. and works in a Grand Marais lumber yard until 3. Then the afternoon run up the trail begins, which puts him home about 7. He goes to bed at 8:30.
Working several jobs is about the only way to survive in small towns these days, he says. “Anyway, I don’t mind it. I like this time of day. I’ve always liked the morning.”
Miles rumble by in comfortable quiet. The headlights illuminate the road, but the woods seem to soak up light like a sponge.
Suddenly two moose dart off the road and into a gully. “Well, look at that,” Werdier says, watching them gallop. “A cow and a calf. Our first two of the day.”
Werdier has never hit a moose, but he did smack a downed tree one time. And the big bus has broken down more than once.
But when that happens, Gunflint parents respond. “When you’re not at your stop, they come looking for you,” he says. “Just sit tight and wait. Pretty soon they’ll be driving by.”
At 6:20 a.m., an hour and 20 minutes after the run began, Werdier parks in a turnaround near the tip of the trail. He takes a break for a few minutes and rubs his eyes. Then he starts back down.
The bus slows, the blinkers flash and two small forms materialize by the side of the road. The door opens and two grade-school boys, bundled up snug in wool hats and winter coats, climb aboard.
“Hi, Mark. Hi, Peter,” Werdier says. “Hi, Paul,” Mark answers.
The boys are quiet as they take their seats.
“Sometimes the kids talk. They fill you in on what’s going on,” Werdier says later. “But sometimes they sleep all the way into town. They sleep in the afternoon, too; a 10-hour day is a long one for a kindergartner, that’s for sure.”
The bus slows again. “Morning, Joey,” Werdier says to the youngster who steps aboard.
“Joey lives on an island on the lake over there,” Werdier says. “He comes over by canoe. In the winter, he snowmobiles.”
Two girls at the next stop bear gifts and shy smiles. In the distance, a parent stands silhouetted in a cabin doorway.
“Well, look at this. I get coffee this morning,” Werdier says, accepting a cup from the first girl. “And a doughnut, too,” a gift from the second. “Thank you both very much.”
Six youngsters are aboard for the trip back down the trail. The hour passes quickly and quietly; a glance toward the back door shows several pairs of boots sticking into the aisle. Only a few wool-hatted heads are visible.
Dawn breaks; the sun comes up; and the bus approaching Grand Marais awakens, too. Youngsters board by the handful at one stop after another. For the few minutes before reaching the Grand Marais schools, the bus is just another school bus, noisy and crowded and alive.
Then it empties, and all is quiet again. Werdier sighs with relief. “That’s that,” he says with a grin.
The longest bus ride in Minnesota is complete.