Reader's Digest was searching for telecommuters in the U.S. workplace in 1998 when Laura and Daryl Popkes were settling into their new life on the Gunflint Trail.

The magazine featured them working remotely from their cabin on Birch Lake — she as a nursing consultant and he as a subscription management whiz for print publications. They were linked to the outside world by fax machine, phone  lines, UPS, FedEx, slow-speed internet and periodic flights from Duluth.

The connections took time to master. They moved from a crowded Bloomington neighborhood to a place where moose roam and wolves howl. But the couple's biggest breakthrough was fitting in with the Gunflint Trail community.

"Laura is very social, and she got involved with church and the local fire department," Daryl said. "She made a lot of friends in a hurry."

The Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department was new when the couple arrived. She joined as an EMT and remains a regular on the crew's calls. One of her nursing specialties is wound care.

"We've had some scary runs," she said.

Even in summer, the trip by ambulance from one end of the 57-mile trail to the other takes more than an hour. In life-or-death emergencies, the volunteers call for a life flight helicopter to intercept the transport.

But the remoteness of the landscape defies the closeness of Gunflint people, Laura said. At first, Daryl and Laura were admittedly "green" when it came to making Birch Lake their home.

She'd invite snowplow drivers into her kitchen for coffee and cookies, seeking advice on wood stove matters and other fundamentals — like the necessity of snowmobiles. "People were very welcoming to us," Laura said. "For being as spread out as we are, it's really a wonderful, wonderful community."

Laura Dahl Popkes spent family vacations on the Gunflint as a child, crying every time she had to leave her uncle's cabin on West Bearskin Lake. The trail area was the first place she looked when it was time to detach from the Twin Cities.

"We wanted to get out of suburbia," Laura said. "Our friends thought we were nuts and the locals up here didn't think we would last, and we kind of proved them all wrong."

tony kennedy