As Duluth, Minnesota’s Director of Recreational Lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, Hansi Johnson has helped raise essential money, preserve natural recreation sites, plan and create single-track trails, and grow interest in the city far and wide. Call Up is lucky enough to have him as a guest writer to fill us in on the city’s rich storied past, its wildly exciting future, and how mountain biking played a crucial role in not only reviving the city, but transforming it.
Check out our handy dandy guide to Duluth’s very best trails and watering holes.
Picture a city that was so down on its self-image that it, too, believed in the stereotypes assigned to it by the outside world.
Welcome to Duluth, Minnesota.
Back in the days of old, Duluth was a place the native Chippewa people considered the land of milk and honey. Flowing through the city was the St. Louis River, one of North America’s only freshwater estuaries and perhaps one of the largest continuous beds of wild rice in the country.
Duluth was a land stuffed with food—the rice itself, the waterfowl that fed on it, and, of course, the fish: from walleye to smallmouth bass to the legendary Lake Superior sturgeon, some over six feet in length. Its Estuary led into Lake Superior, feeding its flourishing ecosystem. Its hilly forests were dense with ancient white pine and oak savanna.
But within 100 years of European settlement, Duluth’s rich life changed.
A Steady Downfall
The Chippewa were displaced. The timber was removed to the stump. The St. Louis River became the central highway for moving millions of board feet off to the lumber mills, destroying nearly all the wild rice in its wake.
Heavy industry soon followed, taking ore from the Iron Range to the river, where ships and steel were created to move it all to Lake Superior and thus the world. World War II—and its lust for mechanized death—saw the Range sucked dry of its ore and, by the 1970s, the whole mad cycle came crashing to a halt.
Once a vibrant region teeming with life, Duluth was now a place spent, denuded, expired. And the Duluth community, once one of the wealthiest in North America (if not the world), became the story of a rust belt left barren, isolated, and weak.
In just a few decades, Duluth went from hero to zero, from riches to rags.
To the outside world, Duluth was a place busted. An industrial wasteland. A backward, arctic no-go zone full of polka and hockey. No one seemed to remember the fact that the city had very nearly saved the free world as we know it.
This history of pain and heartbreak has embedded itself into the DNA of Duluth and its people. It’s been passed down from generation to generation to generation—as an apocalyptic inheritance that has impacted the city’s politics, business climate, and global decisions.
So how long does an epic trauma of this magnitude last? Until the people who are part of the community stand up and shake it off.
In Duluth’s case, that’s been about 40 years… give or take a few.
A Steady Rise
I have lived in Duluth on and off since the late 1980s. In that timeframe, I have been able to witness a massive change in Duluth’s economy, appearance and, most importantly, self-confidence.
I am often asked by people, from politicians to advocates to the general Joe, how all this came to pass.
More often than not, people are expecting to hear things like the number of dollars invested or other technical or strategic information. I could certainly answer that way, but the cold hard truth of the matter is that the reason Duluth has rebounded is because Duluth finally started valuing what it has versus what it does not. It stopped apologizing and started lifting up its unique attributes and being proud of them.
Much like the kid in The Lorax with the last seed of the Truffula Tree, the local Duluthians have gone back to what has been left of the land of milk and honey and started to both revitalize and restore it.
Duluth’s once explosive growth dictated its city limits should be set 27 miles wide to accommodate it. Of course, the growth stalled. But the upside is that Duluth now has over 11,000 acres of open space in its borders, much of it continuous and in hills that extend nearly 1,000 feet up from the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.
The places where factories once stood are, in some cases, now forested. In other cases, they’re clean, open spaces along the river itself.
It’s work that has been ongoing for decades. Since the 1980s, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in cleaning up the river, with the same amount slated for the next five years.
Meanwhile, there has always been a segment of the population that has appreciated Duluth’s natural amenities. These are men and women who are hardcore paddlers, cyclists, climbers, and skiers. While Duluth’s detractor community was lamenting its failing industrial infrastructure and the dearth of jobs left behind, Duluth’s admirers were surfing the waves at Stoney Point, climbing the ice at the abandoned city quarry, and ripping the sweet singletrack at Hartley Park. Either way, these were disparate groups more concerned with living their lives than entering the noisy discourse surrounding community and revitalization.
The Cyclists of Gitchee Gummee Shores (COGGS), IMBA, and the Duluth Traverse provided the energy that sparked that change.
A Changing Landscape
Through vision, planning, and good old-fashioned sweat, the local Duluth mountain bike community came up with an idea for The Duluth Traverse Trail System, over 100 miles of singletrack spanning 27 miles of city space.
Interconnecting thousands of acres of parks and open space with nearly every neighborhood of the city, it’s a remarkable—and very Duluthian—vision. To date, the Duluth Traverse project has raised over 1.5 million dollars and constructed over 70 miles of purpose-built, pro-designed singletrack. This effort has been so successful that Duluth was recently awarded the IMBA Gold Level Ride Center designation, the only one in the Midwest—and one of five in the world.
More importantly, as this effort gained success and worldwide accolades, the leadership in Duluth took notice. Then-mayor Don Ness realized that this project was building a newfound sense of pride in the city. Mayor Ness decided not only to invest city funds and staff time into it, he also decided to invest in other destination quality outdoor recreation, along with arts, food, beer, and small industry projects. Duluth’s revitalization was starting to take shape.
I was personally asked to join the effort in a partnership between the city and the Minnesota Land Trust, an NGO partner that also had a stake in bringing people back to these now restored places in the city. My role was to work with our silent sports user groups to create a similar model in the vein of our successful off-road cycling partnership.
That effort has borne fruit in the fact that Duluth was given Outside Magazine’s Best Outdoor Town in 2014. More importantly, the suite of outdoor experiences the user groups envisioned were so powerful that the City of Duluth, by a unanimous vote of the City Council, decided to bond for $20 million dollars to implement them.
Today, along with the rise in craft beer (Duluth has ten breweries in a city of 95,000 people) and what by all accounts is a booming economy, the community of Duluth has stopped apologizing for its lack of steel production. It’s now proud to export “stoke,” and sees it as one the main reasons people choose to live and spend their tourism dollars here.
The world is not changed by bloated politicians. It is not changed by economists or theory. It turns out, the world is changed by people like yourself who want the place that they live in to reflect the values and experiences they want to have.
In the case of Duluth, we want to be outside every day living our lives in a land of milk and honey.
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