In the Spotlight

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Skis and Snowmobiles along the Gunflint Trail
By Leif Enger
January 13, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Thirty years ago, Minnesota was a great vacation spot - in the summer. The phrase "winter tourism" meant going somewhere else when it got cold. An innovation called the snowmobile has helped to change that, along with ice fishing, skiing, and snowshoeing. Cold-weather tourism is now a major industry, bringing millions of dollars into the state each year. The Gunflint Trail, in Northeastern Minnesota on of the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, is one of the state's most popular destinations. Some businesses there cater to snowmobile traffic, others to skiers and snowshoers - the so-called "silent sports." The mix has been an uneasy one at times.

SATURDAY NIGHTS, THE GOLDEN EAGLE LODGE hangs kerosene lamps beside the trail so you can keep skiing after dark. The string of lanterns stretches off into the distance - bright enough to light your path, dim enough not to veil the stars.

Ray Anschel: We were out on the trail tonight and I said to Jennie, "Just stop, and be quiet." That wonderful no-sound. Just the breath coming from your mouth. It's exquisite.
Ray Anschel and his daughter Jennie are up from the Cities, drinking cocoa in the lodge. He teaches writing at a community college; she's on break from school out East. After the frantic holidays, they came north for peace.
Jennie Anschel: Even seeing the people you really love seeing, after a while you just want to be where no one can reach you. You want to be alone, and think.

Ray: It's the same reason I can't stand going to malls. I just covet the quiet, and maybe the utter simplicity that's out here. You just don't need an awful lot. A cup of hot chocolate. A stove. That's great.

Peace, says lodge owner Dan Baumann, is his chief commodity. And it's a perfect product for the 90s - in high demand and short supply, peace is expensive. A midwinter week in most Gunflint Trail cabins will cost you from $600 to $1000 - if you can get a reservation.
Baumann: We have a five-year waiting list to get in for New Years. It's impossible to get in. Literally.
Baumann is amazed at what's happened to Minnesota winters. When his family bought the Golden Eagle in 1976, it was a rundown summer business - four small cabins, very few visitors. But cross-country skiing was just getting popular; other Gunflint resorts were spiffing up old logging roads and offering them as trails. In the early 80s, the Baumanns risked everything - they borrowed big, winterized the resort, and built seven new cabins.
Baumann: We struggled. But every year we got underneath us, we got a little better. We got stronger, and in the late 80s the business started taking major leaps. The way this winter's going, we're at a point right now where winter's almost better than summer.
The Baumanns' story coincides with several tourism trends. Since the late 70s there's been steady growth in the so-called "silent sports" - cross-country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing. With the federal designation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, people also became more interested in wilderness. Perhaps inevitably, friction soon developed between the silent-sport enthusiasts, and those who preferred machines.

Meet "Weasel." It's not his real name but it's the one he likes. Weasel's 12; been driving snowmobiles since he was 9. This one's his very own, a present from Dad.

Weasel: It's a Skidoo Formula F-5. It's mine, um, a 1995. It's light, it's fast - it'll go about 70.
Weasel and his group are spending the evening at a place called the Hungry Jack Lodge, a few miles from the Golden Eagle. The front door of Hungry Jack's popular bar and restaurant faces the lake, and most people arrive by snowmobile - if you come in a car, you have to park in back and walk around.

Hungry Jack's is one of the Gunflint's best-known snowmobile hotspots. These guys - every last one of them from Twin Cities suburbs - have been coming back for years.

Various customers: "To experience the last frontier, you know? The beautiful scenery, the women! No..." - "You're out in the wilderness, you're seeing parts of Minnesota you normally wouldn't see, it's a good time." - "It's camaraderie. We're with friends. We've made a lot friends through snowmobiling."
Jerry Parson is the owner of Hungry Jack's. White-bearded, gruff, and outgoing, Parson remembers the scrapes of the mid-80s - snowmobilers riding over groomed ski trails, skiers finding unoccupied sleds in the woods and tossing away the keys. Both camps say those things don't happen anymore; their respective trails are established and marked and never the two shall meet. Parson says the differences between his clientele and Dan Baumann's can be explained in a few mostly accurate cliches.
Parson: Cross-country skiers are more environmentalist - we call 'em greens, tree huggers. And that ain't all bad. Snowmobilers are bikers, jetskiers - they're machine people. You always have that conflict.
Parson, like Baumann, was a purely summertime resorter at first - until snowmobiles began breaking sales records in the late 70s. Minnesotans now own about 250,000 registered sleds. That's a lot of dinners and overnight stays - and also a lot of decibels and Budweisers. At the bar, a customer who didn't want his name used said snowmobilers have developed a habitual defensiveness.
Customer: We're under the gun right now, in more ways than one. There are so many bad things about snowmobiling. We're burning fossil fuels, that's bad. We're treading on the environment, that's bad. In the public eye, it's just not a very good thing.
All the same, it's common for 250 snowmobilers to hit Hungry Jack's on a Saturday night, for a room, or dinner, or fuel. Jerry Parson says 35 percent of his business occurs in the winter. And this winter - for both silent and motorized sports - has been better than most. With much of the state barren of snow, snowmobilers and skiers have been flocking to the Gunflint in record numbers. High school cross-country ski teams have driven five hours north to practice. Resorts have sold up to ten times the usual number of one-day trail passes. In the ongoing debate over who's most important to the region - the greens or the machines - one business owner told MPR it's foolish to have an opinion.