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LUTSEN MT, MINNESOTA: Winter Pleasures in the North Country

Photos and Story by Larry Turner (   December 1, 2011


The idea of a ski resort in Lutsen, Minnesota, incubated with the 10th Mountain Division in the trenches and hillsides of Italy. It was World War 11, 1945.

George Nelson, after 18 months of rigorous training (most infantry training during that period was 90 days) with the elite 10th Mountain Division, was trapped in a foxhole, the enemy but 50 yards away, when the idea came.

“I didn’t know if I would make it back home—we had 70 percent casualties in our outfit—but I decided that if I did make it, I’d pitch the ski resort idea to the Old Man.”

Nelson returned, the Old Man (George’s dad George) agreed, and Lutsen Ski Resort came to life, Minnesota’s first. It is now the largest downhill ski and snowboard area in the mid-west, spread along the hauntingly beautiful banks of Lake Superior in the far northeast corner of the state.

I had the pleasure of skiing and exploring this unique area two years ago. It encompasses four mountains, 92 runs and 1000 vertical feet—not monumental compared to many western resorts but rest assured, you’ll have tired and happy legs by day's end skiing and riding Lutsen…and the scenery will have you singing tunes that will never leave your memory bank.

  Lutsen Mountain view   George Nelson, 10th Mountain  
  Lutsen Mountain view   George Nelson, 10th Mountain  
  George Nelson, Lutsen Ski Resort Founder   Lutsen Resort Lodge  
  George Nelson, Lutsen Ski Resort Founder   Lutsen Resort Lodge  
  Lutsen Lodge   Lake Superior Shoreline  
  Lutsen Lodge   Lake Superior Shoreline  
  Lake Superior   Lutsen Resort Shoreline  
  Lake Superior   Lutsen Resort Shoreline  
  Lutsen Resort Evening   Lutsen Lodge condo view  
  Lutsen Resort Evening   Lutsen Lodge condo view  
Lake Superior ice formations
Lake Superior ice formations


Nelson’s Swedish grandfather, C.A.A. Nelson, and grandmother, Anna, homesteaded the Lutsen area in 1885, and established Minnesota’s first resort, then accessed only by boat and rough trails. In 1918, a hydroelectric generating plant was built in Lutsen, the North Shore’s first. “That would make all the difference in the world, eventually leading to the ski resort,” says Nelson, who was born in Lutsen in 1925. “Moose hunting, other hunting and fishing were big in those days, allowing our family to establish a resort for the milder seasons. We would also get a lot of visitors fleeing the cities and rural areas during the height of the hay fever season.”

“My granddad was a tough old bird. In November, the last freighter boat would visit Lutsen so all the winter supplies had to be gotten at that time. One winter though, supplies ran low and my granddad and a friend rowed all the way to Duluth and back for necessities, 70 miles each way,” recalls Nelson.

Eventually Highway 61 (made famous by native son Bob Dylan’s song) was built. Some of Nelson’s first skiing (he’s skied 67 years straight) took place on the highway. “We’d tie a rope onto a car and ski old Highway 61. Occasionally we’d hit a hazard along the way, such as a mailbox or the ditch,” he laughs. 10th MOUNTAIN DIVISION

It was Nelson’s service in the 10th Mountain Division during the war that gave him the inspiration for a ski resort. “Our training was rigorous and I got to ski terrain which I only had dreamed of. The war took its toll on the 10th Mountain because we were always in the heat of things. But not one time did we give up ground which we had taken. I was fortunate, one of 30 percent not injured in 110 days of straight combat. In the rare moments of down time which I had, my thoughts would always drift back to my family, Lutsen, skiing and Lake Superior country. I was determined to make it back home and start the ski resort.”

When the war ended, Nelson came home, went to Michigan State on the GI Bill and a few years later, Minnesota’s first ski resort was born. With the best ski terrain in the mid-west, Lutsen has four different facing mountains: Mystery, Ullr, Eagle and Moose.

“I laid out most of the trails on the mountain. We developed a portable snow fence and we made sure that the base was as high as our birch stumps before we’d open for the season,” says Nelson. “We started with one lift and two runs. In the 60s, chairlifts, snow-making and a new lodge, we built.” A gondola would later be added, the only one in mid-America.

It was the 70s though, that brought a higher profile and more skiers to Lutsen, thanks to George and his wife Patti’s daughter: Olympian Cindy Nelson.


All of George and Patti’s five children are great skiers and at one time all were members of the US National Junior Ski Team. But Cindy would shine the most light on Lutsen as she was an Olympic Bronze Medalist in Innsbruck (1976) and a multi-winner in World Cup and World Championship downhill events. She retired from competitive skiing in 1985. The Nelson’s sold Lutsen Mountain Ski Resort in 1988 to Charlie Skinner and his family, but still maintain a part-time residence at Lutsen Mountain. Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior, the Nelson’s Scandinavian-style lodge, is owned by Nancy Burns.

  Lutsen Summit House   Summit House signage  
  Summit House   Summit House signage  
  Lutsen Timberwolf   Lake Superior facts  
  Timber Wolf   Lake Superior facts  
  Lutsen NASJA race   Lutsen, Lee Julleriat skiing  
  NASJA race   Lee Julleriat skiing  
  Lutsen gondola   Lutsen Father and daughter  
  Gondola   Father and daughter  
  Lutsen Fresh powder   Lutsen fun  
Fresh powder
Lutsen fun
  Riding Lutsen   Lutsen - Skiing with a view  
Riding Lutsen
Skiing with a view

Lutsen Telemark skier

Telemark skier




Other than crossing America by Amtrak years ago, this was my first experience with upper Middle America in winter. I was pleaantly surprised…actually hooked, and can’t wait to go back. The skiing was superb, the hospitality wonderful; I was able to ice climb for the first time in my life and I fell in love with the nearby town of Grand Marais.

One bright day, after some hale and hardy skiing, I stopped at the Summit House for a break and took my beer to the deck, overlooking Lake Superior. I felt like that I was in the tropics for a moment with the multi-tiered deck framing the deep blue waters of Lake Superior—the world’s largest body of fresh water (it holds one-tenth of the world’s fresh water). The warmth of the late winter day, with a high slope view, gave me momentary pause as parts of Mexico’s rugged Pacific coastal zone came to mind.

The view from the condo across the creek and near the venerable Lutsen Lodge, was wild and immense—Lake Superior framed by evergreen and birch, much like the view of a frozen ocean. Along the shoreline, the ice breaks and formations were fascinating: puzzles, abstracts, mirrors within mirrors.

Wolf Kill and Sigurd Olsen

One morning I skied past a deer carcass, remnants of a fresh wolf kill the evening before.

I was happy to be in this North Country for the first time. I’d known it for years through the writings of Sigurd F. Olson, author of such books as Reflections from the North Country, Singing Waters, Listening Point and The Lonely Land—permanent books in my collection. Of Swedish descent, Olson’s tireless work for wilderness resulted in permanent wilderness status for the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Waters north of Lutsen.

In looking back at my notes in writing this story, I see my own notation: “Wilderness is ultimately what I am, what I value more than anything else—with the exception of my loved ones, what I will be when my mortal bones exceed the union of my body. My soul will always soar in wilderness.” And another notation: “Listening to the wind outside was like being inside one’s body listening to one’s skin, haunting but impenetrable to the wind.” The winter elements in the North Country are very real so you have to be well prepared when slipping out into its realm. It is worth it for the wildness that you experience. As the old Minnesota proverb says: “There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing.”

  Walking along the Onion River   Dick Butler trekking the Onion  
Walking along the Onion River
Dick Butler trekking the Onion
  Ice climbing begins  
Ice climbing begins
  Ice climbing - Author on the ascent   An ice climbing waterfall  
Author on the ascent
An ice climbing waterfall
  Dick Butler attacking the ice wall   Greg Snow on ice  
Dick Butler attacking the ice wall
Greg Snow on ice
  Frozen Minnesota River   Ice climbing  
Frozen Minnesota River
Ice climbing
  Lutsen - Waiting out the winter   Lutsen winter mooring  
Waiting out the winter
Winter mooring
  Lutsen - Winter dry dock   Coffin making  
Winter dry dock
Coffin making
  Grand Marais Harbor sailboat   Diane Bostrom the opera queen  
Grand Marais Harbor sailboat
Diane Bostrom the opera queen
  Northhouse Folk School   Downtown Grand Marais  
Northhouse Folk School
Downtown Grand Marais
  Alpenglow North School   Northhouse Folk School center  
Alpenglow North School
Northhouse Folk School center
  GunFlint Tavern  
GunFlint Tavern


My most enjoyable and complete day at Lutsen was spent skiing the mountain in the morning, hiking along the Onion River and ice climbing a 100-foot frozen waterfall in the afternoon, and a forever-to-be-cherished evening in the charming hamlet of Grand Marias. We strolled through the picturesque Harbor Village, along Artist Point and visited the Art Colony, Playhouse and the North House Folk School. The school has 225 courses, 120 instructors, attracts students from around the world and offers an array of practical classes from canoe building to coffin making; a few of my North American Snowsport Journalist ( friends took an afternoon class on building their own skis.

Grand Marais has been recognized by National Geographic as one of the Best Places to Live and Play. Coastal Living Magazine recognized it as one of America’s Top Ten Artist Colonies. No argument from me on these accolades!

Our evening culminated with a sumptuous trail stew (I had two bowls, resulting from the arduous ice climbing) and chili dinner, accompanied by fresh organic bread and greens, catered by Chez Jude (owned by Chef Jude Barsness), a nearby eatery. It was held in the North House Folk School, a high ceiling building of large windows looking out at Lake Superior with walls adorned by crafts made by this famous school. It was like a scene out of the Hobbit’s ‘Unexpected Party’ with the warm indoor light, the blue evening alpenglow, lively conversations (I spoke about opera with Grand Marais diva opera queen Diane Bostrom), presentations by folk school directors Greg Wright and Scot Pollock and superb local brews. We finished the evening off with live music and cocktail conversations at the GunFlint Tavern. Our ice climbing guide and I slipped into a cozy corner in the GunFlint and talked about the local steelhead fishery. I made silent plans to come back during a fairer season when the runs will be on. While in the GunFlint, I met a fellow photographer and artist Stephan Hoglund who had taken the photos of me ice climbing. We went to his studio ( next door which features his photo and jewelry design work. When you're in his Grand Marais neighborhood, make sure that you stop in to see his amazing work.

  Papa Charlie's   Jim Vick  
Papa Charlie's
Jim Vick
  North Country Brews   Larry Turner  and NASJA friends  
North Country Brews
Author and NASJA friends


If you go to Lutsen, make plans to spend a week. You’ll get plenty of skiing and riding in, but as Lutsen’s Marketing Director Jim Vick says, “There are a variety of other activities that will captivate you here, including cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice climbing, exploring the Gunflint Trail, sledding, dog sledding, horse drawn sleigh rides, ice fishing, wildlife-watching along with a variety of shopping and art galleries.”

Vick is an enthusiastic ambassador for Lutsen and he packs a sense of humor characteristic of many in the North Country. “People will often call me and ask about the wind conditions here. I always reply: ‘It depends on how fast you ski.’”

Vick, who looks more like a rock star with his long hair and his lively demeanor, also books all the acts (many national and international, including guitarist Richard Thompson and the band Little Feat) for Lutsen Mountain’s popular night club and restaurant Papa Charlie’s. After a great meal one evening, fellow NASJA members and I joined Vick for a rousing night of live music and dancing. And we still had enough energy for skiing the following day. The West gets most of the press for skiing in America because of the big mountains with plenty of vertical (Lutsen, by the way, does have one two-mile run) but don’t overlook this gem in the Mid-West. Once you go, you’ll be hooked forever.


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