True City Spirit

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On the slopes of Minnesota's Spirit Mountain, overlooking the city of Duluth and the southernmost tip of Lake Superior, Ryan Bauers has found a new religion. The 24-year-old youth minister, who wears his ball cap backward, an earring and a "soul patch" tuft of hair on his chin, has converted to snowboarding. Bauers, a Duluth native, learned to ski at Spirit a dozen years ago in a school program, but was recently reborn as a fervent snowboarder.

At least in the skiing or snowboarding sense, Spirit is an ideal place to be born-or born again. The area offers 700 feet of vertical (among the highest in the Midwest), a $99 season pass for first-time buyers, extensive learn-to-ski programs and arguably the Midwest's finest snowboard terrain park. About half of the skiers and snowboarders who account for Spirit's 259,000 yearly visits come from the Duluth metro area (population 150,000), while the rest drive nearly three hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul or travel from neighboring states Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.

One of the Spirit faithful, Marilyn Shykes, learned to ski here soon after the area opened in 1974. Now, on an unseasonably warm and sun-soaked March day, she is at Spirit chaperoning her daughter's sixth-grade class. "This is a great place to learn how to ski," says the 40-year-old Shykes. "Duluth can be very dull during the winter, and Spirit is a wonderful place for kids to come hang out and get away from any bad influences."

Giving kids something to do was just one of the reasons Duluth and Minnesota officials agreed to build Spirit in the early Seventies. George Hovland, a Duluth resident and former Olympic skier, mostly pitched the ski area for the economic benefits it could bring the region. Duluth had once thrived on mining and logging. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, it boasted more millionaires per capita than any American city. But by the Sixties, due to steel-mill closings and a slowdown in the logging industry, the industrial port city was in an economic slide. City-owned Spirit is now an economic blessing, pumping an estimated $20 million annually into the region.

Spirit may not be big, but it makes the most of its 175 acres, 24 runs and five chairlifts. The Spirit Mountain race team runs gates daily, while the snowboard team gets big air in the terrain park and on two halfpipes. Spirit's "Women's Wednesdays" draw nearly 100 women for cruising and camaraderie. And on Friday nights the mountain gets downright rowdy. That's when students from the region's five colleges pay just $10 for a lift ticket, equipment rental and free munchies in the Moosehead Saloon. With hundreds of college students drinking $5 pitchers of beer and dancing to live music, "It gets a little crazy in here," confides bartender Joyce Nylen.

Nearly 5,000 elementary and middle-school students learn how to ski each winter in Spirit's morning and after-school programs. In a daily ritual, kids tumble off school buses, get outfitted in the rental shop (which boasts an unusually large fleet of 1,500 skis and 2,000 boots) and then learn the basics on a gentle, football-field-size slope in front of the lodge. About 70 volunteer instructors help with the program. There's even a waiting list to become a volunteer. "It's satisfying for the volunteers, passing along their love for the sport and seeing the joy on the kids' faces," says Ski School Director Heidi Jo Viaene. The program gets impressive results. "A few years ago I had a mother tell me that this was the best thing that could have happened to her daughter," Viaene says. "Her daughter was a couch potato, with no real interests, and maybe headed for trouble. But learning to ski changed all that. Now she's racing for her high-school ski team."

Much of the terrain at Spirit is wide-open cruising for intermediates and is served by a high-speed quad. The 15-year-old Spirit Express, which was built more for ease in loading and unloading than for speed, remaiins the only express lift in Minnesota. Its enclosed bubble is especially popular here, where the temperature can dip below zero for days, even weeks, at a time.

The fixed-grip Gandy and Big Air chairs serve more challenging terrain. That's where Dale Johnson makes endless laps on Gandy Dancer, the black-diamond run under Gandy Chair. The 41-year-old wears a bright yellow shell and skis fast, making precise turns with his feet pressed close together. Johnson, a former aircraft mechanic who now trains Labrador retrievers, took advantage of the $99 first-time season-pass offer and has been skiing five days a week this winter. "I learned to ski here in the Seventies, but after I had kids, I couldn't afford to ski anymore," Johnson says. "The $99 pass has allowed me to ski again. It's been a great deal."

Indeed. Since Spirit introduced the $99 deal before the 1999-2000 season, its number of pass holders has increased 25 percent to about 10,000. (Returning pass holders pay $189.) "We would rather charge less and get more people out here," says Executive Director Rick Certano. "Instead of charging one skier $5 more, let's go find an additional skier." That's a lesson Certano has learned in the half-century since he began skiing at age 4 on bluffs near his boyhood home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Before coming to Spirit in the mid-Eighties, Certano worked at a number of ski areas, including Colorado's A-Basin, where he actually lived in the spartan base lodge.

As a diehard skier himself, Certano seems genuinely interested in listening to his customers. "We used to have a reputation for ice," he admits. "But we have worked hard to improve that, with better snowmaking and grooming." In fact, Spirit has 100 percent snowmaking coverage and last season added an afternoon grooming shift that buffs the entire mountain before nightskiing.

Spirit was one of the first Midwestern areas to embrace snowboarders and has become a premier destination for them. "We told snowboarders we're not your enemies-we're here to provide the best possible place for you to ride," Certano says. The terrain park, with its dozen large jumps, rails and other features, is proof of that. Rich Loeser, a 21-year-old, has made the three-hour drive from Land O' Lakes, Wis., to sample the park again. "This is the fourth time I've been here," Loeser says, as he waits, video camera in hand, to film a friend catching air. "We go out West once a year, and this place is really the closest thing there is to the jumps out there." His friend soars off the jump, reaching for the sky with one hand and down for his board with the other, lands and rides smoothly away. "Cool!" Loeser says, "I got it."

Loeser and his buddies are staying at a nearby budget motel on their two-day trip. Because Spirit is located in a mid-sized city, visitors have many lodging options, ranging from luxury hotels in the historic, waterfront Canal Park district to B&Bs and chain motels. By the winter of 2002-03, there should also be about 150 ski-in/ski-out rooms in an upscale hotel that is expected to be built at the top of Spirit by a private developer who has leased city land. Plans for the hotel complex also include convention facilities and a golf course.

Whether the planned new hotel will change Spirit's hometown-hill flavor remains to be seen. Ski school director Viaene thinks that Spirit Mountain will always be a perfect place for people to be introduced-or reintroduced-to sliding on snow. "A lot of parents who learned to ski here 20 years ago are now bringing their kids here," says Viaene, who has two young sons of her own. "It's like a big circle. I hope it keeps going and going."