Scott Prochnow endured countless fast-food joints and more than a half-million miles on the road during his 20 years as a ski industry sales rep in the Midwest. But he also became intimately familiar with the region's ski areas-visiting more than 75 hills, riding hundreds of lifts and skiing numerous trails. "I've been to all of them," says Prochnow. "And I think Lutsen is the best ski area in the Midwest."
On an unusually warm and sunny March day, Prochnow is skiing Lutsen with his 10-year-old son Robbie. "My parents started bringing me here in the Sixties when I was Robbie's age," says the 47-year-old Prochnow, who lives in a suburb of Minneapolis. "I love being able to come here now with my own children. It's easier and less expensive than skiing out West, but you still get some of the feel of a Western resort."
Like Prochnow, thousands of skiers make the five-hour drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Lutsen, located on the remote North Shore of Lake Superior, just 50 miles south of the Canadian border. They come for the mesmerizing views of Lake Superior (one of the world's largest freshwater lakes), the extensive terrain and the first-class resort amenities. Spread over four peaks, Lutsen boasts the Midwest's second highest vertical drop (800 feet), its only gondola and more than 80 runs on some 500 acres-including about 100 acres of glade skiing. The resort experience includes ski-in/ski-out lodging, a variety of restaurants (from burger joints to upscale lakeside dining) and plentiful après-ski activities, including a nightclub that attracts nationally known performers.
Lake Superior, which stretches to the horizon, has a powerful impact on Lutsen. Storms swoop in, gather moisture and then regularly dump powder on the ski area. Just as important, the lake retains heat and moderates Lutsen's temperatures in a region where the mercury normally hovers in single digits for months. In 1881, the water was what brought Charles Axel Nelson, a Swedish immigrant and fisherman, to the spot that he would name Lutsen. He built a waterfront hunting and fishing lodge that became so popular that even gangster Al Capone came up for a visit. Legend has it that Capone shot up a building and Charles' son, George, demanded $20 to repair the damage.
In 1948, George Nelson and his son, George Jr., who had served as a ski trooper in WWII with the 10th Mountain Division, built a ropetow in the hills a mile above the lakeside resort. Lutsen, the ski area, opened with two runs on Eagle Mountain and adjacent Ullr Mountain (pronounced OO-ler and named for the Scandinavian god of snow). George Jr. and wife Patti raised five children on the slopes of Lutsen, including Cindy, who would go on to win the downhill bronze medal in the 1976 Winter Olympics. "Cindy was always the first one on the hill," remembers George Jr. "And she always said that because the hills were so short, she had to make every turn precise."
One family tradition ended and another one began in 1980 when George Jr. sold the Lutsen ski area to Charlie Skinner. During the Eighties, Skinner built Moose Mountain (which became the area's centerpiece), the gondola and the Village Inn & Resort complex (now called Caribou Highlands Lodge), with its condos, shops, restaurants and indoor pool. In the Nineties, Skinner's son, two daughters (and their spouses) joined the family business, eventually buying the area from their father. Under their watch, more than 30 runs have been built, along with a mountaintop restaurant, the slopeside Eagle Ridge condos and the 6,000-square-foot Papa Charlie's restaurant/nightclub, which holds up to 600 people for live music.
"We've added more depth to the resort experience," says Charles Skinner Jr., a 42-year-old attorney who left an East Coast law firm to help run Lutsen. "For example, Papa Charlie's has had national acts, and we've been able to attract more singles and couples." Skiers are now driving farther to get to Lutsen (up too 10 hours) and then staying longer (three to four days, compared with two to three in the past).
Skinner, who raced for the University of Oregon, has also overseen the development of more challenging terrain. The Plunge, which drops precipitously off the backside of Moose Mountain for 400 vertical feet, opened for several years in the late Nineties, but had to be closed because the trail's steep incline wouldn't hold snow. Skinner hopes to buy a winch cat for grooming the Plunge so he can reopen the trail in the future. In the meantime, experts can test themselves on Grizzly, nearly a mile of top-to-bottom bumps that opened on Moose in 1999.
Lutsen's gladed terrain, found on three of its four peaks, is unique for the Midwest. Dave Sontag, the 30-year-old rental shop manager, has spent the last few summers wielding a chainsaw, clearing glades. He calls the job a labor of love. "It takes an eye for doing it," says Sontag, who grew up five hours away in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and took his first family ski trip to Lutsen at age 6. "You have to visualize the lines like you would ski them. They're like little playgrounds." Dave's Glade on Mystery Mountain was named for Sontag, but more rewarding is the positive feedback he hears: "People love these glades. They add adventure."
As Lutsen slides into the 21st century with new terrain and upscale facilities, it stays in touch with its roots. In the rustic Main Chalet at the base of Ullr and Eagle Mountains, a hand-lettered sign advertises "Bev's Baked Goods." Look in the kitchen and you'll see Bev Moen, who has been baking cream-cheese-frosted banana cake and peanut butter M&M cookies here for nearly 15 years.
Up on the gentle slopes of Ullr, you might get a lesson from instructor Sue Hansen-even if you didn't pay for it. "I have a voice that carries," says the 65-year-old grandmother, who has been teaching at Lutsen for nearly 40 years. "I have taught thousands how to ski, and a lot of others have gotten tips while they were riding the chairlift overhead."
Though Hansen fondly remembers the early days of Lutsen, when her youngest daughter slept on a bench in the Main Chalet while she taught outside, she thinks the ski area's growth has been good. "I'll keep teaching as long as they let me," says Hansen, who still works three days a week. She pauses, then declares, "I'm really lucky to be doing what I love."
Anyone who has been to Lutsen-cruising down Moose Mountain, exploring a glade or just soaking in the view-would second that emotion.