Ironwood experiencing resurgence through silent sports
Cross Country Skiing with Mike Ivey
On the first Saturday in January, over 600 cross country skiers will gather at ABR Trails in Ironwood, Mich., for the 7th annual SISU Ski Festival.
They’ll race over hills and past long-closed iron ore mines toward the snow-covered downtown “Finnish Line” in this hardscrabble community working to reinvent itself around outdoor recreation.
Dreamers might make comparisons to Crested Butte, the central Colorado city turned ghost town when the silver and coal mines closed decades ago. CB didn’t recover until a ski area was built on Crested Butte Mountain in the 1960s and it now boasts a thriving year-round recreation scene for both locals and visitors.
“That’s the model,” says Will Andresen, regional director with the University of Wisconsin Extension office in Hurley, who is working to promote the Gogebic Range as a silent sports mecca.
The Gogebic Range – which includes Iron County in northern Wisconsin and western Gogebic County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – was heavily developed for iron ore mining in the late 19th century, attracting settlers and adventure seekers from around the world. Europeans, including Finns and Italians, brought along their traditions of public education, progressive government and exquisite architecture.
At its peak in the 1920s, the city of Ironwood alone counted nearly 20,000 residents and a robust economy. But as the mining industry faded, so did the region. Businesses struggled, schools were closed and many residents left for greener pastures in warmer climates. Ironwood’s population today sits at just 5,500.
Four commercial downhill ski areas have brought seasonal visitors and helped soften some of the blow. Still, many locals simply button down for the winter and never venture outside except to shovel the driveway or warm up the truck.
Over the past decade, however, community leaders have worked hard to reverse the decades-long population decline by intentionally building off the long winters, lake-effect snowfall and natural beauty. The idea isn’t so much to lure tourists, but rather to attract and retain those who want to embrace the outdoors lifestyle.
“We came here for the cross country skiing and found out there was a lot more than that,” says Jackie Powers, a Chicago area social worker who moved to Ironwood in 2004 and now serves as director of the SISU Ski Festival. Sisu is a Finnish term for perseverance and fortitude in the face of adversity, a fitting description of the Gogebic Range, indeed.
In 2008, Andresen helped launch the “Next Generation Initiative,” an economic redevelopment effort centered around nature-based activities. Its nickname is based on the chemical symbol for iron: FeLife.
“What we’re seeing are people of all ages moving here for the scenic beauty and outdoor sports, and they’re now finding like-minded friends to keep them here,” says Andresen, 56, a native of Eau Claire who skied competitively at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He fell in love with the U.P. and settled in Ironwood to raise a family.
Jonathan Rulseh is among those who have moved for the sports scene. He grew up in northern Wisconsin and spent several years skiing in Montana before moving to Ironwood.
“I came for the snow, to be honest, but also the large tracts of public land, quiet roads, water access and the progressive attitude among community leaders,” says Rulseh, 32, a physical therapist at the Aspirus Hospital Clinic.
Even with its abundant wilderness, whitewater rivers and proximity to Lake Superior, the Gobegic Range historically never offered much in the way of quiet sports recreation. It was more of a downhill ski, snowmobile and ATV kind of place.
But that reputation for motors over nature started to change in 1995 when Eric Anderson and his father, Dave, opened ABR Trails on 1,100 acres along the Montreal River. Before long, word spread about the dependable snow with top notch grooming, and skiers began to seek it out. Today, ABR boasts a full-service Nordic center with 75 kilometers of ski trails, another 10K of snowshoe trails and is arguably one of the top commercial cross country ski venues in the Midwest, if not the U.S.
“We’ve got the snow, so we’d be crazy not to take advantage of it,” says Ironwood Mayor Annette Burchell, noting her city was ranked as the 10th snowiest in America by the Weather Channel, with an average of 164 inches annually.
About the same time ABR opened, a group of outdoors-minded locals revived the Wolverine Ski Trails, built a new warming house and purchased grooming equipment that could handle the big lake-effect snow dumps. More work followed, with the development of snowshoe and mountain bike trails along with hostel-style lodging at Wolverine Village.
The SISU Ski Fest was launched in 2010 just as recreational trails were built at the Miners Memorial Park, a blighted mining site converted into a non-motorized public area in the middle of the city. The 30-kilometer SISU race course runs through the park on its way downtown.
Some see the development of the Miners Memorial Park – which initially faced opposition from Ironwood’s gasoline-fueled establishment – as a major turning point for the city. It quickly proved popular with skiers, snowshoers, dog walkers and hikers to the surprise of its detractors. The park now hosts an “Art in the Park” event that showcases local talent in a snowy setting.
“I think Miners Park transformed how people looked at an area that had long been considered useless,” says Monie Shackleford, a former Ironwood city council member and driving force behind the park.
Shackleford says city officials had largely turned their back on the 170 acres of collapsed mine shafts and looked the other way as ATVs and snowmobiles tore through an area that was little more than an illegal trash dump.
Today, Miners Park has become a source of pride, bringing out those who otherwise might not have embraced any kind of silent sports activity.
“In a broader sense, it helped spark a discussion of what kind of community we wanted to be,” says Shackleford. “It also got many local people who hadn’t snowshoed or cross country skied to get out and discover these winter sports.”
It’s not all snow sports. New mountain bike trails are being developed at Copper Peak, home of the world’s tallest ski jump, and at the Mt. Zion Ski Hill near the Gogebic Community College campus.
Ironwood is also the western terminus of the new Iron Belle Trail, a rails-to-trails project designed to run 800 miles across Michigan from the U.P. to Detroit. A section of blacktopped trail was recently completed from Ironwood to Bessemer – six miles to the east – and is getting heavy use. Plans call for connecting the trail to Montreal, Wis., which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places for a series of whitewashed mining company homes that still stand.
In addition to changes in infrastructure, the social networking opportunities in the Gogebic Range are also changing, says Andresen. He notes the weekly bike rides, snowshoeing and ski outings, and new events like a half-marathon planned for the fall of 2017 on the Iron Belle Trail.
“Community leaders are finding these efforts are not just attracting visitors, they’re bringing like-minded people here to live,” he says.
Nancy Zak of Re/Max Action North Realty in Ironwood is enjoying the business boost. She says the number of solidly-built homes left from the mining days are proving attractive for those looking to downsize or purchase a vacation property on the cheap. Over 50 homes in Gogebic County sold for $50,000 or less in 2016.
“My husband is still more of a snowmobile kind of guy, but I feel like people are really starting to embrace the changes rather than stay stuck in a rut,” says Zak, who participates in the local running group and volunteers for the SISU Ski Fest.
Eric Fitting, owner of the Hobby Wheel sports store on U.S. 2 says there’s been surge in sales with the new biking. Fitting, 33, grew up in Ironwood, left for college in Florida and returned to take over the family operation.
“People here are getting more active and health conscious, which is helping business,” he says. “But a big reason is our community is simply creating better places to ride or ski or hike. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
The downtown is also getting a makeover, with a new coffee shop and brewery in the works. Those businesses will complement the restored Ironwood Theater and an arts incubator located next door, in addition to the locally owned stores and restaurants.
None of this surprises Andresen, who is optimistic that people who both love the outdoors and can work remotely via the Internet will find the Gogebic Range a good fit. Still, creating jobs remains a challenge in an area long dependent on mining and forestry. Ironwood Plastics and Jacquart Fabric Products are the larger private sector employers, in addition to the downhill ski resorts and health care facilities.
“Historically, we’ve seen small, incremental change: A new ski trail opens, more people visit, some stay,” says Andresen. “But as new residents engage, the needle of change nudges a bit more, enough for a few more people to follow suit.
“We just need to keep working together to embrace new people and embrace our unique strengths – our rugged landscape, our awesome trails and our plentiful snow. We’ll never compete for big city amenities, but for those seeking a fun, social, adventure lifestyle, we can be a great choice.”
Editor’s note: Mike Ivey, an avid cross country skier, paddler and bicyclist, lives in Madison but purchased a home in downtown Ironwood in 2000. He visits frequently and hopes to spend more time there in retirement after 30 years at The Capital Times newspaper.