DULUTH – His gloved hands firmly gripping the handle bars, Hansi Johnson led a national cycling magazine crew on this city’s new single-track mountain biking trail. They skittered on the edges of steep forested slopes and over babbling creeks on a path so immersed in nature that they saw few signs of urban life.
In the middle, Johnson led them down city streets for a craft beer at nearby brewery.
It was just the kind of Duluth experience that Johnson wanted to promote: World-class recreation in the city’s 10,000 acres of open space, with a growing hipster scene surrounding it.
A month and a half into his role as the unofficial Duluth outdoors czar, Johnson is spending busy days working with groups of bikers, hikers, skiers, climbers, paddlers and other active outdoors clubs — locally and nationally — to try to preserve and grow the city’s natural recreation assets.
Johnson’s official job title is director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, which the city hired to help identify and fund the preservation of key green spaces, then figure out how those spaces will be maintained and promoted.
“Our goal is for Duluth to become America’s outdoor adventure city,” Mayor Don Ness said. The contract with the Land Trust, along with Johnson’s background and expertise, are putting some muscle behind the effort, he said.
The contract came as online voters were already giving the city a head start, naming it “Best Town Ever” in an Outside magazine contest.
Drawn to Duluth
Johnson, 44, is part group organizer, part negotiator, part salesman — all skills he used in previous jobs as he turned his passions into paying work.
A one-time Montana ski bum with a college degree in international relations, he worked in marketing at a ski company and later sold Patagonia outdoor gear to stores.
Johnson moved around the country, but kept getting drawn to Duluth because, in the Midwest, it was the place that had the most outdoors recreation opportunities right outside his door, he said.
Six years ago, he turned his passion for mountain biking into a job as the Upper Midwest regional director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. There, his work served as a model for what he’s doing now: He raised money and advocated for trails all over the region, including a vision for 100 miles of single-track mountain biking trail in Duluth’s lush hills. Funded through grants and city and user contributions, the trail is now about half complete.
Though people were skeptical about pouring effort into mountain biking trails in a city with no mountains, Johnson said, its reputation is growing now.
“I can’t tell you how many people said mountain biking [tourism] will never come to Duluth,” he explained. “Now we have mountain biking magazines coming here.”
Johnson and others researched land ownership and worked with the county and city to get the trail approved.
Johnson is so enthused about the quality of Duluth’s trail, much of it designed and built by professionals, that he is a natural promoter of it.
After a vacation at a cycling event in Belgium, he touted the Midwest’s trails to the Belgian cycling marketer who happened to sit next to him on the plane home. The man has been to Duluth a few times now and is working on marketing Midwest mountain biking tours to Europeans, Johnson said.
Johnson said he’s intent on making sure that, like the mountain biking trail in the city, new recreation opportunities tucked into Duluth’s open spaces are “destination quality” — so good that people will travel to experience them.
Taking the lead
Much of Duluth’s abundant green space is actually tax-forfeited land that speculators bought sight unseen a century ago, Ness said. They gave it up when they realized it was not suited for development at the time.
But with new development techniques, some of that land may become more attractive to modern developers, city leaders know. So the city is trying to get a jump-start on determining which parcels should be preserved.
The nonprofit Land Trust, which has offices in St. Paul and Duluth, had been working with the city on its land issues for several years, said executive director Kris Larson.
This summer, the city signed a three-year, $310,000 contract with the Land Trust for “services related to the assessment of and marketing for the city’s trails and other outdoor adventure experiences.” The trust is contributing $80,000, mostly from a Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation grant and other contributions, Larson said.
Though several Land Trust staff members work on the contract, the group wanted to hire a point person to take the lead.
Johnson was known in Duluth circles for his mountain biking connections. He grew up an avid paddler in Winona. He has dabbled in climbing. He and his wife frequently take their 6-year-old son on trails and camping trips.
“There couldn’t be a better fit to make this work,” Larson said. “He’s been working with user groups and land-related issues all over the Midwest.”
On a recent Tuesday, Johnson started his workday in jeans and a plaid shirt, talking about rock- and ice-climbing.
Hovering over a map at the Amazing Grace Bakery & Cafe in Canal Park, he met with the president of the Minnesota Climbers Association, James Loveridge, “tossing around the feasibility of a climbing park in Duluth,” he said.
They discussed flooding an existing rock wall for ice-climbing in the winter. Johnson encouraged Loveridge to think big: Could they also build a structure to create more controlled, man-made walls of ice to cater to people with varying levels of climbing ability?
Loveridge popped open his laptop and searched the Internet for photos of ice towers in Montana and overseas. A smile spread on his face as the two talked. Johnson asked Loveridge to create a proposal that he could take to city leaders.
Later that day, Johnson eased his Subaru up Duluth’s steep hills to look at a space that might work for a climbing park. He tried to envision an ice tower on the flat land at the bottom of a rock wall.
It would work, he thought. He’d need climbers to organize and promote the idea, too, and to help fund it and maintain it. He’d have to convince the city that it was worth building.
It seemed like a mountainous task, but Johnson relished it. He’ll go through similar exercises with paddlers, skiers and others in the coming months. Much of his focus will be on the western end of Duluth, along the St. Louis River. The end result, he hopes, will make Duluth a better place to visit and live.
“It’s both fun and daunting,” Johnson said. “But would you want it any other way?”