The historic Gunflint Trail resort has been at the cutting edge of the Northwoods resort industry.
The Gunflint Lodge has long navigated cultural change in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northeastern Minnesota.
It quickly embraced canoes when motors were banned, introduced zip-lining in tree canopies when it became popular elsewhere and pushed for faster Internet service in the wilderness.
Now owners Bruce Kerfoot, 74, and his wife Sue, 68, are hanging up their paddles after nearly a half century of operating the iconic resort on the celebrated Gunflint Trail.
“Sue and I would like a few good years in the pasture,” Bruce Kerfoot said, adding that they will use retirement to take more time to travel and help with disaster relief for the Red Cross.
The Kerfoots are selling the lodge on Gunflint Lake 43 miles north of Grand Marais. Their asking price: $6.7 million.
The lodge was at the center of a transformation in northwoods recreation as canoes and backpacks replaced motorized boats and coolers. While some resort owners saw the BWCA threatening their way of life, Bruce and Sue Kerfoot adapted to the changes.
“He was always a cutting-edge guy,” said Mike Prom, a veteran outfitter and past president of the Professional Paddlesports Association.
The lodge, which includes a half-mile of Gunflint Lake shoreline, has been in the Kerfoot family for more than 80 years. Bruce and Sue took it over from Bruce’s mother, Justine, in the late 1960s.
“At the beginning, it was basically a hard-core fishing crowd,” Kerfoot recalled.
That changed when Congress in 1978 designated the one-million acre BWCA as a wilderness, largely banning motorboats to reduce noise and pollution. The decision was opposed by many avid fishermen and resorters even as a new crowd of visitors found the changes appealing.
“It was a culture clash … a sociological fight,” Kerfoot said.
For awhile, the outcome was uncertain. The Gunflint Lodge quickly lost about half of its outfitting business and one-third of its resort revenue. “It was a scramble,” Kerfoot recalled.
“I had to put my marketing hat on and go after different sectors,” he said. “I started going after women’s groups, honeymooners, something other than fishermen.”
Over the decades “the expectation of the guests has changed. A lot of people don’t understand how to build a fire in the woods with a few sticks of wood. Now we have to teach people how to do that.” Gunflint employs two naturalists to help.
“Tourism like that is a brutal business with burnout,” Prom said. “What is amazing about Bruce is how adaptive he was.”
Gunflint began offering zip-line canopy tours last year. The 2 ½-hour trips glide along eight lines over pine trees, with the naturalists providing commentary. Kerfoot called it “probably the single most successful thing I’ve done in all of the years.”
He got the idea after noticing the popularity of the activity on the East Coast.
Despite its pursuit of modern pastimes, Gunflint still lacks one major convenience: fast Internet service. The remote location is served by satellite Internet, but bandwidth is limited and service is clunky.
Kerfoot said he hopes faster service will finally arrive in 2014.
After the sale, the Kerfoots will retire to their home down the trail on Tucker Lake. But they also expect to begin a new adventure soon, traveling to Mongolia.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504