Bruce and Sue Kerfoot, owners of the Gunflint Lodge, the quintessential northern Minnesota resort, are hanging up their paddles.
The lodge, which has been in the family since 1929, was sold last week to a couple who plan to continue its traditions and the outfitting operation on Gunflint Lake, 43 miles north of Grand Marais.
“I’m optimistic that we are handing it off to somebody with good North Woods values but also good business instincts,” Bruce Kerfoot said. “We’re pleased to pass the torch to somebody who we hope will grow it and carry it on good.”
With mounted deer heads in nearly every cabin and sun-bleached snowshoes hanging on the walls, the lodge is sheathed in varnished pine paneling and memories.
It carries the ultimate Minnesota sense of place: A spot where families book the same cabin for the same week year after year, renewing acquaintances and marveling at how the kids have grown.
“There are a handful of families who have put their mark on resorting in Minnesota, and the Kerfoots certainly have to be one of them,” said Dan McElroy, president and chief executive of Hospitality Minnesota and executive vice president of the Minnesota Resort & Campground Association. “We couldn’t be more delighted that they have found a buyer who wants to maintain the heritage of the Gunflint Lodge and the Kerfoot family, and their leadership role in the neighborhood and their industry and in the state.”
The lodge includes a half-mile of Gunflint Lake shoreline. Bruce and Sue Kerfoot took the lodge over from his late mother, Justine, in the late 1960s.
While a place of traditions, the Kerfoots also adjusted with the times and the changing demands of the outdoors market.
In the early 1990s the Gunflint Lodge was one of the first resorts to work with the U.S. State Department to employ international students as summer help. Now more than 850 students from 20 countries participate in the program at resorts, lodges and restaurants as far west as Detroit Lakes and along Hwy. 61 on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Boundary Waters battle
The lodge also was at the center of a cultural transformation in North Woods recreation when Congress designated nearly 1 million acres in 1978 for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The move largely banned motorboats to reduce noise and pollution. It was a decision opposed by many avid anglers and resorters, even as new visitors found the changes appealing.
For a while, the outcome was uncertain. The Gunflint Lodge quickly lost about half of its outfitting business and one-third of its resort revenue. But the lodge adjusted to a new clientele, many of whom might have trouble starting a campfire and prefer the comfort of 1,200-thread-count sheets to a sleeping bag.
In 2012, Gunflint began offering zip-line canopy tours. The 2½-hour trips glide along eight lines over pine trees, with naturalists providing commentary.
Kerfoot said the lodge has enjoyed double-digit revenue growth in the past decade.
“It was the biggest challenge I ever had — to create a new business model that would work with new operating rules,” he said. “It worked. We made it happen. We grew it.”
Although he said the resort emphasizes the quiet of the North Woods, he was also a pioneer in bringing internet service to the area. He admits cellphones and iPads has been a mixed blessing.
“We don’t particularly invite people to come and just be Tweeties,” he said. “We really want them to slow down and enjoy the North Woods and set the damn things aside.”
The sale, which Kerfoot described as in the low $6 millions, ends his family’s control over the property.
Several attempts to extend it to a fourth generation didn’t work out. Bruce is now 77 and Sue is 70.
“We look at it with a little nostalgia, sadness, and a little pleasure at being able to look forward to some good time in the pasture,” Bruce said.
For the buyers, stars aligned
The new owners, John and Mindy Fredrikson, had been looking for the opportunity to embrace the North Woods resort lifestyle for years. Natives of the Upper Midwest, they had canoed in the Boundary Waters but never stayed at the lodge.
Neither has previous hospitality experience — he worked in the telecom industry and she worked for Delta Air Lines. Both will devote their full attention to the year-round resort and lodge that includes such amenities as dog-sledding and horse stables.
“We’ve always loved Northern Minnesota,” John Fredrikson said. “It’s kind of been a slow, smoldering goal for a long time, and we’re finally able to get the stars to align.”
Bruce Kerfoot has been working with the Fredriksons to smooth the transition, and the Kerfoots won’t be far away when they retire to their home 4 miles down the trail on Tucker Lake.
“There’s a fair amount of stuff we’ve digested over the years,” Kerfoot said. “It’ll take a while to pick all of it out of me.”