Despite it’s name, the “Iron Range” of Northern Minnesota has little to do with a mountain chain of any kind. In fact, the Iron Range refers to a large swath of mineral deposits that once blanketed 7 different counties, an area where iron ore has been mined since the early 1800’s. Evidence shows that Native Americans were discovering “native copper” deposits on the Keweenaw Peninsula; these deposits were most notably used for tools of all kinds. Between 1844 and 1903 these massive deposits were developed and the emergence of the early Northern Minnesota mining industry was established.
There are 4 major deposits that have characterized the greater Iron Range district. These deposits include: the Mesabi Range, Vermilion Range, Gunflint Range and Cuyuna Range.
Although similar processes were used to mine these large deposits, some required different tactics to locate and remove large majorities of the mineral content. For the purpose of our story, we’re going to focus primarily on the Cuyuna Range. What became known for its high level of Jaspers and Taconite, the Cuyuna Range deposit was so large it proved extremely challenging to reach solely from underground mining techniques. Instead, large open pit mines were created using steam shovels and water replacement pumps to locate and remove the ore from the earth. These man made lakes surround the towns of Crosby, Cuyuna, Nisswa, Brainerd and Aitkin. What were left behind were piles of tailings, dyed red from the iron ore that once lived beneath the surface. This change in the topography of Crow Wing County would change the historical economy into one deeply rooted in recreation.
In 1964, it was apparent the long time prosperous mining industry was in threat of disappearing. In 1982, the industry dried up, leaving the Cuyuna Range in a state of demise. Questioning their future as a community, businesses like Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, Crosby-Ironton Public Schools and Fiber-Optic Telecommunications sought to provide the gross income for many families. However, a few locals teamed up with friends from Minneapolis (2.5 hours south) and asked the question: “How can we revolutionize the landscape and turn the moonlike topography into an outdoor destination?” Thus, The Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) was born and slowly this forgotten corner of Minnesota began rethinking its self-identity.
MORC proved that the area was indeed made for fun, northern mountain biking. They accomplished about 25 miles of trail in 12 years. Enter Aaron Hautala, lifelong Iron Range resident, brand/advertising guru and Cuyuna’s unofficial mayor.
Aaron Hautala (above), all smiles in negative temps, as he guides us on gorgeous Cuyuna singletrack!
Aaron has a calm and collected perspective. Not overwhelming on any account, simply put and digestible for even the most respected intellectual. Thrifty in his own right, Aaron saw something in this lost, lonely town of Crosby, MN. With a passion for skiing, he turned to the foundation of what a ski town is, for inspiration to bring Crosby back to life and able to enter the competitive market. Aaron calls it “a purpose built community.” Modern terminology in the mountain biking industry defines a purpose built trail as one that allows mountain bikers a chance to engage with the natural topography and move with its flow and energy versus against it. Using his backyard as the canvas for this vision, Aaron garnered huge support from local government and businesses that value his desire to bring outsiders back to Cuyuna, back to the Iron Range.
In 2012, The Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew (CLMBC) became an official chapter of the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA.) Aaron has been president of CLMBC since January that year. The focus since his inception as president hasn’t necessarily been how many miles of trail can we build. The focus has been how can these trails and a plan for annual growth and future development define Crosby, again. If the region could be shown the importance of a “purpose built community,” recreation might have a chance to creatively rebuild the city and its livelihood.
The interest that MORC and CLMBC provided for the area began to grow within the larger Minneapolis cycling community. However, Aaron Hautala knew the trails couldn’t sell themselves. There had to be a reason why people would want to choose Crosby as a year round outdoor recreation destination. 45NRTH, a brand based out of Minneapolis is leading a charge in winter cycling apparel and fat bike accessories.
“It’s more than just creating great outerwear or industry leading technology in tire development,” says Kurt Barclay, 45NRTH Marketing Manager.
Kurt Barclay, embracing the cold!
“For us at 45NRTH, it’s been about creating passion for outdoor adventure, especially during the cold winter months. It’s about establishing community around a sport and watching the community grow because they’ve fallen in love with the people, the energy and the potential that cycling offers from a development perspective. If we can be spearheads for trail development then 45NRTH is known for its culture, its ability to give back and offer economic improvement in places like Crosby and the Iron Range, places that need that support net in order to present what might be seen as the impossible.”
Aaron and the CLMBC team brought on 45NRTH last year and since have seen a massive growth in the rise of interest in how bikes and the trails just might prove that Crosby will become “a purpose built community.”
Well, local residents are seeing just that. On December 8th 2016, The Red Raven Café had their opening day. A cycling centric café and future bike shop, Owners Patrick and Julie are a husband and wife team who moved from the Minneapolis area to help redefine Crosby. Nick Huisinga, founder of the new Cuyuna Brewing Company, is another local, hoping to bring new flavor in the form of craft beer to thirsty visitors.
Team 45NRTH & Aaron enjoying a ride break in the Red Raven Cafe.
Crosby is ready and Aaron has established a long-term plan that will enable the trails and the town to grow simultaneously. A recipe for success; Aarons vision is currently bringing in an added 2 million dollars annually. He can only attest this growth to the trails and those who have believed in the ability of those trails to bring fame back to Crosby. The coolest part is, Crosby’s annual growth is estimated to continue to steadily grow. With 27.5 miles in 2016, CLMBC projects 30 miles in 2017, 42 miles in 2018 and a grand total of 75 miles of single track trail if each stage of the “master plan” is accepted by private donors, neighboring towns and the Minnesota State Government’s land, recreation and mineral management agencies.
The reason we love this story is because the mountain biking and winter fat biking is incredibly fun. However, to experience the culture that has been created around those trails is what will leave a lasting impact on those who travel to visit Crosby, MN. The Red Raven Café, The Cuyuna Brewing Company, The True North Basecamp, each of these businesses and a handful of others have opened and will be successful with the development of this trail network. Mining has left its lasting impacts. However, the people who live here have been agriculturally connected to the land for just as long. These people are the ones who you’ll meet, ride with and enjoy telling a story to after a long day outside. They are the folks who work this land, own the local businesses, craft goods and manage the agricultural heritage of this place. Grass-fed beef, heritage pork and wild game processing facilities dot the rural farm roads of this region. Don’t forget to check in with The Crow Wing CO-OP for all your local food needs if staying for an overnight or weekend long trip. You’ll quickly realize the magic of this landscape, on and off the bike.
It’s these people that have a story to tell. Formed by the regions clay deposits and mythical ore, each and every one of these local residents will shake your hand and smile. They will thank you for visiting Crosby and most likely ask, even on the coldest of days, “Are you heading out for a bike ride today?” If and when you run into Aaron Hautala, he will turn to the stories of these residents who have opened their minds to recreation and new ideas. He thanks them for their willingness to listen to his hair brained rants about why trail development will reform this red earth. Aaron will refer to the Iron Range and those who have come together in the midst of uncertainty as the “Red Dirt Family.”