Weather Forecast

Close

Plans for Cuyuna mountain bike trails come to fruition

Cyclists make the first turn onto the trail Saturday during the Cuyuna 45NRTH Whiteout fatbike race at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in 2016. Kelly Humphrey / Forum News Service file photo1 / 2
Aaron Hautala, volunteer president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, pictured in 2015. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service file photo2 / 2

CROSBY, Minn. — "It's been 50 years, it's time to move on," said Rep. Dale Lueck last year, when arguing for state funding for the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area Mountain Bicycling Trails.

That's roughly five decades since Crosby, an iron ore mining town, lost its mining business in the '60s and fell into a mire of stagnation as deep as the craters dotting the neighboring hill country.

Thursday night, Jan. 11, members of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew and backers of the bike trails — both local and from abroad — christened the annual meeting at Heartwood Senior Living Center as a moment of rebirth for Crosby, a once "forgotten region" of the state.

Crosby Mayor Bob Novak said the meeting came at a time when hopes are high in the region and noted the $59,000 the city set aside for coming projects was a sign of good faith in what the crew and its backers were doing.

"I've been around this area for 70 years. I came here as a kid when iron ore was king and I watched the whole thing rust in the '60s and then we saw the blight that came," Novak told the meeting's attendees. "However, I don't ever recall seeing a time in this area — Crosby and the surrounding community — when there was so much positivity and good feelings about the future."

Crew President Aaron Hautala took time to celebrate the accomplishments of the club the last six years, then pointed to exciting developments for the trails going into 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond.

Hautala said it was impressive to see the growth of the biking community itself. The Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew expanded from a tiny group of dedicated individuals in 2012, to an organization of 300 members putting in nearly 2,000 volunteer hours a year and raising more than $1 million since its genesis.

But there is also extensive growth of the larger Crosby area economically — with 15 new businesses in town that weren't there six years ago — and the main driver, in Hautala's estimation, are the bike trails.

During Thursday's meeting, 2017 was labeled "Forever Changed," or the year the state gave the project its blessing and granted $3.6 million in bond funding ($4.1 million if you also count $500,000 promised by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources). The end of May's legislative session and the signing of the year's bonding bill by Gov. Mark Dayton served as the watershed moment, Hautala said, between window-shopping for the future and making these goals a reality.

"Three years ago, we released this great idea and everyone was like, 'We love it! How in the heck are you going to fund it?'" Hautala said via a phone interview before the meeting. "Three years later, we're meeting in the same spot, saying, 'We did it. We actually did it. We as a community pulled this off.'"

It's a tangible step toward meeting the goals outlined in a meeting three years ago, which include extending the trail to 75 miles and adding a number of features and facilities to make it one of the most prominent bike trails in the world.

Historically, a biker has been able to complete the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area Mountain Bicycling Trails — currently about 30 routes, in 800 acres of hill country — in a day's time. Much of the improvements and extensions to the trail were made to extend the amount of time it takes to complete the trail to three days, which could increase the amount of time and money spent at local businesses and restaurants in the area.

Hautala credited Rep. Josh Heintzeman as a significant supporter, despite representing a different district. He also pointed to other area legislators, such as Lueck, Sen. Carrie Rudd, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Rep. John Poston, as individuals who championed the trails in the state Legislature. Hautala also thanked sports-gear company 45NRTH as an early, vital backer and recognized the local chambers of commerce and regional economic development organizations, as well as the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. and the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

The progress report

2017 marked the completion of a number of developments.

Construction finished to connect each end of the trail into a loop, which also allows bikers to use the trails in a single-direction manner that is safer and more convenient, Hautala said. The connection to the city of Crosby was completed, as well as the elimination of 18 intersections to improve safety and traffic flow.

Hautala said a "skills area/jumps" — an area with a number of jumps, inclines and embankments — was completed in the recent construction and is slated to open in the spring. He said it's a trail feature of its kind and scope that rivals anything in the state. Hautala added the new construction serves as an attraction all its own and its development far exceeds any expectations he had when planners first conceptualized it.

As a result, the trail now has increased capacity — it's able to serve over 500 riders at a given time if need be, Hautala said, based on races that have been hosted there already. He added the overarching philosophy behind the trail's construction is to be creative and diverse with the offerings bikers will encounter on the course.

"How do you make the climb so that it not just climb straight up the hill and go straight down the hill, but how do you make the most of everything so that, basically, the trail is momentum based?" Hautala said. "That's a principle and kind of a value that's put into every inch of trail up there."

Hautala noted during the event that maintenance of the trails may be the most important focus of the crew and trail-backers going forward. Even more than trail expansion, upkeep of the trails was identified as the single greatest factor for drawing visitors to the area and keeping them there for extended lengths of time — or, as he put it, "poor maintenance is the quickest way to kill the renaissance."

"The curves and the berms are there for your enjoyment and it's built into the woods in such a way that they look like a natural fit," Hautala said. "It looks like an outdoor art museum. It's just gorgeous."

Going forward, planned developments include expansion for the Maroco unit — so named after the Marquette Ore Company. The trail would extend by 10 miles and include three "gravity roll trails," or constructed inclines. Hautala said these are substantial in size, with the largest incline, "Sand Hog," at 1,310 lineal feet. There are plans to build a "Maroco East" at 2,600 lineal feet and a "Maroco West" at 3,500 feet.

This expansion also includes a pedestrian trail, repairing the "Miner's Mountain Road," and fixing and expanding the Portsmouth Campground connected trail.

The Maroco unit, described by Hautala as "intermediate difficulty" and "backcountry" in nature, is scheduled to open fall of 2018 or spring of 2019. The city of Crosby, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the DNR are currently on board with the project, with about $80,000 in funding still needed.

For 2019, the crew is looking at building the Cuyuna Hills and Cuyuna Connection portions of the expansion — which would add 11.5 miles of trail in intermediate difficulty, backcountry courses in clay-based soil and a thick oak canopy. Trail-backers have received the first of three approvals they need to get the project underway. These additions are scheduled to open in late fall of 2019 or spring of 2020. In total, the trail will be about 51.5 miles in length if these extensions are completed.

For 2020, Hautala said trail-backers are looking to launch the Sagamore Event Trail, although it's still too early in the process to make any kind of concrete judgments on its completion date. This trail would constitute an 8-mile loop built for races — high school, professional or casual sporting events.

The end of an era

The meeting also served as a farewell to Hautala, who served as the club's volunteer-president since its inception. He steps aside to make way for president-elect Meredith Novak, who will take over as these projects begin to come to fruition.

Hautala said the crew will make a notable shift away from global public relations, to spending more time on the trails and economic development. In essence, "the regional chambers are now in the driver's seat," Hautala said during the closing minutes of his presidency.