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Deep Freeze Nears, but Duluthians Love It


Two hundred-fifty kilometers north of the twin Midwest cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul lies an oddly placed little city. Duluth, Minnesota, sprawls across 58 kilometers of a ridge along Lake Superior, the largest and coldest of America's five Great Lakes. Duluth -- population 87,000 -- clings to memories of its glory days as a mighty inland port, and to its good fortune as the nexus of a natural wonderland.

Founded by French fur trappers, Duluth literally helped build America. Northwoods lumber, harvested until Minnesota's forests were nearly denuded, framed many a Chicago and New York home. And ore from its rich iron mines fed the roaring steel mills of Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Most of Duluth's exports moved by ship across the sometimes-stormy waters of Lake Superior. According to Marvin Lamppa, who wrote the book Minnesota's Iron Country: Rich Ore, Rich Lives, Lake Superior has some of the most dangerous water in the world. "The gales of November are well known. The ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, which has become legendary, suffered from one of those gales and went down," he says.

Mr. Lamppa details Duluth's rise and decline as a shipping center. He says tough, hardy immigrants -- recruited by timber, mining, railroad and shipping companies, built Duluth and great ore boats that were as long as a soccer field.

"The people who came here came as people with nothing -- landless people, poor," he says. "They came in because of their backs -- hard, heavy work. And the men who ran the mines, who ran the railroads, didn't live here. They lived out East. And the people here were, therefore, subject to their control. People you don't know control your life."

That bred a suspicion of outsiders in insular Duluth.

With a population that is 92% white -- largely of sturdy, stubborn Scandinavian stock -- Duluth is one of the nation's least racially diverse cities. Duluth native Bob Jader, a computer pioneer who consulted on a corporate software village that failed to attract many high-tech tenants in Duluth, says that while Minneapolis-Saint Paul boomed in information technology, and Rochester, Minnesota -- home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic -- prospered as a medical center, Duluth's citizens turned inward.

"Most places don't like change," Mr. Jader notes. "But Duluth just hates it, detests it. A lot of local people up there, they don't like tourists. They don't even want 'em up there. They resent the people from Minneapolis who come up and use the lake and all their Northland facilities. They want to have that all, I think, for themselves."

Sam Cook, the outdoor editor of Duluth's daily newspaper, the News-Tribune, puts it another way. "I think it's almost universal that people who have a really good thing don't want it changed too much," he says. "And if it gets too 'spiffy' [slick] or too easy to get to, there might just be too many people comin'."

What in remote Duluth could make people so possessive? It can't be the five-month-long winter, when temperatures can linger well below freezing for weeks on end. So bitter is the deep freeze that Marv Lamppa and other North Country folks joke about it: "My uncle used to say it was so cold last night, a dog was chasing a cat, and they were both walking!"

But others, like waitress Dana Cunningham, aren't laughing. She says, "It can be really depressing after the fifth month of it [winter]."

With Duluth's port handling a fraction of the grain, timber, and ore it once did, high-paying jobs are scarce. And in the summertime in the pines, mosquitoes are so thick -- and big and mean -- that Minnesotans call them the state vulture.

So, again , what's so special that Duluthians want to keep it for themselves? They say it's the area's invigorating blend of urban amenities and wild places. Vast city parks -- some laced with trout streams and all offering hiking and biking and cross-country ski trails -- cut through neighborhoods. Resorts line bracing Lake Superior. Duluth is the gateway to a remarkable network of trails and canoe streams called the Boundary Waters -- protected by law from development -- that are the nation's most-visited wilderness area.

And it seems like everybody owns a cabin, however humble, on one of the thousands -- yes, thousands - - of smaller lakes within an easy drive of Duluth.

In other words, says the News-Tribune's Sam Cook, you can find sanctuary, sometimes literally in your back yard. "When you've had a day at the office where you feel like you've been pulled in 50 million different directions," he says, "you go home, and you can disappear into the woods and come back a different person, feeling better, with your world put back in perspective."

Sam Cook -- and others we talked with -- say they've had chances to move to higher-paying jobs in bigger, and warmer, cities -- but said no. Where else but Duluth, they say, could they find decent work and restaurants and theaters -- and still hunt deer and grouse; ski down the street; ice fish on frozen ponds; feed uncounted species of birds; and -- on the hottest summer days -- catch a stiff, cool breeze off one of Earth's most fearsome lakes?