Sharing Duluth's outdoor adventures: Tour companies offer visitors guided experiences on trails and on the water
On Wednesday morning, Mike Buchanan and his daughter, Katelynn, 15, found themselves in a situation they'd never experienced before. The pair from Indiana were bobbing in kayaks along Lake Superior's North Shore, gazing nearly straight up a 130-foot cliff at Split Rock Lighthouse.
Although they each had some previous kayaking experience, they wouldn't have ventured onto Lake Superior on their own. So the two had signed up with Day Tripper of Duluth, a local adventure tour company, for this four-hour exploration of Superior's spectacular shoreline near the lighthouse. They were guided by Duluth's Jake Boyce, 31, one of Day Tripper's founders.
The Buchanans' experience is becoming more and more common in the Duluth area. Day Tripper of Duluth and the Duluth Experience, founded by Duluth's Dave Grandmaison and friends, offer a variety of outdoor tours — kayaking, mountain biking, paddleboarding, fat-tire biking and snowshoeing — in a city rapidly gaining national prominence as a premier outdoor destination. The Duluth Experience also offers brewery tours, Duluth history tours and more. Both companies launched in 2012 and have been growing since.
"We did 340 trips last summer," Boyce said, "about 80 percent of them kayaking."
The Duluth Experience is enjoying similar success.
Day Tripper of Duluth has a staff of eight guides, and the Duluth Experience has 12. Most guides work part time and have other jobs as well.
"We're seeing growth every year," Grandmaison said. "We hit it at the right time. There was a lot to fan the flames of our idea. We just never looked back."
Duluth's nationally acclaimed mountain biking trail system, along with the allure of paddling in the harbor or on the world's most expansive freshwater lake, have helped drive both businesses.
"The whole mountain-biking trail system was being developed, and the energy that (former mayor) Don Ness brought to the Duluth entrepreneurial spirit was super inspirational," Grandmaison said.
It didn't hurt that in 2013, Outside magazine named Duluth the second-best "adventure hub" in the world, and in 2014 the magazine named the city the best outdoor town in the country. The following year, the International Mountain Bicycling Association dubbed Duluth's trails one of just six "gold-level" ride centers in the world.
Boyce, along with business partner Matti Erpestad, figured mountain biking would be the big draw for tours. Duluth was well on the way to its current total of 86 miles of mountain biking trails in the city. But as Day Tripper's business has evolved, kayaking is king.
"After our first summer, kayaking was hands-down what people wanted to do. I had thought it would be biking," Boyce said. "But everybody has a bike in the garage, and they can try the trails themselves. They're well-marked. But to kayak on Lake Superior — most people respect Lake Superior. They think, 'It's a big lake, and I'm not sure what I'm doing out there.'"
Popular kayaking tours — usually two to four hours — take place in the Duluth-Superior harbor, on Lake Superior near the Glensheen Mansion or, like the Buchanans', at Split Rock.
Mountain biking tours usually happen on Duluth's entry-level trails such as the Duluth Traverse, a single-track trail that will one day span the entire city.
Most adventure-tour clients, understandably, come from other places — the Twin Cities, Chicago and across the Upper Midwest, tour operators say. Sixty to 70 percent of Duluth Experience's tours are booked by people outside of Duluth, Grandmaison said. But, perhaps surprisingly, the company has found that 30 percent of trips are booked by Duluth residents, perhaps looking for ways to entertain visitors.
The most challenging part of the tour business is its seasonal aspect, Grandmaison said. A study commissioned by Visit Duluth revealed that 6.7 million tourists visited Duluth in 2015 alone.
"Ninety percent of that is coming in the summer," Grandmaison said. "It's June through the end of October for us. It's a challenge to make sure we have engaging programming throughout the year. That's why we offer fat-tire biking and snowshoeing and brewery tours."
"It's fairly steady on weekends in the winter, but nothing compared to summer," Boyce said.
Day Tripper tries to offer private tours more often than group tours, he said. If the clients are two couples, Day Tripper will often send two guides, one for each couple.
"Everyone operates at a different speed," Boyce said. "We've had two-hour (kayaking) tours that go 500 yards or eight miles."
Most clients find the tour companies through the internet, and most book their trips online. Potential clients can see ratings for the tour companies online at sites such as TripAdvisor.com.
The tour companies are complemented by several other Duluth-area firms catering to outdoor adventurers. Swiftwater Adventures and Minnesota Whitewater Rafting offer raft trips on the St. Louis River. Charter fishing operators and St. Louis River fishing guides put anglers on trout, salmon, walleyes and muskies. North Shore SUP and SUPerior Paddle offer stand-up paddleboarding instruction. Positive Energy Outdoors near Duluth teaches kayaking, canoeing and rock climbing. Several firms offer charter sailing trips out of Duluth.
Together, all of these businesses create a healthy critical mass of outdoor opportunity in town. Visitors often try one outing and hear about others.
Grandmaison said he believes Duluth's appeal as a destination is still growing.
"We have a backcountry appeal with an authentic front-country vibe," he said. "We've got an amazing trail system, the upper St. Louis River with its beauty, arts and culture, history, an entrepreneurial spirit. We've got the best of both worlds."
The word is getting out, Boyce said. And when people seek out Duluth, they're usually pleased with what they find.
"Most people are really impressed," he said. "They're coming up here because they heard it was a cool place, and it meets or exceeds their expectations."