Published January 04, 2010, 09:12 AM

Mont Du Lac’s new owners build on ski area’s strengths

In a corner of Douglas County, just across the bridge from Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood, the Mont Du Lac Ski Area has for decades been overshadowed by nearby Spirit Mountain Recreation Area.

In a corner of Douglas County, just across the bridge from Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood, the Mont Du Lac Ski Area has for decades been overshadowed by nearby Spirit Mountain Recreation Area.

City-owned Spirit Mountain is much bigger, has more hills and chair lifts and more accommodations and staff.

But many skiers, snowboarders and families prefer the smaller setup at Mont du Lac with its spectacular views and wilderness setting.

“It’s always been nice skiing here. It’s always felt at home here, it’s always been a really fun time,” said Jeff Zauhar, ski coach for Denfeld and Central high schools and Arrowhead Alpine Club, which train there. “We always liked the homey, comfortable atmosphere here. It’s family-oriented and always had a friendly staff working here.”

With its chalet at the base of the ski hill, people can sit inside and watch skiers go by. That’s not a vantage point often found. It allows parents to keep an eye on their kids, Zauhar noted. And its cheaper fees mean more can participate, he said.

“We have a lot of families who say they learned to ski out there,” said Donna Pulkrabek, who bought the business a year ago with her husband, Larry.

Drawn by hill’s beauty

When the Pulkrabeks were looking for a business to buy with inheritance money in 2008, it was more than Larry’s love of skiing that drew them to Mont Du Lac.

It was the pristine beauty of the site: 230 acres along the St. Louis River, sculpted by glaciers. With no logging there in 150 years, some trees are more than 200 years old.

“It’s a unique spot,” Larry Pulkrabek said, noting that Mont Du Lac is framed by Jay Cooke State Park on one side and land owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on the another, both of which can’t be developed.

“If it wasn’t a ski area, it would probably be developed into a condo area,” he said.

They weren’t about to let that happen.

The ski area wasn’t for sale at the time, but they approached owners Bob Tranholt and Linda Carlberg with their ideas, energy and financial wherewithal to make it happen.

“They had had it for quite a few years,” Larry Pulkrabek said. “They were ready to try and move on to a different place and time in their lives.”

The Pulkrabeks also own Field Logic, a successful Superior-based archery manufacturer. The inheritance, coupled with a strong, growing business, enabled them to buy Mont Du Lac and make improvements, he said.

“Anything we make here, we will put back into that business, so that this is something that’s here for generations, something that doesn’t go away,” he said.

Making improvements

When the Pulkrabeks purchased Mont Du Lac, becoming the third owners in its 60-year existence, it needed more than a little sprucing up.

“Nothing had been done here for 25 years,” Larry Pulkrabek said. “We tried to clean up, fix up and improve.”

They painted the chalet and added big screen TVs that show skiers in action to make it more appealing. They’ve repaired equipment, updated the electrical system, fixed the roof, put in a new deck and re-sculpted the hill to reduce erosion and water flowing toward the buildings. They created a snowboarding terrain and a disc golf course for summer use.

“Our goal is to make this a four-season recreational destination for families that’s a safe place to go,” Larry Pulkrabek said.

They’ve put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the upgrades. But they’re not done yet.

They plan to put a high-speed tow rope in the snowboarding park, build a new maintenance shed and move the ski rental building. Eventually, they also hope to expand their uphill capacity and mountain biking.

“We’d like to do more, but we have to do it in stages,” Donna Pulkrabek said.

But the piece de resistance are plans for a mountaintop lodge where skiers can stop, sit by the fire and have a cup of hot chocolate. The Pulkrabeks already put in a road to the site and plan to break ground this spring for the log building that also will be their home.

“We’re going to live in half of it, and open the other half to skiers,” Donna Pulkrabek said.

It’s too soon to see the impact of changes on attendance, but on a good day about 200 come out, she said.

“We’re a year out from seeing changes and two years out from seeing dramatic changes,” Larry said.