"ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS I DID WHEN I moved to Duluth was get rid of my car," says Dan Proctor, a bearded 49-year-old with graying pigtails who works at the Positively Third Street organic bakery. Before long, he followed suit with his TV, phone, fridge, and ties to the electric company. He walks, pedals, or skis to work, and voluntarily clears brush from a trail near his house, using only hand tools to avoid jangling the forest calm. Proctor's friends have coined a nickname for him: the Unabaker.
Though perhaps not a typical Duluthian, Proctor does embody the town's earthy ethic. Within city limits, some 23 creeks spill over basalt ledges into the west end of Lake Superior. Laced with backyard trails and waterfalls, this gateway to both the Great Lakes and the North Woods spawns die-hard paddlers, Olympic cross-country skiers, ultrarunners, and weather-be-damned mountain bikers. Black bears, moose, and thousands of hawks pass through. "I think a higher percentage of people here are tuned in to the outdoors," says Sam Cook, the Duluth News Tribune's outdoors writer. "There'll be mist rising in columns off the lake, and the sun rising behind it. It's a very moving place to live."
Signs of gentrification have shown up near the Rust Belt waterfront, such as brick streets and overhead Skywalks in the pleasant Mini-apolis downtown, and the four-mile Lakewalk. But they can't quite disguise Duluth's meat-and-potatoes soul, its suspicion of anything trendy. In his book Cold Comfort, local author Barton Sutter recalls when the city gave away bumper stickers that said, "We're Duluth and proud of it." Sutter spotted a hand-altered one: "We're Dull and out of it." You could read either version as a boast.
PLAYGROUNDS: You might begin by imitating Dusty Olson, a 28-year-old carpenter and itinerant ski bum. Olson kayaks such steep North Shore creeks as the Knife, Baptism, Cascade, and Devil Track rivers, which offer Class III and IV froth in the spring. He's run Grandma's Marathon, held each June along Duluth's waterfront, for ten years straight. He grew up skiing Chester Bowl, just uphill from downtown, and nearby Spirit Mountain, which has 900 feet of vertical—not Vail, but not bad. He frequents the town's 20-odd miles of cross-country ski trails and two touring centers, and races in Wisconsin's American Birkebeiner, 90 minutes away, most Februaries. Within 100 miles, there's also canoeing in the Boundary Waters, dogsledding out of Ely and Grand Marais, and paddling through sea caves in the Apostle Islands.
WORK: Local wealth is historically linked to timber, shipping, and mining, all of which have taken hits lately. Technology Village on Superior Street is starting to lure high-tech employers, but for now the most reliable sectors are health care, tourism, and education at the University of Minnesota Duluth and elsewhere.
NEST: You can snag something smallish and humble on the hilly East Side for about $70,000; in the same area, multiply that number by five for a dolled-up Victorian from Duluth's early-1900s heyday. Want a year-round vacation megacabin right on the lake? Start at $600,000 and go up, up, up.
NEIGHBORS: Geologist and wife who bring the dogs along when they ski frozen creeks; railroad worker who hunts, snowmobiles, and sweats buckshot about layoffs; sports-medicine couple who launch his-and-hers kayaks onto Lake Superior from their backyard.
HOW TO GO NATIVE: Any time you're late say, "I got bridged"—that is, trapped on the wrong side when the Aerial Lift Bridge rose to let a freighter pass; attend a poetry reading and a polka festival on the same day.
WATERING HOLES: The NorShor for art-house flicks and live music on weekends; Fitger's Brewhouse for local suds and shockingly tasty wild-rice burgers.
THE PRICE OF PARADISE: The standard rap goes like this: "Duluth? Where the lakes thaw just long enough for the mosquitoes to hatch? Where culture comes in six-packs?" Locals don't mind; it keeps the riffraff out.