Few things embody the economic renaissance of the Cuyuna cities than the whirring of mountain bike wheels mixed with the crunch of gravel on the trail.

During ceremonies in Crosby and Deerwood the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 16, more than 100 people gathered to commemorate the connection of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail between the multi-use trail tunnel on Highway 6, just north of Crosby, to the baseball field on Industrial Park Road, Deerwood.

It marks another step in an “impossible” vision for the area, said Aaron Hautala, the one-time president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew and a prominent advocate for the expansion of the Cuyuna Range’s nature tourism. Hautala took part in the ribbon-cutting events at both ends of the expansion.

“Of all the projects we’ve been a part of, I have to say this one means the most,” Hautala said. “When we say, ‘We did it,’ understand that means every single living person here.”

Celebrators — most of whom were garbed in trail gear and mounted on bikes — gathered to commune, hear speeches and cut the ribbon in Deerwood. They then biked the length of the extension, until they commenced similar celebrations at the underpass tunnel of the trail at Highway 6, just north of Crosby.

The Cuyuna Lakes State Trail — which, when it’s all said and done — is planned to stretch from the Northland Arboretum in Brainerd/Baxter to Aitkin and serve to interconnect the various trail networks of the Cuyuna cities of Riverton, Deerwood, Ironton, Crosby and Cuyuna.

More than a hundred backers gathered the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 16, to celebrate the opening of a new multi-use trail connection from the baseball field in Deerwood on Industrial Park Road to the trail tunnel beneath Highway 6 just north of Crosby. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
More than a hundred backers gathered the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 16, to celebrate the opening of a new multi-use trail connection from the baseball field in Deerwood on Industrial Park Road to the trail tunnel beneath Highway 6 just north of Crosby. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

The paved multi-use trail looks to add another piece into the larger picture of the economic future for the area. Nature recreation — particularly, mountain biking — has been a significant boon for the region.

While cities like Crosby experienced economic struggles for years after the loss of iron-ore mining operations decades ago, Crosby Mayor Bob Novak said, the rise of mountain biking has led to a resurgence of tourist traffic and business openings in the city.

“I consider biking right now to be the economic driver — certainly for the foreseeable future,” Novak said. “It’s making things happen along Main Street and they continue to happen, that’s the encouraging part. You go up and down the street and think about three years, what was there and what is there today, it’s just a tremendous change.”

“Today is the culmination of a dream that seemed to take forever to happen,” Deerwood Mayor Mike Aulie said. “But, it’s here and the trail ended up amazing. With the mountain bike trails, each of our cities has things they can offer and contribute to the area.”

Former Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew President Aaron Hautala (left) and Deerwood Mayor Mike Aulie talk minutes before a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the opening of a multi-use trail connection from Deerwood to Crosby. "With the mountain bike trails," Aulie said, "each of our cities has things they can offer and contribute to the area.” Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Former Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew President Aaron Hautala (left) and Deerwood Mayor Mike Aulie talk minutes before a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the opening of a multi-use trail connection from Deerwood to Crosby. "With the mountain bike trails," Aulie said, "each of our cities has things they can offer and contribute to the area.” Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

The extension represents the fruition of nearly two decades of work — stretching back to the formation of the Cuyuna Lakes Trails Association in 2000, then the allocation of a $600,000 grant by the Minnesota State Legislature in 2015, with collaborative efforts between the various cities, organizations, lawmakers and private property owners to see it become a reality.

Lawmakers including state Sen. Carrie Ruud, state Rep. Dale Lueck and former Congressman Jim Oberstar were thanked by name for their tireless efforts to get the project off the ground.

In addition, speakers thanked the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, the city of Crosby (which spearheaded efforts), the Hallett Charitable Trust and the Serpent Lake Sanitation District for their contributions.

“Without the help of so many collaborators, this would have never become the reality that it is,” Novak said. “We had people step forward who helped in so many ways. Collaboration was the keyword — even when things looked a little bleak and got pushed back.”