Ski Hut’s Youth Programs Are Making Outdoor Adventures Affordable for All
Here in the Northland, opportunities abound for outdoor recreation.
Our region is an absolute haven for sports like skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, biking, canoeing, and snowshoeing. But, between lessons, equipment, and maintenance, these types of sports can be expensive, making costs a significant barrier to sampling a new activity.
Duluth’s Ski Hut is trying to change that. This family-owned, family-operated adventure gear business has been open since 1955 and located at 1032 East 4th Street the entire time. Ski Hut caters to outdoor enthusiasts and aims to make outdoor adventures accessible for people - and particularly kids - of all income levels.
“At Ski Hut, we work with local non-profit agencies to help sponsor their programming,” said Bobbie Larson, Ski Hut’s Event Outreach Coordinator.
“In particular, we sponsor events for women, kids, and those of lower economic ability, to try to address what we call the ‘adventure gap.’ We help provide opportunities for everyone to participate in these activities.”
Ski Hut was started in 1955 by business partners Wes Neustel and Martin Harney. Today the business remains in the Neustel family.
After Wes’ death (at age 100), Ski Hut was passed down to Wes’ son, Scott “Potter” Neustel. And, Potter’s son, Dave Neustel, is expected to be the next in the line of succession when his dad retires.
“Ski Hut has been in business for 66 years, and has been located on the same corner the entire time,” Larson shared. “It’s currently in its 2nd generation of ownership, and soon to be the 3rd. Wes Neustel was an absolute legend in the ski community; he skied well into his 90s.”
Sales & Service
Ski Hut’s slogan is “Bike, ski, paddle,” and it offers gear – along with maintenance and repairs – to support this mission. Ski Hut sells Nordic and Alpine skis, mountain bikes, fat tire bikes, kayaks, canoes, snowshoes, and many accessories. It also sells bike and ski racks, along with winter apparel for all ages and sizes.
On the service side, the business offers bike tune-ups and repairs, ski waxing, the repair of broken or damaged equipment, and more. Additionally, Ski Hut values educating people about their gear; it offers plenty of bike mechanic clinics; both women’s-specific clinics, and those for the general public. Here, participants can learn to change a flat tire and fix bicycle brakes, among many other useful skills. Ski Hut also partners with other businesses to sponsor educational clinics on-site at their location.
Staff Enjoy Giving Back
Ski Hut employs roughly 35 people; most of whom are cross-trained to handle a variety of tasks. And, many staff members have long tenures with the business. “We have five managers who have been here more than 25 years, and another half dozen employees who have been here more than 15 years,” Larson said.
Employees enjoy many aspects of their jobs at Ski Hut, but the Employee Stewardship Program is a special component. Staff are encouraged to devote a portion of their working hours to a local entity of their choice, and provide services such as coaching, bike maintenance, trail work maintenance, helping with fundraisers, and more.
“Staff can choose an organization they have a passion for,” Larson said. “Through this program, we get our staff out in the field to connect with our customers and help support the agency.”
For Larson herself, she has chosen to support women’s adventures. Through partnerships with Continental Ski & Bike, Duluth Cross Country Ski Club, and COGGS (The Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores), Larson leads ladies’ biking and skiing treks every Thursday evening.
“We try to remove all barriers for these women,” Larson said. “We make it as non-intimidating as we can, we provide the education needed, and provide bikes for their use. These rides are also open to beginners.”
As Ski Hut’s Event Outreach Coordinator, Larson handles marketing, community partnerships, education, and more. One of Larson’s main roles, however, is to help fundraise and create scholarships to make outdoor activities affordable for all.
“Kids’ programs are a big part of our focus,” she shared. “We help raise money to get the equipment or create scholarships for kids.”
For instance, the Ski with the Hut event is an annual fundraiser for Mont du Lac’s youth downhill ski racing team. This team serves youth ages 5-18.
Bike rodeos, held at Congdon Park Elementary, Lester Park Elementary, and Myers-Wilkins Elementary, and sponsored by Ski Hut, help with fundraising and creating scholarships for youth biking activities. Ski Hut also makes an annual donation of a youth bike to help the cause.
Cheers to Chester is a collaboration with Bent Paddle Brewing and serves as a fundraiser for youth ski programs at Chester Bowl. To date, Cheers to Chester has donated over $70,000, a fact that would make Wes Neustel proud; Larson shared that Wes, Potter, and Dave Neustel all learned to ski at Chester Bowl.
And Ski Hut partners with DXC (Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club) and COGGS to put on a weeklong outdoor adventure camp, called the OAC Program: Outdoor Adventure Camp. Here, youth learn mountain biking, water safety, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and other skills.
Recently, Ski Hut sponsored DAOA: Duluth Area Outdoor Alliance. “This is a collaboration of all non-profits serving the outdoors in Duluth,” Larson explained. “Through our stewardship program, Ski Hut has offered the support to build DAOA back up, and we’ve been able to have a huge impact thus far. It’s a really cool group of people making some big things happen in Duluth.”
Ski Hut is also a major sponsor of the Young Athletes Foundation, a Grandma’s Marathon program.
To enroll in a Ski Hut-hosted or Ski Hut-sponsored event, please visit their website skihut.com. There is a tab of events, where interested parties can view all available options and enroll.
Scholarships are available, too, which can make the events free, or at least affordable, for all families. Please contact Ski Hut to learn more about scholarship opportunities.
Outdoor Options Abound
For Larson, who is originally from northern California, Duluth has become a much-loved, adopted hometown. “Previously, I lived near Lake Tahoe, so Alpine skiing was always my love,” she noted. “Getting outdoors, for me, is non-negotiable. I’m really thankful that Duluth is located in the landscape that it is. There are lots of options for Nordic skiing in our area.
“For my family and me,” Larson added, “The biggest challenge is to decide whether we want to classic ski, sled, go cross-country skiing, et cetera. Part of the magic of what Duluth offers is a lot of options for the outdoors.”