Minnesota state park permit sales are up 60% over this time last year. Fishing license sales are up nearly 30%. Reservations at Voyageurs National Park are up nearly 50%.

Minnesotans and visitors from out of state are coming to northern Minnesota in throngs this summer, eager to get outdoors and escape the trappings of COVID-19 confinement.

And unlike back in March and April, when several northern counties formally asked visitors to stay away to prevent the spread of COVID-19, this summer, it appears visitors and their money are being met with open arms.

“I think people are tired of being sheltered and cooped up and they just want to get out and do something, to get outdoors and get some fresh air and maybe catch a fish,’’ said Rick Leonhardt, who co-owns High Banks Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish with his wife, Kim. “Everyone I talk to says the same thing. It’s really busy up here.”

After a disastrous winter where their resort had to essentially shut down due to impassable snow conditions on the lake, and after they lost parts of May — usually one of their busiest months — due to state COVID-19 restrictions, June exploded with business at High Banks and other resorts, lodges and campgrounds across the Northland.

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RVs and other vehicles fill camping pads at Penmarallter Campground near Two Harbors. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
RVs and other vehicles fill camping pads at Penmarallter Campground near Two Harbors. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“There’s no baseball to watch. People want to get out, but do it safely, so they are calling us,’’ Leonhardt said. “People call us looking for a cabin and we have to tell them we’re booked. They say they can't find anything out there. Everyone is full.”

Not only are they getting their usual summer customers, but High Banks is getting new customers looking for a new place to recreate — especially anglers who normally go to Canada.

The U.S.-Canada border has been closed since March 21 to reduce the spread of COVID-19. It is scheduled to reopen July 22, but experts say the closure could be extended for months longer as the U.S. infection rate soars and Canada’s remains low.

“Our cabins are about full through July. And they will probably fill up beyond that if they keep the border closed,’’ Leonhardt said. “The minute Canada extended the border closure, our phone was ringing off the hook.”

Visitors flock to Voyageurs, Boundary Waters

At Voyageurs — Minnesota’s only national park — May visitation was up 35% over 2019, June was up 56% and reservations for July and August are up 49%, said Tawnya Schoewe, public relations officer for the park, which is comprised of mostly boat-to campsites and houseboat sites. Boat landings surrounding the park’s big lakes are jammed with vehicles, overflowing parking lots and spreading along county roads. Many campsites are booked weeks in advance.

Rachel Hopper, visitor services and outreach manager for the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said overall, daily and annual permit sales are about 60% higher this year over last year, which is an indicator of increased visitation levels. That even as some parks opened slowly and late as the agency grappled with COVID-19 safety precautions during a phased reopening.

Jack Shriver, a Walker, Minnesota-area guide and bait shop owner, said summer business is transitioning from fishing groups to family groups, but is staying busy.

"We've had a lot of new people come in who, it seems to me, maybe never have been fishing before and are giving it a try," he said. "It's turned out to be a pretty good summer."

Schriver said he "never would have expected that" when COVID-19 first reached Minnesota.

Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Co., a canoe outfitter and outdoor store in Ely, said 2020 may go down as the busiest summer ever for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"There are hardly any permits still available,'' he said. "You've got a mass of people who have been cooped up. So they head north, and they can't even get into Canada. ... I think pretty much all the outfitters around here are having a good season with rentals."

Trent Wickman, acting public affairs officer for the Superior National Forest, said the BWCAW has consistently experienced traffic equivalent to holiday weekend use every day of the week.

"We're definitely seeing a lot more visitation,'' he noted.

Pennie Burton, a co-owner of Penmarallter Campground near Two Harbors, looks out at the campground from the door of the office Wednesday morning. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Pennie Burton, a co-owner of Penmarallter Campground near Two Harbors, looks out at the campground from the door of the office Wednesday morning. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Resorts, campgrounds booked solid

As is usually the case in the summer, North Shore campgrounds and resorts are packed with visitors on the weekend. However, they are seeing an uptick in last-minute reservations, especially when it comes to repeat guests.

“Some are canceling and making reservations later because they didn’t want to come right away,” Pennie Burton, owner of Penmarallter Campground in Two Harbors, said. “You know, they wanted to wait and see how things worked out through the season.”

Grand Superior Lodge in Two Harbors is seeing a similar trend.

“A lot of people are coming up, but they aren’t planning very far ahead,” said Aaron Bosanko, marketing director for Odyssey Resorts, which owns Grand Superior Lodge and five other resorts along the North Shore. “They are coming up a week or two weeks out. That’s when they are making their vacations because they want to make sure they are safe. They don’t know what it’s going to be like in three months. Nobody does.”

While campgrounds like Penmarallter were closed to guests in May due to the stay-at-home order, the owners of the Northern Rail Traincar Inn just outside Two Harbors closed for personal reasons for the first couple months of spring.

Cyndi Ryder, co-owner of Northern Rail Traincar Inn near Two Harbors, describes the layout of the rooms at the inn. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Cyndi Ryder, co-owner of Northern Rail Traincar Inn near Two Harbors, describes the layout of the rooms at the inn. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“We both have cardiac issues and we don’t want it,” said Cyndi Ryder, whose husband, Jeff, had quadruple-bypass surgery in June 2019. “We are vacation land, so there was no need for us to stay open at that time.”

But once summer rolled around, they had a decision to make.

“If we stay closed longer and it kills the business, it’s nobody’s fault but ours. The governor said that people could safely do it if they did these things and we’re doing those things,” said Ryder, who noted they had already been sanitizing their 16 rooms before the pandemic, but they have added a clear shield to their front desk, which fittingly resembles a ticket booth at a train station.

“So hopefully we are protecting ourselves and everyone else," she said.

In the past, they’ve used promotions through the Groupon discount app and other services, but Ryder said she isn’t trying to be overly busy.

Dennis Saxton, of North St. Paul, talks about camping in his RV at Penmarallter Campground near Two Harbors. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Dennis Saxton, of North St. Paul, talks about camping in his RV at Penmarallter Campground near Two Harbors. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“Enough business to keep us going is OK,” she said, mentioning they received a Paycheck Protection Program loan for the months they were closed. “We’re OK. We need a little bit more to bounce back, but we’re OK.

"If we have too much business up here, you don’t know what is going to happen," Ryder said. "We might have to start shutting down again cause we’re going to have cases of employees getting sick and we don’t want that.”

Odyssey Resorts received a $1 million to $2 million PPP loan. Bosanko said about 95% of the money will go toward employees at all six properties, some of whom were furloughed for a month or so.

“We started bringing people back in June. As we saw the reservations start to pick up, we were able to bring some people back,” Bosanko said. “We are getting much closer to bringing everyone back, which is what the end goal was.”

One of the cottages on the shore of Lake Superior at Grand Superior Lodge near Two Harbors. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
One of the cottages on the shore of Lake Superior at Grand Superior Lodge near Two Harbors. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

While Pennie Burton and her husband, Stan, have had to make some modifications to the Penmarallter Campground this summer, such as the capacity in the shower house and not placing large families at adjoining sites, they are just excited to be open.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise because I didn't think we would be as busy as we are,” said Burton, whose 24 camper sites, just a mile down from the starting line of Grandma’s Marathon, have been full every weekend. “I really thought people would be afraid to travel. Thank goodness for people who are wanting to travel.”

News Tribune reporter Peter Passi contributed to this story.