The North Shore has been drawing people to its community for decades, and in a time when population trends continue to be defined by urbanization and sprawling metropolitans, Cook County remains an exception. According to the 2020 census, Cook County’s population increased from 5,176 to 5,600 over the past decade—more than an 8 percent increase. It’s also no secret that carving out a life in a small, remote community where the per capita wage is just over $33k is far from easy.
Housing has always been a challenge here, but as more and more people make the move north that problem continues to get worse. For a number of people (myself included), making life work on the North Shore can mean living without basics like running water, and juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Life on the North Shore is equal parts beauty and hardship, so why are so many people continuing to make the move north?
For Colton Motschenbacher, a young guy in his twenties, the decision to move to Cook County had everything to do with access to adventure.
Originally from Chanhassen, Minn., Motschenbacher was living out in Bozeman, Mont. working as the property manager at a large resort when he decided it was time for a change.
“When I made the choice to leave Bozeman,” says Motschenbacher, “I immediately set my sights on my home state of Minnesota.”
“I missed being close to family,” continues Motschenbacher, “but wasn’t ready to sacrifice the easy access to the outdoors that I had living out in Montana.”
According to Motschenbacher, Ely, Duluth and the North Shore were at the top of his list because of each place’s “adventurous energy.” So, when Motschenbacher was offered the job of room division manager at the Lutsen Sea Villas this past year, he jumped at the opportunity.
“The more I thought about it,” says Motschenbacher, “the more I realized that I wanted to be as close as possible to the best skiing in Minnesota, which for me is indisputably Lutsen.”
“My goal,” continues Motschenbacher, “is to spend as much time as I can exploring the outdoors in my home state, and living in Lutsen makes that easy.”
Since moving to the North Shore, Motschenbacher has found life in Cook County even better than expected. Like so many others, he was inspired to move to the North Shore for the natural beauty but has stayed for the community.
“I never expected to find so many young and like-minded people living in the area,” says Motschenbacher, “and I definitely wasn’t expecting all of the community events. Live music, gear swaps, group bike rides/hikes, pickup basketball at the YMCA; and those are only the things I have found in the few short months I’ve been up here.”
“The North Shore seems almost untapped in my mind,” continues Motschenbacher. “With the west becoming more and more congested, it’s great to find a place that is still fairly quiet and has so much to offer.”
Motschenbacher has been fortunate with housing, recently finding a long-term rental in Grand Marais after spending his first few months living in employee housing at Lutsen.
For a lot of people trying to start a life on the North Shore, however, finding a suitable home remains the biggest hurdle to making that happen.
When asked what the biggest challenge has been since moving to Cook County back in 2019, Rachel Rae Klesser was ready with a one-word response—housing.
“Traditional homes in Grand Marais were either too run down or too expensive for us,” says Rachel, “even if we did move here for the ‘dream job.’”
Rachel and her husband Mathew moved to Cook County two months before getting married at the Wunderbar in September of 2019. According to Rachel, the decision to uproot was made because of a combination of “family, jobs and art.”
“My mom moved here from Minneapolis a few years before us,” says Rachel, “drawn to the big lake and the peace of the county. Then, the year we got married my husband landed his dream job at Cascade River State Park, so we had to make a move.”
“For myself,” continues Rachel, “I am an artist and this is an art place, so I was excited when we got the job offer. Now I help run Joy and Company as a manager and artist.”
At the time of the move, Rachel and Mathew were beyond excited to start a new life together on the North Shore, but struggled to find a long-term housing option that met their needs and fit their budget.
Their solution? To purchase 26 acres of “raw land” in Hovland and learn how to build a house.
Now, 20 months into building their dream off-grid home, Rachel and Mathew are thankful for both the challenges that they’ve had to overcome, and the challenges yet to come as they continue to work on their new house.
“Doing everything ourselves has been such an amazing challenge,” says Rachel. “We keep telling ourselves; when things are tough, they get better, and when they do, we get to take all of the credit.”
During the initial build, Rachel, Mathew, their two kids and three dogs all lived in a 16-foot trailer on the property while they worked on getting a roof on their new home. They have since moved into their round home, but continue to navigate the hardships associated with living in an active build site.
“Living off grid is hard,” says Rachel. “Since we live so far from town without cell service, once we’re home, we’re home, and if we forget something, we do without.”
All told, Rachel and Mathew feel lucky to have started their marriage in such a “wonderful place” and they credit living in Cook County as having “made them live out their dreams.”
Similar to Rachel and Mathew Klesser, Laura Durenberger-Grunow and her husband Ahren Grunow recently moved up from Richfield, Minn. to Grand Marais with their son Ethan after Ahren was offered the general manager position at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op.
However, unlike the Klesser’s, Laura and Ahren have opted to rent a home while looking for a place to buy rather than going off-grid.
Laura and Ahren had been visiting Grand Marais for over 10 years before moving up from the cities last November. Laura works for the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, and has since been able to continue working remote from Grand Marais.
While the decision to move was ultimately made for Ahren’s new job, according to Laura, “it also just felt like the right time.”
“We were drawn to Grand Marais,” says Laura, “because of the community aspect, environmental surroundings, shared values, arts, and everything else that this place has to offer.”
“We felt like Ahren getting the job was a unique opportunity that we may not get again,” continues Laura. “It was too hard to pass up.”
One of the most challenging aspects of moving to Grand Marais for Laura and Ahren has been leaving behind a community of friends and family back in the Twin Cities.
Their son Ethan was sad to leave his old school, and with all of the craziness associated with moving, starting a new job, and selling their old home, Laura and her family feel like they are only just now starting to settle into their new community.
That being said, Laura and Ahren could not be more excited to start establishing those same connections and friendships that they enjoyed in Richfield here in Cook County.
“So far,” says Laura, “we have enjoyed all the beauty that winter has to offer up in Grand Marais. We used to try and make it up here once a winter, but seeing the waves, ice, sunrises, frozen waterfalls and everything else on a daily basis has shown us the true beauty of winter in the area. Other than that, everyone in the community has been so kind and welcoming —something that we’re so grateful for. It has made the transition that much easier.”
Community, wilderness, art and adventure—there are so many reasons to love the North Shore; so many reasons to want to settle down in a place like Grand Marais. And, while finding a place to live on the North Shore is hard, it’s not impossible.
Like so many others, Josh and Kristin Englemann were drawn to the North Shore out of a love of place.
The Englemann’s had spent the past 10 years visiting the North Shore to kayak, hike and fish, and were up here camping when the property they ended up purchasing became available.
“The biggest challenge for us was finding a house,” says Kristin. “Property moved so fast we couldn’t get up here to look at a place before it sold.”
“The property we ended up with felt like fate,” continues Kristin. “We happened to be camping in Grand Marais when it hit the market. The next day we put in our offer.”
Now that they are living on the North Shore, Kristin and Josh are excited to start exploring places in the county that they haven’t already seen, and to share their new home with family and friends.
Josh runs an ag-business consulting company and Kristin makes jewelry, two jobs that have allowed them to “work from anywhere.”
“We love waking up to the view of Lake Superior and the pines,” says Kristin. “Honestly, we can’t stop smiling when we snowshoe in our woods—we feel like we should pinch ourselves to make sure we’re not dreaming.”