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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

New resort to provide outdoor access for all

David Colburn
Posted 6/5/24

ELY- A young family is bringing a closely held dream to life on the shores of Birch Lake, where they’re about to open a brand-new resort to give people opportunities to enjoy the wilderness …

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New resort to provide outdoor access for all


ELY- A young family is bringing a closely held dream to life on the shores of Birch Lake, where they’re about to open a brand-new resort to give people opportunities to enjoy the wilderness that they love so much.
For Sean and Jill Leary, it’s the newest and biggest adventure in a wonderful life together.
Happily married for 14 years, the St. Cloud natives now live in Minneapolis, where Sean is an accomplished environmental consultant and Jill is a Spanish teacher in the public school system who will be mentoring other teachers this coming year.
The couple has two cute and vivacious young daughters, Annika and Britta, and a spunky Tamaskan dog named Freya. And in a very active family life, there’s nothing better for the Learys than spending time in the great outdoors.
As a young lad, Sean spent summers at a camp on the Gunflint Trail, with ready access to the wonders of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Canoeing in remote areas, even into Canada, became an immersive passion.
After high school, Sean attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, and after graduating he returned home to St. Cloud for the summer, and Jill was there working as a canoe guide for Les Voyageurs, Inc., a program that provides young people with an extensive outdoor leadership program.
“My mom and her former husband ran this program, and Jill was there at the property doing prep and all that stuff,” Sean said.
And when asked if his mom had any hand in getting the two together, he laughingly replied, “She would say she had all the hand in it. There was a little point where she was fishing around saying what do you think, Jill’s pretty cute, and then she was going to Jill saying, ‘You know, I think Sean is kind of interested.’ Yes, she would love to take credit.”
Jill took the hint and asked Sean to go out with her, and the relationship quickly grew from there. But eventually, it was Sean who proposed.
“It’s a funny story, because I already had bought the ring,” Sean said. “Jill was like ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to ask me,’ and I’ve got the ring right there.”
I didn’t take long after that for Sean to follow through.
“It was on a rooftop of a place down in Minneapolis, a kind of a foggy night where we had it all to ourselves, that I popped the question and she said yes,” Sean said. The two got engaged in 2009 and married in 2010.
After the COVID pandemic had eased and the Learys took a family trip to Yellowstone, they realized it had been a while since they’d been up near the Boundary Waters. They took another vacation to Ely, fell in love with the town and the area all over again, and after that they began working on making their dream of a resort a reality.
The real dream
The resort, North of North, is about to open the first of its three modern cabins in mid-June, with the other two anticipated to be ready by early July.
But the resort is really just a means to achieve the Learys’ real dream, one that’s very personal, especially for Sean.
That’s because North of North has been constructed as a fully accessible, ADA-compliant facility designed for able-bodied people and those with mobility challenges like Sean, who has used a wheelchair since a truck accident after high school left him paralyzed below the waist. Getting back to the outdoors was integral to Sean’s recovery process.
“I was at St. John’s University in my first year and I was trying to figure out how am I going to get into it again, because I was an avid snowboarder in Montana and Colorado, really into getting out into the backcountry,” he said.
It wasn’t on a snowboard, but on the world’s first all-terrain hand-powered cycle, designed by Mike Augspurger, founder of One-Off Titanium, which opened a path back to the outdoors.
“That’s how it started for me,” Sean said. “It was off-road hand cycling, and at that time getting out with a One-Off was pretty insane. People have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with that bike and do amazing things with it. We got a kayak early, and we’re always just getting out there, so I just didn’t stop.”
The real dream is to provide the differently abled with the same outdoor opportunities as everyone else, opportunities that will give them confidence at a time when they need it.
“That’s what I learned when I got my bike,” Sean said. “Challenging yourself makes everything easier later – you’re stronger, you’re more mentally prepared. People with disabilities haven’t had equal access to recreational opportunities in the wilderness of the Superior National Forest and BWCA. We want to do our part to change that.”
The cabins have been constructed with all the necessary clearances to accommodate a wheelchair or walker, including an ADA-compliant kitchen with lower counters, an accessible bathroom with easily operated fixtures, reachable, easy to use light switches, and more.. And the cabins are also equipped with high-speed broadband, although guests would do well to spend their time inside looking out the large lake-facing windows to take in the gorgeous views. There’s a bedroom on the ground floor, and more sleeping accommodations in the living room and a loft, accommodating eight in each cabin. A sauna outside each cabin from Superior Sauna can be operated by wi-fi, allowing remote assistance if needed. Superior Sauna donated the labor for their installation, modifying the doorways to make them accessible to all.
The Learys selected a relatively level plot that will make traveling the wide, smooth paths easy, and a signature feature of the resort is a 400-foot long, eight-foot-wide boardwalk that leads to an island-like peninsula in the lake. At the end of the boardwalk will be a boat dock equipped with a special kayak lift, courtesy in part from a $16,000 grant from the IRRRB to the Leary’s Adaptive Wilderness Within Reach (AWWR) nonprofit.
“If you can’t get on the water and into a kayak, you will never know the freedom of being on water,” Jill said. “We’re trying to remove barriers and create an inclusive outdoor recreation environment at the edge of the BWCA, from putting in an ADA kayak launch to working with guides who can teach people to paddle, fish, or enjoy the magic of a dogsled excursion through the BWCA.”
And the key word there is “inclusive.” North of North is not a resort for people with disabilities – it’s a resort that is accessible for them and that is inclusive of all people who want to use it.
“This will be a quiet, restful place,” Jill said. “It’s a place for people to gather -- 24 people could come; a whole family reunion could happen here, and everyone would be included and get to do all the things that everyone else is doing. That’s exciting for us.”
“We can build a community around that,” Sean said. “You bring your kids here, maybe you’ll see someone who’s disabled out there, and that’s maybe a good thing for kids to see. It’s that inclusive experience. There’s not enough of that in our communities. You know, people with disabilities are oftentimes not out in the community because they’re more isolated.”
There will be times when the resort is blocked off for AWWR use, as the nonprofit’s purpose is to provide people with disabilities the financial means to get out and enjoy adaptive recreation, but outside of those times anyone can book a cabin.
Local connections
The Learys said they’ve been extremely gratified with the interest and support of the Ely community as North of North It was important to them to invest in the community, and they’ve hired local contractors, a local resort manager, they’ve sourced their materials locally. In turn, it feels like the community is becoming invested in them.
“Our local plumbing contractor donated their shop space for us to work in, and R&R Transfer was supportive by allowing us to store our trailer on their property before we had space at the resort. Many in Ely seem to recognize that the area needs better accommodations for people with disabilities and are excited by our project” Sean said. “And we just learned, hot off the press, that we got a $3,000 grant from Save the Boundary Waters to get kayaks for the launch. That’s huge support.”
To connect more fully with the area’s history and culture, each cabin will have a particular name and decorative theme tied to important aspects of local life.
“The first cabin is called Kawishiwi – this is what the Native Americans would have called this land right here,” Sean said. “This lake would have been more of a river, the land of many beaver dams. It’s their word for this place.”
“Then you’ve got the Pioneer, which represents the settlement era, with European immigrants, with respect to the Pioneer Mine and significant change,” he continued. The third is Steward, as in steward of the wilderness. It represents the wealth of 60 years now from the Wilderness Preservation Act, as well as the set aside for the Boundary Waters and for protection. I love that these represent the different phases of what we’ve gone through and how we manage it.”
And in an area where there is an abundance of year-round outdoor activities, North of North will be a year-round resort.
“We have another pretty sizable grant pending for really good programming for kayaking and fishing and dogsledding and cross-country skiing and all kinds of fun stuff coming,” Sean said. “We’re really trying to maximize the benefit to the local community and, of course, folks with disabilities who haven’t had access to those experiences.”
For more information or to reserve a cabin, go to the North of North website at Additional information about the Learys' nonprofit, Adaptive Wilderness Within Reeach (AWWR) is available at