TOWER — Tom Kuhn, along with his two daughters and soon-to-be son-in-law, walk into the clubhouse at Pier 77, all smiles despite playing a few holes of mini golf under umbrellas.
And despite that huge Minnesota, uh, “state bird” that added a few strokes to his game.
The group, from St. Joseph, Minn., stopped for selfies along the one-of-a-kind course that takes players on a tour of northeastern Minnesota, with miniature replicas of landmarks and other northwoods adornments at each of the 18 holes — from the Soudan Underground Mine to Giants Ridge to Split Rock Lighthouse.
Kuhn said he has photos of his kids when they were younger in front of the mini log cabin at hole No. 8 that children like to play inside.
“Lots of good memories,” he says. Enjoying a round of golf at the course off County Road 77 near Tower has become “a tradition” for the family during summer trips to the area.
Once again, it was a great time. “Oh, but that mosquito,” he says, shaking his head.
Mini golfers won’t find mosquitoes on the course, nestled on 3.5 acres of wooded property. “But that one big one causes some problems,” owner David Lanari says of the giant metal mosquito that stands over one of the holes and has been challenging golfers since the course opened in 1988.
When his family purchased Pier 77 nine years ago, golfers covered themselves with bug repellent to keep away what Minnesotans know as the true “state bird.”
The perimeters of the course are now sprayed with a non-toxic substance, promising golfers a “mosquito-free” northwoods experience.
Lanari says the Kuhn family’s reaction is quite typical.
Pier 77 Mini-Golf has numerous repeat players and has become a tradition for many families.
One family comes from Seattle each year, Lanari said. Some people have driven from the Twin Cities for the day just to play the course. Resort guests frequent Pier 77.
And locals love it just as much.
“Ages 2 to 90 all love it,” Lanari said, adding that it’s fun to watch generations of families playing mini golf together.
But what really makes Pier 77 stand out is the imaginative course, built by its original owner, Sharon Smith, who now lives in Arizona and still returns to visit.
“It’s not your normal putt-putt,” Lanari said of the course, open Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Hole No. 1 begins with the “Soudan Mine.” Players putt the ball through an underground shaft that leads to a replica of the mine’s headframe.
Next its the “Laurentian Divide,” where the ball starts on one side of the divide and comes out on the other.
A waterfall with frog statues greets golfers at Hole No. 4, “Isle of the Pines.”
Then it’s on to “Land of the Loon,” where the green is actually blue and decorated with loons (the official state bird) and metal cattails. Smith named the hole after Virginia’s annual June festival.
A hole called “Makin’ Wood” is adorned with stumps and a replica of a handsaw cutting through a slab of wood.
Nearing the half-way point is “Hunting Shack,” where players putt the ball under the famed log cabin,
At No. 12, “Eagles Nest,” golfers putt up a ramp to a statue of a bald eagle, and at No. 12, “Oak Narrows,” they must navigate buoys.
The “Split Rock Lighthouse” hole requires putters to get the ball through a split rock to the lighthouse, and at the “BWCA Wilderness,” players must make the ball jump over a stream.
“Trout Lake Portage” is one of the favorites, Lanari said. The ball rolls onto a bright yellow Tonka toy truck. Players push a button to make the truck drive a short way with the ball aboard. It then drops it onto the green (actually blue to represent the water) and shaped like an arrow, standing for the Arrowhead region.
“Every hole has its challenges,” Lanari said. But No. 18, “Giants Ridge,” contains a black diamond sign that reads: “Most Difficult.” And if players need a break, they can sit on an old chairlift seat that once belonged to the Biwabik ski resort.
The 19th hole is the “Lake Vermilion Keeper,” so named because “it keeps your ball,” Lanari said. And if you putt just right, the ball travels under a giant walleye into an enclosed box which offers a free game pass.
Players can then ring a bell before returning to the clubhouse for a made-on-site soft-serve ice cream or Sven & Ole’s Pizza. The pizzas are purchased directly from the Grand Marais pizzeria, Lanari said.
“There’s so much great scenery at the holes. They are really creative,” Sienna Kuhn said.
“Older people really like it. They recognize all the (landmarks),” Lanari said.
The course is pretty much as Smith designed it, aside from a rebuilt log cabin, a new hand-carved eagle and additional landscaping.
“It’s a great venue,” Lanari said. People often comment that it’s a park-like setting, complete with benches and the beauty of the woods, he added.
Lanari, from Mountain Iron, and his wife, Michelle, who graduated from Eveleth-Gilbert, took over Pier 77 in 2011. The family has long had a cabin on Lake Vermilion’s Pike Bay and often visited Pier 77 Mini-Golf with their six children.
The business offered a place for their kids to work during the summers. The youngest, now 17, is still employed at the course.
The Lanaris updated the clubhouse with more seating, purchased a top-of-the-line ice cream maker for its shakes, malts and sundaes, and added pizza to the menu.
Pier 77 “is good for the area,” said Lanari, who sends visitors to area restaurants and attractions. Resorts likewise send guests to Pier 77.
The owner, who is known to hand out free rounds of golf and treat youngsters to an ice cream from time to time, said he prides himself in “really connecting” to the children,
“We really want kids to have a fun time.”
Of course, the same is true for the adult players.
“We want everyone to leave happy,” Lanari said. “If they don’t leave happy, we haven’t done our job.”