You wouldn’t think the small town of Marquette, Michigan, which boasts a population of 19,000, would be home to a thriving outdoor store that got its start in the late 70s by selling pre-cut down sewing kits and Hobie Cat sailboats. But then again, why not? Down Wind Sports has become quite the institution, and a central character in the growing adventure community of the U.P.
A stone’s throw from the Canadian border, the modest town of Marquette is located on the south shore of Lake Superior, home to some of the world’s best ice climbing you’ve never heard of. It also has downhill skiing, cross country skiing, mountain biking, climbing, sailing, sea kayaking and, because you can, shipwreck diving. With such impressive natural terrain in the area, locals have thrived here in the last several decades. And Down Wind has been a large reason why that’s happened.
Originally opened by Dennis and Nancy Henderson in 1976, Down Wind Sports was purchased in 1998 by three long-time employees Bill Thompson, Jeff Strasser and Todd King. “Having three partners goes against every business plan I’ve ever read,” says Thompson, “but from our perspective it works.” And it does. There are currently two Down Wind Sports shops: downtown Marquette, and the DWS “North” store, located in Houghton.
Much of Down Wind’s success comes from their community outreach. “We’re an event-driven store,” says Thompson. Though they contribute to many community events, Down Wind is best known for the four national events they spearhead every year: the Michigan Ice Fest, Midwest Telemark fest, and two sea kayak symposiums. With Down Wind as a hub for these events, Thompson and crew get to introduce new people each year to these activities. This last week, the Michigan Ice Fest drew climbers from 11 states, four countries, and has clinics and presentations by climbing aces like Will Gadd and Fabrizio Zangrilli. Between slideshows, parties, athletes and a vibrant atmosphere at these events, they get new faces swinging tools or dropping a knee every winter.
Closer to the lake, The Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium has been around for twenty five years, and done so well, that Down Wind added another women-specific week called Ladies of the Lake. “My sisters said I was an idiot,” says Thompson, “but then 150 women showed up, and there was just me and my other male business partner to lead them.” We see his point.
Because both Down Wind shops are located in college towns, they get a fair bit of turnover in staff. But that doesn’t trouble Thompson. “We don’t hire the best climber, biker, boater,” he says. “We hire nice people, and then get them hooked on these activities.” If you noticed the subtle ice climbing reference, it’s not a coincidence. Thompson just released a new book, Ice Climber’s Guide to Munising Michigan (third edition) that he co-authored with Jon Jugenheimer, one of SCARPA’s sales reps. Check it out the next time you’re in Down Wind.