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Over the River & through the Woods – Thunder Bay Resort

Ronnie Hartman


How Thunder Bay Golf Resort Added Heavy Horses to Their Business Plan

A few miles from the Mackinac Bridge in northern Michigan, sits a perfectly groomed 18-hole golf course. The Thunder Bay Resort, nestled in a beautiful landscape near the village of Hillman, boasts of at least one feature unique among golf courses: horse-drawn sleigh and carriage rides that carry guests quite literally over the river and through the woods to view a herd of majestic elk. Their ultimate destination is a rustic log cabin where a gourmet five-course dinner and wine-tasting awaits them.

Jack Matthias came to Hillman, where he met his future wife, Jan, in the mid-1960s. Raised in the suburbs of Detroit and schooled with a business career in mind, Jack had by then discovered that he did not relish the corporate setting in which he found himself. However, he nursed a fondness for the area where his family owned a hunting lodge and where he had spent so many happy years during his childhood. Accordingly, he moved to northeastern Michigan and began to acquire property just outside of Hillman–80 acres with lakefront on two sides–and to develop homes.

“I also thought the area could use a nine-hole golf course,” Jack told me, “and when the golf scene exploded, we added another nine holes.” His wry smile suggested that there would be more to the story.

Jack Matthias performs hosting duties inside the resort's log cabin.

By the early 2000s, Michigan boasted 970 courses, the third highest number of any state in the country. Fifteen years later, despite the fact that it still held fourth place nationally, the state was down to 790 courses. Both the absolute drop in the number of courses and the state's still-high ranking as a golf state can, according to Jack, be attributed to the fact that the whole country overbuilt in the 1990s and that downsizing (or “rightsizing,” as it's sometimes called) has affected everyone.

Of course, the fact that the pain is widespread is of little comfort to course owners who are trying to pay the bills. On top of it, Jack and Jan Matthias felt a deep responsibility to the nearly 30 families who had purchased homes from them. They were now trying to run a business dependent on a sport that had waned in popularity, and their business was located well away from large population centers. To make matters worse, many golfers from the Detroit area no longer had much disposable income because of the ebbing fortunes of The Big Three automobile manufacturers that had historically provided them with well-paid jobs: The Perfect Storm.

In the hilly snowbelt of western Michigan, golf courses were able to deal with the situation by monetizing their off-season: thanks to the lake effect snow coming off Lake Michigan, they developed downhill ski runs to make year-round use of their property. In northeastern Michigan, however, elevation changes are very small and snow cover comes and goes, making it impossible for golf courses to incorporate the winter sport into their business plans.

Jack needed to come up with some way to pay the bills, which kept coming in even when the seasons changed and the golfers went home.

As it happens, the Matthias property is well situated in a unique respect: it borders land that boasts one of the few herds of wild elk to be found east of the Rocky Mountains. Once common throughout North America, eastern elk (a species somewhat larger than their western cousins) were extirpated from their original range by the end of the 19th century. Efforts to introduce western elk have proven so successful, that in at least four eastern states, elk herds must now be thinned by harvesting.

Based on this nearby natural resource, Jack–who is nothing if not creative–conceived of a plan. Resort guests and tourists were eager to see the majestic animals, and for years Jack had been giving people maps and directing them to the area where the wild herd was roaming. Because of the size of the elk range, too many tourists were driving around for hours in search of them, and returning without having spotted a single animal.

Not exactly surprising, Jack told me. “Given the size of the herd and the size of the territory, you could expect only about one animal per 700 acres. Making sightings even more difficult, most of the landscape is heavily wooded–unlike elk territory in the West, where large herds can be readily seen in open mountain meadows. And, on top of that, since they're social animals, they're congregating in groups, with vast areas between one herd and the next.”

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Tourists wanted to see elk and Jack wanted to draw tourists. So, in order to concentrate the animals in a given area, thereby providing guests a good chance to see them, Jack and Jan began putting out feed–which also caught the attention of the area's abundant whitetail deer, who happily joined the banquet.

The quarry; a 6x6 bull elk surveys his surroundings from a comfortable position.

Now Jack had a way to nearly guarantee tourists elk sightings, if he could just deliver tourists to those locations, and do it without tearing up the landscape. Happily, he came up with a delivery mode that added so much to the tourist experience that the elk would have to compete to qualify as the main attraction.

The Matthiases were already well acquainted with a very talented guy by the name of Alan Scheen, who had studied urban planning at Michigan State, had served as a village manager in a native Alaskan village and had partnered with Jack and Jan to improve Hillman's services and infrastructure.

Alan also owned carriage horses–both Belgians and Percherons. Providing three conveyances with each one pulled by a different colored team–grey, black and blond–made for a very picturesque sight.

So Jack and Jan offered to buy Alan's horses and his carriages, and to hire him to provide rides that would take tourists through elk territory, right to their feeding stations. When snow cover permitted, they converted Alan's carriages to sleighs, which could traverse the terrain without doing any damage.

“When we needed additional teams,” Jack told me, “Alan would call a young man named Kevin Burr. In later years, Alan retired and Kevin went to work for us as a contractor, using his own Belgians.” (For more about Kevin, see the sidebar.)

Meanwhile, it was time to put the old family hunting cabin to use. In similar circumstances guests might expect a rustic experience to feature a picnic of hot dogs and beans. “Jan conceived of a far grander scheme: wine-tasting and a five-course meal which she would prepare on a wood-burning cook stove, in full sight of our guests.”

Toward dusk, Ray and Buck approach the log cabin where a gourmet meal awaits guests.

Because the old hunting lodge lacked plumbing and electricity (hence the wood-burning stove), this rustic experience included outdoor biffies–not always highly popular with guests under any circumstances, but particularly challenging during cold weather. Jack's advice to his dinner guests: “Let someone else go first. They'll warm up the seat.”

After years of frozen tushies, however, the old cabin gave way to the Elk Antler Log Cabin, which overlooks the Thunder Bay River and features a huge fieldstone fireplace, hunting trophies and modern features like plumbing and electricity.

Better yet, the outhouses were replaced with plumbing that's modern, but with furnishings–clothing, furniture and artifacts–worthy of any living history museum. (That includes the men's room, a fact to which I can personally attest. A reporter should be thorough.)

I can't claim that any of the men were gutsy enough, on the night that my husband and I partook of Jack's hospitality, to check out the distaff side. It was clear, however, that neither gender had any compunctions about committing wholeheartedly to the five-course meal that awaited them in the dining room: following shrimp cocktail and fruit crepes, diners are treated to homemade soup, salad, croissants and crown roast of pork with red potatoes, topped off by a very special dessert. Throughout the meal, Jack serves a panoply of wine varieties from the nearby Stoney Acres Winery.

Today, the meal is prepared by Jack and Jan's son, Spencer, whose impressive culinary skills must have been inherited from his mother.

Returning to our story: for seven years, the horse-drawn carriage and sleigh rides carried guests to see the wild elk herd and then to dinner.

Then disaster struck, requiring yet another change in Jack's business plan. Tuberculosis was found in local cattle, and because TB can be transmitted to livestock by cervids (members of the deer family), it was no longer safe to encourage wild cervid species to congregate in one place. Recognizing that “nose-to-nose contact over the feed pile was dangerous,” Jack immediately chose to do the responsible thing and to end his feeding program.

What to do next? Unable to lure the wild elk, Jack's next move was to create a captive herd that would never be exposed to the disease. “They're ruminants, like cows, and they need hay, plus a little grain. There are around a hundred elk raisers in Michigan, and it's a good use of our sandy soil, which makes for marginal farmland.” Thus, “starting with 12 bachelor bulls and 16 pregnant cows purchased from breeders, our herd climbed to over 100 adults. Our live birth rate was 90%, and we sold 55 calves.”

Breeders, Jack went on to explain, grow and sell elk for four different purposes.

The first market is buyers of breeding stock. They want the largest animals for their genetics, and they can use embryo implants and artificial insemination, so for all practical purposes, only the best bulls need apply.

A second market is trophy bulls. As it happens, elk (and their antlers) do not reach their full growth until eight years of age, and not many wild elk manage to live that long–which means that breeders are able to offer trophy hunters a superior set of antlers.

A third crop is meat, but the lack of an organized distribution system for elk meat means that elk ranchers must find their own buyers.

The fourth crop is velvet. “The medicinal use of 'velvet antler' dates back several millennia, and is an established part of traditional Chinese and Korean medicine. It is prized as a treatment for multiple ailments.” So breeders harvest the velvet-covered antlers in mid-June, using a technique that minimizes stress to the animal, then sell the product to companies that extract the nutrients–in other words, a renewable resource.

In their own case, Jack and Jan limited the number of cows that were bred each year, and the bulls were pastured separately from the cows. Interestingly, though, “the bulls fight, even to the death, regardless of whether or not they are defending a harem.”

In this respect, elk differ significantly from other members of the deer family. While mule and whitetail bucks mate with a given doe and then move on to find another, bull elk are wired to collect a harem and then to run themselves ragged defending their cows from other bulls. They corral as many cows as they can successfully patrol, and harems can range in size from two or three cows to 25 or 30. “By the end of the mating season,” Jack tells guests, “a 1,000-pound bull can easily be reduced to 750 pounds.”

In the case of the Matthias herd, 29 bulls who felt duty-bound to compete for their spot in the pecking order succumbed over a period of 18 years. “Eventually, we were down to one bull from the original group of 12, and he was 17 years old.” Jack continues the story: “We turned three cows in with him and waited to see what would happen. He had never bred a cow and we had no idea if he knew what to do.”

“The next spring,” Jack continued, “we got two calves–a heifer and a bull.” Admiringly, the staff named the mature (okay, kinda' elderly,) but proud father “Hugh Hefner.”

Inbreeding is not an issue with elk (the entire wild herd in Michigan began with just two bulls and five cows) and the Matthias herd currently boasts a total of three dozen healthy adult elk, including maybe eight bulls, plus four or five calves. Ever since he quit selling breeding stock (during the years he tested for tuberculosis), Jack has kept outside interference to a minimum, explaining, “We allow nature to take its course. We wish to keep the elk as wild as possible.”

As an example of how this works out, he tells a story about one bull that was severely injured during a battle with one of his peers to determine their place in the pecking order (neither bull had access to the cows). “We saw that his antler was broken and that his head was bloody. On closer examination, we realized that his skull had actually been fractured and that he was sporting a hole.” When his shed antler was found, in fact, it had a chunk of bone attached to it. Nonetheless, the bull survived the winter and grew a new set of antlers. (I have read that such battles guarantee the survival of only the most fit animals with the best genetics, which suggests that the bull in question was a superior individual.)

There are some exceptions to Jack's rule about letting nature take its course: on occasion, “when a bull elk is in decline,” meaning that he has matured to the point that his health can be expected to deteriorate in the future, a local charity auctions off an elk hunt to the highest bidder and splits the proceeds with the resort. He told me that “people will commonly pay $5,000 to $7,000 for a trophy hunt,” and that paying $25,000 to hunt a mature bull is not uncommon. At times, he will also harvest a mature cow.

All of this information is imparted to Jack's guests during the course of their carriage or sleigh ride through the woods and fields, where they can experience these magnificent animals up close before enjoying a gourmet meal.

Holidays require a fleet of sleighs to accommodate everyone.

Thunder Bay Resort now provides 34 lodging units, consisting of 19 suites, four chalets and 11 villas, in addition to a fully equipped RV campground. The chalets and villas feature living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, two or three bedrooms and two baths. Each unit is designed to house from four-to-ten people, “because golfers travel in packs of four.” The resort also accommodates 65 to 70 bus tours each year, hosting corporate retreats as well as school children, who are treated to hot chocolate and cookies along with their lecture on elk. Amenities include an 18-hole championship golf course, snowmobiling, groomed cross-country skiing trails and three meals a day in the Clubhouse Grill. The resort hosts murder mystery weekends, special events on holidays year-round, scrapbooking retreats, destination weddings, corporate retreats and family reunions.

Beyond the business they have created, the most striking of Jack and Jan Matthias's accomplishments has been their impact on life in the town of Hillman. Between Jack, Jan and Alan, this village, with a population of only 700 souls, now boasts a community health clinic, low cost housing, a water and sewer system, a nursing home/extended care facility, a senior center and a community center. Jack's continuing commitment to the community is illustrated when he says that his purpose today is “to create a bottom line under this business for the sake of our children, our employees and our homeowners and to help improve the local school system.”

Regional sites of interest include shipwreck tours on Lake Huron, the Great Lakes Maritime Museum, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, lighthouse tours, Mackinac Island, vineyards, a glass-bottomed boat tour and the Besser Museum in Alpena, which includes an excellent exhibit on Native Americans, in addition to the best collection of wildlife mounts that I've ever encountered, even in a natural history museum.

Find more information & photographs of the resort by visiting thunderbayresort.com.

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