Nature of the North A Breathe of Fresh Air

The bouldering wall has become a big attraction at Jon Walters’ Nature of the North in downtown Moorhead, attracting everyone from outdoor enthusiasts looking for a place to practice climbing skills to youngsters working off excess energy. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

When Jon Walters talks about “thinking outside the box,” he means literally.

Outside. That’s the direction in which the high-energy entrepreneur is leading the community of fitness-minded enthusiasts that has collected around his young business, Nature of the North. “You don’t have to go back to the same old gym to maintain your fitness,” he says. “Go for a mountain bike ride. Try kayaking. Get active outdoors! See beyond the same four walls. Listen to the birds. Smell the forest. Feel the air on your face. Enjoy!

“When you do something you truly love, you naturally start working out more. I want to normalize nature.”

That led him to establish Nature of the North, intended to be an outdoor adventure company and outfitter, in early 2020. Plans included mountain bike rentals, sales of camping and climbing gear, and expeditions to lead a growing community of bikers, hikers, kayakers and campers into nature.

But like the weather, plans change. Today, two years into operating a business he intended to encourage what he calls “outdoor functional fitness,” he finds himself the proprietor of something he never really intended: the area’s largest rock-climbing emporium – inside four walls.

The central feature of Nature of the North is what’s called a bouldering wall. Stretching the length of his building and extending 14 feet into the air, that wall has become a magnet for all ages looking for a new way to stretch their muscles in a challenging, fun environment. From groups of teens and young adults who hone their climbing skills to youngsters with excess energy to burn, Jon’s unconventional “gym” behind Swing Barrel Brewing on Center Avenue draws throngs of fans. Some are serious, experienced rock climbers looking to stay in shape. Others are social climbers, so to speak, looking for fun with friends.

This was not exactly meant to be. Rather, the pivot became necessary in early 2020 when Covid-19 shut his doors just as he intended to open. Even after restrictions eased in June, “we couldn’t have the get-togethers we’d planned,” he says now. “We burned up our start-up funds just trying to survive.” What he had left, when life at least partially returned to normal in 2021, was the climbing wall, designed and installed at a cost of nearly $100,000. So he turned the page and opened a new chapter.

Though he had enjoyed climbing outdoors at more vertically oriented destinations like Sandstone, Minnesota, a mecca for regional climbers, he says, “I had to learn everything I needed about operating an indoor climbing wall. The rest of our plans went out the window, and I had to master a new skill set fast.”

Nature of the North isn’t the first climbing wall in the metro area; the YMCA has one for members, and the walls are part of the menu at NDSU and MSUM’s new health and fitness centers. It is, however, the first center that’s open to the public. It has welcomed 4-H clubs, scout troops and high school physical education classes, families with very young kids and adults who take their sport seriously, and fitness buffs seeking a new kind of workout.

Jon offers a range of memberships, from families at $50 per month and college students at $40 to 10-visit passes that can be shared – $100 for adults, $75 for college and $50 for youth. One-time admissions range from $7 for children to $12 for adults. The whole wall can be reserved for group events.

Though Nature of the North has begun to flourish as a climbing wall, Jon still dreams of incorporating more of his original vision. He organized weekly mountain biking and disc golf sessions all last summer and plans cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in months to come. He continues to partner with local businesses for workshops on “whatever people are interested in,” he reports; in the past, that has included sessions on knot-tying, fire-starting, winter and car camping, cast-iron cooking and dressing in layers to combat the cold.

That drive to get people outside the four walls of their indoor boxes continues to motivate Jon, even as his rock-climbing enterprise grows and thrives indoors. The Wisconsin native, who has lived and worked in Fargo-Moorhead for six or seven years, hopes to get back to his mission to broaden the fitness horizon to the great outdoors. “Most people live their lives inside, especially in winter – just stepping outside a few minutes at a time to walk to and from the car. There’s an incredible range of great things to do year-round in nature. You just have to discover them.”

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