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More snow means more snowmobiles in the Northland

For many Minnesotans, December through March is snowmobile season, and with this year's spike in snowfall, officials say riders are out in force. With more people riding, both education and enforcement are key to keeping the state's roughly 22,00...

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Minnesota Conservation Officer Jake Willis gives directions to snowmobiler John Sundell at the intersection of Rice Lake Road and Hermantown Missing Link Trail on Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

For many Minnesotans, December through March is snowmobile season, and with this year’s spike in snowfall, officials say riders are out in force.

With more people riding, both education and enforcement are key to keeping the state’s roughly 22,000 miles of trails as safe as possible.

Bruce Lawrence, recreational vehicle coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said extra snow has brought out the more casual snowmobilers.

“We have a lot of snowmobiles that are 15-20 years old out there,” he said. “They’re affordable, they’re still out there, still functional, so people have held off until (a year with more snow).”

There were more than 183,000 registered snowmobiles in Minnesota in 2018, according to the International Snowmobiling Manufacturers Association. In North America, that’s behind Wisconsin (about 230,000), Quebec (197,000) and Michigan (188,000). But Minnesota’s numbers are down from a 2001 high, when more than 297,000 snowmobiles were registered.

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Since then, sales of more affordable all-terrain vehicles have grown, while snowmobile costs have risen, Lawrence said.

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Minnesota Conservation Officer Jake Willis checks the registration on a snowmobile. Steve Kuchera / DNT

Speed, alcohol are factors

The 2018-19 snowmobiling season draws to a close in Minnesota on April 1, but state and industry officials are reiterating their focus on safety.

Deaths totals stemming from snowmobile crashes in Minnesota are unchanged so far this year, with seven people killed statewide both this season and last. That’s down significantly from years with double-digit death tolls, including as recently as 2013-14, which was the third-snowiest winter on record in Duluth at 131 inches.

“Speed, alcohol and hitting fixed objects, that’s what kills people,” said Greg Sorenson, vice president of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association, which has 270 clubs that care for the lion’s share of the state’s trails.

Sorenson’s organization works hard to promote safe snowmobiling in Minnesota, funded by a small portion of state gas taxes and snowmobile registration fees.

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The association has a particular focus on curbing drinking while riding, Sorenson said.

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Three snowmobilers on Hermantown Missing Link Trail wait to cross Rice Lake Road on Sunday. Steve Kuchera / DNT

“We very strongly promote ‘Ride Right,’ meaning, ‘Stay on the right side of the trail, and stay sober when riding.’” he said. “That means zero alcohol.”

More snow can mean more chances for someone to make a poor choice on the trails, Sorenson said.

“There are more miles ridden; there’s snow all over the state, so people are able to run out after work and take a ride,” he said. “They’re more apt to go out and have a drink, too.”

All seven of last season’s snowmobile fatalities involved alcohol, Lawrence said. However, speed probably is the most significant factor, he said.

“Speed is the issue; we need to slow down,” he said.

The speed limit on Minnesota’s snowmobile trails generally is 50 mph. Within more populated areas, it can be 35 mph, while on large lakes, such as Lake Vermilion, it’s 65 mph.

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In Wisconsin, which has North America’s highest number of registered snowmobiles, there is no daytime trail speed limit, while a 55 mph night limit is enforced. Fifteen people have died this season on Wisconsin trails, while 14 people died in 2017-18.

Sorenson said that Wisconsin doesn’t place the same emphasis on sober riding that Minnesota does, and along with the lack of a speed limit for much of the day, that translates to more reckless behavior and more fatalities.

In Minnesota, Lawrence said, there is a slight bump in snowmobile crashes this year. That bump appears to be minor, though because the state only requires reporting if damages total $500 or more or if someone is injured, county sheriff’s departments might not be reporting the most minor incidents.

Lawrence said that today’s snowmobiles are well-built and comfortable, and that gives the rider a false sense of security.

“There’s usually enough horsepower to go well beyond the limit,” he said. “Some go 100-plus miles an hour. Are you able to control that vehicle with your weight and handling and experience?”
In addition, many of Minnesota’s snowmobile trails run through private property, and landowners have an agreement with the state to allow riders to use those trails during the snowmobile season. But riders sometimes deviate from those agreed-upon trails and venture across fields and other private land. As a result, some property owners have rescinded access.

“So there are fences and wooded areas, junction power boxes, telephone boxes, culverts and more,” Lawrence said. “Riders need to slow down and be aware of the hazards. Trails are not always straight and flat.”

While speed, alcohol and reckless riding can have serious consequences, much of the day-to-day enforcement on Minnesota’s snowmobile trails is about making sure riders follow the rules.

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Minnesota Conservation Officer Jake Willis records the details of a warning he gave to a snowmobiler. Steve Kuchera / DNT

On patrol

Jake Willis, conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, patrols trails that crisscross more than 800 square miles, roughly from Floodwood to far western Duluth and from the Sax-Zim Bog nearly to Cloquet.

With such a large swath of land to cover, Willis said the DNR depends on people calling in if they see something amiss, because it simply isn’t possible for an officer to patrol an entire assigned area.

Many of Willis’ days are spent out on the trails, checking to make sure each snowmobile’s registration decal and numbers are correctly displayed. If not, riders are subject to a base fine of $50 plus court fees that bring the total to $135.

In addition to being the rule of law, displaying proper registration also helps law enforcement locate stolen machines, Willis said.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Minnesota had the highest number of snowmobile thefts in the country from 2015-17, with 314 reported cases, or about 20 percent of thefts nationwide.

Willis, 38, was an officer with the Duluth Police Department and with the University of Minnesota Duluth for 11 years before joining the DNR three years ago. He patrols the snowmobile trails in the winter, while in the summer he patrols by boat along the St. Louis River and works in fishing and hunting rules enforcement.

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“Much of what we do out here is just talking to people,” Willis said.

Along Rice Lake Road north of Arrowhead Road on Sunday afternoon, Willis checked on a pair of registrations - and he gave one rider directions to a nearby Kwik Trip for gas.

“I’ve learned that you never pass up a chance for gas on a snowmobile,” Willis said. “If you run out, it’s probably going to be out in the middle of the woods.”

Willis said many people don’t realize that DNR conservation officers are police, with the rights and privileges of any peace officer in the state. But his main focus is to make sure riders are being safe and responsible.

“You know, for every ticket I write, I probably do 50 (verbal) warnings,” Willis said. “If I can take an opportunity to educate someone on the law and why the law exists that way, I will, because that’s how it started making sense for me.”

Adelie (Her name rhymes with "Natalie") is a former News Tribune reporter who continues to write the Northlandia column on a freelance basis. She's also an artist, photographer and fine-art model. She's a girl of the North with a love for Scandinavia, the Northern Lights, quirky films and anything mid-century.
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