Volunteers needed to maintain Minnesota's snowmobile trails
Most of the state's 23,000 miles of trail are maintained by local club members.
NEAR PEQUAYWAN LAKE — Greg Libby throttled-up the throaty engine on the PistenBully tractor and tackled a snowbank left by a plow along a county road — a 2-foot-high wall across the snowmobile trail he was grooming.
The machine didn’t even gear down, flattening the hard-packed plow wash like it was powder.
“It gets the job done," said Libby, who has been grooming snowmobile trails for more than 40 years.
It was 9 below zero outside with a 20-below wind chill. But inside the cab of the snow groomer, it was 75 degrees.
“This is almost as much fun as snowmobiling," Libby said with a smile. “Plus, you’re warm and you can listen to the radio.”
Libby piloted the big machine along trail that ran through thick stands of evergreens, their branches bent under the weight of snow, across spruce swamps and along recently logged areas where we saw deer and wolf tracks.
“One night I came up on a pack of 11 beautiful wolves. They just stepped off the trail and watched as I went by," Libby said.
Libby is one of about eight members of the Pequaywan Area Trail Blazers Snowmobile Club who volunteer to run the tractor and groom about 69 miles of trail that fall under the club’s purview. They are part of an army of thousands of volunteers in more than 300 local clubs who are responsible for keeping more than 90% of Minnesota’s 23,000 miles of snowmobile trails in shape. And they’re looking for a little appreciation, and a little more help, from the state’s 200,000 resident riders and thousands who come here to ride from out of state.
While there’s a common misconception that it’s Department of Natural Resources crews, or other government agencies that groom snowmobile trails, it’s far more often your neighbor who gets up at all hours of the night to keep the trails in rideable shape.
“I don’t think most people realize how much work it is," Libby said, noting it’s not just winter grooming, but also summer and fall trail maintenance — cutting fallen trees, building bridges and replacing signs. “I think people enjoy having nice trails. … But sometimes you wish they would appreciate it a little more.”
Much of the grooming is done at night, when it’s colder and the snow has a chance to set up before riders pummel it again the next day. There’s also far less snowmobile traffic at night.
The Pequaywan club tries to groom its trail system three or four times each week during peak riding season. Each time, it takes about 24 hours to get the entire system groomed properly, Libby said. The club will put more than 300 hours on the PistenBully this winter. The club also contracts to groom part of the North Shore State Snowmobile Trail for the DNR on weekends when the popular trail can see thousands of riders and when the ruts and bare spots they leave behind need attention more often.
Libby, 64, a retired electrician, is an avid snowmobiler. He lives in Knife River, but has a cabin near Brimson, and has been active in the Pequaywan club since it formed in 1982. Before that, he groomed the North Shore trail for the DNR.
More volunteers needed
Snowmobiling has gone through two major ups and downs over the past half-century, peaking in the 1970s before declining in the 1980s during a period of high fuel prices and low-snow winters. The sport exploded back in popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s, reaching an all-time high in Minnesota registrations at nearly 300,000 in 2001.
But since then, the number of registered snowmobiles in the state has dropped by nearly one-third, with fewer people riding, and, as a result, fewer people joining snowmobile clubs. That leaves many clubs short-handed when it comes to volunteers willing and able to operate groomers.
Mostly, it’s meant a lack of new younger members coming into the club and volunteering at a time when older baby boomers are aging out of the sport.
“We had way over 100 members not too long ago. Now, we’re down to about 60. ... And it’s usually the same 10 guys who volunteer to do the work," said Phil Lockett, trail administrator for the Reservoir Riders Snowmobile Club in Fredenberg Township, just north of Duluth. The club maintains about 95 miles of trails, from Canyon on the west and Three Lakes Road on the north, to the North Shore trail on east and back to Twig.
“People don’t realize that volunteers are what makes this system work. … But people are so busy in their lives. The average person just isn’t stepping up now," Lockett said. “It’s frustrating. It gets old. … We need some new blood.”
Most clubs depend on retired members to do the bulk of the work. But as many of them age out of volunteering, it becomes harder to find replacements.
"I’m 50 and I think I’m the youngest guy in the club," Lockett noted.
Other clubs are getting by, at least for now.
“We are lucky to have a good core group of people willing to help out,” said Gordy Anderson of the Voyageurs Snowmobile Club of Two Harbors. “The problem is a few of them are over 80 now. How much longer are they going to be doing this?”
Most infuriating for club volunteers is when they hear complaints from snowmobilers that the trails aren't groomed often enough, or early enough in the season. Oftentimes, riders are eager to hit the trails after the first decent snowfall in November or December. But often that snow is well before the ground freezes enough to support heavy grooming tractors. While Minnesota may be famous for its 10,000 lakes, it’s infamous for its 100,000 swamps, many of which take many days of subzero temperatures to freeze hard.
It’s sometimes mid-January before some cubs can groom their entire trail system.
Even a foot of snow on the ground isn’t enough to properly groom, Libby and others note. At least 18 inches is needed to allow the grooming tractor and drag to do their job properly.
ATVs soar past snowmobiles
Paul Purman, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources snowmobile program consultant, said most of the state’s clubs are having the same problem. Fewer young people are entering the sport, Purman noted, for various reasons, so fewer people are joining snowmobile clubs.
“There’s a very high cost of entry to get into snowmobiles,” Purman noted, with new machines costing upward of $10,000 along with the need for a trailer, tow vehicle, clothing, fuel and travel expenses. “If you aren’t already into it, or don’t have a friend who has the equipment, it’s hard to get into snowmobiling from scratch.”
Minnesota’s shorter, generally warmer winters in recent decades also haven’t helped. Many snowmobile seasons are starting later and ending earlier.
“We had some winters when it didn’t snow much, or didn’t snow until later in winter. And most people don’t think about winter sports until there’s snow on the ground. … You can see the (state snowmobile) registrations just drop off when that happens," Purman noted.
Purman also said many former and would-be snowmobilers have become ATV enthusiasts instead, choosing a recreational vehicle that can be used most all the year instead of just 12 weeks, or less, in winter. While snowmobile registrations are down by nearly 100,000 over the past 20 years, ATV registrations continue to climb, from 12,235 in 1984, the first year registrations were required, to 323,956 in 2020, soaring past snowmobile registrations in 2007. There are now over 100,000 more ATVs registered in Minnesota than snowmobiles.
It’s not just operating the groomer that takes time. The Pequaywan club does most of its own mechanical work, with repairs to the tractor or the grooming sled an almost constant chore. The group even built its own garage/headquarters with volunteer labor. Their biggest expenses in most years are fuel for the groomer and liability insurance on the trails. The $250,000 groomers have to be replaced every 10 years or so.
“I think I worked (on the trails) for seven of the past nine days," Libby noted as he drove the PistenBully. “My wife finally said I had to take a day off so we could get out and ride ourselves.”
So far, it’s manpower, not money, that’s the major problem. The state snowmobile trail fund is in decent shape, Purman noted, thanks to the three-year registration stickers all riders must purchase and also due to a portion of the state’s gasoline tax that is earmarked for snowmobiles. That money goes into a statewide pot and is doled out to local clubs based on the miles of trail they maintain.
Still, with snowmobile registrations down by one-third, the fund isn’t as fat as it once was, Purman noted. That has tightened the focus of spending from building new trails — very few new trails are funded now — to maintenance and safety.
“We’re just one bad-snow winter away from seeing some issues," Purman said. “What we need are more people out enjoying winter on the trails.”
Top states for miles of official snowmobile trails
- Wisconsin — 25,000
- Minnesota — 23,000
- Maine — 14,500
- New York — 10,200
- Idaho — 7,200
- New Hampshire — 7,000
- Michigan — 6,500
- Oregon — 6,000
- Montana — 4,000
- Vermont — 3,000
There are roughly 230,000 miles of signed snowmobile trails across the U.S. and Canada, most of which were developed and are maintained by snowmobile clubs and associations, usually in cooperation with state, provincial and local governments.
Source: American Council of Snowmobile Associations
States with the most snowmobiles registered as of 2020
- Wisconsin — 240,141
- Minnesota — 198,881
- Michigan — 178,109
- New York — 98,500
- Maine — 84,700
Source: International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association
And then there were 4
At one point during the first heyday of snowmobiling, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were more than 100 different companies making snowmobiles in the U.S. and Canada, with a dozen or so different manufacturers in Minnesota alone.
Now, just four major companies produce snowmobiles: Arctic Cat, headquartered in Thief River Falls, Minnesota; Polaris Industries, headquartered in Medina, Minnesota; BRP, headquartered in Valcourt, Quebec; and Yamaha Motor Corp., headquartered in Ontario, Canada.
In 2021, there were 133,444 snowmobiles sold worldwide; 59,234 were sold in the U.S. and 50,567 were sold in Canada. There are over 1.3 million registered snowmobiles in the U.S. and over 596,000 registered snowmobiles in Canada.
Source: International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association
Everyone needs safety training first
Minnesota law requires anyone born after Dec. 31, 1976, to take snowmobile safety training. You can do it online. The cost is $24.95. For more information, go to dnr.state.mn.us/safety/vehicle/snowmobile/index.html .
MnUSA, Minnesota’s snowmobile association
Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association was founded in 1978 to look after the interests of all of the state’s snowmobile cubs, of which there are now about 300 across the state with a combined 40,000 members.
MnUSA works closely with the state Legislature and state, local and national organizations, such as the Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Office of Tourism, to promote snowmobiling. Much of the focus has been on trails and funding for trail construction, maintenance and grooming. The club also has helped push snowmobile safety measures.
For information on snowmobile clubs near you, go to mnsnowmobiler.org .
How are the trails? Check it out
The Minnesota DNR has an interactive online trails map that lets you zoom in wherever you want to ride. Go to dnr.state.mn.us/snowmobiling/interactive_map/index.html .
The DNR posts a weekly report of statewide snow depth and the status of DNR-groomed trails in state parks at dnr.state.mn.us/snow_depth/index.html .
Know the name of the trail you want to ride? Here’s a listing of 330 trails across the state listed alphabetically, with contact phone numbers and many with links to club Facebook pages and updated information on trail conditions: dnr.state.mn.us/snowmobiling/trailcontacts.html.
Minnesota snowmobiles must be registered
If you want to ride on any trails or along any roads in Minnesota, you need a three-year registration sticker that costs $113.50.
If you will not use the snowmobile on any trails or along roadways, you can get a three-year registration sticker for $53.50.
For non-residents who want to ride their sled in Minnesota, a state snowmobile state trail sticker must be purchased and affixed to the machine. They cost $51 and are valid from Nov. 1 through June 30.
For more information on how or where to register or renew, go to dnr.state.mn.us/licenses/snowmobile/index.html.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .