Snow to go: Rent a snowmobile

BEAVER BAY -- There she goes, zinging around a sinuous bend in the trail, leaving a fine spray of powder hanging in her wake. Amanda Wartman of Beaver Bay is out for a snowmobile ride in her backyard.

Kevin Middleton (foreground) of Duluth and his girlfriend, Amanda Wartman of Beaver Bay ride their snowmobiles along a portion of the Moose Walk Trail north of Beaver Bay on a January afternoon. With plenty of snow and good grooming, snowmobile trails are in excellent shape this winter. [Sam Cook /]

BEAVER BAY -- There she goes, zinging around a sinuous bend in the trail, leaving a fine spray of powder hanging in her wake. Amanda Wartman of Beaver Bay is out for a snowmobile ride in her backyard.

She has a cool backyard. It starts on the shore of Lake Superior and climbs into the Sawtooth Mountains and drops into the Baptism River valley and climbs again toward the little trout lakes in the Isabella country. Snowmobile trails snake through her backyard like strands of spaghetti, delivering riders like Wartman to dizzying overlooks, snow-flocked forests and Ma and Pa bars where burgers and fries await.

Wartman idles her Ski-Doo to a stop at a road crossing on this January afternoon. She turns and gives me a thumbs-up.

It's a question: "You doing OK?"

I reply with my own thumb and offer one to her boyfriend, Kevin Middleton of Duluth, who comes easing up behind me on his machine. He returns the signal, and off we go.


The three of us are doing a 40-mile trail ride out of Beaver Bay on a cold January afternoon, veering off-trail occasionally so Wartman and Middleton can carve and climb in the powder. Wartman, 21, lives in Beaver Bay, where her folks, Mike and Cindy Wartman, own Beaver Bay Sports, which caters to snowmobilers this time of year. Wartman rides her Ski-Doo MXZ-X 600, and Middleton, 27, of Duluth rides his Ski-Doo Summit. I tag along on a rental Polaris Trail Touring DLX.


We are here in part to celebrate the return of a true winter in northern Minnesota, where snow came early and often and snowmobilers have been in heaven. Some come north with their own snowmobiles, and others come to rent machines from the Wartmans.

They've come from Minnesota and the rest of the country, from India, from Japan and from France. Then there were the guys from the Bahamas. They came north a few years ago and rented snowmobiles from Mike and Cindy Wartman at Beaver Bay Sports.

They wanted to experience a northern Minnesota winter.

"They just wore regular pants and tennis shoes," Cindy Wartman said. "I tried to tell them to dress warmer."

But, no. They took their rental machines and went.

"They were gone for 24 hours," Wartman said. "When they came back, I said, 'Where'd you stay last night?' They said they hadn't stayed anywhere. They had ridden all night."


Apparently, they had a great time. As will almost anyone who rides a snowmobile on Minnesota's North Shore this winter. The snow is deep and white. The trails are groomed to near perfection.


Cindy Wartman thinks the country around Beaver Bay is somewhat overlooked by snowmobilers who stick to the popular North Shore State Trail. It's a wide, rolling corridor that parallels the shore from Duluth to Grand Marais.

"They don't venture off the North Shore Trail," Cindy Wartman says. "They don't know what's over the hill, just two or three miles inland."

On club-groomed trails such as the Moose Walk Trail we are riding, traffic is lighter and the terrain is dramatic.

"You've got the Sawtooth Mountains," Cindy said. "There are rock formations."

"It's mountainous," Mike Wartman said. "And there's wildlife."

Riding right from the Beaver Bay Sports parking lot, we climbed into the Sawtooths, floating over the trails. It was a Friday, and we saw just a handful of other riders.


Amanda Wartman has been on snow machines since she was 2, her mom said. She admits she's a snowmobiling fanatic.

"She probably has Polaris underwear on," Middleton said during a break in our ride.

Amanda knows what she likes about riding.

"Just getting outdoors and seeing the wildlife, going fast and having fun," she said.

She saw some wildlife at close range a couple of years ago. Riding last in a column of riders, she rounded a corner and --

"This moose jumps out," she said. "I'm like, holy cow! I had to pull off the trail, but I didn't hit a tree or anything."


On our way to the Our Place restaurant and bar in Finland for lunch, we took a side trip to a gravel pit full of deep powder. Wartman and Middleton know the area well, and they know they can ride safely off-trail there.


Middleton immediately took his snowmobile, a long-track model at home in deep powder, to the top of a snow-covered mountain of gravel. Both he and Wartman also powered up a steep slope and got some air before landing on a plateau. Middleton repeated the jump several times, launching himself into the crystal January sky.

"It's like this adrenaline rush for me," he said. "You just get a big rush from playing. You get out and burn off some energy."

He's been riding since he was 5. He knows his machine. He knows his capabilities. He doesn't doubt his riding skills.

"A lot of it is confidence," he said. "I'm just going to go for it. I'm going to make it. I'm not going to look back."


The day's high was 4 degrees, but we warmed up with sandwiches and soup at Our Place on the banks of the Baptism River. The place is a popular stop for snowmobilers. For winter, the pool table is covered with a tarp. That's where helmets, jackets, gloves and goggles rest during lunch.

Amanda spoke with a couple who had rented machines from Beaver Bay Sports earlier that morning. The woman's feet were cold, and Amanda gave her some chemical toe-warmer packets.

After lunch, we layered up again and rode south to Beaver Bay. The sun was getting low, and it backlit the clouds of snow kicked up by our machines. The trail was a ribbon of white twisting through the forest. We zipped along, our machines scanning the barcode shadows of popple trees.


Amanda was right. It was a good place to be on a January day. Out of the house. Going fast. Having fun.

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