Dispatches from the Drifts
Slipping into the World of North Woods Snowmobiling
(page 1 of 2)
Zorbaz in Detroit Lakes (or DL, as it’s known to locals) is billed as a “no zhirt, no zhoes, no problemz” kind of place. It’s a nondescript roadhouse, remarkable from the exterior only for its exzorbatant amount of colorful plastic banners, neon lights, and other alcohol-promoting schlock. Zorbaz is a family-owned, Cheers-feeling, softball team–sponsoring restaurant and bar that’s been serving motorcycle-riding, boat-towing, IROC-driving Minnesotans for the past 36 years. And when the snow falls, snowmobiles line up out front.
Inside, a crowd is gathered around a giant-screen TV, watching a NASCAR race. Ski pants hang on coat hooks and snowmobile helmets share tabletops with empty bottles. A sign near the bar reads, “Beer drinkers make better lovers.”
The Zorbaz staff encourages patrons to “Have zome fun.” And while the need to mentally substitute s’s for z’s quickly becomez annoying, the wholesome raunchiness of Zorbaz’s PG-13 nature is all just part of its charm. You can order a drink called Sex with the Bartender (“garnish with phone number”)—but you can also bring your kids.
Zorbaz is something of a snowmobiler scratching post, a perfect place for me to talk to a few real “beelin’” aficionados. But once inside, I feel a little like Luke Skywalker in the alien cantina scene in Star Wars—is it obvious that I’m not from around these parts? If I look out of place, no one seems to notice; most eyes are focused on the televisions, the repetitive zooming of cars circling the track.
I approach a crowd of middle-aged, sweatshirt-clad folks with a heap of winter outerwear piled next to their table and strike up a conversation with a woman whose long brown hair is covered with a skull-and-crossbones bandana. (“Helmet head,” she explains.) She tells me how she got started snowmobiling.
“If you live in Minnesota, you get into it,” she replies, “because there’s not much else to do.” She says that she and her friends snowmobile mostly as a social thing; today they’re out riding to a few different bars. I try to ask about sled types and brand names, but she quickly blows me off. “That, you’ve got to talk to men about.”
I invite myself into a booth where a husband and wife, Dan and Laura, have just finished lunch with their friend John, a lanky guy wearing a Minnesota Wild jacket and cap. Laura is rather wholesome looking, with plain, short brown hair; Dan, by contrast, looks almost thuggish with his shaved head and tobacco-stained teeth. Dan and Laura say they’ve been out since 9 a.m. and will end up riding about 50 miles today. I ask them what they like about snowmobiling.
“It’s an escape,” Laura says, handing Dan a tin of Skoal. “To be able to get away from everything.”
“No cars, no phones,” Dan adds.
All three say they are impressed by the state’s network of groomed trails—more than 20,000 miles’ worth. “I’m not shittin’ ya,” John says. “You get up to Isabella, northwest of Duluth, up in that area, and the snowmobile trails, my God, you can go on them forever. If you wanted to, you could ride from here to Duluth.”
“They’re all linked to a bar somewhere,” Dan adds, then spits tobacco juice from the side of his mouth into an empty Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle.
Snowmobiling has always had something of a macho image. Billboards and brochures feature shiny machines leaping from the snow, frozen in a spray of white powder, each thrashing like a just-hooked muskie. The riders lean into turns, half-standing, knees bent, covered in black-and-white checkered-flag patterns and bright-colored flames. These icons of snow-borne speed are all about intensity, danger, and thrills—bad and badass, Hummer and Harley, daredevil and bat-outta-hell.
It seems so unpredictable, so reckless. Which is probably why I’ve never really liked snowmobiles on the few occasions when I’ve encountered them, driving on rural roads at night, wishing I could swat the headlights that dance in the ditches like so many buzzing gnats.
But one cold winter morning last January, I started to reconsider my bias. Stuck in heavy traffic, I pulled up next to a Ford F-250 trailering a couple of snowmobiles. Two guys sat in the cab, laughing, talking, drinking Mountain Dew from plastic bottles. I watched through the glass; the guys looked excited. Hell, they looked totally stoked. It was a Friday, big snow had fallen up north the night before, and they were probably skipping work. Maybe snowmobiling is fun, I thought, as I inched my aging Volvo forward. Would I like it? What is the appeal?
For many, the allure is sheer velocity. At least, that’s what the crowd at Zorbaz seems to think on the night I visit. John and Dan are engaged in a discussion of the differences between 440 cc sleds and 600 cc sleds, which I gather has something do to with the engine’s combustion chamber. I turn to ask Laura, “What about speed? Do you like riding fast?”
“If my snowmobile didn’t go over 45, I probably wouldn’t care,” she says. “I go 20 on the trails.” Dan shakes his head. I say Dan looks like he cares about speed.
“Cuz he’s a man,” John says. “Why would you want a regular Mustang car compared to a GT?”
I give John a blank look.
“More horse!” he says. “Braggin’ rights.”
“God forbid I’d have a faster snowmobile than my husband,” Laura says.
I realize that snowmobiling culture is still home to the type of rider that Skiing magazine once dubbed “Sledneckis americanus, the ham-faced, beaconless rube stuffed into a visored helmet, keg belly testing the seams of an oil-stained snowmobile suit.” The stereotype is far from extinct. But John, Dan, and Laura have piqued my curiosity; I want to find out the rest of snowmobiling’s story.
IT’S A SUNNY FEBRUARY MORNING, and I’ve just arrived in Grand Rapids for the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association’s (MnUSA) state-stamped, governor-approved Winter Rendezvous at Ruttger’s Sugar Lake Lodge. It could be considered a sanitized Sturgis of snowmobiles, as it’s a rally for riders and legislative types, similar to the governor’s fishing opener. This will be my chance to meet a wide variety of snowmobilers—and I’ll get to ride.
Snowmobiling is big business in Minnesota—thus all the politicos. Two of the four major snowmobile manufacturers have their headquarters here: Polaris has been building sleds in a factory in Roseau since 1956; Arctic Cat, in Thief River Falls, since 1963. The state earmarks about $5 million in grants each year for local snowmobile clubs to build and maintain trails, with another $5 million going to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for trail enforcement and management. The return on those investments is impressive. According to MnUSA, the typical Minnesota snowmobiler spends an average of almost $5,000 each season on equipment and gear (not including travel costs), and the activity generates $150 million in tourism dollars for the state. MnUSA estimates the overall economic impact of snowmobiling in Minnesota to be $1 billion each year.
As I make my way toward Ruttger’s main entrance, I notice a few vintage snowmobiles on display outside the door. The sleds remind me of classic Vespa scooters with their solid colors and simple, timeless styling. A few men inspect them, like farmers examining combines on Machinery Hill.
Snowmobiling has come a long way since the first “snow machines” were built in the 1930s, originally conceived to help with logging and emergency health care. After a few decades of development, smaller gasoline engines made personal sleds possible, and designs evolved to have front skis and a track system in back. In 1959, a Canadian named Joseph-Armand Bombardier introduced the first mass-produced snowmobile. He called it a Ski-Doo, and it essentially launched snowmobiling as a recreational activity.
As the industry has expanded, so has snowmobile ridership. Snocross drivers (using snowmobiles for motocross) may ride airborne sleds Superman-style, flying horizontally from the handlebars, but the average snowmobiler looks more like a soccer dad than Evel Knievel. According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, he’s 41 years old, married, and has 0.8 children living in his home. But with more than 250,000 registered sleds in Minnesota—only Michigan has more—there’s certainly room for diversity.
My growing sense that snowmobilers come in all shapes and sizes is confirmed as I walk into a meeting room at Ruttger’s, where the governor is slated to speak. There are older folks who favor flannel shirts and Carhartt work pants, such as the 79-year-old man bundled in a stocking cap and leather snow pants who tells me he’s on his 31st sled. But there are also a number of families with young children, including an entire clan wearing matching neon jackets. For every man, there’s his woman; for every grandma, there’s a kid; and for every speed demon, there’s a cream puff puttering along in the snow-lane.
C. J. Ramstad, longtime snowmobiler and publisher of the guide Minnesota Snowmobiling Destinations, tells me that almost anyone can ride. “An older person can do it. It’s not like dirt bikes, for example, where you need a lot of fitness,” he says. “You can learn 75 percent of snowmobiling in a single weekend.” But the remaining 25 percent, the subtleties of reading the terrain and the nuances of different snow conditions, is another matter altogether. Those skills, Ramstad opines, can take years to master. Years? I’m a little skeptical—snow is snow, isn’t it?
I take a seat next to an elderly couple from Sauk Centre, and the crowd quiets as Governor Tim Pawlenty steps to the podium. Pawlenty keeps things brief, and then it’s time to begin. The snowmobilers zip up their jackets and head outside to their sleds. They will follow Pawlenty like motorized lemmings, guided by his fluorescent green Polaris jacket. (The governor switches jackets regularly, between Polaris and Arctic Cat, so as not to show favoritism.)
Since I’ve never ridden a snowmobile, I’ve arranged to pair up with Lieutenant Shelly Patten, a DNR conservation officer, who will show me how to make tracks. Most adult riders typically get started by borrowing sleds from family or friends who ride, often with little more instruction than “pull the throttle ’n’ go.” There are a few other options for new riders, however: some snowmobile dealerships offer rentals, and the DNR occasionally offers learn-to-snowmobile classes through its “Becoming an Outdoors-Woman” program.
I’m happy to have a chaperone, as snowmobiling is not without risks: more than 500 snowmobile-related deaths have occurred in Minnesota in the past 35 years. In 2002, the DNR instituted new measures to educate snowmobile operators: those born after December 31, 1976, are required to pass a safety training course before they may legally drive a snowmobile anywhere in Minnesota, even on private land. Youth ages 12 to 15 must take an 11-hour course; drivers 16 and older may choose to attend a four-hour class or study safety information via a free CD-ROM, take a test, and mail in the results to receive certification.