Dispatches from the Drifts
Slipping into the World of North Woods Snowmobiling
(page 2 of 2)
Though I am old enough to be exempt from certification, I figure it can’t hurt to have a little education before I hit the trail. So a few weeks before coming to Ruttger’s, I order the CD-ROM. Some of the stories I heard at Zorbaz—snowmobilers going through the ice, hitting trees, colliding with cars—make me a little nervous, though this little plastic disk seems a poor substitute for a guardian angel.
The CD-ROM begins with a graphic video of a severely injured snowmobiler being attended by emergency-room staff. He’s got broken bones and a head injury—he’s lucky to be alive. The rest of the disk is packed with information about hand signals (to let riders behind you know you are stopping or to warn them of oncoming sleds), diagrams of snowmobile components (bogie wheels, skags, hifax…), laws, and tips for safe driving. After spending a couple hours going through the material, I take the test. Multiple choice: During the 1.5 seconds it takes to react, a snowmobile at 60 mph will travel how many feet? Uh, um, well…anybody have a calculator? Needless to say, I do not pass.
I AM EMBARRASSED to disclose my failing test scores to those at the Rendezvous, but when I do, one of Patten’s coworkers admits the agency had problems with the CD-ROM’s test design and says he’s not surprised I found it difficult. He assures me that next year’s version will be much improved.
Feeling better, I hop on behind Patten and grab the handholds on either side of the seat. She revs the engine, the sled lurches, and we’re off. We’ve decided to caravan with two other conservation officers and a couple other novice riders, taking a slightly different route than the governor’s posse.
The trail is about as wide as a highway lane, and it weaves through woods and marsh, past bare trees and frozen cattails. Patten instructs me to shift my weight to respond to the terrain; as we follow the other sleds, both of us lean in sync: into the curves, forward on the uphill, back on the downhill. The sled’s motor makes a high buzzing sound that is loud but somewhat soothing. Patten says she and her husband sometimes take their toddler out on a snowmobile ride to lull him to sleep. Though I’m not driving, I feel like I’m getting the hang of things. If anything goes wrong, at least I am being escorted by three wilderness experts. I notice Patten has a Glock holstered to her belt.
A short while later, we stop at a small wooden shelter with dozens of parked snowmobiles and riders taking a break. A guy emerges from a bright yellow Ski-Doo helmet with a built-in ventilation system that helps mitigate exhaust inhalation. A woman I’ve been riding with, Peggy Warren, who works for MnUSA, hollers, “Hey Bruce!” She nods toward the shelter and asks him, “Is that a potty?” Bruce gives her a blank look and a why-would-I-care shrug. “I’m a man,” he says, grinning. Warren gives him a disgusted look.
I ask Bruce about the differences between the four brands: Polaris, Arctic Cat, Ski-Doo, and Yamaha. He says that while they all perform about the same, he thinks Arctic Cat has the coolest clothes. “They get it,” he says, of the bright colors and the logo, a fang-bearing, ferocious-looking wildcat.
Bruce describes Polaris and Arctic Cat as “friendly competitors”—a beelin’ version of the eternal Ford/Chevy debate or the red/green International Harvester/John Deere rivalry that goes on among farmers. A few feet behind him, though, I see a parked Polaris with a sticker of Calvin (from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip) peeing on a Ski-Doo logo.
Next to Bruce and me, a group of guys who look to be in their late twenties or early thirties are telling snowmobile war stories—something about taking a turn too fast and catching the sled’s front ski on a tree. Snowmobiling can be dangerous, especially considering that the sleds can go as fast as automobiles, yet travel on rougher terrain and offer much less collision protection. Unfortunately, too, snowmobiling and alcohol have developed a reputation for going hand in glove, easily a lethal combination. According to DNR statistics, roughly 75 percent of all snowmobiling accidents involve alcohol. Warren says, anecdotally, that alcohol consumption seems to be declining, though I do notice that roughly half the contents of the shelter’s garbage receptacle are beer cans.
Nowadays, environmental impact has become one of snowmobiling’s major concerns, as most sleds, powered by two-stroke engines, discharge almost as much pollution as 100 automobiles. Snowmobile manufacturers responded in 2002 by introducing cleaner-burning four-stroke engines, which can reduce emissions up to 90 percent. Yet even as engines continue to run cleaner and quieter, groups such as Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation warn that snowmobile noise and snow compaction can cause significant harm to natural ecosystems. As someone who bicycles to work and has been known to wash out and re-use plastic bags, I must admit I feel a little guilty taking part.
Ironically, though, the biggest threat to snowmobiling in Minnesota has been lack of snow. In the past five years, snow cover has been well below average, particularly in the southern half of the state. Last winter was a significant improvement: northern Minnesota had its best snow conditions in years, with the Lake Superior region seeing snow depths that ranked in the 80th percentile of the past 100 years. Sleds that had spent the past few seasons parked in the garage were revved up and ready to go.
OUR GROUP SETS OFF AGAIN, and it’s my turn to get behind the handlebars. Operating a snowmobile reminds me of learning to drive a manual-transmission car. Though it’s much less complicated, the throttle (a lever on the handlebar you depress with your thumb) takes some getting used to, and my acceleration’s pretty herky-jerky. The trails feel especially narrow when we meet other riders headed in the opposite direction. As I learned from the CD-ROM, I raise my arm in an “L” shape, holding up fingers to indicate how many sleds are behind me.
I see why people like snowmobiling: it combines the speed and distance capabilities of driving a car with the scenery and seclusion of being on a wilderness trail. You get the beauty of cross-country skiing without nearly the physical exertion. (It takes a little strength to steer the machine, but I wouldn’t consider it, as the International Snowmobile Manufacturer’s Association does, “great exercise.”) One downside: if I get too close to the sled I’m following, the exhaust smell can be noxious. When our group prepares to cross a highway, I have flashbacks to images of mangled sleds on the “avoiding accidents” section of the CD-ROM. Snowmobiles don’t steer well on pavement, and even though one of the conservation officers helps direct us at road crossings, those few seconds make me feel vulnerable.
Soon the winding trail meets a frozen lake and becomes a flat, open straightaway. The sleds I’m following cut loose. Do I dare? I squeeze the throttle: 25…30…35. Surprisingly, the sled seems to handle better at higher speeds, riding smoothly across the groomed snow carpet. The world narrows to blue sky and white snow, divided by the horizon I’m rushing toward. I look down at the speedometer; I’m going almost 40, but everything feels safe, under control. Patten is not screaming for me to slow down. The wind whistles through the seams in my helmet, and I have to say I’m stoked—it’s a major adrenaline rush. Why would you drive a regular Mustang when you could drive a GT?
A FEW WEEKS AFTER the Rendezvous, I happen to be up north again, southeast of Bemidji, passing through the White Earth Indian Reservation. I decide to stop in Naytahwaush, a town of about 600 people, at a place called the Pinehurst Resort. Two snowmobiles buzz by, one towing a few small kids riding inside a “cutter,” a small pod on skis. (Yep, I picked up some lingo at the Rendezvous.)
I find myself inside a dimly lit game room with a pool table and deer hunting video games. I make my way through the adjacent convenience store and into the central dining room/dance hall. There are stuffed deer heads, fish, and antler racks, a stage, and a jukebox. Above the bar in the next room, a sign advertises a meat raffle.
Again, I’m a little out of my element. I could swear the deer’s eyes are watching me—can it sense I’ve never entered a meat raffle? (What exactly is a meat raffle, anyway?) But then I spot a few teenagers dressed in layers who have spread their hats and gloves out on a table. One wears a full-body camouflage snowsuit—snowmobilers! Emboldened by my recent ride, I approach their table to, ya know, talk a little snowmobiling shop, maybe discuss the differences between 440 and 600 cc engines or something.
I start talking to the boys, two brothers and a cousin who say they live about 15 miles southwest of here. I ask them a few questions about what kinds of sleds they have and where they ride, and they answer with confidence. Still, they seem so young. Do they ever get concerned, out riding alone? “We have a cell phone,” says the oldest. But, he adds, “Mom does worry a lot.” Suddenly it dawns on me that Adam, the youngest, has his safety certificate, and I don’t. “Hey Adam,” I ask, “did you think the test was hard?” He shrugs—nah. “Even my sister passed it,” he says, “and she’s a really bad driver.”
I rationalize being bested by a 13-year-old with the conviction that the youth training classes must be easier, but I know that these boys are apt to pick up snowmobiling more quickly than I ever will. Here in the land of wide skies and big woods, where neighbors are separated by miles of empty land instead of crowded onto city lots, these kids probably learned to ride ATVs instead of tricycles.
The boys warn me about snowmobiling on the area’s lakes. Watch out for the giant blocks of ice, they say. They’re especially hazardous at night. Native American spearfishers remove the blocks from the frozen surface of the lakes to make spearing holes. Encountered at 40 miles per hour, a block can flip a sled.
My eyes grow wide. Why did I ever drive so fast? I think. I could have died! In an instant, I’m back on the lake, flying high across the flat, open white, then WHAM!—sled smashes block. I wake up in the emergency room, moaning with incoherent pain like the guy in the CD-ROM….
I realize that Ramstad, the guide publisher, was right after all: even someone like me can learn 75 percent of snowmobiling in a weekend, but the remaining expertise will take years to master. Beginnerz like me have a long ride ahead.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.