Dispatches from the Drifts

Slipping into the World of North Woods Snowmobiling

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.


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.

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