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The Great White North Welcomes Snowmobilers

Northwoods Wisconsin Snowmobile

By Dean S. Acheson

Whether you’re flying across a frozen lake or weaving your way on a scenic trail through a Northwoods forest, snowmobiling offers endless opportunities for winter fun. Sparkling snow, majestic pines, clean air, wildlife sightings, thousands of acres to roam, perfectly groomed trails, great restaurants/pubs and lodging – what more could a snowmobiler want?

Wisconsin has more than 25,000 miles of state-funded snowmobile trails, in addition to many, many other miles of logging roads and other pathways. They traverse frosty farm fields, through stately county, state, and federal forests and in many areas, offer direct access to communities.

Across the frozen north, there are hubs of snowmobile activity. Some that come to mind are Minocqua, Eagle River, Cable, Hayward, Mercer/Hurley, Iron River, MI, and of course several others. From one of these hubs, a snowmobiler can ride a different trail every day of the week and come back the following week to find even more pristine trails to explore.

Many snowmobilers like to start out in northern Wisconsin and ride up into the UP, or on the western side of the state into Minnesota territory.

The Modern Snowmobile: Not Your Granddaddy’s Sled

Since its inception in the early 1960s, the industry has taken great strides in snowmobile comfort and reliability. Old-timers will remember the early days when trails – much less systems! – were nonexistent and sleds had hiccups on short outings.

Going further back in history, the first snowmobile was invented in 1924 by Carl Eliason in Sayner. That “motor toboggan” now resides at the Vilas County Historical Society Museum in Sayner.

Today’s modern snowmobiles offer electric start, reverse and hand warmers. GPS units on the sled or on one’s phone as an app greatly aid in navigation. Today’s motors, tracks, and suspension systems are super reliable. You can get 2-up sleds so the kids or a partner can ride along.

You can buy a snowmobile specifically designed for trail riding, for deep snow, or for hill climbing. The owners are passionate about their sleds with Arctic Cat, Yamaha, Polaris, and Ski-Doo ruling the trails. You think Chevy, Ford, and Dodge owners like to throw friendly shade! When the second motor toboggan was sold, the gauntlet was thrown down. Many a bet has been won, and lost, on a frozen lake.

The Snowmobiling Family Is a Welcoming One

Snowmobiling is a family sport. You might see kids on the backs of 2-ups or even being pulled behind in covered sleds. There are clubs comprised of women only, who enjoy spending the day together.

We like to think snowmobilers are like motorcyclists – whenever someone needs a helping hand, whether it’s confusion at a multiple-trail crossing or a broken belt, they come to their fellow sledder’s aid.

Weekends, of course, see the greatest number of snowmobilers. (There are more than 200,000 registered snowmobiles in the Badger State!) So if you pine for some time relatively alone on the trails, go midweek.

We have to throw in a personal plug for using snowmobiles for ice fishing travel. It’s amazing how much ice fishing equipment is “necessary” today. A pop-up shelter, electric (or gas-powered) auger, several tip-ups (for a party of 3), a few tip-downs, a bucket of minnows, depth finder, underwater camera, sundry jigging poles, refreshments and food for the day, a bucket or chair to sit on…whew! We throw it all in an Otter sled behind our Polaris, and away we go!

Of course, the snowmobile is more than a pulling machine; it quickly gets you to your favorite fishing spot and allows you to tackle different areas once the fishing slows on your first selection.

Your snowmobile is your outdoor pass to wonderful sights along the nicely groomed trails, from white-tailed deer and coyotes (maybe even a rare wolf sighting) to waterfalls, towering pines, and ice castles. When you pause on the trail or lake, take a glance skyward. A number of bald eagles stick around all winter, scooping up fish out of a flowing river or a “donation” of a northern pike or perch from a fisherman and snacking on road-killed deer.

We can’t forget the many snowmobile competitions held in the Northwoods and the UP. COVID-19 took a big bite out of the race calendar this year, but there are a few being held, including hill climbs. Next year, we hope to see them roar back, from the Kitty Cat duels on local lakes to the men and women racing the pro circuits.

We snowmobilers don’t complain about the length of winter! Some trails open in late December (oh, thank you, snow gods!) to April in the far north. The lakes in many areas offer trail connections, so adequate ice thickness is required for travel. Generally, though, it’s January through February for best trail riding.

Many of the snowmobile clubs list updated trail conditions on their websites, as do county forestry or recreation departments, chambers of commerce, travel centers, and Travel Wisconsin, the state tourism agency that posts snow reports.

The price of a new snowmobile reflects the craftsmanship and reliability of today’s sleds. With proper care, they can last for years. You can also pick up a late-model version for far fewer dollars. An alternative, especially for those new to the sport, is a rental. Some snowmobile vendors offer tours, with easy access to trails from their business. Along the way, they will point out interesting features, natural or human-made, and usually will include a stop at a restaurant or pub.

Speaking of amenities, the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the UP hold the victor’s medal in the Midwest for having the best trail systems, with abundant restaurants, roadhouses, and gasoline stations whether you need to fill up yourself or your sled.

The Northwoods is famous for its steakhouses and Friday night fish fries. When the riding is done, nothing is finer than sitting back and enjoying a cocktail or glass of craft beer and recounting the day’s adventures.

Then it’s off to sleep land. From national-brand motels to condos, to resorts, to a private lakeside cabin and B&Bs, there’s a lodging choice that will meet your needs and budget. Many offer trail access right from their door.

Salute to the Snowmobile Clubs

Of course, none of this would be possible without the dedication and hard work performed by the snowmobile clubs. Nearly all are volunteers, and of course, they love to ride their machines too.

While there is some state aid available (registration fees and a small portion of the state gas tax), most of the dollars to buy the groomers and maintain them comes from membership dues and fundraisers. Kudos to the businesses that donate to the clubs also!

You might be surprised how much a modern groomer costs. We spotted a 2018 New Holland T7 190 Tractor listed on the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs’ website for $117,000! A snow drag will set you back $5,000 or more.

The work begins weeks if not months ahead of the first snowflake falling. There are trails to brush, rocks to pick up, signs replaced or installed new, as well as the development of new trails and arriving at agreements with private landowners for access across their property. They provide trail maps with updates each season.

Once the snowflakes pile up, it’s time to groom the trails, mark lakes once they are safe for travel, hold fundraisers, and educate newcomers on respecting private property (don’t go off the marked trails), and remind all to be safe out there.

Wisconsin and UP snowmobile trails are well marked, with signage noting how many miles it is to the next town or where to gas up and eat.

Support Your Sport

Club membership is more than financially supporting an organization. Lifelong friendships are made with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. In addition, clubs hold member rides, special events, and inside knowledge on the best routes to travel and amenities to enjoy along the way.

In Wisconsin, your club membership (which includes AWSC membership) knocks down the $30 cost of an annual trail pass to $10. Plus, you’re supporting the folks who make all this fun happen!

For a complete list by county of snowmobile clubs and contact persons, visit awsc.org. In addition, you can order trail passes online there. For information about clubs in the UP, including trail permits, visit msasnow.org, the website of the Michigan Snowmobile & ORV Association.

Contributing writer Dean S. Acheson is a Wisconsin native with a long career in newspaper and magazine writing and editing. He considers himself semi-retired and enjoys fishing, scuba diving, snowmobiling, photography, and, of course, travel. “I’ve been blessed with traveling throughout Wisconsin and the UP, seeing the diverse communities, taking in the festivals, chatting with the locals, and hiking the trails.”

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