I'm looking at a Minnesota map taped to the wall. It's taller than I am, made up of skinny orange and thick, green windy lines that connect towns.
Each line represents a component of the state's expansive network of snowmobile trails, 22,000 miles in all. Some are ruler straight, following county roads or an old railroad bed. Others are squiggles that indicate a jaunty, woodsy trail.
I put one finger on the Twin Cities and another finger on Mahnomen in northeastern Minnesota. I start thinking about how I might travel from my home, in Minneapolis, to the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association's (MnUSA) Winter Rendezvous entirely by snowmobile.
The Winter Rendezvous is an annual celebration of snowmobiling, sponsored by MnUSA and organized by a different snowmobile club each year. The weekend will include guided rides, a vintage snowmobile show, social time and good food.
I've already decided that I'm going to sign up for the snowmobile tour to Itasca State Park, which has 31 miles of snowmobile trail mainly around the perimeter. It's been a dream of mine to ride among the tallest pine trees in the state and see the Mississippi headwaters under a white blanket.
But first, I have to get there. The majority of Winter Rendezvous attendees will drive, pulling their snowmobiles on trailers, just as I've done the two times I've gone to the event. However, this year I'm inspired by a conversation with past MnUSA President Mark Steinmueller, of Brook Park, Minn., who likes to use his snowmobile to get to the annual event. "We're a snowmobile group," he said. "So that should be the way to get there."
I'm not the only person examining maps. Sheri Vertina is at her home in International Falls, looking at similar maps and charting her way to Mahnomen. She, her husband, Dan, and perhaps another friend or two will make a one-day ride to the event. It's something they've done for several years now.
More than one way to go
With the exception of a trail desert around the Twin Cities, snowmobiling from the Twin Cities outskirts to Mahnomen is not only possible, but there are numerous ways to do it.
When I look at that map, I can see a logical route north to Mille Lacs, cutting west to Brainerd and Detroit Lakes and then north. Or a northwest route to Alexandria and Fergus Falls, then going north through Maplewood State Park on the way to Mahnomen. I can visualize myself seeing the changes of the land from agriculture to lake country to forest to town.
When I ride, I can feel the land change beneath me: how the prairie rolls, how it rises and buckles around creeks and rivers, and how a flat, barren expanse hides a lake beneath the snow and ice. I love the feeling of independence, solitude and self-reliance I experience when exploring my state from the inside out. I know I will see winter landscapes, meet people and visit places that are simply not possible via other long-distance transportation. It's the same reason I tour with my bicycle in the summer, and one of the reasons I look forward to sledding every winter.
A ride from the Twin Cities to Mahnomen will be about 400 miles and will likely take two days. I'll pack a minimalist's amount of gear into saddlebags, which will drape off the back of the machine. A long snowmobile trip plays to my sense of adventure because it's rarely predictable. Severe weather, a mechanical issue or trail detour are just a couple of things that might foil any preplanned route.
There's a name for people like me who use their snowmobiles as transportation to the Rendezvous: Mud Dogs.
Every ride has its story
When I ride to the Rendezvous, I'll be with a group of riders including Joel Mellenthin of Waconia. He was part of the expedition who coined the Mud Dog name in 1991. "It should have been an easy half-day trip; it took two days," Mellenthin said. "We ran out of snow and rode in some mud. Someone called us Mud Dogs, and it stuck." The idea of riding to the event stuck, too, and Mud Dog groups now come from all parts of the state.
Each Mud Dog ride has its story. Mellenthin recalls one year where, for extra credit, he started his ride from the Iowa border and rode all the way to International Falls. Then there was the time the Rendezvous was held in Fairmont, in the no-snow year of 2011. Mellenthin trailered a vintage snowmobile to about 30 miles north of town and rode a grassy ditch in.
These stories, which sometimes get a bit tall, are subject to prizes at the Rendezvous. Steinmueller won the grand prize last year — an oversized, homemade plaque called the Bent Skag Trophy — for a story that included an engine malfunction at the half-mile mark, missed turns and an average rider age of 69.
For Mellenthin and those in his riding group, the Mud Dog ride became an excuse to raise money for Roseville-based Rein In Sarcoma when a colleague and fellow Mud Dog died of a sarcoma cancer in 2011. Twice he's scattered ashes of Mud Dogs along the trail. Snowmobile riders in Minnesota raised $1.3 million last year for various charities in more than 40 events, including the Mud Dog ride, which raised $7,400 in 2013.
It's unknown how many snowmobilers will ride to Mahnomen this year. There is no signup, no rules and no formalities that make a person a Mud Dog. In 2013, about 30 people used their sleds as transportation to the event.
There can be some unexpected advantages. "We were glad we did last year, because there was a big blizzard on the final day of Rendezvous," Vertina said. Snow is always a hassle when it comes to car travel, but it excites the snowmobilers. While others were contemplating their travel options or booking an extra night at the nearest hotel, the Vertinas simply suited up and pointed north. "We got home, and a lot of people didn't."
Minnesota United Snow-mobile Association's Winter Rendezvous
Feb. 6-9, Mahnomen, Minn.
Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and also the editor of Minnesota Snowmobiling magazine.