Sitting in the cab of a 10,000-pound grooming machine recently, on a snowmobile trail in Anoka County, Bill Prinsen puttered along between 3 and 5 miles per hour as he smoothed the trail’s moguls and other blemishes into a flat, snowy thoroughfare.
“I’d much rather be sitting on my snowmobile than running a groomer, but when the trails need grooming, the trails needs grooming,” said Prinsen, president of the Rice Creek Trail Association (RCTA) in Circle Pines, one of roughly 200 state snowmobiling groups.
It was 9:30 a.m., and before he was relieved by another RCTA volunteer at noon, Prinsen covered 16 of the 71 miles his group maintains across two counties (Anoka and Washington) and several cities (Hugo, Forest Lake, Lino Lakes, Scandia, Ham Lake and others) in the north metro.
“It took me less than four hours,” he said later.
The snowmobiling season may be in its early stages, but for RCTA members such as Prinsen and others, trail-building and maintenance began in the heat of summer and, depending on the weather, could last well into March. “Getting the trails ready is a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work, which is why we’re always looking for more volunteers,” said Prinsen. “We’re always looking for new blood to pick up the slack a little bit. It’s a long season.”
Minnesota boasts 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, the vast majority of which (about 21,000 miles) are built and maintained by local clubs and their volunteers. Many say this grassroots arrangement helps enhance the state’s thriving snowmobile culture.
“Snowmobiling has a great tradition in Minnesota, and that tradition has been greatly enhanced through the efforts of volunteer snowmobile groups,” said Leland Owens, recreational vehicle coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s Division of Enforcement. “I’ve worked closely with our volunteers and they’re passionate, dedicated servants who get little back in return. They really put their hearts and souls into their work.
“Snowmobiling is every bit a part of our culture as ice-fishing or eating lutefisk,” added Owens. “For me, I started snowmobiling when I was 10. I love horsepower and engines. Anything that takes gas and oil piques my interest.”
Bump for snowmobiles
Prinsen, 67, of Wyoming, has been snowmobiling since 1978. He says the sport has changed considerably since he straddled his first snowmobile, a 1971 Ski-Doo. “What I remember most about that ride is that I almost never went on another one,” he said with a laugh. “I just remember it being the most uncomfortable, bumpy, teeth-chattering experience you can imagine. But the quality and the advancements of today’s snowmobiles are truly remarkable. Even the evolution in clothing and other equipment like helmets make the sport so much more pleasurable than when I first started riding.”
Prinsen and others say the snowmobiles of yesteryear handled poorly and had very little suspension. Riders literally felt every bump in the road, so much so that some wore kidney belts and affixed rebar stakes to their skis for better traction.
“Let me give you an analogy,” Prinsen said. “It’s like going from a horse and buggy to riding a Cadillac, or from driving on a washboard gravel road to a freeway. It’s that stark.”
Prinsen speculates that the sport’s technological advancements and a well-maintained state trail system have brought more people into snowmobiling.
“You see a lot of older people and a lot of younger people, men and women,” he said, adding that snowmobiling demographics are “all over the board.”
“It really is a great family activity. I have three grown children and a granddaughter and they’re all into snowmobiling.”
The reasons why people snowmobile, Prinsen and others say, are as different as country music and rap are as musical genres. Some ride for speed and to test their driving skills in various landscapes.
Others ride to experience winter in a natural setting. Still others ride because they have a deep attachment to a bygone era.
“There’s a whole society of snowmobilers who maintain vintage machines,” he said. “They like to tinker with them. It’s like having a mint-condition old car. There’s a nostalgia to it.”
Added Prinsen: “Today’s snowmobiles require very little maintenance and upkeep. Years ago, you’d ride 30 minutes and worked on your snowmobile for an hour. That’s not typical anymore.”
Gayle Quistgard, president of the 11,000-member Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association (MnUSA), a group formed in 1978 to “protect, preserve and promote” snowmobiling throughout the state, said she’s been riding for 20 years and enjoys having a winter activity.
“What I like about snowmobiling is that you can cover a lot of miles, sometimes 100 to 150 at a time, and see a lot of different terrain that you wouldn’t normally see in a very short period of time,” said Quistgard, of Bemidji.
“When you’re out, you may see a deer, or a wolf, or a bald eagle. When you cover that much ground, you never know what you’re going to see, and that’s the fun of it.”
Quistgard admits she prefers to sled in comfort. “It can get pretty cold, but my snowmobile has heated handle bars,” she said with a chuckle. “My hands stay pretty warm.”
The 71-mile trail system that Prinsen and other club members maintain has its unique challenges. It snakes through a variety of landscapes — from residential areas to farm fields to parklands to more natural areas with woods and wetlands — and that can make trail-grooming tricky.
“Safety is always our first consideration, whether we’re out grooming or riding,” said Prinsen.
“But the biggest challenge we face is with landowners — most of whom are great to work with — and making sure they’re happy and taken care of. We put up signs and fences to keep snowmobilers out of certain areas, and that helps keep the peace.”
Still, Prinsen occasionally has to dust off his diplomatic skills.
“I get a lot of calls from landowners during the season, and sometimes they’re not happy,” he said, noting the RCTA holds a landowner appreciation banquet every April.
“I think most people would be shocked by how much planning and work goes into this. It’s more than just grooming trails. But it’s a lot of fun, too.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.