The men died after hitting a train, smashing into trees, striking a speed limit sign, skidding through snowdrifts and slamming into a mailbox. Some lost control as they raced through the dark on back trails; others were drunk, several two or three times the legal limit.

What the victims shared was that they were on a snowmobile when it happened.

Fifteen people died in snowmobiling accidents in Minnesota last year, making it the deadliest year for snowmobilers since 2010.

Days before Christmas, 21-year-old Reid Ferguson was killed after flying off a snowmobile when the driver, Charles Webb, abruptly stopped during a drive along a shoreline in Maple Lake Township in Wright County. Webb, who had been drinking, was charged with criminal vehicular homicide.

Authorities attribute a variety of factors to the death rate, speed and alcohol high among them. Of the 15 deaths last year, seven were alcohol-related. Reports kept by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) show that nearly two-thirds of the 61 snowmobile fatalities in the past five years involved alcohol.

"We do see alcohol-related snowmobile fatalities — that is definitely one of the issues with the snowmobiles," said Capt. Todd Hoffman of the Wright County Sheriff's Office. "Speed always seems like a factor."

Despite the recent surge, snowmobile deaths have fallen substantially since the 1990s, when fatalities regularly topped 20 a year and peaked at 32.

And Minnesota is safer than Wisconsin. That state saw 19 people die last year on snowmobiles, even though it has far fewer registered vehicles. There is no daytime speed limit for riders across the border, while Minnesota restricts them to 50 miles an hour at all times.

Minnesota has more registered snowmobiles — 258,000 — than any other state, with 22,000 miles of snowmobile trails winding from the Twin Cities to the North Shore to the Northwest Angle and beyond.

With that many potential riders and the number of fatal accidents, the DNR has intensified its safety education over the last two decades. The program trains 8,000 students a year, with a classroom course and an evaluation of drivers on the snowmobile.

Jon Paurus, acting enforcement education coordinator for the DNR, said the trend of drinking while snowmobiling has been decreasing over the past few decades, just as fewer people are drinking before getting behind the wheel of a car. And snowmobilers can be charged with driving under the influence just as if they were in a regular vehicle. State conservation officers patrol areas where snowmobilers ride and watch for people who have been drinking.

"The attitudes have changed considerably toward operating and drinking alcohol," said Paurus. But, he said, "there's still that segment of the culture that it goes hand in hand, where they like to get on a snowmobile and make a stop at a bar along the way."

Law a deterrent

Pierre Mros, president of the Foxtailers Snowmobile Club in Wright County, said the appeal of snowmobiling is getting out with a group of friends, traveling through state parks, passing waterfalls and seeing moose, fox, deer and other wildlife.

He said there aren't poker runs at bars like there used to be, largely because getting pulled over drunk by the DNR on a snowmobile "is no different than getting a DWI while driving your car." And given that the agency can take away the driver's snowmobile, truck or trailer, he said, "that pushes people not to do it."

"It's no different than driving a car; common sense goes a long ways," said Wayne Schlauderaff, who organizes snowmobiling events in the Detroit Lakes area. One scheduled for Saturday for lovers of vintage snowmobiles included a stop at Shorewood Pub around the midpoint.

"It's a fun time and you get to see the outdoors," he said.

On Dec. 21, Joshua DeCock, 34, died after his snowmobile veered into a drainage ditch near Montevideo.

Jeanette DeCock, his grandmother, said he went snowmobiling at night with two friends who came upon him in the drainage ditch.

"It was a beautiful moonlit night and a lot of nice snow — in fact, he was going to take his children with him, but thank God he didn't," she said. "I don't know why they decided to go so late at night. They just did."

Authorities didn't release a cause, and there's no indication that alcohol played a role.

Alcohol or not, many other accidents have happened when snowmobile riders hit something — a rock on a frozen river, a trailer, an embankment, a car. Some riders have drowned. One teenager who had been drinking died when the snowmobile he and a friend were using to tow a fish house broke through the ice.

And some of the victims, including Webb and Ferguson, crashed while not wearing helmets. The same was true for Andrew James Johnson, 26, who was thrown from his machine when he exited Gun Lake in Fleming Township two weeks ago. Johnson was injured but he survived.

The Aitkin County Sheriff's Office said speed and alcohol may have been contributing factors.

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210