From his front yard in Anoka, Rob Scheffler can make it to the frozen Rum River in seconds astride his snowmobile.
On Friday, five sleds parked at Scheffler’s house rumbled to life in the setting sun. The group curved past a neighbor’s Christmas lawn decor and sloped down to the waterway that doubles as a highway in the north metro come winter.
Anoka locals say it’s tough to remember a time when area snowmobile trails have been so busy. The snowiest February on record in the Twin Cities has buried trails in layer after layer of fresh powder.
Before this week’s thaw, business owners near these trails say it’s been a banner year for snowmobile traffic. Heaps of helmets and gear have piled up inside bars and restaurants.
The story is the same across much of Minnesota. From the Arrowhead to the southwest prairies, a bright purple has covered the Department of Natural Resource’s snow-depth map, signaling drifts deep enough to spur enthusiasts to dust off snowmobiles that have largely remained in garages in recent winters.
“I’ve been around this about 12 years, and I can’t remember the snow map looking this nice,” said Andrew Korsberg of the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division. “It’s the best year we’ve had in a while.”
The good snow has DNR officials expecting a bump in snowmobile registrations this year, even as numbers have dipped statewide in the last five years. Total registrations dropped from nearly 218,000 in 2013 to about 189,000 last year.
Korsberg suspects the slump is tied both to recent lackluster winters and sleds that are falling out of use after a big bubble of snowmobiles in the 1990s.
State registrations are good for three years for the 22,000 miles of trails across Minnesota, which are largely maintained by local snowmobiling clubs.
For a decade, the city of Anoka has erected a snowmobile corral where winter wayfarers can pull off the Rum and make the short trek into downtown to shop and eat.
Bitter cold in January and last month’s snow bonanza have set up ideal river conditions in recent weeks, the looming warm-up notwithstanding.
“The ice formed wonderfully,” said Peter Turok, president of the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s about as perfect as it has ever been.”
In a matter of minutes Friday, Scheffler’s group had etched grooves in the snow blanketing the river near his home and steered one by one into the corral, where they hoisted their helmets and hoofed it to 201 Tavern & Grill for a drink.
“From my house, you can go anywhere,” said Scheffler, 55, a machinist. “You can go to Canada.”
A downtown draw
For years, snowmobilers in the north metro have cruised downstream into Anoka on the Rum River, which flows south from Lake Mille Lacs and meanders about 150 miles to the Mississippi River.
With nowhere to put their sleds, snowmobilers left them on the ice and hiked up the riverbank into Anoka’s historic downtown.
Former City Council Member Jeff Weaver then pitched the idea of putting a corral next to City Hall, giving snowmobilers like Steve Neilson a place to park.
Weaver “had the foresight to make it part of commerce,” said Neilson, an Andover real estate agent. “It’s incredibly convenient.”
City officials say a few dozen sleds filter in and out of the corral on busy weekends, offering a boon to businesses like MaGillycuddy’s, a popular pub steps away from the corral.
On a recent Saturday, Council Member Brian Wesp zipped into the corral under the noonday sun and headed for MaGillycuddy’s with two friends for a grilled cheese and Coke.
“It opens another avenue for people to come downtown,” Wesp said. “It’s unique.”
Not everyone traveling the Rum heads south to Anoka. Some jump on the river and wind north, bound for McDuff’s Bar and Grill in Ramsey and the SRO Bar and Grill in Oak Grove.
Others take trails from Anoka up to St. Francis, stopping for a bite at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s off Hwy. 47.
“Our daytime revenue is way up just from the snowmobilers alone,” said Dan Mazion, the restaurant’s owner. “There’s so many more people out riding.”
Just over 200 miles of snowmobile trails crisscross Anoka County, the third-highest total in the seven-county metro area, according to the DNR. Dakota County tops the list with nearly 274 trail miles, where local businesses also have been savoring a snowmobiling boom.
Many have braved the cold for burgers at King’s Place in Miesville, hopping off the trail just beyond the parking lot.
“We get overloaded,” said manager Katie Sieben. “We have racks that just hold helmets, and they’re packed most days.”
On busy days, anywhere from 50 to 200 snowmobilers may drop by, she said.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” Sieben said. “We joke and call snow ‘white gold.’ ”
In northeastern Minnesota, more than 800 sleds zoomed along certain state trails on peak days this year, DNR officials said. That includes the Taconite State Trail, which runs from Grand Rapids to Ely.
Dozens of snowmobiles have filled the parking lot on recent weekends at the Grand Ely Lodge, a local hot spot for snowmobilers to grab a meal and cozy up to the fireplace.
“It’s constant. We love it,” said Mary Zupancich, resort manager. “They are the best trail conditions that we’ve had in years.”
The Anoka snowmobilers agree. On Friday, Scheffler’s group spoke of people going out and buying their own sleds this year, fueled by the hefty snowfalls.
After stopping downtown, the friends pulled back on their gear, hit the river and snaked north in the decaying light.
Forty minutes later, the snowmobilers streaked past a roadside sign for a Friday fish fry and eased into the parking lot of the SRO Bar and Grill in Oak Grove, ready for some grub.