Imagine a world with no groomed trails, no trail maps, no trail network and no access to public land. A world where you’re only riding opportunities were in your own back yard and where the sport of snowmobiling as we know it ceased to exist. The only thing keeping this nightmare scenario from happening are snowmobile clubs. What most people don’t realize is that the majority of the “state” trails that they ride on only exist because snowmobile clubs created them. Of the 22,000 miles of snowmobile trails in Minnesota less than 10% of them are true state trails. The other 20,000 miles are Grant-in-Aid trails that were built by snowmobile clubs with the cooperation of private land owners. The clubs maintain and groom all of these trails with 100% volunteer effort. Club members are responsible for buying and maintaining their groomers and for keeping the trails open for everyone to enjoy. Every year club members are knocking on doors of private land owners getting permission from them to use their land for snowmobile trails. These agreements need to be renewed on a regular basis and when they are not it results in trail reroutes. All of that reroute work is done by the clubs as well. In addition to building and maintaining trails, club members also work with state and federal governments on land access in state and national forests and for use of public lands for snowmobiling.
Protecting Your Rights
The majority of snowmobilers are lovers of winter. We stare out our windows and wait for it to snow. Snowmobilers generally tend to like just about any winter activity having to do with snow: skiing, snowshoeing, hockey, sliding. I like them all and I respect the rights of other outdoor enthusiasts and in most cases the feeling is mutual, but there are a few extremist groups out there that are not so friendly to the snowmobile community. They think all forms of motorized recreation are evil and that the use of snowmobiles should be banned everywhere. These groups pool their time and money to try to get snowmobiles banned from trails, parks, lakes and forests and in the summer they try to do the same to ATV’s and personal watercraft. Snowmobile clubs and their members fight to keep your trails open and counter the efforts of those who see to eliminate the use of snowmobiles on public and private lands.
Snowmobile clubs also ensure that the use of taxes and fees generated by snowmobile use are used to maintain the sport and the trail system. They also meet with state and federal officials to make sure snowmobiles maintain access to public lands and national forests. Snowmobile use in places like Yellowstone National Park are preserved by the efforts of club leaders at the national level. When you become a member of a snowmobile club you are making your voice heard. The more members there are, the stronger the lobbying force is to defend your right to enjoy winter on a snowmobile.
Promoting Safety and Bringing Youth Into The Sport
Another important role that snowmobile clubs play is teaching snowmobile safety classes to the youth and conducting the snowmobile safety riding tests. Without snowmobile clubs performing this service we would not bring new youth into the sport, which is essential for its survival.
There are many snowmobilers out there that are not club members and do not realize how important clubs are to the survival of the sport. I used to be one of those snowmobilers. Once I joined a club and realized how important they are I have been encouraging others to join their local club. As a snowmobiler it is the most important thing you can do to ensure that snowmobiling will be around for future generations to enjoy.
The 1965 Ski-Doo Olympique holds a special place in my heart because it was the first snowmobile I ever drove in my life. It was in the early 1980’s and I had a neighbor, Paul, who was a year older than me and the youngest of five boys. His family owned 3 snowmobiles: two 1972 Ski-Doo Olympiques (a 299cc 15 horse and a 335cc 20 horse) and one 1965 Ski-Doo Olympique that they simply called “The 10 Horse,” referring to its 10hp engine. Paul’s dad had been one of the first people to get on board with the snowmobile movement in Duluth and was one of the first people in town to buy an Olympique when they were introduced for the 1965 model year. There were six kids around my age on our block and we all hung out at Paul’s house in the winter and made constant use of his family’s 3 sleds. The 20 horse was ridden by Paul and pulled a dog sled that carried the three of us that weren’t driving one of the other sleds. Since we were all boys it wasn’t long before the dogsled was quickly renamed “The Sled of Death” and the three of us riding on it spent the entire ride trying to push the other two off as we were going down the trail. The last one remaining won and got to drive the 10 horse, the 10 horse rider got bumped to the 15, and the 15 got bumped back on to the Sled of Death. This was how we ran our ride rotation so everyone got a chance to drive- if you were tough enough. Unfortunately for me the two toughest kids in my school happened to live on my block and I rarely won a match on the Sled of Death. On those days when there were only two or three of us and everyone got to drive, the 10 horse was always the last sled picked. We all thought it was slow and boring. Little did we know that every time we climbed aboard the 10 horse we were climbing aboard a classic piece of snowmobile history that is now coveted by snowmobile collectors around North America.
A page from the 1965 Ski-Doo Brochure
In 1965 snowmobiling was still in its infancy. There were only 13,259 Ski-Doos produced in 1965 and one of those wound up in my neighbor’s garage. The 1965 Olympique marked a significant turning point for Ski-Doo. It was the first year that their snowmobiles were actually given model names and the Olympique was the brand’s headliner. Also new for 1965 was the all fiberglass hood that had a big perforated “V” on it to let air in to cool the engine. This was the only year Ski-Doo used this design, 1966 would see the advent of the famous “bubble top” Ski-Doo hoods that became the standard until 1971. The 1965 Olympique came with a 250 cc 10 hp engine and a 3 gallon gas tank. It had a maximum speed of 38 mph although we never were able to approach those numbers. This was the time when snowmobiles were designed for only one thing- getting you through snow, and to this day I have never seen a snowmobile more capable of doing that than the ’65 Olympique. It performed well in all snow conditions- low snow, deep snow, slushy snow- you name it nothing ever stopped that little sled. We often used it to pull the other sleds out when they were hopelessly buried. My neighbors also used the ’65 exclusively in the spring to get their ice house off of the lake as its performance in slush was unmatched. The other advantage this little sled had was that it only weighed 250 pounds. In the rare occasion that the 10 horse did get stuck it was always easy to get it out. The most impressive aspect of this sled was its incredible range. It routinely got more than 40 miles to the gallon, imagine that kind of performance today! The 3 gallon gas tank provided you with about six hours of continuous riding, which was great for us. We would all pitch in on filling a five gallon gas can, fill the 10 horse and be amazed that there were still two gallons of gas left in the can! As is the case with most twelve and thirteen-year-old kids, we were all infatuated with riding something newer, faster and more powerful, never realizing how lucky we were to experience a piece of living history on a daily basis. To us in the early eighties the “10 Horse” was a beat up fifteen year old snowmobile. In 1965 it was the most technologically advanced snowmobile in the world.
It’s November. This is the time I start getting antsy and start looking at the forecast daily and praying for snow. The general rule of thumb this far north is after Halloween it can snow any time, and after Thanksgiving any snow that falls will be on the ground until spring. It’s also the time that snowmobilers from the southern half of the state get a jump on their season by taking advantage of the early Northeast Minnesota snowfall. We don’t have any snow on the ground yet but since many of my readers trailer their sleds to Duluth and points north I decided to fill you in on one often overlooked gem that is just a few minutes ride away from the C.J. Ramstad North Shore State Trail head at Martin Road: Hawk Ridge.
Hawk Ridge Trail Map
Each year there are a large number of riders that unload their sleds at the Martin Road lot, pull on to the trail, take a quick left and head North- not having any idea that they are missing out on a golden opportunity. When leaving the Martin Road lot hanging a right instead of a left puts you on the East Duluth trail system- a small trail system run by the Drift-Toppers Snowmobile Club, one of the oldest snowmobile clubs in the state. Although the trail system isn’t great in size it does hold one of the most spectacular destinations one can find on a snowmobile- Hawk Ridge. The trail to Hawk Ridge is really unspectacular- it is what I call a point A to point B trail, in other words a trail that was designed to link two destinations, in this case Hawk Ridge and the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth with the C.J. Ramstad North shore state trail. The trail to Hawk ridge is relatively narrow and has a multitude of steep terrain changes, hairpin turns, road crossings and some icy patches where hillside runoff creeps across the trail and freezes. This short connecting trail ends at a T- taking a right on this T intersection brings you to a stretch of Skyline Parkway that is closed during the winter months. It is this trail that brings you to the Hawk Ridge scenic overlook. This is the spot that is crowded with birdwatchers in the fall. In winter most of the birds are gone but you can still see an occasional bald eagle soaring high overhead. To say the view from here is spectacular would be a gross understatement. From here you can see a huge chunk of Duluth, The Ariel Lift Bridge, part of the St. Louis River valley, the harbor and a phenomenal view of Lake Superior. This is a photographer’s heaven. You will be snapping a ton of pictures here that are all postcard worthy. When you leave you can continue on Skyline Parkway and enjoy this beautiful closed road trail as you descend to the Amity Creek trail which loops you back to the T intersection.
The history of Hawk Ridge is almost as spectacular as the view. The area was first accessed by the construction of a road that was the brainchild of Samuel F. Snively, Duluth’s longest serving mayor who owned property in the area. The road which later became part of Skyline Parkway was completed in 1939. Unfortunately the first attention that Hawk Ridge received was by people illegally shooting migrating birds in the area. The Duluth Bird Club (which later became the Duluth Audubon Society) was able to bring public pressure to stop this illegal activity. It soon became evident that the Hawk Ridge area was the site of one of the largest bird migration routes in the United States and was being used by several species of raptors every fall. The Duluth Audubon Society purchased the area in 1972 and turned it into a nature reserve.
The Bird Observatory Platform is a busy place in the fall and provides a great photo op in the winter
The history of snowmobiling on Hawk Ridge is as old as the history of the snowmobile itself. As Scott Marshall from the Drift-Toppers said “When the first Ski-Doo arrived in Duluth in the early 1960’s the destination of one of the first ever snowmobile rides was Hawk Ridge.” It has been a destination for snowmobilers ever since, seeing hundreds of thousands of snowmobiles stop to catch the view over the last 50 years. In 1972 the City of Duluth turned the maintenance of the Amity Creek Trail and the closed portion of Skyline Parkway over to the Drift-Toppers and they have been grooming, brushing, and repairing the trail ever since. The Amity Trail which completes the loop from Hawk Ridge back to the T has been plagued over the years by washouts and downed trees making maintaining and repairing the trail a year round job as it is also used in the summer by hikers bikers and everyone in between. The Skyline and Amity portions of the trail are year round multi-use trails and many Duluth residents take advantage of the fact that snowmobilers create a hard packed surface for them to walk on. When snowmobiling these portions of the trails you must be aware of cross country skiers and hordes of people walking the trail, many of whom have dogs with them. In addition to the Amity Creek trail is the Lester Park trail that makes its way down to Lester Park. This trail is crisscrossed with multiple cross-country ski trails so you have to be exceptionally careful and alert for skiers. On your next trip to Duluth, Hawk Ridge is a must see snowmobile destination that is only a quick jaunt away from the Martin Road lot and well worth the time. For more on Hawk Ridge and its history and the opportunities it offers for bird watchers in the fall visit www.hawkridge.org
Special Thanks to Scott Marshall and Bob Klein of the Drift-Toppers for their contributions to this article.