Welcome to all of you that enjoyed the Duluth Snocross races this past weekend. I wish we had better news to report in the way of snow but unfortunately the trails are still pretty bare and unrideable. Since we don’t have enough snow to ride on yet I am forced to dig back a few years to recap a ride that is a good representation of what many of us have gone through at one point or another. Snowmobilers hope that every ride they take will be that one ride where everything is perfect. Some rides are memorable for their Epic Greatness, while others are remembered for everything that went wrong. This is the story of one of those rides…
Teenagers have a knack for doing things that make no sense to adults, women do things that make no sense to men and men do things that make no sense to women, and sometimes we do things that make no sense to anyone, even ourselves. How many times have you done something on your sled where you said to your buddy “What were we thinking?” You know, the times when you’ve tried to conquer powder with your trail sled that was a bit too deep, or tried to climb a hill that shouldn’t be climbed, or going down that trail that can’t be tamed. That’s part of what makes the sport so great, the challenge that you may or may not conquer all in the name of fun and adventure. My friends Nate and Justin and I embarked on one such adventure that at the time seemed like a good idea but turned into a less than ideal trip. It took place several years ago and has infamously become known as the Alderman Swayzak Ride From Hell.
This all started one day when I was on a ride with my buddy, Nate, and we stopped at a bar to grab a burger, warm up, and check our map. While we were sitting at the table we began dreaming up different cool rides we could go on and came up with the idea of running the entire length of the North Shore State Trail from Duluth to Grand Marais. We could spend the night in Grand Marais and ride back the next day. It sounded to us like the perfect weekend. We called our friend Justin and he quickly jumped onboard. Over the next three weeks, we planned out every detail: how far we could get on a tank of gas, where we needed to stop for fuel and food, what we would need for clothes and supplies, and how long it would take us to get from Duluth to Grand Marais. We made hotel reservations in Grand Marais and planned to leave early that Saturday morning.
Days before we were supposed to depart, warning signs began to arise that told us this might not be the smoothest trip. Earlier in the week I was out riding my primary sled, a 2001 Indy 500 that had been modified with a full snocross rear suspension. When you own a sled that is set up for snocross you have this overwhelming urge to get it airborne. I rode out to one of my favorite launching pads and while executing one of my landings I split one of my hyfax in half. I quickly got it into the shop and had new hyfax put on for the trip. Of course I didn’t have time to properly break them in before we left. Northern Minnesota also experienced a huge warm up two days before our departure date which melted a lot of the snow close to Lake Superior, followed by a wave of intense cold that froze the trails rock solid.
Saturday morning arrived and I met Nate and Justin on the trail. Since all of our sleds lacked any significant storage space, Justin, who was mechanically inclined, had constructed a large wooden box that he bolted to the back of his sled to store our food and clothes in. We set out and after a few miles I smelled burning plastic. I stopped to investigate and saw that the hard pack had not afforded my new hyfax proper lubrication. When we started out again I was shocked to find that my slides had melted to my track. Once we broke my track free Nate and Justin decided I would be better off taking my back up sled, an Indy 600 Touring model, so we rode back to my house and swapped out sleds. Of course the 600 burned more gas and oil than the 500 did so I grabbed a few quarts and threw them in Justin’s handy wooden box.
The Curse of the Iron Maiden
After about an hour of riding we stopped at a shelter to take a break and have some beef jerky and some water. When Justin opened his wooden box we were horrified to see that everything was covered in two cycle oil. Apparently the bolts Justin used to mount the box to the sled were a little long and protruded about an inch into the interior of the box. All of the bouncing around on the trail resulted in one of the bolts puncturing an oil bottle. “Dude, why did you use such long bolts to build this thing,” I complained, “Only Justin would decide to make a storage box for a snowmobile and construct it like an Iron Maiden!” This comment got a huge roar of laughter from me and Nate, but Justin was not laughing. It turned out that the oil had been selective about its victim in the Iron Maiden and had only destroyed all of Justin’s clothes and food while sparing the rest of us. Nate and I found this even more funny as we ate our beef jerky and watched Justin throw away his supplies. As I rattled off some makeshift Iron Maiden jokes Nathan was laughing so hard that he started choking on a piece of beef jerky which got Justin laughing as well. Our laughter quickly ceased as we realized that Nate was really choking, as in turning blue and dying. Luckily, Nate coughed up the jerky and then promptly vomited on the side if the trail.
Despite Justin’s lack of clean clothes and Nathan’s near death experience we continued on. After another couple of hours I started panicking as my gas gauge got closer and closer to E. We came to the intersection of the NSST and the first spur trail that runs into Silver Bay. Both Justin and I were running low on fuel, so rather than going forward to reach Finland we decided to take the ride into Silver Bay and get gas and food. We came to a section of trail that had been flooded earlier in the week by melting snow. The water had since frozen covering a section of the trail in ice. Nate had gone through first and had made it around the turn because his track was studded. He had stopped and tried to slow me down, knowing that I had no studs. Unfortunately I didn’t see him until I had already hit the ice. My sled slid across the trail into the far bank, hit the berm and then flipped over and launched me into the air. I bounced my head off of the ice and rolled into the woods. Meanwhile my sled landed back on its track and rode into the woods riderless until it luckily hit a tree between the two skis and was saved by its front bumper. I heard Justin coming down the trail and I immediately sprang to my feet and ran away from his sled before he hit me. Luckily he had seen me crash and slowed down enough not to crash himself. We pulled my sled out of the woods and were relieved that it was no worse for the wear. My helmet, however, was a different story. I had broken the visor off when I hit the ice. We were able to get it back on but I couldn’t lift it without it popping off. We continued on to Silver Bay, fueled up and had a pizza and rode another fifteen miles back to the North Shore State Trail only to find that we had turned off just one mile before reaching Finland. Our detour cost us an 30 extra miles, a busted visor and more importantly two hours of daylight.
The next few hours were uneventful until we reached the spur trail that went into Lutsen. The Lutsen spur is the last place on the NSST to get fuel before you reach Grand Marais. It is a do or die situation from here. We did a quick recalculation on our fuel and decided that our fifteen mile detour to Silver Bay had cost us just enough fuel to make reaching Grand Marais on what was left in the tank a 50/50 proposition. Could we make it? Maybe, but “maybe” after you pass Lutsen means you potentially run out of gas in the middle of the wilderness. We decided to play it safe and head into Lutsen to top off on fuel. The closer we got to Lake Superior the less snow there was until we found ourselves riding on dirt. Apparently the warm up had melted everything close to the lake. We found our way to the gas station while our hyfax were sheered away by lack of snow. We fueled up and eventually got back on the trail as darkness started closing in. There is nothing quite like riding on an unfamiliar trail miles from civilization in the pitch blackness of the wilderness. The feeling of remoteness was accentuated by the creeping cold that was starting to cut its way through our riding gear. That’s when my oil light went on. We stopped to add oil to my sled which was challenging to do by flashlight. We did a map check and realized we had no idea where we were or how far away Grand Marais was. All we could do from here was press on and hope for the best. After what seemed like hours we finally began our steep descent to Grand Marais only to find the snow conditions were the same as they were at Lutsen- there wasn’t any. We rode on a dirt trail to our hotel and checked in. The total trip had taken us twelve hours. We were cold, hungry, and tired, so we did the most important thing right away and walked to the liquor store for some beer. We decided to have a couple of cold beers and then go eat. Unfortunately, when we went to eat we discovered that everything in Grand Marais closes by eight, including the grill at the bar (side note here for anyone going to Grand Marais- eat early!). All we were left with was gas station food. I had some Pop Tarts, Doritos and beer for dinner. We sat in our room and drank and watched TV and the only thing that was on was “Backdraft” so we watched it and found Alderman Swayzak far more entertaining than he should be. It might have had something to do with a lack of food and a case of beer. It was during this time that we decided that all of the misfortune that had befallen us on this trip was due to the scheming and plotting of the diabolical Alderman Swayzak- hence the title of this article.
The following morning we gassed up and rode out on the dirt. There’s a funny thing about liquid cooled sleds- you need snow to cool the heat exchangers. Before we even made it out of town we had to stop and grab some ice out of the ditch to rub on our heat exchangers as all of our sleds were overheating. Once we got things cooled down we rode up the steep ascent and really got an idea of how dramatically Lake Superior affects things. At the base of the hill we were on dirt and by the time we reached the main trail we were on four feet of snow. This time we trusted ourselves, made it to Finland on a tank of gas and the rest of the way to Duluth on another. The total return trip took us just under six hours. But before we could safely pull into the comfort of our own garages Alderman Swayzak struck again and Justin broke down just a mile from his house. Luckily we were able to get him to a point where he could limp his broken sled back to his garage and our trip finally ended.
Although the trip wasn’t ideal, the three of us still look back on it fondly for what it was- an adventure. And that is what snowmobiling is really about. You never know what’s going to happen or what you are going to see, just like the early explorers who had no idea what was over the next mountain we have no idea what may lie around the next corner. Besides great memories there was something else that this trip produced- someone asking the question, “Why isn’t there a website that has all of the snowmobile trails listed for free and a way to find out exactly where you are on a trail?” From this question snowmobiletrail.com was born. And as Paul Harvey would say “Now you know the rest of the story.”