Monthly Archives: October 2021


a halThursday, October 31st, 1991 1:00 PM. I was sitting in history class at the University of Wisconsin Superior next to my wife. We had just moved back to Duluth, Minnesota earlier that fall and had an Apartment on 6th Ave East, right in the heart of Duluth on the busiest road leading into downtown. Like everyone else in the state we were still reveling in the Twins winning the World Series, little did we know that the second major event of 1991 was just about to get underway. As my professor meandered on, my eyes wandered outside and I saw snowflakes falling onto the grass and sidewalk. “Look it’s snowing outside,” I said as I nudged my wife.
“The weather said this morning that we might get a little snow this afternoon,” one of my classmates said.
“I wonder if it will stick?” my wife replied. “I wanna go to the Mall after class. It’s probably sticking up there.” Duluth is notorious for having different climate zones, the downtown area usually got far less snow as the warmth of Lake Superior often suppressed snow totals, but in the higher elevations around the lake it was a different story, with almost 1,000 foot elevation change the air was colder and snow piled up early and if the wind was right you could get some really heavy lake effect snow. The weather man had predicted some snow that morning but they didn’t think it would be much, believing that it would probably start as rain in the beginning and maybe change over to snow but here we were with full blown light snow falling.
We got out of class and drove up to the Miller Hill Mall and as predicted the snow was heavier over the hill and sticking to the ground and the roads had already become slick slowing down traffic. I started to worry because I was supposed to be at work at Domino’s Pizza in West Duluth by 4:00. I knew it was going to be Ultra-busy because of Halloween and the snow was going to add to the craziness, if I was late my boss would throw a fit. Sure enough I showed up late and my boss was mad as predicted. The roads weren’t too bad though and by the end of my shift at 8:00 the weatherman had said we would get one to three inches of snow out of this little event.
I got off work after dinner rush and grabbed a pizza and went home to my apartment to hang out with my wife and my friend Allen who had come over with some beer to watch horror movies with us and it was still snowing hard. We watched a movie as the snow piled up and then the ten o’clock news came on. The lead of the news was that we were now under a winter storm warning, a low pressure system had gotten more organized and was heading north and this would now bring us four to six inches of snow, no big deal for us in Duluth so we didn’t give it a second thought. We watched another movie and a little after midnight we called it a night and Allen went outside to head home. We were shocked to see almost a foot of snow on my porch! “This is a Hell of a lot more than four to six inches,” Allen said. But he was driving his Jeep so he wasn’t worried about making it home.
The next morning we woke up to a world of white, traffic was at a crawl and the occasional roar of a snowmobile could be heard out on the street. This struck me as 6th Avenue East was a snow Emergency route because it was so close to the Hospitals and they usually kept it pretty clear. We turned on the radio and found that classes at UWS had been cancelled so we decided to just hunker down for the day thinking that at some point the snow would stop in time for me to go to work, but it didn’t. At 3:00 my boss called wondering if I was coming in. “Are you crazy?” I said to him. “The roads are horrible!”
“They aren’t that bad,” he replied, “Mike is coming in so all I need is a few more drivers.”
“You can count me out. You guys are nuts. They say it’s supposed to keep snowing until tomorrow with Blizzard conditions and we could get over two feet! If you guys go to work you are going to wind up spending the night at the store.”
“Nah, It’s not going to be that bad,” Dave said, “they always exaggerate these things.”
“Good Luck,” I said as I hung up the phone. I had watched the weather and it looked to me like this storm was going to hang out right over Lake Superior and keep churning away, there’s no way I was going to go into work.
The next morning the roads were completely closed. Snowmobiles were now the main form of transportation and the snowmobile traffic outside was now comparable to regular car traffic, to the point that snowmobiles were lining up at red lights waiting for snowmobiles with green lights to clear. I had never seen anything like it. I had been a snowmobiler all my life but of course going to college and living downtown I didn’t have the money, the time, or a place to keep a sled. Watching all of these snowmobiles go buzzing by my window was driving me crazy. Most of them were heading to the nearby grocery store and later that night their destination was the neighborhood bar. The entire lot was full of sleds. My phone rang and it was my boss asking if there was any way I could get to Domino’s.
“Are you insane?” I asked. “Only snowmobiles are out on the streets right now, there’s no way I can get to work.”
“I know, I’m not asking you to come to work, I’m just trying to find someone with a snowmobile to come get me and Mike. Mike was delivering until about ten last night and then he got his truck stuck. He had to walk back to the store. We tried to get him out but we couldn’t and the storm was so bad we had to stay in the store overnight and now there is a ten foot snowdrift in front of the door and we can’t get out.”
I laughed at him with the big “I told you so” laugh. “Dude, I’m sorry I can’t help you.” It wouldn’t be until the next day, November 3rd, that they would get out of that building.
At 1:00 on November third the snow finally ended, dumping a whopping 36.9 inches of snow on Duluth, which at the time was the largest single snowfall in Minnesota History (Finland broke that record in 1994 getting an incredible 46.5 inches from January 6-8). The city was paralyzed for almost a week with drifts in some places in excess of ten feet. A little remembered fact is that the Halloween snowstorm was just the beginning. Later storms in November jumped the snow total to 50.1 inches, at the time the snowiest month on record (That record was broken in April of 2013 when Duluth received a useless 50.8 inches of snow) and created the single longest snowmobile season as the roadways themselves were accessible by snowmobile for almost half the month.
Will we see another storm like that of 1991? After all, records are made to be broken…

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1-2021-3It’s a question that groups of snowmobile trail riders ask every time they go out, “Who wants to lead?”  The leader of a group of snowmobilers is an important position, they set the pace for the entire group and they are also responsible for deciphering the terrain and alerting the group of any upcoming danger or other snowmobilers.  Most of the time the leader is the guy most familiar with the trail, but if you are in unfamiliar territory or the entire group is familiar with the trail the decision gets a little more tricky.  If everyone has equal experience, often times you just swap out leaders as long as everyone is comfortable with the pace, it’s when you get into unknown areas that you want a leader who really knows what they are doing.  In a sense the riders behind the leader are almost like lemmings, they are pretty much going to follow the leaders’ example pace and location wise on the trail.  Sometimes this can lead to disaster.

Several years ago there was a group of riders who were all pretty confident of the trail they were on and also confident in the guy they had leading the way, there were seven guys in the group and all were seasoned experienced riders, they got into a hilly section of trail and the leader had them going at a pretty brisk pace.  As the leader crested a hill he hit a mogul, got tossed off of his machine and abruptly had his sled slammed into by the rider behind him, then the sled behind him hit him, and the sled behind him hit him and so forth until all seven sleds were a mangled twist of wreckage along with several broken bones.  Luckily no one suffered any life threatening injuries but all of it could have been avoided if they were going a little bit slower and the leader was able to see the mogul and slow down the group.  They were overconfident in their group leader and their own riding abilities.

Unfortunately this scenario repeats itself often during the season, which emphasizes how important it is to pick the right person to lead your group.  A leader has to be aware of the rules of the trails, the experience level of his group and must have the ability to keep track of everyone in the group to make sure no one is left behind with some sort of issue. Luckily for us we have a guy in our regular riding group who used to race sport bikes.  He is relatively new to snowmobiling but took to it like a fish in water.  Obviously when you are on a race track on a sport bike you need to be ultra-focused and luckily for us he carried this focus over to snowmobiles.  He has an uncanny knack for reading the trail and setting the perfect pace for the group and avoiding any sort of danger that may lay ahead so we almost always have him lead, which of course, drives him crazy because sometimes he just wants to hang back and ride casual, that is of course until he gets frustrated when he’s not in control.

So remember when you are picking your trail leader to put some thought into it, because the person leading your group might just be the one that keeps your day of fun from turning into a day of disaster.

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fusionfireEverybody has a story like this.  You are riding with your buddy and he has gotten ahead of you.  You come around a bend in the trail and see him standing off in the woods with his sled nowhere in sight.  The first thought that crosses your mind is that he has pulled off for a bathroom break, but why is he so far away from his sled? Then you see him limping around, you look down the trail and see his sled off in the trees.  “What’s wrong?” you ask.

“I crashed.  I think I might have broken my leg.” And then comes the question that every guy who has ever crashed anything in his life asks, the most important question of all… “How is my sled?” You walk down the trail and venture into the trees, the taillight is still on which means the sled is still running, you think that’s a good sign.  You go around to the front of the sled and see that it has impacted the tree at a high rate of speed, the front of the sled is missing, pieces of it scattered about in the deep snow, the hood is destroyed, one A arm is mangled beyond recognition and the ski has broken off, the belly pan is in pieces somewhere under the sled, the exhaust is smashed right up against the motor, the steering column is bent and unusable but somehow she is still running albeit with a labored chugging sound, like an engine that is about to die but somehow keeps going.  “Well, how is it?” your buddy asks again.

“Dude, it’s not good.”  Your buddy has finally limped his way over to you ignoring the pain in his leg (he has determined at this point that since he can walk it’s not broken) the next thing you hear is a cascade of obscenities as he sees what’s left of his sled.  He tells you that he came into the corner too fast, thought he was going to hit a tree so he jumped off and threw his sled off to the left hoping to save it.  He still hit the tree with his leg but his plan to save the sled didn’t work out as it shot across the trail and hit a different tree.

He picks up the pieces he can salvage and then you miraculously nurse the sled back to the bar where you are going to have to call his wife to come get you with the trailer anticipating the chewing out you are going to get from her because you are “that friend” that always is there when he does stupid things.

The insurance company determines that the frame is bent and the sled is toast.  Your friends sled is dead.

This is just one way that a sled dies.  Sometimes you have had a sled so long that one day it just gives up and you realize that your years of fixes have finally met their match and the sled is just flat wore out and done.  I had that happen to my 2000 Indy 500.  It was actually my wife’s sled and we bought it from a guy who had a buddy that worked for the Polaris race team.  The guy needed to replace the track and his buddy told him they had left over snocross front and rear suspensions from that year so they modified the chassis a little bit to fit everything and bam you had a snocross sled.  That snowmobile was a blast but years of abuse wore the thing out and when the engine blew up I realized the skid was toast and the frame was also starting to develop some stress fractures.  It was time for it to go.  Then last year I had a relative visiting and she crashed my old reliable two up.  While I was sitting there looking at it in pieces thinking that it was finally time for the sled to move on to snowmobile heaven I started having flashbacks to when I brought that sled home, our first snowmobile at our new house.  I remembered how excited my wife was and how our then ten year old daughter was fascinated with this new addition to our household.  It wasn’t long before she wanted to ride it and then drive it, learning how to ride on that very sled.  I kept looking it over as these memories flooded over me and I flashed back to when I was a kid and my father sold our 12’ Lund boat.  I remembered what I perceived as tears welling up in his eyes and I was in total shock because I had never seen my dad cry, my brother asked him what was wrong and he just said “We had a lot of good times in that boat.”  At the time I thought he was crazy for being upset about selling a boat but now I understood, I couldn’t shake the memories of all the times that my wife and daughter and I had on that sled.  After a few phone calls to some vintage parts places I was able to scrape together everything I needed to bring it back to life and it is still in my garage.  It doesn’t hit the trail anymore but it is still used to haul wood around the property and as an occasional fun sled to ride around the back field when relatives visit.

Just like old cars, old sleds die, some in dramatic fashion while others just fall victim to time and a few lucky ones survive to become centerpieces of vintage shows and serve as reminders of times past.  Maybe that accounts for the popularity of vintage shows, to remember our past and seeing sleds that have survived and escaped the snowmobile grave yard.

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A- snow in waterYears ago, my friend was camping with his wife in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota.  They were rowing across a lake back to their campsite after a day of hiking when a storm unexpectedly blew in with rain lightning and high winds.  The once glass calm lake was now a churning cauldron of three foot waves and water was quickly swamping their canoe.  As they struggled against the waves my friend’s wife stopped paddling and started to cry, complaining that she was too tired to continue on.  My friend responded by saying “If you don’t start paddling, we are going to F#$%*&g DIE out here!”  Sensing the urgency of their situation she picked up the paddle and they made it safely to shore.

What had started out as a day of fun and adventure had quickly turned into a life threatening situation.  Luckily they survived and had a great story to tell their kids years later.  If you snowmobile in the mountains or out in the Alaskan or Canadian wilderness you know that there is an element of danger and any snowmobiler with half a brain in their heads take the precautions to have all the necessary avalanche or survival equipment with them, yet every season there is someone that took that one extra risk and went into a sketchy area that unfortunately has their snowmobiling days end permanently, or the one guy who left his beacon behind as he takes one last quick spin or the guy who went out on his trap line and forgot to bring an extra drive belt, we hear these stories every year and they are tragic but we know that there was an inherent risk involved to begin with and sometimes you can be totally prepared and still have things go wrong.

But what about us flatland trail riders?  How often do you think about things going horribly wrong when you pull away from your garage in the morning?  Of course there is always the possibility that you could crash or be hit by some moron on the trail but how often do you think about the possibility of being stranded and having to survive out in the woods?  Again, the risk is always there but it is not something most trail riders think about, but they should, especially in Northeast Minnesota and the snow belt of Wisconsin, the UP and Canada.  For those of us that live on the shores of Lake Superior there really shouldn’t be an excuse for us to leave unprepared.  We should know that the same Great Lakes that are responsible for dumping huge amounts of snow on us are also responsible for sending hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors to their doom with their unpredictable weather and Lake Superior is notorious for giving you lake effect snow that the weather service never saw coming, snow so intense that visibility is cut to zero causing the trail to disappear altogether.

Many of us relish these storms, as we all know there is nothing quite as satisfying as challenging the elements on you sled and very few things top the adrenaline rush you get riding in a blizzard, but sometimes these storms get so intense that the trails become unrideable and people get lost or stranded.  The problem is exacerbated by large swaths of area that are completely devoid of any type of cell service.  Once you are lost or stranded in these areas you are on your own, and there are some places where the weather gets so bad that your chances of seeing another snowmobile fade away to nothing.  In the past several years there have been multiple instances in both the UP and Northeast Minnesota where snowmobilers did not return from a day of riding and search parties had to be assembled to find them, and often times these people were just out for a trail ride and had either gotten lost, or wandered off trail or broke through thin ice or got hopelessly stuck in the deep snow and with the onset of a severe storm were unable to get back to civilization, and it can happen faster than you think.

Just a few years ago there were a few of us that decided to go on a quick afternoon ride up north.  We rode right out of the headquarters and it began snowing.  We were having so much fun that we decided to go a little farther and then a little farther still.  Without warning the wind picked up and the intensity of the snow tripled.  With deteriorating visibility we decided it was wise to head back.  On our way the storm got worse and worse and visibility dropped to zero as the sun went down.  Our situation quickly went from fun to a little tricky to now hoping we would make it home safely and we were on a trail we knew well.  I began wondering what would have happened to us if we were from out of town on a trail we didn’t know and got caught up in this storm.  It is something we don’t often think about but should.  At a minimum you should have some food, stuff to start a fire, some water and a first aid kit and a survival blanket packed away on your sled if you are traveling to an area you don’t know.  You never know when your fun in the weekend snow can turn on a dime into a battle for life and death.  It’s better to be safe and to have a good story to tell your kids than to wind up on the front page of the newspaper.

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