More Trails?

Feb. 01, 1999 By Doug Ritter

Does Fun Belong in Snowmobiling?

Silly question, eh? Snowmobiling is fun, or at least it's supposed to be. And maybe it's just me, although I don't think so, but the fun seems to be slipping away.

For instance, a few weeks ago I was having dinner at a small tavern along the trail in Michigan and the conversations I kept overhearing were focused on one topic: how bad the trails were. More than one local snowmobiler there that night vowed to go home and put their sled away for the weekend.

Another, for instance, is all the new restrictions and proposed restrictions on the sport. Every time I read or visit a web site or talk to a snowmobiler via email it seems like I hear of a new proposed trail closure or stud ban or speed limit. The latest indignity was the Fox News special on drunken snowmobilers in Michigan.

Add to those things the over-crowding on many midwest trail systems, throw in a few drunks on sleds, and the picture begins to look pretty bleak.

I was not around snowmobiling in the early days, but I have talked to people who were. There is no denying that massive changes have taken place over the years. I first got involved in the sport in the mid- 1970's and it's changed a lot since then. Aside from the changes in the sleds, the biggest change is the wonderful trail system in the midwest. The mountain riders' situation is completely different, although they are facing land closures also.

But there's also a change in attitude among sledders. "In the beginning", if you wanted to ride, you either knew where you could ride without getting in trouble with the landowners or you rode on public land. And when sleds would only go 35 mph and rode like bricks on skis it was no big deal if you could only go 5 or 10 miles in one direction before turning around.

As sleds got better, the urge to ride farther became stronger and in order to make that possible, snowmobilers went out and knocked on doors, made phone calls, and wrote letters to get permission to create trails. It was a small effort at first, a few miles here, a few miles there, but relentlessly they grew as everyone worked together to build the trails we're still riding on today.

The trails that most of us take for granted. There are still dedicated men and women who work night and day to keep the trails open and we all owe them, along with the sport's pioneers, a huge debt of gratitude. What I'm about to say in no way reflects on those who have worked so hard to make snowmobiling into the massive wintertime activity that it is today. But in many areas, our trail systems are inadequate. Some are woefully inadequate.

As evidence of that fact, I give you the 3-foot-high moguls on every popular trail in Michigan every weekend of the winter. The hotel parking lots are packed, hotels are booked up weeks in advance, there's a sled for every 10 feet of trail, so it seems. Business is good, when there's snow on the ground at least, but can it last?

I'm not about to try to speak for all snowmobilers or even all Michigan snowmobilers or even all southern Ohio snowmobilers who ride in Michigan. I am only speaking for me, some will disagree, some will agree, that's the nature of commentary. But overcrowding is taking the fun out of the sport for me.

I won't moan about the "good old days", but I can't remember the last time I had a good 200-mile day on a weekend. I also can't remember the last weekend day I have ridden when I didn't have multiple near-misses with idiots riding out of control on the wrong side of the trail. I will not take my family out on the weekends anymore because of that phenomenon.

The El Nino year raised a lot of questions about the future of the sport and drove a lot of dealers out of the business and many of those out of business altogether. Those who remained were stuck with many leftover sleds, so many in fact that a lot of people wondered if we were headed for another downturn in the sport like we saw in the early 80's. When this year started slow, the cries of "Bloodbath" arose and the vultures seemed to be circling. But Mother Nature came through and gave us a couple of good snowstorms here in the midwest and sled sales skyrocketed, proving that there was lots of pent-up demand for snowmobiles and there was a pulse in the sport after all.

Now many areas have seen an extended January thaw and sledders are chomping at the bit again to get out and ride. You can bet that ten minutes after the next big snowfall, the trails will be packed. And ten minutes after that the moguls will be forming. And ten minutes later the trail side pit stops will be full of sledders complaining about the grooming.

OK, I've stated my case, if you don't agree with me you are either a western rider, you have a place to ride that is out of the mainstream or you don't mind moguls. But if I don't have some sort of point or solution, then I'm just whining.

So here it is: We need more trails. If we don't build them people will leave the sport out of frustration with the over-crowding. Which will result in less money available and leave us wide open to attack from the environmental groups.

To tie this back to the debt we owe those dedicated snowmobilers who first built the trail systems: if we let this sport die after all they've done for us, that will prove that their generation was better than ours. Is it? Are we really the spoiled brats our parents always complained that we were? Is it really impossible to build new trails today?

I hope that it is not, although I'm sure that it will be much harder, for several reasons. First, we're facing organized resistance in the form of some very well-funded national ecological groups. Second, snowmobilers have developed a bad reputation among the general public. And third, there are already a lot of trails, the land-owners who don't host trails now are likely the ones who refused to allow a trail over their land back in the beginning. Would they be any more pliant now?

How are we going to fend off the attacks of the environmental groups and build new trails to handle the increased load of sleds? Simply put, money talks. We need to pool our resources, which are considerable, roll up our sleeves and get to work. To those of you who are already at work, and there are lot of you, you have my respect and thanks, please don't give up on the rest of us!

I propose that we form a national organization patterned after the very successful American Motorcycle Association. That task alone would be a massive undertaking but the result would be that we would have a powerful voice and some weight that could be thrown at potential problems, not to mention money, which as I said, speaks loud in today's world.

This has to be a grass-roots organization, we have to have more involved than just our pocketbooks. But the potential benefits are real: look at the stud ban repeal legislation currently in the Minnesota legislature. That is there, in large part, due to the incredible volume of email on-line snowmobilers generated. If you sent email to the Minnesota congressmen and women, give yourself a big pat on the back (if you didn't, why not?) and realize that you really do have power. Why not use that power to make our sport better and ensure that it has life beyond our lifetimes?

That's my suggestion, take it for what it's worth. If you agree, talk to your fellow sledders, in person and on the net, get the idea circulating, if the time is right, it will happen.

And maybe those who come after us will be lucky enough to see that fun does belong in snowmobiling.

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