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Snowmobilers asked to ride trails cautiously, look for downed trees and heavy equipment

Groomed local trails still recovering from mid-December storms.

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Snowmobile trails were left largely impassable after the mid December storms that also cut off power throughout Cass and Crow Wing Counties, but many trails were open before Jan. 1, 2023.
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While motorists and utility customers have returned to normal operation long since the Dec. 14 and 15 winter storms caused several days of local chaos, hundreds of miles of club-maintained snowmobile trails are just getting back to service after many hours of volunteer work.

These out-of-the-way paths through the wilderness suffered the same ails as the roads and power lines earlier in December. Downed trees blocked the traditional routes, keeping both snowmobiles and trail groomers from passing, while deep snow made it difficult for volunteers with saws to even resolve the issue.

Dave Guenther is responsible for the 150 miles of trails managed by the Ideal Snow Pros and Pequot Lakes Brush Pilots. As of Dec. 28, Guenther said the trails were cleared and two-thirds groomed after many hours of volunteer work.

"We were clearing every single day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day," Guenther said. "It was so cold out, so we took time off, and family comes first."

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Snowmobile trails through or near Pequot Lakes were mostly cleared by Dec. 28, 2022, but shortly after the mid December storms, many were completely impassable due to trees.
Megan Buffington / Echo Journal

Even finding the trails was difficult.

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"There were some spots where the trail wasn't even recognizable anymore," Guenther said. "We would have to look for signs and we hit spots where we scratched our heads for a minute to think."

Since two days after the storm, Ponto Knight Riders Snowmobile Club out of Backus had been clearing its 76 miles of trail.

"There were many birch trees and oak trees hanging over the trail and preventing any progress forward," said Jeff Lundquist, Ponto Knight Riders trail coordinator.

The Knight Riders' Aspen Trail was cleared fairly quickly.

You couldn't see where the trail was anyways. It was pretty remarkable. I haven't seen anything like this in many years. It was pretty devastating.
Randy Avenson

"There's still trees hanging over it and not enough room for a groomer to get through, but you can get through with a sled," Lundquist said.

The Aspen trail was impassable just after the storm, though volunteers with the club made quick work of it. The Paul Bunyan and Snow Snake trails west of Backus were particularly tree riddled. Snow Way 1, a woodland section of trail in the Foothills State Forest west of Backus remained impassable after much of the system was cleared. Much of the system was cleared and groomed by New Year’s.

"It seemed overwhelming to begin with, but then we got a couple groups out there," Lundquist said. "If one person is cutting and you have two or three people that can push branches and debris to the side, it goes pretty quick once you get in a groove."

The Longville Lakes Area Snowmobile Club battled the same conditions.

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"The snow was pulling and weighing the trees down into the trail, so they were impassable for several days until people took it upon themselves to take chainsaws and snowmobiles and start to create paths," said Lance Erickson, Longville Lakes Area Snowmobile Club president. "That's basically all it was, a path. For us to get our equipment down it, we need 12- to 16-foot wide trails and a minimum of 12-foot head clearance."

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It took a massive volunteer effort to clear hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails ahead of Jan. 1, 2023, but thanks to work by local clubs, trails were mostly passable, if not fully groomed.
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Immediately after the storm, the club's trails were officially closed until volunteers got out to cut down obstacles. The club manages five trail sections, a total of 80 miles. Erickson anticipated it could take two weeks to upgrade the system from "passable" to "groomed." The Longville club's trail groomer was first able to hit the trails just before New Year's Eve.

"I've heard stories through the grapevine of local citizens going out by themselves, two to three at a time on a snowmobile doing the best they can," Erickson said. "As an organized group, (Dec. 28) was the first time we've been out."

Thanks to the joint effort, Longville's trails are at least passable.

"If you were to go out and you need to go somewhere or want to go somewhere, the trails right now are rough, but they are passable, 100% of our trails are passable," Erickson said. "It may take some work to get through there, but they are passable. There are snowmobile tracks on every mile of trail we have."

The storms were particularly frustrating for Gull Lake Drifters, which had just finished clearing its trails for the first time ahead of the chaos of Dec. 14 and 15.

It seemed overwhelming to begin with, but then we got a couple groups out there. If one person is cutting and you have two or three people that can push branches and debris to the side, it goes pretty quick once you get in a groove.
Jeff Lundquist

"We had just cleared off the trails prior to the storm," said Randy Aveson, Gull Lake Drifters trail administrator. "With the warmer weather and heavy snow all the branches fell back over the trails where they were impassable. The problem was that we had to go back through them again, and that gets to be a lot of manual work."

Like many groups, they had limited equipment and volunteers to clear their 122 miles. In the beginning they officially announced their trails as closed.

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"The trees were down," Avenson said. "You couldn't see where the trail was anyways. It was pretty remarkable. I haven't seen anything like this in many years. It was pretty devastating."

All but one Gull Lake Drifters' trail was cleared ahead of New Year’s. Efforts on that eight-mile section were hampered slightly by one swamp that stubbornly refused to freeze under the insulating snow. The club managed to groom portions of its trails but was still working on it into 2023.

Guenther's crew was fortunate to attract many volunteers, some with heavy machinery including skid-steer loaders. Volunteers included professional contractors with professional equipment. Volunteers numbered up to 25 people some days, a number that other snowmobile clubs could only envy. Ponto Knight Riders attracted between six to eight volunteers each day. Gull Lake Drifters managed to attract seven who worked alongside a hired contractor.

The number of individual outages caused challenges, and upcoming storm could create more scattered power losses

Like Guenther's posse, Longville's club was blessed with an 18-person group of volunteers clearing brush for the groomer. The club also put its own money on the line, hiring two contractors with excavators to push all the brush and debris away from the trail ahead of the groomers.

The work that has cleared much of the local systems is a testament to the volunteerism that makes the trails possible at all.

"We have 22,000 miles of trails in Minnesota," Guenther said. "The DNR does not take care of those trails. It's 285 clubs that take care of it all. This sport is club-oriented. It takes clubs to keep the trails open. We really appreciate the community and businesses and their overwhelming support."

Though clearing downed trees may sound simple, branches with snow loads acted like springs that added additional threat of injury to the whole process.

There are stumps. You don't know what's outside the trails. Stay on the trail. We lose trails all the time. It's hard to get trails opened back up when people don't obey and stay on the trail. I know it looks like a playground but have some respect for our land owners.
Randy Avenson

"Trees were bent over to the ground," Guenther said. "When we were cutting them they would snap and actually pop upside down."

With grooming and clearing still ongoing on some trails, snowmobilers are encouraged to drive with care due to obstacles.

"Be prepared to turn around or do some cutting," Lundquist said. "Any help is appreciated from anybody. A lot of people say they don't have a way to carry a chainsaw, but I've seen people with hand saws. Anything that can chip away a little bit."

This is even more true of the heavy machinery on the trails.

"I don't want to hear about any accidents or mishaps on the trails," Erickson said. "We've got giant excavators out on the trail that basically cover the full width of the trail. If you come up on a piece of equipment that's 30,000-40,000 pounds, it's not going to be pretty if people aren't being safe out there."

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While the Paul Bunyan Trail passed through some towns mostly unobscured, there were sections between towns with reportedly hundreds of downed trees after the Dec. 14 and 15 storms, though most were cleared before the end of the year.
Megan Buffington / Echo Journal

Enthusiasts are also reminded to stay on the trails both for safety and courtesy. Paths off the trail have not been cleared or groomed. In addition, trails often cross private property whose owners could restrict access if their property is not respected. Avenson said new law has also doubled fines for trespassing on private property for the first offense and tripled on the second offense.

"Stay on the trails," Avenson said. "There are stumps. You don't know what's outside the trails. Stay on the trail. We lose trails all the time. It's hard to get trails opened back up when people don't obey and stay on the trail. I know it looks like a playground but have some respect for our land owners."

These clubs have websites and Facebook pages where members and potential volunteers may keep tabs on trail conditions and volunteer opportunities. There may be disaster relief money available to help offset the cost of clearing trails.

We have 22,000 miles of trails in Minnesota. The DNR does not take care of those trails. It's 285 clubs that take care of it all. This sport is club-oriented. It takes clubs to keep the trails open. We really appreciate the community and businesses and their overwhelming support.
Dave Guenther

Those who help or have helped with clearing may be able to help their group qualify by providing before and after photos of trails that had been rendered impassable by the downed trees along with descriptions of where the photos were taken.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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