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Making tracks

When it comes to playing in the snow, Charles Chadbourne is still a kid at heart. Even at age 72. "It's a healthy environment," Chadbourne said of snowmobiling the wooded trails of Becker County, Minnesota. "I would rather be out there than pulli...

A used snowmobile trail groomer

When it comes to playing in the snow, Charles Chadbourne is still a kid at heart. Even at age 72.

"It's a healthy environment," Chadbourne said of snowmobiling the wooded trails of Becker County, Minnesota. "I would rather be out there than pulling the one-armed bandit."

While many retirees were playing the slots recently at the Shooting Star Casino in nearby Mahnomen, Chadbourne was riding his 2006 Ski-Doo MXZ Renegade 600 snowmobile on trail No. 300 past Cotton Lake and north into Itasca State Park.

That's the 160-mile round-trip journey he and three other retirees took recently. It's quite a change from when Chadbourne started snowmobiling in 1969 - a few years before the trail system got started in Minnesota.

"You just rode the local trails ... so if you ran 30 miles back then, you had a pretty good day," Chadbourne said. "I've seen the trail system from its infancy."


Chadbourne, a retired highway construction inspector, has seen the trail system in Becker County expand to 700 miles. There are more than 20,000 miles of trails in Minnesota.

In North Dakota there are more than 3,500 miles of trails - about half in the eastern part of the state.

There are 224 snowmobile clubs in Minnesota, members of the 19,000-family Minnesota United Snowmobile Association. In North Dakota there are 51 snowmobile clubs with nearly 2,000 memberships in Snowmobile North Dakota.

It is the clubs, with financial assistance from state programs, that are responsible for maintaining the trails. The challenges seem endless for snowmobile advocates.

Mother Nature is the biggest challenge. Until this winter, the last good snowfall in the region came in the winter of 1996-97. Some trails remained closed the last two winters. Less snow usually means fewer club members.

"We've had as many as 200 families in our club during good snow years," said Dave Ward, trail coordinator for the Southern Valley Trailriders Association in southeast North Dakota. "We're under 100 during a slow year. We figured we had 50 families who quit the sport during the slow years. It's coming back ... but it's slow."

Fees and dues vital

Snowmobile trails in Minnesota and North Dakota, which started appearing in the 1970s, survive thanks to snowmobile registration fees and club membership dues.


In Minnesota, the money generated from the $48, three-year license fee goes back into the trails system that is overseen by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Starting this year, snowmobilers also must buy a $31, 3-year trail permit. That money helps pay for grooming, equipment and trail improvements.

A groomer can cost as much as $125,000. While most clubs in Minnesota maintain their trails, grooming in Becker County is handled by the highway department.

"The county gets out on the trails at least twice a week," Chadbourne said.

Snowmobile North Dakota and the local clubs work with the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department to maintain the state's trails.

A two-year license costs $40, with $35 of that going into the state's snowmobile fund. For local clubs to receive that money, they have to groom their trails.

"Basically, we can last with state money for six to seven weeks," said Ward, of the Southern Valley Trailriders Association. "After that, our club has to raise the rest. I would say during a big snow year we have to raise about half the money we need for a 10- to 14-week season."

The Southern Valley Trailriders Association has trails that run as far north as Walcott and south to the Hankinson, Fairmount and Lidgerwood areas. Club members have posted more than 1,000 directional signs on the 180 miles of trails.


The club also has two tractors used to groom the trails once a week. One of those four-wheel drive tractors is a quad-track Case-International that sits on Ward's farm near Dwight.

The tractor pulls a homemade skid that carves out a 12-foot wide trail.

"It takes 20 to 25 hours to groom the 180 miles of trails," Ward said. "So it does take some time."

"I think it involves more hours than we even realize," said Norma Rasmusson, the Snowmobile North Dakota president who lives in Lisbon.

Signs of change

Chadbourne can't help but spot a 'For Sale' sign during one of his snowmobile rides in Minnesota.

"Man, that scares me," Chadbourne says.

Farther along the trail, he spots snowmobile tracks criss-crossing an open field, beyond the marked trail.


"Snowmobilers who don't stay on the trails really hurt the trail system," Chadbourne says.

Chadbourne doesn't like what he's seeing on the trails in Becker County these days. The 'For Sale' sign is another indication of more housing developments in the Detroit Lakes area.

More development can mean lost easements for the trails. Near his residence east of Detroit Lakes, Chadbourne has had to reroute the trail five times because of housing developments.

As director of the Minnesota United Snowmobile Association's Region 9 - which includes much of west central Minnesota - Chadbourne worries more about losing easements from private landowners because snowmobilers trespass onto their property.

Between Frazee and Highway 34, a 10-mile section of the trail is gone because of a pulled easement. Near Rock Lake north of Detroit Lakes, the trail that used to run alongside a fence is now closed.

"Too many sleds cut into the open field, so the landowner put a fence up," said Chadbourne. "Now we have to go around and follow the gravel road.

"People have to realize that these trails just don't show up by themselves. We have had to reroute, reroute and reroute because of this situation. Around here, there is a lot of private property we have to work with."

That's not the case in the Bemidji, Minn., area, where much of the trails are on public property. According to Dick Lueben, there are only 50 private landowners on the 400 miles of trails that the Bemidji snowmobile club monitors.


"It is just more densely populated in the Detroit Lakes area," said Lueben, director of the Minnesota United Snowmobile Association's Region 1, which covers northwest Minnesota.

In North Dakota, obtaining easements from landowners is a bit easier. An agreement with one landowner can translate into sections of land.

"Fortunately, we have a lot of farmers on our board," said Ward of the Southern Valley Trailriders Association. "It makes the easement part of it a lot easier."

Rasmusson said that some landowners worry about the liability of having a snowmobile trail on their property. She says the North Dakota Parks and Recreation's insurance policy usually covers that concern.

"But there are those few riders who go off the trails," Rasmusson said. "We make it a point to go out in the area where we have had riders go off the trails and we post 'stay on the trail' signs.

"You will always have a few rebels ... but it hasn't been a real, big problem."

Long-distance treks

From his North Dakota farmstead west of Wahpeton, Ward figures he could snowmobile on trails all the way to the Canadian border.


From his home in Bemidji, the

76-year-old Lueben is planning a snowmobile trip to southern Minnesota this winter.

They are among a growing number of snowmobilers who head out each winter for multi-day, long-distance, cross-country treks. They travel from town to town on the interconnected trail systems and stay in motels along the way.

"Problem is, I haven't the foggiest idea of where I'm going on such a long trip," Lueben said.

He and the Minnesota United Snowmobile Association hope to change that. The group wants to number major trails, similar to the way the state's highways are numbered, to ease navigation between trail segments.

"What's proving really difficult is persuading committee members to contact the clubs in their area," Lueben said.

Working with the DNR, Lueben estimates the project will cost as much as $30,000, with hopes of posting as many as 5,000 signs along 600 miles of trails as soon as October.

"Whether we can make that happen, I don't know," Lueben said. "They've made this work in Wisconsin for the past 10 years. It's very nice for riders unfamiliar with the area."

Such a sophisticated trail system not only benefits snowmobilers, but small towns starving for business. During one of his 150-mile rides in North Dakota, Ward says he will see as many as 50 sleds parked in one town.

"As a club, that was one of our goals ... to try and help these small towns out," Ward said. "It's almost a survival thing for these small towns."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

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