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Ample snow means good times for snowmobiling, skiing and other outdoor recreation

Much of northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota has 10 to 20 inches of snow on the ground, with scattered pockets that are deeper.

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Snowmobilers ride through Beltrami Island State Forest in northwest Minnesota in this file photo from February 2010. Another winter of favorable snowfall is good news for snowmobilers, skiers and other outdoor recreationists.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – All of the snow the region is receiving this winter is good for something, and if you’re a snowmobile, skiing or snowshoeing enthusiast, that something is obvious.

Whether in Minnesota or North Dakota, it’s a good winter to be on the trails.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Brian Brintnell, president of the Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club in Fordville, N.D. “Normally, in western North Dakota, they don’t receive a ton of snow. I don’t think they even think about snowmobiling once you get past Bismarck, but this year, it’s definitely a change all across the state.”

One of the largest snowmobile clubs in North Dakota, the Ridge Runners grooms and maintains some 165 miles of trails from Fordville to Grand Forks and over to Oslo, Minn.

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“The trails have been just excellent,” Brintnell said. “We’ve been grooming quite a bit and just in general, I guess you can pretty much go anywhere.

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“The snow is pretty awesome.”

Based on a snow depth map maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, much of the eastern two-thirds of North Dakota has anywhere from 10 to 20 inches of snow on the ground, with pockets of more than 20 inches north of Devils Lake and near Jamestown. Even the western part of the state is mostly snow-covered, although depths are generally less than farther east.

That’s also the case across much of Minnesota, where the deepest pockets are along the North Shore. Like the eastern two-thirds of North Dakota, snow depth in northwest Minnesota is generally in the 10- to 20-inch range.

‘Beautiful right now’

For snowmobile trails in northwest Minnesota, the biggest challenge was getting a solid freeze-up on trails that go through swampy areas. It’s not as simple as firing up the groomer and smoothing out a trail; groomers are heavy and need a solid base below them.

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Myles Hogenson

“It took a lot of work to get everything to where it is, but the trails are beautiful right now,” said Myles Hogenson of the Roseau County Trailblazers, which grooms 421 miles of trails in Roseau County and parts of Beltrami Island State Forest. “They’re all in great shape.”

While trails are good in the woods, the abundance of snow has created challenges for clubs that groom on Lake of the Woods, Hogenson says.

“The lake guys are having issues,” he said. “We’ve got too much snow, the machines are too heavy and they’ve got some cracking going on. Up at the Northwest Angle itself, they’ve got it going pretty good, but it’s to get from here to there” that is challenging.

Tuesday morning, Hogenson was running a groomer on a land trail from Seven Clans Casino near Warroad, Minn., to Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort on Lake of the Woods north of Roosevelt, Minn.

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“That trail’s getting busy now because nobody’s wanting to ride on the lake,” Hogenson said.

State groomer

To groom in the Fordville area, the Ridge Runners club runs a state groomer, Brintnell says, one of “13 or 14” groomers across the state. The club’s grooming efforts provide a connection between several local communities, including Pisek, Lankin and Park River, he says.

“This year, it’s been pretty smooth sailing,” Brintnell said, adding there would be no one to maintain the trails if not for local snowmobile clubs.

The clubs also work with landowners to secure leases for crossing private land.

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The Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club based in Fordville, North Dakota, runs a state groomer to maintain a 165-mile network of trails in the northeastern part of the state.
Contributed/Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club

“We actually have to work with a lot of different people,” Brintnell said. “If we go across a farmer’s field, we have to get a lease and have everybody’s signature. So that gets to be an issue down the road because some people don’t want you going across their land, and they think it’s a liability. But the state of North Dakota has the insurance. If you’re on their trail system, it’s covered — the landowner is covered.”

Despite the general abundance of snow in northwest Minnesota — most trails in the Roseau County area have a 6- to 7-inch base — Hogenson says a few trails could use a bit more of the white stuff, including the Ray Morrissette Trail north of Roseau in the Lost River State Forest.

“They groomed, but there’s not quite enough snow to cover all the stumps up,” Hogenson said. “We broke a bunch of cleats on the groomer going through there.”

Expensive process

That’s just one example of the expense required to run a groomer. In Grand Forks, the Red River Snowmobile Club in November had its groomer serviced, a job that included an oil change and filters, said Brian Chandler, the club’s vice president.

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“It’s going to be $1,000 easily,” Chandler said. By some estimates, operating a groomer costs $30 to $40 a mile every time it runs.

Hogenson says he’s been in the groomer almost every day, of late, but needs to back off a bit. In Minnesota, most of the state’s snowmobile trails are funded by the Department of Natural Resources’ Grant-in-Aid program through registration fees — $113.50 for three years — $53 trail stickers required for out-of-state snowmobiles and a small percentage of the non-refunded gas tax collected by the state.

Grant-in-Aid funds are then distributed to local snowmobile clubs.

“We’ve only got so much money,” Hogenson said. “That’s why I try to make the trails as wide as I can. They stay better.”

In North Dakota, the state Parks and Recreation Department contracts with Snowmobile North Dakota to manage the state’s Snowmobile Trail Program, working with 14 trail associations to provide funding through proceeds from snowmobile registrations and a portion of the gas tax. Registering a snowmobile in North Dakota costs $50 for two years, which must be paid in odd-numbered years. Out-of-state snowmobilers must purchase a $25 nonresident public trails and land access permit to ride on state trails.

According to Snowmobile North Dakota, the state snowmobile program assumes 70% of the trail grooming equipment costs, 100% of the trail insurance and 90% of the trail sign expenses. Any funds that remain are used to assist trail associations with grooming costs, of which a significant portion are funded through local club events and community grants.

On average, it costs more than $114,000 to maintain just one of the 14 trail systems in North Dakota, Snowmobile North Dakota says.

“The state only covers so much of the cost, too, before our local clubs actually have to kick in a lot of the funds to keep paying for grooming and everything like that,” said the Ridge Runners’ Brintnell, who also serves on the Snowmobile North Dakota board of directors. “It costs a lot of money to run these things, with diesel prices and just to put an operator in there to run them.

“The state does pay for a little bit, but a lot is donated by local club members. It’s a big process to have this stuff done. Everybody kind of thinks, ‘Oh, the state does all the grooming.’ ”

Snowmobile North Dakota offers an interactive map on its website showing the status of trails in the state’s snowmobile trail system, including when they last were groomed and snow depth conditions.

“In the past couple of years, we’ve had such great snow,” Brintnell said. “The conditions this year have just been phenomenal.”

Trails and slopes

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Buena Vista Ski Area north of Bemidji is a winter wonderland in this January 2023 photo.
Contributed/Michelle Thomas Moravec, Buena Vista Ski Area

Winter fun isn’t limited to snowmobiles, of course. The snow also means ample opportunities for skiing and snowshoeing. Trails in some areas, such as Turtle River State Park west of Grand Forks, could use a bit more snow, park staff say, but overall, trails across the region are anywhere from fair to excellent. The Grand Forks Greenway now has an interactive map available online showing the grooming status of cross-country ski trails within the system.

Meanwhile, for downhill skiing enthusiasts, snow conditions and favorable temperatures have combined for a busy winter, said Suzanne Thomas of Buena Vista Ski Area north of Bemidji.

“We’ve been busy,” Thomas said this week. “Every day during vacation was so nice. We’ve made quite a bit of snow and will make a little more, but we are so thankful for this great weather.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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