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As snow piles up, deaths mount, officials urge snowmobile safety

DNR officers urge riders to slow down, avoid alcohol and stay off potentially thin ice.

Two snowmobilers on the Pequaywan Snowmobile Trail
Two snowmobilers on the Pequaywan Snowmobile Trail north of Duluth. Snowmobile safety officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin are urging caution as more people are out this winter with more snow on the ground.
John Myers / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Ample snow on the ground, warmer temperatures and a three-day holiday weekend coming up for many people mean a lot of riders will be out on snowmobile trails this weekend.

The Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of natural resources are hoping a lot of those riders don’t die on those trails.

Both agencies held media events this week aimed at promoting snowmobile safety ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday and during International Snowmobile Safety Week. Already in Minnesota this snowmobile season, at least six people have died in snowmobile crashes, the DNR noted Thursday.

Officials note that years with more snow across more of the region, as has occurred this year, almost always means more snowmobile crashes.

“Opportunities to ride snowmobiles are entirely dependent upon the weather, and in years when there’s a lot of snow, like this year, we see an uptick in riders,” Capt. Jon Paurus, DNR enforcement education program coordinator, said in a statement. “It’s imperative that anyone who plans to head out makes good decisions and keeps safety at the top of their mind.”

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While the DNR doesn’t yet have official reports for all fatalities, preliminary reports indicate six riders have died in Minnesota, all of them since Dec. 31. That’s the same number that died during the entire 2021-22 snowmobile season and double the number of the 2020-21 season. Eleven Minnesota snowmobile riders died in 2019-20 and 10 died in 2018-19.

Some 22 people died in Wisconsin snowmobile crashes last winter. The DNR has not yet tallied this winter’s fatalities.

Many snowmobile crashes involve excessive speed, alcohol, driving on thin ice or driving off designated trails.

five snowmobile racers waiting to compete
Five youth snowmobile racers line up ahead of their heat at the KCPRO-East event on Pike Lake in Duluth on Feb. 19.
Dan Williamson / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

The Wisconsin DNR this week urged riders to be especially careful near any lakes or rivers, many of which are not frozen solid enough to support snowmobiles.

"Remember that no ice is ever completely safe, and that even areas that seem thick and covered with snow may be hiding patches of black ice that could break apart under the weight of the machine and riders,’’ said Lt. Jake Holsclaw, Wisconsin DNR off-highway vehicle administrator.

The Wood City Riders have spent more than 1,000 hours clearing snowmobile trails, while officials are making no guarantees about ski trails opening in Jay Cooke State Park.

More than 200,000 registered snowmobiles hit Wisconsin's 25,000 miles of groomed trails each winter. Minnesota has about 220,000 registered snowmobiles and 22,000 miles of official trails.

Safety experts suggest:

  • Stay on marked trails. Snowmobile clubs maintain good riding conditions on the state’s trails. Riders who stay on groomed trails are less likely to strike an obstacle or trespass onto private property. Minnesota Riders can check trail conditions at mndnr.gov/snow_depth before heading out. Wisconsin’s snowmobile trail report is at travelwisconsin.com/snowreport/snowmobile .
  • Don’t ride impaired. Drinking and riding is a primary cause of crashes and plays a role in about 60% of those that are fatal.
  • Watch your speed and stay to the right. Going too fast is another main cause of crashes. Many serious and fatal crashes occur when a speeding snowmobiler loses control or strikes an object. When meeting another snowmobile, always slow down and stay to the right.
  • Contact local sport shops to ask about ice conditions locally on the lake or river you want to cross. Do not travel in unfamiliar areas.
  • Be careful on the ice. In recent years, nearly every through-the-ice fatality in Minnesota has involved people who were riding a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle when they fell through. There must be at least 5-7 inches of new, clear ice to support the weight of a snowmobile and rider. Check the ice thickness as you go.
  • Take a snowmobile safety course. It’s required of anyone born after 1976 and recommended for everyone. Data shows people with snowmobile safety certification are less likely to be involved in serious or fatal crashes.
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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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