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Upper Peninsula snowmobiling

Chasing the Snow

By Jim Duke

Winter enthusiasts from within the motorized and non-motorized recreational community, including me and many friends, feel that familiar itch beginning around Halloween that stays with us well into the first quarter of the new year. Even though we may not see snow for more than a month yet, we are breaking out the maps to plot, plan and, yes, even predict where the first snows might appear and how we might be able to take advantage of it!

Last season looked like it just might be a banner year with early snow coming, at least for many parts of the Midwestern states, and meteorologists were forecasting an abundance of stormy weather. The storms did come in late November to the Upper Peninsula, with heavy, sometimes gale force winds and wet snow that caused limbs to break and trees to fall, most prevalently on the recently brushed and prepped trails in anticipation of Dec. 1, the official opening day for Michigan snowmobiling.

The newly revised Michigan Snowmobile and ORV Association (MISORVA) arrived in the Upper Peninsula’s hamlet aptly named Christmas for the scheduled meetings of the Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup with the DNR on the first Thursday in December. The first ride of the new season was on Friday, followed by the Association’s Board of Directors meeting on Saturday. 

Recent storms had closed, at least partially, most trails in the area due to many trees down and snow drifts as high as rooftops in many locations, making travel nearly impossible.

Upper Peninsula snowmobiling
Heavy snow fell across the Upper Peninsula in late November. Most trails were closed or near impassible.

On Thursday afternoon after the workgroup meeting, a few hearty souls ignored warnings that all trails were mostly impassable and left for a ride to a favorite trail stop restaurant. They informed others of their plans and said they would return no later than 9 p.m. This had become a customary precaution, just in case some unforeseen incident might occur. Of the nine riders, six returned within the first half-hour stating the ride was too difficult. The other three riders were unaccounted for over the next several hours, but eventually returned with stories that would have deterred even the most adventurous from going out.

All three riders were soaking wet and completely worn out from the rigors of digging the sleds out of deep snow drifts and lifting them over several trees that had fallen across the trail. One rider said it was a three-hour, 15-mile ride from Wetmore back to the motel in Christmas. In fact, he said the mileages may be off a bit, but the time was pretty darn accurate; the exertion necessary to get all three snowmobiles back was more than any of them would want to do again. 

It was little wonder none of the three were up for breakfast early Friday morning or interested in going out again until much later in the day. In fact, only a handful of the members wanted to head out immediately after breakfast, and all were cautioned about the possibility of fallen trees blocking the trail. The local grant sponsor came by and stated that a crew would be working on Trail #419, but it would be tough going due to the amount of damage.

One or two members volunteered to forego their ride and help out with the cutting and clearing of brush, as supervised and directed by the local work crew; in fact, there were very few takers for a Friday ride, most opting to do a bit of shopping at local businesses or heading some 40 miles west to Marquette, where shops were more plentiful. 

The SAW meeting was very well attended.
The SAW meeting was very well attended.

The trails across the Upper Peninsula were still pretty much hit or miss after Saturday’s MISORVA Board of Directors meeting and only a few members remained overnight before heading back to their home turf. Those who did stay got together for a great dinner and fellowship Saturday evening, followed by an impromptu gathering back at the motel where stories of past snowmobiling adventures were plentiful.

Within a week or so following the meeting dates, the trails had been cleared of debris and groomers were reporting a slight increase in snowmobile traffic. The local trails around Munising and Christmas still had a few unfrozen wet spots but nothing that would be considered a hazard to riders, and snow was beginning to fall almost daily, providing adequate coverage for grooming.

Because I had been unable to go for even a short ride during the meeting weekend due to hosting responsibilities, I began planning a couple of outings for myself and any family members who wished to join me —first just a day ride and later a two- or three-day saddlebag adventure. 

For the day ride, the plan was to depart from my home and take Tail #7 from Christmas, pick up Trail #8 and head west through Chatham, Eben, Rumley and Little Lake, then into Gwinn where we would have lunch and get fuel. Then, still on Trail #8, head north toward Marquette and at Trail #417 turn back east over the mountain, bypassing Harvey and taking a break at Lakenenland, where there’s usually a nice fire just off the trail for a warm-up. Continuing to the junction with Trail #418, we take the short spur into the Brownstone for dinner, then follow Trail #418 east through Au Train and back to Trail #7, where we head back toward Christmas and eventually onto Ridge Road, then back to our starting point.

Executed in its entirety without incident, my daughter Karyn and I made the first leg of the trip in near record time, even though we were in no particular hurry. Departing just before 9 on a Thursday morning, we encountered very few other snowmobilers along the way and arrived in Gwinn a few minutes after the noon whistle blew. We enjoyed a light lunch at one of the local eateries near the trail and spent less than an hour there, including the stop for fuel. 

As we continued the ride, we stopped briefly at the spur trail that would take us into the Crossroads. We discussed whether we should go in and see what was new and exciting at the snowmobile dealership located there. Fortunately, Karyn said we would just be wasting daylight since neither of us needed or planned to buy anything anyway, so we continued on. We had a repeat of the same scenario as we approached, and stopped at, the spur trail that would allow us to go into Harvey — again the decision was made to keep going.

As we approached Lakenenland, we could see quite a few snowmobiles parked along the trail and a nice fire already ablaze in the fire pit. We pulled in and joined the other sledders, introduced ourselves and had a brief conversation about conditions of the trails, where we had come from and where we were heading, all while getting warm by the fire. Declining an offer to join them for snacks and drinks, we decided it was time to move on, anticipating a nice sit-down dinner a bit further down the trail.

Upper Peninsula snowmobiling

The only downside was arriving at the restaurant where we had intended to have dinner and discovering it was closed. On the upside, we found a local café open in Au Train and dined on authentic German cuisine. It was just before sunset when we arrived back home and put the snowmobiles away. This ride was 171 miles, according to my odometer, but may be a few miles more or less depending on stops, track spin and where backtracking might be necessary. It is a trip we absolutely enjoyed and recommend it to anyone having the time and an adventurous spirit. 

There are many attractions along the way, but we elected not to stop because of time. They include the Eben Ice Caves, Laughing Whitefish Falls State Park, Marquette Mountain and Scott Falls. The trail east of Au Train parallels state highway M-28 and the view of Lake Superior is spectacular, a definite must-see and a great place for photo opportunities.

Due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we were unable to go on the saddlebag ride last season, but I have it all planned out and we are hoping to be able to make it happen this season. So, if the Good Lord is willing and with Old Man Winter’s blessing, we’ll be chasing the snow, laying down tracks and making memories.

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