Snow? Go! Minnesota snowmobile riders making the most of great trails

Munger State Trail
Snowmobile riders head down the Willard Munger State Trail, which runs between Hinckley and Duluth, in this undated view. Snow conditions this winter are the best in years across much of Minnesota, riders say.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Snowmobile riders across Minnesota are finally happy.

The past few days have brought heavy snowfall to most of the state, including some areas that had been lacking in snow much of the winter — rescuing what could have been a mediocre snowmobile season and energizing riders for the first time in years.

"I haven't seen snow like this since 1996," said Tim Eischens. "You can't ask for better trails."

Eischens is trail coordinator for the Forest Riders Snowmobile Club. He answered his phone while driving the club's 7-ton groomer along a 100-mile section of trail just outside Park Rapids, Minn.

"Last year, we only groomed the trails every other week," he said. "There just wasn't enough snow."

This year, he's been taking 12 shifts in the groomer just to keep up. He estimated there's at least 40 inches of snow in his area.

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Official tallies have almost 4 feet of snow in Brainerd, Minn. — a full foot above average. Cass Lake, Minn., is buried under 42 inches, which is more snow than 90 out of the past 100 years.

Eischens said all the new powder is curing a pervasive, long-standing malaise in the snowmobile community. The last few years, he said, have been "iffy." National Weather Service hydrologist Steve Gohde put it in clearer terms. He said that going into this winter, trail conditions had been worse than normal for a long time.

There was a lot of snow last year, he said, but most of it came all at once near the end of the season. There wasn't much time for riders to enjoy Minnesota's 22,000 miles of groomed trail.

The previous three years had below-average snowfall.

It's been particularly bad in southern Minnesota.

Perry Olson in an avid snowmobile rider in Faribault County. He said a lot of his friends truck their machines five hours to the North Shore, where there's plenty of lake-effect snow.

Even this season started out badly in southern Minnesota. By the end of January, his favorite trails were just starting to get a mediocre base of snow.

"It was thin," he said. "It was really, really thin."

You could ride, he said, as long you didn't mind hitting grass from time to time.

And then, last weekend it warmed up to 45 degrees. "Everything was gone in one day," Olson said.

It was demoralizing. He figured he was in for another terrible year. Then, late this week, the skies opened, dumping well over a foot of snow in just a few days.

"We've had some hard seasons," Olson said. "But boy, this year is sure making up for it."