Slow down! Minnesota DNR officers combat speeding snowmobiles

A snowmobile operator is airlifted.
A snowmobile operator is airlifted to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth on Feb. 16, 2019.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Earlier this month, two Minnesota conservation officers with the Department of Natural Resources were patrolling the Arrowhead State Trail, south of International Falls, Minn., when they came across a snowmobiler stalled on the side of the trail. He had a blown snowmobile belt.

"He actually didn't have the tool to change his belt out," officer Shane Zavodnik recalled. But fortunately, Zavodnik's partner did.

"So we were able to help him out. He got his belt back on."

They said goodbye and left on their snowmobiles. About 5 miles away, Zavodnik set up a speed radar on a straight, narrow stretch of trail.

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"It was probably no more than, I'd say, 20 minutes later," Zavodnik said, "we end up clocking this guy at 87 miles an hour."

And as he approached the driver after pulling him over, they recognized one another. It was the same guy whose snowmobile they had just helped fix. And he was mortified. The speed limit on Minnesota snowmobile trails is 50 mph.

"He pretty much put his head down on the handlebars, and I knew that was the end of the game for him," Zavodnik said.

It's been a hectic few weeks for Zavodnik and his colleagues who patrol northern Minnesota's sprawling network of snowmobile trails. He's already put 1,500 miles on his snowmobile this winter.

The nonstop snowfall has brought the kind of winter weather that has lured hordes of snowmobilers to the northland. Zavodnik said it's not uncommon for him to see 300 or 400 of them on a busy weekend day.

But the prime conditions have also brought a lot of accidents — some of them fatal. Four people have died in snowmobile crashes in Minnesota so far this winter; 11 have died in Wisconsin, including five in a single weekend.

In northern Minnesota, DNR conservation officers are cracking down on snowmobile speeding to try to prevent more crashes, which they say typically have two common factors.

"Most of it is alcohol and speed," said Marc Hopkins, a conservation officer in Tower, Minn. "If you're going too fast," — especially up north, where the trails often slice through the forest — "we get a lot of people hitting trees, and they don't give much. So we see a lot of serious injuries."

The DNR doesn't track all snowmobile accidents across the state. But over Presidents Day weekend alone, in a single DNR district in northern Minnesota, there were at least six serious crashes in which snowmobilers had to be airlifted to nearby hospitals, said Shelly Patten, who supervises a DNR district based in Eveleth, Minn.

"It seemed like we had crash after crash going on," said Hopkins. "We're going to continue to crack down and be a little more strict just trying to get the numbers of crashes down."

Snowmobile drivers often don't slow down as much as they should at night, Hopkins said, which he calls "overdriving your headlights." If a driver is traveling too fast, by the time something appears in their headlights, they won't have sufficient time to stop before they hit it.

Corners are another big problem. Hopkins said he sees a lot of drivers veering onto the opposite side of a trail — into oncoming snowmobile traffic — because they didn't slow down enough when rounding a curve.

That's a problem Jim Bigler, president of the International Voyageurs Snowmobile Club in International Falls sees, too. He said his club members do their best to preach safety: "Get out there and have fun, but watch what you're doing. Stay in your own side of the corners."

Snowmobiles are getting bigger and faster, he said. And he agreed that alcohol is often a factor in crashes. Snowmobile drivers, like their counterparts on the road, can get a DWI for operating a snowmobile while intoxicated.

But if it's done safely, Bigler said, snowmobiling is a blast. He and the other 100-plus members of his club are passionate about it — especially in the interminable winter that lingers near their spot along the Canadian border.

"Just be smart about it," he said. "And watch your speed. Nobody wants to see anybody hurt. And nobody wants to die."

With all the snow and more cold weather in the forecast, he anticipates people will likely be snowmobiling through the end of March.