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Snowmobile Trail Riding … In April

Andy Swanson
Our group enjoys its trailside lunch.

Our group enjoys its trailside lunch.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources posted to its website on April 2 that the Arrowhead State Trail is “… in pretty good shape … enjoy it while it lasts.”

In a normal snowmobile season, most of the snow has melted by now and snowmobile trails are closed in Minnesota. But the past two months in the North Star State have been snowy, and cold weather has preserved the snow pack — especially near the Canadian border. On Friday morning, two buddies and I jumped in the truck and headed toward the border town of International Falls, Minnesota, where we had a great snowmobile ride with a few more friends, but not before making a long detour to take a short test ride.

About 5 miles into our drive toward snow, my buddy John said, ” So where are we going, Andy?” I thought that John and Jeremy, the guy behind the wheel, had a plan figured out and I was just along for the ride, but no. So I called a contact from the Snowbelt and asked about the conditions. He said there was some snow left in his area, but his tone didn’t instill much confidence in me that the trails would be passable.

After a few more phone calls, we decided to unload at a lodge near Tower, Minnesota, and ride up to stay the night with a few more friends at their lake home near International Falls. The lodge owner’s snow report didn’t instill a whole lot of confidence, either, but we were already well on our way in that direction and figured it was worth a shot. Three hours later our bodies were geared up and our sleds were off the trailer and sitting in about 12 inches of wet snow. We jumped on the trail and pointed our machines north toward International Falls.

Snowmobile trails are still in good shape in far northern Minnesota.

Some snowmobile trails are still in good shape in northern Minnesota. This photo was taken April 6, 2013 near International Falls.

After about 10 miles of skimming across puddles, rolling over swampgrass, blasting through slush and meandering from side to side to keep our machines on snow, we stopped. We were having fun and there was no sense in being fussy about trail conditions this time of the year, but our fear was that with temperatures above freezing, what little snow that was left could melt by the time we try to come back to the truck a day later — leaving us stranded miles from our tow vehicle. So we headed back to the truck, loaded up and took highways for another hour and a half to our destination on Lake Kabetogama where we’d eventually meet up with the rest of our group.

We unloaded there and headed south on the Arrowhead for a quick ride to burn off energy that had been pent-up after riding in the truck most of the day. The trail was smooth, and slightly slippery in some spots because snow that had melted during the day was starting to re-freeze after sunset, but nonetheless, conditions were very good in some parts, if not excellent in others. There were a few bare corners and thin spots that had been exposed to harsh rays of springtime sunlight, but I’d rate the trail conditions at 7 out of 10.

It snowed about an inch overnight Friday. On Saturday our group of six started out riding on the Rat Root River, but it was rough and icy after melted snow re-froze overnight. So we abandoned the river run and jumped back on the trail for the day. It was wet, sticky snow that stuck to the hard-packed trail underneath, giving our sleds lots of traction and making the trails even better than they were the night before. Aside from the warm air, if I had been transplanted to the trail and told to guess the date based on trail conditions, I’d have said mid-February.

Up here, trails wind through tall pine trees, massive swamps and over undulating terrain that affords pleasant views of land off in the distance. We wrapped a dozen bratwurst in foil and put the packages against the silencer in John’s Ski-Doo. After about 60 miles, they were cooked just right, and they went well with crackers, chocolate-and-peanut butter wafer bars, and a splash of Gatorade to wash it all down. Light snow continued to fall into the mid-afternoon for a total of about 2 inches. It was April, and we were riding snowmobiles in Minnesota. In case you can’t tell by the smiles on our faces, we were living a dream.

Years ago, Jeremy had high hopes to catch on with the Polaris factory race team.

We stopped along the trail when suddenly this maniac came storming out from a patch of Cedar trees. Judging by his coat, it looks like he’d been in the woods for a dozen years.

3 fun facts from our April snowmobile ride near International Falls, Minnesota:

• Other than the same solo rider we met on the trail Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, we had the trail to ourselves.

• While fueling up our sleds one time, a fisherman pulled up with his boat in tow to refuel after fishing on a nearby river. It was odd to see snowmobiles sharing the pump with a boat.

• Wildlife sighted includes a gray owl, about a dozen deer and a few moths flying across the trail Friday evening.

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