Here at Snow Goer we don’t like to sit around – as soon as the temperatures begin to drop, we start searching for snow to get out and test-ride our fleet of 2018 sleds, as well as various equipment and products for our Cold Tested section.
Two weeks ago we rode our first break-in of the season with a ride near Two Harbors, Minnesota, through the CJ Ramstad North Shore State Trail system. The trails were mostly un-groomed (although we did run into one groomer later in the day), with a base of ice underneath the snow. The trip became a 140-mile trek that we were feeling the next day.
The following week was a more modest adventure in regards to mileage; we trailered to the Hayward/Cable area of northwestern Wisconsin. With different sleds in tow, we capped the day at a more manageable 60 miles total after a pit stop at Lakewoods Resort on the shores of Lake Namakagon about halfway. It wasn’t quite an all-day adventure, but was still enough to keep our muscles loose and get new fuel coursing through another batch of sleds.
The week following Christmas, of course, we began to feel the itch again. This time managing editor Nick Longworth loaded up a 2018 Yamaha Sidewinder L-TX SE and a Ski-Doo Renegade Backcountry X and set his compass for northwestern Minnesota, where he had been informed of a couple inches of fresh snowfall from the previous week. Not quite picture-perfect conditions, the temperatures for the ride were forecasted to be between 0 and -25 degrees Fahrenheit. But on the bright side, it would also be a good environment to test new gear as well.
In The Cold Of Osage
The journey began in the town of Osage, Minnesota, about 9 miles west of Park Rapids – which serves as a tourist destination due its proximity to both an abundance of lakes with accompanying resorts as well as other tourist hubs such as Bemidji, Detroit Lakes and Walker. The Pohlad family – who own the Minnesota Twins – owns a cabin on Big Mantrap Lake in the area, and it’s an appealing region for many.
The route originally plotted would lead west for 30 miles, and then present a pit stop at the Ice Cracking Lodge and Resort in Ponsford, for about 60 miles total round-trip. But after striking out twice while searching for pit stops on our first trip of the year – and in part due to the bitter cold we would be facing – it was decided that a phone call ahead would be wise to make sure it would be open. Sure enough the place was closed, and so our route would need to be altered if we wanted both food and fuel.
Instead, the ride officially began near the northeast corner of Straight Lake in Osage. Taking county roads for less than a mile, we connected with a series of hunting and farmer field trails that led to an entrance into the Two Inlets State Forest trail system. The trail system is widely known for its weaving trails that create a course of numerous turns around many lakes, ponds and streams. Only a single lane wide, the lack of visibility ahead keeps speed modest, but still challenging.
We entered the trail system onto Trail 13 that connected to Trail 12. After winding 2 miles we connected with Trail 11, which provided a natural view of Two Inlets Lake before arriving at our eventual pit stop.
The trails were nearly untouched except for an initial snowmobile track or two, and although the snow wasn’t overly plentiful in most areas, there was a solid base that should provide a foundation to groom upon for the year. Overall the snow was comparable to previous excursions. However, on this specific trip visibility and fogging issues became apparent relatively quick, and it became clear it would be an uphill battle all day and night given the extreme cold.
Our pit stop was the Two Inlets Country Store along County Highway 44. The store serves as a hub for locals and tourists alike and is a great pit stop to warm up, grab assorted supplies or grab a bite to eat off its modest menu of warm foods including pizzas, hot sandwiches and appetizers. It also offers lodging onsite.
As luck would have it, during this stop owners Sue and Craig were the only other people in the store – likely due to a mixture of the bitter cold temperatures, modest-to-low snow on the trails so far this season and the time itself (nearly 6 p.m. on the day after Christmas).
The store was named as one of the 101 Best Snowmobile Pit Stops, a reader-submitted compilation published in the February issue of Snow Goer. We initially wondered if they were aware of the prestigious honor, until I noticed the emblem that is mailed to all nominees proudly displayed in the door window. As the gas bill was paid, I also noticed the very issue sitting behind the register on the counter as well.
Still cold and now dark, but with a slightly renewed ambition due to the warmth and hospitality, we decided to log some more miles before calling it a night.
Taking off from Trail 11 again, we then connected with Trail 6, which would lead to connecting Trail 17 (again providing views of nature and access, this time to Portage Lake). The trail looped back around, and then reconnected with Trail 11 which would backtrack home. At this point, with nearly 40 miles that felt like 400 and three hours into a trip with an average temperate of -10 F (and wind chill of -40), even the best gear was beginning to show its limitations, and we were again starting to feel the cold on our fingertips and eyelids.
Overall the trails appeared to be in very nice shape given the admittedly limited snow and grooming. There were relatively few stutter bumps on most trails, but although the trails were untouched in the woods, local access points and main roads showed signs traffic and usage without maintenance.
Cracking Eyelid Ice To Find Ice Cracking
Day two wasn’t any warmer. Upon waking up, my phone claimed it be a balmy -28 out; that was actual temp, mind you, not wind chill. But at some point temperature becomes just that – numbers on a phone, and we would not be deterred.
However brave, we still took extra precaution – namely switching back from goggles to a dual-pane visor on my Castle X Mode Dual Sport helmet (no matter how expertly architected there always seemed to be an excruciatingly cold air leak the night before) and installed aftermarket handlebar gauntlets on the Yamaha Sidewinder for added warmth (which worked so well we needed to turn the hand-warmers down).
We began the journey from Osage again, this time heading north on Two Inlets State Forest Trail 11 and then turned west onto Trail 12. Nearing 10 miles into the trip, it was clear that the conditions were more favorable in comparison to the night before – a simple blessing of sunlight can make a world of difference.
After a brief trailside stop, we continued on Trail 12, which became Trail 14 and then runs parallel with county roads – in which we found favorable conditions of powder snowdrifts and clear approaches for the machines to carve and cut while weaving the natural flow of the ditch.
As luck should have it we came across a large sinkhole that provided a natural dip that led into a 50 foot hill climb on which to play – at some point you have to take advantage of such good graces, no matter the temps.
Turning back into the wooded trail system onto Trail 400, the signage became clearly visible for the Ice Cracking Lodge and Resort – the original destination for day one, which was now open.
Our server, Sue, was attentive and kind – she not only bundled herself up to manually turn-on the fuel pump for us, but then doubled duties once inside to serve us food. After a honey BBQ chipotle burger thunder burger and double cheeseburger accompanied by both curly and crinkle-cut fries, both our bellies and the sleds were now full and we still had three hours of daylight left.
Although we did not view the resort, the lodge was very accommodating – with a wood-carved tables on which to eat a full menu, full bar and fireplace. As a bonus, being on a Native American reservation it also offers gambling in the form of 10-15 slot machines. We didn’t try our luck this time, but maybe next. It wasn’t nominated to be a 101 Best Pit Stop this year, but it really ought to be next.
Our return route was a simple backtrack of the trail system, with one alteration – nearing our endpoint we decided we weren’t done yet, and to stay on Trail 11 then wind back around the west side of Straight Lake along county highway ditches into the town of Osage itself (a real portrait of small-town America that has one gas station/restaurant/bar/bait shop, one liquor store and a church).
From town we were able to take a 5-mile route straight down the lake to really give the machines one last workout – and our eyelids a beating.
In total, the trip was 107 miles – slightly under the original plan of around 140. It may have been some of the coldest riding of my life, but every mile is a memory, and it was worth every icicle on my eyelids.
It was noted in our first story that break-in modes vary per manufacturer, and therefore break-in rides often offer some of the worst fuel mileage of the season. On this trip, the Ski-Doo got 14.86 MPG and the Sidewinder got 13.04 MPG. Both figurers represent a slight increase over previous rides.
Motorfist Subzero gloves: Warmth was adequate considering such cold temps, but sizing seemed a little tight around our fat fingers for a size large. When clenching a fist, the back palm felt tight against the hand and lacked maneuverability. The gloves are new, so the process of breaking them in may very well solve the issue.
FXR Backshift gloves: Not a care in the world. I had a thin pair of cotton underlining gloves on as well, but they fit naturally under these gloves. Bring on the coldest temps.
Arctiva polyester and pro-stretch plus balaclavas: The Polyester Balaclava helped up adequately against cold temps, but by the end of the ride had to be swapped because it was frozen stiff. The Pro-Stretch Plus vented considerably better, although it wasn’t as comfortable against the face and felt looser than desired. On the second day, I doubled-up and put the polyester beneath the pro-stretch plus and after a few minutes of adjusting, I found the best of both worlds and will be using the combo on future cold rides.
Sidewinder: It was fun to see the Sidewinder steaming heavily on such a cold day – it was truly working up a sweat. It felt like a genuinely comfortable, yet powerful trail sled. It handled moderate bumps well, but the steering felt heavy and we remained not a huge fan of the skis – which felt like they would slide through corners despite the previously mentioned heavy steering. In an open field, though, the Genesis 998cc turbo had enough torque to rip your shoulders out of their sockets.
Renegade: Supreme traction out the hole to the point where the skis could lift a foot each and every time a driver punched the throttle – it isn’t a matter of if, but for how long you want those skis in the air while you’re taking off. The acceleration made for fun ditch banging and approach jumping. However, for the all the punch it had in a straight line, cornering could be tricky at times – at higher speeds it would tend to grab and if not positioned properly.