The following feature, first printed in the February 2016 issue of Snow Goer magazine, was recently awarded a Gold Award in a magazine industry program for feature writing. It tells the incredible story of Nick Keller and his 99,956-mile journey aboard his snowmobile to honor his mother and raise money for victims of cancer.
To regularly see such features, plus detailed sled evaluations and comparisons, aftermarket product tests, informative how-to articles, vintage snowmobile articles, stories on riding destinations and much more, click here to subscribe to Snow Goer magazine. The learn more about the Snowball Cancer/Keller Family Community Foundation click here.
Riding With Snowmobiling’s Marathon Man
Nick Keller & His 99,956-Mile Journey For A Cause
The taillight in front of me just keeps moving…
We’re about 30 miles into a cold, early-February morning, riding snowmobiles in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula shortly after sunrise while most locals are trudging off to work. I can feel a narrow strip of skin freezing on my face, the result of a new helmet/goggle/headsock combination that unfortunately has left an unplanned gap. Normally, when something like this comes up, I just bear it for a while and fix the problem at the first trailside stop.
On this particular day, however, I’m following an unusually dedicated man who is on a singular mission to pile on as many miles as possible, and he’s not slowing down. He rides with a heavy heart yet a hopeful spirit – an odd combination. A 300-plus mile day is in the works: The result of a personal challenge, maybe? Some sort of marathon run, possibly?
The answer to both questions is yes, but this isn’t just a one-day marathon for this spiritual sled runner. In fact, the odometer on his snowmobile read 89,813 miles when we started the day – 11,357 more than where he started the season but only about half-way through his planned season total. Yes, for many riders, a 300-mile day is a personal benchmark. For super-miler Nick Keller? It’s simply another Monday.
His mission has raised nearly $150,000 for cancer victims – pledged mainly by fellow snowmobilers supporting his efforts. His passion is fueled by the loss of his mother to the horrible disease. By early afternoon, he plans to turn the odometer over to 90,000 miles. He then plans to keep going toward a season-ending total of 99,956 miles.
“If I go over 100,000 miles, the odometer just goes back to all zeroes,” Keller explained. “So, I’m going to stop at 99,956 in honor of my mother, who we lost at age 56.”
Obviously, I’m not going to let a little frostbite mess up the timing on this incredible accomplishment, so I try to duck behind the windshield of my Indy and let the skin burn. It’ll grow back, right?
I arrived at Keller’s tidy vacation home in Ironwood, Michigan, late on Super Bowl Sunday. I didn’t find him in front of the TV, where most of America parked itself on this night. Instead, he was in the garage, working on a sled he has named Mary Jane in honor of his late mother.
The short, round-faced 59-year-old extended his meaty, weathered hand – evidence of a career spent doing manual labor, in his case as a cement mason – for a quick greeting, then he got back to work on the maroon 2010 Yamaha RS Vector. As the last of that day’s snow was melting out of the rear suspension, Keller was working on the wiring for the plug-in of his heated boots and gloves.
Regular sled maintenance, he explains, goes along with his high-mile quest. While the average snowmobiler rides about 1,500 miles a season, Keller averages about 2,000-2,500 miles per week. Any problems that could put the sled out of commission for a day or two could hurt his mileage count, so he stays ahead of things with regular upkeep and parts replacements most riders would never think about.
“Nobody else knows that a throttle block wears out at about 30,000 miles, because nobody else puts this many miles on a single sled,” Keller said with a grin.
His is, in theory, a lonely adventure – during the winters he lives apart from his family. They stay in his hometown of Richmond, Minnesota, while he moves to Upper Michigan for its more dependable snow. He rides every day, no matter the weather, and he usually rides alone, with a lot of solitary time with a helmet strapped to his head. Keller is not, however, a loner or an anti-social person. He insists that anybody who comes to ride with him stays as his guest inside his Ironwood home, and the night I arrive he keeps me up past midnight with engaging conversation.
His high-mile quest, he explained, started with a 2009 challenge from Ron Kern, a Yamaha dealer who knew that Keller regularly rode more than 5,000 miles per year. Somebody else set a world record by riding a snowmobile 12,163 miles in 60 days, Kern told Keller. Couldn’t Nick break that record?
“At first I said yes, then I said no,” Keller said. “Then I said, ‘Well, if I have a good reason to do it, I probably could. Like giving money to a cancer foundation.’”
Keller, his family and friends have been deeply touched by cancer. His mother lost her battle when Nick was 34. Since then, there have been many others – family members, close friends, business associates – who battled the disease; some won their battles, others lost, but all were brave, Keller said. Some of their photos were hanging on the wall of his living room as he was telling the story.
In originally discussing the possibilities with his family, one daughter said, “I’d like to see this thing snowball out,” and thus the marketing name of the newly created Keller Family Community Foundation was coined – Snowball Cancer. Keller explained that one of his daughters has been involved in big foundation work and another daughter is an accountant, so he roped them into figuring out logistics. “It’s not easy to set up a charitable foundation,” Keller said.
He secured a sled and some support from Yamaha and a couple of other sponsors. Soon winter arrived, and Keller’s first-year quest began. In the winter of 2009-2010, Keller rode 19,506 miles in 60 days and carefully documented the miles, the fuel used (1,168.32 gallons) and other details (including his average of 16.6958 miles per gallon). He didn’t just beat the previous record, he annihilated it by 7,343 miles, averaging 325 miles per day. Along the way he got some press, created awareness for his foundation and raised money that helped a lot of victims.
So, the next fall at the Haydays Grass Drags & Swap Meet, when somebody dared him to do it again – and ride 40,000 miles in two years – he accepted the challenge, and in the winter of 2010-11 he rode 25,279 miles. And then, in a move that would make Forrest Gump proud, he just kept going.
Sponsor donations help pay for fuel and sled upkeep; all individual donations to the foundation go to cancer victims, Keller said proudly. All totaled, as of this writing, the Keller Family Foundation has given close to $150,000 to individual cancer victims, often helping them pay for common everyday expenses that insurance won’t cover.
“If somebody gives me a $20 bill, they can be assured that it will reach a human who needs it,” said Keller.
Back On The Trail
Before our first day of riding, Keller warns that the rail trail between his Ironwood home and the Lake Gogebic area will be rough – the local snowmobile club’s groomer broke, repairs are coming slow and there are some odd political squabbles between local clubs. So it’ll be close to 20 miles of chop before we get to good trails, he said. We stop for fuel before leaving town, and everybody working at the station knows Nick – it’s a pattern that would often repeat itself, as the engaging Keller flashes his toothy grin while making conversation with the locals.
The ruggedness of the trails live up to Keller’s warning. The frozen-hard stutter bumps seem unending, but the dedicated Keller pounds through them, putting the speedometer at about 60 mph and forging ahead. He is planted statue-like on the seat – rarely leaning in turns and using absolutely no more energy than is necessary to put on each mile. Similarly, his speed hardly varies. This isn’t a ride that will include horsing around off-trail or general goofing off – this is all about turning the odometer, and Keller does it with unrivaled dedication.
We make quick time through Wakefield and Bessemer, and then arrive near the shores of Lake Gogebic at Bergland, Michigan, and hang a left. Going north on the smooth and curvy Trail 102 costs us some time, as tighter corners cause the always-safe Keller to slow his rate of travel. He makes up for it when that trail intersects with the snowmobiling super-highway that is Trail 11. It’s as wide as a county road and groomed flat as a cutting board, and Keller turns left where the vast majority of the traffic usually turns right. He opens up the throttle a bit more, letting his speed crawl above 70 mph and momentarily over 80 as he brings up his day’s average speed.
He rides to the point where this rarely used stretch of trail dead ends about 5 miles later, then he turns around and rides back to the intersection with Trail 102. There, he turns around and rides up-and-down this wide, sweeping trail section again, piling on another 10 miles, and then does it again. He’s got a plan.
Later, Keller says some people question this sort of riding, and talk about how boring it is to pile on thousands of miles in such a manner. For the record, he completely agrees – he jokes that, when his high-mile mission is done, he doesn’t care if he ever sees another rail trail for the rest of his life. He much prefers weaving trails through the woods, but this mission isn’t about his personal interests and tastes, it’s about the miles and the fund raising that it brings. So he plods on, utilizing trails like this on a daily basis.
After a couple of trips up and back, Keller finally stops for the first time of the day, with a quick 58 miles added to the odometer. He gets off of his sled, swaps out his helmet for his trademark red bomber hat and immediately engages some Arctic Cat and Yamaha riders parked at the same intersection.
Seeing Keller’s sled – all stickered up with sponsor logos – members of the group quickly figure out who he is.
“So, you’re the guy I’ve read about in the magazines?” one guys asks in amazement, like he’s meeting Mick Jagger.
Before Keller can answer, another rider interjects, “Hey, I saw your post on Facebook last week – you were at 85,000 miles, right?”
“We’ll be at 90,000 by the time we get to Pat’s in Greenland in a couple of hours,” Keller replies.
The guys quickly gather around Keller’s Yamaha and stare at it, as if expecting it to tell its own stories, but it sits silently. Later, Keller says this is a frequent occurrence – many people are drawn more to the sled than they are to him. They can’t believe one snowmobile has traveled all of these miles, and most want to know about what wears out when a sled goes that far.
And, in another pattern that repeats itself more than a dozen times in the two days I rode with him, cell phone cameras come out. People want a photo of the now-famous odometer, and of themselves with the sled and the rider. Keller takes it one step further, pulling out his own phone and taking a photo of his newfound friends, and then giving them a business card and telling them to look for themselves on his Snowball Cancer Facebook page in a day or two.
Such P.R. moves are a part of the whole program, he explained over dinner that night. People aren’t likely to make a donation beside the trail (though some do), but if they go to see his social media posts, they often start following along, visit his website and get caught up in the cause. Keller admits to being somewhat technically limited – he forwards the photos to one of his daughters, and she posts them.
And so it goes for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. Mile after mile is accumulated on wide Upper Peninsula trails at frankly a rather monotonous pace. When Keller finally does stop – for gas, to make sure a group beside the trail doesn’t need help, etc. – he engages anybody within ear shot in conversation, and they are drawn to the sled, have their picture taken and get a business card.
We make our way northeast and as we get close to Greenland we encounter our first small problem. The always precise Keller has miscalculated slightly, meaning he’s going to get to Pat’s Motorsports, a Yamaha and Polaris dealership that’s been a huge supporter of his cause, with just 89,998 on his odometer. That won’t do – he wants it to read exactly 90,000 miles when he pulls up to their fuel pumps. He blasts down the ditch for a mile, turns around and nails his goal to the tenth of the mile – the digital odometer turns over to the new magical number in their front lot, and Keller hits the kill switch and heads inside.
He’s greeted like an old friend – he seems to know everybody inside, from the lady at the front desk to the guys at the parts counter. “So, did you make it?”one asks.
“Yep, right out front here – come see,” he replies. The dealership empties and more than a dozen people gather to gander at the odometer. Photos are taken, and the folks from Pat’s post a sign on the tunnel, proclaiming that the 90,000 mile mark was met at 2:41 p.m. Eastern time, on Keller’s 316th riding day. If you do the math, that’s 284 miles per day – but wait, this day is far from over. If he’s going to stay on track for his year-end total, we’ve got another 118 miles before we rest.
Keller’s journey is entirely personal yet very public. He carries his mother’s rosary beads with him in his inner jacket pocket and speaks of her often, and also has many other stories of people who have suffered from the disease or lost loved ones.
In fact, Keller said one heartbreaking side-effect of his mission is that people often commiserate with him, sharing stories of lost parents, children, siblings or friends, or of their own battles with various forms of cancer. Keller handles such situations with grace, but he privately admits that it’s sometimes quite emotionally taxing, as if he is carrying parts of their burdens.
When chatting during trailside breaks, meals or back at his house, Keller often speaks in platitudes. He talks about many situations where it seemed like there has been divine intervention when he’s out riding, like a magical force from the heavens is watching out for him.
He’s got countless examples of situations where something happened that just seems far too meaningful to be coincidental, whether it was the appearance of an eagle above the trail at a certain time when somebody was lost to cancer or the sun breaking through the clouds for an instance that has meaning. Keller doesn’t come across as preachy, yet he’s seen and lived through enough on his journey that it’s very clear that he believes there’s a lot more going on here than just a guy on a long snowmobile ride.
There’s been an incredible amount of worldly help on his journey as well, he points out. From his family members and close friends to new acquaintances, sponsors, folks who work at dealerships, restaurant owners and representatives from snowmobile industry companies to random acts of kindness from strangers, Keller said he has been lifted up by many supportive hands.
At dinner that night at the Bergland Bar – where Keller correctly suggests I try the slow-cooked Italian beef sandwich, which was fabulous – Keller is all smiles. He doesn’t drink a drop of alcohol during snowmobile season, but he’s very comfortable in this bar. A huge poster featuring his likeness hangs on the wall, and bar owner Tom McCarthy not only sponsors Keller, he also holds fundraisers for Keller’s cause. Keller goes from table to table, mixing it up with the regulars and meeting newcomers. More people step outside to look at his sled.
Casting Aside Doubts
We were about 280 trail miles into the day when we left the Bergland Bar, but most of the remaining 25 miles that night would be painful. The trails that were quite bad in the morning would now qualify as horrible.
By the time we get back to his place, Keller is a bit surly – he’s upset that the local clubs haven’t groomed that section of rail trail in more than a week. Getting the snot pounded out of himself for the first and last 20 miles each day is getting tiring – especially for a guy pushing 60 who had already ridden 11,662 miles so far this year, and has another 9,838 planned to reach his goal of 99,956 on his mother’s birthday of March 21. He’s in good shape, but absorbing this beating every day is taking its toll.
I woke the next morning to the sound of Keller on the phone. He was speaking to one of his daughters, and I was hearing the receiving end of a pep talk.
Later in the year, Keller said I witnessed perhaps his biggest day of doubt. That morning he woke up sore, tired and somewhat unwilling to go out on those horrible initial trails again.
“My daughter told me, ‘You’ve made it 90,000 miles, you can make it the rest of the way,’” Keller explained over breakfast. But still, those rough trails beckoned. After breakfast, we make an adjustment to the day’s plan, loading his sled and mine into the trailer I brought, and towing them to Bergland so we could skip the bumpy rail trail and start on the good stuff. Once we unload in Bergland, the hopeful Nick Keller I rode with the day before returns – he was engaged again, and headed for his year-end total.
Wrapping It Up
After riding with Nick that second day, I left inspired by his journey, and was sure that he would finish it. Forty-seven days later I got to see it live.
On a warm March 21, Keller rode his snowmobile a mile down the completely snowless ditch that follows Highway 55, drove through the gates at St. Anthony’s Cemetery in Regal, Minnesota, and pulled next to his mother’s gravestone.
He let the machine idle for a while as a crowd of about 80 people circled around. Then he looked down, turned off the machine and said simply, “It’s done.”
There were a lot of smiles mixed with tears at the cemetery ceremony, from Keller and others. Pictures were taken with various family and friend groups – Keller’s grandchildren seemed to be the highest priority.
Keller says he’ll definitely ride again – in fact, Yamaha gave him a 2016 RS Vector at Haydays in September. He’ll also keep the foundation going to help people with cancer, he said. But his extreme high-mile journey is complete. He says those grandkids waited five years to spend quality time with their grandfather in the winter, and he’s going to make sure they get it.
Seeing Keller with his wife, children and grandchildren at the ceremony, it is obvious that they are very close, despite some of his distant winter adventures. Family members and friends worked together to lift the RS Vector onto a trailer so it can be hauled over to a ceremony and celebration later that afternoon at the Country Snow Cruiser snowmobile club building in Richmond.
The sled spent the summer being showcased in parades and other events, and it will make appearances at snowmobile museums, but it will never be started again, Keller insists. That odometer is staying at 99,956, in honor of his mother, and his journey.