I was really feeling the holiday spirit this year, and it likely had something to do with the heaps of snow dropped on the Upper Midwest during December. While I grew up in northern Wisconsin’s snowy Northwoods, I’ve lived in Minneapolis for the last 10 years. I have never seen so much snow up here, and it wasn’t even Christmas!
I decided there was only one way to handle this turn of events; I cleared my schedule, took some vacation time between the holidays and loaded up a pair of snowmobiles for an extended holiday with friends and family in northern Wisconsin — and I was hoping to rack up as many trail miles as possible.
Driving up from the Twin Cities, the snow levels lessened as the miles added up. My hometown of Park Falls, Wisconsin, had about half the snow of my yard in Minneapolis. It was unusual, but the ditches were full and it looked like trail conditions were close to ideal.
Pulling in to my parents’ house out in the country, I played with the dogs while unloading the trailer and planning my upcoming riding. The goal? Revisiting the snowmobile trips of my childhood.
Blasting To The Past
I come from snowmobiling people, and my entire extended family used to be big-time enthusiasts. Now that my relatives have aged into their 40s and 50s, many have sold their machines and stopped riding. It’s a topic that’s often mentioned at family gatherings — how much they miss riding. Many (smartly) ask me to take them out whenever I can, and I try to put together a family ride every winter.
This time around, I traded in my car for a Ski-Doo MX Z TNT 600 E-TEC and an Arctic Cat F8 LXR — and I was hoping to get around by sled as much as possible throughout my vacation. Located an hour south of Lake Superior, Park Falls gets a lot of snow, has access routes crisscrossing through town and a vast network of trails that spider out from town in all directions.
I buzzed around my parents’ familiar acreage on Christmas Eve, before the holiday functions started in earnest, packing down my old trails that my Dad still maintains throughout the year. I also managed to jump a few massive snow banks and, just like that, I felt like I was 15 years old again and living at home. After a heart attack at the thought, I decided to fully embrace my snowy week back home.
Journey Through The Past
Neil Young sings about winter rains and nostalgia in his “Journey Through The Past,” which I’ve always thought is a very nice song. Like Neil, I tend to wax nostalgic about the past, and for good reason. Back then, it was nothing for me to put on 30-50 miles on a school night, and I have a lot of great memories riding with my parents, my brother Bill, friends and extended family.
The day after Christmas my Dad, Tom Sr., and I hopped on the snowmobiles heading south to the tiny town of Lugerville — an old, very isolated logging village established after a spur rail line came through in 1904 to feed the Luger Furniture Company. Logs were shipped down the rail line to the company’s factory in North St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Luger mill closed in 1933, many buildings (and the rail line) were subsequently dismantled and today Lugerville is a woodsy little ghost town about 30 minutes south of Park Falls, and 11 miles northwest of Phillips — our town’s big southern rival.
There’s not much between Park Falls and Lugerville, but the Doc Thomas Frye Memorial Trail — named after a dentist/snowmobile enthusiast who paved the way for the trail — is a fantastic run by the Flambeau River and through some beautiful, peaceful hardwood and white pine forests. This father-son duo used to do this ride all the time back in the day, and it was great to see it again.
We stopped along the way for small talk and made our way to “downtown” Lugerville an hour later. Rush hour must have just ended, because we didn’t see a single person. We pulled up to a bar/restaurant we used to visit on rides, but it had long since gone out of business. This must have happened pre-recession, because its front door was even starting to rust through. I snapped a few pictures of the scene, and enjoyed the peace and quiet.
We both commented on the great trails and abandonment of the town. It was very fun to see my Dad back on a sled, and while we rode back home I thought about how shocked 15-year-old I would’ve been to know that I would someday be an editor at Snow Goer magazine. It’s a wonderful way to make a living, for sure, but the best parts of it are the times where it facilitates quality time like this.
The Circle Tour
That Lugerville run is an old classic of mine, but I used to spend a crazy amount of time riding the trails surrounding the Park Falls area. With that in mind, I made plans with good friends Cliff and Kale to make the circle tour around the familiar routes beyond the outskirts of town.
The three of us were planning to ride together, but family commitments changed our plans a bit and we had to split up the day. Cliff and I would ride through mid-afternoon, ending up at his parents’ cabin in the woods. There we’d meet up with Kale who would take over the keys and give Cliff his truck.
Cliff and I rode together a lot way back when, and he hadn’t experienced the latest generation of rider-forward sleds. To him, making good time through twisting trails always meant a lot of fishtailing, which isn’t the way smart riders pilot a modern snowmobile with its higher center of gravity and (thankfully) much better suspensions.
I started Cliff out on the big Arctic Cat, thinking its slightly more relaxed position would be most similar to the sleds of the mid 1990s. He was very excited to command 800 cubic centimeters of power, and off we went.
We rode into the tiny town of Fifield, then east to a sledding hill the locals simply call Wintergreen. It’s right on the trails, and no matter the day, you will almost always find non-motorized sledders interacting with snowmobile riders taking a trailside break.
After swapping sleds, it was interesting to hear Cliff’s take on the difference between the stock F8 LXR and MX Z with dual-carbide skis and a studded track. He enjoyed them both, as did I, but preferred the planted feel of the modified Ski-Doo.
The serious looking F8 LXR was comfortable, due to excellent and forgiving suspensions, well planted skis and superior wind protection. All sleds should have a generous windshield, in my opinion.
From there, we rode back the way we came through Fifield and then north to Park Falls. We didn’t have time to stop for a snack at our friend Merri’s tavern — the aptly named Merri Cassidy’s Saloon. If you’re in the area, I welcome a visit to this historic, friendly establishment right in the center of town. Ask for Merri.
We motored north, then joined up with the massive Tuscobia Trail that runs east-west from Rice Lake all the way to Park Falls — one long rail trail that’s a very useful regional connector. It’s the perfect spot for top-end exploration, and a swift thirty minutes later we pulled off the trail into the property surrounding his parents’ cabin.
Smoke rose from a big bonfire, while kids threw snowballs and got pulled behind an old Yamaha, adults chewed the fat, dogs ran around enjoying the snow and Kale patiently waited for us to show up so he could take Cliff’s place on the sled. It was a festive place for a break, and I enjoyed my tour of the cabin.
One Last Blast
The sun was starting to set, and we were hungry, so Kale and I high-tailed it northeast to Butternut Lake where we stopped at Northern Pines Resort — a beautiful restaurant on the shores of a very busy lake that’s always popular with fishermen and snowmobilers.
When I was a kid this place was absolutely packed with riders — always — but slushy conditions on the lake kept the crowds away, and Kale and I made small talk with two friendly people seated at the bar. We enjoyed the view, our sodas and a good dinner. Kale wanted to put on serious miles, and I had a plan, so we quickly hit the road.
From here, it was 40 miles or so south down to Lugerville. This was unfamiliar territory for Kale, which he liked, and once we got there at about 7:30 p.m. we decided to keep on the gas and make our way further south to Phillips.
Trails ranged from long straights, serpentine runs through dense forests, barren lake tops and a lot of elevation — for northern Wisconsin, that is. The groomer had just passed through, and our tracks cut the first path on the glasslike surface. Does it get any better than empty, smooth trails at night? Maybe not.
In Phillips our destination was a place called Harbor View, ran by a friend of Kale’s on the shores of Long Lake. We stopped in for a quick soda. After declining the offer of a more mature drink, the puzzled bartender gave us the tab. I think he thought we were odd ducks for not ordering up a stiff Jack and Coke. And that’s just fine with me.
Kale was so excited about our ride; every time we stopped he had a big thumbs-up or a high five, and he was all smiles. I love the trails and the sleds, but spreading snowmobile fever is an even stronger thrill for this guy.
This was some mighty fine vacation time, and I thoroughly enjoyed my snowmobile-enabled holiday season. While I loved revisiting the old haunts, it was great to see two close friends, my brother and Dad have so much fun getting back on snowmobiles.
Northern Wisconsin’s Appeal
I obviously have a soft spot for Wisconsin, but I really think the area should be more popular with recreationists. Many people vacation near Hayward to the west, and Minocqua-Eagle River to the east, but I feel that the north-central area surrounding Park Falls offers much of the same — camping, fishing, kayaking the rapids of the Flambeau River and great ATV and snowmobile trails.
The area’s economy is hurting, and everybody up there would love to see more tourism. There’s no big draw, like a big state park, to bring in the crowds, but maybe it wouldn’t be the same with more people. Even so, I think more riders should put this area on their radar. You can ride from town to town, but there are so many hidden resorts, restaurants and other trailside stops in every direction. See below for a few links to plan your own visit.
I’ve set the bar pretty high with my people, so either they need to buy their own sleds, or I’ll be hauling a four-place trailer up next year. It’s great to see that the appeal of snowmobiles is still so universal up there. The trails aren’t nearly as populated as they used to be, but hopefully that will change after a few more good-snow winters.
At least I can rest easy knowing I rekindled the enthusiasm in four people. That’s not too bad for a week’s “work” here at Snow Goer.
Respect the trails and ride safely!
— Tom Kaiser
Plan Your Own Visit!