The rivalry between the two factory-town neighbors may be friendly (mostly) but don’t tell that to our 2004 Arctic Cat ZR 900 EFI. From the moment it was pulled off the trailer to the moment it pulled its final tantrum, it behaved like a reluctant 14-year-old on a family vacation — not something we expected from the normally awesome-performing machine. And then, in a final act of defiance, it quit.
And each time something happened, Joe and Marcia Wegleitner, longtime Polaris owners and seasoned saddlebag veterans, laughed.
They’ve ridden Polaris since 1989 and purchased new nearly every year, mostly because — save the late-’90s machine with warranty issues — they say they’ve had few problems. They’re the epitome of the Polaris Faithful.
“You’d think we’d get something special for being loyal,” Joe said, but admits they don’t have much of a dealer relationship. “We’ve never had a problem, so we just shop for price,” Marcia said.
The Wegleitners, of Rush City, Minnesota, are the kind of people everyone wants as riding partners. There are decades of riding experience between the pair, and test them though we might, they were unflappable. Worn carbides? Joe has a new pair strapped inside his sled. Strip a bolt? He also keeps a bolt threader in his tool bag. Lost? Marcia is a human compass.
They only have two requests: no riding after dark (it’s too easy to get turned around) and have hotel reservations when riding over the weekends. Other than that, they’re play-it-by-ear snowmobilers.
They’ll drop everything for an impromptu snowmobile trip — such as this one to Roseau in late February. In all their escapades, they’d never been to the Mother Ship and what better way to get there than by snowmobile.
We planned an early morning start on Thursday from Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minneasota. That was before Joe noticed a missing rear suspension bolt on the ZR 900 and the three, leaky holes in the heat exchangers. We felt lucky to find Dykes Welding in nearby Cook, Minnesota, and even luckier that they dropped everything to launch into our project. We were on the trail by mid-afternoon.
Our destination was TBA, but we knew — per the rules — that our final stop would coincide with the sunset.
We used a combination of rolling, tree-lined state and local trails. This is hunting country — evidenced by the numerous tree stands along the trail — and logging country — with occasional spots of clearcut. It’s also remote country. We never ran out of gas, but we filled up every time we saw a pump.
Night fell at Mile 100, in the town of Big Fork, Minnesota. With no hotels in town, we broke the rule and kept on the trail another 13 miles to the Timberwolf Inn near Marcell. Even map-lady Marcia was a bit disoriented as to how this large hotel/restaurant — with an extensive, unique menu — popped out of nowhere.
We knew that Friday was going to be a long day, with a push to make it to Roseau in time for the 4 o’clock factory tour. We were fresh, it was early and there was a light coat of new snow on the trails.
By mid-afternoon in Waskish, we looked at our map and saw the trail wrap around the long, oval edge of Upper Red Lake and then cut across the north side of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Stern-looking words were stamped on the map: Caution. Do Not Operate Any Snowmobiles On Reservation Lands. We’d heard rumors of immediate snowmobile seizure for those that ventured off the trail. We didn’t test the theory.
There were 50 miles of just about nothing between Waskish and the next gas stop at Fourtown. We cruised down the relatively straight, flat trail. The trail, in places, was scraped down to dirt to make way for logging trucks.
The sun was getting low in the sky, casting a beautiful light onto snow-covered trees. We hit the gas hard for many miles, and then stopped to gather the troops. Joe was in the lead on his 2003 600 Pro X; Marcia was second on the 2002 Indy 600 Classic. Next came me on the 550 Pro X Fan. Then there was silence. Jonas Nygard, on the ZR 900, was not there.
So we waited and chatted, sure that we’d soon see the ultra-powerful ZR come screaming by. When the wait became much too long, we turned around to find the Cat. One mile, two miles, five miles, 10 miles. A ZR came on the horizon, parked on the side of the trail. Its belt had turned into Silly String.
Jonas had already installed the new belt with the claim of “It was really easy.” Really easy? Joe took a closer look. The belt was too big.
Luckily, it had enough grip to make the engagement and get us another 20 miles or so to Fourtown. And about that time, we noticed the headlights and tail lights were out.
We topped off gas while Fourtown Store owner Paulette Dehnert found a close-enough sized belt in the back room.
The sun was now quite low in the sky, and the risk of breaking the “riding in the dark” rule was quickly becoming reality. We headed north of Fourtown and onto a series of raised dikes, meant to keep the water where it’s supposed to be. The landscape now was pancake flat, with the dikes as the only point of elevation.
After 20 miles, the ZR slowed down and stopped. We smelled the melting plastic and opened the hood to see smoke wafting out of the Electronic Control Unit for the EFI.
That was it. It was done. We didn’t dare push it any farther. We were not going to make it in time for the factory tour. Now we’re sure the ZR 900 was thinking, “Ha! They’ll have to turn toward Thief River Falls now!”
It was wrong. Joe, of course, had a lengthy tow rope. We slipped off the belt we’d just tugged on, and started the final march to Roseau. We figured we didn’t have much choice. In two days and nearly 400 miles of trail, we had seen no oncoming traffic. It looked like no-man’s land amidst the swamps and felt like it, too.
The 550 Pro X Fan was a staff favorite last season. It was a fun, light, spunky sled. The one thing it’s not is a 2-Up. I know, I spent a good 60 miles cramped on the back. And it was during this time, I came to the realization I’d never secured our room with a credit card. It was a long ride, in many ways.
During the day, Hayes Lake State Park is a scenic place. By night, it’s a confusing mess of poorly marked trails. Several wrong turns later (which proved the Wegleitners were right about their rule) the trail spit out onto a country road, and ended.
We worked our way down the ditch toward a lonely farm house with a warm light glowing from inside. The farmer — and Polaris employee — took pity and used his minivan to lead us to the right trail. Finally, we saw the glow of Roseau on the horizon.
It was classic ditch riding the rest of the way, though there was no airing it out for any of us. The good news for Arctic Cat is that we ended the 260-mile day under the cover of darkness.The best news for me was that our room was waiting.
At about 10:30 that night, the Arctic Cat marketing department got a dreaded phone call from me. They promised a new machine the next morning — one that would behave itself properly in Roseau.
The next morning, the ZR 900 was gone for good and in its place was a shiny new 2004 F6 Firecat. Not only did the F6 enjoy Roseau, it had a great attitude for the remainder of the trip.
Even Joe eyed up the F6, and when he got the opportunity, jumped right on (and even admitted it was rather nice). (But we weren’t supposed to print that.)
HAPPY 50th POLARIS
Saturday, February 21, was all about Polaris. We’d missed the factory tour, but it wasn’t too late to sign up for a chance to make the Guinness record attempt for the “Longest Moving Line Of Snowmobiles.”
Adding pressure to the event, a rather large group in New York had upped the ante just a week earlier when they got more than 600 sleds together for a ride.
We all got our color-coded jacket tags and lined up our sleds in the appropriate lines.
Vintage snowmobiles, carrying large Polaris banners, started the ride. The rest of us pulled out in line, passing the starting gate where someone with a clicker counted each sled.
To say it was a slow pace would be an understatement. For the entire 29-mile route, I don’t think my speedo topped 25 mph, and it was mostly in the 15 mph range.
We rode through the ditches, one after another, keeping close to the sleds in front of us. Cars lined the highway, and nearly every driveway we crossed had a carload of onlookers. People waved and cheered as we rode by, and I felt like a hero.
The trail then cut into the woods and along the U.S./Canada border. The border patrol passed us at one point, making sure everyone was behaving.
Then, a potential world record-spoiler took place — a long, empty gap in the continuous line. Would it wreck the record?
It didn’t. The Roseau County Trailblazers, who organized the ride, got word in July that the 820 tallied sleds was enough to set a new record.
We spent the rest of the day, exploring the small town of Roseau, taking in the oval races at the fairgrounds and seeing the Polaris sites.
We visited the Polaris Experience Center, located in an old creamery next to the factory.
Marcia stood transfixed in front of a display depicting the early ’60s ride across Alaska. “This is it,” she said, reading a quote from Edgar Hetteen’s book, Breaking Trail. “This is why I snowmobile.”
We all studied the quote: “We need people to understand the joys of winter. Bouncing around hour after hour in that beautiful, expansive wilderness, your mind goes blank. It’s an escape.”
On Sunday morning, we pointed our sleds eastward to begin the two-day ride back to the truck.
Not wanting to repeat the previous journey, we took a northerly route via the bordertown International Falls, Minnesota and then cut through Voyageurs National Park.
Greg Hallstrom, a Polaris-riding Thief River Falls native, joined us on Sunday, eager to show us his beloved Beltrami Island State Forest.
If you want to see “obsessed,” then talk to Hallstrom. The 50-year-old airplane mechanic works in Fort Worth, Texas, stores his SUV at the Minneapolis airport, and on his weekends off, he commutes home to Thief River Falls to snowmobile. He has more than 8,000 miles on his ’93 XLT and more than 7,000 on his ’95 XLT.
Beltrami Island State Forest, with 138 miles of groomed trail, seemed an anomaly in an otherwise flat, treeless part of the state. Hallstrom’s favorite way to enjoy the forest is on the ungroomed forest roads, but since we had to make good time, we stuck to the trails.
It was on our way out of Beltrami Island when we met our first oncoming snowmobile. We were on mile 455.
Coming out of the forest, the landscape turned into laketop and swamp riding. The snowmobile trail wove through the reeds, with sleds appearing and disappearing like the ballplayers in “Field Of Dreams.”
Hallstrom dropped us off in Baudette: He still had to make 100 miles back to Roseau and then drive six hours back to Minneapolis to get back to Texas. We got on the Rainy River trail toward International Falls, riding with Ontario on the north shore and Minnesota on the south shore.
After an overnight in International Falls, we diverted through Voyageurs National Park, with the intention of exploring the primitive Chain Of Lakes Trail. This mostly ungroomed, one-way trail reminded Joe and Marcia of old-time snowmobiling where the trail was just barely wide enough to fit a snowmobile. The 11-mile trail, with its deep ruts and gorgeous cliffs, took more time than anticipated and left Joe’s saddlebag torn at the seams from the bouncing.
We made a gas stop at the park’s edge in Crane Lake, then took a combination of trail and the Vermilion River back down to where we were parked.
At the end, we’d ridden 740 miles, toasted one sled, broken a world record, gotten lost and celebrated the 50th anniversary of Polaris, all in a less-traveled portion of Minnesota.
When we arrived back at the Wegleitner’s home, Joe grabbed the mail from the mailbox. Among the bills and junk mail was a glossy brochure highlighting all that was new and cool in Arctic Cat spring models. He took a glance, and handed it to me. “I think you can have this,” he said, with a smile.
A welcome surprise seemingly miles from anywhere. The menu had many unique items such as Chicken Oscar and the Aussie Burger, and the ribs we tried were fantastic. This was, easily, the best meal of the trip. The rooms were large, clean and new.
This small museum gives a chronological history of Polaris, starting with the first Sno Traveler and ending with an impressive wall of patents. The displays are engaging with artifacts from the famous Alaska trip, Polaris race history and its expansion into other motorsports. Each of us learned something new at the Experience Center. The gift shop sells, among other Polaris kitsch, several different volumes of the Polaris Employee Cookbook.
Chain Of Lakes Trail
Voyageurs National Park
Discover what real snowmobiling is all about on this scenic, 11-mile one-way path. It portages between four different lakes, and it’s not uncommon to spot wolves in this area. The trail is often only as wide as your sled’s ski stance, and it can get icy. But it’s just like snowmobiling when the sport was in its infancy.
Minnesota Wild Rice
The northern heart of Minnesota is wild rice country. This hearty, locally harvested treat is for sale in many places, including gas stations — and for a fraction of the price outside the region. Splurge and buy the wood-roasted variety. Not only does it have a delicate flavor, it cooks in less than half the time of regular wild rice.
Oval Racing At Frostbite Days
Even non-racing fans will get a kick out of watching the oval racing action at the Roseau County Fairgrounds during the town’s annual Frostbite Days celebration. If the professional class racing doesn’t make your heart pound, you’ll enjoy watching young teens give it their all in the fan-cooled classes. Wander the pits, watch the 120 races, and stand on the snowbanks that line the fences.
Fourtown Store And Tavern
Somewhere between here and there on the snowmobile map is an oasis called Fourtown. The restaurant/convenience store/parts shop is owned by former Arctic Cat racer Paulette Dehnert. Fourtown is nearest to the town of Grygla, but it’s a good 50-plus miles to anything of size — so fill up, warm up and stock up. Dehnert is an entertaining hostess. Plus, if you’re lucky, you may meet her good friend, Polaris founder Edgar Hetteen.
One would think that Arctic Cat employee Ryan Hendrickson, of Thief River Falls, came up to Roseau to cause some trouble on his bright green Arctic Cat Sno Pro. Not so. “It’s a big event going on here, and we’ve got to go for the record,” he said. “Plus, it’s a beautiful day.” He wasn’t the only Cat there — in fact, there were plenty of non-Polaris machines in attendance, including an old Manta and some homemade contraptions.
Patrick Stein of Roseau, has his 1973 Polaris T95 Colt parked next to his teenage son’s RMK. “I got it five years ago, and all the kids have used it – and traded up.” The Colt is all original, except for the seat. Stein, a customs agent, is also at the event to support the town and his wife’s employer, Polaris. The Colt made it the entire 30 miles, even though at one point, it was down to one cylinder and the seat fell off.
Eric and Melody Pederson, of Roseau, started and finished the ride — but didn’t complete the whole circuit. The pair were one of several antique Polarises to bookend the ride — in all, they went about 6 miles. Their machine is a restored 1960 Sno Traveler experimental model, one of only two known to be in existence.