The glory of snowmobiling was on full display during the 2016 Great Escape Tour across northern Minnesota, but maybe not the way you might think. The tour included more than 600 miles of trail riding in an area rich with snowmobile history, plus tours of the Polaris and Arctic Cat factories in Roseau and Thief River Falls, respectively. Participants were given inside access at the factories, met legendary snowmobiling icons in both towns and shared five days in the saddle of a preferred means of transportation.
All of that was great. But the true reflection of the resiliency of snowmobilers was in all that went wrong. The group got lost, arrived very late a couple of times and thus missed some meals, rode dozens of miles on essentially no snow at all and had two members crash their snowmobiles on unseen hazards. Midway through the tour a few folks were wondering with what exactly they’d gotten themselves involved!
And yet, when we all returned to our tow vehicles at the end of the ride, group members were suddenly saying long goodbyes like old friends and talking about what a wonderful adventure they had all just shared. That’s the glory – even when things don’t always go right on snowmobiling trips, somehow the good parts always outweigh the bad.
The Snow Goer Great Escape Tour – hosted by Decker Sno Venture Tours – has taken many forms over the years. Always an adventure with five days of riding, it has been held in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ontario, British Columbia and Alaska. The tour has taken participants aboard the famous snow train, to the top of jagged mountains, deep into the very remotest of backcountries and through some traditional snowmobiling hotspots.
This tour that Dick Decker and his Sno Venture team had created for us, however, would happen right in Snow Gods home state of Minnesota. Although, this wouldn’t be some run-of-the mill jaunt on known Minnesota trails. Instead the Decker crew plotted a route that would take riders across the North Star State to the land where much of recreational snowmobiling began. We’d go to Roseau, where Polaris founders pieced together one of the earliest snowmobiles in the 1950s, and to Thief River Falls, where one of those Polaris founders later started Arctic Cat in the early 1960s. A visit to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, jaunts across famous lakes and other adventures were planned as the group would ride back to its starting point.
The knavish Ma’ Nature toyed with the tour plans – causing its cancellation in 2015 before allowing a modified version in 2016. We’d be forced to stay far north, and even then snow conditions proved to be sketchy.
On a Sunday afternoon, a group of strangers gathered at the Timber Lake Lodge in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Tow rig license plates labeled riders by home state: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois were heavily represented, and there were also riders from Iowa and one group from New Jersey. All four brands of sleds were there. Most sleds were from the 2000s but one character – Bill Gehn – decided to ride his 1981 Polaris Indy 500 back to its birthplace. Folks gathered near the relic in the parking lot and spoke in hushed tones, wondering if the sled and driver would make it the distance.
At the welcome dinner that night, Dick Decker explained the tour’s rules and then introduced his son, Steve Decker, the man who would actually be our guide, as Dick was scheduled for hip surgery the next day. The group ranged in age from one guy in his 20s to a few folks in their 80s, with various backgrounds – including engineers, retired auto workers, an investment broker, farmers, retired police officers and even a man who worked at
a nuclear power plant ( though he had nothing else in common with Homer Simpson). The count was 21 veteran riders, including five women.
The night wrapped up quickly, and soon the next morn- ing arrived. Sleds were fired and folks cued up behind Steve Decker’s shiny black Arctic Cat El Tigre. Right away people fell into an order, with those who like to ride toward the front rapidly taking off to hug Decker’s snowflap, a big group who seemed to prefer the middle and a few folks who liked to clown around in the back
The group weaved its way out of Grand Rapids – a rather busy, small city of 10,000 people – before quickly getting out into the remote backcountry of northern Minnesota on what Decker said would be our longest day. The local trails were generally smooth and easy-going, though rather hard and froze in. The snow squeaked beneath skis and tracks as the group snaked through tamarack swamps and forestland with gentle, rolling terrain, working mainly north but also a bit west.
The wide, well-groomed trails 88 and 84 took us through portions of the Chippewa National Forest plus the Big Fork, Pine Island and Red Lake state forests under heavy cloud cover. Trailside stops brought polite conversation, as the group hadn’t yet formed many allegiances. After a late lunch at the crowded Effie Cafe, blue skies broke through the cloud cover in the late afternoon, though we still had many hours to ride after sunset. The trees got fewer, the hills got smaller and the cattails got taller as we got closer to our destination of Baudette – one of the most northern points in the continental United States, located on the southeast corner of the massive Lake of the Woods that is shared with Canada.
The group arrived late in Baudette with about 200 miles on their odometers and empty stomachs, but the local restaurants had already closed. Pizza and beer in the lobby of the folksy Walleye Lodge would have to suffice, but the length of the day seemed to unite the group – like they had already been through a long adventure. Sleep came easily.
To The First Factory Town
The next day was scheduled to be a rather short ride – though it didn’t tum out that way for everybody. The relatively slow pace experienced the first day caused the group to split into two for day two, with a small group moving ahead at a quicker pace while the majority stuck with Decker for a more casual ride.
The trails in this part of the state were not well-marked last winter – in fact, they were mostly not marked at all. After the. tour it was learned that local clubs were waiting for more snow before putting out their markers – that was good to know later, but at the time it was frustrating to arrive at intersection after intersection and have to guess at which direction was correct.
The smaller group made most of the right guesstimates and powered through more swampland and up onto the amazing Lake of the Woods. It’s a sight to behold – the massive lake measures 68 miles at its longest spot and 59 miles at its widest, and has more than 14,000 islands. Total surface area of the lake is 1,679 square miles – making it larger than a U.S. state (Rhode Island). Being in a far northern, harsh climate might lead some to conclude it would be deserted come winter, but that’s far from the case. Instead, it’s an incredible testament to the power of ice fishing – yes, ice fishing! There were entire villages of ice fishing houses on the lake that could be seen as we cruised the lake’s south shore, and thousands more beyond our vision.
After getting off the lake and fueling up in Warroad, we made quick work southwest to Roseau in plenty of time for the planned 2:30 p.m. tour of the Polaris factory. The trails to Roseau were long and mostly straight, introducing some folks to traditional ditch running. A casual lunch was enjoyed at the Brickhouse Restaurant that’s in the same building that houses the Polaris Experience Center museum, where we waited. And waited. And then waited some more.
The leader of the larger group wasn’t quite as good at guessing at those unmarked intersections, and that led to some extra miles. In fact, when they came upon their first, truly informative trail sign, it said they were 18 miles outside of their starting point of Baudette, yet they had already spun 60 miles onto their odometers by driving in large circles. That led to some tension within the group, and Decker had to crack the whip to get them to Roseau, where the factory tour was planned. Some tour participants were visibly upset when they finally arrived there hours late, but things quickly took a turn for the better.
The tour of the Polaris factory was amazing, although it was the off-seas<m for snowmobile production so there were only ATVs and side-by-sides rolling down the assembly lines. Still, seeing how any powersports product comes together was intriguing. Huge machinery moved products down assembly lines while workers calmly but steadily did their part producing products that would soon make their new owners happy. Group members could see the machines grow from a base frame to a trail-ready UTV right before their eyes.
Next, the group toured the Polaris Experience Center, where folks were introduced to the great inventor of the first Polaris snowmobile, David Johnson, three days before his 93rd birthday. Though hard of hearing and in the early stages of dementia that would take his life later in the year, Johnson greeted everybody warmly and recapped some stories of his incredible life. Meeting a true icon like Johnson was breathtaking to many group members, and some had their picture taken with him and his son, Mitchell Johnson, who guided our tour along with another Polaris legend, Ray Monsrud.
For anybody curious about snowmobiling history, and Polaris history in particular, the Experience Center is a true treasure. Polaris’ second snowmobile – an old iron horse called Sno Traveler No. 2 – greets visitors in the entry, and from there it’s a walk through time, with early Colts, Mustangs and Comets leading to TX, Cutlass and, eventually, Indy models as one wanders through the 5,600 square-foot facility. There are also plenty of race and performance sleds – from machines used by the Polaris thrill team and interesting speed run sleds to TX-Ls preferred by the Midnight Blue Express, plus ATVs, motorcycles, pictures, trophies and other memorabilia.
Driving The Ditches To & From TRF
Going south from Warroad to Roseau gave those unfamiliar with western Minnesota’s famous ditch-running a nibble of this unique style of riding. For the next two days, though, they’d get a mouthful.
The run from Roseau to Thief River Falls – and the Arctic Cat factory- is simple and easy. The two factory towns are set 60 miles apart, and that may explain their sometimes bitter rivalry and their occasional moments of brotherhood. The land is tabletop flat the whole way, and most of the trails are arrow straight and follow ditches or are on top of unplowed roads. A harsh north wind swept across the seemingly unforgiving landscape during our ride – at one point, one of the two Iowa farmers on our ride looked out across the primarily treeless, frozen, windswept planes and endless fields and asked, “What could they possibly grow up here – they must have about a two-week growing season!” We assured them that long summers do exist in the northwest corner of Minnesota – even if it didn’t seem possible on this day.
What little snowdust we could create caused a bit of ground fog on an otherwise blue-skied day, though due to the limited snow, the ditch running was easy- just spread out, stay in the ditch and keep your eyes peeled for the next field approach, driveway or road crossing. Though the landscape seemed dull, the group did come across several interesting landmarks. First came the city of Greenbush (population 719), made famous by three-time Eagle River World Champion Dave Wahl (in 1990, 1996 and 1997) and his similarly winning nephew Terry Wahl (1998). It was also the sight of our first snowmobile crash when an unsuspecting driver found a culvert after crossing the road following a fuel stop. Next came Strathcona (population v 44), home of a legendary cross-country snowmobile race in the bygone days, followed by Holt (population 88), home of eight-time Soo I-500 champion and three-time cross-country I-500 winner Corey Davidson.
Even for those not into sled racing history, though, there were interesting things to see, including a huge, wingless DC9 passenger jet parked right beside the trail and highway. There’s no sign or other indication as to why it’s there – though there are steps in place so visitors can peek inside and see the remaining airplane seats that are all scattered about. After the tour, we learned the plane was owned by Corey Davidson’s father, Ronnie Davidson – he purchased it at scrap value from the local junior college that had it to teach airplane mechanics classes. Corey Davidson said his father’s plan is to turn it into a unique deer hunting shack, but now it’s just an interesting roadside sight.
Between towns, the land here is desolate, with trees and houses both being rare sightings and hills are non-existent. The snow was getting very thin, too – cooling some of the sleds was becoming a problem. But after one long day on the trail followed by a day of getting lost, the group seemed happy that this short third day found us driving past the Arctic Cat factory by around the noon hour. Lunch and dinner were both at the Black Cat Sports Bar & Grill. Founded by longtime Arctic Cat racer-turned-corporate-official Joey Hallstrom, the Black Cat is an ode to all things Arctic Cat, with hundreds of photos of old sleds and former racers and other paraphernalia scattered throughout the folksy establishment.
In between those meals was a tour of the Arctic Cat factory. Frankly, it was a more extensive tour than we experienced at Polaris the day before, with a lengthy background presentation on the company’s history followed by a stroll through the factory floor that included snowmobiles moving down the assembly line. No pictures were allowed and the group was moved through the snowmobile production area at a rather quick pace. After the fact, Cat officials confirmed that we had actually walked past pre-production 2017 snowmobiles that still hadn’t been announced to the public – an extremely rare treat.
Also fascinating was time spent in the noise, vibration and· harshness (NVH) facility- a building within the main building where extensive testing can be done on powersports products. A massive door enclosed us in the room, which featured huge, triangular-shaped foam panels on all four walls intended to deaden noise and create a neutral environment for testing. The engineers in our group peppered the host Cat officials with questions about their testing procedures.
That night at the Black Cat, the group was the loudest and liveliest it had been all week. There was good-natured teasing about the day’s crash, a little brand baiting, sharing of pictures and talk about family and friends. The group was pulling together, and folks were relaxed, jovial and quite excited about the sites experienced in the two factory towns.
Wrapping It Up
During the factory tour, one Arctic Cat official asked about our plans for the following day. When told we were snowmobiling southeast toward Bemidji, he told us it would be best to trailer the sleds for the first half because snow was scattered, at best, leaving Thief River Falls. But since the Decker Tours support trailer could hold only four sleds and there were 18 riders at this point, that option was out.
Fortunately for us, the infamous winds of Northwest Minnesota had deposited what little snow there was into the ditches. Some fields we passed were mostly blown dry, but we picked our way down the ditches, weaving this way and that to ride on what little snow and ice there was. As we got farther south and east, though, the ditches were increasingly painted with snow, hills began to re-appear and trail markers kept the group on course.
After lunch, the group split again, with most folks staying behind Decker for a direct shot into the, bustling city of Bemidji (population 13,431) while a foursome split off to see the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River in the aptly named Mississippi Headwaters State Forest. Trails that direction bordered on excellent, with weaving paths through the woods, past lakes and over rolling terrain. Seeing the headwaters was cool in a “now I can say I’ve seen this” kind-of-way, but it truly just looks like a small creek corning out of a lake. It’s amazing, though, to think how massive the river becomes downstream, and how the water that trickled past us would end up in the Gulf of Mexico 2,552 twisting and turning miles later.
After dinner that night, the group gathered at the hotel conference room, where more stories were shared and laughing ensued. The group dynamic of multi-day tours always seems to grow with each day, and this tour was no exception.
Our last morning had people in various states of mind – some wanting to hustle back to their tow vehicles about 100 miles away so they could start the long drive home while others didn’t want this adventure to end.
Snow conditions improved with each passing mile toward Grand Rapids as the group traveled east through a more interesting part of the northern Minnesota landscape. We were riding an area bordered by the lake-spotted vacation land to our south. and the traditional, rugged Iron Range mining territory to our north, with touches of both during our ride. The landscape was more dynamic and some of the trails were more twisting, though the group also logged plenty of time on a rail trail to efficiently get back to our trucks and trailers in Grand Rapids.
In the parking lot after the ride, phone numbers were exchanged plus handshakes and even some hugs were shared. Like a sports team at the end of a season, members looked back with whimsy at the adventure we shared, but the realization that this full group would most likely never ride together again made some loiter in the parking lot after the sleds were tied down and packed away. Did everything on the ride go perfectly? Absolutely not. But the adventure will never be forgotten.
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