A weekend snowmobile adventure

It’s almost difficult to comprehend, given the lack of snow in the Grand Forks area that has brought snowmobiling and other winter recreation to a screeching halt, but some very good snow conditions remain just a couple of hours to the northeast.

A friend and I found that out for ourselves over the weekend when we logged upwards of 80 miles on grant-in-aid snowmobile trails in the Roseau, Minn., area. Despite temperatures that soared into the high 30s Saturday, we found an abundance of snow throughout our ride.

A fairly isolated snowstorm had dumped 5 to 6 inches of snow on the region early last week, and the snow in the woods was knee deep in many places.

Here are some photos from our ride:

Deero on the trail

A deer is faintly visible Saturday in the center of a groomed grant-in-aid trail along the Manitoba-Minnesota border northwest of Roseau, Minn. (Brad Dokken photo)

Jason on the trail

Trail conditions were favorable Saturday throughout the course of a ride on a groomed snowmobile trail system north of Roseau, Minn. (Brad Dokken photo)

Snow on the skis

Heavy snow covers the skis of a snowmobile. (Brad Dokken photo)

Trail bridge

A bridge constructed across a swampy stream on a groomed snowmobile trail north of Roseau, Minn., eased crossing, alleviating any risk of encountering unsafe ice. (Brad Dokken)

Given the conditions, I was surprised by the lack of traffic we encountered on the trails. We met only five other snowmobiles in two days of riding, and one of the groups, I found out later, was a high school friend, his son and a friend of theirs, all from Roseau. When we met them on the trail along state Highway 310 north of Roseau, they were on the homestretch of a 172-mile ride that took them from Roseau to Springsteel north of Warroad, Minn., on Lake of the Woods and then north across the big lake to a land trail near Stony Point and onward to Fort St. Charles on the Northwest Angle.

They’d left Roseau about 10 a.m. and had nearly finished their ride when we met them some 6 hours later.

I register my snowmobile in Minnesota, so a trail permit is included in the price of a three-year registration, which costs $78.50, but my snowmobiling partner from Grand Forks registers his snowmobile in North Dakota and had to purchase a permit to ride the grant-in-aid trails.

The permit, which costs $36 annually, is available at Minnesota motor vehicle offices or through Department of Natural Resources electronic licensing outlets.

MN snow conditions

Here’s a look at snow conditions across Minnesota as of last Thursday. (Minnesota DNR map)

The trails were in great shape, groomed in places and well marked throughout, so the price of the annual permit was money well spent. Our ride took us through tamarack and cedar swamps and along and across swampy creeks that remained open, in places. Bridges built along parts of the trail system as part of the grant funding the local snowmobile club receives alleviated the risk of crossing potentially unsafe ice.

We also saw several deer, which found the well-packed trails to their liking. All signs point to a winter that should help deer numbers recover across the region.

Saturday’s high flirted with 40 degrees in the border country, and the snow was pretty sticky. That wasn’t an issue on the groomed trails, but the machines definitely had to work harder to get through the soft snow in the places we had to drive off trail to reach the trail system.

By Sunday, the temperature had dropped 20 degrees and the snow conditions had firmed up nicely. The brown landscape that greeted us as we returned to Grand Forks late Sunday afternoon was a striking contrast to the conditions we’d enjoyed barely 2 hours away.

Looking at the extended weather forecast, the temperature in the areas we rode isn’t supposed to get above freezing this week, so riding opportunities should remain at least through the weekend. It’s still seeming like an early spring, though, so anyone with a snowmobile collecting dust would be well-advised to head north and enjoy the conditions while they last.

You’ll find more information about snow and trail conditions in Minnesota here.


Sharptails provide winter photo opps

The cold weather that has descended with a vengeance the past few days has wildlife scrambling to consume enough calories to keep warm.

That can present some great opportunities for wildlife watchers.

A sharp-tailed grouse feeds on frozen berries in the yard of Gary and Phyllis Lund, who live near Roseau, Minn.

Gary and Phyllis Lund of rural Roseau, Minn., have sent me several photos the past couple of days of sharp-tailed grouse in their backyard — and sometimes right on their deck.

The prairie grouse, which can be notoriously skittish, don’t seem to mind the human company and have been feeding on frozen high-bush cranberries and other foodstuffs that have been set out for the birds.

This sharptail definitely rules the roost.

Gary Lund said the photos have been taken out the house windows, anywhere from 50 feet to farther out, using a Pentax with a 12- to 48-mm zoom lens. They’re fun shots that are worth sharing.

A plump sharptail roosts on the deck of Gary and Phyllis Lund’s resident near Roseau, Minn., on a cold Tuesday morning.

It’s not common for the sharptails to perch on the deck.

“We’ve had them land on top of our other bird feeder,” as well, Lund writes. “Quite comical.”

Roseau and other parts of northwest Minnesota are situated in a unique region between the prairie and boreal forest, which provides the opportunity to see not only prairie grouse such as sharptails, but woodland species such as ruffed grouse and spruce grouse, as well. The abundant snow that’s fallen to date is a boon for all three species, which burrow into the snow to escape the cold. All three are able to withstand cold northern winters providing they’ve got enough food and places to roost. The sharptails obviously have found the Lunds’ yard to their liking.

New book tells the story of Polaris racing team heydays

A new book about the glory days of snowmobile racing is scheduled to make its debut Aug. 3 with a book signing and vintage snowmobile show in Roseau, Minn., birthplace of Polaris.

Titled “Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express,” the book by author Larry Preston tells the story of the racers who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as members of the Polaris racing team. They were household names in snowmobile racing circles, men such as Bob Eastman, Larry Rugland, Leroy Lindblad, Jim Bernat and Don Omdahl, and Preston tells their stories through interviews, press accounts and photos he collected over a period of about five years.

Growing up in Roseau during that time, I remember all of the racers Preston includes in his book. As grade school kids, we’d bring radios to school during the annual Winnipeg to St. Paul 500 cross-country snowmobile race so we could sneak in updates on the race proceedings.

I also remember crowds packing the grandstand at the Roseau County Fairgrounds on cold winter days to catch the annual “Sno Mo Cade” oval races and Polaris Thrill Team exhibitions.

This was big stuff back in the day. But as Preston mentions in his book, a tragic accident in the winter of 1978 ended the era of the Polaris racing team.

The official unveiling of “Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express” will be held Aug. 3 at the Polaris Experience Center, located at 205 Fifth Ave. S.W. in Roseau. A vintage snowmobile show is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and several of the former Polaris racers will be signing autographs from 10 a.m. to noon.

I’ve only had a chance to read the first chapter of Preston’s book, but his passion for snowmobile racing in its heyday is obvious from the get-go. That’s not by coincidence, perhaps, because Preston’s grandfather, Herb Borah, was the original CEO of Polaris.

Preston, a software executive and founder of the website vintagesleds.com, said he wrote the book for a number of reasons.

“I was a huge fan as a kid,” he told me in an email, “and when I got to interview all these people all these years later, what emerged was a really great story that I think will have some appeal beyond snowmobile fans.”

More information on “Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express” is available here.