The temperature is still in the single digits. But the sky is blue, the sun is climbing through the trees, and the Taconite trail northeast of Grand Rapids glistens with 4 inches of fresh snow. As far as Rick Barta is concerned, it’s a great way to start the workweek.
For the next seven hours, Barta will be behind the wheel of a Tucker 2000 Terra Trail Groomer. He’ll be climbing, dipping, and winding through the Chippewa National Forest, private timber lands, and other woods at a steady 7-9 mph.
The Taconite is one small part of Minnesota’s vast network of 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails. Keeping the trails in shape supports a $1 billion industry that supports about 7,000 jobs. Hotels, restaurants, taverns, service stations, and retailers all depend on vibrant snowmobile activity. So do Minnesota-based manufacturers Arctic Cat and Polaris.
After a dismal 2011-2012 season, in which winter essentially didn’t show up, this season was much closer to normal. So, on this morning, Barta is grooming 59 miles of the Taconite. Where the Taconite intersects with the Tim Correy trail, Dale Steinhart will meet Barta with a fuel truck. They’ll fill up the Tucker, then trade vehicles. Steinhart will head back, grooming the other side of the Taconite, all the way back to the DNR’s regional headquarters in Grand Rapids. He won’t get back until long after dark.
Prep work is vital
Getting a trail in shape begins long before the snow falls. Beginning in September, crews from DNR Local 718 – including 20-plus-year veterans like Barta, Steinhart and Tom Buescher – clear downed trees, fill washouts, and make other repairs. This fall was worse than usual, the result of severe wind damage from summer storms. “It was a good thing we had a late snowfall,” Barta says. “We needed every day we had.”
Trails typically need a 10- to 12-inch snowfall before it makes sense to groom them. Once there is snow, one of the first chores is running snowmobiles back and forth, over and over, on swampy sections, packing them into solid ice. “You don’t want to be putting the groomer down into the swamp,” Barta says. “There’s a least a couple every year – club groomers – that end up falling through.” (Private snowmobile clubs, funded by DNR grant-in-aid money, groom the vast majority of the state’s trails.)
Installing or replacing signs is one of the last tasks on the checklist. If possible, signs go up after gun deer season closes. The longer signs are up, it seems, the more mischief they attract. Logging trucks knock them over. They become target practice. “You see a lot of stop signs in kids’ dorms and things like that,” Barta says.
But two-legged creatures are not the only ones who cause trouble. “We get everything from bull moose that like to tangle with our sign posts, to bears who like to chew on the signs,” he says. Mostly the orange ones, for some reason. “They must look good,” Barta guesses.
Keeping things smooth
The science behind grooming is simple: Crews pull an 18-foot drag behind the 5-ton groomer. The drag’s cutting blades dig up the top layers of snow; a pan then compacts that snow. That levels out the trail, which makes it safer and more enjoyable. “We’re trying to get it as smooth as we can,” Barta says.
When weather allows, the DNR grooms its trails twice a week. They face a never-ending challenge: To reach ideal conditions, a groomed trail needs time to firm up. But riders don’t like to wait. “All it takes is a couple of sleds and you can really tear it up,” Buescher says.
Weekends bring the highest traffic. So, DNR crews typically go out on Mondays to get trails back in shape, which gives the snow time to harden before heavy traffic returns. This season, crews went out on Saturdays, too, which gave them higher visibility and let riders and businesses know trails are indeed being taken care of. “When we have so much traffic, we could be out there all the time,” Barta says.
An outside chance
Grooming can put crews into remote areas, especially at night. They have radio and other audio options to keep them company. Because cell phone service can be dicey, crews carry “bag phones” that have a wider range if needed. “Everybody brings extra gear – boots, socks, heavy coats – in case we do have to walk out,” Steinhart says. “You’ve got to be prepared for whatever is out there.”
“Sometimes, the weather conditions aren’t the best, but you’re still outside,” Barta says. “A bad day working outside is still better than a good day working inside.”
No snow, less dough
A lousy winter can take its toll on snowmobiling in Minnesota. In 2012, registrations dropped by nearly 35,000. That cost the state roughly $3 million in revenue and put the fund used for trail grooming in the red.
This past winter, registrations rebounded by about 37,000, compared with a year earlier. However, registrations remain about 50,000 short of their peak in 2001, when 297,623 sleds were registered.