Believe it or not, some of the best riding you will ever find could be lurking just before you and you didn’t even know it. Seriously. There are so many hidden opportunities out there that it will blow your mind when you find them.
For starters, snowmobilers tend to get used to a certain riding area and then go back to that same area again and again. Only when the snow melts in that favorite area are you forced to look elsewhere, only to discover a whole new area that was oh so close, yet so far away. Example, this past March. The snow was melting quickly in our favorite riding area of the western U.P. of Michigan. We had pretty much ridden every inch of groomed trial that remained in the Keweenaw and the off trail riding was like concrete. Looking at snow depth maps we found that there was still a good pocket of decent snow depth over in the eastern U.P. of Michigan. Our logic is why trailer further than one needs to, but seeing the end was near we loaded up the test sleds and headed off towards Seney, Michigan. For those of you who frequent this area, you know how good it can be. When it’s good, it is really good. We pretty much had to stay north of M-28, but we found crazy good conditions from Shingleton over to Grand Marias and Paradise, and back down to Newberry and Seney. It was only a three hour drive from where we spend our entire winters in the west, but we hadn’t been over there for several years. So close, yet so far away. We just had to venture out of our comfort zone and were rewarded for the effort.
Consider the snow bike movement. Here we have an emerging group of new riders, many of which have ridden a snowmobile in the past. They can take a snow bike into the very same riding area that they have been riding snowmobiles for years, but with the different set of capabilities of the snow bike they “work” the riding area differently. Areas they used to drive right past for years now offer hours of challenging riding opportunities. Snow bike riders often comment on how they thought they knew a specific riding area quite well, only to discover all of the new opportunities it presents when they look at it differently, work it differently, explore it differently. They can have hours of fun in a much smaller area, using less fuel and doing things with ease that can be more difficult on a larger machine. For many, riding a snow bike is in addition to, not instead of, riding a snowmobile as it opens up new riding opportunities.
This same mentality can be applied to most riding areas. Here in Minnesota we have groomed trails, but we also have many lakes and we have legal riding in the road side ditches. That is why Minnesota riders are often referred to as “ditch bangers” as we can go out and ride for hundreds of miles through nothing but road ditches, often times when there is not enough snow for the groomed trail network to be open. Combine our legal riding opportunities alongside roads with the legal riding we can do on waterways (lakes and rivers) and we can go for some great rides and never even touch a groomed trail. One just has to be aware of what is open and legal, and the opportunities become endless.
Another example can be found with those who usually stay on the groomed trail network, not realizing how many areas offer plentiful riding opportunities on forest roads, fire tracks and unplowed roads in the winter. The well-known saying “stay on the trail” is a generalization, meant for those who do not know the difference between public and private land. If the trail runs through private land, then you’d better stay on the trail. But when the trail crosses public land you are often times well within your legal rights to venture down the forest roads and logging trails that you come across.
First and foremost, know who owns the surrounding land. You have to study and understand the laws in each particular riding area, but you will often discover there are many places to ride that are open and legal for you to explore. You could be zipping right past them while on a groomed trail, not realizing what is there waiting for you to claim as your prize. Generally, any unplowed road is a public right of way that is legal for you to explore. Armed with a map or GPS you can often turn a single road into hours of exploration.
Now we must (again) caution you against illegal trespassing on private lands, which is causing many land owners to revoke their permission for snowmobilers to have a groomed trail cross their land. Riders must know the difference between legal riding opportunities and private land that is closed to off trail riding. Some areas, Quebec in particular, are having a most difficult time dealing with illegal off trail riding, demonstrating the need for better educating riders.
I remember years ago riding around West Yellowstone where we would come across a sign alongside the trail that stated “play area”, which meant you had left the restricted riding area close to town and now were in an area where off trail riding was perfectly legal. Even if you weren’t a map guru, you knew this was a place for you to legally play in. It has been suggested this practice should be brought back, giving the less informed riders some indication of where they legally can go off trail. Problem is, as soon as a rider hits a stump or rock hidden under the snow their insurance company will sue because it was suggested they enter the area, thus such practice was eliminated. You see, the rider has to assume the liability, the rider has to make the determination.
Point is, there are many areas and opportunities to ride, you just have to know what and where they are. Each state is different, so it is the responsibility of the rider to learn what the laws are for where they are going. Just because ditch riding is legal in Minnesota doesn’t mean it is legal in all other states on all types of roads. Each state forest and national forest is different. Some demand you stay on designated routes, some demand you stay on only groomed trails, but you need to be aware of what the rules are where you plan to ride. Cross country riding is what the younger riders seek most, and this is most found in the west. Many of the (federal) public lands to the east now want riders to stay on trails, forest roads and logging roads and do not allow true cross country travel, while some of the state forests do still allow cross country travel. The information is out there, fire up your web browser and figure it out. If you don’t know where each land designation starts and ends you’d better learn how to read a map. Maybe this is the root problem – map reading skills are not what they used to be. I know where to go simply because of my map reading skills, and time spent studying them.
Even your back yard can hold the keys to hours of snowmobiling enjoyment. Sure, your turbocharged 200HP sled might not be the machine of choice, but take a 200cc SnoScoot (ZR 200) and your family can share many hours of fun and play together in a very small space. We will be grooming a new generation of riders who think snowmobiling is great while doing circles in the back yard, instead of doing circles around the state. This is where snowmobiling started and has its roots, in the backyards and back 40s of our fathers and now grandfathers, on sleds with less than 20 HP in areas so small we could walk home in case we run out of gas. The sport is finally going to come around full circle, discovering that new riding areas are in fact everywhere. Even in your back yard.
Kevin Beilke – Editor
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