A small group of people drive single file down a trail dotted with deer stands and wooded areas on a balmy Saturday morning in January. They slow down as they pass the trail groomer bumping slowly down the trail at four miles per hour. Several people wave as they pass. They are eager to reach their destination. They accelerate around the corner and quickly disappear in a puff of fluffy snow.
Fifty years ago a group of like minded people enjoyed riding snowmobiles in the northern Pine County area, said Dean Weske, club president.
They organized a club in the winter of 1970 and named it “Sno Slobs”. The name was later changed to the Northern Pine Riders Snowmobile Club in 1973. Over time more trails were established. There are now 156 miles of picturesque trails winding through snow covered fields and wooded areas in Pine County.
Snowbirds Terry and Dianne Peterson joined the club a few years after it started. Terry said they enjoyed the socializing and attending events and rides. They volunteered in a variety of capacities for many years. Now the couple relax and ride when they visit Minnesota for a few weeks in the winter.
As the club expanded, they purchased land in Willow River for a building. They built the club house with a large shop area in the back for storage in the 1990s.
Minnesota boasts over 22,000 miles of groomed trails, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Over 21,000 are maintained by clubs, such as the Northern Pine Riders.
The majority of the trails are ready, said Weske. He said there is a decent base for the riders in spite of the mild winter.
“This is what we do in the wintertime when we’re not ice fishing,” Weske said. Weske began riding snowmobiles at eight years old with his dad. He laughs as he remembers the 1965 Scorpion. Like many old snowmobiles, it often broke down during a ride.
“The inside of my jacket pockets were worn out from carrying extra spark plugs,” Weske said. He said he still drives an older machine.
“I have a 1972 Sno-Cat,” Weske said. “Sometimes it makes it back and sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Moose Lake resident said members of the group range from Moose Lake to the Twin Cities area, but the trails are confined to Pine County. They connect with state and other club trails such as Moose Horn Rod and Gun Club out of Moose Lake.
Michele Dagel, 38, is excited to go on her first ride with the club members. She began snowmobiling 12 years ago with her husband and they recently joined the club. She said she loves driving her sled.
“I love the freedom and the speed,” Dagel said with a big smile and a twinkle in her eyes.
Vice President Tom Henry, 65, volunteers in the club where needed. Like many others in the club, he began snowmobiling as a family activity when his children were young. The Sandstone resident said he enjoys the adrenaline rush while driving as well as the beautiful scenery. Henry has been a club member for 30 plus years and is a member in another nearby club. He said the club members often stop and support local businesses by having a meal during their rides.
Belonging to the club also offers a variety of volunteer opportunities including to help maintain the trails.
Randy Sjoberg took over the trail coordinator position after the Petersons stepped down. Sjoberg secures permits from landowners to allow snowmobile trails across their properties and he helps maintain the trails, schedule and hire groomer operators. Sjoberg said he enjoys the solitude as he grooms the scenic trails. They run three shifts and groom the 150 plus miles twice a week to keep it in good shape and smooth for riders. The club owns several pieces of trail grooming equipment that they purchased with state Grants-in-Aid money and the club’s charitable gambling money. A machine and a drag can cost about $125,000-$150,000. The larger machines cost more.
The club also donates to local non-profit organizations including the backpack program at local schools, food shelves, school athletic programs and more.
Sjoberg said the club members plan to continue to grow and expand with more organized rides for members during the season.
“The rides are free and open to the public,” Weske said. “We welcome anyone that wants to ride. If you have a sled, come join us.”